Forty years later, I remember the Spanish Civil War
There are times you cross paths with history, but you just don’t get it. In 1965 we moved to El Plantio, a small, quiet, rural town northeast of Madrid. Our home, or more accurately, villa was located at Av. de la Victoria 63. It seems the Spaniards dropped “de la”, and shortened the address to just “Av. Victoria. Those years are rife with experiences I cannot forget, but some of the memories took a while to become relevant.
Most Air Force families stationed at Torrejon AFB, lived in the Royal Oaks subdivision adjacent to the base. Not Captain Wood’s family! We lived as far away as you could get from Torrejon. El Plantio was literally on the outskirts of the other side of Madrid. Where Royal Oaks offered a community similar to a small American town, El Plantio was populated by a diverse strata of Spaniards and the occasional foreign family. Unlike those living in Royal Oaks, El Plantio immersed us in Spanish culture, traditions and history.
El Plantio has a few claims to fame, but the most notorious is its history on the front line of the Spanish Civil War. From 1936 to 1939, El Plantio was either disputed territory or a base of operations for Generalissimo Franco’s Nationalist Army in the push to take Madrid. El Plantio, Majadahonda and nearby Aravacas suffered massive destruction with each thrust and counter-thrust until Madrid fell to Franco’s Nationalist forces in March of ’39.
Twenty-six years later in 1965, Dad was posted to Torrejon Air Force Base. We would live in Spain for the next four and a half years. After a short stay in transition housing at the Hotel Aitana in central Madrid, Dad showed up with an old, faded white ’55 Pontiac station wagon. He said we were going for a ride to the country. Riding around Madrid in that Pontiac was the first of many adventures exploring Spain!
Eventually we pulled up to a gated villa with large black metal numbers “63” on the wall. Dad opened the gate and invited us out to explore our new home. The villa at Av. Victoria 63 El Plantio, Madrid was unlike any house I had ever seen, much less call home. The front yard was replete with gardens leading to an impressively large two-story house with a grand entrance. Above the entrance, there was a castle-like tower room, which gave the house a fortress atmosphere. The huge front door sat back under a covered porch that was wrapped in colorful Italian tiles.
I can remember spending sultry Spanish afternoons, breaking up the occasional, self-imposed boredom, trying to find two tiles that looked alike. Visiting the house via Google Earth, you can still make out the Italian tiles around porch, but the grand entrance has been walled and windowed in.
Where the front yard was designed to impress, the back yard was about function. The back of the house was also one level lower, rising three stories above of what would become my domain. Facing the back gate, to the right featured a fenced-in garden area, with a greenhouse. To the left, a small stone and plaster playhouse held court over a sand box and play area. The back yard was divided by a driveway covered with a massive grape arbor.
It was as if these homes were built to be self-sufficient compounds. Almost all larger homes in El Plantio had privacy walls. Our villa’s fences and walls gave no quarter to potential trespassers. The front featured spiked, wrought iron fences, but the back wall was topped with broken glass, otherwise known as “Spanish barbwire.” If that wasn’t enough, trees with huge thorns stood sentry inside all the walls. I learned not to forget my keys to the gate because even if you could plan a way over the walls, it always hurt.
Av. Victoria 63 was apparently one of 48 structures in El Plantio that survived the Spanish Civil War. Evidence of war could be found in the gardens which occasionally yielded bullets or jagged metal shrapnel. Once local kids mentioned there were plenty of bullets on the hill at the edge of town, I began exploring El Plantio beyond the boundaries established by my parents.
Up a few dusty back alleys, northwest of El Plantio, you entered a land ravaged by war. I recall walking up a gentle hill, which opened to a barren field littered with the skeletons of huge villas. Even then I knew these villas had been wrecked by bombs, artillery and machine guns. Some of the ruins featured impossibly balanced floors hanging several stories up. All the remaining walls were pockmarked or featured impressive holes through the stone and concrete construction. I’d seen enough “Combat” by then to know war had been here, just not what war.
I didn’t think much of it back then, but the ruins were always deserted except for the occasional weathered old man who always seemed to be smoking a pipe, looking lost or for something lost long ago. Many of the wrecked villas had signs or were crudely painted with the word “peligro”, which means “danger” in Spanish. Not only did the villas looked ready to topple, but there was the ever present danger of unmarked wells. If ours was typical, these wells could be over seventy feet deep and three feet wide.
It wasn’t until the advent of Google Maps that I ventured back and virtually retraced my steps around El Plantio. What in 1965 was a rural enclave on the fringe of Madrid, is now an indistinguishable part of a suburban corridor. The dusty back lanes where I played football with my Spanish neighbors are now paved and stuffed with cars. The wrecked villas are forever gone.
But the more I dig into those days in El Plantio, the more I remember lessons I learned, but either misunderstood or forgot. War seem so far away from the games we play. Even news makes war seem so “not our problem,” but having walked among the ruins of war, I get it, even if it took forty years.