Three huge things happened in the Summer of 1974.
1. I was living in Segovia, Spain for my study abroad.
2. Francisco Franco had an attack of thrombophlebitis.
3. I learned what freedom is.
In July of 1974, I was a happy little college student living overseas for the first time and loving every minute of it. Segovia, Spain is incredible. I loved everything about it, and had no idea at the time how naive I was.
As a Romance Languages major at Ohio Wesleyan University, I thought of myself as bright and mature. I had studied Spanish history and obviously knew that Franco was a dictator and was still the titular head of the Spanish government.
But I came from the United States. From a country where we have freedom. From a country where I sang the words “My Country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty.” And I had no clue what it meant.
I was 11 years old when my brother left for Vietnam. He served in the Army, protecting our freedom. I come from a family motto of Duty, Honor, Country. No one in my family ever took the notion of freedom lightly. I just had no real life connections to that concept. I hadn’t been the one serving. I had been watching from the sidelines.
What I expected, was a political discussion over our glasses of wine, where my “family’s” perspective would be different from what I had studied, and from which I would learn a lot. What I didn’t expect was total, complete, stunned silence.
My Spanish “parents” looked around the room, at the walls and at the ceiling. My father put his finger to his lips in the universal sign for STOP TALKING. Dinner was finished amid fake conversation while I tried to figure out what was going on.
What was going on, was that I had no idea what it was like to live in a dictatorship. That, although I had studied about Franco, and knew that politically things had “lightened up” in Spain, I really had no notion of how deep the fear of Franco was.
Francisco Franco was born into a military family in El Ferrol, Spain, in 1892. He rose in power within the military and government until July, 1936. At this time, Franco declared a coup and the Spanish Civil War began. The terror he imposed upon the people in Spain cannot be overstated. And under which they still lived in fear in 1974.
After dinner, we usually went outside and, as is the custom, walked around saying hello to friends, stopping for a drink and making our way around the city. But this time, after saying hello and “being seen” on this paseo, they took me for a walk outside of the city area. Away from any eyes and ears, they told me about living under Franco’s rule. They told me about the danger I might have put them in, that people “disappeared” or were dragged out of their houses. My “grandmother” told me about the Civil War and what could happen if one spoke out against the government. They said they knew people to whom this had happened. At the time, I thought that they might be exaggerating, but their fear was palpable. And it scared me.
And then, Generalísimo Francisco Paulino Hermenegildo Teódulo Franco Bahamonde, better known as Francisco Franco, almost died.
I can’t remember now how we were told. But the other students and I were told to get bags and passports ready. We were told at the time that Franco had a stroke. If he were to die overnight, then we would be whisked away, out of the country. He didn’t die until November, 1974. And I came home to the US in August, without needing to have been whisked away.
I learned what a great country Spain is, and what a fabulous city Segovia is. I gleaned things about the culture of Spain that could not be found in a book. My experiences matured me and I was no longer naive.
I learned what freedom is.