Everything seems to have its opposite. The dust thrown by bombs thousands of feet into the air drifts over the mountains and the glorious golden Spanish sunsets are supplemented by an unrivaled red and purple against the craggy mountains. The Spanish word for mountain chain is “Sierra,” which is also the word for a saw.
John Cookson, a young American volunteer, was writing to his father on the 29th of July 1937 in Villanueva de la Cañada. He was stationed with his unit, the XV International Brigade, also known as the “Lincoln-Washingtons”, close to Brunete, where they had seen some fierce fighting in the Republican offensive designed to relieve National-Fascist pressure on Madrid. If the Americans had received a brutal baptism of fire a few months earlier in the Jarama, they were now subjected to a similar level of violence from machine-gun and artillery fire plus aerial bombardment and strafing..but compounded by suffering all the long Spanish Summer’s day out in the open under the implacable Castilian sun, and often without food or water.
I know all too well that Spanish sun, i’ve been out in the mountains on many a Spanish sun day and I know how oppressive it can be..i’ve crawled into slivers of shadow under rock, tried to hide under signposts, prayed for a tree. It drains, withers, crushes you..i can’t even begin to imagine the assault of the sun combined with finding yourself under machine-gun fire, shelling, bombing..
A native of Wisconsin, John Cookson was by all accounts a brilliant young man..on the verge of completing his PhD in Physics at the age of twenty three, he was taken by the urgency of travelling to Spain to support the Republic in its struggle against fascism, in the process turning down a good academic job and what we would typically call a bright future. And in Spain he made the supreme sacrifice, for little over a year after he penned those lines to his father from Brunete he was to die in the Ebro, victim to a German shell..and one of the last Internationals to die in Spain.
Near the village of Marçá in Tarragona lies John’s tomb. A memorial stone set there in 1938 – perhaps not marking quite exactly the spot where his body lies – amazingly survived the decades of dictatorship and destruction of all that represented the Republic and all that the Republic represented. The tombstone reads:
LT. TRANSM. CO
That terrible Spanish sun also does beautiful things, as John saw, particularly at sunrise and sunset – everything does indeed seem to have its opposite. This Summer we’ve seen some wonderful evenings here in the Guadarrama mountains..even without bomb-blasted dust floating over the range.