1949, the spotlight illuminated the most fantastic event I had ever seen in my six years of life: Casey Tibbs winning the saddle-bronc rider championship of the world in eight seconds. Since then, my heroes have always included “high-ridin’ cowboys,” as Willie Nelson put it. The crowd held its breath during that ride and was as quiet as an audience at a concert hall listening to Pablo Casals play a Bach cello suite.
Now, fast forward through 61 years, during which my home state, California, quadrupled in population and I was still going to rodeos to try to forget the loss of anything vaguely resembling the real country that enclosed and nourished my life physically, culturally, and aesthetically and anchored my identity, to a night last week.
It was twilight in Turlock and I was in the stands of the Stanislaus County Fair Rodeo watching the boys try to ride the bareback broncs as a freight train slipped through the horizon on the Union Pacific tracks behind the arena. I was eating a hotdog and slurping a beer in my rodeo-fan clothes: pointy-toed boots, jeans, snap-button shirt and the straw cowboy hat ubiquitous in the West in summer. You don’t see it so much at least around here anymore, because there is so much less farm work than there used to be in the county — because there is so much less farm and ranch land on which to work — but it was once a matter of pride for man and boy, particularly tractor drivers, to mangle those sweat-stained straw hats into highly individual shapes.
So, there I was, a Rip van Winkle of the West, a man who as a boy loved nothing better than scampering up the rails of the Oakdale Rodeo arena when Ol’ Banana Horn, the meanest bull of his era, swept the fences after bucking off another rider, trying to figure out what on this earth I was witnessing that night in Turlock.
Let’s start with the bronc riders, both bareback and saddle. They couldn’t stay on their horses for eight seconds. Sometimes, Ol’ Rip Van recalled, in the spring time when the rough stock is just coming back into the rodeo circuit from their winter pastures, they can give fits to even the best cowboys in the nation. But this was August. The thing about rough stock riding is that you have to stay on the horse or bull for eight seconds in order to have a score. But in this rodeo, if you stayed on at all you were in the money.
Next came the calf roping. Oops. Recent research into rodeo flak indicates that we no longer rope calves, we have “tie-down” roping events — pssst, not mentioning what is being tied down. It’s calf roping. The calf gets a prod in its butt, runs out of the chute with a light rope around its neck that trips a rope barrier in front of the roper, giving the calf a short head start. Then the roper comes thundering out of his box, another chute, his rope loop whirling around his head, throws the loop, catches the calf’s head, reining in his horse for an abrupt halt that jerks the calf sometimes to the ground; the cowboy leaps off his horse (who is keeping the rope taut by backing up, pulling the calf); the cowboy leans over the struggling calf, grabs two handfuls of loose skin on its opposite flank, tosses the calf on its side, and takes a short, light rope that was at least once called a “pigging string” and used to be carried either in the roper’s belt loops or in his teeth, wraps it around any three feet of the calf, takes a hitch to secure the string and tosses his arms in the air to indicate to the timers that he has finished. The classic tie is of the two back feet with one forefoot between them.
Calf ropers started complaining back in the late 1950s about the way brahma and brahma-cross calves ran. Your ordinary whiteface calf (a Hereford and whatever) runs pretty straight. Your brahma calf, on the other hand, runs like someone attempting to avoid gunfire. It is hard enough to gauge the distance of the rope toss without having to deal with the wobbling line of the brahma calf. A lot of ropers missed a lot of calves when the brahmas came to town.
There is another point about calf roping that needs to be made. In the event, the rope is secured to the saddle horn in advance, unlike in team roping, in which two ropers attempt to catch the head and the heels of a steer (larger than a calf).
After the roper throws up his hands he returns to his horse, mounts and allows slack in the rope for six seconds to see if the pigging string holds. If the pigging string does not hold for the six seconds, the roper is disqualified.
My numbers are rough but there were about 10 calf ropers, four or five missed their calves entirely and there were at least three roped calves that broke out of their pigging strings in less than six seconds. Pathetic.
Next we were treated to an equally pathetic show of team roping. In the last 80 years, there have been 21 champion team ropers who lived within 100 miles of Turlock. Team roping is our county’s premier event and, as much as anything, the reason the former cowtown of Oakdale that once modestly called itself the “Ladino Clover Capitol of the World,” now calls itself the “Cowboy Capitol of the World.” You may never have heard of Leo Camarillo or his brother Jerold, but we have. Like they said about champion team ropers for several decades, “And Leo was the heeler.”
In team roping, the steer is prodded out of his chute with a rope around his horns that, after a short distance, trips the barrier ropes for two ropers in boxes on either side of the steer chute. Like calf roping and saddle-bronc riding, this event comes directly out of routine ranch chores and when you are on the ground crew in a corral and have to knock the animal down, it is really much better if the roper on the head catches both horns and the heeler catches both rear feet. If they don’t — as once happened to me on a neighbor’s ranch up the Hecker Pass out of Watsonville — I don’t care how many strong men knock that beast to the ground, when the ropes slip all hell ensues and weekend cowboys go flying and the drunken ropers laugh and laugh.
Leo Camarillo won every prize professional rodeo provides and his brother won most of them, too. When Leo was in the arena at Oakdale, people held their breath and did not speak because folks knew back then they were in the presence of genius.
The situation in team roping is this: the header goes first, roping the horns, the head or portions of both; he then pivots his horse as the steer hits the end of the taut rope; the steer is caught in a centrifugal force and his feet tend to leave the ground; the healer takes advantage of this moment when the steer has lost balance to toss a loop to try to catch both feet; when the steer is stretched out between the two ropes, the timers stop the clock.
The heel loop is the money loop. If you miss it, you’re disqualified or else “take no time rather than your time,” as the rodeo announcers say. If the heeler catches one foot, it costs the team a 5-second penalty. If one or both ropers break the barrier coming out of their boxes, they take a 10-second penalty. Either penalty usually knocks them out of the top position, regardless of how quickly they rope the steer. Often winning times are less than the eight seconds required of the rough stock riders.
In the 1950s, Leo Camarillo developed a style of bouncing the loop off the dirt up to catch both heels. You had to know what you were looking at — it was a lot more subtle than Ol’ Banana Horn — but if a cowboy showed you how to watch, you could understand why a hush fell over the ranch folk in the audience when Leo roped.
There is another aspect to team roping not known to the general public. It is a big-time gambling event in usually private affairs called “jackpot ropings.” Leo’s brother, Jerold, was a superb header and worked that pivot perfectly so that Leo could catch both heels and they made a lot of money in rodeos. But the jackpot deal was different. I worked the chutes one year for such an event. It went on for the week around the Oakdale Rodeo. It was held at the ranch in the private arena of a rich doctor, a gentleman team roper. Gentlemen team ropers generally are headers. Hence the expression, “and Leo caught the heels.” In the jackpots, the gentlemen put up the big bucks and the cowboys caught the heels. At the end of the day, those poor old steers, after having been roped four or five times and the gamblers still mad with the possibilities of winning demanding another go-round in the twilight, could hardly stand up and a baby could have worked those chutes. It’s one of the times where the youth whose heroes have always been cowboys understands the consequences of his enthusiasm.
Likewise, if you ever worked a real roundup, calf branding, polling and castration included, what gets you is not so much the smell of burning hair and flesh as it is the lament of the animals. The mother cows are outside the corral, the calves are inside it getting “done” as the phrase goes, and they are all crying out to each other.
“Mother,” cries the bull calf, “they are cutting my balls off, cutting my horns off and burning my flesh with their branding iron!”
“My son, my son,” she answers, “I love you. I love you. Come to me when it’s over and I will try to comfort you.”
You work along with the cowboys, you think at least for a day you have finally attained a minor cowboyhood, and all the time in your ears you’re hearing a cross between a Cow Dante’s Inferno and a Cow Adagio by Albinoni. By supper time you are in no mood to eat the delicacy of the day: bull-calf balls. At least I wasn’t, but my father always called me “sensitive.”
However, there was another cowboy that would stop conversation and breath at Oakdale when he performed, Ace Berry. Ace turned pro at 13 to team rope with his father, Virgil. Later he took up bareback bronc riding. He is the first of very few cowboys to this day to qualify for the national finals in both roping and rough stock riding. He was inducted into the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Hall of Fame last year. There were two things about him I noticed when I met him once when I was 15. I was sure he was the most violent person I ever met. I also noticed that he had a contraption from hell outside his house: a 55-gallon barrel suspended to four posts by heavy springs, with a rope on it, to simulate the wild gyrations of a bronc. He was a hard-working professional rodeo performer who liked a good fight in his leisure time. He was erratic, unstable and totally brilliant in the arena when he put it all together on a bucking bronc or while roping.
My father, whose father drove teams delivering cargo from the railroad throughout Sonoma County, who had a livery stable and who — regardless of the names his wife put on the birth certificates — renamed his children for his favorite horses, was officially named “Francis,” but always went by “Jerry.” My father, a country internist, had very complex feelings about livestock and would never go to a rodeo. My mother loved rodeos. My soul is somehow anchored to the Ambiguous West and since the podiatrist said that if I wanted to heal the Achilles Heel injury I had to wear cowboy boots, I have been on a profound journey into my past, the California side of which began in 1853.
I know little of my grandfather other than he was said to prefer horses to men and once, finding an employee abusing a horse, the employee saying that after all it was just a horse, is said famously in family history to have replied: “Yes, horses are cheap, but men are cheaper. You are fired.” I remain uncertain about the economic accuracy of the statement, but the sentiment is clear enough.
When I was trying to remember how I came to witness that wretched excuse for a rodeo at my home county fair in Turlock, I wrote a note on the memory of feet, mine particularly, ensconced again in cowboy boots after many years of sandals. A poet friend of mine, Sharon Doubiago, broke the lines of my note, which I thought was totally prosaic, into a poem about the memory of feet.
I come from horseman stock. Neither the riding except for the bulls nor especially the roping events in a rodeo, not to mention the barrel racing, can be accomplished without a deep knowledge of horses. Dad, despite his disdain, could handle a horse and an internal combustion engine although he was the most academic of men of his generation.
The team ropers at the Stanislaus County Rodeo 2010 were no better than the bronc riders. As I recall, there was only one heeler that caught both heels. Several heelers managed to catch one heel. As I have stated, if you are working a ground crew in a corral actually trying to brand and poll if not castrate mature male cattle, when the esteemed member of the county cattleman’s association manages to dab a rope over one heel, cowboys will go flying.
I felt differently about the bull riding event. Bulls are something else. In the old days of my youth, they were basically brawny whiteface bulls. As time went on, they sawed off the tips of their horns. Then came the brahmas. The riders complained about the brahmas because they had loose skin, which meant that the rider could slide down the side of the bull on that loose skin despite his most frantic efforts to stay aloft in balance.
Among any population of serious bucking bulls, there is a thing called “The Well.” The Well is a very dark place some bulls create by a tactic in which they spin in very tight circles trying to suck by centripetal force the rider into the middle of it. These are bulls so pissed off that they want to kill their riders. It’s a flat out mano a mano deal to the death. If the rider falls into the Well, the chances are that he will not escape unwounded and wounds from a bull can be fatal.
The bull riding event requires what are called “rodeo clowns.” The clowns are supposed to distract the bull from the fallen rider, since there are no pickup men on horseback, as there are in the bucking horse events, to ride alongside the bronc and allow the rider to swing off the bronc while the pickup men simultaneously detach the bucking strap from the horse. A minor point for the uninitiated here is that rough stock — bucking horses and bulls — are encouraged to buck high and hard because of a cinch strap around their private parts. As any horse rider will know, there are definite limits to how far back you can spur a horse.
The greatest rodeo clown I ever saw was Wilbur Plaughter, also an accomplished bulldogger (an event now called “steer wrestling”). I saw Wilbur at the Cow Palace and at Oakdale. I remember him running away from a bull one day at Oakdale and seeing that, c. 1960, he was wearing football cleats instead of cowboy boots. It confirmed my suspicions about the high intelligence of Wilbur Plaughter. I never saw any bull rider hurt by a bull after he was either bucked off or made his exit after the whistle when Wilbur was the clown. I was gently raised on the high degree of professionalism of the Oakdale Rodeo.
I saw what could happen at the last Modesto Rodeo. I grew up in Modesto. The town had an arena out Blue Gum Road. I’m sure the people now living there have no clue of this drama that occurred on the land they now inhabit in their subdivisions.
Wilbur Plaughter was not working the bulls that day in 1957 or 1958. It was an overcast day and rained was sprinkling from time to time. The bull-riding event occurred. A rider fell into the Well. The bull commenced to stomp the rider. The clown fled. There are no other words to describe it. I have never before or since seen a rodeo clown lose his nerve that way. A cowboy jumped off the rails and swatted the bull in his eyes with his jacket. But, by that time, taking into account the time it took for the cowboys to realize the clown had abdicated his responsibilities, the rider was well stomped. It was gruesome.
Later that particular afternoon, the Last Modesto Rodeo out Blue Gum Road, they held a Wild Horse Race around the track that enclosed the rodeo arena. Back then we had wild horses, mustangs or whatever, in the hills east of that county seat. The ranchers rounded them up, delivered them to the rodeo and the event was on. A wild horse is an unbroken horse. The job of the cowboy was to get the unbroken horse one lap around that track.
If your pleasure tends to mayhem, it was a beautiful event. About the time the wild horses hit the half-mile post at the bottom of the oval track, they pulled what I have always called since, “a Faulkner,” with reference to what I personally believe (for these reasons) was Faulkner’s greatest short story: “Spotted Ponies.” In that story a child with the imperishable name of Wall Street Snopes gazes through a knothole at the spotted ponies in a barn. Their owner pours dry corn down into their feeding troughs. The sound of the dry corn on the dry wood of the troughs alarms the herd of spotted ponies. They erupt from the barn. “Wall’s” father is on the outside of the corral, hears the problem and calls to his little son. Wall keeps his eye on the knothole. The entire barn wall explodes, the ponies stream into the corral and, eventually, beyond it, and Wall, that little boy predestined for life, is left standing looking through an imaginary knothole in a wall that no longer exists, in his overalls.
I did not properly appreciate that beautiful scene in Faulkner’s works until the wild horses hit the barbed wire fence that composed the outer limit of that track, pulled up the fence posts and the wire and plunged into the crowd of hotdog and beer seekers. If you escaped clubbing by the fence posts, the wire would cut you. I stood amazed. I survived unclubbed and uncut, I do not know why. I only remember a fence post whipping by me at inescapable velocity if I had been three feet in the wrong direction.
Rodeo. What can you say? A lifetime devotion to ranching, with a number of significant hiatuses, does not diminish my romantic enthusiasm for that 8-second moments of grace. I knew old jasper, Jack, up on the north coast of California once. I walked into the superb country tavern where he drank on afternoon and bought the house a round in honor of my 50th birthday. Jack said that on his 50th, he’d gone down to Arlington, Texas, and ridden a bull — the full 8 seconds, he said. And I believe Jack because like other folks who knew him, I just wanted to believe Jack on any subject.
However, to return to the Stanislaus County Fair Rodeo, in the bull riding I had genuine sympathy for the riders. The bulls looked like illegal immigrants from the Las Playas bullring in Tijuana. They were horrible beasts, totally lacking in the panache and humor of Ol’ Banana Horn. Among bucking bulls at a rodeo, they were cartel desperadoes, armed, dangerous and running around the national forests in firefights with the gringo law. There were one or two riders that made the eight seconds. As my butcher, a former professional bull rider explained while wrapping a steak for me, “Them boys got heart, but no skill. You got to have both the heart and the skill. That rodeo is not sanctioned by the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association).”
He was right. The county fair event was sanction by the California Cowboys Professional Rodeo Association, quite another kettle of fish. However, rather than dwelling forever in the dismal, let us turn to the barrel racing, the women’s event.
The ladies and their horses were superb. It was thrilling to watch them. Being an old fart, this is a relatively new event for me. I was impressed by the horsewomanship. The event looks as simple as threading a needle if you don’t think about it. There are three barrels set out, two to the side of the arena and one between and away from them. The rider must circle the two barrels, then circle the third, distant barrel and then spur her horse to a finishing line to get her time. There are time penalties for knocking over barrels. There were some barrels knocked over but not beyond the normal range, it seemed to me.
A group behind us were learnedly discussing one rider. Apparently she was the daughter of a major barrel-racing contestant. They were talking about scores like fans from Queens might discuss batting averages of Yankees. That is not the spirit of rodeo, regardless of the talent of the great barrel racers. To be a rodeo fan is to forsake advantage, scores and all that. You look for the moments of magic in the 8-second events and somehow, you mainly avoid looking at the crowd in the sympathetic intensity of your focus with the riders and ropers. I have interviewed bull riders who took over five minutes to describe the 8-second ride.
Last in my mind but not in the rodeo schedule was bulldogging, now called steer wrestling. It is an interesting event with as much practical relevance to a working ranch as barrel racing. In this event, giving the steer a head start, the dogger and his “hazer,” a horseman on the other side of the steer who’s object is to keep the steer running straight and predictably, flank the steer. The dogger slips off his horse onto the steer, grabs the steer’s horns and attempts to roll the steer over onto his side, finishing the event. There are numerous possible mishaps in this event. Being a poetic sort, my favorite is the melodiously named “Houlihan,” wherein the stunned steer falls down, requiring the dogger to right him and toss him. Doggers rarely win when the Houlihan has occurred. I have no idea where the word came from, but it is no doubt from some poor, hapless Irishman, perhaps a cousin of “Wrong Way Corrigan,” the great Irish-American aviator of the Depression Era. Actually, if your aim is to subdue a steer in order to perform some wretched and painful act on him, the Houlihan is a good move. Steers experiencing the Houlihan generally rise to their feet a little slow.
At my home county fair bulldoggers missed their bulls and landed in the dirt. Bull doggers stood with their steers in ineffectual embrace except for dancing the foxtrot. I don’t even want to remember the bulldogging (excuse me, steer wrestling). Steer wrestling, as a term, always connotes for me the vision of a steer and a wrestler on a mat in some forsaken community college gym in the cow counties. Of course all anybody who has ever worked with steers knows is that all you have to do is raise your arms and yell a little and the steer is headed for the county line. In fact, about the only way you can get a steer in a fighting mood is for a cowboy to land on top of him, grab his horns and try to twist his head to the point where his whole body follows, flopping over on his side. No animal, however castrated, is going to take that without some kind of fight.
The crowd at the rodeo can be summed up in one young woman, noticed by both me and my cowgirl companion with a Harvard masters and a cattle ranch in the family. This young woman, less than 20, had a pair of cowboy boots on. Her jeans were cut to the crotch. Her blouse rode to just below her ample breasts. She strolled down the aisle between the common folk stands and the box seats reserved for rich dairymen. She was sucking a popsicle or something. The scions of the dairies, lolling about their boxes in Wranglers and $200 ostrich boots, ogled her with an appreciation shared by us commoners. But, said my companion, who had left to secure a real corn dog, without which she could not fully enjoy the rodeo (having missed a third of it pursuing the corn dog), the reason the dairy heirs approached and then recoiled from this vision of ranch pulchritude was the chewing tobacco in her mouth.
Rodeo, my last and most persistent sports illusion since Zidane head butted the Italian defenseman in 2006, is also kaput. Even the best rodeo does not inspire: they are all amazingly athletic technicians. But the thrill is gone. No one will ever do it like Casey did in 1949; no one will ever be the all-around champion Jim Shoulders was; no one will ever match the classic style of Bill Linderman on a bronc; no one will thrill us like Harley May diving on a steer when he was over 50; and there will never be another Ace Berry — what is called American Civilization as expressed in shopping malls in the foothills to the Sierra will allow another Ace.
Where the old Miwok and Modoc cowboys used to compete at La Grange is now an antique show. A man could go looking for a fight in the bar in that town and never find one. Rodeo today is just another professional sport sponsored by corporations owned by people like Warren Buffett.
(Bill Hatch lives in Merced, California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)