I missed having Round-Up this year. Not the city folks wandering around in plastic boots and hats with half a Rhode Island Red glued onto the crown, or the vendors selling rude and marginally racist bumper stickers, or the itinerant greasy spoons when there are plenty of good eating joints on Main Street already.
It wasn’t because I was not able to rent my home to party monsters for a week so I could visit the ocean and pay the mortgage for a couple of months.
Nope, I missed the rodeo itself because it has always been a class show, one of the best in the good old US of A, and because I grew up in rodeo culture in the Sandhills of Nebraska. That is such a cowpoke part of the world that the call letters of the local radio station are KCOW.
My paternal grandfolks homesteaded out in those tall grass prairies and lived in a sod house when my dad was born. I milked cows before and after school. Our electricity came from a wind generator. I didn’t see a television set until I was 10. We stacked loose hay.
It was my Uncle Mart, married to my dad’s little sister, who put the rodeo hornet in my head. He lived along the North Loup River south of Valentine, Nebraska, where he raised and trained cutting horses. I don’t remember the precise bloodlines, but his stud was named “Swing” and his best mare “Tulip.”
Mart had barrel racing daughters so he groomed me to become a bareback bronc rider. My training was for him to let his young stock out of a flat loafing shed one by one while I waited on the roof to jump, grab a handful of mane and attempt to last a few seconds before eating road apples and cow pies. By the time I was 16, I had my own bareback rigging, my grandmother was sewing fancy snap shirts for me and I owned a black hat with a flat crown and 6-inch brim.
I also sported a pair of dark blue handmade Texas boots with white wingtips and red roses on the tops.
I was something to look at but not much good at rodeo life except for the beer drinking. At the age of 18, during my third show as an RCA permit holder, a sorrel mare named “Sagebrush Sally” launched me into the Burwell, Nebraska, sky at the four-second mark, and I ended up with my right ribs and kidney wrapped around a railroad tie fence post. Kevlar had not been invented.
My 15 minutes of fame as a rodeo star occurred when they hauled me and Jim Shoulders, the king of bull riders, to the hospital in the same ambulance. Mr. Shoulders had the ambulance deliver him back to the arena the next afternoon so he could take his bull in the final go. I stayed in the hospital for 32 days until internal bleeding stopped. During that month I applied to colleges and sold my boots and rigging to my cousin’s hog farming husband. Never saw them again.
It was during that hospital stay that I heard the following story from my roommate, a 50-something hired man who had one leg in traction and bandages pretty much everywhere. It has served as a reminder that there is always hope.
“We had a fence break and 30 head of light steers wandered into the south end of the Badlands,” he said. “I was riding a green-broke sorrel gelding, gathering by myself in a rain storm. It was the first part of the month and I had spent most of my paycheck on a brand new pair of boots.
“It is canyon country up there, little trails in the bottom land so it wasn’t all that tough to locate the cattle and get them wandering back toward the home place. I had my left leg cocked over the saddle horn admiring my new boot when a big rock came loose from somewhere above and the horse spooked, sending me over the right side and hanging up my right foot in the stirrup.
“He dragged me through a boulder patch for a good quarter mile until my foot finally came out of my boot. I laid there in the mud for quite a while, feeling awful sorry for myself, until I got to thinking that maybe if I could find the horse, the boot might still be in the stirrup, so I found a stick and went limping after the herd.
“Sure enough, just around the next corner, the steers were bunched and the horse was standing with them, and by God the boot was still in the stirrup. Boy was I lucky.”