Monday, April 18, 2005

Cows 50, cowboys 0

The signs had been up on telephone poles all over the county for a week or two. The s.o. was excited and kept reminding me not to make plans for Saturday night. We were going to the rodeo!

It turns out there is a livestock arena in Union Point that I had no idea existed. At dusk that day, the s.o. navigated as my car bumped along the Crawfordsville road, past a hand-lettered sign that read "CONTESTANT PARKING," to a steep driveway where cowboy-hatted volunteers were directing traffic into the public parking lot.

The red dirt arena had the air of a high-school football game, with gaggles of teenagers wandering around, giggling and eating nachos. A lot of them were wearing 4-H tee shirts and/or cowboy hats. Many of the girls' cowboy hats were cotton-candy pink. We found seats in the bleachers just as the last notes of the national anthem faded away.

I should mention that this wasn't my first live rodeo. About 14 years ago, I attended a pro-circuit rodeo at a Boys' Town in western North Dakota. Some of the best cowboys and cowgirls on the continent* were there. Because of this, my impressions of Saturday evening are probably a little skewed. Let's just say I'm not wowed by the cattle- and horse-wrangling skills of Georgians and Alabamans. In event after event, almost no one qualified. It wasn't what I had learned to expect from the time I spent on the Great Plains, but it was still well worth the $10 admission.

Calf roping was unintentionally hilarious. A chute would open ("sponsored by Bug House Pest Control, ladies and gentlemen!") and a calf would jet out into the arena, followed by a horse-riding cowboy who would either utterly fail to rope the calf, or fail to tie it down for more than a few seconds. Steer wrestling followed a similar pattern. The steer was almost always eventually subdued, but oh-so-slowly. Feeling a little uncomfortable for the benighted contestants, we watched as they tried to wrest the legs out from under the unwilling animals. There was a lot of flailing. Times were in the neighborhood of 20 seconds.

Bronc riding and bull riding were unnerving, especially the latter. As I watched animals that weighed well over a ton writhe and kick and stomp, nearly mangling and crushing the local cowboys, the geekiest thought in history crossed my mind: This must be what the computer animators who worked on Lord of the Rings modeled the Balrog on. Watch The Two Towers and then a little off-peak-hours ESPN2, and tell me if you don't agree.

One cowboy hastily limped away from his run-in with the Balrog, raising his arms in nervous triumph (e.g., "I wasn't killed!). Another walked off, shaken, flexing his trampled hand to see if it still worked.

The head rodeo clown made predictable jokes (fat wife, soiled trousers, cops with doughnuts, etc.) to occupy the time in between events. At one point he asked the crowd if they were fans of Larry the Cable Guy**. To my astonishment, the audience bellowed, in unison, "Git 'er done!" One guy in a NASCAR jacket nearly knocked himself out cheering. Later I discovered that one of the merchandise trailers parked out back was selling GIT R DONE tee shirts. Oooooookay.

My favorite parts of the evening were the children's activities. That's a bizarre thing for me to say, since I'm wildly uncomfortable around kids. It's not that I don't like them or that they don't like me--in fact, for some reason I've never been able to pin down, four- and five-year-old girls always decide I'm their New Best Friend, and I find it kind of sweet. It's just that even when I was a child, I related better to adults. I think I've heard Fran Lebowitz say much the same thing, which gives me a little pause, but that's the way I am.

Anyway, the littlest kids were given hobbyhorses (on loan; the s.o. noticed that these same hobbyhorses were for sale for $15 out back, and doubtless many parents were persuaded to buy them afterward) and competed in horsey races across the arena. But the seven- to 11-year-olds were too big for that. They were allowed to participate in the Calf Scramble.

The Calf Scramble went like this: Ribbons were tied on the tails of two calves. Then the calves were let loose into the arena and the horde of children chased them, vying for the ribbons. To say I was nonplused by this is an understatement. Even baby calves weigh 250 pounds. That's the size of two mastiffs! Think of the liability! But I guess I was just being a fearful city slicker. When calves see that many children running toward them, it turns out they have a very predictable reaction: They run like hell in the other direction.

Soon a towheaded boy was barging his way through the bleachers near us, shouting, "I GOT DA RIBBON! I GOT DA RIBBON!"

I wish I could tell you about the cowgirl barrel races and the other events, but we weren't there to see them. We've been having unusually clear, cold nighttime weather lately (I am pretty sure it was in the upper 40s Saturday night) and we left for a while in the middle so we could go home and get our hats and mittens. It was worth it. Newly warmed, we were able to stay till the very end, when the announcers bade everyone farewell and turned on the recording of "Happy Trails."


* I say "on the continent" instead of "in the country" because it turns out that the Canadian west is a hotbed of cowboy skills. Some of the best riders and ropers are from Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. It makes sense when you think about it.

** For the uninitiated, Larry the Cable Guy is the least talented of Jeff Foxworthy's redneck comedy power quartet. I actually think the other three comedians are fairly good (although uneven to say the least--for the love of God, don't waste a half hour of your life watching the television series), but I've never been able to account for Larry's appeal.