–First, you have the get the mule’s attention. __Various
Spirituality didn’t appeal to me in those horse-and-spur days. When eighth grade graduation rolled around, I announced my rejection of organized religion and announced for atheism, a state of affairs which lasted through most of high school’s four year journey. Most of all–I thought–I wanted to be Saddle Bronc Riding Champion of the World.
During that same season in which Star underwent his training, fifteen year old Fred first hit the rodeo circuit. The District High School Rodeo in Ronan had been announced at the big time RCA rodeo hosted by stock contractor Oral Zumwalt at his home ranch south of Missoula. I’d worked up the nerve to ask Dad if I could enter, wanting it so badly I’d been certain he’d say no.
Not only did he startle me by saying yes, he went the whole nine yards and spent energy, time and money on the project. He bought an old Hamley, one of the finest bronc saddles ever made, and commissioned saddler Earl Stewart to craft a custom made leather bareback rigging. He drove long distances to real rodeos with paying audiences, setting me down on the first few horses and sharing advice from a lifetime of range riding on broncs other men couldn’t handle even in the arena.
We arrived in Ronan during a misty rain, found the rodeo office in a dimly lit room. Excitement bubbled and danced in the thrill of actually signing up for the real thing. There would be two horses to ride each day of the two day event; what sort of animals would be drawn from the hat for Fred Baker? Joanne, the rodeo secretary, drew the bareback broncs first.
“How does Spark Plug buck?” I asked Ted, a tall cowboy and member of the family providing the bucking stock.
He shrugged. “A real dink.”
From his manner, it was clear a “dink” meant an easy horse to ride, the sort of underpowered bucking machine that made it impossible to win. I concealed my pleasure, greatly relieved at the news.
Gray Wolf was the saddle bronc drawn for me; with a name like that, I didn’t dare ask how he bucked.
The afternoon turned off fine and sunny. Spark Plug’s small size and peaceable nature in the chute helped hold fear levels down to mere Horrified Panic, and the gate opened. The little mare jumped and kicked, relieving herself audibly and liquidly with every move. I didn’t spur well, but neither did I fall off. By the time I retrieved the bareback rigging and returned to the chutes, people who’d been told this was my first rodeo were smiling. Referring to the mare who’d performed so magnificently, one salty young cowboy commented, “Spark Plug’s the wrong name for her; ought to call her Wetfire.”
Gray Wolf looked scarier, a tall steel colored old gelding with a mean glint in his eye, but what mere beast could daunt the conqueror of the mighty Wetfire? Fear dropped to practically nothing, a mere case of Atomic Jitters. Unfortunately, the gray knew what he was doing. Six jumps out of the chute, he dumped his rider out of the saddle to the left.
No longer afraid but very busy falling, I felt the jerk of a boot that didn’t slip properly from a stirrup. A sharp hoof flashed along one hip as I swung upside down pendulum style before coming gratefully free and gathering a welcome faceful of soft arena dirt.
The hip burned, scraped as raw as a carrot in Julia Child’s kitchen. Some cowboy muttered angrily, “…letting him ride in boots like that!” I hoped Dad hadn’t heard. It wasn’t his fault I’d had to ride in heavy footgear we knew as engineer boots, big black things with straps and buckles suited for hard ground labor but never designed to slip easily in and out of stirrups. With all the time and money he’d already invested in this venture….
Whether or not he heard, he acted. Immediately following the rodeo, we drove to a local store in Ronan. My brand new boots came from Texas, Star brand boots, a brand I’d never seen before and have never seen since. My first bronc riding boots, unique and special. Strutting casually, Cowboy Cool personified, a fully outfitted western hero sharing a meal of rib eye steak dinners and an evening spent reading cheap western novels in a cheap hotel room by the limited light of a forty watt bulb. Two special cowboys, a part of the real West, father and son sharing the same bunk for the night on the road.
Sunday’s saddle bronc event followed another bareback try that proved nothing. A partially successful ride disqualified because the spurs were not touching the horse’s neck in front of the shoulder points on the first jump out of the chute. “Missed ‘im out, Fred,” advised one judge, a pronouncement that would become all too common in the years ahead. A bad start meant no score at all, sort of like in human relationships.
Strangely, the last animal looked familiar. Now a saddle bronc called Golden Pheasant, the big sorrel gelding looked like…”Dad, isn’t that horse the one we called Dusty?”
I stared at the animal I’d tried to saddle as a boy of nine, a horse later sold from the ranch, now a respected bucking bronc in my first rodeo. A little ripple of awareness flicked through. Somehow, riding this bronc would complete a cycle of action begun six years earlier.
The ride didn’t impress anyone. Golden Pheasant quit bucking in midride, seconds after his nervous rider missed him out and disqualified. Thus ended one cycle as a new one began.
For eight years, I pursed the “Let’s Rodeo!” cycle with unbridled enthusiasm. My skill increased bit by bit. A year after Gray Wolf dumped his novice rider in the dirt, I rode him to the District High School Saddle Bronc Championship at Hamilton, Montana, laughing after the ride and calling him not Gray Wolf but Gray Dog. The horse was a dink. What had been such an overpowering force had now become an easily handled situation, and I went on to the greater problems, the tougher horses and bigger rodeos.
At age eighteen, joining the Northern Montana College Rodeo Team, I added bull riding to my events. Bull riders don’t have to “start” bulls out of the chutes to qualify. Townspeople ask, “How do you ride a bull?” The answer: “Keep a leg on each side and your seat in the middle.”
In actual fact, of course, bull riding involves tremendously coordinated skills, but I started older in that event. With developed arena savvy, highly qualified cowboys assisting, and fewer ground-in bad habits than on the horses, my bull riding flourished.
At age nineteen, I won the bull riding event in the professional RCA rodeo at my home town of Drummond, Montana. Dad had in earlier years been criticized harshly for allowing his slim young son to ride, especially after a hard fall had knocked the boy out during his first appearance in that same hometown arena. Now the critics transformed to adoring fans, yet the day contained one flaw. In an otherwise excellent saddle bronc ride that should have won additional money, I’d missed the horse out on one side…again. We are always hardest on ourselves, and the mistake gnawed at me for decades.
That same year, the old goal of becoming Saddle Bronc Champion of the World was scrapped in favor of a goal more realistic in light of my apparent talents and the price I was willing to pay. For instance, most champions possessed obviously greater natural ability than my own, and all of them ran hard year ’round. World Championships in rodeo are determined by the amount of money won annually. Title-chasing riders drove up to two hundred thousand miles a year, flew airplanes to increase the number of rodeos they could reach, ignored family life and any other obstacles in their way. I’d never done that, choosing to attend college during winter seasons. In addition, Uncle Sam required two years of Army time from my life. Military aside, personal interest kept me in Montana and a few surrounding states plus parts of Canada. The new goal: To make it to the National Finals in Bull Riding by the age of twenty-four.
Along the way, something peculiar reared its head. Time and again, knocked out in the arena by a hard landing or just as often stunned yet still on my feet, I was…somewhere else. The first time it happened, I retained no recall. The second time, there remained only the uneasy awareness that something had happened both times. The third time, I managed to hang on to a bit of the experience. I’d been in a place, an open area yet with an arena feel, red-tan earth beneath an incredible expanse of sky.
One night around the campfire (actually a hotplate centered in a motel room somewhere in Utah), several of us discussed this phenomenon.
“Sounds weird to me.”
“Seems to me I’ve heard of something like that, somewhere….”
“I’ll bet if you ever remember that completely, you’ll be dead.”
“Dead? Hm. Fascinating. Doubt that, but one way or the other, I’d like to know more….”
More years passed. At the ripe old age of twenty-two, I found myself in a slump. Big league baseball players in a batting slump whistle bats past speeding baseballs, pop up easy flies for glue-fingered outfielders, listen to advice on how to stand, how to hold the bat, how to swing. A big league bull rider receives similar advice: How to sit a bull, how to adjust the bull rope, how to turn his knees and toes. The difference lies in the arena: Bull riders buck off bulls they should have ridden, hang up in ropes their hands should have released. Their mistakes pound them into the dirt, sometimes tamped into plowed arena earth with the aid of a two thousand pound bull’s hooves and horns. No more padding than a cotton shirt or a pair of blue jeans against an animal outweighing half a dozen of the largest football players. Besides, cowboys only get paid when they win. In a nutshell, slumping rodeo cowboys are highly motivated to get out of their slumps.
In 1963, I’d attended bull riding school in western Canada. In 1965, a min-season during leave from the Army had netted enough winnings to have landed me in the National Finals…could that rate of winning have been maintained for a full year. Major humiliations such as dropping a buck rein on a big black saddle bronc with the chute gate wide open seemed a part of a distant past. June of 1966 thus saw a serious rider recently out of the Army who had paid his dues to both country and profession. That cowboy had won his spurs; now he was drawing good bulls and bucking off and wondering why.
Hamilton, Montana: First bull, Rattler. A huge, straight bucking but incredibly powerful brindle animal. Cracking my jaw against the big fellow’s horn on the second jump out of the chute, getting to my feet with the world gone crystal clear and bright, colors in ultra sharp focus. Big John Reynolds comments from the catch pen gate:
“That’s Rattler, Fred!”
“So I noticed.”
Second bull, a small fast black. Not great power, but incredible twisting speed. John Reynolds, my number one though unadmitted hero in the cowboy world, sets me on the bull, pulls the rope tight across my hand, watches me take my wrap and sit forward on the rope. My little finger is placed next to the bull’s spine as taught me by former World Champion Ronnie “Punch” Rossen. (Decades later, Punch is himself killed by a bull in the arena after a winning ride. He goes out in style, and I attend the outdoor memorial services at an arena in Billings, Montana. Anonymously, unrecognized by the other mourners, having myself been away from rodeo for so long. Yet tears well out from behind my sunglasses, and I am grateful at having known this Champion Human Being who helped me so much…and grateful I have been allowed to be there to see him off.) My left shoulder is turned forward, arm bent to take the shock as learned from onetime Canadian Champion Lawrence Hutchinson in his bull riding school.
“Let’s do something, Fred!” John encourages me.
All this is not enough. The little black outquicks me; my efforts to grab new spur holds and jump back forward on the rope lag farther behind the bull’s moves with each jump. Halfway through the required eight seconds, I am off the bull and hung up, the rope a vise clamping my hand to the fast moving animal. A dozen cowboys converge on our Cow Country tango, one of them finally getting the rope undone. No one is hurt except for a slight leg scrape and a broken belt strap on my chaps as the result of the bull stepping down my thigh during our two-step.
Up and coming bull rider John Quintana (later World Champion in his own right) reviews the performance.
“It looks like you might be forgetting your upper body.”
This makes sense. Every part of the body has its responsibility during a ride; corrections must be made. My young wife, who has always known me as a rodeo cowboy, listens to my self analysis. She has seen me through ups and downs, through minor injuries and triumphs such as Drummond in 1963 and Pleasant Grove, Utah, in 1965. Our pickup is a new Chevy with a small camper mounted in its cargo bed; during rodeo season we are self contained and mobile. The next stop is to be at Blackfoot, Idaho, where I’ve drawn a great black and white bucking bull known as Lizard. Last year’s Blackfoot rodeo had been won by another cowboy on Lizard, a spectacular performance bringing the crowd to its feet. He is possibly better than any bull I’ve successfully ridden, but he has a good style and I’m happy to have him.
This night, big Lizard decides to get his rider’s attention by backing out of the chute instead of leaping out front feet first. He makes up for it by cranking up his best effort, jumping high and hard. I remember my upper body well…until my own spurs hit me in the pants pockets. The all-important legs and feet have forgotten their parts. In that instant, I am off the big bull, still on my feet and staring in disbelief at my opened hand once again trapped by the wrap of rope. Remembering the little bull that stepped on my leg in Hamilton, I keep my body away from this one.
That is my last mistake. Lizard gives me every chance, bucking straight ahead several jumps before turning to attack the pest anchored at his side. Unable to turn with him because I’ve stayed away from his body at arm’s length, there is no escape. His massive forehead smashes into my chest, and the lights go out.
…Words penetrate from a distance, hazy, just enough to arouse my determination. I step off the stretcher just as it is shoved into the ambulance. Nobody is hauling me to a hospital. Someone brings me my bull rope; another someone tells how the rodeo clown tossed my unconscious body to one side like a sack of feed, leading the angered bull away and saving my life. I remember personal struggles this clown has endured and feel a gladness he has conquered to be here when I needed him.
Huddled over broken ribs, perched on a top fence rail, I fight the pain and ponder the meaning of recent events. A new thought runs through mind channels almost of its own volition:
If you can’t beat ’em this year, cowboy, maybe you better quit.
After the rodeo, I climb to the announcer’s stand and tell secretary Rose Kohrs, “I’m thinking of quitting.”
She looks at me quietly. “If you do, Fred, don’t ever come back.”
“I know.” And I do know. I’ve seen what happens to those who try, with few exceptions. I walk away, night hiding me as I make my way behind the chutes, bawling like a baby. My wife waits at the pickup, a strong, proud young lady who never begs for anything but fights for what she believes. This night she begs, knowing better than her husband what his decision to abandon his life dream will cost them both emotionally. She begs not for herself, but to ask her beloved to spare himself pain.
Even so, the decision is made. As we drive north through the night toward Montana, I begin to wonder what has happened. After eight years of goal intensive thought, I suddenly and without warning know it is time to abandon rodeo. It isn’t the injury; I’ve been injured before. Something inside has simply surfaced in quiet strength, redirecting an incredulous mind and body in a lightning move that will startle everyone who knows me. So much beauty has come to me through the rodeo circuit: Physical courage, self confidence, love and support from family members, fellow contestants, and stock contractors who have made up much of my world. Even the hundreds of animals exploding from chutes across the mountain states and parts of Canada are all friends, spirited and competitive friends who have brought sometimes humiliation, sometimes hard lessons, sometimes triumphant joy.
Next morning in Bozeman, Montana, the mystery deepened. X-rays showed no broken ribs. Chest muscles bruised, yes, but not a single bone showing as much as a hairline crack or separation. I began to wonder. It felt like broken ribs. The force of the blow should have broken ribs. Yet, no ribs broken. Why? Had I refused to heed that inner voice, continuing to think of myself as a rodeo professional, would the x-rays have shown heavier damage? Perhaps I would find out someday; for now I needed a job.
Within a few weeks, my wife and I found ourselves working side by side on a profitable freeway fence construction project based less than a mile from our home. Though the position required hard work, its convenience and rate of pay validated my decision to quit rodeo. We ignored esoterics and concentrated on workaday teamwork. By September, we had become the premier wire stretching pair on our foreman’s six person crew.
It had been an interesting summer.