Tales of a Golden Heart, Chapter 6: The Dark Angel of Death

Soul had called; rodeo faded into the sunset. Nice story, but not so simple. Rodeo fever burns deep and hot, firing its victim with visions of triumphant rides and the freedom of the open road. It smoldered for four years, haunting me through the struggle following the decision to quit. Through another half quarter of college and the livestock feed sales position that proved an excuse to drop out. Through six jobs in six weeks during late 1967, then ten months in an underground phosphate mine, healing financially and emotionally in its dark depths where life consisted of strange words–stopes and drifts, buzzies and jacklegs, blasting and slushing and mucking. Unsated, the fever rode me through a return to school, hammering through six quarters of college and numerous part time jobs to finally grasp a degree in Psychology.

Late July, 1970. Our second daughter comes into the world in midmorning, delivered at Deaconess Hospital in Spokane, Washington. The day is bright and beautiful as are both girls, the three year old and the newborn. Deskbound since early April as a commercial casualty insurance underwriting trainee, I’ve stared out the office’s seventh story window at the smog hanging over Spokane’s north hill, thinking, There must be more than this!

“We’ll rodeo weekends only,” I’ve promised. “Like other rodeo families.”

In rodeo, amateur is a misnomer. Every “amateur” show has entry fees and prize money; these cowboys simply don’t depend on it for their only source of income as do some of those on the big time circuit. Yes. Yes indeed. Yes. Yes. Yes. Comradery behind the chutes, picnics and dust and ropes and leather. Escape from the stifling white collar, the choke collar. Wonderful.

I’m in shape, pushups and situps and constant mental practice. Seven excess pounds have been dropped in a week of secret dieting known to no other Soul. Old gear has been brought out and carefully inspected: Spurs, chaps, riding glove, rope, rosin, hat, boots, riding shirt, jeans–all of it.

Four hours after the baby’s birth and twenty-five miles north at Deer Park, the bull bucks well beneath me–probably not a winner in this event with nearly forty bull riders entered, but just right after a four year layoff that ended in a severe slump. Tough, but not too tough. A mistake when the bull turns at the fence…bucked off at the whistle, but no matter. Such a mistake can be corrected next time out. I feel as good as I ever did in the arena. It is a joyous cowboy in dusty jeans who returns to Spokane once again a bull rider.

August 12, 1970. Wednesday. My teenaged city cousin, Jerry, rides with me to a practice session on a stock contractor’s ranch in central Washington. Jerry is curious about rodeo, fired by stories of glory and glamour and quickly earned bragging rights.

“I’ve always had a superstition against practicing on bulls,” I tell him. “But there’s no point in paying out good entry fees to get out of the habits that cause mistakes like the one at Deer Park.”

“What was your mistake? I mean, besides getting on a bull in the first place?” His eyes flashed with amusement, yet he was seriously interested.

“Simple. When he turned left at the fence, I didn’t jump left with him. That let him pull out from under me and–boom!–I was down on his right side.”

“Oh.”

The practice session begins around seven p.m. John Reynolds, my secret hero, is present, working this year for Big Bend Rodeo Company and loaning me a practice rope with a quick-release steel ring that eliminates the need for the ever-dangerous hand wrap with the rope’s three foot tail. My mount is a dark fellow named Little Moe, not really a runt but not as large as some bovine behemoths. Just before time to crawl down on his back, a knowingness flickers through my consciousness; I shut it down and concentrate on the task at hand.

Little Moe clears the chute well, turns right, bucks down a line parallel to the chute gates. He is strong; each jump tries to force me to the right, away from my riding hand, but unsuccessfully. When the whistle blows, I know the cowboy in me has returned full force.

Immediately following that instant of exultation, the fates pull the plug and flush illusion down the bathtub drain. Ignoring proper bull-escape procedure, I try to get off as though I were a green kid who’d never seen the inside of an arena. Flopping sloppily to the right, away from my riding hand and thus in the best position to hang up in the rope–I do just that. Strung out the length of my arm, trailed through the air like the tail on a child’s kite. Little Moe’s rump soars high in the evening sky; his right hind hoof sails in a graceful arc that gracefully smashes into the left side of my rib cage. Fortunately, the force of the blow tears my hand loose from the rope. John and another cowboy help me from the arena.

“Could get hurt that way,” I grimace.

John agrees. “Especially getting off like that.”

The humiliation hurts far more than the stomped chest, doing something so totally unprofessional before the eyes of my personal hero. John is right; an eleven year old ranch kid knows better than to flop off away from his riding hand. Rose Kohrs’ words echo inwardly…Don’t ever come back. I was the overaged boxer knocked out on the ring apron, the ballplayer cut from the roster after one fumble too many.

“Do you want to go to the hospital?”

“Let me think about it. You go ahead with the rest.”

While other riders practiced on the remaining bulls, I lay in the back of a pickup truck with a camper shell, my Volkswagen being too small to serve as a bed. Long habit kept an analysis of probable injury running through my mind.

Definite broken ribs; can feel them moving. Internal injuries? Likely. Remember the pain! Remember the pain!

Of course the body would not remember the pain; its defense mechanism is too good. But remembering the verbal instruction might do the trick; repeating this painful process was getting too silly for words. Every breath hurt a bunch.

At this moment the Dark Angel arrived, a presence resembling a black cloud, though with more personality. I knew it, knew we had met many times before, knew it as an old friend even as a startled reaction shot through me.

I want to see my kids grow up!

Not a plea but a statement. The Messenger of Death was not being asked but told. It waited another long, timeless moment, then moved off into invisibility as silently as it had come. Without a word, it had conveyed a clear, unmistakable message.

It’s not really your time. I was sent to tell you that if you insist on fooling round with this cowboy stuff instead of getting on with your life, we’re going to have to terminate this body and start over. Again.

Going to the nearest hospital seemed best. A cowboy I barely knew rode in the pickup bed with me, comforting me with a touch and a word whenever a road bump brought an unsolicited moan from my throat. Gratitude flowed to this blessing in boots and jeans, unspoken heartfelt appreciation.

X-rays showed two broken ribs, one of them in two places, but no collapsed lung. The heart had been moved over about an inch from the force of the blow. I tried to leave, but the pain knocked me down. Okay, so one night wouldn’t hurt. Jerry took the Volkswagen back to Spokane to notify families that I was hospitalized but all right and could leave late the next day. An older nurse tried to get the snarling cowboy into a hospital gown and failed, finally letting me alone after a young nurse’s aide came to my aid. I spent that night in a private room in my jeans, fierce independence refusing the bedpan until six a.m., at which time I managed to stand alone and make it to the bathroom on my own two feet.

Around nine a.m., a new nurse’s aide came on shift, a lovely young lady in her late teens. Her first task was to change the dressing on my ribs where a perfectly shaped hoof print stood out in red-scraped relief.

“See that?” I asked. “That’s how you can track a bull in the woods.”

“A bull in the woods?” Her eyes rounded slightly.

“Yes. This one was going north.”

She paused thoughtfully, then noticed the smile in her patient’s eyes and grinned.

Around one p.m., hospital staff took a second, precautionary set of x-rays. By five p.m., my ride had arrived. At 5:01 p.m., the doctor entered the room with harsh news.

“That lung is down.”

They say I turned white. My people had sensed the truth in advance, bringing with them two sets of brand new civilian pajamas so I need not succumb to the (yuch!) hospital gown syndrome. The operation under local anesthetic took forty-five minutes. Slightly more than a week later, I returned to work at the office, having missed eight working days. Office management had elected to keep me on full salary with medical insurance during the hospital stay, gambling on an employee with a mere four months of company time.

On the way home from work that first day, I stopped by our family doctor’s office to have the chest flouroscoped. The medico wanted to be sure the left lung was still inflated.

“It’s still up.” He sounded surprised.

For my part, I’d never had any doubt. The Dark Angel had done me a great favor; rodeo fever’s gripping symptoms began to fade.

At last I felt free to, as they say, “Get on with it.”

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