The Dark Angel of Death

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The summer of 1970 should have been a great time, and in truth it wasn’t bad. I had my college degree under my belt and several months on the job for Aetna Casualty & Surety as a trainee commercial liability insurance underwriter in Spokane, Washington. “Big Aetna” was an industry giant, so the possibility of a lifetime career ladder within their corporate structure definitely did exist.

Not only that, but my (first) wife and I were expecting our second child at any moment. Shucks, I even had my own desk and was managing to pay our bills on time each month. What more could a man ask?

Quite a lot., as it turned out.

Desks in the Underwriting Department bay faced North. Since we worked on the 7th floor of our building, even its downtown location didn’t shorten our view. Tall glass windows bordered us to both the East and North. Great location. Great views. But I had no real responsibilities yet. As a trainee for the first full year, all I really had to do at that time was look busy. Read a training lesson. Shuffle a file. Wait for whenever my Supervisor had time to review my progress.

And look out those north windows whenever no one else seemed to be paying attention to what I was doing.

The view included a sizeable chunk of Spokane…and a clearly visible smog bank. Day in and day out, my ranch raised sensibilities were offended by that smog and further offended by the strangling rag. You know. That thing humans call a “necktie”.

Who invented that, anyway? Why do people still wear them? Maybe it’s a good luck thing: If I choke myself with a stupid piece of cloth that could get me killed in a fight, the hangman will never get me. Or something.

At any rate, a fish out of water, a cowboy without a horse, I stared and shifted in my seat, thinking over and over again, There’s got to be more than this.

And I caved in. My (ex) wife agreed enthusiastically with my plan. No more full time rodeo circuit; we couldn’t afford that. And no more Big Leagues. The RCA (currently known as the PRCA) sanctioned events were out. We would travel only to those “amateur”, small-money rodeos we could reach without losing work. We’d still be part of the cowboy lifestyle, make new friends, and get back to enjoying life.

YEAH!!!!!

Within a matter of weeks, I was ready. A new bull rope would have been nice, but that old one would be all right for a while yet. My weight was back to my old riding number of 153 pounds (all wire, at five-eleven). I was in shape, and due to ride that Saturday at Deer Park.

Never mind that our second daughter, Kari, chose that morning to come into the world. She was born a little after nine a.m. at Deaconess Hospital. No man was present for his child’s birth in those days, so another expecting father and I played gin rummy in the waiting room until a nurse brought the baby out for me to see.

I had missed my first daughter’s birth by two full weeks, but Kari’s entry into my life was spectacular: An unbelievable rush of love for her cascaded through my awareness in that first moment we met. Then the nurse took her off to the nursery. I went in to see my wife. We spoke quietly. She wished me well at Deer Park. Minutes later, I was barrelling out of the hospital parking lot, pointing north.

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When I returned to the hospital that evening, still wearing boots and jeans well coated with arena dust, it was after visiting hours. Even so, the staff let me in to see the new mother for a little while. Both of us were feeling pretty good. Kari had slipped out of the womb with relative ease. My bull ride had won no money, but I had made it to the whistle. Life was good.

Baker was back.

I Break My Own Rule And Pay The Price

When I had quit the pro rodeo circuit in 1966, gone cold turkey, I had climbed the steps to the announcer’s box after a contest in Blackfoot, Idaho. Once up there, I told the Rodeo Secretary, Rose Kohrs, I was thinking of quitting. She looked me in the eye and gave me the best advice in the world:

“If you do, Fred, don’t ever come back.”

“I know,” I nodded in agreement, and I did. We had all seen those disasters: Rough stock riders who quit, later tried to make a comeback, and paid the price. Too much to pay for the whistle, as Benjamin Franklin might say. It hardly ever worked out, with death or paralysis often the lesser damage when compared with the disintegration of a cowboy’s entire self image. No, I knew better than to….

But here I was, doing just that.

Yeah, I’d fooled myself pretty thoroughly. “We’ll just go to a few, honey, just the weekends, amateur only, maybe twenty a year, forty at most.” “We’ll make it more a social thing, babe, you know, don’t have to try to make a living, just enough to cover expenses.” Yeah. Right. Now here I was, just days after the Deer Park rodeo, new mother and new baby barely home, and what was I doing?

Why, I was crawling down on a practice bull at a rodeo ranch in central Washington. Big John Reynolds, a top cowboy from the day he was born, worked for this outfit. He’d loaned me his practice rope, which had a steel ring attached. Instead of wrapping the tail end of the rope around your hand and risking getting “tied” to the animal at the worst possible time, you used the ring as sort of a “quick release”. Great idea.

My bull for the evening was called Little Moe. Great for practice, not tough enough to win money on at the Calgary Stampede or even at Spokane’s Diamond Spur Rodeo, but just right for the night. The whistle blew, and I was still in perfect position atop the critter.

And then all Hell broke loose. The “ring rust” acquired during a four year absence from the arena caught up to me. I had broken not one but several rules of my own:

1. Don’t ever come back. No excuses. I knew better.

2. Don’t ever ride a bull for practice. I’m not generally superstitious, but I did believe that if you’re going to tie yourself to something as dangerous as a testosterone-heavy beast more than ten times your own size, there cotton-pickin’ well better be a chance to win money in the process. Five bucks in a jackpot? Fine. Pure practice? Not fine at all. Dumb attitude, sure, but my attitude. I’d ride a hundred broncs for practice, but not one bull. Until now.

3. Don’t ever use borrowed equipment. Oops.

The “oops” part came when I prepared to dismount. Oh, wait. I didn’t prepare. Normally, I would have grabbed the tail end of that bull rope with my free (right) hand and rolled to my left, unwrapping my riding (left) hand on the way. This would have put me on the ground ready to move toward the back of the bull, which is usually a good bit safer than the front end.

What did I actually do? Oh, I just opened my riding hand and flopped off. Away from that hand. It was nearly impossible to accomplish, but that idiotic maneuver hung me up just dandy. Little Moe was still bucking, that being his job. I saw his right hind hoof coming at me in a graceful arc, outlined against a clear blue evening sky.

CRUNCH-H!!!

With John supporting me on one side and my cousin Jerry Fiddler on the other, I made it out of the arena to another cowboy’s rig. Lying down for a bit seemed a good idea, and my 1968 Volkswagen bug didn’t exactly come equipped with a hide-a-bed. On my recommendation, the others finished bucking out the rest of the bulls while I tried to decide whether or not to go to the hospital.

Part of me has always been able to remain detached in the middle of pain, to evaluate objectively what the damages might be. I’d taken the hit in the ribcage on the left side, pretty much over the heart. At least one or two ribs were broken, and the odds of a busted rib having pierced the lung on that side seemed pretty sizeable. Probably I should go…maybe….

In the meantime, I kept saying to myself, Remember the pain. Remember the pain. Why? Because I knew full well that the body and mind forget pain as quickly as possible. But if I could remember telling myself to remember, just maybe I would get smart enough to quit doing this just for fun.

And then it happened.

I’m no psychic. I didn’t often see anything with “Ghost Whisperer” clarity. It was more like sensing the looming presence of a dark cloud. I knew it was not a physical thing but something of the Inner Worlds. I also knew it was literally a Dark Angel Of Death, there to escort me to wherever I needed to go, now that I was finished with this life. I did not fear it, and neither did I respect its apparent authority.

I want to see my kids grow up!

It was not a plea. It was a statement, a command, a complete rejection of the Dark Angel and its mission. Not that I spoke aloud, but the force of my thought was not to be denied. There was the sense of a moment’s hesitation, then it slowly slipped away and was gone.

Talk about free will.

I Finally Get The Message

A bit later, I let my cousin and friends know that yes, it probably would be a good idea for me to get an X-ray at a hospital. Long story short, the damage included two broken ribs (one in two places), a collapsed lung, and a repositioning of the heart–which had been permanently moved over about an inch from its previous placement.

Even so, I was back at work in the office just eight days later. Heavy lifting would not have been a great idea at that point, but shuffling papers and even walking a bit more than two miles to work was okay. Life went on, and by the following spring I was comfortable with the idea of stopping by the Diamond Spur Rodeo arena in Spokane just to see old friends.

Where I learned just how lucky I had truly been. A number of cowboys I knew from the “old days” were entered, including a Canadian bull rider who envied me the ability to finally “stay quit”. He had quit eight years earlier and managed to stay that way for nearly six years before rodeo fever pulled him back into the arena…where the most horrible thing possible had happened.

No, he didn’t nearly get killed. Worse. Much worse. That year he won the Canadian Bull Riding Championship! As he sadly pointed out, how do you quit after that?

It’s not all good, though. No, the damage to my body was not permanent. Yes, I have managed to avoid the temptation to ride since that time. But still…I never have been able to stand wearing a necktie and still cannot comprehend why other people do!

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