Eureka, Montana, September, 1962. It was–wait a sec. It should be rodeo and the nude, not rodeo in the nude.
At any rate, it’s a 100% true story, American history from a bit more than 50 years ago, and it goes like this.
What? The floating hat image up there? Yeah, I realize it looks more like rodeo with the invisible man, but hey. Showing a real nude might have jeopardized our G rating, so…oh. Excuse me; back to the story.
(Spoiler alert: A straw hat does figure into the tale.)
My old man and I’d had a falling out in early August. Elvin M Baker, a hard working Drummond rancher, didn’t appreciate his son, Fred Baker (that would be me), gallivanting all over to rodeos in the middle of haying season. Fred, on the other hand, remained fully aware that his Dad had agreed to summer employment terms that included the 18 year old cowboy’s taking off to hit any rodeos he chose.
Long story short, 48 hours after my erstwhile sire declared I’d be going to no more rodeos whatsoever, I’d pulled the plug on our relationship in the middle of the night, left a note on the bunkhouse pillow that said, “Don’t bother to call the cops. I’ll get a lawyer if you do.”
Nobody gets away with telling a rough stock rider he’s not allowed to rodeo.
From that time forward, it had been simply a matter of trying to keep my 1952 Chevy running and gas in the tank. Food for my own body was optional; scraping up the next entry fee was not. Which was a greater challenge than one might think, as I’d not won a single red cent all summer long. At Opheim, Montana, I’d not even had enough coin in my pocket after the show was over to get out of town. A week of bucking bales in thick mosquito country had gotten things going again, but those were not exactly salad days. In fact, I didn’t have enough money to get out of Eureka, either. The entry fee for the saddle bronc riding event was paid, I’d paid my portion of a motel room shared with two Canadian cowboys, Brian and Mac, and that was about it.
‘Twas the night before showtime. By the time yon dawn had come and a plate of bacon and eggs had gone down my gullet, there wouldn’t even be a moth left in my billfold. Certainly there was no more than a cupful of gas left in Old Brown’s tank. Gas was going for 29 cents a gallon. I had to win or it was going to be Opheim all over again–except that haying season was over, and college started next week.
I certainly couldn’t go to my parents for any help. I’d basically told them to kiss my grits, and they’d not been particularly forthcoming with cash assistance even when we were supposedly on good terms. Mom and Dad taught me plenty, but enablers they were not.
Brian and Mac and I were all just about equally broke, except that they did have enough coin in their pockets to make it back north of the border if they came up short at the one day rodeo. But broke cowboys on the circuit are normal cowboys; the TV celebrities at the pro shows you see today are the exceptions. We weren’t about to let a little financial drought dampen our spirits, so we hung out at the local bar with everyone else until the bar closed at 2:00 a.m. Nobody got drunk. The other guys had a couple each, but I never drank the night before a rodeo (except for that one time after high school graduation, but that’s another story)–and besides, I didn’t have the price of a beer, anyway.
The only motel in town was brand new that year, a series of mobile homes designed with several rooms per mobile. It was getting nippy when we went to bed, that high up in the Rocky Mountains and that late in the season, so we cranked up the heat and racked out.
Brian and I shared a double bed, him on the window side, me on the aisle. Mac had a cot across the way. We were all asleep within seconds of our heads hitting the pillows…
…until, 30 or so minutes later, Brian woke up with flames running up the curtain alongside his head.
The first awareness I had was him yelling, “Fire! Fire!” Still groggy–you know how it is, that soon after you’ve dropped off, when you’re deep down in the well–I stumbled out of bed in my skivvies, leaned across Mac’s cot, and slammed the window on that side with a hammer fist. Flames were already framing the door; it didn’t look like a good option. How it was that none of us suffered from smoke inhalation that night, I have no idea.
Fortunately, the window did not break. Half awake as I was, it probably wasn’t that strong a hit, but had my fist done its work, there would likely have been a whole lot of slicing going on from shards of glass.
Just that fast, I snapped the rest of the way awake and dove for the doorway, charging through the encircling flames and out into the chill Montana autumn night. By the time I had my senses fully about me, I realized several things.
1. We’d all gotten out safely.
2. Fellow Montana cowboy Fred Lafferty and his wife had the room next to us, and they were out okay, too.
3. One of us had grabbed Mac’s saddle on the way out, though at this late date I’m not completely certain which one of us did that. It might even have been me…or maybe not.
4. Except for my briefs and tee shirt, I was unclothed. No, not the nude referenced at the beginning of this rodeo story, but too close for comfort.
Amazingly, the little one horse pumper Eureka volunteer fire department got there within something like five minutes, and they got the fire out within 30 minutes or so. There was smoke damage in Lafferty’s room, but the flames hadn’t broken through.
At some point, Mac and Brian and I held council. Obviously, we’d be sleeping for what was left of the night in our vehicles. Much of our clothing had burned in the fire, including billfolds and keys, but I’d been so close to broke the money didn’t matter, and the keys–once they had time to cool–still worked.
All of us were more or less dressed by this time. My old Chevy had a busted latch on the driver side wing window, which meant I’d been able to reach in and unlock the car within seconds of exiting the burning building. And thank goodness for lazy, sloppy habits; I had a dusty pair of Levi’s and a pair of work boots roaming around in the back seat. Fred Lafferty had shared with both Brian and Mac, though Brian’s pair rode up pretty far on him. Fred stood around 5′ 8″; Brian was 6′ 3″ tall.
I finally got around to asking Brian where he’d been for a while there. After he sounded the alarm and we all made it out alive, I realized he was nowhere to be found for several minutes.
He explained, “I ran up to the manager’s unit, banging on the door, yelling fire! Fire! The wife was so panicked, she opened the door and shoved a teacup full of water at me to fight the fire with–and she didn’t have a stitch on!”
Like I said in the beginning, rodeo and the nude. The lady under discussion was somewhere around 50 years of age, a touch on the pudgy side, but regardless of her physical form…well, I’d have laughed at that one (which was unkind of me, perhaps, but there it is) no matter what she looked like.
Mac chuckled, too, but kind of weakly. He had other things on his mind. As we stood there, talking under the stars, he told us, “I’m scratching in the bronc riding tomorrow. This is a bad omen.”
Scratching, for those readers who might not know, is dropping out of the event. We understood Mac’s fear. After all, he’d been badly busted up some six months earlier when a bronc had gone over backward on him. He didn’t feel he needed to be tempting the fates.
Still, I had to disagree. “You’re reading this all wrong, Mac,” I told him. “Nobody got hurt. Yeah, we lost some of our best clothes, but Hell, the only rodeo gear anybody had in there was your saddle, and we even got that out. Tell you what, just to prove you wrong, I’m going out there and win that bronc riding tomorrow.”
Of course, it was really already tomorrow, but hey.
Mac was as good as his word. He notified the rodeo secretary of his decision and pulled up stakes, pointing his truck back toward the Canadian border.
For me to be as good as my word…that was going to take some doing. Not only had I remained winless for months on end, but my hat had burned in the fire. I borrowed a brand new straw hat from Dean Hamilton to cover that end of things. My riding boots had also burned; Dick Vinson loaned me his.
Now, finally, it was time to put up or shut up. My ride was a big black and white pinto mare. They said she could buck, but I’d never been around this particular rodeo string before. I settled deep into the saddle’s seat, turned my toes out, and called for the gate.
Yep. She could buck, all right, and I came a-hooking. The part about raking the horse stem to stern with every jump was going surprisingly well–but the part about staying firmly seated in the saddle was not. With every leap the horse made, my butt was lifting farther and farther from the leather. One more jump at best, and she was going to launch me right out over her head–and then I heard the pickup man, Buddy Connolly, yell, “Haul on your rein!”
Now, that might sound kind of counterintuitive. Here you are, your body pushing up and forward, and he wants you to pull on the rope rein leading even farther forward, toward the horse’s head? Wouldn’t you think that would finish launching you like a catapult?
Had it been any other voice, I might have fatally hesitated–but I knew Buddy’s voice, and I knew he knew broncs inside and out. Instantly, I did as he said–and just that quickly, that neatly, my rear end sucked right back down in the saddle where it belonged. I finished the ride in complete control, beating out the nearest competitor by seven points (which is a lot) at the end of the day.
It was the finest saddle bronc ride of my entire rodeo career.
Downside? Yeah, there was one. Dean Hamilton’s brand new straw hat flew off during the ride…and the bronc stepped square in the middle of it. A good felt hat might survive something like that without much in the way of ill effects, but not a straw. The winnings that day paid a handsome total of $44.00 (forty-four dollars), not enough to dare to reimburse Dean for the hat–so if you’re still out there, Dean, and you happen to read this, please do get in touch. I darn sure owe you a hat.
The Chevy had fuel now. Mac wasn’t around for me to say, “See? I told you so?”, so I just headed on over the mountains to visit my aunt and uncle in Spokane, then reversed course back into Montana, toward college at Northern Montana College in Havre. Old Brown didn’t have much left in the way of brakes; the master cylinder was leaking something fierce. As a result, we nearly clobbered a car stuck sideways in the road at the base of Lookout Pass, but what are a few close calls between friends?
After all, I was still riding high. It’s not every day you get to combine a rodeo, a nude, burning out in a fire, and throwing your best bronc ride ever…all in a single 14 hour period. September of 1962 might not have put Eureka, Montana, on the map, but it certainly seared its memories into my brain cells for all time to come.