Comeback. It’s a great word, right? Uh…not if you’re a rodeo cowboy, it’s not. Rose Kohrs told me that night, “If you do (quit), Fred, don’t ever come back.”
Hold on. I’m getting ahead of myself. To understand the power of that statement, you need to know the backstory. The short version, anyway; boring the reader is not the point.
I’d started riding bareback broncs and saddle broncs at rodeos when I was fifteen. Now, at age 22, it was suddenly–and unexpectedly–time to pull the plug. I was sitting atop the arena fence, watching the last of the bulls buck out for the night, thinking, “If you can’t beat ’em this year, cowboy, maybe you better quit.”
That thought had not come within a thousand miles of my little pea brain prior to that night. There’d been those first few years of wild arena wrecks and steep learning curves in the process of mastering the trade, shifting to add bull riding during two college rodeo team years, finding out I was more of a natural on the bulls than anything else, and finally narrowing things down to specializing in that event.
So far, so good. Mixed in with the hard times and spectacular buckoffs, there’d been enough moments of glory to keep me fired up and looking toward the next contest, including championships at Drummond, Montana, (my home town) and Pleasant Grove, Utah (where I beat out 37 of the best in the business)…but 1966 had not been going so well.
I’d been in a pure dee gold plated slump, bucking off bulls I should have ridden.
My friends on the circuit helped as they could, and it was looking like I had it just about figured out. After watching me buck off two bulls in a row at the same rodeo in ways that simply shouldn’t have happened, future Bull Riding Champion of the World John Quintana remarked quietly, “It looks like you might be forgetting your upper body, Fred.” I knew he’d hit the nail on the head. “Thanks, John,” I replied with heartfelt gratitude. “That makes total sense.” There was plenty of time to wrap my thoughts around that one, get it right before straddling my next bull.
Unfortunately, at Blackfoot, Idaho, a top bull by the name of Lizard–well, he didn’t buck me off, good as he was. I overthought the thing, trying to remember my upper body (which I’d been forgetting)…and I forgot my feet. Both spurs flew up and hit me in the ass, and I launched myself off of one of the best bulls in the business.
Then I compounded the error by (a) hanging up in the bull rope and (b) staying away from the animal instead of staying tucked in as close as possible to his side. At Hamilton, MT, days before, where John had so skillfully analyzed my slump problem with his eagle eye, I’d hung up on a superfast little black bull who’d stepped down the back of my legs a lot while I was doing it right, so what the hey, I did it wrong and paid the price. Lizard turned back into me and hit me smack in the chest with his head.
Out like a light. They tell me the rodeo clown saved my life (which is what he’s there for), darting in front of the bull, throwing me out of the way to safety like a sack of feed, leading the bull in another direction.
I came to and stepped off the stretcher just as they were shoving it into the meat wagon.
Don’t get me wrong. Decades later, former World Champ Ronnie “Punch” Rossen of Broadus, Montana (and another friend of mine who knew how to offer an important bull riding coaching insight in a single brief sentence), was killed at an Old Timers Rodeo when a bull smashed him in the chest. He’d just won the bull riding on that same animal. It’s definitely a potential life or death situation.
But I wasn’t thinking of quitting because of the injury, or the possibility of getting killed the next time, or any of that. I was thinking of quitting because I had a wife now, and a commitment to return to Montana State University in the fall. The Army still had hold of me enough that a two week summer camp in the Mojave Desert, coming right up, was going to gouge a big hole out of the middle of the summer rodeo season. There needed to be some money in our savings account by the time school started, at least if we didn’t want to starve to death in short order.
I was thinking of quitting because of responsibility.
Where did that thought come from, out of the blue like that? Good question. To this day, I believe that as Soul, I made a spiritual decision…and the human psyche was just going to have to learn to live with it.
Now, here’s where we get to the title of this post. After the rodeo was over, before making my way back to our Chevy truck where my wife would be waiting, I climbed the steps to the announcer’s box. Rose Kohrs, the rodeo secretary, was hard at her paperwork. She and Ray were friends, I felt. Nothing spoken between us, but I’d followed the Kohrs string of professional bucking stock more than any other. I felt comfortable with them, and I couldn’t leave without a word of explanation.
“Rose,” I told her, “I’m thinking of quitting.”
She looked me straight in the eye and said quietly, “If you do, Fred, don’t ever come back.”
“I know,” I replied, and I did. We’d all seen what happened to rodeo riders who quit the circuit and then, at some later date, attempted a comeback. It was never pretty.
Then I headed for the truck, where my bride sat nervously waiting. “Where were you? When it happened, I started down around the arena to get back of the chutes, find out which hospital you were being taken to, and then–”
“Oh.” I should have felt more sheepish than I did. Hell, I hadn’t even thought about her, not once, until now. “I was sitting on the fence.” And then I told her my decision, that I’d decided to quit.
To her credit, she begged me not to. At the time, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing to my own psyche, uprooting core values and starting over. But she did; Vicky knew. And lordy, did I ever pay the price. It was hard beyond belief, having to go from “Yeah, I rodeo,” to, “Well, I used to rodeo, but….”
Four years later, I couldn’t take it any more. I had a four year degree in psychology, a brand new job being strangled in a necktie in a seventh story insurance office in Spokane, Washington, and I was losing it. There wasn’t much for me to do yet, being on trainee status rather than handling a real book of business as a commercial insurance underwriter. Often during the day, I’d sit at my desk, studying insurance learning materials, sneaking glances straight ahead, through the big picture window to the north. Smog. Out there, over the city, there was smog.
There’s got to be more than this, I told myself in desperation…and I began to fool myself into thinking it would be okay to go back to rodeo.
The fever had not left me.
“Not the pro circuit,” I told my wife, who was obviously excited by my news. “We’ll just hit the amateur rodeos during weekends. Get acquainted with the rodeo people in this area, get out of the house. Try to win enough to break even, but this time it’s won’t be all about the money. It’ll be about the way of life.”
She’d missed the road, as I had. Let’s Get ‘R’ Done.
I never forgot the admonition Rose Kohrs had given me, but like every has-been looking to make a comeback, I convinced myself I had it figured out.
As it happened, our second daughter was born the morning of the Deer Park rodeo. It had been a swift birth; I left mother and daughter in the hospital’s care, our other daughter in an aunt’s care, and drove like a bat out of Hell to Deer Park, getting there in plenty of time. The bull I’d drawn was so-so, not the toughest but not the easiest, either. I rode him straight up until he turned back at the fence, then I slipped down on one side, fighting to make the whistle. Which I did, but with the obvious storm I’d been in, my score sucked.
Still, I’d scored. In bull riding, any score at all is a good thing. During my pro days, I’d calculated that I could make a living if I could simply qualify on 50% of the bulls I straddled.
Baker was ba-ack!
Dusty and mildly disgusted with my error at the fence–but mostly riding high–I made it back to check on my wife around 9:00 p.m. Visiting hours were over, but the nurses let me in, anyway. Who could resist a lean, young, blonde, blue eyed cowboy fresh from the arena? My sweetie was all that, content both with our new daughter and with her back-again bull rider.
Life was good.
A week later, my cousin Jerry and I drove out to the Big Bend Rodeo Ranch near Soap Lake, Washington. Jerry didn’t rodeo–he’s a lifetime city guy except for time he spent on my parents’ ranch when we were both growing up–but he was more than happy to ride along. I felt I needed to practice a bit, and an old friend from the circuit, top hand John Reynolds, worked for Big Bend. They were having a bunch of riders out to practice on a batch of bulls, and I was invited.
Long story short: I was on a bull called Little Moe. Not a bad bull, the sort that might place for you at a small rodeo and waste your entry fee at a big one. Rode him perfectly. Got off stupid (ring rust caught up to me), got stomped, busted a couple of ribs (one in two places), punctured a lung, and had a visit from one of the Dark Angels of Death.
After that, I quit again…and this time, I stayed quit. It still wasn’t about the injury. It was about finally recognizing the truth of Rose’s statement, that a cowboy who quits should never come back.
It hardly ever ends well.
But the fever still had not left me. Yes, I stayed quit, but I was a dry drunk, not a truly reformed rodeoholic. Until…
…The seasons turned. The annual Diamond Spur Rodeo had come to Spokane itself. I wasn’t entered, but I was hanging out behind the chutes one Saturday morning, hours before the show, visiting with old friends. Most of them hadn’t known why I’d disappeared from the circuit; they’d just known I was gone.
Two things happened that weekend that changed everything. The first of those involved an old rodeo bud from Canada. He was entered, of course–and he was openly envious when I told him I’d quit.
“Damn,” he told me, “I wish I could. I did, in fact, quit for three years. But then one day I thought, oh, what the Hell, climbed back down on one and….”
“Get busted up?” I asked.
“Worse. I won it.”
“Oh crap.” I knew what that meant. If he’d been lucky and gotten semi-seriously injured like I had…but he hadn’t. “And then what?”
He looked at me with true sorrow in his eyes. “And then I went on to win the Canadian Bull Riding Championship that year.”
After that, my friend didn’t know if he’d ever be able to quit again, at least not before he got killed or crippled in the arena.
The other incident involved the bull riding championship at the Diamond Spur that year. It was won crooked. I knew who’d done it and how–after the fact, not before–and with that realization, my rose colored glasses fell off. I was disillusioned, and that disillusionment acted like an antidote to the powerful rodeo fever virus. I was cured.
I still think about it, even at 70 years of age and 44 years away from the arena. When I watch a rough stock event on TV, I’m there, hat pulled down, shoulder tucked, toes turned out and grabbing for holds. If I happen to have my shirt off when I look in the mirror, the greater development of my lats on the left side is obvious; I worked to develop that “riding side” from age fifteen to…well, today. Even though I only crawled down on something like 500 to 600 head of rough stock in my seven year career–no more than a World Champion might straddle in a single twelve month period–the rodeo fever isn’t completely gone. It’s just…dormant, perhaps.
What? No, no more comebacks. Unless–no, really.
At this age, I’d probably break a hip.
P.S. My friend and frequent reader, Shauna L. Bowling, mentioned her recall that I’d had a “successful” rodeo career. It’s true that I had a rodeo career; the level of success…well, when all was said and done, I figured I’d come out roughly $3,000 in the hole overall, counting entry fees and travel expenses and such, and I walked away with no noticeable permanent damage to body or mind. Plus, yeah, I won a few, here and there. Whether or not that adds up to a “successful” career, I’ll let you be the judge.