KISSING HER KOWBELL
When I got to my gate I saw Uncle Garrett standing on the porch like he was waiting for me. I stopped with my hand on the gate. I was breathing hard.
Uncle Garret asked me, “You gonna grow old there?”
Nothing was different but everything had changed.
Uncle Garrett made a grab at some bug flying around his face and then he said, “I’m sorry, Buck. I warned you: affections are tricky varmints. Do you understand? ”
I said with a shaky lip, “Everything’s changed.”
Uncle Garrett sounded hurt when he said, “I haven’t changed toward you, Buck. You must know that.”
I said thoughtlessly, “Grandma always said you were headed for trouble.”
Uncle Garrett looked down and said, “I know. And she was right,” and then he looked up at me again and he said, “But Grandma always comes through that gate there, Buck. You, too, OK? Please?”
Then I felt like an ungrateful bastard. I loved my Uncle Garrett. What was wrong with me? I hated myself.
I hung my head and I started to cry
Next thing I knew Uncle Garrett was opening the gate and he was crying, too.
I threw myself at him and I buried my face in his chest. He embraced me hard and we just stood there like that.
I bawled, “I love you, Uncle Garrett.”
He hugged me until I couldn’t breathe and he was whispering, “I love you, Buck. I love you, too.”
He released me and I stood back wiping my eyes and I asked, “Is Mr. Sayers going to be OK?”
Uncle Garrett said, “Sure, OK as he can be. He’s not…, he’s not coming back here to Chippewa.”
I said sincerely, “I’m sorry, Uncle Garrett.”
Uncle Garrett said, “I’m sorry you don’t have your literature class anymore, Buck.”
I said, “That’s OK. I can still read.”
Uncle Garrett asked, now conversation-like, “So, then, how’s things with your Hayley?”
I laughed once and I said, “She’s a tricky varmint,” and then I was crying again.
Uncle Garrett put his arm around my shoulder and we went back into our home together.
Eventually enough I mostly recovered what mattered, pretty quick. Then I was looking forward again to Bull Riding School. The Wisconsin High School Rodeo Association was hosting the class right in Chippewa. Mr. Terry Don West himself was coming up from Oklahoma.
Bless Uncle Garrett. It was expensive. I had to buy good gear. The WHSRA didn’t recommend buying stuff on eBay; they said what some of what people were selling would mostly be crap. I had to have a bull rope and rope pad, rosin, a cowbell and bell strap, bull riding spurs and spur straps, bull riding gloves, a helmet, a protective mouthpiece, and a protective vest.
When the day of the class came I saw Hayley there but I didn’t say hello. Then she saw me and she came over to me.
Hayley said, “Hey, Buck,” and she touched my arm and she said, “I’m glad you’re here. We’re all sorry about Mr. Sayers.”
I tried to be bitter and I said, “They haven’t tried too hard to find who did it.”
Hayley looked down and she said, “I know, it sucks,” but then she said again, “I’m glad you decided to be here. I’d miss you.”
I tried to say what I felt, “And I’ve missed… our literature class. I don’t have anyone to talk to… about books.”
Hayley teased me with that half-smile, “Yeah, I’ve missed your books, too.”
Hayley was the only girl in the Bull Riding class but no one complained or made fun. In fact, the instructor, Mr. Terry Don West himself, said, “I’m glad to see more women take an interest.”
Mr. Terry Don West then told us all, “You’re gonna take away an attitude for life on what it takes to be a great bull rider and what it takes to be a great success in life. It’s a life lesson: What do you want, how badly do you want it and what are you going to do about it?”
I looked over at Hayley and she nodded and she mouthed to me, “That-kisses-my-Kowbell,” and I shook my head and grinned.
It was a three day course if you can believe that. Three whole days of exercises, lessons and riding to see if you can last more than eight seconds on the bull. Eight seconds.
They started with the rules.
Rule One is “it’s not if you get hurt, it’s when and how bad.”
Rule Two is “bull riders ride with one hand and cannot touch themselves or their bull with the free hand. Doing so results in a no score.”
Rule Three is “scoring is the same as in the other roughstock events. Two judges give one to twenty-five points for the cowboy’s performance and one to twenty-five points for the animal’s performance. 100 points being the maximum, and is considered a perfect ride.”
I found out that they considered the bull to be like a rival athlete, with respect and admiration. I liked that.
To ride, bull riders use a bullrope and rosin. The bullrope is a thickly braided rope with a cowbell attached. The cowbell acts as a weight, allowing the rope to safely fall off the bull when the ride is over. The rosin is a sticky substance that increases the grip on their ropes. Bull riders wrap their bullrope around the bull and use the remainder to wrap around their hand tightly, trying to secure themselves to the bull.
Cowboys can spur for extra points, but just staying on the bull for eight seconds is the main priority. After the ride, bull riders are aided by “bullfighters” or rodeo clowns who distract the bull, allowing the cowboys to escape safely. A good score in the bull riding is in the 90’s.
There has been one perfect score of 100 in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), a ride by Wade Leslie, October 26, 1991.
Mr. Terry Don West told us all, “Bull Riding requires balance, flexibility, coordination, and courage. Facing down a two-thousand pound bull takes as much mental preparation as it does physical ability.”
The first day, we were reviewing videos of professional riders and practicing techniques on a stability ball and on a stationary bucking dummy. They told us that we were developing “muscle memory” because there’d be no time to think on a bull.
The second day we were practice bull riding on steers.
Mexican bred cattle are not genetically bred to have unnatural athletic ability but they will jump and kick while moving forward. This forward movement along with lack of power from the steers gives the beginner and or youth whose physical stature has not yet developed a chance to experience the ride rather than the train wreck.
I could keep pressure on from both legs all the way to my feet to hold me in front of the steer’s shoulders. But I was a little worried. My upper body wasn’t real strong. I was a runner.
Hayley made it look easy and she got a little impatient real quick. She was glad when we started on the bulls in the afternoon. Haley had really good upper body strength. She was a swimmer.
It was painfully obvious to all the hot shot guys that Haley was the best rider. She even stopped wearing her helmet with the face-guard.
Haley said, “It’s like wearing a diving mask while you’re swimming laps!”
When it was my turn on my first bull my forehead started sweating. I balanced myself on the chute and lowered myself slowly onto the bull. The assistants guided me. They were telling me how to position my legs and how to adjust the rope.
All of a sudden the bull farted and crapped all over the chute. That hot smell hit me just as they opened the chute. I hung on and I twisted opposite when the bull turned into my rope hand and then turned away from my rope hand. A glob of snot came out the bull’s nose and it hit me in the face. I got fatigued in my gut fast from all the fast twisting. He bucked me off. Luckily I didn’t land hard on my back but I got up and ran back to the chute real fast.
My friends Travis and Flip were there to watch me. They were laughing and chanting, “Buck Buck, buck Buck, buck Buck,” like a chicken.
They were no help.
Hayley said, “Don’t you listen to them.”
Mr. Terry Don West smiled and said, “At least you got speed, kid.”
But Hayley got better and better right before our eyes. There was a handful of us who you could just tell were going to be real good.
I got worse and worse. I got tired in my gut.
Mr. Terry Don West saw I was feeling down about it all and he told me, “Kid, you got speed. You can still participate in Bull Riding if you really want. Ever think about being a Rodeo Clown?”
I came along here to impress Hayley and now this? Thank you, Jesus. Thanks a lot.
Mr. Terry Don West said, “I mean it, kid. The Rodeo Clown is important out there. He keeps the riders from getting hurt.”
Hayley said, “Please. It’ll be fun, Buck. Don’t give up. Don’t go.”
I supposed then that since Hayley was the real reason I was there it didn’t matter that I wasn’t going to be a Bull Rider. At least I’d be in the show with her. It was all I had.
The “show” was going to be the annual High School Rodeo.
So Mr. Terry Don West had me work with one of his trainer assistants who was also a Rodeo Clown, name of Mr. Cody Petersen, Jr.
Mr. Cody Petersen said to me, “Call me Cody, kid. You keep makin’ me turn around to look for my father.”
It may look like fun and games to the people in the stands, but this is serious business, and not just any clown can do it.
The real work – cowboy protection – begins the minute a Bull Rider enters the ring, hanging on for dear life. And this part requires nerves of steel, lightning reflexes, and a selfless devotion to someone else’s well-being. It falls to the Rodeo Clown to distract the angry bull from its toppled rider so the cowboy can get to his feet and make it to the safety of a fence.
So me and Cody played Rodeo Clown for everyone else who was Bull Riding. I hate to admit but it did suit me. It was a lot of fast running to distract a bull. Sometimes they came right at me and I had to push off on their heads to keep away, but speed was the key. And I didn’t get tired.
Cody was good at making fun of the Bull Riders and the audience and joking with them. That talent I didn’t have so much. I don’t say much, ever. But I was fast and my legs did not get tired, even if I wasn’t getting the en-dolphins. It was mainly cold adrenaline.
Hayley’s father had donated a young bull for the annual High School Rodeo. Sidewinder. Sidewinder got his name because of the way he would jump and twist when he was a calf frisking.
Sidewinder was yellow the color of gold. And he had a golden blond tuft of hair on his head. He was a handsome critter I’ll say.
Hayley said, “My dad calls Sidewinder ‘the Golden Calf’ but my mom says that’s bad luck. For everyone.”
Turned out that Hayley had so impressed Mr. Terry Don West that she talked him into letting her ride Sidewinder the third afternoon of the class. Everyone wanted to watch. Even Gavin showed up. I’m pretty sure he was enjoying me out in the ring as a Rodeo Clown dressed in the silly clothes that Cody gave me.
But I kept my eyes on Hayley as she settled onto Sidewinder in the chute.
The chute opened.
Sidewinder danced out in dust and glory. It was an awesome sight to me, Haley with her cornflower hair and Sidewinder so gold and handsome. Hayley had her free hand flung high as Sidewinder reared and then he turned to the left, again, again, but then he did what you don’t usually see: he reversed direction turning to the right, to the right, and then he jumped and twisted. It was just beautiful, like a dance, and everyone Ooed and applauded.
I was dancing side to side myself, close by, keeping in a position to help if I had to. I really felt like part of the dance and then I got the en-dolphins.
That was just when that wily Sidewinder lived up to his namesake.
Sidewinder lowered his head and he bucked forward and he suddenly stopped. Hayley slid forward, her head was down. Sidewinder then snapped his head back and caught Hayley square in the face.
Hayley was knocked out!
Hayley tumbled off of Sidewinder but her hand caught in the loop of the grip. She was flopping against his side like a rag doll. Sidewinder danced and thrashed to throw her off, harder and harder because he couldn’t. I heard people screaming.
Sidewinder was going to tear her arm off!
I hollered, “No!”
I ran at Sidewinder and I jumped at Hayley. I landed against her and I embraced her and I put both of my arms through the rope behind her against Sidewinder’s side. I held myself tight against her. I stopped her from flopping. The both of us weighed Sidewinder down but Sidewinder just jumped and bucked more frantically.
Then Sidewinder flung his hind legs in the air and I remember that I was looking at the sky and Sidewinder was almost standing on his head and then he must have twisted his head around and caught me in the back of my head.
I saw galaxies and then I remember crying into the never-ending black, “Hayley, I love you!”
I came to my senses in a hospital bed. A doctor was there in my room typing something into a computer on a cart. My head felt heavy. I reached up slowly and touched my bandages. It must have been my medication but I didn’t know why I was there and I wasn’t concerned. Then I suddenly remembered that Haley had been in danger and I felt a cold shot of adrenaline. I cried out, afraid, “Doctor! Hayley?!”
The doctor came over to my bedside. I saw on his nametag that it was Dr. Hawke, Gavin’s father, and he said, “Take it easy, now. Haley is going to be fine.”
What seemed like just then, Haley entered the doorway. Her right arm was bandaged. Her eyes were sunken into a mask of black and blue.
Haley asked, “Buck, what is it?”
It must have been my medication because out of relief I joked, “You’re wearing way too much eye makeup, Haley.”
Hayley started to laugh but then she winced and she said, “Ow,” and then she said gently, “Fuck you, Buck.”
Dr. Hawke returned to his computer.
Haley came to my side and she sat upon my bed. I faced her and it must have been my medication because I just said, “I love you, Haley.”
Hayley said, “I know,” then she put her good arm around me and she said softly, “I love you, too,” and then she leaned and kissed me on the lips.
I said, “That sure kisses my Kowbell.”
Haley grinned and she laid her head against mine but we both said, “Ow,” and we both suppressed a laugh.
I noticed Dr. Hawke had stopped typing and he was looking at us. But I didn’t care about anything.
I should have died right then.
Next thing I knew Gavin had walked in and come to a halt, taking us in. He said finally to Hayley, “Your father is looking for you in your room.”
Hayley got up and when she passed Gavin she took his hand and squeezed it and then she released it and she shuffled out into the hallway.
Gavin stared at me a minute and then he said to me, sincerely, “Thank you, Buck,” and then he turned and followed Hayley out into the hallway.
It must have been my medication because my vision became blurry and I could feel my cheeks becoming wet and hot.
I heard Dr. Hawke ask me, “Buck, do you want more pain killer?”
I heard myself whisper, “There isn’t enough.”
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