It’s a hot, dry August evening on the Oklahoma panhandle. The sun is going down and the crickets have begun to sing. There’s no breeze at all tonight, nothing to ease the blistering heat.
I am twenty-three years old. I finished four years of college before I realized that a banker’s life was not for me. Right after graduation, I joined the PRCA, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, and haven’t looked back since. I’ve traveled across the country riding bulls… big, mean, strong bulls. But through it all, what I’ve really wanted is a different kind of rodeo job. Tonight I’m going to make my dreams a reality I’ll be one of two clowns at a local rodeo. Unlike circus clowns, rodeo clowns have a dangerous job. We’re not just there to make the crowd laugh. During the bull riding, we become bullfighters, distracting the bulls to help keep the riders safe.
I slip into my costume. I pull on overalls that have had the legs cut out so they resemble a skirt. I need to be able to move freely and turn fast. I pull on tights underneath to cover my legs. They are bright and colorful to attract the bulls’ attention. I’ll wear a cowboy hat but that goes on later. I begin to paint my face. It takes longer than anything else. As I am finishing up my makeup, I look into the mirror. I see my mother enter the room behind me.
Her lips tremble and her tense white fists are pressed together. Her face is pale and ghost-like. Her eyes plead with me. “Matthew,” she says, “please listen to me. Don’t do this, honey I love you too much to see you put yourself in so much danger.”
“But Mom,” I tell her, “I don’t really have a choice. This job chose me, remember?” The look in her eyes tells me that she remembers all too well. I walk across the room and wrap my arms around her. I tell her that I am listening to her. That I really do understand her concerns. Then I tell her again that I really must do this. Not only for myself, but for Charlie too.
Just then, my father limps through the door to join us. Dad used to fight bulls. He’ll understand. He smiles at me. Then he puts one hand on my shoulder and says, “All right, Matthew… ready to go?”
“Yeah, Pop,” I tell him. I turn once more to my frightened mother and say, “All right, Mom, we’re going now. Wish me luck.” She pulls me close. She hugs me hard. She starts to cry I tell her once again not to worry.
“Please be careful,” she says. I’m not sure if she’s crying for Charlie or for me. But then, I don’t guess it really matters. I tell Dad that he can drive. We climb up into our rickety old Ford pickup. It is so badly rusted that its original color cannot be determined. My father bought it brand new in 1950. He says that it was black then, but you couldn’t tell that by looking at it today.
It only takes ten minutes to drive to the local rodeo grounds. When we arrive, almost every seat is filled. The rodeo began over an hour ago, but bull riding is always the last event of the night. The bulls wait impatiently in small pens behind an iron gate. There are Brahmas and Brahma crosses, Charolais, and scrappy Mexican fighting bulls. Their breed doesn’t matter. All that matters is that they buck. There is only one given in bull riding. Those bulls will try to kick, trample and crush anything that’s in their way, including me. I slide out of the truck and turn to my dad. “Now remember,” he says “I’ll be back to pick you up at ten o’clock. I’m going home so that I can be with your mother. If you need anything, call the house. Knock ’em dead, cowboy” he says to me, and then he is gone.
I spot my partner for tonight, another clown named Slim, and go to say hello. Along the way I pass cowboys who all greet me happily. Most don’t know my name but they’re glad to see me anyway. One look at my clothes tells them that I am a bullfighter. I will risk my life to grant them a few seconds of safety They know that I will at least give them the chance to get up off the ground and run to the fence, avoiding danger.
In the chutes, they’re getting the first bulls ready. A bull rope is slung around each bull’s belly, and is snugged up right behind their front legs. One end of the rope is called the tail. It gets passed through a loop on the other end of the rope and then the rope is tightened. The cowboys then wrap the remainder of the tail around their hands to secure their grip. A sticky substance called rosin is applied to the tail to keep it from slipping. If you listen hard, you can hear the occasional clanging of cowbells as the bulls mill around in the chute. The bells are hung on the bull rope for weight. When a cowboy lets go of the rope, this weight will cause the rope to fall harmlessly to the ground, so that no one has to remove it from an angry bull. Later, when the bulls are turned loose and are bucking wildly, you can hear the cowbells easily. Of course, by then everyone is too distracted to even notice it.
The sun has gone down completely now as I walk out into the dusty arena. The first bull rider is preparing to climb aboard his bull. I secure my position, not too far away from the chute but not so close that I’ll be in the way when it opens. I balance lightly on both feet, hands on my knees, ready to move fast in any direction. The lights glare above me. I am sweating but I can’t tell if it’s from the hot lights, the warm night, or the fear of knowing that in just a few seconds, a raging bull will be coming my way.
Suddenly, the gate swings open and out comes the first bull, bucking and angry. He would like nothing better than to kill the man on his back. The bull comes straight toward me, jumping and spinning. For a moment I am frozen in place. Everything seems to be moving in slow motion and all sounds are muffled. And then, all at once, I snap back to reality. I jump to the side just as the bull plunges by. I dodge and weave, staying close enough to the bull so that I can help the rider if he gets in trouble, but far enough away that the bull can’t easily gore me. Just how long can eight seconds last? It seems as though I’ve been evading this bull forever.
Finally, the buzzer sounds. The good news is that this cowboy’s time is up. Freeing his hand from the bull rope, the rider jumps off and that’s my cue. As the bull turns to chase the cowboy, I jump between him and his intended prey. My brightly colored costume catches his eye and encourages him to come after me instead. I let the bull chase me, taunting him all the way, until I’m sure that the cowboy has gotten to the fence and out of harm’s way. Then I change my position and run right past the bull’s nose. He bellows in fury but can’t change his own trajectory quickly enough. By the time he manages to change direction to come after me, I’ve put a good ten yards between us. Of course, for such a big animal with such a long stride, ten yards is nothing. I make it to the fence right before he does. As I jump up on the top rail, the bull slams into the fence. The fence shudders and so do I.
Suddenly I realize something. Slim is still in the arena. Caught up in what was going on, I never even noticed. Now that I am safe, however, I turn to see the bull charging my partner. He is far enough out toward the center of the arena that he doesn’t have a chance of making it to the fence. I have to help him. I leap off the fence and sprint toward the bull for the second time. He wasn’t very happy with me the first time, so I’m guessing he’ll be even angrier now. The bull is closing in on Slim as I come up behind him. Grabbing the hat off of my head, I use it to smack him on the hindquarters. He slides to a stop and turns toward me, hatred in his eyes. Breathing heavily, he stands perfectly still and doesn’t move. I dance forward, slap him again, and once more jump out of the way. He swings his heavy head, bellowing loudly, and begins to chase me. But now the fence is too far away for me to get to it as well. There’s only one thing left to do.
The clown barrel is sitting in the middle of the arena. It’s been called an island of safety by those in the rodeo business. I’m about to find out just how safe it really is. I run toward it and vault inside. I barely have time to curl into a ball and grab the handholds before the bull is upon me. Barn! Two new dents from the bull’s mighty horns appear in the barrel right in front of my face. Then my barrel is spinning madly through the air. When it hits the ground again, it bounces several times before rolling across the arena. When it finally stops moving I’m dizzy and a little sick to my stomach.
As soon as my ears stop ringing, I shoot out of the barrel and make a mad dash to the fence. I grab the rails and climb for all I’m worth, not even daring to look behind me. I don’t even notice when I reach the top of the fence. I attempt to keep climbing and fall over the top and onto the other side. I land on my back and look up at the stars. I hear the crowd. Half of the people are cheering, the other half are laughing. The laughing ones must think that this was all just a part of my act.
Two faces appear above me… Slim and the rodeo manager. “Thanks, Matthew,” Slim tells me, “I reckon you saved my life.”
“Any time,” I say, panting. They get me up off the ground and help me back up onto the fence. Two men on horseback help to herd the bull out through the gate. The arena is clear once again. Slim and I climb down off the fence. The next bull to go is fighting so hard in the chute that his rider can’t safely get on him. Tension in the air is thick. It’s time for a little comic relief.
I walk out to where the crowd can see me and to where I can interact with the announcer. At the top of my lungs I yell to the announcer, “What do you call a cow that don’t give no milk?”
The announcer sits and ponders this for a moment. Then he says over the microphone, “I don’t know. What do you call a cow that doesn’t give any milk?”
I cup my hands around my mouth and yell, “A milk dud!” The crowd chuckles, but that’s not enough for me. I want more of a response. I look over toward the chutes. The cowboy is still not on that bull. Now the bull is lying down and three cowboys are trying to get him back on his feet. I have a little extra time. I call to the announcer again. “Where is every cow’s dream home?” I ask. He once again repeats the question back to me over the microphone so that the audience can hear. The answer, of course, is “Moo York.” The crowd laughs out loud. I look toward the chutes again. It looks like there’s time for one last joke. “What do you call a cow that’s just had a calf?” I ask. Once again the announcer appears stumped. As I yell out, “Decaffeinated!” the audience roars with laughter. The tension is broken, and just in time too.
Now the bull is up and the rider is on him. I head back toward the chutes. I need to be ready when this bull comes out. After all, this bull, Bullet, is the reason I am here tonight. The gate swings open. Bullet doesn’t move. He stands there, his eyes glaring, his sides heaving. I dance in front of him, hoping he’ll charge out. He still doesn’t move. Dancing in closer, I take off my hat and slap him across the muzzle, then dance back out of the way. When I was a kid watching Saturday morning cartoons, an enraged bull would narrow his eyes while steam poured from his nose. As I look at Bullet, I think I know where the animators got their ideas. Bullet suddenly explodes out of the chute, plunging straight toward me before he remembers the man on his back. In midair he begins to buck and twist and kick, trying to unseat his rider. I have never seen a more powerful bull in my life.
It happens so quickly that I don’t even see it coming. One second the rider is on the bull, and the next he’s been bucked off. I spot the danger immediately, the cowboy is hung up. His hand is caught, the bull rope still wrapped tightly around his clenched fist. The bull continues to buck, the man bouncing against his left side like a rag doll. I have to do something. Running up on the bull’s right, I leap up and reach across to the man on the other side. Grabbing his arm with one of my hands, I use my other hand to untangle the rope. Suddenly the rope is loose, and the cowboy’s hand is free. I let go of his arm and he lands on his feet. He runs toward the fence and climbs to safety. Slim and I are right behind him. For today at least, Bullet has lost.
By the time my dad comes to pick me up, the rodeo is over. A few people are still around, tending to the stock, but the arena lights are off and the crowds have all gone home. I’m tired but satisfied. “How did it go?” Dad asks.
“Pretty well,” I tell him, “especially for my first time.”
“Let’s go home,” he says. “You must be tired.” As we walk to the truck, I ask him if we can stop and visit Charlie on the way home. “Sure,” he says, “I’ve been wanting to see him too.”
The cemetery is dark when we arrive but I’ve been here so often I have no trouble finding my way. I stop at a grave marked Charles Prue, 1984-2005. Bullet killed Charlie a year ago today, and there’s been an empty space in our hearts ever since. “Hi Charlie,” I mutter. “Whadda ya think? I kept Bullet from claiming another life today. I figure that if I work enough rodeos and do my job well, you won’t have many other bull riders to keep you company up there.”
Dad comes up behind me. “I miss him too,” he says, “we all do. He would have been real proud of you tonight.” We stand together in silence for a few minutes before heading back to the truck. And as we drive away, I’m already thinking about my next bull.