Sunday, February 19, 2012

Rodeo Clown

Is there any time in your life quite as unique and blissful as that period between high school graduation and the realization that you might have to actually find a job? It’s the endless summer, a garden of Eden, a carefree lifestyle filled with sunshine and fun that you hope will last forever.

It was just such a scenario for yours truly, way back in the summer of ’58, when an aunt an uncle arrived in Oklahoma for a visit with my parents. Tommy and Cora had a farm in southwest Missouri, but their real love was for the rodeo. No, Tommy didn’t ride bucking broncos and Cora didn’t do the barrel races; it was their children, Bill and Joanne, and their trick riding act that brought smiles to their faces. My cousins were about the same age as I, Bill one year younger, and Joanne a little older. They’d been doing their act at rodeos across the country for several summers and were quite good at it with contracts extending into the next season.

I can’t exactly remember how the subject came up while we were all sitting around the dinner table that evening, but uncle Tommy casually made the suggestion that I accompany their family and the act for an upcoming string of rodeo appearances. He explained the itinerary; they would be going north, up though Nebraska, South Dakota, and Minnesota before heading southward for the next show at Wichita, Kansas where we would meet up with my folks and that would be the end of the tour for me.

I thought it the most exciting idea I’d heard in a long time. My dad was more than willing to get me out of the house, but mom was concerened (as mothers always are.)  More talk eased her fears. The great adventure had begun.

Now I had lived on a farm until I was twelve years old and knew one end of a horse from the other. I even had my own pony for Pete’s sake. But that limited experience qualified me for the job I assumed on the road, feeding the horses, cleaning out the stalls and horse trailers, as well as being the all around go-fer.

It was fun, exciting even, a sort of showbiz atmosphere with big crowds and dozens of cowboys riding huge bulls, bucking horses, and roping calves. I loved watching my cousins perform, bounding on and off their horses, twisting and spinning, all at full gallop. Joanne did a trick called the Death Drag where she hung backwards off the saddle with her head only inches from thundering hooves. Bill’s specialty was a Roman Ride, two horses, one foot on the back of each, while he raced around the arena. The people loved it, showering them with enthusiastic applause at the end of their act.

But it was the Wichita show, the single rodeo that will stay in my memory as long as I have a memory. Somewhere between Minnesota and Kansas, uncle Tommy came up with an idea, a new twist for the act. At the end of the trick riding, Joanne would emerge out the top of a round platform shaped and decorated like an Indian tom-tom. Like many young girls of that era, my female cousin had taken lessons in dance, ballet I think, and would showcase her abilities while dressed in a white Indian princess outfit of leather and colored beads. The idea was that Joanne would represent the final vision of a wounded and dying Indian warrior played by cousin Bill. At the conclusion of the dance, the warrior was to fall off his horse, graveyard dead, with a fading spotlight representing his spirit on its way to the Happy Hunting Ground (people were more easily amused in those days). There was one final detail. Tommy wanted someone to hold the fallen warrior’s horse as smoke bombs (ignited by my someone hidden inside the drum) erupted, signifying the end of the act. That someone, as it turned out, would be me. Tommy insisted that I also wear Indian regalia in keeping with the theme of the act. Now, picture a skinny (135 lb) white kid, without so much as a summer tan, wearing a loin cloth and moccasins, standing in the middle of a crowded rodeo arena, under a spotlight, trying to pass as an Indian. Yeah, that’s what I thought. Ridiculous. It got worse.

Some local carpenters made the drum and we did a quick rehearsal the morning of the show with only minor problems. It was simple enough. What could possibly go wrong?

That night, all was going well. The trick riding went off without a hitch or a fall. The arena went dark for a minute while rodeo cowboys carried the so called drum to center stage. Joanne did her dance…beautiful. Bill was nearby, astride his horse, head down. The horse with its back bowed and hooves together, hit the stance seen in the familiar western sculpture, End of the Trail, by James Earle Fraser ( the same guy that designed the buffalo/Indian head nickel.)

The Indian princess finishes her dance, the mortally wounded warrior falls to the ground, the geeky white kid holds the reins. That’s when the smoke bombs went off. I don’t know if the horse had missed that part of the rehearsal, but it acted as if a volcano had suddenly erupted under his belly. The horse reared, and much to the delight of the crowd, jerked the skinny white boy completely off his feet. It hopped. It spun. It pulled against the reins.  Thank God, I was able to hold on to the beast and avoided being drug halfway across Wichita. It was the end of my rodeo career.

Oh, did I mention that while in Kansas, I got to meet Jay Silverheels, the guy that played Tonto in the Lone Ranger show? If Mr. Silverheels had witnessed my embarrassment the previous evening, he had the decency and class to not bring it up. I always did like Tonto.


  1. good story,
    I like hearing the ones I didn't know about

  2. Dad, how come I never heard this story??? I have a vague memory from childhood of being in a small travel trailer with a man and woman (who I assumed were husband and wife) who were dressed in western outfits, rinestones and fringe. And there are horses in the memory too, just don't know where they fit in. Did we meet them somewhere? There were lots of little travel trailers around theirs. I remember thinking their outfits were quite awesome, although that wasn't the vocabulary I had at the time.


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