As the cowboys in the chute helped strap me onto the bull’s back, I had a couple of flashbacks serving to remind me that what I was about to do was a bad, bad idea.
The first flashback took me back to my childhood in Tennessee. Our neighbor owned a very large, very cranky mule. Nearly every day my brothers, friends and I would walk past the pasture where the mule resided. We played baseball in a field nearby, and often one of us would hit a ball into the mule’s territory. We left the ball there. None of us wanted to get mule-stomped over a baseball.
Then came the day when, as we walked past, someone dared me to ride that ornery mule. Boys that age — around 10 or 11 years old — aren’t real bright, meaning we don’t know when to back away from a dare. We’re more concerned with having someone consider us chicken than we are about potential bodily harm.
I took the dare. Climbed through the barbed-wired fence, approached the mule — which stood grazing peacefully, with nary a glint of danger in his eyes — and proceeded to climb aboard.
Danged if that mule didn’t let me.
I raised my arms and whooped in triumph. Right about then, the mule began bucking. I went flying, eventually landing in a twisted heap. I still don’t know how I didn’t end up mangled.
Not until later did I find out why the mule bucked. Someone — I still think it was my little brother — decided that a docile mule was no challenge worthy of the original dare, so he pulled out a slingshot and shot that poor mule right in his mule berries. Thus, the wild bucking. Thus, my failure to defeat gravity.
There was hint No. 1 for this wanna-be cowboy to stick to walking.
Hint No. 2 came years later. While stationed at the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, Arizona, I spent a lot of time exploring the area. One weekend, I found a real horse ranch. Looked like something straight out of a John Wayne movie. I met the owner, who was a veteran who’d retired from the military years before. We struck a conversation, and he showed me around his place.
Nice guy. He showed me a bronc he’d been trying to tame. A beautiful animal, and one he hoped to make his main source of transportation once he got it “saddle broken.”
Then he dared me to give it a shot. He explained that he was getting too old to deal with those younger horses, and maybe I’d be able to hang on long enough for the critter to accept a rider.
Had he asked me, I’d have declined politely. He didn’t ask. He dared me.
Young men that age — around 24 or 25 years old — aren’t real bright, meaning we don’t know when to back away from a dare. We’re more concerned with having someone consider us chicken than we are about potential bodily harm. (Ever heard that before?)
I did it … sort of. The man helped me climb into the saddle and let me go.
That beautiful horse was a devil in disguise. It threw me off in no time flat, then came around looking for the chance to stomp me for good measure. The old rancher managed to lasso the beast and get him away long enough for me to crawl away. Neither my pride nor my hide was intact.
Two great examples of why I’m a bull writer and not a bull rider. Should have been more than enough to teach me a lesson.
But noooo, lessons are for smart folks. Clearly, I’m not one of them.
Fast forward to the year 1990, which is when I found myself astride a bull in Mauriceville, Texas. I was a Marine recruiter in Orange for a couple of years. I spent a couple of nights each week working out with the young people who enlisted through me. We’d hit the weight rooms, or go running or whatever else I could do to prepare them for boot camp.
I had a couple of young cowboys in my ranks. They asked me to come watch them at a local rodeo. I agreed, thinking I’d just be there for support.
Nope. I sat in the bleachers as they showed off their skills. Then the P.A. announcer told people there was a guest rider there that night. I thought, “Cool.”
Then he announced my Marine Corps name: “Staff Sergeant Gary Stallard will be riding tonight.”
That would be me. I thought, “Oh, crap.”
Those maggots had signed me up without telling me. The smart thing would have been to laugh and shake my head to decline the offer. But men that age — face it, any age — aren’t real bright, meaning we don’t know when to back away from a dare. We’re more concerned with having someone consider us chicken than we are about potential bodily harm. (This here record is starting to skip.) Besides, I’d worn my old Marine Corps baseball jersey with “Marines” emblazoned across the front. I’d shame my beloved Corps if I ran away from such a challenge.
So there I was, sitting astride a couple thousand pounds of ticked-off Big Mac named “Gut Buster.” Seriously. His name was “Gut Buster.” I asked if they didn’t have a “Fluffy” back in the stable, but … no. Gut Buster was one big hunk of beef; my legs spread all the way across his shoulders, and my whole body vibrated as he shook in anger beneath me.
The guys had me trade my tennis shoes for someone else’s boots, then they strapped some spurs on ’em. Some clown had scratched “RGOT” in the metal on the chute. I asked what it stood for; a guy laughed and said, “Rider Goes on Top.”
Thanks for the reminder.
I pulled on the gloves and watched as a guy tied my hand to the pommel. I asked him if he had any tips for a first-time bull rider on the verge of violent death.
“Yeah. Just hang on.”
Oh. Sounds easy.
The last thing they told me was to rake the bull with my spurs as soon as they opened the gate. Are you freaking kidding me? Spur him? He’s got a stranger sitting on his back, he’s got guys about to yank a cinch up between his bull berries, and you want me to spur him? Right now, I’m the only one he’s not mad at. Spur him?
Before I had time to lodge my protest, the gate opened, and I began my ascent into infamy.
There’s a picture of me riding Gut Buster that night. There’s only one photo, mostly because I wasn’t on long enough for a second pic. I heard I made it nearly six seconds, but I promise you, five and a half of that was because they’d tied my hand down.
And when Gut Buster launched me, he did it up right.
I helicoptered through the air before landing flat on my back. Imagine just standing up and falling backward; imagine how much that would knock the breath from you.
I fell from a distance, so every breath I’d accumulated in my 20-something years at that point left my body. In fact, I don’t think I breathed again for a week. I could see massive hooves stomping the dirt near my head; I could hear guys yelling at me to get up and get out of the ring before the bull stomped me.
Let him stomp me. Leave me here to die. Dying sounds good right about now.
Thus ended my brief career as a bull rider and my ultimate decision to become a bull writer. I have yet to fall out of my chair while typing a story. Not once has my desk tried stomping me as I worked.
I share all this because April is a big month in Lufkin. The Angelina County Benefit Rodeo takes place at the Expo Center. I’ve attended several times, and it’s one of the most exciting events anyone could ever hope to see. Bronc and bull riding, steer wrestling, barrel racing — plenty of events featuring people who understand “RGOT.” They’re amazing and worth the price of a ticket.
They will, as always, have my utmost respect and appreciation for what they make look so easy. They don’t lie there like a flattened carcass when they get bucked off. They bounce up and get ready for the next ride. They do this all the time.
I’d tell them to be proud of what they do.
And then I’d offer a gentle reminder — based on personal experiences — that pride usually leads to a fall. A very violent and painful one.
That, friends, is no bull.