The following is from my book, “Used to Want to Be a Cowboy.”
Kowbell Rodeo was the only year-round, indoor rodeo in the state. Whether Christmas, Easter, or Super Bowl Sunday, the rodeo went on. By the time I was a senior in high school, I headed over from Joshua to ride bulls every time I could figure out a way to afford it.
The entry fee for the Saturday night bull riding was $40, and $30 of that went into the jackpot. Anyone who signed a waiver and paid $10 could try their luck on a bucking bull during the Wednesday or Friday practice sessions, but Saturday was the big rodeo night.
Nearly every televised PBR (Professional Bull Riders) event had bulls that were bucked at Kowbell Rodeo. The guys riding in the PBR were competing for thousands of dollars. Even when there were 20 or 30 bull riders at Kowbell, first place didn’t pay much, especially considering the bulls that we had to ride. The winner there was lucky to get a few hundred.
Sunday night was the “poor boy rodeo,” and $20 was the price to compete. These bulls were a notch under the Saturday stock but still dangerous. A cowboy could draw a solid, seasoned rodeo bull, or he could draw a wild bull fresh out of the pasture. The Poor Boy Rodeo drew a lot of bull riders. The event often lasted for hours.
Bill Hogg opened Kowbell rodeo in 1958, and Jack Ratjen had operated it ever since. When I met Jack, though he was only in his 60s, I thought he must have been 80—his clothes looked that old, too. He usually had a lit pipe or cigar in his hand and tobacco in his cheek. I never saw him spit. He was perpetually grouchy, or at least acted that way. Sometimes, he gave a quick grin or wink to show he wasn’t as irritable as he pretended.
Kowbell was a training ground for bull riders. Donnie Gay, the eight-time professional world champion, began his career there in the ’70s. Jason Bennett, a young star on the Professional Bull Riders tour, also started there. When I met Jason, he was 12 years old and already winning.
One Friday, a bunch of us fellows were standing in the locker room at school, and Travis Beasley asked if he could go with me to the Kowbell Rodeo. He still had the reputation of being tough and having a smart mouth, and I still didn’t much like him.
“No,” I said. With his short, spiky, blond hair and tennis shoes, he didn’t look like a bull rider. But then, neither did I.
“Come on,” he said. “Take me with you, and I’ll show you boys how to ride bulls.”
“No,” I said. “I don’t have room.” “Come on! Take me.”
Later, at home, the phone rang. It was Travis. “Please let me go,” he said. “I’ll ride in the back.”
What could I say? “All right, you can ride in the back. Be waiting outside at six.”
“I’ll be ready.”
Early that evening, when I pulled up to Travis’s house on Gregory Street, he was waiting outside wearing a pair of scuffed, lace-up ropers and an old straw Bangora with a funny red hatband. It was late in the fall and the nights were cold, but Travis rode the 25 miles to Mansfield in the back of my pickup. I glanced out the back window a few times and saw him huddled up against the cab. I almost felt sorry for him.
At Kowbell, standing in the concrete bleachers next to a kerosene heater that looked like World War I surplus, Travis made a deal. “If I stay on my bull, I’m riding in the front on the way home.”
“Sure,” I said. “If you stay on your bull, you can ride in the front.”
We passed the evening behind the bucking chutes, talking about the bulls, the rides, and the wrecks.
Billy Ford, the chute boss, patiently answered our questions while he worked. Billy was a soft-spoken black man who had worked at Kowbell since its opening. Both his appearance and personality reminded me of Deets from Lonesome Dove. If someone ever makes a movie about Kowbell, Danny Glover would play Billy. Billy knew every bull, their names and routines, and talked to them while he loaded them in the chutes and put their flank ropes on. “Get on up there now, Scatterbrains,” he’d say. “Quit actin’ like a fool.” Cowboys, especially the young ones, could always count on a word of encouragement from Billy as they climbed on their bulls.
“Did you ever ride bulls, Billy?” I asked him one time.
“Some, when I was young and didn’t have no better sense,” he said with a wink.
Travis’s bull was loaded and ready in chute 3. It was a small, red bull with a turned-down horn. Billy said that he bucked “pretty good.” He was too much, I thought, for a kid who had never ridden before, but it would do Travis good to get thrown to the dirt.
All of the boys at Kowbell were eager to be experts. A newcomer like Travis gave them the chance. As he slid down onto his bull, he was flooded with advice:
“Lift on your rope, Travis.”
“Keep your chin tucked and chest out, Travis.” “Hit the ground running, Travis.”
Despite the confusion from all of the different and conflicting advice, Travis managed to get ready. “Let’s go,” he said to the boys working the gate latch.
The gate flung open.
I was ready to see Travis drilled into the ground. When the bull jumped into a spin and didn’t shake him, I lost hope.
Around and around they went, Travis sitting firmly in place.
The buzzer sounded. I couldn’t believe it. For the final insult, Travis jumped off the bull and landed on his feet.
“That boy’s a natural,” Billy said.
Travis didn’t hit the ground running, either. Instead, he hit the ground grinning. He pointed at me with both hands and yelled, “I’m riding in the front!”