adventure, bull-riding, cowboys, Memoir, rodeo, Texas

First Ride at Kowbell Rodeo

One evening, while stocking the ketchup aisle at the local grocery store, the boys and I were talking about rodeos, a subject that had been on my mind for months. Earlier that year, in the locker room at school, I overheard some guys talking about a boy who had won a buckle riding a bull.

That’s what I want to do, I thought. What could be cooler than winning a buckle in a rodeo?

Bucking horses appealed to me more than bucking bulls, but I knew that it took more money to buy a bronc saddle than it did a bull rope. Anyone could get on a bull—cowboy or city boy, rich or poor—so that’s what I was going to have to settle for.

“I’m going to ride a bull,” I said that night at the store, “Or a bronc. I want to anyway. I’d do it if I had the chance.”

“I would, too,” said Chris, making us all laugh. As scared as he was of his mother and girlfriend, we couldn’t imagine him getting near a bull.

“Yeah, right,” I said.

Neither of us believed that we would really get on a bull, and neither of us believed that the other one would, either. Still, for several weeks we talked about it.

One day in the school locker room, Wayne Rodgers, the star of the rodeo team, was showing off pictures of his recent bull rides in high school rodeos.

“I want to do that,” I said. “I wanna ride a bull.” He laughed.

“Really, I’m serious,” I said, knowing that I liked the idea but not knowing if I had the nerve to do it.

“You need to go to Kowbell,” he said. “Talk to Jack. Tell him you want to get on a bull, an easy one, so you don’t get hurt.”

That Friday, unsure about how far we were going to go with our bull-riding scheme, Chris and I drove up Highway 1187 to Mansfield. About a mile south of 1187, across the street from Whataburger, was an old, dome-shaped building. Painted across the top front above the doorway was a rodeo mural showing bulls, bucking horses, and ropers. Old pickup trucks with bumper stickers that said “Chris Ledoux for President,” “God Bless John Wayne,” and “Football’s for Sissies” lined the dirt parking lot.

Inside, under lights that shined dimly where they still worked at all, were pool tables, a couple of old video games that looked out-of-place, and a concession stand. Tough-acting boys wearing cowboy hats and spurs and giggling junior high girls stood in groups pretending to ignore each other. Across from the concession stand were windows displaying pictures of the Madison Square Garden Rodeo and old cowboys on horses. Buckles and other relics that belonged in a Western museum lined dusty shelves along the windows. Years of tobacco spit and clumps of manure stained the concrete floors.

The spectator’s bleachers were also concrete. Brown, movie theatre-type folding chairs and rusted kerosene heaters were sitting on them. The kerosene and cattle filled the air with a unique smell that I can only describe as “Kowbell.”

The timed event portion of the arena, where the roping events took place, was in the front of the building. It was dark and abandoned on Fridays since the real rodeo wasn’t until Saturday night. All eyes were on the far end of the arena and the red-and-white painted bucking chutes where the practice bull riding was taking place. Anyone who paid $10 could put his rope on a bull that didn’t already have a rope on him.

The bulls made their way to the bucking chutes from two separate alleys coming from the back of the building where the holding pens were. Chutes 1 and 2 were loaded from the alley on the left while chutes 3 and 4 were loaded from the alley on the right. The area between those two lines of bulls and behind the chutes was almost too crowded with boys to walk through.

Since there were not any empty spots behind the chutes, ropes were hanging inside the fence down both sides of the arena. While the bulls were bucking, boys were standing around in the arena, hoping for a wreck or hang-up so that they could show off the bull-fighting skills that they imagined they had. When the jackpot bulls bucked—the bulls that really could hurt someone, the bullfighters disappeared or went on break, and the arena was clear.

An old Moe Bandy song was playing over crackling speakers. The announcer occasionally interrupted the music: “Matt Eades, chute number 2. Matt Eades, chute number 2.”

A gate swung open, and the clanking of cowbells along with the cheers of the crowd was heard over the music. “Sixty- seven score,” Jack said over the loudspeaker.

Chris and I were overwhelmed. We stood there behind the chutes watching but not knowing what to do.

“Hey, John,” I heard through the noise, “what’re you doing here?”

It was Duke. Duke went to school with us. In the sixth grade, he and I had been on my dad’s basketball team together.

“Hey, Duke. We’re here to ride bulls.”

“You are, huh?” he said with a grin. “Ya need any help?” “I guess so. We’ve never rode before.”

“I didn’t think you had. You can use my stuff to practice. I’m not riding until the jackpot.” Duke rode in high school and open rodeos and was also a regular at Kowbell. Not only did he have all the gear, but he also knew all the bulls. He was just the person we needed to run into.

“Just go upstairs and give Jack your money,” he said. “I’ll help you pick out a bull and show you what you need to do.”

By that time, I thought it was too late to back down.

Chris didn’t think so. “Let’s just watch tonight,” he said, “and then next week we’ll come back and ride. Maybe we can get a bunch of friends to come watch.”

“You’re just scared,” I said. “You do what you want. I’m riding. If we don’t tonight, we never will.” I knew that was true for me, anyway.

We walked up the stairs to the announcer’s stand. Jack, with a plug of tobacco in his cheek and a pipe in his hand, looked at us impatiently.

“We need to pay to ride bulls,” I said. “Easy ones. We’ve never been on before.”

“Are you 18?” he grumbled.

I lied and said I was, signed a waiver, and paid my $10. Chris did the same. “Now what do we do?” I asked.

“Just go down there and put your rope on a bull,” said Jack.

So that’s what we did.

Duke helped us pick out bulls that we were satisfied with—little bulls with no horns—and ones that he knew wouldn’t hurt us too bad.

After ten minutes of getting ready in the bucking chute followed by about two seconds in the arena, we strutted around the rest of the evening as if we were world champions.

*You can read more about Kowbell rodeo and other rodeo stories here.

About Nowhere Tribune

A husband and daddy, striving to love his neighbors and be kind to his pets. I love good food, good beer, and a few good friends. My other interests are hiking, taking walks, lifting weights, reading books by manly authors like Hemingway and Twain, and splitting fire wood with my bare hands.


5 thoughts on “First Ride at Kowbell Rodeo

  1. Sounds like a whole lot of time, effort and building up of courage, all for a mere 2-second ride. Reminds me of another adolescent activity of high school.

    Posted by Tippy Gnu | July 28, 2018, 9:24 am
  2. Tippy Gnu stole my first thought. Lol. I’ll pen you a review on that book. I hope to read it tonight. So far so good but the house beckons…

    Posted by jim- | July 28, 2018, 10:33 am
    • Thanks a lot, Jim. Yep, I’m just taking a quick break from laying tile, a project I’ve been working on all month. It’s slow, but I hope it will be worth it.

      Posted by John | July 28, 2018, 12:52 pm

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