In Texas, the rodeo is not weird. This is especially true in Houston, where the livestock show is an annual rite of spring. There is no point asking when the Houston rodeo began because it has always existed and will always exist. It is eternally begotten, and it is certainly not weird. I know I said that already, but I cannot stress that enough.
Except…sometimes you accompany someone who has never been to the rodeo and their wide-eyed astonishment hits you like an epiphany. Oh, this is very weird.
I took my son, who I call Booboo, to his first rodeo in 2016. We went on the “Wild Card” night, where the losers from every event in the previous two weeks were given one last chance to claw their way into “the money.” There were only two spots for every thirty contestants. The desperation was palpable, and watching these cowboys take wild risks to advance reminded me of a trapped animal chewing its own leg off in order to escape its clasps. Even then, the weirdness began long before the actual competition.
The night began with a darkened stadium and a solemn prayer presented on the jumbo-tron…by a rodeo clown. The fact that a public event began with a prayer may be strange to foreigners (people not from Texas) but it is commonplace here. I could tell from Booboo’s furrowed brow that the clown’s whimsical make-up juxtaposed to his solemn tone struck an awkward chord. My son looked at me as if to say “Dad, why is there a clown leading the prayer?” I shot back at him with a look of my own — “nothing in the Bible says that you can’t have a clown lead the prayer.”
“Yes, Dad, but the Bible is silent on a lot of things you probably shouldn’t do while praying. Besides, he has repeated the same sentence six times now in increasingly nonsensical ways.” Booboo is a stickler for brevity.
It didn’t dawn on me until later that since Booboo had never been to a rodeo, he had no idea that clowns would even be involved. For all intents and purposes all he knew was that the organizers of this event had decided that it would begin with a prayer…from a clown…for some reason.
The rodeo doubled-down on the opening weirdness by following the prayer with an interesting interpretation of the national anthem. A woman dressed in white cowgirl attire rode a white horse in the darkness, while the court coordinator for a local judge sang the national anthem. The cowgirl’s clothes and her horse were outlined in bright lights like the robotic combatants in the movie Tron, except she was a cowgirl. When the singer hit “rocket’s red glare” the fireworks exploded. The whole experience, starting from the solemn cowboy, to the tron-cowgirl, to the fireworks, was intended to stir dramatic emotions of patriotic Judeo-Christian Americanism. Booboo turned to me and said “wow, that was…loud.” His face said it all—“audibly loud, visually loud, emotionally loud.”
By the time the bareback bronco riding began, Booboo had settled into the idea that he was going to need to stay flexible for all this experience. We watched rider after rider thrown off. A representative from a local hospital was giving injury updates as a both a marketing effort and an effort to assuage the collective conscious of the spectators who were concerned that the spectacle they were enjoying was causing real and irreparable harm to humans. Sometimes the news was comforting, sometimes it wasn’t. “He’s going to be all right, isn’t he Sara?”
“No, he seems to have a serious groin tear.”
The announcer introduced one rider by informing the crowd that we were lucky to even see him tonight. He had undergone spinal fusions at C3-4, L4-L5, L5-L6 less than one year before. Booboo turned to me and asked what that meant and I casually responded with “that means he broke his neck and back in three places.”
“WHAT? WHY is he still riding?” Booboo said. I had to concede that he had brought up a good point and tried to distract him by telling him that the bull riders were coming up. That news was met with “people RIDE BULLS?” When the various bull-riding accoutrements were in position, the announcer introduced the rodeo clown, who popped out of his protective barrel and gave the crowd a waive. The full absurdity of the rodeo hit my son as he laughingly exclaimed “Wh—WHY is there a clown in a barrel?” Having given up trying to normalize the rodeo I just told him that sometimes after the bull bucks the rider, the bull tries to kill him and the clown is there to distract him. “WHAT? What if he isn’t fast enough?”
“Then he dies too. Ooh look, the first rider is up.”
On most nights, a number of the riders are able to stay on the bull for the full eight seconds necessary to receive a score. On this particular night, only three of the riders managed not to get injured and only one rode for the full eight seconds. Remember, this was Wildcard Night, meaning it was a collection of the rodeo’s dregs. Asking a sub-par rider to stay mounted and look pretty for eight seconds seemed as logical as asking a car wreck victim to try to snap a good selfie in the middle of the impact. Forget the eight seconds, just try not to die. One of the bulls stomped directly in the middle of a rider’s back with sufficient force that it tore off his protective vest and tore his shirt in half. He gave the crowd the least re-assuring thumbs up imaginable as two rodeo clowns lifted his crumpled body by the armpits and walked him off.
The bull-riding was followed by steer wrestling, where a horse-mounted cowboy jumps down, tackles a calf and applies a headlock to take it to the ground. This was too much for Booboo to believe. “They are jumping FROM a horse ONTO a bull?” From our seats, you could see the horns on the calf but it was too far away for Booboo to notice that they were dealing with baby bulls.
I noticed around then that we had been watching carnage for almost three hours. It was almost nine o’clock and we had been at the fair for five hours before the rodeo had even started. “Hey buddy, it’s time to go home”, I told him. But, at that moment, the jumbo-tron announced that the chuck wagon races were still to come. The tantalizing images of overturned wagons dragged by multiple horses had Booboo’s hamster wheel turning. “Dad, let’s stay, please.”
On the long walk back to the car, Booboo told me he never wanted to be a cowboy, and I was relieved. I asked him if he had fun, though. “YES! Let’s go again next year!” Weird, terrifying and violent as it may be, that is the magic of the rodeo. It normalizes the weird.