(written in 2016)
To all my fellow artists, friends and cohorts. You have no idea what you’ve been missing. I… wait for it… went to the rodeo last night. It was my son’s idea. Some friends from his job were going and he wanted to go too. I wasn’t sure. My son has high functioning autism, and I worried this event might be too much for him to handle. He insisted it wouldn’t be and that he had a ride there. However, the ride home was up in the air and so I finally said, okay, go. But I’m coming too. I’ll find my own seat somewhere and when it’s over, we’ll meet and go home together.
It’s hard to believe that driving 35 minutes east of ocean-side San Diego can put you a world/place you don’t recognize and didn’t know existed. Rocky crags, desolate vistas, and a whole lot of nothing. Off I-67, I found myself at a backed-up intersection that led to a small, low-income neighborhood where I saw a slap dash rodeo arena; all bolts, planks and metal supports with garish signs everywhere promoting casinos, folk art, a charitable organization, car repair, tractors, and Budweiser.
But there was no parking.
I drove, I searched, I got lost. I finally found something in a tiny plaza. Knowing the car was going to be towed by the time I got back, I hurried to the arena at a run. Thank goodness I saw my son and his friends as I came through the gate. “Hi, Dad!” And then, off they went with my son telling me his phone would be off to “save juice” but that he would check back in with me later.
I found a seat. I looked around. I saw wide brimmed cowboy hats, sleeveless, plaid cotton shirts, embroidered jeans and pointed leather boots (I was in shorts, T-shirt, and flip-flops). I saw extended families with countless offspring. I saw tattoos – shoulder tattoos, sleeve tattoos, hand tattoos, ankle, calf, and knee tattoos. Head and neck tattoos. I saw America first T-shirts and MAGA ball caps. The smell of manure was in the air and some good ol’ boy announcer was doing bad country schtick with somebody in a cowboy clown outfit who stood in the middle of the dirt arena.
I was a stranger in a strange land.
Four wild horses suddenly came racing out of some chutes trailing long, leather ropes! Clinging to the end of each rope was a cowboy! Trailing that cowboy were two other cowboys! As cowboy 1 dug in his heels and tried to slow the bucking horse down, cowboy 2 attempted to grab the horse around the neck while cowboy 3 struggled to throw a saddle over the horse’s back and cinch it! Then one of them tried to mount the twisting, kicking horse and holding on to just the saddle and often getting thrown off and dragged through into the dirt, “ride it to the finish line”. I couldn’t tell who won but then, why care?
There was now a break in the rodeo action whereupon any number of cowgirls began parading around the first row of the arena. I saw women and girls in torn denim shorts that barely covered their bums. I saw skintight tops spilling ample (tattooed) cleavage. While the cowgirls paraded, the cowboys all went and bought multiple Budweiser’s at the refreshment stands. One would have thought flirting might ensue but no, the cowboys were more interested in beer in aluminum cans and animal husbandry than they were in women’s cleavage.
We now moved onto the bull riding event which was the equivalent of men in helmets falling down a steep, undulating escalator. To “qualify” the ride had to last eight seconds. Ninety five percent of them didn’t last two. Out the gate and – boom! – get thrown to the ground and go rolling so the bull doesn’t gore your ass to death. You’d then watch the bull run around the arena while cowboys on horseback attempted to lasso it, then turn and run like hell when the bull charged. Did I mention there was at least five minutes between rides? Even the red neck announcer was getting impatient. To pass the time they began to play AC-DC on the audio system. Rodeo music at its best, even if it’s being played by Aussies.
Intermission was young ladies – rodeo queens – in make-up and spangled hats and chaps riding around the ring on horseback, madly waving, then stopping to sign autographs.
Intermission was – I kid you not – helmeted toddlers trying to ride crazed, castrated sheep. Whoom! – out of the shoot, a three-year-old holding on for dear life only to be sent tumbling hard to the ground. There were tears. There were wails of despair. Arms were cradled, hands were held. I was amazed that parents weren’t brought up on child endangerment charges. Thankfully all the toddlers were given medals.
More cowgirls marched, cowboys went for more Buds, families and kids took selfies The clown did a “comic routine” where he attempted to light firecrackers and naturally failed until one blew up under his ass. Bull riders fell, rolled, and ran. One, it was announced, was being sent to the hospital.
By 9:30 – two hours in – I’d had enough.
I called my son. Surely he was done by now as well. He didn’t answer. Fifteen minutes later, I called again. No answer. I told myself he was saving “juice”. He was with his friends, he was fine. As the minutes and the two second bull-rides went by, I became convinced something horrible had happened. He had been kidnapped. He had been beaten for being different (not just his high-functioning autism – like me, he was wearing shorts and flip-flops). One of the bare cleavage girls had invited him home and he knew if he called me, I’d say no.
I went searching. I walked, peering up into the stands. I didn’t see him but surely he’d see me. I was beginning to panic. Even the parading porn star cowgirls were no longer distracting. It was a sea of cowboy hats and blue-collar faces. In my imagination, everyone in the crowd was now wearing an “America First” T-shirt. Near the concessions stands, people were waiting in line, drunk and raucous, to use the restrooms. The smell of manure had become overwhelming. A loudspeaker announced that three qualifying bull riders were into the lightening round. I couldn’t have cared less. It was almost 10:30. I stood in one place, hyperventilating, and leaving desperate messages on my son’s phone.
At 10:40, my phone rang back. “Hi, Dad!” The voice was cheerful, relaxed. This was a young man who’d obviously had a great time. We met by the exit gate. His friends bid him a goodbye. “What’s wrong, Dad?” said my dear son, looking at me. I explained that when I hadn’t heard from him by 10, I started to worry. When I couldn’t find him anywhere, I started to panic. Even toddlers on castrated rams and cowboys on bulls had not distracted me. I told him he should ignore the distraught, angry messages I had left him.
“You know, Dad,” said my incredibly mature son. “One of your issues is you get too protective of me.”
What could I say, he was right. The mistake had been mine. The event had been too much for me to handle.
The car had miraculously not been towed and we got in and took the 52 east back to La Jolla. Ocean. Civilization. Tennis. Golf. Expensive cars. Democrats. Beach picnics with good wine. I was home.
I understand the next rodeo will include bucking broncos. Who’s coming with me?
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