TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — Rodeo Soliloquy

  • There was a spot between the bullpen and the concession stand at the 17th Annual Ashley PRCA Rodeo last weekend where the wafting odors of manure and seared burgers competed, and somehow, strangely, to the olfactory of this child of the prairie, it was heaven.

We pause, here in Ashley, N.D., the first weekend in August to just be, unabashedly, American. Cowboys, rodeo queens, invocations of a higher power, flags and veterans. Taps on trumpet. The national anthem. Rodeo clowns, an announcer with the right amount of Oklahoma drawl and the cadence of a brisk trot. Spirited bucking stock, hokey clown entertainment. Close calls in the arena. Pick-up men and bullfighter saviors. Riderless horses and moments of silence paid tribute to fallen cowboys. We honor the departed. Celebrate life. And for a few hours, watch slices of self-induced cowboy heroism. That’s gonna leave a mark.

It’s easy to become cynical in these fractious times, but how can you spend but a moment among all of this, the good-natured camaraderie, neighbors suspending baling and a bountiful wheat harvest to commune, again, with one another, with the past, the Cowboy Way, and not have faith that somehow, as long as we have our friends, that someway, we’ll get back on track. And maybe we are more than we know. This is reality, not cable TV talking heads who wouldn’t know a steer from a heifer from a saddle bronc from a fox from a coyote from a hole in the ground.

That’s OK. Perhaps there’s no place more American than another. Bunker Hill. Broadway. Rushmore. Philadelphia freedom. Greasy Grass. Gettysburg. But somehow, this cowboy coteau feels just a little more special. Maybe just a skosh. Maybe that’s just partiality. Maybe it’s pride, but that’s OK, too, because for all the missteps we’ve made as a nation, we sure have tried, and we ain’t done yet, and pride in this place —in that place, or the other — well, I get it. I’ll cut you some slack.

Babies. Tanned beauties in short shorts, shades and cowboy boots. Lipstick. A cool beer. Wide-eyed kids. Mutton busting, by God, in flip-flops, even. Cuz it ain’t about the look, straw hats, pearl buttons, or none of that, it’s about heart. One year, a kid went down hard, and everyone gasped. “Just remember,” Tim Fuller, the announcer, said, “Chicks dig scars. Jest sayin’.”

In the Ranch Rodeo event, one of the broncs slammed the rider into the gates, they both went down with the horse kicking furiously on its side, inches from the kid’s head. In unison, we stopped breathing. Then, after that close view of Boot Hill, the kid took a re-ride. I’d have tried to slap some sense into him, but he was so wobbly he mighta gone down. If there’s no crying in baseball, there sure as heck isn’t in rodeo. Rub some dirt on it.

It’s possible we’re not the most American of Americans, but who’s tougher?

Jim Mosbrucker woulda loved it. The rodeo’s longtime stock contractor died last year after the Ashley Rodeo. I met him 30 years ago and stood beside him every year in Ashley while I photographed the action. I told his son, Wally, “He taught me what little I know about rodeo.” Wally smiled knowingly, shook my hand and accepted the framed photo I shot of Jim one year. Black hat. Big white grin. Aviators. Black leather jacket. It don’t get more cowboy than that.

I’m no cowboy. But I rode my grandfather’s horses each summer, about the most romantic thing a guy can do alone. Grandpa Spilloway, a Russian cowboy, rode in a rodeo when I was young, and he was too old to do it, but he did, anyway.

“Did you ever ride the bulls,” I asked him once. “There’s easier ways to die,” he smiled.

I own his 30-30 lever action saddle gun with the square bolt that held a cracked stock together for so many years, the edges of the bolt were worn smooth. Leather vs. Steel.

People. It takes so many people, so many hours, so much money, to make it all happen, and it wouldn’t without the Ashley Community Rodeo Club. It’s a year’s work for two days of rodeo.

And it’s worth it.

If you can’t get sentimental about all of this and appreciate where you are, well, friend, we need to talk. Over a beer. Where the grass is stirrup-high. And if we’ve timed it right, close to that gangly newborn buckskin.

Chaps. Spurs. Chaw. A glorious sunset, a photographers delight, casting a glow upon the mayhem. Here, today, for a moment, we celebrate life.

Shake my hand, friend.

Tony Bender, 2022

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