In Search of Glory
“… if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
–Henry David Thoreau
I distinctly remember how old I was when I came to terms with the fact that there were things I was not good at – no matter how desperately I wanted it to be otherwise. I was 13, and all my life up to that point I believed the only way I could prove my worth was by being a good baseball player, or basketball player, or, at least, make the football team. Up until then I’d lived in denial of the fact that I did not possess a gift for those things, and no amount of wishing, praying or power of positive thinking was going to change it.
At Woodward Junior High School I tried out for basketball every year: for the Sparrows in seventh grade, the Hawks in eighth grade, and the Eagles in ninth. Each year when Coach Blake posted the team rosters on his office door, I’d line up with all the other guys and, with a desperate hope in my heart, pray that by some miracle my name would appear on the list. It never did.
Later I went out for junior varsity football. Your odds were much better in football. By then I had begun riding bucking horses and bulls, so I figured football would be a walk in the park. I soon learned that the only secret to making the football team was the secret of survival itself. The six weeks I played organized football turned out to be the six most physically painful weeks of my life.
I was the second-string center and the night we played Hurricane we were ahead 53 to 0, so Coach Lay figured it would be safe to stick me in. My palms were so sweaty I got maybe seven out of ten snaps into the quarterback’s hands. In the meantime, on every play, I was getting pounded into the ground like an accordion by a hefty 14-year-old middle linebacker who was trying to regain the pride he started losing 53 points ago.
It’s like this. When you ride a bull or a bronc it’s over in eight seconds (often less.) But in football, you keep going back in. It’s like getting on 30 bucking horses in succession.
It didn’t matter anyway. I had to quit the team the Monday after I went to a rodeo in Caliente, Nevada, and nearly got my knee-cap ripped off when a bull brushed me on the gate. I suited up for practice on Monday and tried to go through the motions but Coach Lay was onto me immediately. He asked me if I’d gone to another rodeo that weekend and when I nodded, yes, he began to shake his head, no, and I knew my football days had come to an inauspicious end. I never stepped onto a football field again, with one exception: four years later when that same group of Dixie boys (minus me) won the state football championship at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, and the entire student body of Dixie High School stormed that snow-glazed field in a swirl of glory.
I started getting on bulls and bucking horses when I was 13. Looking for my own sort of glory, I suppose. Something I could be good at. Be recognized for. I soon found it was no easier to sink down onto the quivering back of a bucking horse than it was to walk to the plate with a bat in your hand and look into the eyes of Jeff Bradshaw standing like a Greek god on the mound at the old Little League park in the middle of St. George. At age 12, Jeff Bradshaw could turn over a curveball that would set you on your butt and still be called a strike. I can still hear the sizzle of his fastball jetting past my ear.
Baseball, for me, was the most humbling of all sports. There you stood, isolated in the eyes of everyone, shivering in your cleats. And nowhere to hide. At least in rodeo there was glory attached to the mere act of trying. There was something inherently heroic about just climbing on. Even if four seconds later you got your face ground into the ground. You didn’t have to be good to get some glory. You just had to show up.
It’s hard to explain where the guts came from. Once you got started it became something you had to do. Like a drug. Like when you’re standing on a cliff looking down at the water 20 feet below and everyone is watching and you can’t do anything but jump. You’re frightened out of your mind. But you have to. Then once you’ve jumped and you’re in the air, the fear flees and when you hit the water and come up for air, you never felt so high in your life, and you can go home and think about it while you watch TV, talk about it with your friends – glory in it. Even though the thought of doing it again tomorrow terrifies you.
My friend Les Bracken got good at riding rough stock long before I did. We both started by trying the little Holstein calves they bucked-out at the annual New Years Day rodeos at the Sheriff’s Posse Arena on what was then the northwest outskirts of St. George. Winters seemed colder then. We were probably six or seven, but we were already feeling a drive to prove ourselves in the eyes of our cowboy fathers. Most years Dick Hammer, of Famous Dick’s Café fame, offered a T-bone steak to any kid who could stick his calf past the first light pole on the east side of the arena. About a ten-yard shot. I didn’t know what a T-bone steak was, but all the older boys seemed to be risking their lives for one, so I figured it must be a good prize.
Les got on his calf before me. The wily little black and white critter darted out the gate and Les faded to the side. But he didn’t let go until he’d passed the light pole. His tenacity won him a T-bone steak at the Famous Dick’s Café, but cost him about a pint of blood. When he finally let go and took a dive into the deep Posse Grounds sand, the calf kicked him in the face and Les came back bawling to his dad, winter steam huffing through a mouthful of thick red slime and sand.
Les’s dad, LaVar, was not in a sympathetic mood. He’d been sitting in the bleachers with a white bandage the size of a softball on his right hand. A week or so earlier LaVar and his right index finger had parted company when the steer he’d just caught hit the end of the rope and LaVar’s finger was accidentally where it shouldn’t be – between a dally of the rope and the saddle horn.
I could still hear Les bawling as I dropped down onto my own feisty little Holstein that icy cold morning. My dad strapped my frozen hands to the calf’s bony back with a prickly grass rope. When the chute gate opened the new year came charging at me in a terrifying blur. The next thing I remembered was Dad lifting me out of the dirt, not five feet from the chute, and telling me not to cry. I cried anyway. It hurt. Everything hurt. My hands. My trampled legs. My pride.
For such a good try, Dad took me to Dick’s later that week and bought me my first T-bone steak, and rodeo, for me, had become the thing.
Lyndon Johnson was still president when I got on my first bucking horse. She was a buckskin mustang mare with a black dorsal stripe and she pivoted gently out of the chute and crow-hopped nicely down the arena and I kicked at her with the spurs I’d made in metal shop and after what I was sure was eight seconds I let go of the bareback riggin’ and pitched myself off into the soft arena sand. In that moment I knew this was my event and as I slogged through the sand back to the chute my chest swelled with pride and glory as I was peppered with compliments from the men who were there that day. Men whose opinions, at that point in my life, carried the weight of the ages.
Not long thereafter, some of the local horse chasers brought in a rough looking strawberry roan stud off the Toole Desert. He was a sorry looking thing though according to my dad he had royal bloodlines: “Out of Nevada by Midnight.” As much glory as might have accompanied trying that horse, I could not muster the courage. When we put him in the bucking chute he liked to have torn it down. And he had a way of belching forth an unearthly squeal that made the blood curdle in your veins.
Les was the one who finally worked up the nerve to get on him. I was not the least bit ashamed to let him go first. It seemed to me Les never had a problem with courage. I guess that part of his brain was more highly developed than mine – or the part of my brain that determines mental health was more highly developed than his.
We all gathered at the arena after school one afternoon: me, Les, his dad, my dad, and an assorted collection of fans of blood sport. Before Les got on him, the Strawberry Roan experimented with a variety of methods to destroy the chute. He rammed it with his hammer head, and kicked it with his oversized hooves, and backed into it with his broom tail. He even tried rearing out of it, getting high-centered over the gate for a minute in the process.
Les got more advice on how to ride the scraggly stud than Evil Knievel got on how to jump the Snake River Canyon. When the gate finally opened the stud stood on his hind legs and pawed his front hooves at heaven. Then he pivoted and took off on a dead run. At the second light pole he stopped dead, as if before a brick wall, and Les’s face rammed into the stud’s mane as the horse sucked back and wheeled in the air. Les rolled as if in slow motion off the stud’s rump and flopped like a rag doll on the arena sand. He lay motionless in the middle of the arena, limbs pointing in all directions, and I ran to him only to find him out cold, blood streaming from his nose.
On subsequent days Les tried the Strawberry Roan three or four more times.
I never got on him. I believed then, and still do, that there are times when glory must take a back seat to sanity.
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