See the funny little clown...Ev'rybody thinks he's happy Cause you never see a tear in his eye
It was not until the next morning that the pain, like a summer heat wave, settled in for a stay. The top of my head was scraped raw, both my elbows were bruised and swollen, and my back, which featured two diagonal welts, was lumpy and realigned. The simple act of brushing my hair made me wince. An insistent humming, like that of a radio tuned to dead airspace, rose from the general vicinity of my brain stem. Something was amiss in my throat. I cleared it and coughed up a tiny pebble.
I share this with you at the risk of being shunned by my new peer group. Rodeo clowns—or bullfighters, as they are also known—do not talk about pain. They will talk till the cows come home about infamous bulls. They will talk till their chew falls out about broken bones, getting "hooked," being "freight-trained" and having their "chili cooled." They never mention the pain that comes along with these exciting adventures.
I'm not made of such stuff. The night after the rodeo, it hurt to sleep.
Wick Peth, a famous rodeo clown now retired, has a prescription for rookies like me. "The best thing that can happen to a guy is if he gets run over good the first few times out," he told Jeanne Joy Hartnagle-Taylor, author of Greasepaint Matadors. "It weeds them out fast. If a guy still thinks he wants to do it after that, he'll make it."
The rest of us? The sorry lot of would-be clowns who decide that being tap-danced into sausage patties by 1,500-pound Brahmas is not our calling in life? Well, as the bullfighters say, we've smelt the slobber. That's enough for some men. More than enough.
"How old are you?" the lady barked over the phone.
"Forty-two," I said, immediately feeling self-conscious. Was there some sort of age limit at bullfighting school? Surely not. Peth fought bulls until his mid-50's.
"Do you have insurance? When you send your deposit, you've got to include proof of medical insurance."
"I have insurance," I told her.
"We'll need to see proof."
I was enrolling in Harper's World Championship Rodeo School. It was a three-day, $200 course in Iowa, La., a few miles east of Lake Charles. This seemed a perfectly logical way for me to do some original research. Rodeo clowns risk their lives and limbs to keep bulls off fallen bullriders or simply to entertain the crowds, but I knew so little about them that when a colleague of mine, while watching her first rodeo, asked, "What's with the guy in the barrel?" I hadn't a clue.
All I knew about the guy in the barrel was that he told corny jokes. And, like a hermit crab, he could pick up the barrel and walk around while still inside it. What was the barrelman's raison d'‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢tre? What did it feel like inside a barrel being attacked by a bull? Surely even I could withstand that. How dangerous could it be?
I was not without rodeo credentials. When I was young and fearless, I entered several rodeos in Wyoming. Twice I was bucked off horses after the briefest of stays, and twice I was a rider in one of rodeo's crazier spectacles, a wild-horse race. But bulls are a different kettle of fish. A horse, even a wild one, will hurt a cowboy only by accident, out of panic, and will do everything it can to avoid a fallen rider. Bulls, however, love to injure cowboys, and at 1,500 to 2,000 pounds they are amply endowed to do so. They will stomp on riders and hook them with their horns. And bulls are surprisingly fast and agile.
About the only thing a bull likes to abuse more than a fallen cowboy is a fleeing bullfighter. I had no intention of auditioning for that role. But the man in the can—I could play that part to perfection.
That was my thinking, anyway. The first morning of rodeo school I counted eight other bullfighting students, 40 bullriding students, three bullfighting instructors, 60 bulls—and no barrels. Where were they hiding the barrels? I surveyed with envy the protective gear of my fellow bullfighters, who ranged in age from 14 to 22. Two or three were wearing what looked like flak jackets, the sort used by NFL quarterbacks. Several wore protective cups. One had hip pads. I had brought nothing but sweatpants and borrowed soccer cleats. It had never occurred to me that this school was BYOB—bring your own barrel.
"Every one of these bulls can outrun you and catch you," one of the instructors told us. "But every one will take a fake. Make it a good one. That's a lot of hamburger coming behind you."
These words were spoken by either Ronny or Donny Sparks, the identical twins from Texarkana, Texas, who taught our bullfighting course. Ronny was the 1992 and '93 Wrangler World Champion Bullfighter. Donny has been runner-up three times. Tall, thin and 30, these two have the easy grins and mild manners of normal cowboys. Nothing in their demeanor suggests that turned loose in an arena with a bull, smeared with greasepaint and wearing baggy pants, the Sparks twins are certifiably insane.
That became increasingly clear as we watched films of the Sparkses performing in competitions. Rodeo bullfighting is completely different from Spanish bullfighting. There are no capes and swords. The rodeo clown stands in the middle of the arena, a bull is released from its chute, and for 70 seconds the bullfighter plays a game of chicken with the bull. He taunts the beast into charging. He dodges and scurries for his very life, the closer to the bull the better. He runs in tight little circles, just ahead of the bull's menacing horns. The only defense the clown has is a lone barrel in the center of the arena, an island of protection behind which he can hide when he needs a rest. As soon as he does so, the bull usually attacks the barrel, sending it tumbling into the panting bullfighter. Then the chase resumes.
It's great theater, and for the past 15 years or so bullfights of this sort have been scored by judges. The more risks a clown takes, the higher his marks. The Sparks brothers are best known for jumping over bulls, literally hurdling the beasts as they charge. "A lot of guys can fight bulls better than me," says Ronny. "But no one can jump them better." It is an act of pure madness, and an imperfect science at best. Once, in Pasadena, Texas, a bull lifted its head while Donny was in midhurdle—the definitive compromising position—hooking him by his baggies. They tore off clean as a whistle and hung, rose-colored, from the bull's horn. Ronny has broken his back twice, his tailbone twice, and a collarbone, a shoulder, a wrist, several ribs and an ankle once each. Donny has had a cheekbone broken, his teeth knocked out and his left shoulder reconstructed. The brothers don't even count fractured fingers and toes.
"It's easier to count the bones I ain't broken than them I have," Ronny says. "It's going to be close encounters, boys. You're going to get some slobber on you. Don't be trying any of them head or shoulder fakes here. You've got to give 'em a step fake. Sell it to 'em. Lift that leg up like a dog peein' on a fire hydrant. Show it to 'em, then take it away. The closer he is to you before you move out, the better off you are."
We practiced our step fakes while the Sparks brothers chased us with wheelbarrows. The key, Ronny told us, was to keep our shoulders square to the bull, like a defensive back facing a runner. Then we could dodge in either direction. We were to stay in the middle of the arena rather than hover near the fence. "That fence'll break your back," Ronny warned us. "You talk about a mashing. That fence will mash the eyes right out of your head." Donny, pushing the wheelbarrow, would come at us at a fast walk, bite on our step fakes, then take about 30 seconds to turn around while we completed our step-throughs and squared off. "That's it, that'll work," Donny assured me. Against a milk cow it might, I was thinking. Cody and Cory Casto, 14-year-old identical twins from Baton Rouge, had come up with a better idea. For the past month they'd been practicing by chasing each other around in an all-terrain vehicle.
I kept wondering when the Sparkses would discuss the barrel. I imagined some preamble like, "Now here's a clown's best friend. It'll save your life. Here's how to climb in. Here's when to come out. Who wants to give it a try?" My arm was ready to shoot skyward. But Ronny rambled on crazily about how a bullfighter carries himself around bulls. "Be a showman out there," he told us. "Be pretty. Be a swan. Glide around. Limber up if you know you're going to get hooked. Loose and relaxed. Go with the flow of it."
Be a swan? Go with the flow of a drooling, horn-slashing, 1,500-pound mass of muscle spattered with dung? Surely ol' Ron had taken one too many mashings against a fence.
A rodeo clown's primary responsibility, Ronny went on, is to protect the bullriders. The fancy stuff, the dodging and step-faking and gliding around, do not come until the cowboy is safely over the fence. Instructor James Pierce likened the rodeo clown's duties to playing two positions in football. "Protecting the cowboy is like being a middle linebacker," he said. "You're trying to keep the bull from scoring. Bullfighting is like being a quarterback. You're trying to outsmart the bull and score points."
While in our linebacker mode, we were to act as decoys, darting in front of the bull to get its attention. A bull reacts to movement and chases it. If the cowboy rode the full eight seconds allotted in a rodeo, we were to circle in the direction of his free hand, allowing him to jump off the bull away from its path. If the cowboy was on the ground, dazed or injured, one clown was to lead the bull away from him while the other helped the rider to his feet. If, harrowingly, the cowboy's hand was twisted in the bullrope, which goes around the beast's girth, one of us was to go to the bull's head and stop him from spinning while the other pulled the tail of the rope, freeing the cowboy's hand.
"If the cowboy's helicoptering, watch out he doesn't sink a spur in you," Ronny warned. "Once he's free, you get out like you're leaving your fate."
All very interesting. Only he'd left one thing out. "At what point does the barrel come into play?" I asked.
The Sparkses looked at me with identically quizzical expressions. "Hell, we ain't got one of them clown condominiums in here, do we, Donny?" Ronny asked.
"I wouldn't be caught dead in one," Donny replied. "Just remember to show 'em that leg." Class dismissed.
We paired off randomly. My first partner was Keith Newton from Martin, Tenn. Everyone called him Newt. He was 22 and looked as hard as a tire iron. He told me he used to ride bulls but gave it up when he was 20. He'd broken his neck, he said. How? I wondered.
"Bull stepped on it."
Our first bull was a dark brindle-colored Brahma with a white face and horns downturned like a ram's. Bull horns, I'd noticed, come in all shapes and sizes. Some are short, some long, some pointed, some blunt, some crooked and some broken off. The school had a Watusi bull with a pair of horns that looked as long as elk antlers—cowboy catchers, the bullfighters called them. A few bulls, called mulies, were hornless. All the horns were filthy. Ronny told us about the time a bull gored him in the calf, and he said it took "something like 26 bags of penicillin" to clean up the resulting infection.
The soil in the arena was damp, deep and sandy. Cowboys lined the six-foot fence. It was hot and Louisiana humid. Newt and I stepped out toward the middle, one on each side of the gate. As the rider wrapped his hand in the bullrope, I tried moving in a swanlike fashion. I felt surprisingly relaxed, even confident. The chute opened, and the bull spun out to its left—my direction—with the bell tied to the bullrope clanging ominously. The cowboy fell off, and the bull wheeled around to hit him.
What I did next was quite instinctive. I was nearer to the bull than Newt, and I darted between the beast and the fallen cowboy, as we'd been instructed to do. The bull, moving much more quickly than the wheelbarrow, instantly swung its horns in my direction, missing me as I glided prettily in front of it and then, swan-like, circled behind. I was now in the middle of the arena. The bull, I was relieved to see, stopped near the fence to snort at the cowboys sitting up there. Then it turned around, head held disconcertingly high—my eye level, in fact—looking for a fight, until....
It spied me.
I was frozen, square to the beast, trying to appear as innocuous as I could. I did not taunt the bull or wave my arms. I ignored the Sparkses' entreaties to "Take him, fella." I held my breath, waiting for the bull to move on to bigger fish. But he was not in the mood for bigger fish. The bull charged.
I had a moment to think about this. I remembered Ronny telling us to wait on the bulls, that the closer they got, the better off we were. Things, I reckoned, were looking rosier by the second. And I remembered Donny telling me to lift my leg like a dog. It took maybe a 30th of a second for all that to race through my mind. The bull, splotchy with anger, its hump huge on its withers, suddenly took up my entire field of vision. I threw my right leg out, selling it for all I was worth, then ducked back left. It had worked with the wheelbarrow. But I had waited a moment too long, and the bull, going faster than I'd figured, lowered its horns. It was going to crush my right hip. I closed my eyes and, swanlike, went limp. The bull ran past so close that I felt a wind. I ran to the fence and hopped up, thrilled to be alive.
"I wish you'd seen your face from my angle," said Pierce. "He was so close, you didn't know you got away."
That was true. The bull missed me, but my confidence was flattened.
"You turned plumb white," Ronny said, laughing. "Get any slobber on you?"
I actually looked. Absorbing bull slobber was obviously a passage into manhood. As I was looking down, the fallen rider came by. "Thanks, man," he said.
Pride washed over me. So that's why clowns do it, I understood.
My next bull was a gray brindle whose horns stuck straight out some 18 inches from its head. One horn was significantly lower than the other, however, giving the bull a lopsided, drunken appearance. It bucked off its rider without much ado, then trotted to the far end of the arena as we moved in to protect him. The bull stood there, uninterested, inspecting the adjacent saddle-bronc arena. I was ambling along the fence, just where I was not supposed to be, when the bull suddenly turned. "Watch yourself," I heard Ronny yell. I happened to be the first thing the bull saw. It charged.
This was prickly. My first impulse was to jump onto the fence and risk having my eyeballs mashed out of my skull. I could dart toward the center of the arena, but I was pretty sure I would be run down and trampled. Or I could hold my ground and fake. The problem with the third option was I was so close to the fence that I could fake only one way—toward the center. What if the bull figured that out? Too late now. I stepped toward the center with my right leg, then lunged back to my left, slipping to my knees in the deep sand, slamming helplessly against the fence. The bull's right horn went by inches from my cheek. I climbed out of the arena, trying to mask how unnerved I felt. Pierce came over and smiled. "Now that you got by that bull, I'll let you in on something," he said. "That bull broke Rob Smets's nose."
Smets was a four-time world bullfighting champion.
I started to become more and more cautious. I did not mind putting myself at risk to protect a fallen cowboy. But I would never be a real bullfighter, a guy who would dance and dart in front of the bull for the pure thrill of it. The more I was around bulls, the more respectful I became. The younger guys, meanwhile, took greater and greater chances as they gained experience. They would taunt the bulls, do jumping jacks to get them to charge and run in circles to get the bulls to chase them. Cody Casto, one of the 14-year-old twins, literally threw himself on the horns of a bull that was mauling a fallen cowboy. He ripped his shorts but was otherwise uninjured. Jerrett Farley, 20, who fights bulls in Kissimmee, Fla., for $50 a night, was run down by one bull, which tried its best to bury him. As Farley lay facedown in the dirt, the bull sank a horn in the soil on either side of his head. It was frightening to witness, but Farley bounced up without noticeably adverse effect. Youth is bulletproof. I remembered the feeling. The acceptance of mortality is one of man's inescapable concessions to age, and at some indeterminate point I'd accepted it.
Still, I'd survived the first day of rodeo school unscathed. None of the student clowns had been injured, and there was a great feeling of camaraderie afterward as we watched videotapes of ourselves and compared war stories and ripped clothing. We began to feel like members of a small, terribly elite squadron.
An older cowboy was watching the videotapes with us. "You a clown?" one of the Casto twins asked.
"Used to be," the man replied, spitting in the dust. "Got sick of puking blood."
It seemed like a good time to call it a day.
In the morning the Sparkses gathered us around the VCR again for a showing of bullfighting highlight films. Curiously, the bulls were providing the highlights. "Gets your motor running, don't it?" Ronny said after we'd seen about the 30th clown freight-trained by a Brahma.
It had the opposite effect on my motor. It wanted to shut down, preferably inside the sanctuary of a barrel. These were the best bullfighters in the world, and seeing them in action was like watching Wile E. Coyote in a Roadrunner cartoon. One clown was butted into the crowd. Another was knocked senseless as he tried to free a cowboy's hand from the bullrope. Ronny and Donny knew most of the bulls and all of the bullfighters. This was their way of scouting the opposition. "If you're in this game long enough, you're going to get your chili cooled," Ronny told us. "Simple as that."
I didn't want my chili cooled. I wanted my chili to remain piping hot.
After stretching and then warming up by dodging the of wheelbarrow a couple of times, we headed back out to the arena.
Early on it became clear that the bulls were not quite as dumb as they'd been the day before. The Sparkses had warned us of this. Bulls remember things, and what works one day will not necessarily work the next. My partner, a strapping 21-year-old named Clint Perodeau, faced off against a short-horned black demon that came at him with fire in its eyes. Clint, on his toes, faked right and stepped left, but not quickly enough. The bull never veered. Its head hit Clint squarely in the chest. He went flying through the air, flipping so that he landed on his stomach. The bull kept running and landed with both its hind legs on Clint's back. Such a blow might have killed him—punctured a lung, broken his back, even ruptured his heart—except Clint was wearing a flak jacket, which helped absorb the weight of the bull. Clint staggered out of the arena under his own power, but he was badly bruised, and everyone knew how lucky he'd been.
I tried to put out of my mind the image of the bull's hind hooves coming down on Clint's back. I wasn't wearing a flak jacket. I wasn't strapping. And I wasn't 21.
The first bull that charged me that day helped restore my confidence, loping after my fake like Marv Throneberry chasing a windblown pop-up. I've since seen the tape of that momentous confrontation, and the bull was no more intent on destruction than a horse is when it swishes its tail at a fly. The moment I pulled off that fake, though, I was imbued with the suspicion that I actually knew what I was doing.
That illusion was dispelled by the next bull I faced, a stout white-faced brindle with upturned horns. It came out of the chutes and bucked the cowboy off its left Hank. By now my movements were somewhat automatic: I jumped in between the cowboy and the bull. But instead of then circling behind the bull, luring it into the middle of the arena, I stopped. I faked to the left, shimmied back right and froze. Why don't you move? I wondered. My brain reacted to the situation by going blank. The bull, moving forward, lowered its horns. I reached out with both hands, trying to spin away from the blow. Now I was on the ground, on my stomach, with the bull above me. Bad spot. The bull stepped on my right hand. The hand sunk deep in the mud. I heard shouting, panicked voices. I had to get out of there. Scooting sideways, I felt sunlight on my back. The bull was off chasing another clown.
A bruise was forming on my hand, but it wasn't broken. The bull had also stepped on my left ankle, tearing off my sock, but the deep mud in the arena had saved me. I'd gotten myself in a terrible situation but survived with a couple of bruises. That realization released the knot of tension that for two days had gripped my belly.
"That's what you're there for," Ronny said when he saw I was all right. "Better stop for a while, though. You're getting white again."
"Must be the bull slobber," I replied.
At lunchtime young Cody Casto asked without irony if I was going to give up my job to become a full-time bullfighter. He seemed to think I had potential.
"It's a young man's game, Cody," I told him. "It's all yours."
"What are you going to do, then?" he asked, mildly disappointed.
"I'm going to be a barrelman."
I thought so too. At the time.
Butch Lehmkuhler, a four-time Pro Rodeo Clown of the Year, once described being a barrelman this way: "Being in the barrel is like being in the worst carnival ride that you ever got on, and then you lose your handhold."
I asked Harold Murray if that was accurate. Murray, 44, was the barrelman at the Rodeo de Santa Fe, which was held this year from July 6 to July 9. He'd agreed to let me work the Saturday matinee performance. "Feel this," he said, taking off his hat and showing me the golf-ball-sized knot on his balding head. "Lookee here." He held out his hands. His lingers and knuckles were swollen and scraped, as if he'd clawed his way through pricker bushes. "I've had everything that could be broken, broken. I broke my nose four times last year. Broke my left foot seven times. I've bit through my lip any number of times. I've got beat up worse in the barrel than when I was a bullfighter. It's like squeezing yourself into the tightest ball you can, then having someone smack your feet with a two-by-four. I've been knocked unconscious, set back upright, and when I woke up, I thought I was lying in my living room. Heck, you'll have yourself a ball."
I'd watched him work three performances already. Murray's barrel, with him inside it, had been rolled, tipped, kicked and toppled end over end each evening, attacked by a dozen bulls with unbelievable ferocity. Murray emerged from each encounter with a wisecrack, never alluding to how much pain he often was in.
During the bullriding competition, Murray worked in concert with Smets. Smets relied on the barrelman to help him turn back the bulls, to get them spinning, which is the best way for the bullrider to score points. Smets would say where he wanted the barrel, usually in front of the chute, maybe 20 yards out, and Murray would amble over to the anointed spot without ever leaving the can. The barrel had a 12-by-18-inch opening in its bottom for the clown's feet, a ledge for him to stand on and interior handholds so he could lift the entire can. Sometimes Murray told a joke as he was shuffling. He wore a wireless microphone, a terrific little device, except in those instances when a bull thumped the barrel and the microphone became lodged halfway down Murray's throat.
"Bill and Hillary are arguing again," Murray would say.
"What about?" the rodeo announcer and straight man, Dr. Lynn Phillips, would ask.
"He wants to play in the sandbox, and she won't let him." "Why not?"
"Socks, the cat, keeps trying to cover him up."
Murray's barrel is made of heavy-gauge aluminum and padded inside with foam. It weighs about 75 pounds. "I put it on the front bumper of a pickup and drove it into a concrete wall at 25 miles per hour," he told me. "Not even a dent."
Which isn't to say he is safe in there. Far from it. Bulls often stick their horns into the barrels and hoist them off the ground, clown and all. The most famous fighting bull of all time, a monster named Crooked Nose, broke his horn on a barrel when he was two years old. Thereafter, whenever he saw a barrel, Crooked Nose savaged it, often injuring the barrelman inside. A famous clown named Toad Cook gave up being a barrelman for two years after a nasty encounter with Crooked Nose in Billings, Mont., in the early '80s. "He got that one horn in the barrel and wouldn't let up—they had to take poor Toad out of there," recalls Harry Void, the stock contractor who owned Crooked Nose, the only fighting bull in the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame. "That bull would fight anything that moved. Throw a pack of cigarettes in the arena, he'd fight it."
A Mexican bull put its horns in Murray's barrel last season, so he was trapped inside forehead-to-forehead with the beast. It carried the can all the way around the arena before dropping it.
Another time Murray was turtled up inside an overturned barrel after the bullfighter jumped over the fence. Unaware that he'd been abandoned, Murray occasionally noticed the bull's feet trotting past one end of the barrel or the other. There was nothing he could do. A barrel-man is supposed to stay in an overturned barrel until the bullfighter rights him. Suddenly things became eerily quiet. Murray looked up and was eyeball-to-eyeball with the bull peering into his barrel. "He knew he had me," Murray recalls. "He put his horn in there and dotted my eye slick as a whistle."
Most horribly, sometimes an enraged bull bucks its hind hooves inside the barrel, directly on top of the clown. That, too, has happened to Murray, cutting him on the head and shoulders as if he had been attacked with an ax. "It's not choreographed," he says. "You can't tell the bulls what to do. And if you're in the thing long enough, you will get hurt."
Why, then, does he do it? Murray, who works 11 months and some 150 performances a year, earning a few thousand dollars a week, still gets an adrenaline rush when a bull charges his barrel. And he likes to make people laugh. What other profession combines those two elements? Says Murray, "Let's see a circus clown try to be funny knowing any minute he could get his neck broke."
Fortunately, I would not have to try to be funny. Murray agreed to keep his wireless mike and handle the joke-telling responsibilities on Saturday. Nervous as I felt, I could not, frankly, imagine attempting his Flintstone bull joke—always a hit with the kids. "That's a Flintstone bull," Murray would yell when a bull with a particularly messy backside trotted into the arena. "Yabba-dabba doo-doo."
The barrel was heavier, with more room inside, than I'd expected. The foam padding wasn't particularly thick, and it had been torn in several places where bulls had managed to stick their horns. At the bottom of the barrel was the little ledge for my feet. "Make sure your feet are on that ledge and not on the ground when the bull hits it, or you'll snap both your ankles," Murray warned. "And keep your teeth clenched. Then you won't bite through your tongue."
I hunkered down to get the feel. It was hot in there. I asked Murray to tip the barrel over so I would land facedown. He did it, and I nearly broke my nose on impact. I was rattling around in there like a bean in a maraca. "Brace yourself against the sides as hard as you can," he said. I curled up, pressing against the padding with the top of my hat. "If he shakes you out of there, your butt's his." He chuckled. "Course, it might be his anyway."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Well, it's possible for a bull to stick his horn in the bottom of the barrel. Happened to me last year. Hooked me for four stitches up the ol' geezeroo."
A half hour before the rodeo, Murray made up my clown face. Every clown face is different, and it's considered bad luck to imitate another clown's persona. I requested that Murray give me a tear in my eye, in honor of the old Bobby Goldsboro song about the funny little clown. The rest was Murray's invention. At the end he dusted my face with baby powder so the greasepaint wouldn't smear.
I felt queasy. And hot. It was a very hot day in Santa Fe. The greasepaint began to feel like tarmac. I went to sit in the stands to await the bullriding and was mildly surprised when children nodded and waved as I went past. I had forgotten I was made up like a clown. About a minute after I sat down, a little girl came up beside me.
"Hello," she said. She had dark hair and a bridge of freckles across her nose and cheekbones.
"Hello," I replied.
"I'm four years old."
"I'm 42." I gathered from the expression of the woman sitting behind me that that was not a very clownlike response. The kid, though, seemed perfectly happy with it.
"I have a dog," she said. I asked her its name. I thought she told me its name was Goat, but apparently I misunderstood her. Perhaps she also owned a goat. It was confusing, and I was hot and nervous about impersonating a clown. She told me she also owned chickens, so I asked her if she had any named Dog. "Nooo," she said, rolling her blue eyes. "You don't name chickens." Then she said, "My daddy rides bulls. He's over there." She pointed to a cluster of cowboys behind the bucking chutes.
"I'll bet he's good at it," I said. She nodded. Then I said, "I'll be in the barrel."
"How do you know?"
"I've seen you."
It was a big responsibility, being a clown. I hadn't bargained on that. I immediately got up and moved, fearful of betraying some sacred trust that had been built between children and clowns over generations. I decided I'd better go back behind the bucking chutes. As the bullriding approached, Murray said, "It doesn't hurt to say a prayer before it starts, whether you're a religious person or not."
I did as he suggested, then rolled the barrel into the arena. Smets and Ronny Sparks would be the bullfighters. With six world championships between them, I knew I would be in good hands. The announcer introduced us, and I set the barrel where Smets and Sparks had told me. Then I did a flip over the barrel, which is what Murray does as part of his opening routine. That was a mistake. The arena began tilting back and forth, as if we were at sea. I climbed woozily inside the barrel. Butterflies congregated beneath my larynx. Either that or tiny pieces of hot dog.
The first bull, Harry Void had told me, was not apt to attack the barrel. He would, however, posture theatrically in front of it. Sure enough, after he had bucked off the rider, the bull rumbled ponderously in my direction.
"Get down!" Sparks yelled.
I ducked and braced myself. Suddenly I felt Smets pushing down my head. "Get your head down in there," he said. "You want to get killed?"
The bull, fortunately, veered away. Smets was alarmed. "You've got to pry yourself in there, man," he said. He got in and showed me what he meant, pretzeling himself deep in the barrel. "Got it?" I nodded. But I heard him say to Sparks as they headed back to their positions, "He's gonna get knocked right out of there."
Murray, meanwhile, was telling the crowd, "No one knows how nervous he is except God and the person who does his laundry."
The next bull meant business. You could see it in his eyes when he caught sight of me in the barrel.
"Get down now," Sparks said, concern in his voice. He tipped the barrel over so it was lying on its side. "He's coming."
I braced myself, clenching my teeth. The foam padding smelled. I hoped I wouldn't throw up. I was pondering that eventuality when the bull slammed—Wham!—into the barrel, driving some air—Unng!—from my lungs.
The barrel tumbled over three or four times. I was pressing as hard as I could against its sides, determined not to be dislodged.
Wham! It hurt, and I was breathing dust. "You O.K.?" I heard Ronny ask.
Wham! It was like being blindsided by a linebacker. The barrel stopped rolling. I felt myself being righted. "Everything O.K.?" Ronny asked. I nodded, but my bell had been rung.
I lifted the barrel by the handles and shuffled back in front of the chutes. I was sweating hard, and it felt good to be breathing the air outside the barrel. The next couple of bulls ignored me, and the arena stopped tilting. I admired the ease with which Rob and Ronny led the bulls away from the fallen cowboys. Then Smets came over. He said, "This next one's pretty rank."
I remember it was brown. After it caught sight of me, I ducked down in the barrel pretty fast. Then Smets tipped me over. I braced myself for the crash.
Nothing. My teeth were clenched, every muscle in my body fully flexed in an isometric full-court press—and nothing. "Stay in there!" Smets warned. Still nothing. It was tiring.
The barrel spun. Why? What was happening? I kept flexing. The sweat dripped into my eyes, and I squeezed them shut. God, it was hot in there. And my mouth had never felt so dry. Suddenly, while expecting a collision, I heard laughter. Roars of it. Smets, I later learned, had spun the barrel so that the open end was facing the reluctant bull. Then he'd stepped aside and given the bull an after-you gesture, offering me up as a sacrifice. The bull, after much pawing of the ground, charged. Smets spun the barrel back around just in time.
Wham! Wham! Wham!
Three quick blows, jarring and deafening. I was tumbling fast now, utterly disoriented. Dirt was everywhere. It felt, with each concussion, like someone was shoveling sand in my face. The barrel stopped rolling for a moment, and Smets yelled, "Five feet!" I braced.
There was a pause. And more laughter. My head went dizzy, and pebbles began rolling up my nose. This was certainly a new sensation. I made a noise like Pffffth, trying to breathe. Sparks had turned the barrel upside down. When he finally righted it and told me I was safe, I staggered out of the barrel, into the sunlight, and saw the bull trotting toward the far end of the arena. I pretended to put up my dukes, then collapsed backward into the sand. If I'd had a white flag, I'd have waved it.
After the show, weak in the knees, I rolled the barrel back to its storage area behind the chutes. Smets and Sparks walked with me, and so did Murray, who was taking off his microphone. Those guys perform 150 times a year. I couldn't imagine it.
One of the bullriders approached them. He carried a little girl in his arms. I recognized her and gave her a wink. "Sure appreciate what you fellas do for us," the cowboy said.
The last thing a clown wants is to take the bull by the horns—which our would-be bullfighter tried to do the one time he got his chili cooled.
Before they faced a bull, students went to clown class and, like the author, sold fakes to a charging wheelbarrow.
Achest protector saved a student when he was most vulnerable, but a more experienced cowhand (left) suffered a couple of bad breaks.
Not one to tell jokes, our wannabe clown still looked the part, thanks to artfully applied makeup.
Our man in the can was an inviting target as he waddled toward his date with taurine destiny.
Head butts are legal at rodeos, as the author learned to his discomfort when he and his barrel came under attack.
A bull played pinball with a barrel containing a scared scribe who smelled the slobber.
The tears of a clown? No, it was pebbles from the barrel roll that caused this uncomfortable moment.