Only in the hard yellow light of day does the elemental man-against-beast loneliness of rodeo emerge. Up close, under any illumination, rodeo is splintery wood, creaking leather, dust, rasping rope, straining strength and the sweat of animals and men. But at a little remove, in the proscenium-stage backlighting of a high-country late afternoon, the mind's eye can blink away the grandstands, the polite uproar of the crowd, the crowd itself. All that remains is the quick equestrian contest of old—cowboy roping dogie—with only the silent sage plains and distant blue mountains as witness.
Darkness confines and encloses a rodeo; it walls out the rolling rangelands. There is still romance, but it is of a more modern and cinematic kind. Behind the chutes at a night rodeo like Casper's Central Wyoming ridin' and ropin' the floodlights shine through belly-high clouds of dust kicked up by the stock, lighting them an opaque white and silhouetting against them the horses and their riders and the buffalo banner of Wyoming. The effect is Hollywood posse.
Rodeo is a curious blend of the back-country-corral past and the citified big-time present. It is a sport that each year pays out $3.5 million to its participants, and one that draws 10 million spectators a year, more than the National Football League. Yet it is also a sport whose promoters give its stars billing just below oil-slick hillbilly singers, clowns, daddy's-daughter cowgirl queens, dog acts, second-rate television performers, third-rate movie stars and fourth-rate politicians. Any hummer, strummer, mummer or publicly paid plumber can get ranked ahead of any rider on a rodeo poster or program.
Rodeo is thus a great upholder of tradition. It has always been a cowboy's place to be nameless—and perhaps faceless, too. Who distinguishes one long-jawed, dark-haired, stubble-chinned subject of Remington or Russell from another? Then, too, by the very nature of his calling, a cowboy's face is forever being blurred, vibrated, contorted and ground into the dirt.
January 16, 1967
Be they as physically gifted, handsome and personable as Arnold Palmer on a day when stocks are up—and a remarkable percentage are—rodeo riders' status remains wholly incommensurate with their stature as athletes. Because they are an exceptionally amiable lot, this anonymity scarcely even strikes them as a disadvantage. Seldom does one of them think to complain about the insecurity of making a living in a sport that guarantees not one dime to participants and that, instead, levies stiff entrance fees.
Five-hundred-mile drives with station wagon and trailer to reach the next day's competition are routine with cowboys. Most of them compete in 50 to 60 rodeos a year. A man might like to have more than a couple of weeks off from the longest season of them all, but that's money lost. (Outdoors and in, north and south, rodeo runs year-round. A week of hunting in Montana or two weeks at home in Boise with his family are the extent of a cowboy's off season.) That $3.5 million a year in prize money remains a powerful incentive, and only the man who goes to a lot of rodeos can win his share—maybe as much as the $33,000 to $43,000 won by the all-around champion.
Still, after a few years of 500-mile drives to sample the dust of one small-town arena after another, rodeo looks like anything but easy wealth. All-day rides across the sunbaked, sun-bleached, sun blasted landscapes of the West succeed all-night rides over the vast empty plains—often without money to replace worn tires. Often scarcely enough money is left over from the rider's last winnings to pay the next entry fee. And at any moment during the competition a cowboy may sustain an injury that will cripple him and cut him off from his livelihood. So great are the hazards that only one insurance company in the country will cover rodeo cowboys. Despite the danger, cowboys act as if it were perfectly normal to approach a 650-pound Mexican steer, grab it by its horns and wrestle it to the ground. A cowboy's standard costume—wide-brimmed straw U-Roll-It, cheap but neat long-sleeved plaid shirt, and Wranglers rolled down to hide most of the boot—usually conceals several yards of tape.
Injuries are a part of the rodeo tradition. Bareback Rider Jim Shoulders once got such a yank on his arm from a bucking bronc that it snapped his collarbone. He completed the ride, got the day money, rode another bronc to win the event overall and finally rode a Brahma bull to win that event. Then he laid off a week to let the fracture mend.
Since there are some 3,400 active rodeoers, of which Stock Contractor Harry Knight estimates "there's not 45 guys in each event makin' a livin'," one wonders why more don't go back to punching a time clock instead of cattle. The answer lies in the character of most of the people associated with rodeos. There is bound to be strong mutual respect in a sport where each man goes into every competition solely on his own and dead even with everyone else, whether a champion or rookie. In the democracy of rodeo, breaks stay equal, too. Expensive horses are regularly lent around. A top money winner hazes for a near-novice bulldogger who, with the benefit of that help, can get lucky and take the day money. A cowboy fighting for bread never refuses to share information with his closest competitor on a particular animal's quirks—where the rein should be taken on a bronc, how a calf comes out of the chute. Other sports would call this sportsmanship; in rodeo it is simply the way things are done.
One of rodeo's foremost democrats—and certainly the exemplar extraordinary of the origins and character of its athletes—is Dean Oliver, 37, a three-time all-around world champion who just missed a fourth consecutive title in 1966. A big man with a deep-lined grin, Oliver remains the very archetype of the modern cowboy.
Observe him at the opening of any rodeo. Lights dim in the stands. A spotlight picks out the Stars and Stripes. Echoing discordantly, the first bars of the national anthem crash through the P.A. system. Oliver, hitherto oblivious to perhaps the 1,000th opening ceremony of his career, stops talking without apology or ado. He removes his hat unobtrusively, in the manner of a man who has decided to scratch his head. Throughout the anthem he peers intently at the hatband, as if to check that the size has not gotten too small.
It has not. Oliver, seven times top calf roper, views the economic insecurities and promotional inequities of his sport with equanimity sufficient to exasperate a stone Buddha. A friend confides, "I told that committeeman, 'If you advertise Dean Oliver, world champion cowboy, you'll get just as big a crowd as advertising any movie star, and a lot cheaper.' " Oliver politely agrees, but without great conviction.
Instead, like most of the riders at the Central Wyoming Fair and Nite Rodeo (even the rodeo itself gets second billing), he enjoyed hearing country-and-western vocalizer Eddy Arnold sing Cattle Call. "Boy, that ol' boy can really sing," he said ungrudgingly. "It just comes out like you or I would talk." Only when Arnold continued 45 minutes past his allotted 30 (as he did every night of the Casper rodeo) did admiration fade. "Thought he was pretty good when he started," someone growled, "but he ain't singing worth spit now."
"There's disadvantages to any line of work," Oliver responds to any discussion of rodeo's shortcomings. That imperturbability is about 95% a Westerner's natural, amiable stoicism. For the rest, some $30,000 a year in prize money comforts a man who says, "Rodeoin' was my only real chance to ever have anything."
"I never did like workin' for wages, anyhow," he reflects. "Before I rodeoed I worked on a dairy farm—$175 a month, seven days a week, getting up about 4 in the morning, ending up at 7:30 at night."
Such recollections come easily to Oliver, even after winning better than $300,000 roping calves and wrestling steers. Besides being athletic, humble, handsome, gentlemanly and too abstemious to smoke or drink so much as coffee, Oliver has entirely made his own way in the world.
The full story would abash Horatio Alger. Oliver was born in Dodge City, no less; lost his father in a light-plane crash at age 10; dropped out of school in the 10th grade to work as a regular ranch hand to help support his mother and six other children; never saw a major rodeo until he was 19; and seven years later, in 1955, won his first world calf-roping championship, becoming the first Northerner ever to triumph in this event.
"Backing, money, good calves to practice on, someone to work the chutes—he never had any of that," says his brother Dale. "When Daddy was killed it was pretty tough on all of us for a long time. We were destitute—on relief and all for food, clothing, the whole ball of wax."
Dean seldom speaks of those times. When he does, it is without embarrassment and with a kind of wistful humor. "I won a marbles championship in sixth grade," he suddenly said one day. "We was real poor, you know, and my shoe used to flap. The sole was loose. We still have a picture of me trying to shoot with one hand and hold my shoe with the other so it wouldn't flop open."
When Oliver finally did attend that first rodeo the measly $250 he saw a rider win looked like a lot of money to make in a few seconds. He went back to the dairy farm and started practicing holds on ornery milk cows. "I practiced tying guys' calves, too," Dean remembers ruefully. "I went out at night and tied 'em in the dark. Just tied. If you roped 'em they'd ketch you.
"I did have one calf I bought for $10, and I'd rope that on Sundays. Any oftener and it would have gotten too tame. It wasn't till some time that I made enough money to buy 10 or 15 of my own."
Because he lacked the good horse needed for roping or bulldogging, Oliver started rodeo competition in bronc-riding. He could practice that on the horse he did have, a mean old mare who habitually bit and kicked anyway. At 6 feet 3 and 200 pounds, however, Oliver was bigger than most bronc-busters (who run around 150 pounds) and made a terrible sound whenever he hit the ground, which was often. Wisely returning to timed events, he used the same horse for roping. "She wasn't much good," he says, "but by having to watch her all the time I sure learned a lot."
When he did venture out on the big circuit, times were hard. "I couldn't afford a spare tire for my trailer," Dean says. "If I got a flat I had to unhook it and go into the next town. And for two winters I had to go out and shoot deer to put meat on the table. We lived on that."
Oliver had acquired a family by that time. "I met Dean when he was working for my father on his sugar-beet farm," says Martha, a characteristically western woman with strong but pretty features, light-brown hair and eyes nearly the same shade of blue-gray as her husband's. "Beets were still plowed up with teams and topped by hand then. Dean was driving the team, and every time he came back with a load of beets we would talk." There is a strong suggestion that Oliver turned up a near-record number of sugar beets.
The Olivers have three daughters. The older girls, Sheryl, 14, and DeAnn, 10, were left at home in Boise during the Casper rodeo, but the youngest, Nikki, 3, was very much present to entertain clowns, enrich concessionaires and terrorize playmates. Shortly before the opening ceremonies, in fact, Dean had watched with mingled amusement and disapproval as Nikki squared off with a 5-year-old boy who had incurred her anger. And why, his wife wanted to know, had he not firmly removed his daughter? "I didn't want nobody to know it was mine," Dean said. "She's kinda spoiled, I guess." "Kinda!" Martha mocked. "And why do you suppose that is?"
It was time to get ready for the rodeo. Rolling up a pants leg, Oliver set to work taping his right knee. "I hurt it once," he explained. "This is just a Band-Aid I wrap it with." Then he removed his lariats from their airtight container, kneaded them slightly and spun a few experimental loops above his head. He watched closely to see that they twisted off flat and steady when he rolled his wrist. "The container—I used to use five-gallon lard cans—keeps ropes from getting too damp or too raggy," Dean explained. "I use ropes pretty soft myself, and if they get too stiff I put 'em in the car motor to warm up a little." Oliver carefully looped one lariat onto the saddle horn and another onto the side, soberly thanked Nikki for soberly bringing him bit and bridle and buckled spurs on his own heels and skid boots on his horse's fetlocks.
His horse, named Nancy, is the third used by Oliver since a stifle injury to Mickey, the sorrel gelding on which he won some $150,000 in seven years. "Mickey was the biggest thing in my winnin' a lot," Oliver says. "He had a lot of try in him, just wouldn't let you up. Nancy's a good horse—maybe a little too gentle—but Mickey worked a little better rope, pulled a little more. A horse has got to pull just enough to keep the calf's head down while you tie its feet."
None of that soppy boy-and-his-horse operetta for Oliver. He upholds the real, traditional cowboy attitude toward a horse, which is respect—a craftsman's respect for his tools, a decent respect for a creature that has to eat and work for a living just as he does.
"You can put a good man on an average horse and he won't win but a little," Dean maintains. "And good horses are scarce. You could look at a hundred and not find more than two or three you like. Of course, that's partly because every man looks for something different. For me, a horse that sets up too quick would be bad. I want it to stop exactly when I'm pitching the rope forward, and not before."
The night's roping had begun, and the starting judge came forward to warn Oliver that he was now second in line. Dean repinned his contest number more loosely to the back of his shirt, so that he would not be hampered by even that much restriction to free movement. Moments later, piggin' string in his teeth, he sat tautly in the ropers' gangway, so far back in the enclosure that the haunches of his horse pressed hard against the rear fence. The horse waited even more tensely, muscles bunched and twitching, for the calf to trip its self-opening chute door. Fifteen cowboys, perched along the arena fence like so many crows on a rail, leaned forward expectantly.
With a shove and a lunge the calf broke free, veering left. Ten feet out it crossed the deadline, whereupon the cord attached to its neck tripped open the gate of Oliver's gangway. Two enormous bounds, and Oliver's horse had overtaken the critter. The calf, a smart one, suddenly stopped short, kicked at the horse and then ran up alongside the left fence. Oliver lassoed it cleanly anyway, jerking it off its feet in one fast flip.
As his horse skidded to a halt, Oliver swung wide and gracefully one-handed off his saddle horn. Following down the rope, he picked up the 280-pound calf and flipped it in midair, legs up and ready to tie with the piggin' string. Halfway through the tying, however, the animal managed to lift its head, squirm and kick loose. After a foot race and a wrestle, Oliver got a hold on three legs again and wrapped the calf as fast and neat as a chuck roast in a meat market. But his time was 18.5 seconds, too much.
"Boy, I got a good fall on that calf," Oliver said later. "It didn't line out, it turned back and it got right up against the fence, so I don't know how I roped it, and I still could have had a 16. But you gotta take the shakes as they come. Some folks start slumps and let it eat on 'em. Pretty soon they ain't no more threat than anybody you ain't never saw."
This cheeriness in adversity had a thorough test in succeeding days. After riding past his steer in the bulldogging, and putting himself out of the running in that event, Dean lost his calf in the second roping go-round when Nancy didn't get back on the end of the rope quick enough, thus letting the calf struggle to its feet. His combined time of 33.9 seconds was good enough for fourth-place roping money, but it was bad by Oliver standards. Yet he was not disappointed. Never surprised to win, Oliver is also never surprised to lose. Besides, there was another rodeo in Monte Vista, Co o., 750 miles away, beginning the next day. For a cowboy, there is always another rodeo.