Reflecting on Rodeo at the Calgary Stampede


My daughter and I had the opportunity last weekend to see the famous Calgary Stampede. We were here on professional business, had time off, and reckoned that if you're in Calgary during the Stampede, you'd regret it if you didn't see what is billed as "the greatest outdoor show on earth," and is widely recognized as one of the handful of greatest rodeos in North America.

We bought our tickets online, made our way to the stadium using public transport, and zipped through an electronic kiosk with the greatest of ease. The seats were well marked and comfortable, with good sight lines to the big arena. Because it was Canada, everyone behaved with a kind of civility we haven't seen in American life for decades. In the row behind us, a man and his young son had taken the wrong seats (wrong section). When this was politely pointed out to them by the rightful occupants, there was no dispute of any sort. Everyone apologized to everyone else for a while, all around, and then the father and son edged their way through twenty sitting patrons to the aisle without experiencing a single sigh or glare. Oh Canada.

The arena was flawlessly groomed, the shoots freshly painted in white, with red trim, all the signage professional and tasteful, and every reach of the entire facility, from the restrooms to the furthest reaches of the stands, spotlessly clean.

Calgary really knows how to host a show.

The Calgary Stampede is an invitation-only rodeo. That means that only the best riders in North America participate, which makes for breathtaking but rather predictable rides. The overwhelming majority of bareback and saddle bronc riders stayed on their horses, and well more than half of the bull riders held on for the full eight seconds. The lowest percentages we saw were in tie-down roping and steer wrestling. It's fun to watch that level of professional ability, and to speculate on what it takes for a 20-year-old kid to get that good at riding a large dangerous animal bent on throwing him to the ground and maybe stomping on him too. How many times have you been bucked off bulls in small rural arenas before you learn to stay on more than half the time?

The announcers, some of them famous on the rodeo circuit, kept us informed about who was coming off reconstruction knee surgery, who had to sit out last year after three consecutive concussions, and who got "all tore up" in Las Vegas last year when the clown and bullfighters could not distract some legendary bull from his wrath. The winning barrel racer explained that she now wears a helmet after a fall that required five reconstructive facial surgeries. About one out of four bronc riders lurch-limped out of the arena in excruciating pain, not because they were hurt in today's ride, but because they got "stove up" a week ago somewhere else and determined not to let that slow them down. When the announcers cheerfully explain each rider's recent chapter of grave injuries, from dislocated shoulders to groin pulls, it makes you wonder if these are heroes of the Old West or people lacking in the most rudimentary good sense.

Rodeo had its origins in actual ranch life, often during the spring or fall roundup, when the gathered cowboys would take turns during leisure hours trying to ride unbroken horses or show off their roping and tying skills. That's what I like most about rodeo. It develops and showcases skills that were once, and to a certain extent still are, essential in ranch life. From up in the stands, it is easy to take the skill level for granted, especially in an all-star rodeo like the Calgary Stampede where North American champions make everything look so easy. But when you get down to arena level and observe the actual relationships between man or woman and horse more closely, you begin to feel how the strange, powerful, almost mystical connection works. It is a cliché to call a great rodeo rider a "centaur," the half man, half horse figure from Greek mythology, but there is something to it. The horses are magnificent to watch in action, backing gracefully to their marks, responding to the slightest nudge of a knee, stopping on a dime to let the cowboy jump down to tie three legs of a terrified, squalling calf, or leaning almost prone to the ground around a barrel with only a few inches to spare.

The minute you spend time at a rodeo you realize what a remarkable subculture it is. I generalize but this is what you tend to find: seriously Christian, intensely patriotic, grounded in the best rural values of decency, discipline, hard work, neighborliness, and grit. Country music in every boom box and ear bud. Corny but generous announcers who specialize in "western grammar," who tend at some point during the rodeo edge up towards a hint of sexual or racial stereotyping, but who console the losers and remind the winners that just a week ago in Saskatoon they were thrown headlong into the dust.

My daughter and I drove through the rodeo grounds at Bowman, ND, in early June during the state high school rodeo competition. We threaded our puny Honda civic through a sea of fifth wheel horse-campers the size of Rhode Island, pulled by pickups that you have to use a ladder to get in. Each one had a couple of beautiful horses tied up by its side. There were patios and pullouts and giant gas grills and flags of every sort and tiki lights and deck chairs and racks of cowboy boots and hats that made it feel like an outdoor sales event. It is not an exaggeration to say that some of these rodeo families have more invested in their rodeo rigs than I have in my home, and these are just the amateurs, ranch families working to provide their kids with wholesome recreational opportunities and hold up one of America's great traditions.

We loved the Calgary Stampede, but the truth is that three weeks ago we went to a small rural rodeo in the boondocks of North Dakota, ($6 bucks, "no returns"), and had a much better time. The riders fell off well more than half the time. Almost no team managed to rope a calf at both ends successfully. The announcer dreamed of being famous but he's not likely to quit his day job anytime soon. In the uncomfortable bleachers (no luxury boxes, no jumbotron) neighbors chatted in that familiar friendly way and shred out food. There were no urban wannabees in gleaming new cowboy hats and worn-for-the-first-time cowboy boots scouring their official programs trying to figure out the rules.

The Cowboy Prayer chokes me up every time because it is so perfectly corny, so steeped in romance and faith and Americana. The Calgary Stampede is too slick, professional, efficient to be an authentic expression of rural life, the riders are too masterful, and there aren't enough pint-sized kids bouncing around the arena on giant horses. The rodeo queen and princesses at the Calgary Stampede seem to come from central casting, not last year's prom.

What makes rural culture great is its earnest amateurism, real people doing remarkable things with heart and cheerful imperfection. It has to be just a little clunky to be fully life affirming, and fully authentic. That's what makes you smile and believe again.

When a Flying Drop Kick Still Won the Day for Truth and Virtue

Some days I feel like the luckiest man alive. Here, for example, is the kind of mother I have. We exchange notes a couple of times per week. Yesterday morning, after a week-long silence, I got the following text: "Verne Gagne has died." Nothing more. Almost Biblical in its simplicity. The minute I read those telegraphic words my mind drifted off into an adolescent reverie.

Four plus decades ago, every Saturday night for several years my friend Robert ("Brother") and I used to make a homemade pizza (All Star Pizza) at his house, and watch grown men in tights, in grainy and flickering black and white images, lumber and bellow around the Minneapolis Auditorium. The giants of the "squared circle" were Verne Gagne and Mad Dog Vachon (and his brother the Butcher), the flying Frenchman Rene Goulet, Pampero Firpo the Wild Bull of the Pampas, the very capable Kenny Jay, and Iron Man George Gadaski. And of course the evil genius of professional wrestling, Dr. X, who had deposited a $1000 certified check in a Minneapolis bank for anyone who could break the Figure Four Leg Lock (once properly applied).

That's a great mother.

Rest in peace, Verne Gagne. If there is an All Star Heaven, I feel certain you will break the Figure Four Leg Lock no matter how it is applied, and quite possibly unmask Dr. X for the first time. May the marvelous old announcer Roger Kent be on hand to say, "Oooh, I hate to see that hold," and "Ladies and Gentlemen, that hold is banned in many states." Or his signature line: "That's an arm bar with a twist—sounds like a drink to me!"

My grandmother was pretty certain professional wrestling was real, not fake. She was curious about Gagne's elixir Gera Speed, which she reckoned had made him a superman, but we never ordered it. Saturday nights on the farm in Minnesota, she and I would watch All Star Wrestling with the sound turned low, so as not to wake Grandpa who had to be up at four to milk the cows. But she would get so worked up by some ring infraction—the absolute worst thing you could ever do was gouge Gagne's eyes with a foreign object—that she would cry out in protest and slap her knee, and pretty soon Grandpa would appear in the doorway in his homemade pajamas either to rebuke us severely or to call us "damned fools" and make some grimacing gesture in imitation of Mad Dog Vachon.

Verne Gagne, dead at 89.

"Well, after all," said my mother on the phone later, "he was a very old man." Let's see: Gagne 89, Mother 83, admittedly a youthful 83. I resisted the impulse for a smart aleck response. She read me the account of his life and death from the Minneapolis Tribune, mispronouncing some of the names of his celebrated opponents. She was never a true initiate. She couldn't tell a half nelson from a side headlock if her life depended on it. But I do not judge her (Matthew 7:1).

Nostalgia is a strange thing. I suppose the author Doug Larson is right, "Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days." The years of All Star Wrestling were years of pain for me, which perhaps explains why I escaped every Saturday night to eat soggy, doughy peperoni pizza while watching grainy men in speedos bellow and gesticulate. It also explains why there were no dates.

My mother is one who is more likely to stride forward than look back, but she seems to be experiencing a wave of nostalgia these days. She reminded me on the phone last night that my father died 20 years ago this week, in the New Room of our house in Dickinson (still New in the family lexicon). I miss him every single day. Current events intrigued him. He could talk about whatever was passing in the world with insight and wit, and he always had his facts straight. You could not get him to watch All Star Wrestling with a cattle prod—apparently he had what are known as "human standards"—and since we had only one television, indeed one that required you to get up to change the channel, the voice of Roger Kent Ringside (as we called him) was never heard in our house.

When I was a child there was pro boxing on television on Saturday nights. My father would watch for a few minutes while reading the New Yorker in his favorite reading chair. For a few years there was also a Saturday night show called Have Gun Will Travel, starring Richard Boone as a gunslinger called Paladin. We had a special little funky family meal we invariably ate on Saturday nights. I'm sworn to secrecy about its contents, but I am permitted to divulge that it involved homemade hors-d'oeuvres, including, I'm sorry to say, Vienna Sausages.

After my call with my mother, I got out my first photo album to see how many All Star wrestlers I could identify. My parents gave me a 35mm camera for my 13th birthday—maybe the greatest gift of my life. They let me build a darkroom in a storage room just off the kitchen, and for the next four years I spent most of my free time knuckles deep in chemical (Dektol) and using what little cash I had to buy bulk 35mm film (Tri-X) and stiff yellow Kodak boxes of printing paper. My eccentric uncle Joe of Seattle gave me his darkroom equipment.

There was mystery in photography then, and craft, and ritual. Between the moment you snapped the photo (no auto focus, no auto aperture and shutter speed) and the time when you placed a dried print in front of another human being, there were several dozen discrete steps, involving total darkness, wire spools, a red darkroom light, chemical baths, paper cutters, framing wands, negative and print dryers. The process could break down at any point, and if your sister burst into the room to brush her teeth, the whole enterprise could be lost.

My little 5x7 homemade album contains some of the first hundred photos I took and printed. Talk about nostalgia. Pictures of our Schnauzer "Scamp" as a tiny puppy. Pictures of an unhappy family vacation in Winnipeg. My father reading in his chair. My mother in the 70s: big glasses and big hair. My confirmation: me, impossibly young and innocent, wearing pants I had grown out of, my sponsor Robert Burda looking sponsory. Photos of Robert (Brother) with his Dalmatians. A photo of the Ole Reb yodeling reveille at KFYR. My first ham radio kit.

A photo (one of hundreds taken) of our round television screen, with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bouncing around the moon: July 20, 1969, affixed with yellowing Scotch tape to the page, with my youthful handwriting, all patriotism and techno-pride: "Man Walks on the Moon!!!"

And there he is, Verne Gagne, undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World standing near the turnbuckle in the Trinity High School gym in Dickinson, legs spread in triumph, looking handsome and virile and, well, pretty angry (through his smile), while on his knees before him is Mad Dog Vachon, arms stretched out in supplication, begging for his sorry life.

Godspeed Verne Gagne.

May your cape be newly dry-cleaned, and your entrance fees be paid.

Mad Dog Vachon's Death Eclipses the Gaiety of Nations

The recent death of the professional wrestler Mad Dog Vachon (1929-2013) hit me like a metal folding chair or a flying drop kick. Vachon died quietly in his sleep in Omaha on November 21 at the age of 84. He is survived by six children, seven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. I hope they all suited up in trunks and high-top boots for the funeral, like a professional circus family, and I hope the obsequies were held not in a church but in the "squared circle" of a dank wrestling arena out near the stockyards. Rumors that the two officiating priests actually tagged off during the service have not been substantiated.

Mad Dog's death set off a chain of bittersweet memories for me. Such names as Wahoo McDaniel, The Flying Frenchman Rene Goulet, The Crusher, The Bruiser, The Crippler, Nick Bockwinkel, The Very Capable Kenny Jay, Bobby Red Cloud, and Cowboy Bill Watts came flocking in on me for the first time in many years. If I close my eyes I can actually see Dr. X strutting around the interview area in his celebrated mask, hands outstretched like a cat, bawling and bragging and growling and threatening to break Vern Gagne's legs one by one and throw him unceremoniously into the Mississippi River, while mild-mannered host and promoter Wally Karbo tries to talk him back to civility.

I can see Mad Dog and his brother The Butcher breaking the rules and double-teaming Dusty Rhodes and against an exposed turnbuckle, while the 123-pound referee, with an outsized expression of sorrow and disbelief, threatens them with immediate disqualification. Let's face it. Now that he is dead we can for the first time safely declare that Mad Dog Vachon was a thug and a cheater in the ring. (I do not impugn his private life. I'm sure he was a model citizen outside the ring and a doting father who did not—as rumor had it—put his children in a Greco-Roman knuckle lock when they would not go to bed). But once he crawled into the squared circle he was a fleshy desperado with missing teeth, a bald head, and a goatee that made him look a little like Vladimir Lenin on steroids.

He bit. He scratched. He stomped. He choked. All that before the opening bell. And he had a penchant for raking a foreign object across the eyes of his opponents and then hiding the F.O. in his one-shouldered tunic in a way that everyone on the planet could see except the referee, who for some reason was momentarily distracted. Ah, the injustice of the world. `

It is sometimes said that if we got back every hour that we have spent watching TV, we could walk around the planet. Forget that. If I just had every hour back that I spent watching the old All Star Wrestling show that emanated from Minneapolis, Minnesota, I could walk the planet several times.

Almost every Saturday night between seventh and tenth grade, my friend Robert B. and I made homemade pizzas in his kitchen two blocks from my home near downtown Dickinson. We called it All Star Pizza. Clever boys. One of us would knead and spread the dough while the other cut peperoni slices and sprinkled the powdered Parmesan over the canned tomato sauce. We had pretty good timing for a couple of knuckleheads, so the piping hot homemade pizza came out of the oven just about the time the AWA announcer Roger Kent introduced the show. It was broadcast in black and white, of course, and the camera work was primitive. He invariably began by saying, "Good evening everyone, this is Roger Kent ringside coming to you from the Minneapolis Auditorium…" He made it sound as if he had three names, Roger Kent Ringside, so that's what we called him.

Actually, Roger Kent Ringside was a great sports announcer with a mock-heroic style perfectly suited to the … er, ambiguities of the sport. He expressed grave indignation when Pampero Firpo (The Wild Bull of the Pampas) raked another wrestler's eyes against the long zipper on his tunic. At least once per show he'd say, "Ooooh, I hate to see that hold. Ladies and gentlemen, that hold is barred in many states." When Iron Man George Gadaski made his characteristic move, Roger Kent would say, "That's an Arm Bar with a Twist–sounds like a drink to me!" And we laughed every time. When Dr. X entered the ring, masked and menacing, stomping around and making mock runs at the shrieking folks in the first row, Kent would invariably explain: "As perhaps you know, Dr. X has deposited a $1000 certified check in a Minneapolis bank for anyone who can break the Figure Four Leg Lock once it has been properly applied." Oh, we knew! Even then, uneducated as we were, Robert and I knew that Dr. X had left himself an infinite amount of legal wiggle room in those words: "once properly applied."

I'm guessing that Mad Dog was not Vachon's given name. If you name your son Mad Dog, you can kiss the Senate goodbye. Or the Papacy or the ballet. Names matter. You name your son Mad Dog and you should not be surprised when he comes home from Head Start with a trio of pit bulls, or gouges the eyes of his third grade teacher with a number two pencil. Who names her son Mad Dog? Name your son Mad Dog and he's almost certainly going to become a professional wrestler or perhaps night security at an auto wrecking yard.

But I am being facetious. Actually, the man who would later be crowned (well, actually, belted) one half of the Tag Team Champions of the World was christened Maurice Vachon in Montreal. That sounds more like an art historian or wine connoisseur to me, and it would not do for a sport in which the phrases "back breaker," "the atomic drop," and "pile driver" are mere routine. Vachon was actually a serious amateur wrestler before he crossed over to the dark side. He competed at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, and he won a gold medal at the 1950 British Empire Games.

After a long, brilliant, and criminal career, Mad Dog finally hung up his tunic in 1986 when he was pretty long in his remaining tooth. As MacArthur said, old wrestlers never die, they just slip under the ring. One year after his retirement, Mad Dog was struck by a hit and run driver in Omaha. His leg had to be amputated. I completely discount the persistent rumors that the driver was wearing a mask and that his vanity plates said FGR4LGLK.

I saw Mad Dog fight twice, once in Fargo in 1968 and a year or two later in the auditorium at Trinity High School in Dickinson. Robert's father drove us to a match in Fargo for his eighth grade graduation present. We were thrilled to sit close enough to be spit on by several 300-pound nearly naked middle-aged men. I frowned at Mad Dog after a particularly egregious chokehold, and he smirked back in a sweetly menacing way. I felt we bonded.

How I feel about the death of Mad Dog was best expressed by the British literary dictator Samuel Johnson when the great actor David Garrick died on January 20, 1779. "His death," Johnson wrote, "eclipsed the gaiety of nations."

And I fervently hope when he entered the gates of heaven, Mad Dog and St. Peter enjoyed an Arm Bar with a Twist. A double.