Rodeos test the mettle of paniolo
who brave the bucking bulls; our
writer finds out whether he's got
what it takes to be a cowboy
By C.R. DudleyBud Gibson looked me square in the eye, took my hand and held both until I looked away. Few men do that without deliberately intending to make the other fellow feel uncomfortable, to prick that delicate spot on the psyche that makes a man question his character, to silently ask, "What are you made of, boy?"
Gibson, New Town and Country Stables owner and one-time professional bull rider, isn't one of those people. None of that psychological gamesmanship spun off of him; his greeting was genuine.
"How you feelin', cowboy?" the 54-year-old Gibson said, gripping my hand with the strength of a cattleman and lowering heavy hazel eyes on me.
The day of my first bull ride had arrived.
For a week, Gibson and Naturally Hawaiian Gallery owner Patrick Ching had helped me prepare. They loaned me the equipment -- boots, chaps, rope, spurs. They arranged for bull fighters (don't call them rodeo clowns) Josh Reese and Bobby Joe Carlton to put me on the practice dummy to see if there was any cowboy in me at all.
I hoped I had some Marlboro man in my blood. My life began in the West, but breeding is just bull until you ride one. One thing I knew: If I didn't ride that bull, I would never call myself a cowboy again.
On the day I finally faced the beast, when Gibson clenched my hand and looked in my eyes, I knew he was making that ages-old cowboy statement, "The talkin's done, now show me."
Cattle and cowboys have been in Hawaii for more than 200 years. The first longhorns were put to land at Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island on Feb. 14, 1793. The paniolo tradition stretches back to 1832 when three vaqueros (Mexican cowboys) were hired by Kamehameha III to train locals in the roping and riding arts.
But it was long after the first real rodeo, on July 4, 1864, in Prescott, Ariz., that the rough stock games made it to Hawaii. Ikua Purdy introduced the mainland to Hawaiian paniolo when he won the world steer-roping title in Cheyenne, Wyo., in 1908.
Rodeo exploded in the islands after Purdy's accomplishment. By 1939 it was popular enough to draw 50,000 people to Honolulu Stadium. They watched as David Niau Jr. became the first in Hawaii to ride a Brahma for the required eight seconds.
But rodeo has gone and come and gone again since then. Fortunately, the spirit of the rodeo endures. On Wednesday the Fourth of July Rodeo comes back to New Town and Country in Waimanalo for the first time in more than a decade. The rodeo's other sponsors are Naturally Hawaiian Gallery and Out of the West Clothing.
New Town and Country is a place where a bull rider raising his hands overhead in victory is considered unseemly, though it is understood that the good Lord will look the other way given a particularly good ride.
If you need to interject an exclamation, you say nothing more explicit than "Goodness." You don't spit on the bulls, you don't curse at the bulls -- Bud Gibson loves his bulls.
"I get pumped just loading the bulls into the chutes," Bud said.
The rodeo is a world of "sirs" and "ma'ams," where the young grant you the respect due your experience in life without question. It's a world without cheap hype and fawning self-aggrandizement.
Some of the authenticity is born from raising food for people, some from hard work, some from facing fear. Bull riding is frightening.
A good bucking bull can live more than a decade longer than his counterparts in pasture, and, as they age, they get larger, faster and stronger.
Stories abound in the rodeo about bulls being tortured with straps and knots and spikes to get them to buck. But since the Brahma bloodline was introduced in America in the late 1920s, bucking bulls eagerly buck. If you sit on them, they will want to kill you, and every year there are casualties.
After days of questioning my sanity, losing sleep and enduring barbs from colleagues about funeral arrangements and living wills, I found myself outside the chute where my first bull, Cookie Monster, was loaded. He was big, three-quarters of a ton big. And he had horns.
With the help of Ching, I strapped myself to Cookie Monster. When the gate slammed open, I sat alone on a bull. Bull fighters Reese and Lee Clark watched for trouble.
When that chute opens, there's a moment -- it's probably a split second from the spectators' point of view -- as the bull turns his head out to the pen. From the bull rider's point of view, that moment lasts for a long time. It's a very quiet, torturous moment when all of that power is waiting to be sprung.
And then BOOM! The bull accelerates out of the chute. It's like being in a car accident, where the momentum is immense and completely out of your control. All you can do is hang on and watch. The animal is so powerful, so big and absolute that you can at best hope to hang on for eight seconds. I held on for four seconds and then maybe three seconds on my second bull.
The experience was so intense, so intoxicating, that I will ride again on the Fourth of July in an exhibition. Every cowboy should ride on the Fourth.
What would possess a body to sit on a 1,500-pound animal that wants you dead? Where did I ever get the idea that I wanted to ride the beast with the cloven hoof?
I did it for the rush. For those seconds of pureness, only those who risk their lives understand. I did it because when the gate swings open, it's just you and the bull and nothing else until you get away or the bull fighters save you -- if they can. But I also did it because I have always been drawn to the cowboy life.
I was born in New Mexico, at the White Sands Missile Range Hospital in Alamogordo, home of Fat Man and Little Boy, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It's a hot, brown place where country boys drive pickups, wear big hats, carry guns in holsters and loop well-worn lariats over gun racks.
When I was a child, my family moved to Hawaii, away from everything I wanted to be. I wanted to be a cowboy.
After high school I moved back to New Mexico, bought Western clothes and learned to two-step. I, too, drove a pickup truck with a gun rack and listened to Charlie Pride. But I always felt a little silly, like I hadn't earned my place. I was, in the parlance, all hat and no cattle.
The cowboy ethic is simple. You work hard. You don't complain. You live a good, respectable life, and you feed people, no matter who they are.
You don't wear a belt buckle that you didn't earn at a rodeo.
Your hat is part of your clothes and nothing to be ashamed of or hide. Wear it proudly, if you deserve it. But don't put your hat on your bed; that's bad luck.
Don't pluck a hat off another cowboy, either; he's likely to rip your shirt off. If he's too frail to do it, every cowboy within 100 yards will do it for him.
"A cowboy hat is something special," Gibson said to me as I stood with mine in my hand, hesitating to put it on my head. "You wear it. It'll save your life."
I'm not sure what he meant by that, but having heard nothing but cowboy honesty from Bud Gibson, I believe him. I believe him because it is all just bull until you ride one. And he's ridden hundreds.
The bucking-est, orneriest bulls in the state take center stage as paniolo and cowboys try to ride bulls for the longest eight seconds of their lives.
Naturally Hawaiian and
Out of the West Fourth of July Rodeo
Where: New Town and Country Stables, Waimanalo
When: Gates open 1:30 p.m., action starts at 3 p.m. Wednesday
Admission: $5 at the gate
Call: Naturally Hawaiian Gallery, 259-5354; Out of the West Clothing Co., 521-5552; or New Town and Country Stables, 259-9941
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