C is for Cowboy…

At seventeen, Tomio Dubanowski was a ‘cool’ guy, and everybody knew that the cool guys rode bulls. What was eight seconds? Nothing. Any fool could hang on that long.

He gathered his savings, forged his parents’ signatures, and sent in an entry fee.

One evening, a week later, around the family dinner table, his sister, Kimi said, “Tell them.”

“Tell us what, Son?” said Josef, his father.

“I sent in my entry for CHSRA.  I plan to join the circuit. Bull riding.”

Josef choked on a sip of wine. His mother set down her fork and folded her hands. Kimi excused herself from the table and began clearing plates.

Josef cleared his throat. “I don’t remember signing any forms for that?”

Tomio looked to his sister. She shrugged and grabbed the platter of roast beef.

“Uh. You must have, I sent it in.”

“Tomio,” said his mother. When she used that tone, the world was going to crash around his ears. “Please excuse yourself and go to your room.”

He lay on his bed in his darkened room, wondering if he could get a refund. He dreaded what his parents were calculating as punishment for forging their signatures. There was a knock on his door, but before he could answer, his father walked in.

Tomio sat up.

Josef sat in the chair at his desk and sighed. “Obviously, your mother and I are appalled about the signatures. You stepped way beyond the line.” He folded his hands together in his lap.

Tomio appreciated his restraint.

“What a knucklehead. Sittin’ on a horse pushing cattle is not the same as bull riding. Roping steers doesn’t make you a bull expert, or even strong enough to handle leading one in a kiddie ring. What the hell were you thinking?”

“All the cool guys are doing it.”

“All the idiots, Son, not the cool guys.”

“You want me to be a cowboy, well here it is, cowboys ride bulls.”

“Aaugh. Cowboys work herd. Idiots ride bulls.” Josef shook his head. “What’s done is done. I called around; there are no refunds. You either forfeit or you ride.”

“I want to ride.”

“Your mother and I expected that.” He hung his head. “There’s only one thing for it, I guess.” He looked Tomio squarely in the eye. “We had better get prepared. I don’t plan to lose my only son to some son-of-a-bitch bull.”

For the next three weeks, Tom spent every afternoon after school working with his father, learning the tricks of the ride. The owner of the ranch where his father worked had a mechanical bull and Josef got permission to use it. The first week, Tom flew off within the first couple of seconds.  By the second week, he could ride a full ten seconds at the middle setting if he used both hands. By the end of the third week, he could hold his form at the highest setting for a full ten seconds.

It was time to try a real animal. The ranch had two young bulls that were not ready for breeding. Tom thought they were magnificent, but he knew that riding the bulls at the ranch would not be the same as mounting a seasoned rodeo bull. Rodeo bulls knew tricks, tricks that could kill a man. He was tough, he knew that, but he wasn’t stupid. Bulls were tougher.

The night before his first competition, Tom’s dad said, “Come.” In the garage, he grabbed a box from the top shelve above his workbench. Inside it was a very beat up, old hockey helmet with an attached face guard.

“What’s that?” said Tomio.

“It’s my old helmet. You can wear it tomorrow.”

“Cowboys don’t wear hockey masks.”

“They do if they’re smart,” said his father.

“Dad, I can’t be seen wearing that thing. It’s not cool.”

“Do you want to be cool, or do you want to survive?”

“Both.”

“Then you’ll wear it.”

Tomio turned away.

“No, Son.” Josef grabbed him. “You wear it, or you don’t ride.”

“You can’t stop me.”

“Try me.” His dad’s eyes were fierce. Tom had no doubt that he could take him out with one swipe of his big hand and should his father decide to use another tactic, it would be hard to sit a bull if his butt was burning, Reluctantly, he took it.

“Good. I’m looking forward to watching you handle that bull, tomorrow, Knucklehead.”

A rattling water truck circled the arena, wetting the turf. The crowd roared when the rodeo clown danced around the truck, especially when the driver shoed him away with an overly large cowboy hat as if swatting an annoying mosquito.

Tom looked down on the bull in the chute. Old Faithful. He was fierce, a lucky draw for any rider that wanted to rack up high points. Tom just wanted to survive. “Well, here we go,” he said, as the bull reared and banged against the wall of the chute.

A horn blasted, signaling the exit of the water truck. The announcer’s voice boomed through the PA system, “Tom Dubanowski, Number Thirty-five on Old Faithful.” The crowd groaned.

Tom gazed toward the top stands, where his family sat.

His father jumped up in alarm.

It was the cowboy hat. What his father couldn’t see, was that he wore the hockey helmet under the borrowed hat. If his father missed it, the cool crowd would, too. 

Old Faithful snorted and bolted in the chute.

The sights of the event, and the roar of the crowd vanished as Tom’s focus narrowed. It was just him and the bull. Out of the silence he heard, “You ready, son?”

Tom sighed. He climbed onto Old Faithful’s back and felt the muscles of the giant beast bunch under him. Eight seconds, that’s all the time they needed to spend together. Just eight.

The voice from the silence said, “Get off the ground as soon as you can. Faithful comes around, every time, to stomp the rider, but he’ll help you get a high score if you can stay the distance.”

“Stay the distance,” Tom whispered. The bull bunched in anticipation. Tom tightened his hand on the bull rope. He prayed to the gods that he had enough rosin on his glove.  

He heard the countdown, “Three, two, one.”

The chute swung open. Old Faithful reared and leaped forward. Tom’s legs flew up and his body flew back, but he held on. Faithful bucked twice, gaining ground in the arena and then started a quick, tight, twirling motion. The cowboy hat flew off. Tom didn’t have time to worry about his image.

Faithful changed directions and kicked out with his hind legs, then twirled some more. The motion caused Tom’s teeth to tear through his tongue, but he held on.

Three more twists and Faithful bucked again. Then he leaped into the air and Tom prepared for the worst. He sunfished, a bizarre leap with a belly roll, all four legs twisting to the right. Tom’s elbow and shoulder wrenched with the motion, but he kept his fingers locked tight on the rope, held his right hand high. He worked hard to keep his legs forward. If they slipped back, he was a goner. He would fly over Faithful’s head and be crushed at the end of this maneuver. His legs stayed up. Faithful hit the ground with the force of a meteor hitting Earth, and Tom’s teeth clashed together. Pain flared up the sides of his head.

 Faithful wasn’t done. He bucked to the left, made a quick right turn and bucked hard. He sunfished once more, and Tom thought “Please buzz me out.”

A clown ran toward them, motioning “Get off, get off now.”

Tom let go, and flew to the left, crashing into the ground on his wrenched arm.

He dimly remembered, “Comes around, every time…stomps the rider.”

He scrambled to his knees, got his feet under him, and ran for the nearest fence. His left arm was useless, but he grabbed the top rail with his right and hauled himself over it. He fell again on the other side, this time twisting his left wrist underneath his body. All he could think of was, “Thank the gods I am right handed.”

That night, in the emergency room, while he and his mother waited for the X-rays, he said, “Do you think I’ll get a cast?”

“Oh, Tomio.”

“I hope so. That would be cool.”

“You don’t need cool. You have this.” She poked his head.

His father walked in and said, “That was some ridin’. Didn’t appreciate the scare with the hat, but guess you had somethin’ to prove.”

“Just wanted to be cool, Dad.”

“Well, thanks for wearing the gear.”

The doctor stepped into the cubicle. “You, young man, have no broken bones.”

“Aw, dang it,” said Tom.

“What you do have is a severely sprained wrist and elbow. Your shoulder could use some rest, too.”

“Do I get a cast?” said Tom.

“No,” said the doctor.

“But I want a cast.”

“Tomio,” said his mother. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“How about if we wrap it and put it into a sling? All the cool guys wear slings.” He winked at Tomio’s parents. “I’ll set up physical therapy for next week.”

Tom sat quietly as the doctor wrapped his arm, and set it into a sling. Then he said, “Sorry I didn’t win, Dad.”

“Who says you didn’t win,” said his father. He winked at his mother.

“I popped off before the buzzer,” said Tom.

“Are you kidding me? You rode two seconds after the buzzer, high score of the day.”

What?” said Tom.

His father pulled a buckle from behind his back. It was huge, glittering with silver and gold. A bull and rider flew above the CHSRA emblem. Tom’s hand shook as he held it. He had never considered winning. He just wanted to be cool.

His father said, “Is this summer from now on?”

Tom shook his head. “No way. I am never doing that again. But I am cool, aren’t I?”

“Yeah, you’re a real cowboy,” said his father.

  1. California High School Rodeo Association; California’s division of the National High School Rodeo Association. In 2004, a few brave riders started to use hockey helmets and face guards in the bull riding event. Now, most youth associations require them. That was not the case when Tom was riding. http://www.chsra.com/

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