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I’ve been hearing a lot of Merle Haggard on the jukebox lately. “Swingin’ Doors,” “Mama Tried” and especially “Fightin’ Side of Me.”
Merle, world-famous country western musician and longtime Shasta County resident, passed away in Palo Cedro earlier this month, but the sentiment he raised through his music remains the same:
“I hear people talkin’ bad
About the way we have to live here in this country.
Harpin’ on the wars we fight,
An’ gripin’ ’bout the way things oughta be.
“An’ I don’t mind ’em switchin’ sides,
An’ standin’ up for things they believe in.
When they’re runnin’ down my country, man,
They’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.”
That’s the chip I wore on my shoulder to the grand finale of the Red Bluff Round-Up last Sunday. By no means was this my first rodeo, and I was spoiling for a fight. Because to my mind that’s what people do at rodeos. The bulldogger picks a fight with the steer. The barrel racer picks a fight against the clock. The bull rider picks a fight with the so-called animal athlete. The rodeo clown fights to keep the fights under control.
Rodeo reminds us, like the startled ground squirrel I nearly ran over on the way to the event, that the struggle is real.
Of course, I was immediately disarmed upon entry into the Tehama County fairgrounds, where a giant American flag was hanging off a giant construction crane, gently unfurling in the slight breeze. The last time I saw something hanging off a crane like that, it was an American, the Brody character from the HBO series “Homeland,” executed for espionage.
As the flag unfurled, three Mexican cowboys were walking in front of me, real cowboys; short, wiry and hard-bitten from working animals and the land. I imagined they weren’t Trump supporters. I imagined they’d never even heard of Donald Trump. I imagined a race riot when the white cowboys and Latino cowboys met up. It never happened.
Nothing political seemed to be on anyone’s mind, with the exception of mine. A northern California rodeo is just the place you’d expect to find representatives from the State of Jefferson movement, but aside from one bumper sticker in the parking lot, the green-and-yellow Jefferson State seal was nowhere to be found.
It was hot, I knew that. I had just been complaining about conservationists warning we’re still in a drought instead of stopping and smelling the flowers when just like that the flowers were gone. I saw that on the way to the rodeo, taking back roads from Redding to Red Bluff, the fields of orange, gold, purple, blue, white and green bleached dirty blond by the first flaming hot day of spring in northern California.
Just like that summer arrived, two months early, right on time.
It was Tough Enough To Wear Pink day at the rodeo and of course I’d been unable to find the one pink button-down shirt I own (just like on St. Paddy’s Day, underwear doesn’t count). So as usual I just wore black, which went together with the sun like an anvil goes with a hammer.
Never has anyone anywhere ever seen so much pink at a rodeo. You have to appreciate the whole pink thing, since the campaign has raised awareness and enormous amounts of money in support of researching and treating cancers that disproportionately strike women. Even the cowdudes were wearing pink chaps, something I’d never seen before, even in San Francisco.
The whole thing unfolded through a soft pink mist. It wasn’t a bummer, like you might expect, given that pink in this case equals the fight against cancer. As it turned out, the fight against cancer that takes our daughters, wives, sisters and cousins was the only real battle going on at the Red Bluff Round-Up and we appear to be winning. The rest was just a rodeo.
My favorite rodeo event — goat roping — was not on the program. Back in the day, they used to stake a goat out in the arena, then a girl on a pony would charge it, take it to the ground, and bind its willowy legs. “Goat roping” was also a euphemism for catching hippies and cutting their hair off where I grew up, and despite the fact that I had long hair back in those days, no one ever caught me.
I’m a patriot and a Christian, but I don’t like to wear it on my sleeve. Some anarchist or atheist might say something. But there were no anarchists or atheists on this day. The stars and stripes were everywhere, the giant flag hanging off the construction crane and another flag spiraling down out of the sky behind a parachutist commemorating our lost veterans, intertwined with the master of ceremony’s invocation explaining how the work of Christ and the advertisers supporting the rodeo are irrevocably linked.
I believed him. Looking up at the skydiver spiraling down, my head was spun like cotton candy whipped up in a tornado machine. I believed him.
I was hungry, and thank God the world’s best rodeo chow, corn dogs, were in ample supply at the round up. The corn dog has it all: protein, carbs and even fiber if you eat the stick.
But the only shade in the concession area was under the tarps covering the Crown Royal beer gardens on either side of the arena. I was on the south side, unshaded with the sun at my back, so I don’t know what happened over by the shaded main grandstand. But anyone on the south side old enough to drink hung out in the beer garden between events.
The sun, reflecting off the arena’s aluminum stands, really was that brutal. I know you’re not supposed to complain about the heat in northern California, but this very first day of heat, coming after the best rainy winter we’ve had in years, was a bit too much to take.
You can’t really pick a fight with the sun, so I paid attention to the MC, in order to get back to my seat in the searing aluminum bleachers to watch each next event. As much as the Red Bluff Round-Up bills itself as an old-school rodeo, nowadays nothing is old school. Everything is choreographed, from parachutists falling out of the sky trailing American flags, to bulls jumping out of the chutes to the extremely amplified sounds of the latest hip-hop song. As the MC constantly reminded us, we were being broadcast live on Wrangler TV, whatever that is.
It was strange, listening to this musical build-up before each ride and then hearing the MC chide us because we hadn’t cheered loud enough to drown out the music. Back in the day, the tension in the chute was palpable all by its lonesome, its lonesomeness was in fact the very thing that made it interesting. But the kids nowadays, especially the TV-watchers, need to have all the blanks filled, from sound to sight to everything except actually climbing on a bull and reaping the whirlwind.
Of course the smells of the rodeo have yet to be broadcast, but I’m sure they’re working on it. In the meantime, I took a heavy whiff of horse and cow manure any time I could get it at the Red Bluff Round-Up. I watched the feet of the young men in attendance, searching for cowboy boots cooler than my snakeskin Tony Llamas, and finding only bad ass, expensive work boots. Those boots said work, work hard, and you might not get rich, but you will be rewarded.
I couldn’t fight about that.