A reporter goes toe-to-hoof with a half-ton bull.
Thursday, July 17, 2008
It’s the Running of the Bulls, only backwards, and in Salinas, not Spain: I’m sprinting straight at a bull. He watches me, unmoving, 1,000 bovine pounds of potential energy and anger, thick saliva dangling from his giant jowls. I close to within a few yards. Suddenly he breaks toward me.
I’ve been coached to anticipate this by the pro bullfighters sitting on the Salinas Sports Complex fence encircling Colin and me. A crowd has gathered behind them, not so much to debate the sanity of the amateur rodeo reporting taking place as to witness its consequences.
Colin’s leaden head wants a collision. Mine doesn’t, but we’re less than 10 feet away, closer by the milli-moment. He lowers his anvil. And I leap.
Certain clues tend to tell you that you’re doing something dangerous.
The blazing-red cleats I’m wearing belong to a bullfighter who snapped his back trying to jump over a bull. The surface upon which I’m trying to waiver away any liability suddenly starts quaking mid-signature: Inside the long eight-wheel trailer I’m signing on, Colin is getting restless. My would-be mentor of the moment, pro bullfighter Andy Burelle of Ardmore, Okla., had this reaction when I showed up. “When you didn’t call me back last night,” he says, “I figured you chickened out.”
Burelle had already keyed me in on some counter-instinctive bullfighting tips by phone.
“You stay safe by sticking close to the bull,” he says. “You can turn faster than him. Little circles. Running in a straight line is not good. Stay close.”
For bullfighters at rodeo competitions like this weekend’s Salinas California Rodeo, that’s also how they earn higher scores from judges and a piece of the $24,000 purse. The more stylishly they execute their heavy-duty dance, the more points still.
Originally, bullfighters were the colorful “rodeo clowns” that leapt from the sidelines to rescue downed cowboys by distracting the massive wads of muscle that threatened to squish riders like Shiraz grapes. Today they’ve earned their own highly popular sport.
When I get to the rodeo office, the clues into what I’ve signed up for start to accumulate. I learn what getting “cow-killed” and “make the call” mean (one means getting mauled by a bull; the other, inviting him out of the pen to start a fight). I’m told the youthful cowboy named Dusty Tuckness is the one I saw flipping over a bull on YouTube. I learn that the pro telling me that this bull is going to rearrange my ribs, Ross Hill, believes his back is stronger than before he unsuccessfully back-flipped over a bull and broke it.
Later, Burrelle and I briefly practice footwork with a small wheelbarrow that simulates the bull’s maneuverability– quick straight lines, slow turns.
“I can teach anyone how to fight a bull,” Burelle says. “It’s the nerve I can’t teach.”
He ripped my shirt and hoof-stamped my back. I have his bull shit on my jeans and, I’m pretty sure, my neck– but no time to check with him ranging around me. And thanks to him, my clown-skirt has been knocked off.
Nerve is right– Colin’s full of it.
All I did was stand in the center of the ring– wearing the chest pad, the suspender-supported clown “shorts” and the cleats Burelle gave me– and ask the gentleman in the cowboy hat to let my new friend come out and play.
When the half-ton on hooves came thundering out of the trailer and into my personal space, it was a swallow-your-stirrups sort of moment. I knew from my 10-minute bullfighter crash course that fleeing was foolish, but a millennium’s worth of evolutionary electrical work simultaneously told me that flight was precisely what to do.
Soon enough I got Colin heading my way. My orifices puckered– but I waited, waited, and waited to break, only to find my feet flat when I needed them to be nimble. Suddenly the quick bastard had a short but straight line into my torso.
A funny things happened when Colin’s humongous head threw me Salinas skyward: The shouting from the assembled cowboys went quiet. My sense of gravity was completely revised. And my other remaining senses were simply numbed by the windmilling imagery in front of me.
But any humor ended when I hit the shitty dirt: Suddenly time slowed to a slug’s crawl, the shouting returned, and I became acutely aware that Colin’s spastic stomp dance was happening on my back and the dirt around me.
I’ll later understand what Burelle means when he says, “You know when the hookin’ is over?
“When his balls hit you in the head.”
There are other lessons that arrive best while crumpled in the manure-rich rodeo dirt. Namely, cowboys are crazy. Exhibits A, B and C are looking on, grinning at the guy splattered in the ring. Exhibit A, Ross Hill, will compete this weekend despite the backbreaker he sustained in January. Exhibit B, Dusty Tuckness, says that, at 22, his career will last, “as long as the good Lord lets me.” Exhibit C has an interesting reaction when I tell him that I had wrapped a deeply bruised leg up with an ACE bandage and took pain pills before the bullfighting session because I didn’t want them to worry about me.
“Did we look worried?” Burelle asks.
“That’s how it is for us,” he says. “You’re sore and you have to wake up the next day and call for one.”
Burelle leans toward me. “The first year I got my pro card I broke my ankle during the first rodeo I did,” he says. “But I didn’t want to lose my job.
“So I cut the cast off and completed the summer [season] with a fractured ankle.”
When Colin rushes me and I jump– hoping that on this crazy-cowboy-encouraged leap I might lift my feet high enough to clear him– another lesson arrives: Bulls aren’t stupid. Colin has seen me attempt this already, so he’s lifting his thick head sooner– more quickly than I can elevate over him. With one quick move, he powers his head through my leaping left thigh. I’m airborne again. The fact that Colin’s King City company is called Flying High Bull Company makes sense.
Stretched out like a fragile kite, I rotate in an impromptu piece of accidental gymnastics. I cut an arcing heels-way-over-head cartwheel through the 10am air, peaking at about 11 feet off the ground and landing on my tailbone harder than I ever have.
Back in the dirt, I learn the most important lesson: I don’t need to do this again.