This weekend I went to a Rodeo with my parents. There is something strangely familiar about Rodeos. Even my mother pointed it out when we left. She said, "Well I feel like I'm at home." This is a strange thing to say because there aren't Rodeos where my mother comes from. In fact, this weekend was the first time she'd ever been to one. This got me thinking. Six years ago, I had been to a rodeo in Oklahoma and left feeling homesick for my grandparent's farm.
My mother grew up on a farm in the mountains of Kentucky, and that same farm was a staple of my childhood. No matter where we moved in the world, we always came back to Vancleve. My sister and I would roll around in the corn bin, chase wild kittens, and crawl through itchy hay mazes carefully constructed by our boy cousins. These were the joys of grandma and grandpa's farm, but there were no horses, or boots in these memories. There were my grandfather's large rubber boots and his carefully pressed dress pants, but no wrangler jeans and cowboy hats. My mother's family were farmers, not cowboys. So what was it about the sawdust, cowboys, cattle, and horses that made my mother and me nostalgic?
One particularly brutal game at the Rodeo was the calf-tieing. The cowboy came tearing out of the gate on his horse with his lasso up. When the loop sunk around the calf's neck and tightened, the calf jerked backwards through the air. The cowboy jumped off his horse, ran up to the calf, grabbed its flank, and threw it down on the ground. Next he took a foot, and tied three of the legs together. From the crowd this looked harsh -- the poor calf flopping around the ground, it's legs tied in three. My mother and I looked at each other and grimaced. But once the rope was released, the animal jumped up and trotted out of the rink, as if nothing had happened. Over and over again, we watched these baby cows get wrestled to the ground, and then pop up seemingly unscathed.
Less brutal, but just as thrilling was the barrel racing. The women came galloping out of the gate, turning their horses around the barrels, and charging toward the finish line at thirty to thirty-five miles an hour. You could feel a rush of wind when the horses sped past your bend of the ring. When you're sitting in a car, it's easy to forget how fast thirty miles an hour really is. I marveled at the agility of the horses and thier riders. The women's bodies moved in motion with each gallop, as if they were an easy extention of the horse.
At one point in the show, the MC said, "There is absolute trust between these animals and their humans." The way the men and women worked their horses, rode the bulls, and herded the cows reminded me of the way my grandfather handled his animals. It was a strange kind of gentleness.
My grandfather was a farmer and a veterinarian. I remember watching him take care of peoples' pets. On one occasion he held a sick kitten in his hands. It was if I saw the kitten's thin life held between his fingers. With a simple twist my grandfather could have killed it, but had his grip been any looser the kitten could have scratched itself free. Strangely harsh, and yet reassured. Rough, and yet perfectly executed, my grandfather's grip healed animals. The kitten would submit for the moment, take it's vaccine, and then run from the table.
I have seen my grandfather walk into a squeal of piglets, reach down and flip a baby up by its hind legs. This single, swift movement had a brutal elegance about it. The piglets would scream bloody murder, and yet he had them, firmly caught in his hand. Have you ever tried to hold a baby pig? I have, and never successfully. They are firm, and small, and violent. They will shoot between your arms faster then a sneeze. My grandfather knew how to hold a pig.
My mother has told me that my grandfather knew when his cows were sick. Sometimes, he would wake up in the middle of the night, a sixth sense telling him when one was giving birth, or hurt.
Watching the cowboys and cowgirls at the rodeo handling their animals with the same brutal care that my grandfather handled his animals, brought back memories. I'm sure it did for my mother too. My grandfather's grip was strong, his hands were rough, but his family knew, just as the animals knew, that his hands could be trusted.