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Chasing the Rodeo: On Wild Rides and Big Dreams, Broken Hearts and Broken Bones, and One Man's Search for the West
1. Essential Travel
The National Finals Rodeo
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma-December 1967
HERE'S A rodeo story for you.
The National Finals Rodeo kicked off its 1967 run in Oklahoma City on December 1, and I distinctly remember that day. It was one of those days when the wind sliced right through you, the sky was the color of fresh concrete, and the sleet-encrusted roads were, in the words of my next-door neighbor Paul Fey, "slicker than greased owl shit." Voices on radio and television discouraged all travel that wasn't essential.
I was twelve years old and living in Guthrie, Oklahoma, thirty miles north of Oklahoma City. I heard those warnings and sighed. It's not that I minded that school was closed down that Friday. But the highways too icy for travel? That was another matter. We had tickets for the National Finals, and I considered the drive to "The City" for the rodeo to be essential travel. Mom would consider it essential, too, but I wasn't sure about Dad. He'd be doing the driving. It would kill me if he agreed with the voices on radio and TV and decided we should stay home.
Mom had bought NFR tickets from the Guthrie Roundup Club back in the summer and had been guarding them as zealously as she guarded the milk bottle filled with real silver dollars she kept hidden in her closet. Since the inception of the NFR in the 1950s as rodeo's equivalent of the World Series, the event had struggled through tough times in Los Angeles and Dallas before relocating to the State Fairgrounds Arena in The City three years earlier. Ensuring the NFR's success in Oklahoma had become a matter of state pride. Buying a ticket gave you a chance to see the best rodeo cowboys in the world, but it also meant that you were doing something good for Oklahoma, a state that ached for anything that could generate some revenue or could raise its profile in the eyes of the rest of the country. (Even in the 1960s, Oklahoma reeled from its Dust Bowl image as a no-account place filled with ignorant Okies; many of the state's public libraries still banned copies of The Grapes of Wrath.) The NFR brought Oklahoma just the sort of national attention it craved. So good Oklahomans bought their tickets. And they turned out to fill the seats. Never mind a little ice storm.
We lived on five acres on the far-east side of Guthrie. On one corner of the property sat Dad's auto repair shop. From there, our small frame house was a half block up Pine Street. From my parents' bedroom window, I watched Dad trudge against the wind and sleet that night. It seemed to take him a lot longer than usual to make it from the north door of the shop to the front door of the house. I knew his face would be numb. I knew he'd be hearing the crunch of the frozen grass beneath his boots, the whistle of the wind, the pop from the leafless limbs of the Chinese elms in the front yard as they struggled with their load of ice. I knew he would be glancing up at Noble Avenue to see if any traffic was moving.
Dad stomped his boots clean on the front porch and came inside. Mom met him in the living room with fists planted on her hips. They went to the kitchen to talk. I cut through the Hollywood bathroom that separated my bedroom from theirs and plopped down on my Western-style bunk bed with a wagon-wheel footboard and cowboys and Indians on the bedspread. Ice on the inside of the windowpane next to my bed cinched my dark mood: I was certain that Dad would decide we should stay home.
A few minutes later, Mom came into the room. "Do you want to brave the storm and go to the rodeo tonight?" she asked.
Of course I ached to go, but it was important that I veil my enthusiasm. After all, I'd been twelve for a month and was practically a teenager. I'd already smoked my first cigarettes (stolen from my mother) and drank my first beer (from a six-pack of Falstaff supplied by a shirttail cousin). I knew about the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, and I even owned a copy of the Doors' first album. It wouldn't do for me to jump up and down like some kid and shout, "Are you nuts? Of course I want to go!"
"Yeah," I said. "I guess so. If you guys really want to. I mean, if Dad thinks it's safe."
She looked perplexed by my lack of excitement. That wasn't unusual. She often looked perplexed after talking to me in those days.
A few minutes later I heard Dad leave the house. Through the ice on the bedroom window, I saw our Chevy Impala station wagon pull up to the main door of the shop. Dad got out- still in his coveralls- and opened the door so he could drive the car inside. I didn't take that to be a good sign. I figured he was putting the car up for the night to keep it out of the sleet. I sighed and turned away from the window. But just then, Mom stuck her head in my bedroom and said, "Get ready. Dad's going to put the chains on the car."
I leaped up smiling, but only after she'd left.
I CAN'T REMEMBER the first time I went to a rodeo. I know I went to an amateur rodeo outside Guthrie, in utero, just days before I made my grand entrance on an unseasonably chilly Will Rogers's birthday, back when Eisenhower was president. (I always took that to be a good sign, being an Oklahoma kid who shared a birthday with Will Rogers, the great cowboy comedian.) I'm sure I was still in diapers when I first saw a rodeo with open eyes. Maybe at the Guthrie High School football field. Maybe at the Roundup Club grounds, which were sandwiched between Mineral Wells Park and the Logan County Fairgrounds. Maybe somewhere out of town. I do know rodeo's been a part of my life, in one way or another, for as long as I've been around.
I'm looking now at a photograph recently uncovered in the basement of my family's old house on Pine Street. It is Christmas morning, and I am four years old. On my head is a black Western hat. On my feet are shiny new black cowboy boots with fancy red and white stitching. My jeans are tucked into my boots. A two-gun belt, also black, rides low on my nonexistent hips, the holsters holding silver cap pistols. I have black leather gloves on my hands (movie foolishness, mostly inspired by Jack Palance in Shane; no real Western gunfighters-such as they were- engaged in such nonsense as wearing gloves while shooting). And there is a toy badge pinned to my shirt. I look like one bad tiny hombre.
The boots, hat, gun belt, gloves, and badge are Christmas presents. I can't remember them, and there's nothing really special about them. Any number of kids all over America probably got the same presents that year. Looking carefully, I see I'm wearing a brown belt through the loops of my jeans. This belt I do remember. It is a hand-tooled Western belt, and on the back is my middle name, Kip, the name I've always gone by. I wore this belt every day. Just as I wore miniature cowboy boots every day.
I'm not exaggerating when I say I wore cowboy boots every day. A couple of years later, I flunked shoe tying in kindergarten because I never wore shoes that tied. To this day people who watch me knot my sneakers say I do it backwards.
I came by my hand-tooled belt and boots honestly. My mother was a rodeo girl. From her teens into her early twenties, rodeo was her passion. As a senior, she chose for her Guthrie High School yearbook inscription the title of a famous Patsy Montana song, "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart." Every weekend, she and her girlfriends loaded up whatever car they could borrow and roared off to the nearest rodeo. Maybe one of the Guthrie Roundup Club's rodeos. Or maybe the indoor collegiate rodeos at Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State University) in Stillwater. Or maybe the jackpot rodeos at the Thedford Ranch near the tiny community of Orlando about twenty miles north of Guthrie. Or maybe the biggest rodeo in the county, the annual Eighty-Niners' Day Rodeo at Jelsma Stadium in Guthrie. They learned the intricacies of the sport. Undoubtedly, they flirted like all get-out with the cowboys. Mom told me she and her friends used to go to dances with the cowboys they'd met, sometimes impromptu dances at one of the girls' houses, where they'd play records, and two-step, and maybe play some dominoes and cards. You'd be naive not to believe that some serious business occurred after the dominoes were back in their box and the lights were turned down low.
So it's not surprising that Mom dressed me in boots and jeans and a Western. But there's more.
Here's another photograph. In this one I am maybe three years old, sitting in front of the couch in the trailer house we lived in before we moved to the acreage on Pine Street. To the right of me are my brothers, Elden and Dale. I'm the youngest of the three, but I stick out in other ways. For one thing, I'm wearing my cowboy boots, and my brothers are in black slip-on shoes. My hair is light and downy; theirs, dark and thick. My complexion is not as fair as theirs. I have a jutting jaw and high cheekbones; their faces are broader, rounder. It is obvious we are not blood relations. Although I call them my brothers, they are my stepbrothers.
And Dad's name appears nowhere on my birth certificate. I've accorded Dad the respect of a father since I was three years old; I've called him Dad for as long as I can remember, but the man listed on the certificate is Don Carlos Stratton Jr., a bull-riding cowboy from Denver whom my mom met one year during an Eighty-Niners' Day Rodeo in Guthrie. Their romance was brief and star-crossed, but it lasted long enough to create me. A rodeo girl and a cowboy. No wonder my boots felt comfortable. And no wonder the annual run of the National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City became a high point in my life.
Copyright © 2005 by W. K. Stratton
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