When in Rome, go to the Coliseum



The name of the city we left last year, Champaign, is a geographical term for open, level country; prairie cut with streams. A little to my dismay, it’s champaign here too, but its use is more diversified: Rice, hay, and sorghum is grown; innumerable bayous (streams) support fish hatcheries as well as shrimp, crawfish, and oyster aquaculture; above all, one notes the horses and cattle standing in pastures that start at the city limits and go all the way to the Gulf, where oil rigs like tiny Monopoly houses dot the horizon.

My family took a break last weekend from recreational bickering to attend the Southwest District Livestock Show and Rodeo, now in its 74th year. The event produces scholarships, they say, and our university mascot is after all a cowboy on a bucking bronco. The domed Coliseum where it was held is “under the operation of” the university and hosts campus sporting events, but the money for its construction was raised by a self-imposed parish (county) tax. It seems the dome, with its adjacent livestock pavilion and agricultural arena, gets far more use by ranchers and farmers in the region.

A minivan is unusual enough here to draw comments from strangers, and ours would be easy to find later among the pickup trucks. There was pleasure in walking across the dirt and grass parking lot, not some hotbaked concrete plain, in being slowed to the pace of man and beast, and in anticipating a long afternoon with nowhere else to be.

A gigantic trailer silkscreened with action shots of pro rodeo action sat at the entry gate. Its back door was being used as a porch by a dozen cowboys on folding chairs, hats pulled low, drinking coffee and talking shop. The stock pavilion just beyond it was the size of a Wal-Mart, divided into pens by horizontal steel bars as thick as my arms. Most of the animals had already been moved, but we strolled through looking at remaining calves, a few pigs (their sharp sour smell the only unpleasant one), and one dewlapped Zebu with patient eyes that liked having its head scratched by curious children and me.

A middle-aged woman in boots handed a small brochure to me, to my wife, and to each of my young sons. The boys expressed hopes it contained coupons for free food, but it was titled, “Your Entry Fees Are Paid.” The cover showed a cowboy digging in his pocket for money, and a ghostly arm coming down—Middle Eastern robes blending with the curtains—to proffer a handful of dollar bills to the cashier. Inside, it was filled with five–point type, which began:

\”Almost any ‘rodeo cowboy’ can relate to talk about entry fees because, [sic] entry fees are one of his greatest expenses. Having someone pay all your entry fees would be any cowboy’s dream.

The good news of the Christian Gospel is simply that someone has paid in full everyone’s entry fee for the National Finals up in the sky. The payment was made by Jesus Christ, who died on a cross nearly two thousand years ago.\”

The boys and I climbed the bars of a tall gate to watch a cowboy shoo a dozen big horses from one pen into another, experiencing the thrill and shock of fast-moving animals of that size, their large intelligent eyes, the dust and movement like a violence of beauty. We watched so long that the Baptist lady came by with her brochures, didn’t recognize us, and pressed them on us again.

Our seats were halfway up the dome. Down on the Coliseum floor someone was driving a sponsor’s extended-cab pickup under a spotlight while the announcer narrated its qualities. Afterward a tractor dragged around a chain harrow to erase the tracks pressed into the immaculate, pulverized dirt. Country and rock blared on the coliseum’s loudspeakers.

Just as the rodeo was about to start, my son Starbuck suddenly objected. “This is immoral,” he said, re-opening old discussions on the treatment of animals, including one, years ago, after we’d left a circus and found it picketed by PETA. I wasn’t sure this time how much he believed and how much he was nearly 11, so while I was proud of him for taking a stance, I parried his every blow: We paid $12 each for these tickets, and you didn’t object then…we had hamburgers for lunch yesterday and are likely to have chili tonight…we haven’t gotten out much since we moved here…it’s a nice day, I’m out now, and I’m going to stay out…unless you have an extra minivan and can drive yourself home…gimme a break and be quiet, boy. In the end, popcorn, nachos, cotton candy, and soda did wonders—a little depressing for what it said about the frailty of ethics, but the nachos were really, really good.

The show began with 15 minutes of jumbotron videos depicting military service, with talk by an MC on a horse about defending the American way. Near the end of it he said: “They took it out of our schools and they took it out of our government, but we’re proud to say that prayer hasn’t been taken out of the rodeo!” He then led the coliseum in a long prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, and there was a laser show, indoor fireworks, and more loud music on vaguely patriotic themes (including Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” a common irony).

While hundreds of kids in the audience waved parti-colored light sabers and glow necklaces, a phalanx of tweens advanced on the floor and stood in the heavy smoke from the fireworks. They were stoic as Marines and never once squinted or made faces or waved their hands in front of their mouths and noses. Here, the MC intoned, was the future of America; kids raised in this respectful environment “will become farmers, research scientists…soldiers who will serve as so many have. But above all, they’ll become the greatest thing that’s ever existed! American!” The coliseum air pressurized with cheers.

Then the rodeo proper began, an intricate and complete entertainment. There were the events you might expect: roping and bronc riding and barrel racing and bull riding and a halftime show where kids tried to rope and drag calves three times their weight into a square in the middle of the floor. Not a second was wasted: There were the competitions themselves, measured in tenths of seconds; commentary on the performances; instant replays on the big screens; banter between the mounted MC and a rodeo clown; more indoor fireworks; reminders to buy from the coliseum venders; giveaway contests for those who shouted loudest; invitations to reconsider the Dodge Ram shining under the lights; reminders to patronize local businesses; special appearances on the mezzanine by the hosts of a local Fox News affiliate, multiplied by the jumbotrons; and loud music filling any gap.

The clown, whose name was Liesl, of all things, was pure vaudevillean corn, his routine a mix of Hee Haw and something more ancient, like Punch and Judy. Under the makeup and floppy clothing he was at least middle-aged and probably well beyond, no longer faking tiredness and sore feet. Workers placed a high-tech clown barrel, all steel and logos, in the middle of the coliseum floor for his safety, and my boys and I held out hopes a bull would go for him before it was over. But it was two young cowboys who distracted the bulls so their riders could escape after the buzzer while Liesl cracked bad jokes at a safe distance, and three hard-looking riders with lariats stood guard behind him like mounted police or cavalry.

In the breaks Liesl told groaners and stretchers that made him out to be crafty-stupid, whiny, and lazy. He also worked a little blue, with stories about how the wife of his friend who had nine kids shouldn’t be bending over to pick up laundry anymore. All this gave the straight-man MC on his spangled horse many opportunities to disapprove. The MC’s voice, booming from his wireless mike, was part Rush Limbaugh and part Don Pardo.

\”“Liesl!” he cried in astonishment and disapproval at every fifth line. (Say it aloud now in your office, starting as high and ending as low as you can, with the extreme disappointment you’d express if your kid turned down her full ride to Sarah Lawrence.)\”

None of this is to suggest falsehood. It would be typically academic to suggest the rodeo as a sport is mere simulacrum of work performed by man and horse in the job of ranching. But there’s nothing artificial about some one-ton beast trying to snap your spine; after the first bronc rider in the program was thrown, the sports medicine people from the university came out, and he was taken to the hospital for x-rays.

The rodeo felt authentic, if authentic is the question, neither concocted for the tourist trade nor of a second-order kitsch like pro wrestling, family truck stops, or the expressions of porn actors. It was entertainment in one of the oldest senses: “To keep up, maintain, to keep (someone) in a certain frame of mind,” an expression and reinforcement of regional community. It’s what corporatized, reality-show America pines for, and along with its physicality, vividness, and physical consequence, is why so many women have a weakness for cowboys instead of for midlevel managers, provosts, or bloggers.