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Monday, 17 June 2013

Still twirling a lariat at 77

This is the second extract from the work in progress, the one about the veteran rodeo riders I travelled with in 2006. I hope you enjoy meeting Gene as much as I did. I'll be back in a week's time with a tale or two from the Loire Valley and points south.



The first thing I noticed about Gene was his walk.  He slid easily from the saddle with all the suppleness of a young panther, landed as if weightless, and walked noiselessly towards me.  Seventy-seven years old, his body was slim and lithe, his every action deft and economical.

So many of the guys – the rough-riders in particular -  walk like an arthritic John Wayne, or end up in old age like the guy in the next room to me at the Sage Brush Motel.  Seventy-nine silver buckles he’d won in a forty-year career.  Yes, he’d known the ecstatic moment of victory, had drunk his fill of cheering and back-slapping and glory.  Now it took whiskey, by the pint, to ease the agony of crippled joints, the pain of having finally hobbled off that hero’s perch.  And when he went to the show he kept away from the bleachers and hid in the shadows by the burger stand.  ‘Don’t like to shame my Association,’ he told me one morning as he screwed the top back on his flask and accepted my offer of a ride down to the arena.

But Gene walked like an athlete – maybe even a dancer - and talked like a gentleman.  ‘Sure,’ he said, ‘be happy to spend some time with you, but would you just hang onto these while I have a word with Dale?’  Before I knew it my hand had closed around the reins of his saddle-horse.

He didn’t know yet that I’ve been scared of horses all my life, ever since my big sister put me up on one as a four-year-old and it bolted across the meadow there at the foot of the Yorkshire Wolds with me clinging to its mane and screaming for help.  Even so, I wondered whether this was some cowboy game.  Test the Tenderfoot.  The horse obviously thought so.  Soon as Gene’s back was turned he stepped forward and nudged my shoulder with his nose.  Hard.  I staggered backwards a couple of steps and all but collided with the paramedic, enjoying a cigarette in the shade of the ambulance. 

Then I remembered what the horse clinician had told me when we got talking back at Panguitch.  ‘Horses,’ he said, ‘are herd animals.  They need to lead or be led.  If you don’t take charge,’ he said, ‘the horse will.  It’s in their nature.’ Something in the way Gene’s mount had nudged me made me mad.  It was his attitude.  As if he owned the damned place. 

‘Now then, you young bugger,’ I said in my sternest Yorkshire voice, and stepped back resolutely to where I’d been standing, pushing his nose with the flat of my hand.  ‘You do as you’re bloody well told, you hear?’

 By the time Gene returned his horse and I were the best of buddies.  He even let me lead him over to the other side of the encampment, clip-clopping along beside me to the trailer where Gene tied him up next to his other horse, the bay, and handed me a bucket.  ‘Would you fill that up while I unsaddle him?’  He pointed to a stand-pipe.

You can’t rush a cowboy after he’s been in the ring.  Bruised or bleeding, or just plain mad that he got it all wrong, the only thing on his mind is the horse.  I’d seen them, stomping away with their rope in their hands, cursing their luck.  ‘One more swing, one more god damned swing, that’s all I needed!’  Then they grit their teeth, swallow their pain and see to their best friend’s needs.  Take off the bit and bridle, loosen the cinch and slip his saddle, then the blanket.  Pull off the leg protectors.  Give him a drink, some hay or a few handfuls of oats, rub him down if he’s sweaty, maybe even whisper a few words in his ear.  Throw a blanket over his back if it’s cool.

When that was all done Gene prepared the bay for the team-roping event, then washed his hands, and dried them carefully.  ‘We got half an hour,’ he said, so get your notebook out.’  He dragged a hay-bale out from under the awning.  The wind had dropped, and it was pleasantly warm sitting there in the sunlight with the sweet smell of last summer’s grass in our nostrils, the comforting sound of the horse chomping on his oats.

‘I grew up around Fort Worth Texas,’ he started.  I wasn’t aware that I’d asked him for his life story, but it seemed that that was what I was going to get.  ‘I been in show business – well, this September it’ll be seventy-four years, and I ain’t much better now than I was then,’ he laughed.  ‘Started out in the early thirties.  We were living in Chester Pennsylvania.  Dad was a motor-cycle cop, but he liked to do a few rope tricks and as soon as we could stand unaided he was teaching us.  Well, he taught my brother Don first, put him on stage as a midget and I used to watch from the wings.  This would be about 1932, so it was the height of the Depression.  Donny was four and I was two and a half.  I saw them applauding and throwing coins onto the stage and I was smart enough to trot out there and pick `em up.  Twirled my rope a bit too.  They liked that.  Applauded some more.

‘Now Dad wasn’t a horse person, but he understood showbiz, and he knew he’d got a winner here with us two kids.  He started getting more and more engagements and pretty soon we were making a hundred bucks a week – and I don’t need to tell you that was a lot of money back then.  By the time I was four he had us onstage at Madison Square Gardens.  Hell, I was so little and the dirt in the arena was so deep I had to have a cowboy carry me out and fetch me back when we were done.  The rodeo back then ran a full month and we were on every day, two shows a days sometimes.  That’s when Dad quit his job.  When the show closed he moved us all out to Fort Worth.  Lot of rodeos down there, and a longer season.’

Gene’s Dad managed the boys for the next thirty years, travelling all over the country and up into Canada.  ‘We toured for nine months of the year and then in the winter we’d stay home and get some tutoring at the Catholic School in Fort Worth.  We won our first major honour in 1936 when I was just coming up to seven years of age.  Juvenile World Champions at trick roping.  My brother Don, he went on to great things.  Eight times a World Champion.  Five times a calf roper, three times steer-roping.’

In the sixties, Gene told me, he married, moved to L.A. and got into the movies as a stuntman.  ‘Yeah, I did trick roping, horse falls, motorcycle and car work.  All of that.  Jumping off high buildings, crashing through balustrades in the saloon.  Had a whole other career over the next thirty forty years from The Driver right through to Starsky and Hutch. ‘I taught a few of them Hollywood actors to rope, you know.  Patrick Swayze, Keith Carradine.  He was playing Will Rogers in Broadway and I had to teach him a whole bag of tricks.  Kenny Rogers.  I taught him too.’ 

He stood up, walked across to the horse-box and fetched a rope.  I mean a lariat.  There is a difference.  I remembered how as a kid we’d watch a cowboy show on TV and go straight outside afterwards to re-enact what we’d seen: the gun-fights, the chases, the stampedes, the bar-room brawls, the horse-back chases.  Time after time we’d grab one of the girl’s skipping-ropes, twirl it hopefully around our heads and try to lasso each other, or a fence-post, or one of the neighbourhood dogs.  Why?  Why did it never work?  It’s clear as day once you’ve seen a genuine cowboy like Gene with a real lariat.  It’s stiff, like a wire cable.  You can twirl one of those, throw it, even drop it to the ground, and the loop will hold its shape.  If only we’d had a proper one when we were kids.  Plaited rawhide, like in the old days.  What I would’ve given to lasso one of the baddies when I was the sheriff.  Just once.

‘Twirling one of these ain’t difficult.  Just a matter of practice.’  Gene was standing a few yards from the trailer.  He wore his jeans and denim jacket, a plaid shirt and a dark stetson.  His slender hips were swaying ever so slightly as he whirled the rawhide around above his head.  Through half-closed eyes – he’d stationed himself between me and the sun – he could have been a young Paul Newman.   ‘Got your camera?’  Now he’d eased the rope down over his own shoulders and was swaying gently inside the circle.

‘Right here in my pocket.’
‘Well, get her out and get her ready, young man.’

I did as he told me.  He kept swirling the rope, down towards his knees, his feet, then back up over his waist to his shoulders.
‘Right, you got her set to go?’

I framed a shot, checked the settings.  ‘Sure.’

‘Okay now.  Don’t shoot till I say shoot.  Ya sure you’re ready now?’

He worked the loop up over his head, leaned forward and got me in his sights, still maintaining that easy rhythm, his arm barely moving, his pointed boots just rolling slightly to left and right, scrunching the little rocks as he kept up the fluid motion. 


I pressed my finger on the button.  By the time I’d released it the rope had flown across the space between us and settled around my shoulders.  I felt a little tug as he pulled it tight, pinning my arms to my side.

‘You’re going to have to teach me to do that some time,’ I said as I wriggled my arms free.  ‘If I could go home and say I’d learned to throw a loop, why….’

‘Well,’ he said, ‘I can do that, but right now it’s time I was back in the ring.  Team-roping.  But you can play around with this all you like while I’m gone.’ 

He threw me the rope.  It was lighter than I thought it would be, but every bit as stiff.  And it was nylon rather than rawhide.  I slid the slip-knot to and fro, closing and opening the loop.  I even gave it an experimental twirl, and looked around to see if there was anything I could practise on.  There was no dummy, like Dale had, no handy fence-post.  I turned to ask Gene to ask him where I could practise, but he was already up on the bay with his back to me, giving it a gentle nudge with his boot-heels, and making his slow rhythmic way back to the arena. 


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