The smell of horse poop greets us as soon as we walk inside the Governor James B. Hunt Indoor Horse Complex Arena, the site for the annual Cowboy Christmas Championship Rodeo at the State Fairgrounds.
Since the rodeo's Web site features a picture of Santa on a bucking reindeer, I'm not really sure what my friends and I are getting into. But, smell aside, the place is clean and cozy, with electric heaters hanging from the ceiling to warm the bleachers.
We sit looking at the men balancing on the metal gates that keep the animals. Then I look closer and realize they're not all men.
Throughout the hall, there's a much more diverse group than I'd expected. I see several Latino folks and a surprising number of African Americans. There are lots of happy-looking families here, whose well-behaved children stand in line to ride the ponies tied to a wheel.
Before the show, we check out the vendor booths: piles of cowboy hats, framed pictures of horses. Other vendors feature pricey silver horse necklaces, leather bags, quilted Christmas tree skirts, and T-shirts with rebel flags and cowgirl-power slogans. Free samples of chewing tobacco are available to anyone over 18. There are also lots of calendars with pictures of shiny, muscular horses. They look like pinup models.
"Horsey porn," I dub them.
Finally, the show gets underway. Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra," also known as the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey, plays and pyrotechnics spray from the fences. People carrying flags ride their horses in a circle while the speakers play "How Great Thou Art" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." The announcer talks about the American flag and Sept. 11. He says, thank God we have a president who will make sure that terrorism "will never happen again."
Without seeming to take a breath, the announcer begins to pray. This conflation of God and Country seemed to be the driving force of the whole program. Standing under a Budweiser banner, the announcer prays for the cowboys and the rodeo clown who were maimed during the past two days' events. He also asks for God to put his hand on the assembled audience, to make us all "healthier" and better Christians by the time we leave. The spiel continues and I catch "... before we meet you in that big arena in the sky, oh Lord. ..."
Finally the action begins with the bucking broncos, which do not disappoint. The horses buck wildly. The last bronco rider wins by staying on his horse the longest. He's a handsome African-American man with a bushy mustache. He smiles and waves to the crowd, and the winner gets to ride around in a circle on a stagecoach.
The rodeo clowns tell low-rent jokes and do some bit with an exploding outhouse and a pair of plastic novelty buttocks. I try not to look. Then comes the calf roping event and an event my friends and I refer to as "bullgrabbing"--men leap off their horses to grab the horns of a young bull and wrassle it to the ground. This happens while tinny techno dance music plays and colored strobe lights flash across the dirt floor, which seems totally out of place and irritating.
After a couple more events and another clown shtick, the lights go off and a woman comes out dressed head to toe in white cowgear. Four crosses are placed in the dirt, and the announcer begins "a tribute to all of the victims of Sept. 11." The woman places a fireman's hat on one cross, then a stethoscope, a policeman's hat and a flag on the others. The announcer dedicates the flag to "all the husbands, dads, grandparents, and children" who died, with no mention that women were killed.
A prerecorded monologue begins with "Silent Night" in the background. It is a first-person Sept. 11 story, but right away I can tell where it's going. "I was there on the 101st Floor with a man who was calling his wife to say goodbye. I held his fingers steady as he dialed." The story builds with the Jesus voice describing how he was there for everyone. "Some chose for the final time to ignore me," it says, "but I was there. ... " And finally, "I will be in the stairwell of your final moments." Wherever Jesus is, I think to myself, I hope this is pissing him off.
The two riders come back with flags as "Glory, Glory, Hallelujah" plays again and the announcer tells everyone to stand up and sing along. A smell of fries mingles with the horse poop smell and I want to be sick.
Suddenly the techno music and pyrotechnics return, and a bull is let loose. He cuts a fine figure against the spraying lights. Bucking bulls are the ultimate rodeo event, but like a roller coaster ride, it's short and a little anticlimactic. After throwing its rider, one bull gores a dummy that's wearing a Bill Clinton facemask. In spite of all the ceremony, the rodeo ends abruptly and we rush to the car.
I'm aware that rodeos have often come under fire for mistreating animals. I can't say what is done to make the broncos buck, or whether it hurts a calf to be lassoed around the neck and thrown to the ground, but generally the treatment appeared to be humane. Although the animals looked wigged out and annoyed, and the calf-roping thing is difficult to watch, I kept thinking about the fact that animals are these people's lives. They're practicing skills that are necessary in their world, and they seem to treat the animals with a type of respect that can't be understood by people like me who have never had so much as a pet.
So surprisingly, it was the jingoism that was hardest to take. I left the rodeo with a mixed feeling of respect and disgust.