The Bull

Man, we went to the Manchester fair last night, and the rodeo was in town. I had a pulled-pork sandwich that the Emanuel Church sold out of a tiny camper, and we had to tell Oscar that he couldn’t ride the carousel because we were broke.

In the exhibition hall, there was a beautiful depiction of Jesus walking through the storm on the Sea of Galilee, rendered in tempera paint by a housewife. I lifted Oscar up, and he reached out to touch it, but it was behind chicken wire. He hooked a small finger through one loop of the wire until we pulled away to see what was next.

In the merchant tent, there were knives. You could buy a knife with the American flag and a bald eagle painted on it, or a four-pronged, unfolding, Krull-style throwing star made out of pocketknives, which also had a German Iron Cross at the center and a lightning-style SS on each blade, or the three-knife Confederate Collection, which featured paintings of Stonewall Jackson, General Lee, and the Confederate flag.

On the midway, there was a darts and balloons game where the prizes were all pieces of glass with popular images painted on the reverse. Once, when I was a kid, I won this game at the Jackson fair and was rewarded with a piece of glass with the Ghostbusters symbol on it. Today, you can get sheets of glass (suitable for framing) that feature Iron Man, Corvettes, ladies in bikinis, teddy bears, and, of course, a rendition of the Stars and Bars with the words GIT R DONE written over top.

But once Oscar saw the rodeo at the far end of the midway, he scooted forward in his stroller and had no interest in the carnival games.

The rodeo was held on a baseball diamond surrounded by heavy steel-pipe farm fencing. The bleachers sat in the outfield. The on-deck bulls erupted from four cages behind home plate. The “bench” was a large pen just behind the on-deck cages.

Illustration by Anna Hall

The bulls were all named for extremely recognizable songs of a certain vintage. The first bull we saw was named Back in Black, and when he was released, AC/DC’s climbing power chords and assertive drum beat played while the bull worked ecstatically to eject the man. The rider was dressed as a standard cowboy, plus a brown Kevlar vest.

Subsequent bulls were called Sweet Home Alabama, Iron Man, Super Freak, and Thunderstruck, each with his own brief blurt of music while he bucked and snorted around the field. It was a catalog of vintage pop samples, but with a rampaging bull.

A weak cowboy lasted around twenty seconds, and was applauded by the announcer for getting up off the ground quickly. “He’s still standing, folks!” The bull would buck and kick for a few seconds more until handlers in corporate athletic wear rustled him back up the main chute into the holding pen, where he precipitously became a cud-chewing cow again.

The stronger cowboys held on for forty, fifty, sixty seconds, long enough for cameras to flash, and flash again, long enough to pass out of the hook of the song into the meat of it, and you appreciated them, not just because of the skill it took to ride a jack-crazy bull, but because you got to actually enjoy the song instead of just recognize it.

The cowboys were ostensibly scored, but really this was just an exhibition game—more Globetrotters than Knicks.

The rodeo had a clown, of course, who exchanged patter with the announcer to distract you from how long it took for the cowboys to mount the bulls waiting in their exactly bull-sized chutes. I couldn’t help but imagine someone falling and getting torn into recognizable pieces.

To keep the audience entertained between bulls, the clown in his oversized pants gamboled around the arena, dancing to silly music and doing low-rent acrobatics. Then he got out a fake rifle and faked some trick shooting. He’d shoot at balloons and the sound system would play spaghetti Western ricochets. One of the handlers fell in mock death and everyone laughed.

“C’mon,” cajoled the announcer behind home plate, “your average ten-year-old in Detroit could shoot better than that.”

The whole crowd erupted into racist laughter so strong and complete that Oscar laughed and clapped, wiggling in my lap the whole time.

The last bull was introduced as the biggest, meanest bull they had. He had been imported, as an embryo, from Africa. He was called Ice. He burst from the cage, pure milky white, to the steady bass line of “Ice Ice Baby.” As the cowboy hung on and the bull tore at the dirt, leaping from the pitcher’s mound to first base, arching through the air, the twilight filled with flashes and the crowd’s voice opened up into a full-throated scream, and Oscar pulled at my arms, wanting desperately to race into the arena and be a part of everything that he saw.

About the Author

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Fritz Swanson

Fritz is a writer, printer, publisher and teacher. He teaches at the University of Michigan. He is the publisher of The Index, a quarterly letterpress print series.

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