It’s Saturday morning, and summer in its zenith is baking the prairie. The wind sometimes washes a cool relief in from the north country but now it’s a hot dry blast from the south pressing you against the burning earth, flinging the dust to needle your eyes. At the Bengough rodeo corrals, the stiff breeze whips the tiny American flags that two young Saskatchewan men are nailing to poles surrounding the arena. One on a ladder, the other supporting him, they look like actors miming the American soldiers who planted the Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima during the Second World War. “Damn kids took ’em down last night. They really go for these American flags,” says the younger man. He appears slightly embarrassed to be raising so many American flags, though diminutive, on Canadian soil.
But it’s rodeo time in the west. Bengough’s starts today. The flags stay up, fluttering symbols of cultural defeat. There are horses to be rode, cowboys to be throwed and the riders and ropers drift back and forth across the 49th parallel like tumbleweed torn loose in that prairie breeze. In Bengough, Saskatchewan, 30
miles north of Montana’s border, the flags might make some of the cowboys feel at home. More likely they will comfort the American spectators who drive north to watch slim-hipped wranglers wrestle 600pound steers to the dirt.
The rodeo season in Canada stampedes to a start in March and runs until early November when the sudden-death championships are staged in Edmonton. Mammoth events such as the Calgary Stampede capture the urban imagination, but such small-town rodeos as Bengough’s still shape the sport’s backbone. All summer the circuit cuts a swath across dozens of prairie communities in southern Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan, dragging with it a social life as rough and raw and American as the chrome Ford logo welded on the front bumperof a pickup truck: barbecues with thick red slices of steer, trucks and CB radios, beer guzzling and just plain hell-raising on weekends. Although rodeo officials balk at the association with the United States (they prefer to call the game “North American” in nature), rodeos and their lifestyle symbolize a cultural affinity with the west south of the border, decrying
It’s a popular sport in the west. This year nearly two million Canadian fans will be drawn to the drama and the fragrance of fresh horse dung; 600 cowpokes are galloping toward one million dollars in prize money at 74 rodeos.
Bengough has been readying itself for several days and as the sun turns the afternoon into a broiling oven the cowboys start flowing into town. The young riders roll in first, register at the stampede office, then swagger into the Star café where one of them, green and not yet modest, baits the Chinese manager: “How far is it to Bengough?” After a few nervous laughs the neophyte riders gulp down their hamburgers and Cokes and leave, to caucus in front of the pool hall. Some say they’re here because it’s a convenient stop between larger rodeos but the prize money, $500 split three ways in each event, “ain’t so hot.”
Then, in a cloud of truck fumes and bravado, the real professionals arrive: a laconic bunch in T-shirts and jeans snug around their loins. Only one sports a Stetson. It’s been a long hot drive (“flyin’ low,”
they say) from their last appearance in Morris, Manitoba. Five hundred miles of prairie sky and black pavement. Some of them flew into Morris from Ogden, Utah, and hitched a ride here. They’ll be gone as soon as today’s events end, headed for another meet in Red Deer, Alberta.
Customarily—and, it seems, quite naturally—they travel together, more like partners than competitors. They even aid each other in the rodeo, coaching and cheering. Many of them own ranches in the same area of Alberta. Among them are such names as Phil Doan, president of the Canadian Rodeo Cowboys’ Association which regulates all the professional rodeos in Canada, Clark Schlosser, third highest finalist in steer wrestling in 1976, and Lee Phillips, fifth in calf roping. With those men is Tom Bews, last year’s all-around rodeo cowboy champion. They have been at the top of the heap in Canadian competition for the past few years. Most have been riding for more than a decade and together they look like the older side of a good minor league hockey team—rugged, tanned, and not quite beginning to paunch.
Later the cowboys down a few cool ones at the curling rink, which has been made into an unlikely beer garden for the day. It’s there that Bews reveals some of the country mystique of rodeo cowboys. He broke his first horse when he was 12 years old and has been in and out of the chutes ever since. He’s good at it and rodeo life has been good for him. He has avoided serious injury and the peripheral benefits have been lucrative. In 1974 Bews traveled to Africa to appear in a rodeo commissioned by the Zambian government. Recently he worked for Robert Altman when the American film maker shot Buffalo Bill And The Indians on the plains near Calgary (for $700 a week plus expenses he spent three months teaching Paul Newman how to ride a Lippizan stallion). He appeared on Peter Gzowski’s 90 Minutes Live last season and picked up $300 for the effort. And overall, last year, he won $13,000 in rodeo prize money—in about 100 scattered days of riding. When not riding, the Perisko, Alberta, cowboy is recreation director on an Indian reservation near his hometown.
Bews is impatient with the popular image of the sport. “They haven’t made a rodeo cowboy an athlete in a movie or anything like that. You know they always make him a tough guy.” He believes rodeo cowboys are no different than any other athlete. “They love havin’ a drink or probably women and fun. There’s bad guys in any business, but a rodeo cowboy’s an athlete t’day.”
Cowboys like Bews see a fair share of the country in their travels. He considers the sport “western North America,” originating in the United States. Although conscious of the Great Canadian Identity Search (he says he’s “proud as hell” of the Calgary Stampede, the world’s largest rodeo) Bews believes Western Canada, like
the United States West, has little in common with the industrial East. Lie’s worked such cities as Montreal, Vancouver and San Francisco—and as for Toronto, well, the crowd he met there radiated an “uptown snotty” air.
Here in Bengough, on home range, rodeo organizer Albert Sherlock has been anxious about the rodeo that’s scheduled to swing to a start at six this evening. The rodeoing side of his town’s cultural life has encountered misfortune in the past few years. For two seasons hopes for a successful stampede were washed away with sudden rains that poured down in late May. Six years ago the former manager of the Bengough rodeo rode discreetly into the sunset leaving the organization a few thousand dollars in debt. It was forced to change its name to the Big Muddy Stampede and bring in new management to lure back cowboys who were shying away like nuns from a town drunk. Sherlock has been squeezing rodeo duties in between his regular ranch chores, and this afternoon he’s wondering whether his labor will pay off.
CKRM of Regina, the biggest country and western station in southern Saskatchewan, has dispatched a mobile unit to lend free publicity. Interspersed in the nonstop rundown of the top 20 country and western tunes are short interviews with Sherlock recorded live in the dry goods store: “Well
folks, if you’re looking for a good time this afternoon just get yourselves on down here to the Bengough rodeo in Bengough. Why there’s calf roping and steer wrestling and bronc busting and . . . what else you got goin’ for the folks down here, Albert?”
Sherlock’s efforts are rewarded. As the afternoon slowly wilts into early evening local farmers and ranchers pile into town with their families packed inside Chevrolets, Buicks and huge crawling Fords. Slim young girls, in Levi’s even tighter than those the cowboys wear, saunter up and down Main Street pausing in front of the pool hall just long enough to raise a few eyebrows. A lithe, sunburned boy sidles his pinto down the street to forge a link with the young riders. And on the rodeo grounds the fried chicken stand is up and busy.
The wind shifts to the north and gains strength. It drives the dust into 2,000 eyes gaping in interest as the cowboys, like any other athletes, warm up behind the chutes. The horses, fiery and snorting, are whipped into their cubicles. The American flags flutter and suddenly the crowd gasps, in a moment hung still, to see Tom Bews fly out of chute number four, heaving and lashing on a horse that looks as if she won’t quit until the cowboy thuds into the Saskatchewan dust. :
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