Barry Koroluk is a professional bull-rider from the small Prairie town (pop. 360) of Edgerton, Alta. At home, Koroluk deals a few cattle and horses, but for the past six months he’s been travelling to rodeos in a white Ford pickup truck with two empty gun racks and a well-cracked windshield,
hoping to qualify for the Canadian Finals Rodeo in Edmonton this November. Although it’s his first year as a pro, he’s been doing well, picking up $900 and a silver tray at the Medicine Hat Rodeo alone. So far, he hasn’t had time to see Urban Cowboy, and it was news to him that beaded moccasins and fringed buckskin jackets were hot items in Manhattan and Toronto. Or that the bars east of Manitoba would soon be filled with folk dressed like cowboys and Indians wearing beepers, Opium perfume and chaps. At the age of 26 Koroluk is a real cowboy, and what he wants to be now is a real rodeo cowboy.
“It takes a certain kind of fool to rodeo,” says Koroluk, well aware that his sport is a long dollar away from those other professionals, the Dallas Cowboys. If he earned $11,000 he would
be doing very well, and if he took home any of that he’d be lucky. Canadian bareback champ Steve Dunham of Turner Valley, Alta., made $30,000 in rodeo last year but he spent $25,000 making it. It makes you wonder why they do it in the first place. But it’s an individualist’s sport with a family spirit and a high premium placed on having a good time. “If you took a bunch of your
friends,” explained Dunham, “and you were all goin’ down the road enjoying what you were doin’, well, that would be like rodeo.” “Besides which,” Koroluk added, “there’s nothing like the feeling you get when you win.”
Behind the chutes at the Medicine Hat Exhibition and Stampede grounds, Koroluk joins the other cowboys waiting for their event to come up. There is no such thing as an identity crisis in the cowboy world; they wear initials on their chaps, initials on the back of their belt, big silver trophy buckles and feathers in their hats. They put figure-of-eights of adhesive tape around their elbows, hinged braces on their knees and some of them don’t mind admitting that they’re superstitious: no $2
bills and no hats on the bed. They have names like Wes, Wilf and Duane, and they come from towns called Monitor, Pekisko, Dogpound and Driftpile, Alta. They ride horses called Knott Inn, Hard Twist and Big Red, or bulls named Hagar, Bunny, Convoy and Dew Drop. Rodeo stock are stars, too—as well as the man who supplies a rodeo with animals, the stock contractor.
At the Medicine Hat Rodeo, the contractor is Reg Kesler, a big silverhaired cowboy with a flair for the theatrical. “What Bobby Orr is to hockey, Reg Kesler is to rodeo,” says Koroluk, as he warms up for his ride, clenching and unclenching his right hand. Kesler is behind the chutes, striding up and down giving orders. “Move him up, turn that sucker around,” he yells to a cowboy trying to get a horse pointed into the chutes. “And don’t give him any more air or he’ll turn on ya ... turn him around, shut that gate, Greg, for God’s sake, and hand me that wire ... I thought I was runnin’ a rodeo here, not a God damn drive-in picture show Then Kesler notices a bull-rider out in the arena being chased by one of his bulls. “Hey, Derochie,” he yells, right across the arena, “you’re supposed to ride the bull, not the fence!” He laughs, hugely amused, and slaps his cowboy hat against his legs.
Beside him, the nervous young cowboy waiting to settle down carefully on a bronc, relaxes. Almost. “What are you smilin’ at, get on that sucker and ride him,” says Kesler, whose gruflFness is said to be mostly for show. The cowboy jams his hat down hard, clenches his teeth, nods his head and the gate swings open. The idea is to stay on top of this rough surf for eight seconds, spurring high above the horse’s shoulders and holding on to the braided rope with one hand.
The eight seconds run out, the air horn sounds and a “pick-up man,” Gerald Shockey, moves in to help the rider, who swings down onto the ground looking short, pleased and pale. He walks back toward the gate, banging the dust out of his black cowboy hat. The crowd applauds his safe ride; earlier that day, bareback rider Gene Miller had crushed his verterbrae coming out of the chute.
In the dusty area behind the chutes, the bronc-riders are getting their stirrups set right, and the bull-riders work powdered rosin into their braided ropes. At the far end of the arena, the “timeys” wait—the cowboys who compete in the timed events of steer-wrestling and calf-roping. Bull-riding not only looks the most dangerous, but it is, and bull-riders are the ones who make
the most disability claims, drawing on a fund set up by the Canadian Rodeo Cowboy Association. But bringing an accelerating steer to a full stop by plowing the arena with your feet, as steer wrestlers do, can be mighty hard on the knees.
A bull called Three Big Loop comes into the chute, and Koroluk lights down quietly on his back. Wearing a heavy leather glove on one hand, he literally lashes himself to the bull, ending up with two wraps around his wrist. Then he hunches his shoulders, tenses his arm, crouches down over his hand and nods. It’s a good ride and a safe exit; the bullfighter-clown, Doug “Shakey” Russell, does his job, deflecting the animal away from the grounded rider so that the horns go one way and the cowboy goes the other.
The next day, Koroluk is on his way to another rodeo in Bruce, Alta., east of Edmonton. In rodeo the emphasis falls on “the road.” It’s a five-hour drive in a nearly straight line and the highway is as empty as the blue Alberta sky. On the dashboard is a package of Copenhagen snuff, a map of the southwestern United States and a back issue of Hustler. “Not mine,” he says, “a travelling buddy left those there.” He has both feet on the accelerator, one crossed over the other.
“Dale Rose, now he was a real cowboy,” says Koroluk. “He used to ride bulls smoking a big cigar and wearing a white shirt with a tie.” Already Koroluk has a small scar on his temple. “I got hooked at the rodeo in Ponoka,” he says, “but not bad.” If he makes the finals, if his luck keeps up, he may even make it to the National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City in December, where the world’s top cowboys compete.
In high season, rodeo cowboys compete in up to seven or eight rodeos a week, sharing rides, driving all night, eating “gutbombs” (hamburgers) and order upon order of french-fries soft as caterpillars. They have to phone ahead to enter their event, wait for the luck of the draw to see what bronc or bull they’re up on and pay an entry fee to compete. And after all that, they may come home in the red. But next season, most of them are back.
Unlike team sports, rodeo allows for some individual moments of glory and. unlike most pro sports, the competition has not yet edged out the camaraderie. “It’s probably the only sport where the same guy you’re competing against will j get up and cheer you in the stands,” says Wilf Hyland, a bronc-rider from Salmon Arm, B.C.
But, perhaps because rodeo is in the West and the media are based in the East, the sport lacks big money and television coverage which would let the public in on the subtleties of rodeo—
which do exist. If TV can make a six-foot putt look interesting, imagine how airborne cowboys could be exploited.
Last fall the CBC aired a rodeo documentary, Run, Cowboy, Run, featuring bronc-rider Doug Void from DeWinton, Alta. Void, along with many other veteran cowboys, was at the Bruce Stampede, where rodeos have been held since 1914. He comes from a big rodeo family; his father, Harry, is a stock contractor in Colorado and his brother Wayne supplied the stock at Bruce.
Void loosens up in front of the chutes, seesawing his hips, adjusting his chaps, wearing a shiny blue shirt and mirror sunglasses. Void has a little more rock star in him than most cowboys, having done some stunt work in movies. But even at 27, with 10 pro years behind him, he’s still hustling rides to the next rodeo and under pressure to win. “If you don’t win, you don’t eat,” he shrugs on the way to Edmonton, crammed four abreast in the front of a truck. He turns the radio up and sings along with it in his shot-to-hell voice. Lately, instead of fried eggs, he orders poached. “For my ulcer,” he explains. “In rodeo, it’s chicken one day and feathers the next.”
Two days later, Void is on the road north of Edmonton headed for High
Prairie. It’s another long blue straightaway, through bear country and fields of yellow rapeseed. Void is strangely subdued by a lack of hangover, having been on the wagon for the past month. “Lost a little money at the races last night,” he says. “Not much.” Four hours pass. There’s a brief stop for various fried objects—mushrooms, ribs, potatoes; even the coffee looks faintly deepfried.
“How was your flight?” Void asks another cowboy at the table who had just come up from Cheyenne, Wyo. Conversational topics usually include earnings, animals, injuries and where to sit on the plane. “Came down on the runway like a stone falling out of the sky,” says Don Johansen, a bull-rider from Strathmore, Alta.
At High Prairie, the rodeo events seem to take second place to the lure of the beer garden nearby. In this small northern town, aprés-rodeo means ryeand-Coke in the Pie Car, a trailer where the carnival workers go to drink. Here, the cowboys compare the angles of their dislocated thumbs and do their live version of instant replay in which the day’s broncs, bulls and calves are re-ridden and re-roped. Shoulders hunch, hands clench, arms go back up in the air. A
greenhorn comes in and sits down with them, wearing a green cowboy hat. This is a mistake. The green hat is removed in order to be properly “shaped.” Various cowboys furrow and crease the hat, shake their heads and pass it on until it comes back with a brim fluted like a pie crust. This, it is said, is the origin of the term Pie Car.
After High Prairie, it’s down the road to Grimshaw for another stampede. Bill Reeder, a calf-roper, is driving this time and Tom Ivins, a steer-wrestler, is beside him. “Heard things got a little western in the bar last night,” says Ivins, referring to a near-fracas in the lounge of a Peace River hotel. Among other things, a cowboy had come up to a blonde woman at the bar, picked up the shoulder of her T-shirt in his hand and said, “Know what I like about you? Nothin’.”
“Most of the time, a cowboy’s too busy getting from one town to the next to get into that kind of stuff,” says Ivins. “But now that the season’s almost over, some cowboys are losin’ and frustrated with time on their hands. It gives people the wrong idea about rodeo.”
He stops to buy a shirt on the way out of town and tosses it back into the Cascade camper behind where Stuart Derochie, a bull-rider, and Robert Hoff, a bareback-rider, are lolling around. Several moments later, a knock comes on
the sliding window between the camper and the cab. Hoff has Ivin’s new shirt on.
“Just thought I’d stretch the chest out for you,” says Hoff, grinning.
“Take that sucker off right now,” yells Ivins. “I mean it. Take it off, Hoff. I’m serious.”
“He’ll have to take in the right arm now that I’ve worn it,” says Hoff to Derochie, prompting Ivins to dive through the window after him. After subduing Hoff, Ivins retreats and slams the window shut on Derochie’s hand, hard.
“Sorry, partner, didn’t mean to hurt you,” yells Ivins, seriously apologetic.
Moments pass. A knock comes on the window. Ivins opens it and Derochie pounds his forearm.
“I owed you that,” says Derochie. Ivins smiles.
“Hope you didn’t hurt your ridin’ hand,” says Ivins, flexing his forearm. “This is harder’n a four-inch drill stem.”
“My fist was travelling 175 miles an hour, I couldn’t stop,” says Derochie.
Hoff’s face appears in the window, grinning, with small black flecks of chewing tobacco at the gum line. “Hey, Ivins, what’s gfeen and red and goes around 1,000 miles an hour?” he asks. Ivins closes his eyes in resignation. “A frog in the blender,” says Hoff, and the two cowboys, vastly pleased, roll around like coconuts. “The boys are peaceful today,” remarks Reeder at the wheel, as he turns the radio up. The sky is blue above, with four kinds of weather.brewing up at the sides. Grimshaw is only 30 km away. It’s the start of another good rodeo day.
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