I think it was the jingling of the spurs that got me.
It was a beautiful, sunny day in May, 1980. I was playing music for a living, such as it was, and looked pretty much like a traditional cowboy. Nights I wasn’t playing, I hung out at the old Lakesview Inn in Almonesson, Deptford. The USS Saratoga was berthed at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard for an overhaul, so we had gotten to know many of the crew members who considered themselves cowboys. Some of them had been rodeo bull riders at home.
I learned that Cowtown rodeo in Woodstown had what was called buckouts every Sunday afternoon in May. Cowtown not only supplied livestock for its own rodeo, it provided horses and bulls to other events across the nation, so officials wanted to see what the bulls could do.
During buckouts, any fool with 10 bucks could ride — or try to ride — all afternoon.
So, eager to show I was at least game, or maybe even a legit cowboy, I plunked down my $10 and waited my turn. Two sailors, J.R. and Rusty, tutored me through the event.
I wore J.R.’s spare spurs and one of my own kidskin gloves tied to my wrist with a leather thong. Rusty tied the rig — a rope — around the bull for me.
I was at Chute #10, the first bull in, but the 1800-pound animal was nervous because he couldn’t see any other bulls. He was trying to climb out of the chute — and, when he was being herded into the chute, the sliding gate separating #10 from #9 accidentally cut off seven or eight inches of his curly black tail, which fell into the mud. Well, mud mixed with bull manure.
The bull in #10 was a brangus — a brahma-black angus mixture.
Rusty explained how I could calm down the nervous bull. He knelt down on the back of the bull and rubbed his knees back and forth.
I, in turn, explained that I had come to Cowtown this day expecting to be hurt, but I was going to by God be hurt out in the arena, not in a closed chute. So I settled down onto the quivering muscle of the bull’s back.
I hunched up as tight as possible on the bull’s back. When it came my turn, I threw my left hand high into the air and, as cowboy-like as possible, I shouted “Outside!”
The chute was thrown wide open and my bull stepped outside the chute … and fell down. I stepped off the bull, took a couple steps, and fell down.
I didn’t loiter. The bull was up and headed my way, so I scrambled up the side of the fence as a rodeo cowboy lured the bull away.
I was covered in mud. Well, mud mixed with bull manure.
Adrenaline was still coursing through me as I walked away, on the blacktop pathway, headed around the outside of the arena to where friends were sitting.
All the way around, my borrowed spurs rang loud in the quiet May afternoon. All the way back, they seemed to ring even louder.
When I got back, it was my turn again. Of course I went again.
A different brangus this time. The same cowboy coaches. I climbed down onto this bull, took a tight hold, threw up my arm and shouted “Outside!”
The bull roared out of the chute and went airborne. I was hanging on for dear life but eventually was tossed like a rag doll off the back of the bull. Again, I made for the fence as the clowns baited the bull away.
I learned I’d hung on for four seconds. A qualifying ride is eight seconds. I’d lasted half a ride. I’d seen professional cowboys last less than four seconds, so I was proud of my achievement that afternoon.
That night, I couldn’t buy a drink. My friends at the bar never believed I would do it, but I did it.
I must note that, in 1980, bull riders did not wear helmets and protective vests like they do today. That makes me stubbornly even more proud.