I had no cowboy boots. No ten gallon hat. I was invited to the Pro Bull Riding championship at Madison Square Garden, and my son-in-law suggested I wear something Western. He would be, and so would the throngs at the Garden, he said. It’s odd that my English son-in-law who grew up outside London should be introducing me to rodeo, when I grew up in farm country, South Dakota. I love such invitations–to do things that, on my own, I would never do.
On Saturday night I put on my jeans. “Let’s pretend these are Wranglers,” I said to Andy.
Madison Square Garden was turned into a corral out somewhere in Oklahoma. They must’ve trucked in ten tons of dirt. But this was NY and MSG. There were pyrotechnics and small-scale explosions as the show ramped up. The arena went dark and flames began to snake along the dirt, spelling in huge fiery letters “PBR.” (For “Pro Bull Riding” (and also, I think, “Pabst Blue Ribbon.”)) The world’s top forty bull riders were assembled for the competition, and the introduction of these cowboys was over the top. They stood, backlit, in smoke, like titanic heroes. Marlboro men, all gristle and scars, with names like Bubba Dunn, Tuff Hedeman, and Ryan Dirteater. The place was thudding with music, throbbing with testosterone.
When all forty have been introduced, they are standing in their Wranglers, chaps and Stetsons in a choreographed semi circle. Then when you think the action is about to really begin, the music stops, the house lights come up slightly, and the public address announcer says, “Ladies and gentlemen, please stand for the invocation.”
I looked at Andy, puzzled. All that hype had me about ready to take on one of those bulls myself. I was not exactly expecting “the invocation.” But before we could even stand, the prayer began. The man with a Texas drawl asked “Dear Father God” to protect the riders from harm, and the livestock as well. Then prayers “for the troops,” and a giving thanks “that we can enjoy this wonderful sport.” I notice that some of the forty cowboys are kneeling, one with his hands on the ground. The world’s toughest men swagger out like they are the toughest SOBs ever to walk the earth (and after watching them ride, I think they actually are). And the next moment they are praying, some on all fours in the dirt.
For a moment I felt slightly peeved. This kind of public “prayer” annoys me. But then I felt foolish and arrogant. I had no hat and no boots because I live a well-heeled life in Connecticut. These men make a living in a sport where injury and death await every time they grab that rope and hang on for life. They are like seamen and soldiers and cops and firefighters, anyone whose work is violent or dangerous. How they found their way into this life and this work, who knows. But I had a cold PBR and watched them cheat death from fifty rows up. I know nothing of that kind of life. And if that prayer helps them to grab the rope one more time, I say, Amen.