After my marriage of two decades blew up, I chucked my living room furniture and put in a gym complete with treadmill, metallic torture contraptions, and pancake stacks of Olympic free weights.
Careerwise, things hadn’t changed much with the divorce. With four books out on hazing and a college teaching position I loved, I was, at 58, still moving up the career stepladder. In fact, I was looking forward, on successive days, to delivering a keynote address to the U.S. Department of Education in Washington and appearing on the NBC Today Show.
So what could be bad? Well, nothing and everything. That’s the beauty of an abandonment crisis at any age. It strikes hard, tears the roof off your comfortable digs, plants a pitchfork inside your soul.
My colleagues in the small journalism department at Franklin College and IUPUI where I teach seemed to sense my restlessness. One—owner of a Miata convertible--suggested that I buy a small sportscar.
But I’m an old-boy deep down, tweed sportscoats notwithstanding, and I like my repainted ‘88 Dodge Dakota just fine. My grandfathers owned farms, and at age four I herded cows and winced as my grandfather Josef wrestled a ring into a bull’s nose. I nixed the convertible, but caved in and assented when Cleo Sutherland, my 26-year-old weightlifting partner, suggested I accompany him to a rodeo to ride a live, twisting Brahma bull.
“Eight seconds, Hank,” he said one night at his father’s restaurant in Fairland as we scarfed 25-cent tacos. “That’s how long you got to stay on.”
Muscular and bald, Cleo resembles a young Ken Kesey. He’s been riding bulls for months and even paid tuition to attend a bull-riding school, leaving with an armload of videos of himself perched like a pickle atop one snorting ton of hamburger.
He was just goading me. Later, in the emergency room, he admitted he’d never really expected me to say “OK,” but that’s the word that came out of my mouth.
Two days later, I found myself in Cleo’s red rig, a Dale Earnhardt memorial license plate on the front bumper, and Waylon Jennings’s voice boiling out the speaker as we bolted down an Indiana back road: “I’ve always been crazy but it’s kept me from going insane,” sang Waylon, and who was I to argue?
Dale and Waylon were dead, after all, and I was a healthy old cuss attempting a new adventure.
“You’re cell phone is cracking up,” she said. “It must be. I just heard you say you’re in Ohio on your way to a rodeo.”
Getting no reassurance from Thelma, I hung up. Cleo pulled his rig into the pickup-filled parking lot at Mack Arena in Celina, Ohio.
Cleo threw on his spurs. He was dressed Stetson to boots in wrangler chic. I had no western wear in my closet and made do with hiking boots and a short-sleeved shirt, looking more ready to tangle with student term papers than to cowboy up on a raging bull.
We skirted an ambulance at the entrance and entered, paying our admission fees and an additional $15 to ride a bull. I paused to read, then sign, a release form.
Cleo had all his equipment, but I needed to buy and borrow all mine, because his head only reaches my shoulder. What I needed first was a glove. At a combination souvenir stand, coffee shop, and dry goods store, I encountered a pear-shaped man in a pearl-buttoned shirt. He added my $25 to the fistful of dollars he held in one paw.
“You righty or lefty?” he asked, and I held up my right.
“Only one?” I asked as he pushed a deer-hide glove at me.
“They don’t come in pairs,” he said.
I remembered that Cleo said I would have to keep one hand in the air. Touching the bull or grabbing the rope with the free hand was prohibited.
I inquired about a protective leather vest and a braided rope and winced at the prices the hawker quoted me. Cleo came up behind me. “Wait until a rider your size finishes a ride, and then ask him for his.”
We pushed past men in bleachers who were tearing beers off piles of six-packs. At that point there was an intermission, and music started blaring and high school girls marched into the middle of the arena to line dance. When that ended, all the men took off their hats, and the crowd sang “God Bless America.”
The announcer delivered a patriotic speech, and the bull riding restarted. Most riders were thrown well before the eight seconds were up. Those who managed to stay the eight before getting tossed or leaping free earned cash prizes. The crowd was appreciative, and applauded every performer.
Most riders were small and far more wiry than my broad build. Finally, one good-sized rider hopped on his bull, but was thrown roughly after five or six seconds. Two rodeo clowns in flapping, baggy clothing chased away his bull while he dusted himself clean.
He came out of the arena, and Cleo and I stalked him. I made my request for his equipment. He sized me up and spit.
“You fellers first timers here?”
“Your girlfriends know you’re here?”
Cleo’s love life has been about as bad as mine.
“That’s good,” he said. “Sooner or later you always get hurt, and your old lady would be telling you not to come no more. Mine never comes.”
I laugh aloud, thinking about a famous line author Ernest Hemingway penned in A Dangerous Summer, a true-life story of bullfighting. “Pamplona is no place to bring your wife,” he wrote.
He told us a bit about himself. He drove semis during the week and lived in New Castle, Indiana. He came here every week. I pulled on his vest. He had a gut, and it hung loosely on me. “If you like riding, you can buy your own,” he said.
He broke off a chunk of resin and showed me how to put some in the center of my glove and work it up and down the rope to make the surface of the glove as sticky as possible. “Don’t push up and down,” he said. “Do it real vigorous like you’re jerking off.”
I did my best Portnoy impression. I wanted any edge over the bull I could get.
The money events were over, and we novices were up. We found an older female spectator who seemed cooperative. We gave her Cleo’s video camera, asking her to film our rides.
Cleo’s turn came first. He nodded, and his gate opened. He had a good five-second ride, but then slipped off to the right. For a second, he was attached to the bull by the rope, but then the weighted part broke free, and he tumbled onto the soft-packed arena dirt. Had he hung up, he would have been dragged. Still, he paid a price for the mistake. The bull swung its hips past him and a flashing hoof caught him in the meat of his leg. He’d be taking home a big bruise.
A couple more contestants went. I was last, and the crowd was no longer a crowd. Cleo limped up and handed me his rope. He and a teenager helped me get settled in the pen.
Unfortunately, there were no more smaller bulls for me as an amateur, and I drew a beast. The bull was big and mostly white. The announcer said his name, but I didn’t catch it. The other bulls had creative names such as Nasty Boy. He pushed back his huge flat head and looked at me with one big white eyeball. I spread my legs wide over him and rested the heels of my boots on each of the two gate panels. He tried to dig me in the fleshy part of my leg with one horn.
“Don’t let him get you,” the kid said. I put my leg out of reach.
The two tied down my rope, and had me pull—hard.
“Make sure it’s tight,” said Cleo. “Harder.”
The kid agreed. “It has to be tight.”
I had on a Hofstra baseball cap. I handed it to Cleo.
“What about them specs?” he asked.
“I’m blind without them.”
“They could get crushed,” said Cleo. I jerked them off and handed them to him.
The thought clearly went through my head that I ought to be afraid, but I was too busy taking care of ticking off the details of things to be done.
Cleo backed up on the gate.
“When you hit the ground, get up and run like mad for a fence,” he said. “Don’t lay there or you might take a horn.”
“You ready?” the kid asked. I raised my left hand and held it high as the announcer blasted “My Sherona” by the Knack over the speakers. It's an awful song, and I never liked it.
I gave the head nod and the gate peeled open into the arena. I was sitting on a one-ton powder keg, and he exploded. I kept my eyes on his head just visible over his broad hump. He gave a big kick with his back feet.
I have had some nice sporting thrills but weathering that first leap equals any of them. My bull made a short run, and to my horror, I felt my knees slipping away from his shoulder. I was off balance and sliding backward toward his hind end.
He gave a second explosive buck, and I let go of the rope. I felt my body being launched straight up, way up.
When I awoke it was in an ambulance, and a female EMT was holding my hand and talking soothingly to me.
I tried to sit up and sank down. My back felt like it was broken. My first thought was of Christopher Reeve and his paralysis. Reeve’s dad, F.D., had been a poet and contributed back in the 1970s to a literary magazine I edited. I remember talking to F.D on the phone and learning that Christopher had been awarded the part of Superman.
“Don’t move,” the EMT told me. “We’ll soon be at the hospital. You were the last ride. I thought for once I’d get to go home early.”
“Is my back broken?”
“I don’t think so. A bunch of cowboys tried to hold you down. You threw them all off and were gasping for air.”
At the hospital aides transferred me to a gurney. Cleo was in the waiting room. He’d followed the ambulance. The video camera was in his hands.
“You want to see your ride?”
It was short and horrible. On the way down it looked as if my free hand were coming down like a hammer, and I drove my left elbow into my ribs. My legs and chest hit the ground. I crumpled, rolled once, and was still. The tape stopped there.
“You scared the lady,” Cleo said. “She stopped filming.”
“Did you see me fall?” I asked.
“I went and killed Hank—that’s what I thought,” said Cleo.
“I didn’t do what you told me,” I said. “I didn’t keep my knees dug into his shoulder.”
A doctor came into the room and separated us. He ordered several CAT scans and a ton of X-rays. He came in with a sheet of film. “The good news is that you don’t have a head injury,” he said. “Your head is pretty cut up, and I thought you might have one. But the bad news is that you’ve broken seven ribs, and some of them are broken right off.”
The medical team released me at 6 a.m. that Sunday. I left with Cleo, my arms bulging with pain killers and a breathing device.
The next day I taught my classes and then I drove to the airport in Indianapolis, and a wheelchair dumped me at a gate where Thelma was waiting for me. My keynote address for the U.S. Department of Education was on Tuesday, and Thelma was assisting me with video and sound.
The talk went well, but foolishly I took my friend Thelma on a walking tour of Washington because it was her first time to the Capitol. After our walk, I headed to the Reagan airfield and flew to New York alone.
A psychologist friend met me at the Essex House, and after a dinner I couldn’t eat because of the pain, she brought plastic garbage bags and filled them with ice. She wrapped me in them and left, mumbling that she hoped I didn’t die like John Belushi, while police searched New York for her as a mystery lady.
When my alarm rang at 5 a.m., I awakened, climbed out of a wet bed, and went downstairs where a limo whisked me off to the Today Show. The makeup lady recoiled when she saw the cuts and bruises on my head, but she managed to cover up most of the debris. On set, interviewer Matt Lauer was waiting for me, and I chatted with him about hazing for three-minutes.
A limo took me to the airport. I flew back to Indianapolis and tried to meet my afternoon classes at Franklin College. A secretary and a fellow professor intercepted me. My chest, the left side, was swollen to three times its normal size, engorged apparently with blood. They made me check into the local hospital.
I had internal hemorrhaging. I stayed inert in the critical care ward the better part of four days. My entire department came to visit. The highlight was when my editing class showed up en masse. “We weren’t going to let you cut class,” said the spokesperson for the group. I could have hugged them all. Maybe I would have if I knew I wouldn’t scream in pain.
I’m back in my school office as I write. My ribs are little better, and I seem to be living on a diet of pain killers and muscle relaxants. But today I’m less sore than yesterday, and the purple bruises are fading to yellow. I’m behind on my grading, and that leaves little time for self pity.
My colleagues seem to have taken my departure from sanity in good spirits. I’ve heard every conceivable bad pun on “bull.” A homemade poster depicting a butt getting speared by a horn now hangs from my door. “We missed you, Hank, but too bad the bull didn’t,” it reads.
I received dozens of notes from the college president to the campus janitors. My two grown sons were ticked off at me, and each recited the same speech about thinking about consequences I’d harangued them with as they grew up.
In addition, I can’t tell you how many times a student or prof has come up and asked what I was thinking when I agreed to ride a bull, and maybe out of self protection I have been trying to come up with an intellectual rationalization to justify my irresponsible behavior.
But so far I haven’t devised one.
“So what’s next? Running ahead of the bulls at Pamplona?” a colleague asked me.
My hands gently moved over my rib cage. “I think I’d better quit while I’m behind,” I said.