The Fort Madison Rodeo

(A Traveller's Tale)

First you’ve got to find Interstate 80. Then follow it. For a long time. If you start off from the East Coast, for two to three days; from the West Coast, three to four. It all depends on how long you’re capable of staying behind the wheel at a stretch. For this you need to be something of a fanatic, but there are plenty of them. Most people start off from somewhere closer. Those who come from the west invariably pass by Omaha and Des Moines, while those who approach Interstate 80 from the north have to pass through Kossuth County, followed immediately by Waterloo. Those coming from the south board a ferry in Warsaw, right on the bend on the Mississippi, and dock twenty minutes later at the town opposite, Alexandria, from where it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump. From the east the possibilities are numerous, one crossing after another: Cordoba, Andalusia, Montpelier, Gutenberg. Most people then leave Interstate 80 at Iowa City, drive some fifty miles on U.S. Highway 218, and then, just short of the state line, turn yet again, this time to the east, onto Route 2. In half an hour you arrive in Fort Madison, on the Mississippi, roughly half-way between locks 18 and 19.
All this can be done by train, ship, or plane too, of course. These may be more comfortable; but trains, ships, and planes rarely take horses. And the way to arrive at the Fort Madison Rodeo is with a horse.
Not on a horse, but with a horse, in a horse-box hitched to your dusty Dodge Ram or Ford Ranger, a worn down Oldsmobile Dynasty or Chevrolet Bellevue, a rust-ridden Mercury Grand Voyager, a twenty-year-old Buick Prairie – if you have one horse, that is. If you have more, then you might opt for a semi, whose front looks like a truck, while its rear is a certified horse-transport tent-on-wheels; hitched to this is a motor home and a trailer loaded with bales of oats. But serious breeders rent a serious vehicle, and may even pull their entire stable to the scene with an oversized, forty-ton Mack, Kenworth, Peterbilt, or Freigatliner, with predatory hood, spear-like antenna, and a chimney-like exhaust pipe which puffs straight up into the sky.
By the last weekend of September everyone arrives in Fort Madison, in the southeastern corner of Iowa near the Missouri and Illinois statelines. Trucks, motor homes, semis, and trailers cover the rectangular arena which is home to the fiftieth, the Jubilee Tri-State Rodeo. The drone of televisions in the rambling rodeo encampment, which stretches all the way to the lock on the Mississippi, can be heard from the motor homes; the smell of smoke and sausage wafts through the air, the horses hitched to the vehicles, are either burying their heads in the oat trailers or wriggling their haunches carnally while being groomed under the brush.
By evening all is set. Long-haired cowgirls parade round and round the sand-strewn arena on beribboned mares with radiant hair and mane-like tails, spurring them into a gallop, then making them rear up�they are establishing a mood.
With an air of amused superiority this all-knowing Central European sophisticate awaits the start of a spectacle of the tschikosch-gulasch-party type aimed at gullible foreigners. The Central European sophisticate is convinced that it has seen all this before. The crowd of thirty thousand on the bleachers is a bit dubious. Perhaps there aren’t so many foreigners in such a tiny city after all. All the same, the Central European intellect noses about to validate its superiority. It noses about for the chance to exchange winks with a like mind, and awaits that jovial moment when he can nudge a neighbour in the ribs, as if to say: “What ninnies, huh?” And in reply he gets: “Isn’t this just a bunch of baloney?” But there’s no one to exchange glances with. Thirty-thousand perfectly blue pairs of eyes consummately unsuited to exchange winks. Thirty-thousand wide-brimmed hats on thirty-thousand blonde heads of hair�so many can’t just be wearing them as a joke. Which is to say, if so many are wearing them, it’s no longer a joke… it’s just gear.
This is not the America that the Central European sophisticate thinks it knows. This is not New York, Washington, San Francisco, Los Angeles; it is neither the East Coast nor the West, but the in-between. Some say this is the real America. Others say this is the part of America that America doesn’t need. The prairies. Nothing, in other words. The Midwest. Cornfields seventy-two hours across, as many hours north to south. Countless hogs, even more cattle. (Iowans were thrown into a fever last August: a two-headed pig was born in New Vienna. The news media followed its development day by day, thank God it lived, and now it’s a symbol, though just what it symbolizes is yet unclear.)
Here, black people are mostly seen on television only.
Germans, Swedes, Czechs, Irish, and Poles settled hereabouts some one hundred and fifty years ago. Hungarians, too, but they moved on. There are two Norwegian towns as well. Their ancestors mingled, and brought into being the midwestern farmer: hefty, milky white, beef and corn-fed folk who work from dusk to dawn. Any single family farm is as big as one of the old Hungarian state cooperatives, its fleet of equipment is even bigger; here there’s no stopping for a break, only a rodeo now and then. Here, people don’t wear checkered flannel shirts and jeans because they’re in style, but because these are their clothes; and they don’t wear wide-brimmed hats because they saw them in the movies, but because they offer protection from rain and sun. People in these parts don’t follow fashion, it was they who became fashion; they don’t imitate the movies, the movies are based on them.
Believing them isn’t easy. It isn’t easy, that is, to believe that all this is true. The Central European sophisticate, used to something quite different, keeps waiting for the revelation, the twist, the punch line. There is none. It awaits the opportunity to muse over the irony of all this, but has no musing partner. Then it gives up, fearing that by pushing things too far it might just run up against a freckled shovel of a palm.Standing on the podium at one end of the rectangular arena is the MC, the old soldier of rodeos of old, not one for words, speaking in starts into the microphone, following the race for points as displayed on the computer screen, on a first-name basis with all present, or if not, sure acting that way as the competitors wave and the old soldier of rodeos of old nods amiably toward them.
The first event: bareback on an unbroken horse, one hand on the bridle. Eight seconds. Each competitor must last at least this long on his partner, embittered and madly kicking. Somehow on the TV screen�indeed, everyone has seen this sort of thing on TV�it seems easier than from up close, in real life. Although the screen brings the spectacle closer, what can’t be seen on television is the foaming mouth, the web of bloody veins across the eyes, rolling in deathly panic; and what can’t be felt is that the horse is writhing madly, as if fighting for its life.
Nonetheless, everyone achieves the minimum time apart from Sj�rensen, from Illinois, who flies off the horse at 7.4 seconds (Swiss Timing). As if this weren’t bad enough for poor Sj�rensen, he has sprained his ankle. All the same, he waves defiantly to indicate he won’t throw in the towel, but will be starting in the next event as well.
Results are announced for the combined events as well as for the individual. This means Sj�rensen’s hopes may have been dashed for the combined events, but that not all is lost yet.
Everyone in the next event embarks on their own horse.
This is why they dragged their animals half way across the state, half way across the world. The owners lead horses adorned with ornate saddles, their radiant hair iron-grey and dun, to the stalls at the opposite end of the arena from the MC’s podium. Naturally they bring the harnesses along from home. They simply have them. Or else inherited them. They save them and use them as surely as a run-down Dodge, Buick, Chevrolet�make no mistake about it, what’s going on here is not some forced attempt to resurrect dead traditions.
The second event: calf-tipping.
In one stall stands the horse and rider, at the ready. In the other, a well-built calf. Someone gives the calf a good whack on the hind quarters, the door springs open, and the frightened animal gallops frantically into the arena. Exactly a second later the next other stall door springs open, and the horseman follows. The clock starts only now, with the opening of the second door. Once he catches up to the calf, the competitor throws a lasso around its neck and reins in the horse, whereupon the lasso, attached to the massive saddle, tugs mightily on the calf, which twirls about, the rope about its neck. The competitor jumps off the saddle, throws the calf, climbs atop the beast and, using a thong whipped out from his belt, binds two of its legs, either the left foreleg and the right hind leg, or vice-versa. He ties a knot to ensure that the calf can’t budge, then springs to his feet and throws his arms into the air: done!
The assistants untie the dizzied calf and drive it out of the arena; they lead away the horse. The next competitor can begin.
The best times are around six seconds. Bergman, from Iowa, is unable to throw the calf on the first try, so instead he bundles it into his arms, lifts it up and throws it to the ground, which, while it draws applause, means lost time. Stolzfuss, also from Iowa, binds all four legs, an achievement akin to winning a beauty contest. The best is Nizinsky, from Missouri. In just 5.4 seconds he buries the calf under himself and ties it in knots. A feat of daring that earns him a standing ovation. (Poor Sj�rensen is further hounded by bad luck. After botching the lassoing, and limping he chases the fleeing animal until he finally manages to bring it down, but the twenty seconds that this takes is too much to even fuel hope. More than simply being out of form, sheer amateurism. How we shake our heads, we, the experts.
During the brief intermission that follows, while the organizers get things set for the next event, spectators have a chance to relax. Some buy wide-brimmed hats in the stands set up around the arena; on hand are the finest hatters from the neighbouring towns of Davenport and Burlington. All colours and shapes are available; leather, wool, felt, men’s sizes, women’s sizes, children’s sizes; with mirrors a metre long on hand to check the overall effect. Others stand in line for tacos, nachos, hot dogs and sundry snacks. Beer can be had only within limits�poor, watery beer available for tickets and under police supervision. No drunken brawls, here. Its blue siren flashing, a Ford rolls in behind the arena, a two-meter, overblown giant wriggles out, a dappled kerchief round his neck, a 45 Colt on his side, a silver star on his chest with the words, “Lee County Sheriff.” The Central European sophisticate struggles against the temptation to chuckle�”You guys want to sell me this Western nonsense?” it thinks. Only, Fort Madison is in Lee County, and what’s more, counties have sheriffs; besides, his son took part in the calf-tipping event, so his being here is only to be expected, not to mention that it’s his job to provide official supervision of beer sales, so, after all, there’s no question but that he’s got to be here.
The intermission is more spectacular than even the competition, for who makes his appearance, but the King. The king of rodeo clowns. As the MC puts it, the King evokes the golden age of Hollywood through his very own and singular means, and the act he will now perform was a big hit in Las Vegas. At this even the taco and nacho lines thin out, as everyone scrambles back to their seats.
A hole-ridden metal box pulled along by a tiny tractor rolls into the middle of the arena, with the King, that veteran Las Vegas showman in a black costume right behind. His black steed bounds after him from inside a stall, straight out of Zorro. The lovely animal shows off its talents at the sound of a whistle, and more or less knows those tricks those who’ve visited the Spanish Equestrian School know as well: kneels, lies down, side-steps. An overbred, fragile beauty whose improbably thin ankles are protected by a white bandage, one after another it performs all imaginable moves incompatible with a horse’s nature and movements, very nearly doing pirouettes toward the end, then leaves the arena amidst whoops and applause.
All this simply served to establish a mood, however; the real thing begins only now.
The door of the forgotten, hole-ridden metal box now pops up. Five goats stagger out. Sheared like veritable gentlemen, every one of these bearded little beasts blink with the incomprehension of a hopelessly academic, absent-minded professor; they have no idea how they got here. Another whistle prompts a newer creature to gallop out of the metal box. It must originally have been a dog and a monkey, separately that is, but they’ve now got a bit mixed. A saddle rests on the German shepherd; astride the saddle is a long-tailed monkey, in black cowboy-garb no less�his black-clothed owner’s monkey-double. They head off after the goats. The monkey, bound to the dog with an insidious web of strings, so it can’t fall off, tilts loosely to the side, forward and back. While performing what seem like impossible horse tricks, this dog-monkey creature pesters the indignantly bleating group of academics, and after three rounds of the arena drives them back into the box as the audience gives a standing ovation.The highlight comes after the intermission: bull-nagging. Perhaps the most well-known event of all. The object is the same as in the first: one must stay on the animal’s back for eight seconds, but now on a saddle, and the competitor can hold on with one hand around the pommel. Let’s face it, the competitors have pulled off lamentably poor performances at this, the highlight of the Tri-State Jubilee Rodeo. Only Nizinsky, from Missouri, endures the eight seconds, and even he does so by a hair. The others fail, and fly. The first to go is Sj�rensen, who has thus far succeeded only in garnering the lowest of scores and is in ever-more pitiful condition. Now he ploughs across the arena within a second, smacking against the protective wall like a pat of butter; what’s more, if the assistants charged with distracting the bulls weren’t equal to their task, the bull in question would trample Sj�rensen to boot. When all is said and done, today isn’t Sj�rensen’s day.
The truth is, that on looking closely at such an infuriated mass of flesh, one’s inclination to banter seeps away. (Once I tried all the same, silently and in Hungarian, yet I was struck by the uncertain feeling that the bull was raising its tiny, swollen eyes to take a good look at me; I promptly fell silent.)
The rodeo closes on a wholly different note, a free and easy repose, the icing on the cake, the draining off of the weightier events of the day, and at the same time an independent sport, outside the combined events. Nor are the participants the same.
The tiny tractor pulls three empty oil drums to the scene, out of which a pyramid is formed, and the judges set up a laser-timing apparatus on top. No sooner have they done so than the top woman competitor, outfitted in a black hat, red duster, and leather leggings, steams in, her hair fluttering as the chestnut mare underneath her gallops along, well-nigh falling and laying down at sharp turns, then whizzing out of the arena, all this in eighteen seconds.
The cowgirls arrive in succession, all of them with hair hung loose, as if hair-fluttering were obligatory, too, and the hoof tracks plough loops resembling an erratic spider-web around the drums. When all is said and done, this is Missouri’s day, the women’s equestrian event included.
This year’s winner will be someone to reckon with only at next year’s Miss Rodeo contest, however. For now the queen is still Jessica Lynn Kokjohn, the winner of last year’s women’s events. It is her duty to present the awards to the winners of the men’s combined and individual events, and after the ceremony, decked out in royal regalia, to receive the faithful in the combined press and beer tent. A vest sewn from an American flag covers her red shirt; a tastefully fitted silver crown sits atop her red hat; and this is not to mention her thick bronze wristband, her heavy bronze belt buckle, the massive spurs on her shiny boots, and the title etched into every single piece of metal adorning her slender body: Miss Rodeo Iowa 1997. A short girl of twenty with classical blue eyes, her face is coated thickly with make-up as she carries out her duty: signing her press photos for all, in which she is posing in the very same costume she now wears. The line meanders before her, she shakes hands with and introduces herself to one and all, and delivers twittering replies to the questions that come her way: she wants to be a kindergarden teacher, yes, so she can begin to instruct even small children in riding. Then she calls the attention of those who bought her photo to the list of sponsors on the back. She can thank them for her outward appearance; for example, the crown was a gift from Trailer Sales, a company which sells horse boxes; the spurs, from the Peter Dodd Threshing and Grocery plant; the wristband from John Ham Elevator Repair and Roofing, the bronze belt buckle from a local car battery and rubber factory. This is not to mention the heap of others without whose support�so she repeats several times�she wouldn’t look like she does. Miss Rodeo seems a little nearsighted while signing her name above the photos. With her face and hand quite close together, one cannot help but notice the incongruity: just below the faultless make-up, a pair of rough, red overworked hands whose nails are all but cut and chewed away.Finale time. The students of Fort Madison pour onto the scene, and a chaotic piece of scaffolding erected on a truck rolls in as well. The students wear blue jeans and white T-shirts; cowboy hats and neckties adorn every one of the approximately one-hundred lovely, healthy, singing fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen year-olds. While singing excerpts from famous Broadway musicals they assume gymnastic formations and perform scenes. They are spitting images of Budapest secondary school students back in the seventies who would present gymnastic formations before the grandstand on Heroes’ Square each and every May Day, but to muse on this is Central European maliciousness itself, which fizzles consummately, inexplicably into nothingness on this, the Jubilee Tri-State, Fort Madison Rodeo. And so I watch them; I see red, white, and blue fireworks whiz up into the air from the scaffolding, and listen to the students’ spirited rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. I watch as they wave Vs for “Victory” to the audience, which responds in kind (we didn’t stoop to such gestures), as the better part of the crowd joins in on the National Anthem, and, well now, who of all people produces the most impassioned bellow? Sure enough, the Shame of Illinois, half-conscious and bleeding from a hundred wounds, Sj�rensen.

Published 14 February 2000
Original in Hungarian
Translated by Stephan Humphreys

Contributed by Magyar Lettre Internationale © Pal Bekes / Magyar Lettre Internationale / Eurozine

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