It wasn't really the kind of rodeo I had grown up with. The ones I went to years ago in another California small town were much more intimate — a hundred people or so standing around the ring, my uncle riding out and his friends around the ring yelling at him, razzing him. “Hey, Barton, hey boy, look out!" He’d bring his calf down and would turn it over and tie it up and when the judge said okay, he'd yell out really loud, EEEE-HAH San Antone! I never knew why my uncle yelled that but it seemed to sum up for me his cowboyness more than anything else — more than the country music, more than the thick steak barbeques, more than the hat, boots or Western shirts.
Anyway, this rodeo at Brawley didn’t smack much of this small-town flavor. Maybe it’s because Brawley — a town of some 13,000, two hours east of San Diego — lacks the homogeneity of most small towns. As we drove east on Brawley's Main Street in the wake of Saturday’s Cattle Call Parade, a clump of black kids and Mexican kids were circled around a white kid and a Mexican kid who were slugging it out, first Kung Fu style, then down on the ground. Further down Main Street, the shops got dingier and the crowd more heavily Mexican and black. At the same time, on the west side of town, on the other side of the covered sidewalks of downtown Brawley, birds twittered and sprinklers rained on well-trimmed lawns. A blonde housewife instructed her Mexican maid about dusting the railing on the front porch.
And further west, past the neat lawns and shady streets, in the Brawley Cattle Call Rodeo grounds, the voice of the announcer rang out while the Cattle Call princesses rode around the ring with furling and unfurling American flags. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the 17th Annual Brawley Cattle Call at Brawley — center of the cattle industry in the Imperial Valley. The cattle industry is the greatest industry in the world. If you don’t agree, just take that steak off the dinner table.”
When the girls had ridden out into the ring with the flags, the cowboys back in the “staging area” took their Stetsons or their Resistols off and placed them over their hearts. The announcer went on, ticking off a list of just what those furling and unfurling flags stood for: Davy Crockett, Sam Houston, Sergeant York — country boys — the Alamo, Pearl Harbor, Corregidor, Iwo Jima, the shores of Korea, the majestic Rockies, the coal mines of Pennsylvania, the great fertile Imperial Valley. “Ladies and gentlemen, the greatest country in the world, the United States of America!”
After the national anthem, the participants in the staging area began to get ready. Like high school football players, they stretched their limbs. They put adhesive (I think it was pine pitch) on the inside knees of their chaps and rocked back and forth with their saddles on the ground to make their chaps stick to their saddles when they squeezed their legs. Some were taping their wrists; one unbuckled his pants and slipped a thin cushion under his otherwise not-so-well-padded rear end. Most of the participants paced nervously, spitting constantly.
The predominance of regular circuit riders like Mahan, from places like Lakeside, Panorama City, Riverside, and Winslow, Arizona probably sapped local flavor from the Rodeo the most. Except for the Amateur Bronc Riding, the Girls Barrel Race and the Ben Hur Chariot Race — all of which starred people from Brawley — it was the circuit riders who won the honors. Bucky Bradford of Tucson won the calf roping, Rick Mendoza of Livermore won the bull riding, and Larry Mahan of Phoenix won the saddle bronc riding.
The spitting was the strongest common denominator among both the amateur Brawley cowboys and the out-of-town rodeo circuit riders. Everyone was spitting. There was a lady in the grandstand nicely dressed up in cowgirl finery who was spitting. Even the official who came out to see the man who got stomped by his horse in the bareback bronc riding was spitting as he approached the prone cowboy.
Another common denominator was the acceptance of Wranglers as the bluejeans for a cowboy to wear. Everyone was wearing them. The only one who wasn’t was Larry Mahan, the five-time world champion rodeo circuit rider. He wore Levis.
The grandstand crowd of over a thousand was a curious Brawley mixture of Oakie and Mexican accents with a sprinkling of suburban families from Poway and El Cajon. The Elks Club was serving barbequed beef at $3.50 a plate, and the mariachi band with violinists, guitarists, and a singer roaming the grassy area near the Elks booth made one lady from El Centro swoon, “Ooh, where’s the margueritas?"
Indeed, one didn’t have to be that interested in the rodeo itself to be entertained. Between rodeo events there were chimpanzee acts and clown acts. Jose Gonzales Gonzales, with a floppy Mexican hat and baggy pants did a stereotyped clumsy Mexican routine that evoked memories of Cisco, Pancho, and Jose Jimenez and would have enraged the Chicano Federation. The rodeo announcer even provided his own | popular humor: “Do you know | what the definition of a ‘hippie’ is? A ‘hippie’ acts like a Jack, looks like a Jill, and smells like a John.”
After the Ben Hur chariot races, | it was all over. Western songs on the public address system replaced I the announcer's voice, and the crowd poured out of the stands. An El Centro TV crew was interviewing champion Larry Mahan, and the other rodeo participants I gathered around their saddles and baggage to congratulate each other and laconically exchange words. A few empty snuff boxes, Copenhagen and Skoal, lay abandoned just outside the locker-room group. Someone who looked like a wrestler from Brawley Union High School patted his horses affectionately and began to dismantle one of the chariots. The princesses rolled up their American flags and loaded them into a waiting trailer.