Fond memories of rodeo, one person reaching out to another

Keith Brumley

Keith Brumley

I was 15. I wanted to be a rodeo hand. I’d made it through the practice rodeos in Faith and Eagle Butte, as well as the Regional High School Rodeo at Buffalo, S.D. It was now the middle of June. I’d only been on nine bucking horses.

Rodeo wasn’t very organized then, and a loose group of people came together for the summer of 1970. Included was veterinarian Ron Ford, working cowboy Leonard Jonas, Ronnie Johnson, just out of high school, and resident rounder Jim Bieber. I was the youngest: the button of the crew.

Jim had heard of an open rodeo in Cherry Creek. Geographically, Cherry Creek is a tributary of the Cheyenne River, and the town sits close to where the two rivers converge – a little more than 100 miles from my home in Lemmon, S.D. As places go, Cherry Creek wasn’t much. It’s not even listed in the 1990 Census, and in 1970 Cherry Creek was a world away from my experience. We went.

It was hot. There wasn’t the hint of a breeze. The town was a grubby little rez-burg on Cheyenne River with dogs roaming the dirt streets like beggars. Housing was bleak, and the place displayed its poverty as a bent and tarnished badge.

The rodeo arena was a shambles. Only two of the six bucking chutes were functional, and the arena floor was as hard as the lives of the people who lived there. Before the show, a pickup truck with a loudspeaker wheeled into the arena. The person inside pleaded for everyone to stay sober. It didn’t seem to have much effect, and many of those behind the chutes got drunk. One guy who was entered in the saddle-bronc riding fell off his horse before the gate was even opened. Another guy, Kenny Day, who had arguably been one of the best bareback riders in the Northern Plains at that time, had tripped into a bottle of whiskey and was on his way down. By the time he was up to ride, he had half a fifth of Canadian Club under his belt – and yet he still won the bareback riding.

As for me, my first horse ran off. I was given a re-ride. The second horse scared me. A man, seemingly from nowhere, showed up as I was crawling into the chute and gave me much needed instruction. He was kind, understanding and honest. His clothes were impeccable. Despite the missing front teeth, he looked – and acted – every bit the pro.

I asked whose horses we were riding.

“They’re just horses,” he said.

I thought he meant nobody knew whose horses we were riding, and maybe that’s true. What I like to believe these days, however, was that he was telling me to not be concerned. Like every bronc I rode before and after, it was just a horse – nothing more, nothing less. Each horse was special, but it was still, after all, just a horse, and the fellow who’d made the effort to help me was just a guy ? but what a guy he was.

I will never forget that brief and crystalline moment when one person reached out to help another. It was nothing ? and it made all the difference in the world to me.

Keith Brumley is an SDSU alumnus and current journalism graduate student at SDSU.