The vast majority of us Tucsonans are non-natives, tied together by just three things: a hatred for where we came from; the soothing voice of Alan Kath doing traffic reports in the morning, and the shared experience of shock and amazement the first time we learned that our new hometown had an official rodeo.
Whether we came from L.A. or Chicago, upstate New York or Down South, we now lived in a place where the entire town shuts down for a few days to watch people interact with animals. Come to think of it, it's not entirely unlike Mardi Gras.
When I was playing ball at Cochise College in Douglas, I was sitting in the student union one Thursday morning, watching TV with my basketball teammates (several of whom were from inner-city Detroit). We had gathered to watch Jeopardy and, in the process, do our best to dispel the pernicious myth of the dumb jock. The fact that many of us were missing class to watch a quiz show kinda took the glow off the mission. But it was a team unity thing, plus it gave us yet another chance to show off for da womenz. (Except for one guy, Rowan Childs from Inkster, Mich., who would watch with us but refused to play until someone explained to him why Jeopardy had an "o" in its name.)
This particular day, we turned on the TV and instead of Art Fleming, we got Doug Dudley or Hank Hubbard or Nina Trasoff; I never could tell them apart. They were announcing a parade! I asked one of my baseball teammates who happened to be walking by why they were showing us horses walking down the street. He said that it was the annual rodeo parade in Tucson, part of La Fiesta de los Vaqueros. In fact, he added, they always televise it and it's such a big deal, they cancel school for two days.
"Cancel school?!," exclaimed Rowan. "For a rodeo?"
"Yeah," I explained. "It's like back home when there'd be a riot. The only difference is that here you don't get to go home with a new TV set."
Is it any wonder I was voted team captain?
As I sat there and watched, I thought to myself, "Boy, we're sure not in Kansas anymore." (I later did some research and I found that they also had rodeos in Kansas, but they lacked the technology with which to televise them.)
Over the years, I've attended the rodeo for a variety of reasons. When I first came to the UA, I was still in the process of courting my future wife so I took her to La Fiesta to show her I was down with the local customs. I read everything I could get my hands on and tried to impress her with my vast knowledge. It turns out that she had attended rodeos all over the Southwest and Northern Mexico, so I came off like one of those idiots who tries to teach his date how to bowl.
After we got married, I went because there's a Shakey's right across the street from the rodeo rounds. Take it from me, the Road to Obesity is paved with Mojo Potatoes.
When the kids were born, it gave us the opportunity to dress them in really embarrassing outfits and take lots of pictures with which we could blackmail them in future years.
The past four years, instead of being able to sleep in on that Thursday, I had to drive my daughter, who was in the Amphi marching band, to the school at 6 a.m. so that they could be at the staging area by 7 a.m. and then bask in horse smells for two hours before the parade began.
Poor Darlene would then work at the rodeo every year selling stuff to help pay for the big band trip back east that was coming up during spring break. But she was the classic example of the line, "If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all." One year, it was brutally cold and she had the eegee's concession. The next year she chose hot chocolate, so naturally, it was unseasonably warm. The third year, the temperature was just right but it was really windy. They had assigned her cotton candy. She was lucky to escape without a lawsuit.
Of course, she never got to go on any of the subsequent band trips because she always had a softball game or a tennis match or a track meet. But oh, the stories we heard! One time, two band members were kissing on the airplane! With tongue action. (No band pun intended.) Another time, there was a rumor about a hickey, but it turned out to be just a tragic trumpet accident involving a heavy kid's loose neck skin and a poorly-placed spit valve.
I used to hope that the rodeo would help keep Tucson tied together, that it would remain forever part of the Old Pueblo's identity and charm. But these days all of the original Tucson is fractured into competing neighborhoods, and then all of that is surrounded by ever-expanding tree rings of suburbs and leap-frogging subdivisions.
No, the only reason to go to the rodeo any more is to piss off the PETA people, and even that gets boring after a while.
I was in Vegas not too long ago and I saw k.d. lang walking down the street. I started yelling something at her about seeing her at the rodeo and then maybe the two of us going to get a cheeseburger together. Well, as it turns out, it wasn't k.d. lang. It was Wayne Newton and he said, "Sure, why not?" Took the fun right out of it. Plus, the guy eats like a pig.
See you at the rodeo. And yee-hah!