Milk Cow Blues
Keep in mind that a cow weighs about half a ton.
There is an event in the Pendleton Round-Up that isn’t included in most rodeos; and, in truth, it isn’t the most popular among even the Pendleton fans. Most folks don’t take it seriously, and it is the last event of the day. Many people decide to leave, maybe to get an early start in the Let ‘Er Buck Room, the infamous bar that only serves hard liquor below the south grandstands. But our group, that has become known as the “Crappy Little Campers,” gather as close as we can to the arena to watch our local hero.
The event is called “wild cow milking,” and although it provides a lot of laughs, the competitors take the doings quite seriously. After all, there is money involved, but even more (most) important a buckle can be won.
The competition goes like this: A roper, on a horse, is paired with a “mugger,” a man on the ground. There are usually about ten teams. A cow is lassoed and the mugger grabs the animal around the neck and holds it while the roper drops down from his horse, squeezes a little milk into a small container, and runs it off to the judges. The first guy to bring in a sample of milk to the judges wins the buckle. Simple.
The cows are range cattle, a far cry from the docile bossy bred for a dairy farm. They are not used to being around humans other than an infrequent cowboy on a horse. The cows are skittish and can be aggressive, especially after calving. And, in this event, they have been separated from their babies. So they are especially pissed off.
The event starts with the ropers and muggers at one end of the rodeo grounds. At the other end the cattle, maybe about thirty cows, are driven into the arena, and as soon as they are free of the gates, a gun shot signals the start of the competition.
The herd of cattle disperses in every direction, confused by the separation from their calves and panicked by the shot. They are further crazed by the sight of cowboys racing toward them ropes at the ready. It’s not easy for the ropers either as they get in each other’s way trying to get to a single cow. The cattle themselves unwittingly block what might be an easy target for a roper.
The muggers, at first, are only a bit less confused than the cows as they try to run toward wherever the ropers might be heading. These are large men, not used to moving fast, and they quickly start breathing hard. Their shirts start turning dark with sweat. A few of them, looking for their ropers or trying to avoid a charging cow, run into each other. To make matters worse, the announcer laughs at the spectacle below him.
A few of the cowboys manage to get a rope over some cows and attempt to hold their animals in place while the muggers struggle toward them. A mugger might grab the rope, inadvertently pulling it out of the ropers hands. Then it becomes a rodeo version of a Nantucket sleigh ride as the cow race around the area pulling the mugger off his feet and through a lot of cow shit.
A more experienced, or lucky mugger will not touch the rope but grab the cow around its neck. This is where a heavy man has the advantage as the cow will jerk its head around trying to get free of the mugger. A small man will be lifted off his feet and be carried off, leaving the roper alone deciding whether to give chase or to get back on his horse and ride away.
A mugger is not just holding the cow in place. He is actually trying to get a choke hold on the animal, similar to what some cops do to control a violent person instead of gassing, tasing or shooting him. The mugger tries to reduce the blood supply to the cow’s brain so that it will stop thrashing around long enough for the roper to grab an udder and squeeze out a bit of milk.
Well, that’s the plan, anyway. It turns out that it’s not that easy to choke a cow. As might be obvious, cattle have thick necks, much thicker than the average wacko who is out of control on meth. The oxygen carrying arteries deep within those tree-trunk-sized necks and having a man hanging on just seems to enrage the cows more. A few of the muggers fly into the air as if they’d been rag dolls. When they finally get up off the ground, they are likely to be butted into the air by a cow that has avoided being roped.
A few of the muggers manage to hang on and actually choke a cow into submission, but even then the plan can go awry. Sometimes the cow will actually faint and fall down and cover her udder with her massive body. Then the cowboy will have to try to roll the cow over on her side, a feat that is almost impossible as the cow’s muscles are flaccid. It’s like trying to roll a giant water balloon.
Another problem that makes milking a wild cow almost impossible is the stress that the animal is under. Milk does not flow easily when the cow is pissed off. A dairy hand does not get milk from a cow that is chased around the barn yard and then assaulted. [Although there are a few farmers who seem to think that is the only way to convince a cow to give milk.] A roper can lasso a cow and a mugger can choke her until she stands still, but after all that excitement, the milk sometimes will not come.
Eventually, the spectator will notice a cowboy sprinting toward the center of the arena toward the judges. At times there will be two of the ropers running, each trying to outrace the other to get his sample to the judges first. The judges have to be on the ball, not only to correctly identify who arrives first, but to see if there is actually milk in the container. Frequently a milker will, in the excitement, might be a bit over optimistic and think that he has something in the bottle when it is actually empty.
For the past several years, our crowd, christened the “Crappy Little Camp,” have gathered at the Pendleton high school grounds and set up camp in the school parking lot. Our site usually contains a variety of camping trailers, motor homes, fifth wheel RVs, pickup campers and several tents. At times a few urban cowboys have slept under the open sky in pickup beds.
Our favorite event of the Round Up is the wild cow milking not so much for the pandemonium that is guaranteed but because we have a star in our midst who not only competes at the Pendleton rodeo, he mugs cows all over the Pacific Northwest. Although he is serious about the events in California, Oregon and Washington, those contests are just practice for the big one: the Pendleton Round Up.
He is our guy.
Tobin is our middle son and lives in Seattle with his wife Gladys and their three kids. He never lived on a ranch, nor can he ride a horse. But he grew up going to the Pendleton Round Up every year since he was a kid. The culture of the rodeo bit him and he wanted to be part of it. However, he couldn’t ride a horse and had no interest in learning. And, if he couldn’t ride a horse, he couldn’t imagine riding a bull.
Plus, he has a real job. He couldn’t really join the rodeo circuit and work in the high tech industry at the same time. He guessed that Gladys probably wouldn’t support the idea of him joining the Professional Rodeo Association. And, of course, he couldn’t ride a horse.
One summer, while Tobin was in his early forties, he came up with a way that he could be part of the rodeo: he could be a wild cow mugger. But he had to prepare for it. First, he needed to practice a little, get the feel of handling a rope and having something like a cow at the end of it.
He bought a rope and some leather gloves along with some ugly cowboy boots that are known as “ropers.” There was no fancy tooling on this style, no elevated heel that would keep a boot from slipping through a stirrup as he would not even be on a horse. He tied one end of the rope on a pickup and had his brother (or anyone else he could talk into the stunt) drive slowly while he pulled back, as if there was a cow pulling him forward.
Just a week before the Round Up, Tobin hooked up with a cowboy and talked him into being his roper. No doubt there was beer and whiskey involved in the discussion. As news spread among family and friends, the excitement (and some concern) grew exponentially. Attending the rodeo now went beyond the usual singin,’ drinkin,’ dancin,’ and carryin’ on. Yes, this behavior would continue, but now we had purpose. We had a star in our midst.
The day of Tobin’s debut, a Thursday, the weather was typical for Round Up, hot and dry. There was a little haze in the distance that was caused by a small wild fire some fifty miles to the west of Pendleton. Our crowd wandered into the stands at different times depending on our different interests. Some of us, those without hangovers, arrived at one fifteen to see the opening ceremonies where the rodeo princesses and rodeo queen are introduced as they gallop their horses at top speed and slam to a halt just before the grand stand. [This might have been the year that the court decided to ride in a daring manner with hands free of reins, hanging on to nothing. One of the horses stopped so suddenly that a princess was launched into the stands, sustaining four broken ribs and a sprained wrist. The crowd was pleased.]
Others in our lot came in later, during the bucking competitions, and a few waited until after the Indian dance and award ceremony when people can walk in without paying. But, most of us had tickets, and were assigned to different areas around the arena.
to be continued . . .