Apr/May 2019 Nonfiction


by Guinotte Wise

Excerpted imagery from photography by Kris Saknussemm

Excerpted imagery from photography by Kris Saknussemm

I was in Los Angeles, working at an ad agency, a big one. It was a quieter time, pre 9-11, pre all the vitriolic spewing back and forth about the way one votes, pre worst fires in history, pre meltdowns of everything. I was attending focus groups for automobile advertising and marveling at how groups would show up for cookies and a couple of bucks and then sit and talk about their dogs for the session. What about trouble-free operation? More power? Comfort approaching luxury? Frustrated session leaders tried to keep them on subject, but little was gleaned unless one read between their answers.

I slid out of one such group midway through a digression about wines thinking, gag me with a sun dried tomato, and on the way home pulled into a tack store in Torrance. I'd passed it before and noticed rodeo posters in the window. I'd owned horses, had rodeoed in Kansas, Missouri, and Texas, rough stock, and missed the adrenaline-producing wildness of it, the sounds and bustle of the chutes, the preparation. As I entered the store, the smell of new leather, liniments, bagged feed took me back, and a genuine lump-in-the-throat nostalgia set in. I touched some saddles, wandered to a wall showing framed pictures of rodeo events, and was struck by one straight-backed fellow, balance hand in the air, on a twisting bull.

"That's Ivan," a female voice said. "He's 69 on that bull."

Sixty-nine, I thought. I've got 30 years on that guy. I could get back in the game. Do it right this time.

"Does he compete much?"

"All the time," she answered. "Mainly Old Timer rodeos, when his arthritis allows. He's in great shape for his age."

Her admiration was evident. I glanced at her. Jeans tucked into western boots buckaroo-style, denim shirt, big rodeo queen buckle. She looked like Kansas in the best possible way: sunburnt face, sun streaked hair in a ponytail. Maybe twenty.

"Can I help you find anything?"

My lost youth, I thought. You could help there. A lot. "No, thanks, just looking right now. You carry bull ropes? Cow bells?"

She walked to another area, picked up a cow bell, clanked it at me. Just that sound gave me a small rush. We both laughed.

"Best and loudest," she said, clanking it again.

On the drive up the hill to Palos Verdes, I knew what was to come. I had bought two videos at the tack store. Best bull rides. This was before PBR, Professional Bull Riders, which you can stream now.

I had just read an article on visualizing. What I took away was the fact that two sets of basketball players practiced free throws, then competed against one another. One group had practiced by doing. The other group by merely visualizing the act. The visualizers beat the doers. There was more to the test, but that's basically what happened.

I was in good shape, great shape. I ate fish a couple times a week, lots of fruits and vegetables, few sweets, no soda, smoked but didn't drink. I worked out daily. So part of my regimen was set. The other was to watch the two videos every night to see what the best rides had that I hadn't done years before. I'd carried a PRCA permit but had never earned a card. Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association required you to win a certain amount of money in a year, and I never had. I'd placed well in some non-PRCA jackpot rodeos but hadn't really examined why those rides were more successful than others. That was back in my drinking days, however, and I wasn't one prone to a lot of introspection.

Watching the videos showed me that balance was the main reason these cowboys were winning. They weren't trying to muscle their way; that's folly with a bull. Balance and going with a spin, not fighting it, the balance arm flinging back and forth like a windshield wiper, helping the rider back down on his hand, no air between him and the bull. Once there's air between your butt and the bull, only luck will bring you back on your hand—that, or a herculean strength-sapping effort. Once you're airborne, you'd better unwrap that hand and get free. The alternative is to be a rag doll attached by your arm to a big, agile thing that wants your ass.

This is one reason I never did the "suicide wrap" but always left a bubble of rope above my hand so I could get free when I needed to.

There was no google back then, so I couldn't really put together a string of SEO words to find what I wanted. Had I been able to, it would have been Bull riding champion visualization psycho-cybernetics Southern California. It would have brought me Gary Leffew. As it happened, I researched all of that and more, and it came up Gary Leffew, Santa Maria, California.

Had I known I was doing all this prep for the first bull I would ride since my rodeo days, and that it would be my absolute last bull, ever, I may not have undertaken the adventure. But I didn't know anything of the kind. I was in the kind of shape that makes one feel indestructible. Look at Ivan, now 70, still riding. I looked up Old Timers Rodeo Association, saw several California venues. Weekends I could ride bulls, weekdays write automobile commercials. Heck, I could even enter some PRCA events.

I re-read Psycho Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz. I'd read it years before, and now, of all people, Gary Leffew had recommended it for rodeoers. I felt connected to some universal truths, actually did, and actually was at that time. I was into the Tao of bull riding, bingeing on hours of videotape every single night, and thinking about it every day. I padded my weight bench with blankets and luggage and practiced sitting on my tied hand, balance hand anticipating every switch of direction. I still had my glove and spurs from Donny Gay's school in Mesquite, Texas, and a new rope from the tack shop, rosined and ready. I'd saved my chaps, my hat. My glove was soft and supple with mink oil, my rope stretched and worked.

You may be thinking there's got to be a gargantuan difference between sitting on a bunch of blankets and luggage on a bench press and on an actual fire-breathing, snot flying-bull, and, of course, you're right. But visualization and realistic imagination were compensating for all that. I had rodeoed before, enough to know what that moment was like: the quick nod, the arm on the gate, the gate swinging open and the bull rocketing out. I had done that, plenty. But never as prepared as I now was. Somehow I knew like never before the racket, the smell, the sweat, the commotion of it. I was there.

A word about bucking machines. They're no good for preparing for bulls. They swing around and pitch front and back, but in no way do they emulate what a bull does. No effing way.

I don't recall the drive to Santa Maria. I'd taken a vacation for this. I do recall arriving. And the first meeting with Gary Leffew, a bull riding legend. He asked the small group if we'd read Psycho Cybernetics as he had suggested when we'd signed up. A couple of us mumbled in the affirmative. Some of the younger cowboys looked away or into a middle distance, wanting to get on with it. There was no quiz, no recrimination, just a look at us, a beat longer than usual. Maybe a half smile. Then, down to business. Forms had been signed, waivers, questions answered.

That's all a jumble in my mind. What I recall more vividly is the bull. The chute. The handler fishing my rope through with a rod and the rope end handed to me to complete the circuit around the bull's girth and my hand. It had been several years, but it came back instantly. I wrapped my gloved hand tight to the bull, pounded my hand a couple of times, left a large bubble of rope to pull when the time came. The bull was a black Brangus, calm and almost soporific in the chute. I kept my boots away from his sides and the gate, my left arm resting on the gate top. I nodded. The gate swung open, and out he came, bucking twice, then spinning left. I felt the vortex but kept myself from going "into the well" by pulling down on my gloved hand, gripping with my spurs. Then he switched direction, and I stayed with him, balance hand waving and helping.

I felt good. The arena was a whirl, but I knew I had him and he was a good ride, an agile bull. Then, pop! I heard the sound, or think I did. Like an air rifle. And I was airborne. I unwrapped the rope, sailed and rolled, back up to my feet.

I never forgot the quick critique from Leffew.

"What happened? You had him. You were doing great..."

I held my right arm in to my side, and the trainer approached. He asked me a couple of questions, kneaded my arm with practiced fingers, then conferred with Leffew.

They came back. It was decided I should drive to the nearest ER and get an x-ray. It looked like school was out for me. When I asked what it might be, the trainer said he thought it was ligaments and would require surgery. It was and did. Tommy John surgery in LA by the same sports doctors who attended to the Raiders and John himself.

But visualization had worked. Psycho Cybernetics had worked. If it worked for bull riding, what else could it accomplish? I had ridden a good athletic bull better than I had ever ridden before. I was with him, and he was trying to throw me every way he could pull from his agility trick book, and I was a microsecond ahead of him. Then frailty hit. My ligaments couldn't quite take it.

I was equal parts disappointed and animated. After I healed up, I went home to Kansas, found some acres and a 100-year-old farmhouse. I had horses again, married, and life took other turns. The reason I sat down and wrote this was visualization. There are things I want, and one of them is to finish a novel I let languish. Any writer knows how tough that is, getting back on that bull. After five books, you'd think I wouldn't let a sixth get the best of me, but this time it'll take more than showing up. I plan to visualize this one. As soon as I'm finished with this piece.


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