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When a Baby Bull Named Ben Was Hard to Catch

<i> O'Sullivan is a travel writer based in Canoga Park</i>

My wife and I recently took a trip to Tucson, Ariz. We had a dual purpose. Our daughter, son-in-law and 14-month-old grandchild, Ben, live there. Also, it was time for Tucson’s La Fiesta de los Vaqueros and I love rodeo.

Because I’m allergic to my daughter’s long-haired cat, Joyce and I stayed at one of those big resort hotels.

We missed the floors awash with toys. We missed the “pesky hour,” that time of day--or sometimes night--when my grandson elects to develop his lungs. And, of course, we missed the diapers, but you can’t have it all.

So we made do at our hotel, with its multi-star restaurants, pools, tennis courts, stables, golf courses, gyms and, of course, the desert.

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There’s no place better for sleeping than the desert. After going to bed I kind of felt as if I’d be missing too much if I closed my eyes, so I lay there in the dark, staring out the sliding glass door at the brilliant stars, listening to the desert silence, thinking and feeling myself unwind.

After driving Joyce over to our daughter’s house I gave everybody but the cat a quick hug and went to the La Fiesta parade.

I got out my camera and the four-pound lens so I’d look like an official photographer, then found a spot near the reviewing stand.

A middle-aged man in what looked like $3 pants and a $100 hat smiled and held out his hand.

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“Howdy. Ed Ledbetter,” he said. We shook hands and I shouted my name over the music from an approaching band.

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“Look at that,” he said, holding up a list. “There are 453 entries in this parade. Great!”

“Great? It’s going to last longer than the rodeo.”

He shook his head and handed me the list. There were entries like Pima Savings, The Guyton Family, the Marana Junior High School Band and Karen Clark.

Ed waved at someone in the band and a girl playing a trombone let the slide go to wave back. The slide immediately fell out of the instrument. The music went sour for a second, but no one seemed to notice.

“This is not your Rose/Sugar/Gator/Orange or Pineapple Bowl parade, where you see hundred-thousand-dollar floats made out of crushed kumquat leaves. . . .”

He had to shout over the cheering. The Tucson Jaycee-ettes were going by, followed closely by a man dressed up like a wildcat, then another marching band.

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“And in those other parades you might see 200-piece marching bands, but maybe only 60 people will be playing while the rest of them fake it. In these marching bands everybody plays. Looky there.”

He pointed at a boy with a blue uniform playing a trumpet while his band marked time in front of the reviewing stand. The boy would play a few notes, shake his head, take the horn from his mouth, say ‘damn’ and then do it again . . . and again.

The Armory Park Senior Citizens and the Tucson Chorus Girls marched by, then a contingent of American Indians. As a cowboy rode a tame Brahma bull up the street, the lady parade announcer said the bull had retired from rodeo, but a lot of people seemed to be looking for exits in case the bull might be planning a comeback.

A six-foot cowboy in a one-foot Stetson paraded by, leading a beribboned 10-inch poodle on a leash. The cowboy didn’t look too thrilled, but the dog was having a ball.

“Well now,” said Ledbetter, “if this here isn’t more fun than your average 4,000-pound Pasadena poopsey-flower and turnip-seed-covered float, I don’t know what is.”

Room for Both

It was more fun, but I told him I thought there might be room in the world for both. It brought a grin. “You’re about 100% right.”

A scraggly contingent of mountain men set the crowd cheering. They were followed closely by the Tucson Girl’s Chorus, who didn’t seem to be making a sound but whose lips moved in unison.

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There wasn’t a boring minute. During the next two hours I had so much fun that I almost forgot to take pictures.

Joyce likes rodeos, too, but there never was an attraction that could compete with a grandchild, so I went out to the rodeo grounds alone that afternoon. I sure didn’t stay alone. Tucson residents just seem to include whoever’s around in whatever’s going on. It’s a nice way to be.

In the opening ceremonies at most of the rodeos I’ve attended, something else happens that I really like. Starting time arrives, a gate opens at one end of the arena and a girl comes riding in, hell bent for leather, carrying the flag.

She races around the arena and pulls up hard, right in front of the grandstand, her horse settling on its haunches in a cloud of dust. Then she holds up the flag as high as she can.

Everybody stands and we all sing the national anthem. Why that gets me, I don’t know, but it does.

At this show, after the flag ceremony the official rodeo announcer--Hadley Barrett--on a big chestnut horse with a black mane and tail, rode to the center of the arena with a wireless microphone and La Fiesta de los Vaqueros, the 64th annual Tucson Rodeo, began.

Hadley seemed to know all of the cowboys competing, and almost 700 had signed up for the three-day event. He also knew the peculiarities of most of the show’s livestock.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “Jim Hobson of Calgary is about to take a flying lesson. He’ll be coming out of gate No. 2 on Sundancer, who spins to the right and always tries for altitude. The Dancer weighs 2,000 pounds and just hates skinny cowboys. You hold on good, Jim.”

Sure enough, the bull came crashing out of the gate, spinning like a top. He whirled and arched and Hobson did seven seconds, riding on the bull’s shoulders instead of his backside, counting his feet against the sky. Then he soared two yards up and three yards out and hit the ground with a whomp.

Old Sundancer, figuring he’d never get a better chance to stomp a cowboy, really had a good try at it until the clowns distracted him.

“Well,” said Hadley, “in rodeo, sometimes the only thing worse than letting go too soon is letting go too late.” The crowd applauded as Hobson retrieved his hat, slapped the dust out of it and headed for his next event, walking as if he was mentally inventorying his bones.

Audience of Students

About a hundred students in the section in front of me were cheering in a dozen languages. A blonde young lady who introduced herself as Lola Ramirez from Mexico City, said they were all members of a University of Arizona class studying English as a second language, and that this was kind of an informal lesson on North American customs.

They all really loved it. Someone told me later that the students were the last group out of the stands all three days of La Fiesta.

On the last day Joyce and I shared a meal with our daughter and grandson in a restaurant. The hostess gave Ben a box of animal crackers and showed him how to “pretend-walk” the animals across the table.

Ben thought that looked like fun, but by the time he walked them to the other side he’d reduced them to powder and there was nothing left to eat.

His mother helped him fill in with French fries and ketchup. He ate the fries and wore the ketchup. If I remember correctly, his mother had done that as a child, too.

A few days after we got home, a neighbor dropped in. When she asked if we’d had a good time, Joyce started digging our snapshots out of her purse.

Lydia reached for the pictures. “Oh, is that the big boy? How darling.”

It was a pretty good picture. Joyce does a job with a camera when she likes the subject. I got to thinking about the next trip. After all, Tucson has an International Mariachi Competition coming up. Maybe we could take Ben out to the Silver Stallion Guest Ranch for a riding lesson. Can’t start too early.

Tucson’s International Mariachi Conference and Competition, a cultural festival with workshops and a fair, will be held April 18-22. Linda Ronstadt and her dad (who can usually be talked into going on stage and singing with her) haven’t missed the show in years.

For more information on events in the Tucson area, contact the Tucson Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, 130 S. Scott Ave., Tucson, Ariz. 85701, (602) 624-1889. Ask for the Official Visitor’s Guide.


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