Dan Montano knows the feel of a bull's hoofs on his back, the sharp jab of a bull's horn under his chin.
He knows these things, but still he wants to ride the bulls.
Why would anyone want to straddle 2,000 pounds of bucking, snorting, uncontained fury, only to be tossed around like a rag doll and dumped in the dirt.
Montano, a stable foreman at Camp Pendleton and a professional rodeo rider, understands the lure of the rodeo.
"It's a challenge every time you get on the bull," Montano said. "I want to prove myself.
"You're out there in the middle of the arena, with all of these people cheering. It makes you feel great."
That feeling is what draws cowboys--both the authentic and the urban variety--to the Camp Pendleton Rodeo, which takes place at the Marine Corps base June 1-3.
Now in its 43rd year, the Camp Pendleton Rodeo is the oldest and largest military rodeo, attracting more than 130 contestants from all branches of the armed services, stationed around the world. Any active military personnel, retirees or their dependents can enter.
"If you have the bravado to get up there, you can ride. And Marines have a lot of bravado," said Paul Jones, spokesman for Camp Pendleton's morale, welfare and recreation division.
Jody Huston, a gunnery sergeant with the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, has the bravado. He's the all-around champion of last year's Camp Pendleton Rodeo, and he's been in constant training to defend the title.
"I've been riding rodeos since I was 15," he says.
A third-generation cowboy raised on a ranch in Montana, Huston spends almost every weekend riding in rodeos around the country. During the week, he runs 20 miles, works out at a gym and practices aerobics to maintain the strength to ride. For him, the rodeo holds a fatal attraction.
"It's a combination of fear, or caution, and the drive to achieve a goal. And that goal is to master the animal," he said. "It's like being on the edge. As soon as that animal busts out of the chute, your subconscious takes over. I find it's best if I just react to the animal and not think about what I'm doing."
There's nothing rational about the call of the rodeo. Last October, during the Military World Finals Rodeo in San Antonio, Tex., a bull threw Huston and kicked him in the face, requiring 26 stitches above his right eye. He got out of the hospital at 2 a.m., and by morning a bandaged Huston was back in the arena. He went on to become the all-around military world champion.
"This is the ultimate rush," Huston says. "You're putting your life on the line."
Rodeo rules are simple.
One week before the event, cowboys sign up for their choice of "rough stock," either bucking horses or bulls. They enter a drawing to see which particular animal they'll ride.
Once they climb onto their bull or horse and nod toward the officials, the contest begins.
"They have to stay on the animal eight seconds. That can be a lifetime," said Joe Curley, recreation director for base's morale, welfare and recreation division.
During those tumultuous eight seconds, the cowboys are judged on how well they ride. The riders can use only one hand to hold onto the animal. If their free hand touches the horse or bull, they're out.
With the first jump out of the chute, those riding the bucking horses must "cover the horse" by placing their boots toward the front part of the animal or they are disqualified. A good rider will put his feet up front after every buck, Curley says. Putting the feet toward the back allows the rider to feel more of the horse's movements, making it easier to stay on.
Bull riders just have to hang on, but they don't have it any easier.
"They're just being whipped," Curley says. "The smallest bulls weigh about 1,500 pounds, and they get all four feet off the ground. They're amazingly agile animals. They can twist and turn in all directions."
Judges also score the animal on how well it bucks.
"If it's a good bull, it will buck real hard and spin," Montano says. "You don't have time to think, you just react."
A cowboy and his animal can score up to 50 points each. Whoever has the best combined score of a possible 100 points wins.
"Some guys are real good riders. Some have seen it on TV and want to try it out," says Montano, who has ridden in the Pendleton rodeo twice. "It's more balance than strength. You have to go with the flow of the bull."
Champions in each category--bull, saddle bronc (horse with a saddle) and bareback--receive a cash award of as much as $2,000, depending on the number of entries. Entry fees are $45 each.
"All you have to do is stay on, and you can make money," Montano says.
Getting off the animal is tougher. Once the eight seconds are up, a horn sounds and the cowboy can bail out. If he's riding a bull, he's usually thrown off.
"It blows my mind. The cowboy gets thrown and you think he's dead," Curley says. "But he just jumps up and brushes off the dust. How they do it, I don't know."
A rodeo clown distracts the bull while the cowboy picks himself up off the ground.
"A lot of cowboys who get thrown might be dazed or a little slow getting up," Curley said. "The clown will save the cowboy if he gets in trouble. He does what he can to get the bull away from the cowboy."
If the cowboy rides a horse, he sometimes has the luxury of waiting for a pickup man to ride up by his side so he can jump from his bucking animal to the other horse.
"There have been injuries," Curley said. "We've had everything from twisted backs to broken arms. It is a dangerous sport."
Montano knows of the danger firsthand.
"I was riding a bull in a rodeo in Compton and got hooked on the chin. The bull threw his head back. It felt like someone had punched me. He chipped a couple of my teeth.
"At another rodeo in Lakeside, a bull walked on my back."
Still, Montano wants to join the professional rodeo circuit and work full time riding the bulls.
"If you're good enough, you don't have to work other jobs," he said.
He knows that, if he hangs on to the animal long enough, he'll get the prize, although to date, he has made only about $1,000 from riding. A good rodeo rider, he says, can work the rodeos until he's 30. Montano is 23.
He rode his first bull at age 17.
"The first time you get on a bull, you either hate it or love it. I love it. It's not just the money--it's the rodeo life," he said. "You can travel to different places and meet different people.
"It's life on the edge."
Camp Pendleton held its first rodeo in 1948, but the event on the site has its origins in the Spanish dons and ranchos that once dotted the land.
Huge herds of cattle wandered the hills of what was then called Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores, a 200,000-acre ranch owned and operated by an Englishman named John Forster from 1864 to 1882. Forster had paid off the gambling debts of the former owner, Pio Pico, in return for the deed to the ranch.
In the spring, rodeos were held to sort the cattle and brand the calves. The area remained a working ranch until 1942, when it was transformed into a Marine Corps base.
"A lot of Marines are cowboys. Many come from Wyoming, Montana and Colorado, and they've been involved in rodeo since childhood," Jones says.
But the rodeo does not attract people the way it did during the '60s, when a single event would attract major television stars such as Andy Griffith and Jim Nabors.
"There used to be a lot more government money available. Back then, the rodeo was free," Jones says. "The Pendleton rodeo is still well known, but attendance has dropped. We're trying to get it back to the way it had been."
Organizers worry that the rodeo, where cowboys like Montano can prove themselves in the ring, will vanish the way of sprawling ranchos and open space.
"With the big influx of people, the farmlands are now all homes. I wonder how many cowboys can have that rodeo lifestyle," Curley says. "It's a piece of America we're slowly but surely doing away with here."
IF YOU GO
What: 43rd annual Camp Pendleton Rodeo and Western Parade.
When: Rodeo will be at 7 p.m. Friday, June 1; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, June 2-3. Gates open two hours before each performance. Parade begins at 9 a.m. Saturday, June 2.
Where: Ace Bowen Rodeo Grounds on Camp Pendleton, off Vandegrift Boulevard. Parade on Vandegrift. Visitors can enter Camp Pendleton either through the main gate, off Interstate 5 at the Harbor Drive exit in Oceanside, or the San Luis Rey Gate, from El Camino Real and North River Road in Oceanside.
Price: Parade free. Rodeo tickets $5 for adults, $2.50 for children or $12.50 for a family pass (good for two adults and up to four children.)
Notes: Parade will feature marching bands, floats, horses and characters from the San Diego Zoo and Sea World. Rodeo includes bull riding, steer wrestling, bareback riding, saddle bronc, calf roping, team roping and barrel racing. Rodeo clown Allen Nelson and trick roper J. W. Stoker will entertain the crowd.