Sunday, January 29, 2006

Someplace Not Like Anyplace Else

I suppose that one thing you can say about our country is that every place is getting to be like everyplace else. Wherever you go there’s a Starbucks or a Pottery Barn and you could be in California or Minnesota or Texas or New York and you’d never know it. And it doesn’t really matter because that’s the point. Wherever you go, you’ll feel comfortable because it’s just like where you came from.

The things and places that make our world unique seem to become fewer. Those unique things, those special things are what fascinate me. The Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo is one of those things that make Fort Worth the city that it is.

I know that there are a lot of Texas haters around the country and world, mainly because Texas is the reddest of the red states in this polarized world we live in. If you don’t care for the direction of the United States, Texas becomes a pretty convenient whipping boy for those folks. Fine. Those people are as foolish as the ones who hate France because they don’t march lock step with the U.S. on every issue. Whatever happened to nuance?

Well, the Stock Show is a very red state activity. It’s red, white and blue and rodeo announcer Bob Tallman giving a shout out to everyone’s homeboy Jesus Christ. The ratio of rodeo audience members to pickup trucks in the parking lot is pretty close to 1.

But you know what? There is something pretty wholesome and appealing in a Norman Rockwell kind-of-way about the whole deal. Part of it is seeing real cowboys doing real cowboy things. Watching a cowboy leap from a horse running full speed onto a moving quarter-ton steer and then wrestling that moving mass of hamburger to the ground is pretty impressive. What’s more impressive is they can do this without losing their hats or having their shirts come untucked.

These guys are real athletes. Their sport is dangerous and you earn your paycheck in little tiny pieces. One cowboy came within inches of getting brained by a bull’s hoof. Another one was dragged around the ring three times when his hand got tangled up in the rope on his bronc. A bullfighter (rodeo clown) got boosted 20 feet into the air thanks to an irate bull.

But that’s what we imagine when we think about the cowboy. This is a real American story right there in front of you. It’s no movie, it’s the real thing.

The other thing I love about the Stock Show is the setting. They’ve been holding the Stock Show in Fort Worth since 1896, It’s been held at Will Rogers Coliseum since 1944. The Will Rogers complex is an awesome architectural feast for Art Deco lovers. The coliseum was a Public Works Administration (PWA) project completed in 1936. Socialism!

You’ve got a tower, much like the Main Building at the University of Texas. But you also have some wonderful Depression-era murals that celebrate Texas history from colonization by the Spanish through the 1930s. According to the fantastic book Cowtown Moderne by Judith Singer Cohen, the murals were created by Kenneth Dale and Byron Shrider for the Mosaic Tile Company of Zanesville, Ohio, under the direction of Herman P. Koeppe, chief designer of the Wyatt C. Hendrick architectural firm, who planned the Will Rogers complex along with architect Elmer G. Withers. When they were completed in 1936, they were said to be the largest set of tile paintings in the world.

When you walk into the Coliseum, there’s great bronze of Will Rogers that greets you. People rub his nose for luck and you can see how it’s rubbed as shiny as a newly-minted penny. Old Will once asked, “If stupidity got us into this, why can stupidity get us out?” With thinking like that, he could get a job in Washington today if he were still alive.

A big part of the stock show is – of course – the stock. We toured the barns after the rodeo, and much to my great regret, missed a photo op with the Llama Queen, a zaftig blonde with a ball gown, wand, tiara and a llama. My daughter loves to meet the rodeo’s other athletes, the horses. So we go greet them individually.

But there’s lots of nonsense there too. The midway with all the games. My daughter won a giant inflatable hammer with her feats of strength. She went in every funhouse. We had a time.

And, for me, that’s worth the price of admission right there. That’s part of the hog-stomping baroque exuberance of American Life and I’m glad to get to share some of that once a year. And no matter what color your state is, you should try it sometime too.

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