"It's easier to count the bones I ain't broken than them I have," Ronny says. "It's going to be close encounters, boys. You're going to get some slobber on you. Don't be trying any of them head or shoulder fakes here. You've got to give 'em a step fake. Sell it to 'em. Lift that leg up like a dog peein' on a fire hydrant. Show it to 'em, then take it away. The closer he is to you before you move out, the better off you are."
We practiced our step fakes while the Sparks brothers chased us with wheelbarrows. The key, Ronny told us, was to keep our shoulders square to the bull, like a defensive back facing a runner. Then we could dodge in either direction. We were to stay in the middle of the arena rather than hover near the fence. "That fence'll break your back," Ronny warned us. "You talk about a mashing. That fence will mash the eyes right out of your head." Donny, pushing the wheelbarrow, would come at us at a fast walk, bite on our step fakes, then take about 30 seconds to turn around while we completed our step-throughs and squared off. "That's it, that'll work," Donny assured me. Against a milk cow it might, I was thinking. Cody and Cory Casto, 14-year-old identical twins from Baton Rouge, had come up with a better idea. For the past month they'd been practicing by chasing each other around in an all-terrain vehicle.
I kept wondering when the Sparkses would discuss the barrel. I imagined some preamble like, "Now here's a clown's best friend. It'll save your life. Here's how to climb in. Here's when to come out. Who wants to give it a try?" My arm was ready to shoot skyward. But Ronny rambled on crazily about how a bullfighter carries himself around bulls. "Be a showman out there," he told us. "Be pretty. Be a swan. Glide around. Limber up if you know you're going to get hooked. Loose and relaxed. Go with the flow of it."
Be a swan? Go with the flow of a drooling, horn-slashing, 1,500-pound mass of muscle spattered with dung? Surely ol' Ron had taken one too many mashings against a fence.
A rodeo clown's primary responsibility, Ronny went on, is to protect the bullriders. The fancy stuff, the dodging and step-faking and gliding around, do not come until the cowboy is safely over the fence. Instructor James Pierce likened the rodeo clown's duties to playing two positions in football. "Protecting the cowboy is like being a middle linebacker," he said. "You're trying to keep the bull from scoring. Bullfighting is like being a quarterback. You're trying to outsmart the bull and score points."
While in our linebacker mode, we were to act as decoys, darting in front of the bull to get its attention. A bull reacts to movement and chases it. If the cowboy rode the full eight seconds allotted in a rodeo, we were to circle in the direction of his free hand, allowing him to jump off the bull away from its path. If the cowboy was on the ground, dazed or injured, one clown was to lead the bull away from him while the other helped the rider to his feet. If, harrowingly, the cowboy's hand was twisted in the bullrope, which goes around the beast's girth, one of us was to go to the bull's head and stop him from spinning while the other pulled the tail of the rope, freeing the cowboy's hand.
"If the cowboy's helicoptering, watch out he doesn't sink a spur in you," Ronny warned. "Once he's free, you get out like you're leaving your fate."
All very interesting. Only he'd left one thing out. "At what point does the barrel come into play?" I asked.
The Sparkses looked at me with identically quizzical expressions. "Hell, we ain't got one of them clown condominiums in here, do we, Donny?" Ronny asked.
"I wouldn't be caught dead in one," Donny replied. "Just remember to show 'em that leg." Class dismissed.