Tonight the stars in the Western sky are so bright they seem almost alive. It is the kind of a night that makes any man on the range want to forget all the tired old tales of the West and stir up a few new legends. On such a grand night, let us bypass Laredo and the O.K. Corral. Let us not sing of old John Wayne of Hollywood or even give a thought to Tonto, the Injun, or to Midnight, the great wild horse that made all the best bronc riders pull leather and eat dirt. As the last pot of coffee spits on the chuck wagon fire, let us turn our eyes East and sing instead of Cowtown, N.J., the cow capital of the oldest frontier, and of Gene Lorenzo, the great Eastern wrangler who taught his wonder horse Buck to chase steers on a railroad siding in the Bronx.
For 20 of his 38 years Gene Lorenzo has been wrestling steers and riding wild bulls and horses in the rodeo arenas of the East. Since the steers, bulls and broncs of the East are every bit as big and ready as those of the West, in the course of winning fame and a modest pile of money Lorenzo has occasionally been knocked silly and has broken a few ribs and twice has been gravely injured. Although the scars he carries from previous engagements suggest otherwise, Lorenzo insists that rodeo is the sort of wholesome diversion that a 38-year-old commuter needs to offset the humdrummery of modern living.
In a good rodeo year Lorenzo may win more than $6,000 wrestling steers and bouncing around on bulls and broncs. In a good year his best horse Buck will bring him another $2,000 by serving as a mount for rival steer wrestlers. While this income is important to him, Lorenzo earns the greater part of his livelihood operating a liquor display service in the Bronx of New York City, where he was born. He now lives on a two-acre spread in Spring Valley on the west side of the Hudson River and, after spending an honest eight hours of turmoil in the liquor display business, Lorenzo must battle his way home among fellow commuters on 35 miles of highway. When most commuters reach home, they relax in some simple way like downing a jugful of martinis. When Lorenzo gets home after a hard day, his method of unwinding is a complex one that goes something like this: 1) he kisses his beautiful wife Janet; 2) he shovels manure from three horse stalls; 3) he kisses his beautiful 5-year-old daughter Lisa; 4) he shovels manure out of the main paddock; 5) he tidies up the tack shed and scrubs a water trough; 6) he reprimands his 6-year-old son Chris for having ravaged the tomato garden; 7) he shovels more manure; 8) he reprimands his 9-year-old son Gene for one reason or another; 9) he hauls five hay bales from the barn to feed his four steers and three horses. If there is daylight left after he finishes these relaxing chores, Lorenzo may unwind still further by going into his practice rodeo arena and wrestling a 700-pound steer—one fall, no time limit, winner take all.
As Gene Lorenzo keeps insisting, there must be something therapeutic or at least widely appealing about rodeo, for in recent years it has attracted quite a variety of devotees in the East. Some of the professional ropers, bulldoggers and riders now competing on the Eastern circuit are executives and men of academic degree—men who do not need the money but love the game. In the other extreme, some of the competitors are rough-and-tumble highschoolers who crave a form of artistic violence that has more individuality than football. The Eastern rodeo man is not a special breed, nor does he occupy a particular niche. He can be found here, there and almost everywhere: on farms, in small towns and in the densest warrens of big cities. At an Eastern rodeo, cowboys from Greenwich Village, the strident, arty heart of New York City, compete against cowboys from Piscataway, N.J., Peach Bottom, Pa. and other towns that seldom make any noise. It would be stretching things to say that the sport of rodeo is spreading through the East like a prairie fire. Indeed, at this point it would be rash even to predict that it will someday supplant tandem bicycle riding as a recreational outlet for the masses. Be all that as it may, it is a fact that already the professional Rodeo Cowboys' Association has as many active members living within 50 miles of Philadelphia and New York as it does around Cheyenne and Calgary.
Some of the present Eastern performers were drawn into the rodeo game because of a boyhood association with beef and dairy stock. A red-blooded farm lad who has seen the thundering action of big-time rodeo on television is naturally tempted to try riding the local Guernseys and Holsteins. After a farm boy has bounced around the pasture a few times astride Old Bossy, there is no way to keep him down on the farm. On Saturdays he is off to the rodeo to try his luck on the big bulls. After landing on their heads four Saturdays in a row, some of the boys learn there is more to rodeo than glamour. They return to the farm, older and wiser, and start saving their dollars to buy a McLaren-Ford.
A good number of Easterners—Gene Lorenzo for one—grew up in metropolitan areas near riding stables. After serving as barn boys, grooms and instructors, many of the city boys tire of riding English saddles on urban trails. They move on to jobs at dude ranches such as Cimarron, a 30-year-old spread near Peekskill, N.Y., where there are weekly rodeos to entertain guests.
A few of the good Eastern competitors never gave a thought to rodeo until they suddenly woke up, as it were, to find themselves in the middle of the arena receiving ovations. Consider the case of 30-year-old Arnold Desiderio, a native of Dover, N.J. who earns his living as a pulp manager at the Whippany Paper Company and now gets rid of his own excess pulp by roping calves and wrestling steers. Desiderio was not a horsy man until he bought his kids a Shetland pony five years ago. Because his kids were having a ball on their pony, in a spirit of togetherness Desiderio bought himself a saddle horse. Within a year, craving more action, he moved from an English to a Western saddle and a year later into the rodeo arena.
Consider also Jack Meli, the bareback rider and bulldogger who owns a minor interest in Gene Lorenzo's two-acre enterprise. Thirteen years ago, 13-year-old Meli was making good pocket money by shining shoes in Irish bars and cleaning up after the horses of the New Kentucky Riding Academy in the Bronx. Then Lorenzo led him astray. Since Meli, the stableboy, had often put flank straps on the New Kentucky saddle horses and bucked them after the proprietor had left for the day, Lorenzo suggested that he was ready for the big time. Qu� ser�? And why not? Thirteen-year-old Meli went to his first rodeo expecting to take his chances on a wild horse, but, alas, a friend entered him in the wrong event. Before he had time for a change of heart, Meli was in a chute at the end of a floodlit arena astride 2,000 pounds of discontented bull. He remembers Lorenzo giving him some last-minute advice on how to hold the rope and how to avoid being gored after leaving the bull in midair. Meli spent seven seconds on the bull before going into the air. Although he did not ride long enough to qualify for a score, he broke no bones and was hooked on the game.
Although in Eastern arenas the action is getting livelier and the purses bigger by the year and the entry lists are loaded with new, young heroes, Gene Lorenzo, the old cowhand from New York, remains the consistent winner. Despite his record Lorenzo can never expect too much personal glory. For one thing many of the best-paying Eastern rodeos are part of a larger carnival—just one of a wild variety of attractions offered at county fairs and expositions. At the county fair Lorenzo competes for public attention with tattoo artists, sideshow barkers and the vendors of cotton candy, Farmall tractors and whirly rides.
As Lorenzo climbs aboard a bucking horse in the arena, on the fair midway a spieler shouts out, "Lost Worlds is a family-type show. Come in now and see Asian flesh-eating fish from the rivers of the Amazon jungle. These fish are truly remarkable in their ability to devour a body as large as a human."