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Childhood: You just have to risk it

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Billings, Mont., at the same time as the NILE Rodeo. It seemed like a perfect evening’s entertainment, so I bought tickets for my son and me, and off we went. Occasionally when I’m channel-surfing I’ll pause to watch a bit of bull riding or bronco busting, but that pales in comparison to being in an arena filled with cowboys, ranchers, farm hands and others whose history and livelihoods are tied to these daredevil sports. The rancher sitting next to me had a reticence that never betrayed what his own experience might be. It was only the slow shake of his head when a cowboy’s lasso missed its mark and a succinct under-his-breath critique that revealed he might know a thing or two about lassoing a steer at high speed. The rodeo did not disappoint. It had bareback bronco busting, steer roping, saddle broncs, team penning, barrel racing and bull riding. In most of these contests, the cowboys have only seconds to prove themselves. And only one try. Staying on for eight seconds, or chasing down a steer and jumping off the horse to wrestle the steer to the ground, sometimes it was over practically before it got started. And how about the rider who doesn’t get bucked off? The trick is to bail from the wild ride by jumping onto the back of another cowboy’s horse. Part way through the evening, a group of kindergartners trooped into the arena. From the stands they looked like toddlers, but in reality they were probably 5 or 6 years old. They were dressed in sneakers, leggings, vests and helmets that looked as if they were meant for playing hockey.The program said only, “mutton bustin’.” My urban mother’s heart went to my throat. It wasn’t immediately clear to me what these tots were going to do, but I was pretty sure I wouldn’t have let one of my children do it. There was an entry chute at one end of the arena and a line of full-sized sheep ready to be funneled into it. It’s one thing to watch grown men choose to endanger their lives by jumping onto the back of a wild animal with four sharp hooves and a determination to get rid of its rider, but who in their right mind would put a veritable baby on a sheep and turn it loose? The human handlers picked up a child and put it on the back of the sheep in the chute, opened the door and let it loose. The sheep careened out of the gate, the little kid holding on for dear life. Some of the kids held on for a few paces, then appeared to jump off — like a flea from a scratching dog. Some I could see were struggling to hold tight, but as they lost their grip they would slip under the animal and more than a few got run over by the sheep.One or two of the kids seemed to be practiced at this sport and got in a bit of a ride before parting ways, picking themselves up, dusting themselves off (just like the grown-up cowboys) and striding back to their moms waiting on the sideline. Despite myself, humor was mixing with my horror. By this time I was laughing pretty hard. It was all so improbable, but really funny. And then a kid with her ponytail showing from under her helmet blasted out of the gate. She seemed both relaxed and tough. She rode that sheep to the far end of the arena. She never did fall off. One of the cowboys plucked her off the back of the sheep, hoisted her over his head and carried her back to the starting gate, to the cheers of the crowd. Some of us have come to see the usual rites of passage of childhood, such as climbing trees, as unnecessarily dangerous. There were days when my son was younger that I thought he should wear a helmet — all the time. But watching these little kids do something that at first seemed crazy but probably was less dangerous than riding a bike without a helmet, as we used to do, made me nostalgic for a childhood I don’t think my children got to experience. Tara Kelly, copy editor at The Lakeville Journal, is an avid follower of social trends. She may be reached by email at tarak@lakevillejournal.com.

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