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Chasing Myself on the Rodeo Circuit

Abandoned as a child, a writer comes to terms with his missing father, Cowboy Don.

By WK “Kip” Stratton

When she was young, my mother was a rodeo girl. She came by it honestly. She grew up in rodeo country. Farmers and stockmen dominated the economy. Riding and roping were respected skills. Weekend jackpot rodeos, held at makeshift arenas on area ranches and farms, gave locals the opportunity to show off their roping talents or their mastery of bucking horses and bulls, throwing their entry money into a borrow hat. Small-town kids who did well enough jackpotting could graduate to professional rodeos. If their luck broke just right, they could move up to the big time: Cheyenne, Calgary and Pendleton. There, they could compete against the likes of Casey Tibbs and Jim Shoulders, the sport’s superstars during the 1950s.

My mother and her girlfriends were caught up in the rodeo. Every weekend, they loaded up a car and set off. In Oklahoma, there was always a rodeo within easy driving distance. Of course, they went to be thrilled by the action down in the arena. But they were also interested in meeting cowboys and going dancing with them after the rodeo was over.

My father drifted into my mother’s hometown of Guthrie around the time of its annual ’89er Day Rodeo in the mid-1950s. He was tall and thin as a kitchen match, and he was a bit of a looker, with black hair and eyes dark as an endless night. He fancied himself a cowboy and rode bulls, with limited – very limited – success. He was unfettered, a drifter with carnival connections who was more at home on a highway than in a house. And he was trouble. He was 24 and had already been through at least one failed marriage. A lot of broken hearts and sheets in the wind lay in his wake. My mother involved herself with the Denver cowboy with the black hat and fancy black boots long enough to put me into production. But she came to realize the qualities that made him attractive in the first place did not make for a reliable father and provider.

And that was that for Don Carlos Stratton. Cowboy Don, as I came to think of him, lit out for “el camino” and the rodeo. My mother stayed in Guthrie, married my stepfather, and settled in for a more-or-less stable life of raising children and running a business. She never lost her passion for rodeo, however. And I never lost my sense of mystery and intrigue over the fate of my runaway father who disappeared from my life before it really began.

Willie Nelson nailed it. Miracles really do occur in the strangest of places.

I experienced my first miracle in an all but deserted office building overlooking Lake Austin on a gray day in January 1997. An ice storm had swept across Austin the previous night, snapping power lines and transforming freeways into demolition derbies. Anyone with any sense stayed home. I, of course, decided to go to work. Alone in my office with nothing better to do, I began surfing the Web. I happened on to a bulletin board – Remember those? Internet bulletin boards? – devoted to finding missing persons. On a whim, I posted a query. And within a couple of hours, the miracle occurred. A stranger emailed from Denver to say he could help me solve the central mystery of my life. Unraveling that mystery would take the form of a book six years later – Chasing the Rodeo – and change my sense of identity in ways still playing out in my life.

My mother raised me to be a little cowboy. I flunked shoe tying in kindergarten because I never wore anything on my feet except Western boots. When the National Finals Rodeo – the sport’s equivalent of the World Series – settled into Oklahoma City for its run every year, we were regulars at the State Fair Arena. But I drifted away from the whole cowboy thing around the time I started junior high. I felt ashamed of my roots for a while. I started listening to crappy music from crappy bands with names like Grand Funk Railroad and Iron Butterfly and Blue Cheer. I grew my hair long – as long as the school dress code allowed – and wore bell-bottomed jeans and, heaven forbid, Dingo boots. I engaged in a practice that Merle Haggard advised was not exactly tolerated in Muskogee.

There was some part of me, however, that kept pulling me back toward my cowboy roots. My college years corresponded, more or less, to the outlaw country music era, and I was into Willie and Waylon and Jerry Jeff, of course, but also Billy Joe and Willis Alan and Ray Wylie. I was right back into the cowboy thing, wearing Tony Lama boots and Western belts. Some people recall an enthusiastic, if drunken, speech I gave at a national Young Democrats convention in St. Louis while standing on a chair and wearing my Tonys and a Western shirt with pearl-snap pockets.

But then, I rejected all that. I was working in a political job then, wearing a tie to work, and living in an inner city neighborhood being overrun by yuppies. Maybe I wanted to be like them. And I was in the early years of my first marriage. Maybe I was trying to live up to an image I thought she wanted. Maybe I thought the whole cowboy things was passé. I discarded the boots and Western shirts for – who knows? It certainly wasn’t cowboy stuff. No doubt it involved polyester. I remember listening to stuff like Steely Dan and Weather Report – about as far removed from kicker culture as you can get. Then a job change, a life crisis came along, and I responded by buying a pair of Justin rough-outs and spent an evening talking to outlaw country songwriter extraordinaire Billy Joe Shaver in a barbecue joint in Norman. I was right back into it. Then I wasn’t again. And on and on it went as I worked on newspapers, served time as legislative aide and performed other mundane service in politics, found a way to earn a living in high tech, and wrote Backyard Brawl, a book about Texas football. It was a time when I didn’t know who I really was. Or I was simply afraid to admit who I really was.

Years would pass before it became clear to me: You write the best when you’re connected to the subject through your heart. That happened to me in 2003 when I hit the road for another book – a book about rodeo. I also began hearing voices.

I was in Cheyenne, Wyoming, for the “Daddy of ’em All,” the huge Frontier Days rodeo. I was in a dingy room of a truck driver’s motel, eating a drive-through hamburger, when my father started speaking to me. Rodeo, the voice said, provided him with the only chance he had in his life to be connected to something bigger than himself. It told me about being poor and directionless and abandoned by his father and living with a certifiable mother. It told me that rodeo was the one shot he had to escape those demons, to have a chance at adventure, at living a free life on the road, at being a part of something viewed as a symbol of the American West. It also told me there were plenty of women who had an eye for rodeo cowboys and plenty of opportunity to carouse with other free souls out on the circuit.

As I went from rodeo to rodeo after that, I heard other voices. One day as I was driving a twisting Hill Country highway between Kerrville and Leakey, Texas, the voice of Freckles Brown came back to me clearly. Freckles was an ageless wonder of a cowboy who rode the unrideable bull Tornado, a bull so tough even Larry Mahan – still the all-time greatest rodeo cowboy – couldn’t last eight seconds on him. When I was 12, I saw Freckles ride Tornado at the National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City. He rode the entire eight seconds. It became the stuff of myth.

Twenty years later, I drove down to Red River country in a borrowed Cadillac to interview Freckles. That short, weathered cowboy with the soft voice impressed me. Why? I thought about that a lot. I never met anyone as genuine. But there was something more: He epitomized the culture I came from, the kicker culture I had run from. Now dead, his voice came back to me.

Why on that particular highway in the Hill Country? I don’t know. But it did. As I closed my eyes during a Southwest flight from Portland to Las Vegas, I heard other voices – the voices of great champions such as Jim Shoulders, Casey Tibbs and Larry Mahan. At a beer joint outside Oklahoma City, the mellifluous voice of Clem McSpadden, maybe the greatest rodeo announcer of all time, came to me. Then there were the voices of the cowboys, rodeo officials, barrel racers, buckle bunnies (rodeo groupies), fans, historians and various hangers-on I interviewed along the way. I heard the voices of my mother and her girlfriends, too, when they were teenagers in the 1950s.

Most important, I heard my own voice – the voice of the little kid in cowboy boots who knew nothing about his real dad, the kid who was molded by the West, the kid who saw Freckles Brown ride Tornado. It was a voice that I’d ignored all too often over the years.

Early one morning, I sat down at my desk and typed, “Here’s a rodeo story for you.” The story for Chasing the Rodeo formed in my head: It would be an account of a personal journey, a quest, if you will. I would focus on visits I made to rodeos and Professional Bull Riders or PBR events. The front story would be my attempt to assess the current state of rodeo and the impact of bull riders breaking away from the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Bull riders were about to become The Next Big Thing, the new NASCAR. But the heart of the story would be my emotional journey into my father’s world, the world my mom had hidden from me perhaps to spare me from disappointment and heartache.

During the six years between that icy day in 1997 and my journey out on the rodeo circuit, I learned a great deal about my birth father, Cowboy Don, most of it bad. He was a drunk and heavy smoker and he’d gone through a series of marriages, sometimes ending them without going to the trouble of getting a divorce. It is likely there were other children besides me whom he abandoned. He knew the inside of a few jails. He was a mooch who seldom bothered to repay loans. He was a man who took some trouble to keep his past from catching up with him. When his clock was winding down, he had almost nothing to his name. He was living in a shell camper on a pickup parked at a friend’s house when he was diagnosed with fatal lung cancer. He died in 1992 in Salem, Oregon.

A marvelous genealogist in Denver dug up records that explained Stratton family secrets. I met one of his half-sisters and a nephew and some other relatives and friends. I learned my dad had a terrible childhood. My grandfather, Don Carlos Stratton Sr., was an aging, widowed Denver businessman who took up with a much younger New York émigré. She abandoned her own children to live in the West, turning a few tricks to cover expenses until she hooked up with my grandfather. My grandfather started a second family with her, even though he was closing in on 60 when they met. (She was in her late 20s.) He wanted to treat her and his new son – my father – to the best that life had to offer in 1930s Denver. So he started embezzling. As treasurer of a real estate corporation, he siphoned off several thousand dollars.   

He wasn’t good at being a criminal, however. He was caught, tried, convicted and sent to the state prison in Cañon City. My grandmother, my father and a mysterious half-sister lost their comfy home on Denver’s fashionable east side and wound up in a flophouse on Larimer Square – at the time, the most notorious skid row in the West. My father wound up attending grade school with Neal Cassady of On The Road fame, but lived a street urchin’s life. He quit school in junior high and more or less started drifting – following rodeos and carnivals, living for a while in Mexico, and God knows what else.

How could I possibly write a book about my father’s dark and disappointing life without leaving readers feeling empty? I reflected on other books that had accomplished that sort of trick. One was written by my late buddy and writing influence, Paul Hemphill. Me & the Boy ostensibly was about Hemp’s attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail, from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin, Maine, with his son. But there’s more. You can find plenty of history and lore surrounding the trail and its hikers in Hemp’s pages, as well as nice passages of nature writing. The book is subtitled The Journey of Discovery, Father and Son On the Appalachian Trail. But that’s a bit bogus. The book’s real value is as a memoir – the story of a struggling alcoholic, a father who views himself as a failure, and a family mired in dysfunction. The attempt to walk the trail falls way short, with dad disappointing his son as he had so often in the past.

Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance showed me how to pull the story off. On the surface a travel book about a motorcycle trip, it turns out to be vastly more compelling memoir. Pirsig used verb tense to provide signposts along the way to help the reader keep from getting lost. The actual account of the trip is in present tense. But when he shifts to sections of memoir, he reverts to past tense. I did the same. As for organization, Pirsig seemed to employ what would be the literary equivalent of golf’s “grip it and rip it” approach to driving the ball. In short, he just did it. He did introduce the conceit of the Chautauqua of the mind, a kind of interior monologue about an intellectual topic. And he sometimes signaled readers when he was shifting to Chautauqua mode. But mostly, as I said, he just did it. I followed his lead. I figured if it made sense to me as I wrote it, it would make sense to a reader.

But one thing occurred in the writing that I didn’t anticipate. Those voices kept coming back to me, demanding to be heard. They ended up flavoring the syntax from start to finish. I found myself employing kicker expressions such as “sure-enough” in places I never expected to use them. The loudest voice was that of Cowboy Don, who insisted that his story be told. I always expected to mention him in the text but not to the extent I did. He took over whole sections of Chasing the Rodeo. In the end, I’m grateful to him for that. If there’s anything that lifts my humble tome above other rodeo books, it’s Cowboy Don’s story. But there’s more.

Here’s the deal: I never was particularly good at getting in touch with my inner self. Before I wrote Chasing the Rodeo, I had no idea how I felt about Cowboy Don. Was I angry because he abandoned me? Did I blame him for the difficult times with my stepfather I sometimes suffered through when I was a kid? Was it his fault that I had a mostly unhappy childhood? Until I was well into middle age, I was comfortably numb not having answers to such questions. That’s no doubt because I learned as a kid that asking too many of the wrong kinds of questions could prompt a definitely uncomfortable rebuke. So comfort won out. At least for the short term. The downside is that I reached middle age with, pardon the psychobabble, “work to be done.” 

The voices I speak of here weren’t real, of course. Hell, I haven’t the foggiest idea how my father’s voice even sounded. Those “voices,” in fact, came from an unrealized part of myself. Ever since I was a teenager, whatever development I’ve accomplished psychologically or philosophically has been wrapped up with writing. Typing is how I grow.

As I worked on the first draft of Chasing the Rodeo, my comfortable numbness disappeared. The book became an exercise in addressing the holes in my make up, the gaps that dated back to when Cowboy Don failed to man-up and face the responsibilities of fatherhood. In short, Chasing the Rodeo became therapy. Creating a narrative of Cowboy Don’s life explained much about how the train wreck surrounding my birth occurred. I came to understand why he failed. And there was some emotional reckoning. Was I angry at him? Yes. Did he merit blame? Hell yes.

I also cleared up some issues I’d had with my mother, also deeply buried. She was wrong to stay silent about Cowboy Don and that period of her life. It harmed me, gave me submerged baggage to carry around for years. But, as I realized what a mess Cowboy Don was, I appreciated how she made the decision to put him behind her and move on with life. It wasn’t the right decision, but it was one I could understand.

I have to paraphrase here, but years ago, I heard Ken Kesey say that until you can forgive the person who harmed you the most, you have no chance of moving on with life. The old Merry Prankster was right. Ultimately, writing Chasing the Rodeo was an exercise in forgiveness. Once it was written, I did indeed feel sense of freedom from something that had dogged me forever. So I’m eternally thankful to Cowboy Don for lending his voice to the book.              

I owe Cowboy Don one other thing. By writing about him, I got in touch with who I am, where I came from, and what matters to me. No wavering this time. I confess I’m a shitkicker’s son, and I don’t feel any shame about it. My closet is full of Lucchese boots. I own five Western hats. I read incessantly about the West and Mexico. I no longer give a flip about the latest heroin-addicted, bulimic singer-songwriter to emerge from the UK, replete with a techno-backing track. I listen to vintage country music (Merle Haggard’s a favorite) and vintage conjunto music along with roots-tinged artists like Los Lobos, Tom Russell and Dave Alvin. I watch and rewatch Western movies by Sam Peckinpah and Budd Boetticher. The artwork in my house is Western-inspired.

A lesson I learned by writing Chasing the Rodeo was nailed by that other Willie so many years ago: To thine own self be true. At last I’m comfortable in my own skin.

Abandoned as a child, a writer comes to terms with his missing father, Cowboy Don.
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