By Peter Sprague
Summer of 1955. I had just turned 16. 6 feet and a bit,
140 lb +-, scrawny but fit.
I had a friend at Phillips academy Andover, Steve Ripley, he was a class behind me, He was perhaps with me at America house a seven room small white clapboard dormitory.
Sometime that winter I set up a mini broadcast station with a couple of miles of range. We called it “Radio Free America” and ran it often with DJ program and bits of satirical news. Our broadcast antenna consisted of the springs in a boxspring mattress. After a couple of months of successful operation we were closed down by the feds who brought in a truck with a revolving antenna, found us and subsequently shut us down. The administration missed another opportunity to throw me out. I guess they decided we hadn’t done any real harm had not broken any rules that were in the school printed rule books.
Steve was a wonderful kid, freckled and Sandy haired, he was from Calgary Alberta Canada. Like all kids from Canada he was an ace on ice skates and made the Andover hockey team and went on to play on the varsity team at Yale. He had a sense of humor, wrote poetry, had a lot of energy and a sparkling intelligence.
Steve invited me to stay with him at his home in Calgary. Sometime in early July I got on a series of airplanes and arrived in Calgary. Steve’s father Wilder Ripley was an oil man with an office in the petroleum building and an appropriate house. He also had a horse farm. Wilder was a little taller than Steve and his mother was a kind, gentle and welcoming lady.
That summer I got a pilots license but must have taken two weeks off to make the trip.
Steven had set me up, way up. He had signed me up to be a contestant in the Calgary Stampede . It was billed as the worlds largest rodeo. I was well prepared having ridden a horse a few times. I was supposed to ride wild steers in competition.
Somehow Steve arranged to get me a 125 cc motorcycle and we rode into town to get me properly registered. I got 2 big contestants 6 x 8in cotton Labels With my contestants number to be worn front and back and 2 inch round orange Metal badge. I bought a black cowboy hat to put the badge on. I was told at registration that I had to wear my number and the badge at all times during the 7 day rodeo. I thought the regalia went well with my motorcycle.
Steve did not sign up which was not a good sign
There was of course a parade and Steve’s father produced a large white horse that I was supposed to ride in the parade. Just as I got to the parade gathering I rode under an overpass where inconveniently a train was passing overhead. The horse bolted and I hung on for dear life. I remember thinking there was no way I was going to fall off the damn horse on the way to the damn parade. I didn’t.
All this was great fun untiI I arrived a day or two later at the stadium for the competition. They were tens of thousands of people in the stands. As a contestant I got front row standing room on the dirt in the stadium. There were a lot of tough looking cowboys and tougher looking animals. Eventually and inevitably I got to meet my steer. He was in a 4×6 pen. Somebody looped a tight rope around his middle and explained to me that I was supposed to put the steer between my legs and hang on to the rope with my right hand. The steer wasn’t very big and certainly compared to the bulls didn’t look very fierce. But it looked big enough and fierce enough to a kid from New England.
Before I got on the steer I handed my Kodak pony 35mm camera for safe keeping to somebody sitting on the rail who looked like an Indian. I never saw the camera again and hopefully he is still keeping it safe.
Suddenly it was my turn. I am sure it occurred to me that I didn’t have to go through with this. I don’t remember being scared of the steer or even of the tens of thousands of people in the audience, I was mostly scared of looking like a cowardly chicken to my friend Steve. So I did it, somebody opened the gate and I was supposed to hang on for eight seconds and dismount.
Eight seconds didn’t seem like a really long time but I suddenly realized eight seconds is a very long time riding a wild steer, I was thrown off in about five seconds and then stepped on by the steer leaving a bruise on my upper inner left thigh. Yikes.
A day or two later there was a second round. I was in the air when the horn went off and before I hit the dirt. I didn’t even get stepped on. Maybe if I did it regularly and often I might get good at it. Regularly and often was not part of my plan. I knew at the time that this was my last rodeo.
My fellow contestants were kids who were much smaller than I was, younger than I was, and looked like they had been riding steers all their life. They wanted to grow up and ride bulls. I wanted to grow up.
A picture of me and a short article appeared on the top half of the front page of the local newspaper. They announced that I was the only contestant in that Calgary Stampede from east of the Mississippi, probably true,
In the mid 60s I was back in Calgary. I called Steve’s house. His mother told me Steve had disappeared into the Calgary drug underground. They had not heard from him. I later heard that he had died. The poetry stopped.