Even if you're not a football fan, you've probably heard about the blackout in the middle of the SuperBowl game. Thirty-four minutes of darkness. If I were younger, I could tell you how long that is in beer and chicken wings. As is, all I can say is…wow, did that bring back memories.
Thanks to my inability to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up and her abbreviated detour into marriage before enrolling full time at Montana State, my sister and I both used up our college rodeo eligibility before we graduated. We were still training barrel horses back then and needed some place to run them, so we entered a March rodeo in Rexburg, Idaho, which really wasn't that far from Bozeman in Montana terms.
The drive down was fine, the roads clear, but as we rolled into Rexburg the snow started to fall. Heavy, wet spring snow that piles up fast, breaks tree branches and--more to the point of this particular story--power lines.
The barrel racing was the second to last event, right before the bull riding. We warmed up in the aisles of the horse barn, then all squeezed into the limited space behind the bucking chutes to shed coats and check cinches before competing. My latest source of frustration was a bone-headed former racehorse named O.J.** we'd picked up cheap because he had a habit of grabbing the bit between his teeth and running past the first barrel, turning only when the alternative was to smack into the fence.
I found a place to squeeze him in between horses along the wall and crouched to strap a splint boot on one of his back legs. Which of course was when the lights went out.
We're talking pitch black. Not so much as an emergency exit sign glowing in the distance. Caught by surprise, some of the horses panicked. There was jostling and squealing (not all from the horses, mind you) and all hell broke loose, banging and crashing in the darkness as if someone had decided to tear the wall down to get out. Again, not necessarily a horse.
I saw nothing. Literally not even the hand in front of my face. Luckily, O.J. froze. I felt my way along his side, wrapped my arms around his chest and crouched under his neck, sure a hoof would come flying out of the darkness and smoke me upside the head.
After an eternity of two or three minutes, the lights came back on. Despite the chaos, everyone emerged unscathed except a plywood box the rodeo clown used for his comedy act. One of the spooked horses had kicked it to splinters.
We all looked at each other. Then we looked at the judges. They looked at the rodeo committee. Given that we were all dumb enough to enter a winter rodeo to begin with, no one thought to object when they rustled up a few flashlights and went on with the show.
I think you'll understand why I took it real easy on the way to the first barrel, though. O.J. tended to run blind on a good day, I sure didn't want to be going full blast if the lights went out again.
The barrel racing wrapped up without so much as a flicker, and most of the bull riding. Then last cowboy nodded his head. The bull took two jumps and turned back hard to the right…and the arena went black.
A dozen flashlights were already trained on the bull, who never stopped spinning. It was pretty cool, actually, like in the movies when everybody rides in the spotlight because of course that's exactly how it is in real life.
And the cowboy? He won it all, of course. The judges had to give him bonus points for concentration. Besides, he didn't dare fall off…he couldn’t see which way to run to get to the fence ahead of the bull.
** (Yes, I am so old that this story happened clear back before naming an animal O.J. would be unthinkable)