Once upon a time, when the gem and mineral shows could have fit in your guest bedroom and Ben Lindsey coached the Wildcat basketball team to a 4-24 season, the rodeo was the hot ticket in Tucson.
Those were the days … when Tucson’s cowboy heritage still was worn comfortably by native sons and daughters, when Cecil and Everett Wentz ran their livestock auction and nobody had to worry about a bunch of emaciated vegans from PETA showing up to protest the bidding.
Back then, the local media assigned their best and brightest to cover La Fiesta de los Vaqueros, from the color guard stepping off to start the longest nonmechanized parade in America to the boys with barn shovels swamping out the stalls when all the rough stock hit the road for the next rodeo.
Of course, it fell to me to cover the parade.
While I worked for the other paper in town, it was no more onerous than any other nasty assignment from a city editor with a Napoleon complex (even as a kid I detested parades, and my boss, who was almost as short as I am today, which is sitting down, detested me – but was stuck with me because the managing editor liked me – so he made me cover every parade that came down the pike). But once I moved to the Citizen, the parade gig got truly heinous because the first edition deadline was 7 a.m., despite which, policy and tradition demanded a front-page story on the Rodeo Parade.
Taking policy and tradition upscale from newspaper to municipality, Tucson always decreed, because the rodeo was the biggest annual happening on the community calendar and since the parade was its kickoff, when it came to releasing official attendance figures, poetic license was to be employed to its utmost capacity.
It was this epic approach toward official communications on the parade that came rushing from my mental archives as I read the Citizen’s parade coverage last week and saw that another generation of journalists has drawn the assignment and adopted its own approach toward reconciling reality … with the somewhat Homeric statistics proffered by the official publicity gnomes.
I read the story with deep interest because it dared to doubt the official attendance figures provided all media outlets by the Rodeo Parade Committee. Note the use of capitals.
In my day (as those entitled to senior discounts at Denny’s are wont to begin), attendance figures for all parades within Tucson city limits were provided by Sgt. John Dudek, senior member of the Tucson Police Department’s motorcycle patrol.
Sgt. Dudek was a legend among Tucson youth of several generations. He seemed timeless. He seemed quarried from stone. He seemed menacing to any malefactor, cradle to grave, who pondered so much as jaywalking.
The kids of my era called him Smokey.
And when Smokey said, officially, that 275,000 people watched the rodeo parade, in a town of 150,000, by God, you reported to your readers that it was so.
I did, for what seemed like half a century, until Dudek retired, or died, or I got to feeling froggy, I don’t remember which, and wrote, one year, that in order to have attained these officially reported numbers, every man, woman and child in Tucson and for 100 miles around would have had to watch the parade twice. I had checked the most recent census figures for the Tucson metropolitan area, so I felt my statistics stood on firm footing.
I might as well have been whistling into the wind, because the next year the official crowd estimates were right up there around twice or thrice the actual population, and I knew everybody in Tucson didn’t stand on the curb and watch the horsies pooping as they paraded by, because I wasn’t there and neither were my wife and kids.
The official answer to the arithmetic disparity is snowbirds. We are supposed to believe that something like 200,000 wheat farmers from Fargo have emerged from their Winnebagos long enough to have their noses counted by the Parade Committee.
The Citizen’s riposte was to send B. Poole, Eric Sagara and Claudine LoMonaco into the pre-dawn chill, with pocket calculators, yardsticks and pedometers, to calculate the crowd in real, measurable terms, reducible to an accurate and what is more, a believable, body count.
They measured the length of the parade route, estimated the width, in inches, of the average spectator, counted the number of rows of crowd depth, and concluded that the actual attendance was 55,440. Compare that with the official estimate of 175,000 to 180,000 and decide for yourself which is the more believable.
I think neither.
The Three Musketeers from the Citizen, while brave, witty and well-intentioned, are wordsmiths, not mathematicians: I suspect they forgot to carry the 1. As to the publicity chairman of the Parade Committee, his is a failing of the imagination: If Sgt. Dudek had lived to see Tucson grown to its present size, his crowd estimates would have been the stuff of dreams.
In the spirit of Sgt. Dudek, and with my old newsman’s eye for the truth, especially where rodeo parades are concerned – you can ask Mark Kimble about that – I took a look at the photo that ran with our trio’s story, multiplied by the secret number Dudek bequeathed me after he estimated his last parade crowd, carried the 1, and came up with a million.
It’s got a nice ring to it. And you know what? It ain’t no matter of life or death: Go with whatever you like.
Citizen columnist Jeff Smith is a local boy trying to make good. His column appears on Wednesdays. Call him at (520) 455-5667 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.