Mechanical bull no problem -- just hold on and hope

This is to report that the world has nothing to fear from the mechanical bull , that electrically driven tourist attraction that more and more amusement parks have corraled as a kind of ego challenge.

The person you have to worry about when you climb aboard this noble bucket of bolts is the bull's operator -- the man or woman who sits at a panel and controls the action. They can make you look like you were born to the saddle or send you flying through the air in full view of friends, relatives, or strangers.

If this isn't considered sports by everybody, it probably should be!

I rode a mechanical bull recently at Knotts Berry Farm in California and I didn't come home on my shield either. The reason I didn't, of course, was because (to recall a line from "My Fair Lady") the operator had the milk of human kindness by the quart in every vein. I think his last name was Higgins.

One part of Knotts features an old-fashioned Western ghost town, and this is where they graze their two mechanical bulls.

Sitting on a heavy metal post in an area about the size of a children's merry-go-round, each animal is surrounded by a large circle of permanently joined air bags. Spectators lean on a wooden fence to watch the action or relax at nearby picnic tables. The bulls cost $10,000 apiece, but another $20,000 is needed for the sophisticated equipment used to operate them, the air bags that provide such a high degree of safety, and the construction that ties everything together as a unit.

What makes the mechanical bulls at Knotts special is that someone has taken the trouble to make them look the part by giving them a believable head and tail. Most of those that are used in television commercials, nightclubs, and cowboy ice cream bars aren't nearly as realistic. In fact, they look more like oversized saddles that have been fastened to a post and whose sides were made to almost reach the floor to hide the bolts and gears.

While I was waiting my turn in line, one kid who had never ridden before told me that it was easy -- that all I needed to do was close my eyes to keep my balance. You can always count on teen-agers to give you the benefit of their experience.

Before you are allowed to mount the bull, the operator in charge makes you check your cowboy hat and points to a pair of leather gloves provided to make holding on easier.

The part of this mechanical marvel that you sit on is approximately 4 1/2 feet off the ground, and when I tried to bounce myself off the air pillows and onto what passes as a saddle, all I did was hit my stomach on the beef's side and draw a few laughs. Anyway, it looked so easy when the 21-year-old in front of me did it with such power and grace.

I must admit I was a little embarrassed when one of the operators came over with a long stirrup, fastened it to a clip on the bull's side, and suggested I go the more conventional route.

At that point, if there had been an elevator available or a hole in the ground, I would have taken it.

One thing I discovered instantly about mechanical bulls is that their backs are wider than most sidewalks and that they are not made for comfort.

The best way to stay on is to dig your knees into the sides, throw your left arm toward the sky for balance, and hold on to a leather loop at the front of the saddle with your right hand.It also helps if you tip the man at the controls before you get on.

If an operator feels like it, he can make that bull buck at least 45 times every 60 seconds, in addition to whirling it completely around. I found it a little like sitting in the front passenger seat of an automobile while teaching someone to drive who had never used a stick shift or clutch.

Basically the main difference between an automobile with four flat tires driving over railroad ties and this bucking contraption is that seat belts aren't standard equipment on the bull.

When I asked my wife afterwards what I looked like stretched out on a top of a bull, she replied: "Like a side order of mash potatoes!"

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