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The man in the mask

Published October 17, 2005

[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
Waiting for the madness: Ashley "Stretch" McClellan, 24, rests before facing the bulls at Osceola Heritage Park in Kissimmee.

Inside the locker room, the drifter drifts to sleep.

He pays no attention to the country music blaring outside, or the bulls pacing restlessly, or the bullriders swaggering in too-tight Wranglers.

They call him Stretch, a wild man, a bullfighter, the American kind, who paints his face clown-like and dresses in red and throws himself willingly into the path of angry beasts who have just bucked cowboys to the ground.

When he was 14, the road called, and Stretch answered. He ran away from home and landed at an Oklahoma rodeo and has lived a hundred lifetimes since.

He's slept at truck stops, on the shoulder of highways, in the dirt beside livestock. He's drunk his share of Jack Daniels. He's been tattooed a half-dozen times in a half-dozen cities, dipped enough Copenhagen to roof a house with the tin cans. He's been arrested for fighting. He found a girlfriend in Utah named Kasey.

He's stared down a thousand bulls in a thousand nowhere towns from Tennessee to Texas, Montana to Mississippi. The bulls have knocked out his front teeth and broken his arms, ribs, ankles, tailbone, collarbone and kneecap. They've given him more concussions and stitches and joy than he can measure.

"I live kind of different," Stretch says, smiling toothlessly.

Back in Kansas, the family never understood. His dad's a lawyer, his sister a dentist. His brothers turned out normal, too.

But Stretch, well, he lives kind of different. He owns two bags of clothes and probably won't ever own much else, except this: "I'll have a lot of good stories."

And maybe that's enough.

Maybe, unlike so many people, he has found the place he belongs, in the ring with the other untamed souls, kicking up dust and mud.

The drifter opens his eyes.


Editor's note: 300 Words presents glimpses of everyday life that often go unnoticed.

[Last modified October 17, 2005, 01:18:14]

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