John Payne got a second lease on life when a friend resuscitated him after he got shocked by 7,200 volts of electricity at age 20.
He lost an arm in the accident, but he used that apparent handicap and turned it into an opportunity to develop a unique career as a rodeo entertainer.
Payne, 59, is now an award-winning rodeo performer who does 35 to 40 shows a year and has won the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association best specialty performer award 12 times. Despite his close scrape with death years ago, he relishes the dangerous profession he has chosen as the "One Arm Bandit" who will perform at the Black Hills Stock Show & Rodeo this year.
After the electrocution, doctors had to amputate his arm below the shoulder, giving his act its name. Doctors wanted to cut off his left leg, but Payne knew he wouldn't be able to ride a horse without both legs and wouldn't want to live if he couldn't do that, he said.
In Payne's show, he steers a mustang with his legs while cracking a bull whip, with buffalo loping around the arena. He drives the buffalo to the top of his horse trailer, following them on the horse, and there he stands on top of the saddle, 20 feet in the air.
But the buffaloes don't always accommodate his act.
"It's kind of a dangerous show," Payne said. "Buffaloes aren't real docile animals. They're kind of wild, mean critters."
Payne keeps the show pretty much the same everywhere he goes, with small variations. The animals need the routine, because they're not always the easiest to train, Payne said.
Even with consistency, Payne still says every day is a a gamble when working with buffalo, which are 6 feet tall and weigh as much as 1,800 pounds. Anyone who wants to enter the rodeo industry and work with buffalo needs to be prepared for the worst, he said.
"You'd better be willing to risk your life everyday you're around them," Payne said. "I know them pretty good, and them son of a guns aren't scared of anything."
Payne started in rodeo in 1987 at the 101 Wild West Rodeo in Ponca City, Okla. At a rodeo there, he watched a rodeo act "low on talent," Payne says. He informed the stock contractor he could do better, and the man told Payne he could be the entertainment the next year.
In the first year, Payne did 90 shows in which he drove five steers on top of his trailer with the help of Blackmouth Cur dogs. He was nominated specialty act of the year by PRCA. He did not win that first year, but won each year from 1989 to 1996 and again from 2008 to 2011.
Payne's show has a guarantee, he says. If his act alone is not worth the price of a rodeo ticket, he says he'll refund a patron's money.
Though Payne now has two children, son Lynn and daughter Amanda, who also do rodeo shows around the country, it doesn't look like he'll stop performing any time too soon. He views himself as a much younger man, closer to 39 he says, since the electrocution restarted his life.
"I just knocked them first 20 years off," Payne said.
If he does slow down sometime soon, he'll likely do so to spend more time with his wife, he said.