This ain’t my first rodeo

Trevor Brazile ropes and ties a calf in 8 seconds in 2009.

As the National Finals Rodeo returns to Las Vegas on Dec. 2, I recall that the closest I ever came to rodeoing was the time Grandpa Hicks put me on his horse Skeeter and sent me down to the lower pasture to bring back the cows for the evening milking.

Now, I say pasture in the kindest North Texas sense — a relatively open area dotted by scrub oak, mesquite, nettles, sandburs, cockleburs, goatheads and Johnson grasses, populated with scorpions, red ants, sidewinders, diamondbacks, jackrabbits and coyotes. It was a place where the butcherbirds hung their prey, young snakes, on the barbed wire (I was a grown man before I learned it was barbed wire and not Bob wire.) fence to keep the other vermin from stealing their victuals. Etched throughout this verdant landscape were gullies as deep as a man on horseback.

It hadn’t changed a whole heck of a lot since Gen. Philip Sheridan rode through in 1866 and panegyrized the place by proclaiming, “If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent Texas and live in Hell.”

My grandparents churned their own butter and smoked their own meat. Grandma Hicks could snag a fleeing pullet by the leg with a length of wire and wring its neck in seconds, leaving the headless bird to run around for a minute or so till it could be picked up and plunged into boiling water, then plucked for a fried chicken dinner with biscuits, gravy and all the fixin’s.

At night as we listened to radio with the glowing De Forest tubes, the only thing to read was the Bible and the Sears & Roebuck’s catalog, which, when the new one arrived, would be, shall we say, recycled.

Every year we’d go to the Chisholm Trail Roundup in Nocona. This was back when the factory still made boots and leather goods, like my three-fingered baseball mitt that had to be oiled and tied around a baseball to form anything resembling a pocket. Every year they’d introduce Miss Enid Justin, the owner of the boot company. It was always “Miss” Enid Justin.

The Chisholm Trail Roundup had no lasers or fireworks or ear-splitting rock music, but it did have a booming-voiced, smart aleck announcer who would trade snappy patter with the rodeo clown during the bull riding events. We sat on cold, splintering wooden bleachers in boots and jeans and hats. Not in an 18,000-seat arena.

This was back when the stars of the sport were Casey Tibbs and Jim Shoulders.

In 2009 at the National Finals Rodeo at the Thomas & Mack the star was then 33-year-old Wise County , Texas, roper Trevor Brazile. Unlike most in the sport Brazile earned a couple million dollars in prize money over the years, as well as a barnful of gold buckles. Most cowboys are lucky to cover their expenses — pickups, horse trailers, horses, tack and gear, as well as fuel for vehicles, horses and selves.

On that Saturday, the morning newspaper rodeo reporter Jeff Wolf, who also covered auto racing, wrangled me a press pass and took me down to the pressroom in the bowels of the T&M to meet the assorted rodeo officialdom. Along the way we bumped into Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins and T&M manager Pat Christensen. I was just there to show the flag for the paper as its editor, to show the rodeo the newspaper welcomed them, so maybe they’d think of us when there were news scoops to reveal.

I shook hands with and joked with everyone from the head honcho to the doctor to the hangers on. But I had one boon to ask. If Trevor Brazile happened by, might I get a chance to shake his hand and say hello?

Just before the rodeo was to start, they brought through the pressroom mild-mannered, soft-spoken, polite-as-hell Brazile. I shook his hand and wished him luck from a Wise County expatriate, who, like a kid collecting autographs, could now tell his family back home he’d actually met the star of the rodeo circuit. He was from Decatur. I was from Bridgeport, 11 miles down the road, and Decatur’s arch rival in high school sports. Perhaps, that this being Las Vegas and all, you’ve heard that old craps shooter’s plea: “Eighter from Decatur, county seat of Wise.”

As a lagniappe, I also shook the tiny, soft, splayed hand of bashful 2-year-old Treston, who, like his dad, was dressed in black from hat to boot. If I live so long, perhaps someday I can say I met him when …

Wolf talked the rodeo communications director into letting me sit in the press box up at arena side for a couple of go-rounds, where I dusted bits of arena floor kicked up by passing riders off my program and watched poor Trevor Brazile finish almost out of the money in both calf (I refuse to call it tie-down roping as a sop to the animal rights whiners.) and team roping.

The closest I ever came to that kind of rodeo action was because I did not know Skeeter was a cutting horse. I think I was about 10. For the purposes of this story and an aversion to too much self-embarrassment, I’ll not admit to being any older. Only my mother could proffer a contrary accounting, and she doesn’t own a computer.

So, when I got down to the pasture where that half dozen or so head of docile milk cows were grazing, either through some unintended signal from me or his own instincts, Skeeter decided that one suckling calf keeping devotedly near its mother just had to be cut out of the herd for purposes only Skeeter could fathom.

In the Texican lexicon skeeter is short for mosquito, another blood-sucking denizen of those parts, which darts about in the air, changing directions so fast as to defy the laws of physics. If you’ve not had the pleasure of seeing one work, that’s what a good cutting horse does. It dashes and stops and cuts back, doing whatever it takes to prevent that calf from doing what it instinctively wants to do, rejoin the rest of the herd.

Normally, most people get to see this performance in a nice flat arena from comfortable seats. Did I mention the gullies? Somehow I managed to stay on Skeeter’s back instead of flying off under the force of kinetic energy as he made all those hair-pin turns and stops.

After awhile, Skeeter decided I did not know what the heck I doing and allowed me to point him toward the barn, leaving behind that calf and all the milk cows with bulging udders. Grandpa was so angry I almost wished I’d tumbled off into a gully so I could at least have Grandma’s sympathy.

As I told the communications director back then: “This ain’t my first rodeo.”

This first appeared as a column in the morning newspaper in 2009.

12 comments on “This ain’t my first rodeo

  1. 4tun8fm says:

    What a great rendition of family, friends, home, TX and NV on Thanksgiving.

  2. Thanks. I was watching the Raiders-Cowboys and someone mentioned the NFR was coming back to Vegas from being in Arlington last year and I remembered …

  3. Athose says:

    Thanks for sharing some down home tales…. (I had to look up a couple of words, Tom…and I loved the Sears & Roebuck’s catalog reference…)

  4. Athos says:

    And Happy Thanksgiving!!

  5. Bill says:

    Thanks for sharing it brought back memories of predawn milkings on grand pa’s farm where you ate only what you raised and nothing much else. Chicken was on Sunday and I caught many a chicken with a wire hook and then had to scald and pluck them. Catalogs and old magazines were a luxury and if you didn’t have any then you used corn cobs or corn husks.

    Rodeos were a bug evebt big event and everybody went. Later in life there were horses and roundups in Nevada and a horse aptly named sumabitch that left me with a permanent bad left knee.

    I have been to North, South, East and West Texas and I’m not sure that Sheridan panegyrized Texas, Rather he was execrating Texas it and panegyrizing Hell. And while there are many parts of Texas I love, still……

    Thanks for the memories. Be well.

  6. Don Campbell says:

    Dear Mitch,
    This ranks near the top your many columns I have enjoyed over the years. Gen. Sheridan’s quip concisely sums up the point.
    I have cc’ed my very close friend, Dan McNutt, on this email. Just as you column brought to life the unrealistic depiction of Texas by Hollywood in favor of the harsh reality of ranching, Dan, who grew up on a small farm in Pennsylvania, disabused me of similar notions I harbored about growing up on a farm where he had real everyday chores. Chores so demanding and difficult he sought a less rigorous life by enlisting in the Marine Corps at eighteen. Dan later became an infantry officer and attorney. He was a partner at LS&C but left for the less green grasses of Afghanistan following 9/11.
    I know Dan and John will find it easy to relate to the vivid real life depiction of life on a Texas ranch in contrast to that envisioned by city folk.
    Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving. I think of you often, and always do so with great gratitude for your strength of character and friendship over the years.
    All my very,
    Don Campbell
    From: 4TH ST8
    Reply-To: 4TH ST8
    Date: Thursday, November 25, 2021 at 3:44 PM
    To: Don Campbell
    Subject: [New post] This ain’t my first rodeo

    Thomas Mitchell posted: ” Trevor Brazile ropes and ties a calf in 8 seconds in 2009. As the National Finals Rodeo returns to Las Vegas on Dec. 2, I recall that the closest I ever came to rodeoing was the time Grandpa Hicks put me on his horse Skeeter and sent me down to th”

  7. Dan McNutt says:

    Wonderfully written and I am tempted to add my W. Pa version of hardships but will leave it at this:

    For me, it was a JC Penney, not Sears, catalog. I remember it fondly because I was caught looking at the section with women modeling “brassieres”. Not as good as the sports illustrated swimsuit edition, but I didn’t know about that one yet! Fortunately, we didn’t recycle.

    We didn’t have horses to torture us, but then again, bulls, steers and copperheads were closer evils when herding them afoot.

    Your Grandfather and my old man were kindred spirits when the task assigned was not performed. (Of course, it could be that I was just a timid, sensitive soul who found the Marine Corps warm and fuzzy).

    It was the greatest way to grow up as long as you got out.

    S/F,

    DM

    From: Don Campbell Date: Friday, November 26, 2021 at 1:42 PM To: 4TH ST8 <comment+7adp74r9a8fpgp4gbqzj9v4@comment.wordpress.com Cc: Dan McNutt , John Smith Subject: Re: [New post] This ain’t my first rodeo

    Dear Mitch, This ranks near the top your many columns I have enjoyed over the years. Gen. Sheridan’s quip concisely sums up the point. I have cc’ed my very close friend, Dan McNutt, on this email. Just as you column brought to life the unrealistic depiction of Texas by Hollywood in favor of the harsh reality of ranching, Dan, who grew up on a small farm in Pennsylvania, disabused me of similar notions I harbored about growing up on a farm where he had real everyday chores. Chores so demanding and difficult he sought a less rigorous life by enlisting in the Marine Corps at eighteen. Dan later became an infantry officer and attorney. He was a partner at LS&C but left for the less green grasses of Afghanistan following 9/11. I know Dan and John will find it easy to relate to the vivid real life depiction of life on a Texas ranch in contrast to that envisioned by city folk. Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving. I think of you often, and always do so with great gratitude for your strength of character and friendship over the years. All my very, Don Campbell From: 4TH ST8 Reply-To: 4TH ST8 Date: Thursday, November 25, 2021 at 3:44 PM To: Don Campbell Subject: [New post] This ain’t my first rodeo

    Thomas Mitchell posted: ” Trevor Brazile ropes and ties a calf in 8 seconds in 2009. As the National Finals Rodeo returns to Las Vegas on Dec. 2, I recall that the closest I ever came to rodeoing was the time Grandpa Hicks put me on his horse Skeeter and sent me down to th”

  8. Bill says:

    Ir was Montgomery Wards Catalog or as my grandfather called it, Monkey Wards. And I remember the copperheads and cottonmouths down in he crick and for me i was 17 and the Corps. Fond memories now that I am not living them day to day.

  9. Thanks for all the too kind comments from old and new friends. The several mentions of snakes reminds me of time Dad leased some acreage near town so he could graze a few head of cattle. It had an old dairy barn strewn with old hay and feed bags. It was by job to clean it out with a flat shovel and wheelbarrow. As I shoveled up the debris I’d toss the tattered burlap bags in a corner. Then with the floor cleared I started hauling out barrows full of bags, until I got the last ones … under which was coiled a six-foot diamondback, its head poised for a strike and its rattlers sounding its warning. Dad dragged it outside with some handy tool and then, if I recall correctly, dispatched it with a .22-caliber Military High Standard pistol, his “snake” gun that he kept under the driver’s seat of his pickup. That was one of many encounters with snakes. There are only four types of poisonous snakes in North America and they all are native to Texas.

  10. bc says:

    Great read Thomas! For me it was the great grandads ranch in the mountains of Utah and as he had already retired when I came along all I really had to do was help my grandad with fencing or pushing a few stray steers back inside the fence.

    But my Dad talked about being pulled out of school in the ’50s for a week to push the herd down from the mountain summer ranch to to winter range along the Nevada border, said it took a week and it was cold in that saddle by that time of the year.

  11. Not a cushy job. Thanks for the feedback.

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