When National Finals Rodeo returns to Las Vegas this Thursday, I won’t be in the press box as I have in years past feeling the dirt kicked up by bucking broncos in the Thomas & Mack arena.
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 grass, 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 out in the outhouse.
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, like the NFR in Vegas, 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, 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 never owned 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 NFR communications director back in 2009: “This ain’t my first rodeo.”
This first appeared as a column in the morning newspaper in 2009.