It really is a small world. If you’ve ever been a rodeo cowboy, there’s no way to get around it. It’s really true. You can run, but you can’t hide. You may believe you’re thousands of miles from the nearest guy who might recognize you from your days in the saddle or doing your best to keep a leg on each side and your ass in the middle on a bucking bull, but it’s an illusion.
You never know where those fellows are going to show up.
Dateline Fliegerhorst Kaserne, Germany: June, 1964. It had been a pleasant surprise that morning, reporting for duty at my permanent station in Germany. When I walked into the communications section as the latest addition to 212th Artillery Group’s group of wire rats, I’d been greeted by half a dozen men I knew from training at Fort Ord, California. We’d been separated when I got hit with pneumonia and spent a week in the hospital, after which I’d been pushed back into another class–but my orders had already been cut, though I didn’t know it at the time.
Mighty fine reunion, right there.
Noon came, and we all trooped over to the mess hall. Just inside the door, there was a sergeant who looked almighty familiar…and then I spotted his name tag: KYLE.
It was Gene Kyle, my rodeo friend from Missoula, Montana. We’d met at a high school rodeo, my home town of Drummond being in the same District as his, and hit it off right away. Oh, and we’d had some fine old times, too, especially at the District Rodeo at Hamilton our senior year. We’d both gotten to town early, the night before the show started. My mother was chaperoning me, but she was safely dumped–uh, ensconced–in a motel room, and I was free to be what cowboys will be.
We went out to see what sort of trouble we could stir up.
Now, the thing was, neither of us had much in the way of spare cash, nor did we have wheels. Gene had hitched a ride, and while I had my 1952 Chevy, I didn’t dare run around town in it, burning gas. In effect, I was as much on foot as he was.
So, naturally, when several local Hamilton girls flirted a little bit with us at the drive-in, we pushed the issue, yanked open the passenger side doors on their four door sedan, and jumped right in there with ’em. They told us to get out, but we were pretty sure they didn’t mean it, not really…until, after twenty minutes or so of cruising around town, they located another car chock full of their local boyfriends.
At which point, discretion being the better part of valor, yeah, we vamoosed.
Until the rodeo dance that night, of course. We didn’t do too well there, either. Not really. It turned out that we were just about the only rodeo cowboys in the dance hall, and when the local lads started making it clear they didn’t appreciate us dancing with their dollies, we departed the premises.
Gracefully, of course. And yes, of course we pushed the issue just a bit before we did, not enough to require actual fisticuffs, but enough to make it clear that odds of eight or ten to two didn’t scare us.
After that rodeo, we’d not seen each other again…until now, three years later and ten thousand miles away from home.
At that moment, I realized it was truly a small world.
Dateline 20 Mile Ranch, Custer, South Dakota: November, 1991. I’d bought the 20 Mile Ranch at auction in June, fixed it up a bit, and imported three of my four key employees to share living space in the main house and continue our intensive marketing campaign via telephone. The fourth employee couldn’t come; her husband had his own thing going and wasn’t about to leave Montana. Nor, as it turned out, was my future ex-wife willing to shift any farther east than the Big Sky Country.
But it is what it is, and we had plenty to do, more than enough to keep us busy. Sadie (soon to be ex) and I had built a significant multilevel marketing empire, a distributorship with more than 53,000 downline distributors and monthly income checks that soared as high as $61,000 per month. We had an ad running in USA Today and prospects calling us from that ad. When they called, three of us manned the phones, with one focusing on organizing the massive amounts of paperwork we produced.
If we could sign a caller up as a distributor on the first call, we did that. If not, a single retail bottle of nutritional supplement in the quart size would be cool. If not that, hey, how about a free 8 ounce sample? No? Okay, some literature, then?
For the network of distributors that already existed, we held conference calls every so often. Not for all 53,000 downline folks, of course. I’m good, but I’m not that good. But ten or so of the best got invitations to join the calls, and they were for a while a key component of our business building strategy.
One day, calling AT&T to set up such a conference call, I wound up getting along rather famously with the lady operator doing the setup work. Getting the call organized took a while, and we chatted while she worked. At one point, I mentioned that I was originally from Montana–and it turned out she was, too.
“Where in Montana?” I asked.
“Little town, Conrad, you probably never heard of it.”
“Sure I have! I competed at the State High School Rodeo in Conrad in 1960!”
That got her attention, but there was more. I had a story to share about my time in Conrad, Montana, the first night my Mom and I were in town.
Conrad was several hours’ drive from my home town of Drummond, but Dad wouldn’t let me head out that day until I got the lower five acre field of alfalfa mowed. By the time that was finished and we rolled out of the yard (after a hasty lunch) in my on-its-last-legs 1951 Ford, a four door sedan with a straight six engine and free wheeling overdrive, painted jet black and shocking pink, it was around 1:00 p.m. I had to sign in at the rodeo office by six p.m., or they’d scratch me–i.e., remove me from the list of contestants. Such a possibility was unthinkable; I was 16 years of age, representing as our District High School Champion saddle bronc rider, and death would have been preferable–literally–to being late.
Unfortunately, the Ford didn’t make it easy. Along the way, it overheated. Counting down the seconds, waiting for the engine to cool slightly, scrounging water from a muddy cow track to pour into the steaming radiator…”stress” hadn’t come into vogue as a popular term yet, but I was emotionally ragged, right at the end of my rope.
I walked into the rodeo office at three minutes to six.
So, it was all good, right? I certainly thought so. With my entry confirmed and my Mom put up in one of the two hotels in the tiny town, I even managed to scrounge a bit of floor space in the other hotel, sharing with two other cowboys.
And then I popped the trunk to get my bronc saddle out…only there was no saddle in there. It was still back under my bed at home. District Champ goes to State, leaves his saddle behind.
Oh, that wasn’t all. I couldn’t go back for it, so the only thing to do was try to borrow some other cowboy’s gear–which is a prescription for trouble in and of itself. A bronc rider works endless hours to get his saddle to fit him just so, with the length of the stirrups fine tuned down to a frog’s hair, the feel of everything just as perfect as perfect can get. The other guy’s rig is never going to quite cut it.
But with that settled in my mind for the morrow, there was the rodeo dance to attend. At State, with both cowboys and cowgirls from all over Montana, it truly was a rodeo event. I managed to dance a good portion of the night with the hottest blonde rodeo queen from Butte you ever did see, and even got the honor of walking her back to her hotel room.
So, it was all good, right?
Nope. Not even a peck on the cheek at the door. Nor could I say anything; her room was right next door to my Mom’s.
Back to my hotel. The other guys were both in the room, but not asleep. It was still hot, had been 108 degrees in Conrad that day, and no air conditioning.
We decided to take a walk.
Around one block and down the street, we came across two town guys, one about six one, maybe 170 pounds, the other a skinny little runt. The bigger fellow was distinctly unhappy; some rounder had stolen the spinner hubcaps from his car. He took some of that venom out verbally on the tallest among us three cowboys, who happened to be Shank, but nothing came of it…yet.
As we walked on, I remarked to my friend, “You do realize he called you out, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” he replied, but it was no big deal to him. We meandered on up the block, found a café open, and went in. Dug in our meager pockets for coin enough to cover Cokes and pieces of cherry pie. Half an hour later, we were back out on the street–and the townies had just left the guy’s hubcapless car. They were headed our way.
The Devil made me do it. “Let’s take ’em,” I said.
“Why not?” Shank agreed.
But he didn’t know I was serious, and I didn’t know he was joking.
“Which one do you want?” He asked, still joking.
Well, there was only one macho cowboy answer to that. “Ah, I’ll take the big one,” I replied, still serious.
Our third man, both smaller and a bit younger than either of us and undoubtedly not nearly so insane, said nothing.
Okay, what now? I didn’t have much experience at this. In fact, I’d gone through the first three years of high school branded a coward, afraid of a fistfight, which I was. In later years, I’d realize that was because I had enough brains to know a fight wasn’t a game, but I’d put myself in this pickle. Put up or shut up. Fish or cut bait.
Terrified, I couldn’t think of anything brilliant as a way to start the ball rolling, so I just adjusted my trajectory at the last instant and walked straight into the fellow, chest to chest.
Startled, having gone right on past, Shank looked back to see the two of us squared away, popping at each other. I’d caught one glancing blow, barely enough to give me just the slightest mark high on one cheekbone; nothing else had landed on either side.
My bud was as good as his word, though. He jumped back, laid a couple on the skinny runt, and that worthy gentleman promptly ran away, shouting, “I’ll go get help!” Great little buddy, right there, leaving his comrade alone with (as far as he knew) three hostile cowboys.
His part done, Shank yelled, “If you two idiots are going to do this, at least get off the street!”
Well, yeah. We were right out there on Conrad’s main drag, weren’t we? So the four of us trundled on around the back and down the alley, into a big open space that happened to be right behind the café we’d just visited. En route, as we were walking, I tugged off my class ring and put it in my pocket.
“You don’t have to do that for me!” The townie snarled, all man and an axe handle wide.
Even more terrified than I had been, I replied brilliantly with the only words I could think of, the old classic, “F*ck you! F*ck you!”
Real wordsmith, put the bard to shame.
Squared away once again, my chosen opponent and I got back to it. My height at that time was around 5′ 9″ or so, no more than 130 pounds, but all of it twisted steel from a lifetime of working my tail off on the ranch. Despite his greater size, I felt at no disadvantage and, once we started swinging again, the terror went away and I began to get into it. It was strange in a way; I carried my right fist at my right hip, turned palm up. It left me open on that side, obviously, but even though I make no claim to being greased lighting, the other guy was slower. He never landed another punch, and I got in half a dozen of those long right hands, which I’d realize (decades later) were karate reverse punches, the hardest hits you can throw with a fist. Past life pull-through, no doubt.
My victim’s blood was sprayed up my shirtsleeve to the elbow. I could feel him weakening. There was absolutely no reason I couldn’t knock him out. But then my gut cramped something fierce, from the heat and way too little food that day. In a later year, I’d have ignored the pain and finished the job, but hey. It was my first post-coward set-to; gimme a break.
I slacked off, willing the cramping to ease…which of course let the other guy get his wind back, let him quit seeing stars.
By this time, neither one of us wanted anything to do with the other, but we didn’t have an honorable way to call it quits–and then the back door of the café slammed open.
“Better break it up! I called the cops!”
Exit, stage right. We three cowboys trooped right through that cafe’s back door, tipping our hats to the lady who’d yelled at us as we walked the length of the building and back out onto the front sidewalk where it had all started. We were about halfway down the block when a cop car nosed through the intersection–and my battered brawling buddy was in the back seat.
When I thought about it, the poor bugger was not having a good day, or at least not a good night. First, his fancy hubcaps get stolen. Then some scrawny looking rodeo rider not only picks a fight with him but gets the better of the deal. Then the cops pick him up.
When I got to this point in the narrative, the AT&T operator setting up my conference call stared laughing. “That had to have been my brother!”
“Oops!” I grinned into the phone. “Sorry! Didn’t mean to tell you a story about pounding on your brother!”
“No, no! I’m happy to hear it. He was always getting into trouble, starting fights. I’m glad to hear he got the worst of it at least once!”
The lady on the phone counted as a rodeo contact; after all, I’d squared off with her brother while I was in Conrad for the rodeo. At the time of the call, she was in Iowa and I was in South Dakota, 31 years after the incident took place. It’s a small, small world…and I’ll bet that brother of hers can’t stand cowboy hats to this day.
But that wasn’t the end of the small world happenings related to the State High School Rodeo in Conrad, circa 1960.
The following day, Swede Johnson loaned me his saddle. It was a really good one, too, not that different in look and feel from my own well worn Hamley. But wouldn’t you know, I bucked off my bronc in mighty short order. Swede’s dang saddle leaked.
Dateline Rapid City, South Dakota: September, 1997. Pam and I were financially desperate. Not destitute–I still had a multilevel marketing gross income check that ran well into five figures every month–but definitely desperate. I had bills up the ying-yang, a third of the gross went to my 5th ex (without whom I couldn’t have built the business; she deserved every penny she got), three grand a month went to my 6th ex (alimony), and roughly a third of the gross had to go back into the business if we wanted to see the monthly checks keep on coming.
I’d already pawned most of my guns. My Takamine guitar and Gibson banjo were long gone. It was time to give up my saddle.
No, not my bronc riding saddle. That had gone by the wayside decades earlier. This was technically a Sharon Camarillo barrel racing saddle, maybe a strange choice for a guy, but nonetheless the best all around saddle I’d been able to find at King’s Saddlery in Sheridan, Wyoming, a few years earlier.
When you have a specialty item like that, you need the right buyer. I didn’t have time to call on every rancher in three counties, but Pam and I were living north of New Underwood, South Dakota, and there was a saddlery listed in the Rapid City yellow pages. I headed on in, toted the saddle in to see the owner–and the owner turned out to be Swede Johnson, the cowboy who’d loaned me his bronc saddle at the Conrad show in 1960, some 37 years before I came begging at his door for another favor, buy my saddle, please.
Them rodeo cowboys do get around, and yes, it’s truly a small, small world.
He did buy it. I’d paid $1100, and he gave me $400 for it, a more than fair price under the circumstances. I hadn’t used it all that much, but it was used, and you don’t expect a business to give you full retail–at least, not if they expect to stay in business.
That $400 bought us some groceries, paid for a few medical things Pam needed, and covered a month’s space rent for our mobile home.
Dateline Cochise County, Arizona: July, 2009. Pam and I were seated at the dining nook in our old camp trailer, watching Jungle Jack Hanna on TV. He was down in the jungle country of Belize, talking about this jaguar a local rancher had raised from a cub. Said rancher had also developed the Simbrah breed of cattle by crossing Simmental and Brahma bloodlines. He was originally from Montana, and his name was John Carr.
“JOHN CARR?! That’s my buddy!” I almost spewed my soda pop. Okay, so thinking of Johnny Carr (as I’d known him, back in the day) as my buddy might have been slightly over the top. We never hung around together or anything like that, just knew each other from the amateur rodeo circuit in Montana. John was from Havre, Montana, before he moved to Belize, and he was a damned good saddle bronc rider.
I immediately got in touch via email. He wrote right back.
“Yes, I remember you. Didn’t you wear turquoise chaps?”
Yes. Yes, I did. And I had a favorite Johnny Carr story that I carried in my memory box, too.
It happened at a rodeo at Arlee, Montana. John had drawn the top bronc in the string, a handsome pinto named Paint Pot. When it came time for him to crawl down on the horse, he did it a little differently, just this one time. Instead of climbing up over the back chute fence and easing down gently into the saddle, he backed off in the open space behind the chutes and started pawing the ground with his boots like a bull getting ready to fight. Then he took a run at the chute, a good thirty feet or more of getting up a good head of steam, vaulted up over and down in, grabbed the buck rein, turned his toes out and yelled,
“Into the big pen with the Paint Pot!”
He rode him, too. Rode that great bronc up one side and down the other.
Unfortunately, in all the excitement, he missed him out. In bronc riding events, the cowboy’s spurs have to be touching the horse ahead of the shoulders when the critter’s feet hit the ground on the first jump–and this time, they weren’t.
But it was the sort of thing you didn’t forget once you’d seen it, and here Johnny (now John) Carr was, way down the other side of Mexico, shooting the breeze with Jungle Jack Hanna on television.
Rodeo cowboys do get around.