December 26
by Bill Booth

part 1 -To Be a Cowboy

The inhabitants of my home in Lake Charles, Louisiana in fall of 1959 referred to it as “the roach palace”. It was one of four converted, two-story wooden Army barracks that occupied a low stretch of ground adjacent to the McNeese State College rodeo arena. Bobby Mustin, a slightly obese animal husbandry major from Big Mamou, shared a room with me on the second floor. I was a pre-vet major.

Bobby and I both aspired to become real “Cowboys” as many of the other guys who lived in the barracks were known, either because they rodeoed or played football. The title came naturally to those who rodeoed, but the football players were “Cowboys” because that was the name of the McNeese team. Cattle ranching and agriculture were big businesses in south Louisiana.

One warm evening, Bobby and I lounged in our twelve by fourteen foot un-air-conditioned dorm room trying to study.  A floor fan hummed and pulled air in through the open, screened window against which flies regularly buzzed and bumped. The familiar sweet smell of hay and cow manure was not unpleasant, and the olfactory ambience was alternated on occasion with heavy, salt air that drifted in from nearby Calcasieu Lake.  Bobby, as usual, lay on his bottom bunk in his underwear, and I sat at a small desk against the wall. We listened to The Platters sing “Twilight Time” on Bobby’s little radio.

“Why don’t we enter the rodeo next month?” Bobby asked out of nowhere.

I didn’t reply immediately. “Why? What would we try?” I asked turning in my chair to face him.

“Do it just for the hell of it. I’ve been thinking … bull riding would be the best thing for us. You have to have more equipment for most of the other stuff. We don’t have a saddle to use for the saddle bronc riding, and bareback riding takes a lot of practice.

“What would we need for bull riding?”

“Just a glove and a bull rope and a pair of spurs, and we could borrow those from one of the other riders.”

“What about practice for riding bulls?”

“I heard some of the guys talking today about putting up an oil drum suspended between four posts over by the Corral.”  “The Corral” was a large student lounge near the campus library. The entire campus back then consisted of a large administration building, three or four three-story academic buildings, a library, and several dormitories.

“How does that work?” I wondered if something this crude could prepare a person for real bull riding.

Bobby sat up, getting more enthusiastic as he thought about it. “You get four guys on the corner ropes that suspend the barrel. The rider gets on the barrel with a bull rope and his riding glove and hangs on. The rope guys jerk and try to buck him off. They can even make the barrel twist some.”

I got interested, thinking about it. “Hey, we might get good enough to actually ride a bull for a few seconds!” I had doubts about making it for the full eight seconds required for a successful ride, but suddenly I knew I wanted to try my hand at bull riding. I had ridden some spirited horses and been thrown a few times, so I thought I knew what to expect from a bull. It would be fun to try, I reasoned.

Well, there was one other reason I wanted to rodeo. Her name was Glenda Frangu, and she too was from Big Mamou, Bobby’s home town. The sound of the name and home town are misleading. They should have been something more like “Cleopatra from Cahoulapatcha”, or something like that.  I thought she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen the first time I saw her floating across the grass on the parade field. My God! Does she have feet to walk on?

Bobby told me she only dated guys who rodeoed, but I boldly said “hi” and waved at her a couple of times at the campus post-office or The Corral. She never smiled, waved or even looked at me, although I wore cowboy boots most of the time. I knew I needed to rodeo.

We rodeo hopefuls began practicing weeks before the big annual event. The artificial bull swung in the middle of four posts near The Corral, and a bull rope was wrapped around the barrel near the front. Aspiring cowboys would straddle the barrel and grasp the handle of the rope with a gloved hand.  The glove was wrapped tightly with the loose end of the rope, then four volunteers jerked on the ropes until the cowboy fell off. It felt like the real thing to those of us who were uninitiated, and it was fun. Despite numerous bruises, strains and sprains, I later found it to be a poor facsimile, lacking the full twisting and spinning, not to mention the sheer ferocity of a live bull.

As Bobby said, bull riding required the least personal equipment. All we needed to borrow from friends was a pair of spurs, a riding glove with plenty of rosin and a braided bull rope. The free hand had to be held up in the air during the ride , and the quality of the ride was judged in part by how well the rider “raked” the shoulders and ribs of the bull with his spurs. I must mention that the rowels on the spurs were blunted, not sharpened. We tried to practice raking without spurs on the barrel, but that was hard to do.

All it took to enter the competition was to select your event and pay the $20 entry fee. Bulls were matched with riders in a drawing a couple days before the rodeo. This year there were two star attractions out of roughly 25 bulls available to be ridden . They were Tar Baby (because he “stuck to his rider” after throwing him) and Big Red, who had a reputation for being nearly impossible to ride. Tar Baby, a huge black angus-brahma cross, was chosen to go to the national rodeo finals for several successive years because of his notoriety for being mean and difficult to ride.

I got real lucky with the drawing  — I got matched with Tar Baby. Bobby wasn’t as lucky – he drew Big Red.

After weeks of practice on the artificial bull and work-outs with weights to increase our grips and arm strength, the big night finally arrived.  Bull riding was the last event and Tar Baby and I were fourth or fifth in the line-up. I spotted Glenda Frangu wearing a multicolored cowgirl shirt with sequins, a fancy western hat and jeans tucked inside her boots. She sat near the center of the spectator area with some other girls. I noticed with envy how she absolutely glowed with enthusiasm when she cheered the riders, her face alight with excitement.

I watched the first few riders come out of the chutes, studying the way they leaned and twisted to keep their balance, digging in with their inside spur on the spins. One of them made the full eight seconds and leaped to the side railing to safety. I was glad to see how to properly exit. All you had to do was let go and get thrown off.

I checked to see that my spurs were strapped on securely and climbed up on the side of the chute. The professionals wrapped my borrowed bull rope around Tar Baby’s chest and motioned me to climb down onto his back. A buddy offered me a pull from a half pint of Old Crow, and I gladly took it. I eased down on the warm back of fifteen hundred pounds of muscle that trembled and jumped with anticipation. The air was heavy with smells of sweat, manure, and testosterone. No sounds reached my ears except Tar Baby’s fast and furious breathing, his stamping hooves, and the rattle of boards in the gate . Slobber flew from the bull’s shaking head, and I knew he was going to be one tough mother to ride.

The handlers gave me the end of the bull rope. I wrapped it into my glove and beat it down to strengthen the grip then shifted my position so I sat on my gloved fist. We sat there for a second or two, waiting for the chute to open. Tar Baby jumped and lunged a few times. He wanted to get out of there in the worst way. Just before the gate swung open, I grinned, thinking I can do this!

The band played lively music during each ride, timing the length of the number to the length of the ride. When the rider came off, the music stopped instantly. The side gate of my chute swung open as the announcer said, “Next cowboy up is Billy Booth from Marshall, Texas … on Tar-r Baby!”

Time and events went into slow motion when the gate opened. My first thought was that Tar Baby didn’t know the chute was open. He seemed to be just standing still. So I stuck him pretty good with both spurs.

I still remember the music – all three measures. Tar Baby leaped out of that chute and simultaneously did a one-eighty twist with his hind legs turned sideways up in the air behind me. He had his nose on the ground and started spinning. The band played “ta-dum-ta-da-dum” … one time. Next thing I knew, I was up on top of the side fence rail. I’m not sure if I even touched the ground between leaving Tar Baby’s back and climbing the fence. One of the clowns handed me my hat while the announcer offered nice condolences. Then he called the next rider’s name: “… Bobby Mustin, who hails from Mamou, Louisiana … riding Big Red!”

Bobby’s ride didn’t last as long as mine. He fell off when Big Red left the chute. I don’t think the band had even started playing. He and I watched the rest of the rodeo together in relative silence. I was too embarrassed to look in the direction of the rodeo princess sitting in the bleachers above me.

Next morning was a Sunday. A steady drizzle fell from dark skies, and the campus was quiet. I lay in my bunk bed and stared at the dim ceiling. Bobby snored soundly in the bunk below mine, apparently relieved that our ordeal had come to an end. I wished it had never begun. I felt humiliated and dreaded ever seeing Glenda again. Wide awake now, I dressed quietly and plodded in a deep funk to the post office to check my mail. I thought the post office was empty. It almost was.

I was looking through my mail with little interest  when someone touched my shoulder lightly from behind. Turning, I saw her standing there: Glenda Frangu from Big Mamou.

Eyelashes fluttered across big brown eyes and smooth, tan skin stretched widely across dazzling white teeth when she smiled brightly, looked up at me and said, “Hi, Billy Booth. Gosh, I never knew you … rodeoed!