On Labor Day of 1963 my grandfather, Chris Chancey, took me over to Okeechobee for the three day rodeo festival the Florida cow town had been holding for almost as long as Labor Day had been a holiday. We drove in Pop's CJ5 Army Jeep, riding first down the dirt two-track leading out of my grandfather's ranch in Jupiter. After crossing over the last clanking cattle guard we hit the graded road to Indiantown– a road cutting through the pine scrub country, beginning with Jupiter on the coast, and then running inland, right by the front gate leading into the Chancey property. The early September morning was warm and sunny, fueled even more so by the west wind blowing against our faces as we rode in the open Jeep. Four decades later, I can still remember how overhead birds wheeled in the blue and hazy summer sky, and the smile on my grandfather's face as he wheeled the jeep onto the paved, two-lane Highway 710 outside of Indiantown and headed north– a smile that told me everything was okay-- that as long as I was with my grandfather nothing could touch me.
“Well now, boy, it looks like it's just you and me, off to the big city." Pop snorted as the Jeep rumbled up onto the pavement and his smile grew even wider. "Be damned if I ever thought the day'd come I'd consider Okeechobee the big city. Good thing I know in all reality it's just another dirty old cow town, one that also happens to host the finest rodeo in the state at the end of every summer! Huh, boy?!"
I was twelve year's old and had no idea at all what my grandfather was talking about. But I liked the joking sound of the old man's voice, and nodding my head I said, “Yes, Sir.” I was just happy to be out on the road with Pop and going to my first rodeo. It was an event that Dean-- a seventeen year old, lean and dark young cowboy from Arcadia who was one of Cecil the ranch foreman's men, and my one real friend among all the other cow hunters in that outfit– had told me was the damnedest best show he'd ever seen, and that when he was 18 he was going to enter the adult men's bull riding contest and, "… by God, win that big ol' silver belt buckle. You just wait and see!"
Dean was sure right; it was a good show. All the horses breathing hard with the running and the quick stops, and the men in their jeans and button down Western shirts and straw cowboy hats, feathers and fancy leather hatbands– the way the dust was kicked up in the arena, the yell of the crowd when one of the huge mottled white Brahma bulls with that big hump rising up out of their backs, horns hanging low, their rear hooves kicking up at the sky, then thundering down on the dirt ground as they tossed rider after rider– and then the gaudy and ridiculous looking rodeo clowns flapping around blowing horns and whistles as they waved the bull(or wild bronco) off– in the meantime the fallen cowboy getting slowly to his feet, brushing the dirt and dust from his body before saluting the crowd with his hat as he walked away– one of the fallen did not get up, and had to be carried off on a stretcher held by two solemn looking cowboys– when they passed by the bleachers in the sun where Pop and I sat, I could see a spreading mat of rusty red color on the man's shirt covered stomach. I knew this was blood from where the angry bull had gotten the cowboy with one thundering hoof, as he lay face-up on the dusty floor of the arena. What I did not know, was that almost two years later to the day, I would see the same sort of color seeping out on my grandfather's own, shirt covered abdomen.
It was the women, and the girls, who really caught my attention. Females were in short supply on the ranch and I only knew of them from the time I spent with my mother, and my two sisters; there were none at the military school I went to in Hollywood. But at the rodeo, women were everywhere– in the stands, young mothers in the long skirts and cotton button up tops that were in fashion then– these young mothers cheering on their husbands who might be participating in the events, as well as minding tow headed children, boys and girls who kept clambering up and down the metal bleachers yelling out for more money, or crying when they were hurt, or angry, or tired, or all three. There were single women, girls in tight Levis and Western shirts hollering their boyfriends on, or hanging with them in between the contests– their arms wrapped around these lean cowboy's waists as they strolled amongst the crowds at the vendor's booths in the midway– the cowboy's hats slung low on their heads as they walked with cowboy cool, maybe a leathery hand resting on one firm rear cheek of their girl, their jaws filled with chewing tobacco they gnawed on and spat out the juice– winners of the events, on break, acknowledged the passing waves and "hello's" of their admirers, with a tight-lipped smile and a touch of their battered hat brims with one hand.
Not to mention, the girls who were in the rodeo– riding prancing horses and seated on colorful saddles atop even more colorful saddle blankets– these cowgirls among the first to ride out in the arena when the opening music struck up– music that was loud and blaring over the loudspeakers as two cowgirls came out of the chutes carrying the state and city flags all waving in the breeze, and the people cheering while the cowgirls on their high stepping horses raced around the ring– and then here came one solitary woman on her horse, a big black stallion that was chomping at his bit as she held him to a steady gait, and this cowgirl was holding aloft the American flag and the Star Spangled banner blasted out of the speakers then and everyone in the stands stood up, the men removing their hats and placing them over their hearts, and Old Glory stretching out as the woman rode around the ring– and when that anthem was finished, the gates opened, and a younger cowgirl, a teenager, came streaking out into the arena with the Confederate flag streaming out in the air behind her as she galloped the horse around the ring, and all the men (and women too) were screaming out the Rebel Yell– and when that quieted down, Dixie was played and it was silent in the bleachers for a minute, then everyone started singing along, “Oh, I wish I was in Dixie, away, away”– and then the rodeo began.
All these girls looked so damn fine to me that day, their hair a riot of colors and all of them different it seemed, blonde, brunette, red, brown, gold– their figures, either full or lean, or somewhere in between, but filling out those ever so tight Levi's front and back– all of them looking young and beautiful and totally beyond my reach. I ached with what I couldn't put a name to as I watched these girls with their boyfriends hanging around the stands, their arms wrapped around one another. I stumbled upon one of these couples behind the bathrooms, kissing– I had gone the wrong way around the building in search of the entrance and there they were, a girl and a boy, both of them looking to be several years older than me– but they were pressed up tight against each other, the girl pushing herself into the young cowboy's groin with hers– the boy's two hands kneaded her Levi covered buttocks as he pulled her in even closer. All of them, the men and the women at that rodeo, and now this couple behind the bathrooms, they seemed so knowing– so aware of something that my own groin appeared to instinctively know, judging by the straining I felt then, and that I – also instinctively– reached down with one hand to touch. At that moment my grandfather came around the corner of the building looking for his grandson, and saw what I was staring at and where my hand was.
"Uh huh," Pop said when I turned to look at him, startled by the sound of the older man's voice– as were the two young lovers, who broke off their kissing and ambled on their way. "Okay, son, I can see it's time for you and me to have a little talk."
And I guess that long ago day was the beginning of a lot of things for me, most of them that forty years later, I still haven't begun to understand.
Gene Tyler Lee is a poet and novelist from Florida.
© 2004, Gene Tyler Lee, All Rights Reserved