Even before the Manatee County school bus slowed to a stop in front of the dirt road leading over the railroad rail cattleguard at the entrance to the Quarter Circle A ranch on State Road 62, my brother, Smokey, and I looked out the opened windows and scanned the small four-acre pasture in front of the tree line for cattle. What we didn’t want to see were the Brahman cows.
The Colvin ranch of 10,000 acres was the home range of several hundred head of Florida scrub cattle and several breeds of purebred cattle that the Colvins bought at auctions in whatever parts of the country they happen to visit. A champion Angus Bull arrived from a Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo visit one day, got out of the cattle truck, and walked right into a barbed wire he had never encountered before, requiring a local veterinarian triage visit. A few Hereford cows brought in from Nebraska required veterinarian attention several times during their first few months in the Florida heat and humidity. However, the purebred Brahman herd of about 40 cows required the least amount of veterinarian care, but were rotated through different sections of pasture land to give the cattle the best grazing the ranch could afford them. When the rotation schedule brought the Brahmans into the small entrance field leading onto the ranch or the wider pasture area around the four houses and barn of the ranch headquarters, my brother and I had to devise strategies for dealing with the herd.
The cows with their calves were usually skittish, dashed into a close-packed herd a couple hundred feet away from anyone who approached on horseback or on a tractor, and turned to stare at the intruder until they determined whether or not danger really existed for their offspring. When two small boys coming home from school began walking down the 300 yards of dusty, dirt road that disappeared into the tree line harboring Gamble Creek, the cows looked up from grazing, sometimes snorted, and, most often, went right back to grazing. A few of the 1,200 pound cows with wide-eyed curious calves on either side of the road would raise heavy heads adorned with short, very pointed horns and stare. We would freeze in place. After the closest cow lowered her head to graze, we quietly crept forward again. This cow and boy dance usually worked until we came within the last 200 feet from the tree line; then, we ran as if our lives depended on the few seconds we needed to reach the safety of the trees.
The first time we encounter the herd on the way home, we had no strategy in place and spoke nervously about running all the way to the trees or just walking like the cattle were not even there. Our chatter must have irritated the cow closest to the road. She ran several strides forward, lowered her head, and swung pointed horns at our rear ends as we screeched and stumbled in our awkward school shoes toward the lone pine 75 yards from the road in the middle of the eastern half of the pasture. The cow could not have been serious about wanting to reach us, because she halted after those first few strides and watched us scramble behind the pine. The rest of the herd gathered on the western side of the pasture to watch us exit the open field by keeping the tree between us and the Brahmans, going all the way to the barbed wire fence on the eastern edge, and climbing under the fence into the Palmetto scrub on the other side. Our journey home took three times the usual duration as we navigated palmettos, watched for rattlesnakes, and twisted through the trees along the creek to get back to the road. Smokey and I talked about strategy on the way home and decided being quiet while walking slowly after taking off our shoes would be the best plan, agreeing that we ran much faster without shoes. We had quite a few more dances through the herd over the next few years and a few barefoot races to the trees when we heard an aggressive snort or strides coming in the grass toward us that, a couple of times, left school shoes lying in the dust.
When we heard Tex Ritter sing “Bad Brahma Bull” on the car radio a few times during those mid 1950’s, my brother and I agreed that we were happy never seeing any of the several Brahman bulls, a couple of them retired rodeo bulls, mixed in with the herd of cows. They were put together once or twice a year in outer pastures removed from the area of the ranch where we typically travelled on foot.
Years later in 1974, the lines from “Brahma Fear” on Jimmy Buffett’s album, Living And Dying In 3/4 Time, “I’d like to ride the rodeo/But I’ve got Brahma fear/So I’ll just stick to airplanes/Gently pop my ears,” reminded me of my childhood moments with Brahman cattle. I, too, thought about rodeo possibilities, but I figured pain from football injuries probably paled in ctomparison to that inflicted by bulls and broncs in a rodeo arena.
In 1977, Chris LaDoux’s album, Sing Me a Song, Mr. Rodeo Man, offered an upbeat version of “Bad Brahma Bull,” and led me to find that the song was originally written by cowboy poet Curley Fletcher in 1915 as the poem, “Strawberry Roan,” and transformed into a song by Fred Howard and Nat Vincent (The Happy Chappies). Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Rex Allen and Buddy Essen, Marty Robbins, and the Sons of the Pioneers recorded versions of “Strawberry Roan.” Fletcher rewrote the bronc riding song into a parody as the bull riding song in 1942.
From the 5th chapter, “Cowboy Hat,” of Growing Up Floridian:
As we started to the barn, I noticed Vick was bow-legged, and his stride was an awkward mix between a slight limp and an exaggerated right leg extension.
“Why do you walk like that?”
“Son, if you had been thrown from as many horses and bulls as I have, you might have a hitch in your giddyup too. Too many rodeos. Too many eight second rides.”
He wore a silver belt buckle adorned with a cowboy on a bucking horse that read Saddle Bronc Champion 1942, one of many I saw over the years. I learned that Vick Blackstone was a well-respected rodeo performer when he was young and still had to ride once in a while in competitions despite being almost 50, an age when most riders had retired from all rodeo events. Vick did not talk much about himself to us, but we overheard conversations or his responses to questions about where he earned the championship belt buckle he wore on any given day. He was respected as a five-event cowboy, a competitor riding bulls, riding broncs bareback, riding broncs with a saddle, roping calves, and bulldogging. For twenty-five years, he won championships on the rodeo circuit across the country from when he was seventeen in 1930 until he was well into his forties. Once, a truck driver delivering feed to the ranch asked him about “that Largo rodeo when you won all five main events.”