Fifty years ago, I was, for a short time, a long-haired collegiate cowboy. It was 1969, I was 20, and John Travolta wouldn’t introduce us to urban cowboys for another decade. Aligning with the collegiate variety simply meant I was in college, flunking out, and found I’d rather be riding horses. While the urban set hung out in country music dance bars dressed up in boots and jeans, topped off with a cowboy hat, and rode mechanical bulls.
I, too, liked to saddle up on my share of barstools. Particularly those anchored in the vicinity of a pool table at the Chukker just off-campus in Tuscaloosa. I’d rather drink draft beer and shoot 8-Ball than go to class. Just about anything would do to keep me out of a textbook. And my grades proved it. All that old hippie angst floating around in the late ‘60s caught some long-haired young men like me in a fog of existential funk. We were wading knee-deep in questions without concrete answers, and wondering what the hell was the point of going to college when the world waiting after seemed such a crazy and empty reward.
But, the Vietnam War’s body count of guys my age was climbing toward 60,000 and college deferments kept men out of the draft. So it didn’t make much sense that I was losing mine as surely as Bear Bryan’s Crimson Tide was favored to win its next football game.
I truly didn’t know, back then, whether I was washing or hanging out. That was in the days of drying clothes hung out on a line in the sun and shaking in the wind.
Then I bought an old horse. And soon as I pointed my toes downward into the embroidered leather of a pair of high-heeled, pointy-toed cowboy boots, the ground underneath me hardened up some, like I could trust it to not give way under my feet. Oddly, it was also easier to smile just to be smiling.
It happened one weekend that I’d driven down to my grandfather’s place west of Millport, and found a couple of my maternal uncles hooked up to a trailer and jumping into a pickup. Jimmy and Terry, who was nicknamed Festus and who still today loves to watch that namesake character on Gunsmoke, along with other round-the-clock classic westerns, were heading for Livingston to look at buying another horse.
“C’mon, Uncle Bunky,” Festus said, calling me by the nickname he gave me after a local TV personality who drew cartoons for kids on an afterschool show. Like him, I could draw cartoons and all manner of things. Festus still calls me Uncle Bunky. I still call him Festus, this uncle of mine who’s three years younger than me. I piled into the truck, sliding across the seat to sit between my uncles.
Standing in the pasture with the horse that Jimmy had traveled there to buy, was a scruffy old swayback horse. I looked at him and he looked at me. I asked, “What’ll you take for that one?”
“I’ll take the same 50 bucks I can get for him at the slaughter house. Which is where he’s headed.” (Today, I’m reading about a Kentucky Derby-winning thoroughbred that traded hands for $60 million to $70 million. That’s a fancy price. Just sayin’. And, the horse’s name is also appropriately fancy, Fusaichi Pegasus.)
“I’ll take him.” Festus and Jimmy shook their heads. They grinned, and damn well loved it that I bought the sad horse. I immediately named him Bojangles, ‘cause I figured he had some dance left in him. He just needed a partner.
We loaded Bojangles and Jimmy’s new horse and drove home. On the way back, I was set at ease that they’d pasture my horse, and put out feed for him that I’d buy. Next day, on a tip from Festus, I bought a secondhand saddle, a bridle and reins. And by late afternoon, I had on a cowboy hat and was slow-riding my horse, taking to old roadbeds through the woods, and cutting across grassy pastures and fields around my grandfather’s farm.
Bojangles was done with striking a trot, cared not a tinker’s damn for rolling into a gallop. He shook his head and flubbered his lips when the young horses twitched and begged for loose reins and a heel in the flank so they could run full out, racing over hills, leaning into mud-slinging turns while their riders hung on to their hats. Bojangles was a slow-walking softshoe kind of ride. Satisfied to be the old man in the bunch.
Something happened in that saddle with Bojangles under me. Riding him smoothed out some of my wrinkles, helped ease my mind about what might be coming around the bend. It’s like he coaxed me to just listen to the music and learn to dance, to move through it all just the same way he and I went along, at an easy pace. A horse and rider working together to get no place special.
Bojangles must’ve schooled me better than the professors in Tuscaloosa, ‘cause I spent more time with him than with them. Made up my mind to take a break from homework and tests, get out of my head and into my hands and feet, put my butt in a saddle instead of in a chair at a desk. And I also bought a fast quarter horse and named her Susie and put her in the pasture with Bojangles so I could ride barrel races with Festus on his shiny black filly named Penny. And we rode with his band of merry outlaw cowboys through that summer, fall, and winter of 1968. Then in the spring of ’69, with some odd newfound sense of purpose, I left college and joined the navy. My brother Frankie took Susie.
Festus let Bojangles just hang out with his trophy-winning Penny. He stayed back in sight of the barn, swishing his tail at flies, watching clouds drift by and nibbling on grass and hay, while Penny was at local rodeos outrunning other quarter horses. Then some neighbors came by one day and wondered “reckon would that old horse let kids ride?” Festus told’em that horse would like nothing better and was free for the taking, and Bojangles earned himself one last saddle job.
He’d have been proud of me, coming home a veteran on the GI Bill and back at the university, making good grades, learning to write stories. I guess Bojangles figured there’d be a few lines about him in due course. Yep. Thanks, and here’s to you, old man. I owe you.