Every year, we go to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Unlike me when I was kid, Cowboy is all about the animals and the competitions – calf roping, barrel racing, bull riding – all of it. When I went to the rodeo in my younger years, my motivation was to see my favorite musical performers. Don Williams, Alabama, David Cassidy, Barry Manilow. It didn’t matter what genre the music was – it was a concert. Everything else was secondary.
Now, I go for all of it; Cowboy has converted me to a rodeo lover. I put on my jeans, boots, and some bling, and head out to see the show. When Urban Cowboy came out in 1980, I really dressed the part, wearing a pearl-snap shirt with gold threading, western boots, and a hat that took weeks to pick out. It was all about the hat. But in the midst of grown-ups playing dress-up, the real cowboys have always stood out. Their boots are scuffed up and covered in fresh dirt, their hats are void of shiny objects, and they know a thing or two about livestock.
I know nothing about livestock, except that I'm scared of cows. When I was 13, Mom and I traveled to Austin as part of our summer vacation. On the way, we pulled off the road to see a longhorn, up close and personal. Being University of Texas fans made this all the more thrilling. The roadside "Bevo" (UT's mascot) didn't frighten me. The bulls in the pasture didn't faze me. But the regular cows (I have no idea what kind - they were brown) frightened me. I don't know why; maybe I was lactose intolerant at a young age.
When Cowboy was eight, we were invited by our friends Nanny and Pappy to spend a weekend on their farm. Cowboy was hyperactive and given to outbursts back then, so we were a little gun shy.
“We’d love to come up, but we’re nervous about Cowboy’s behavior. He can be impulsive, and we’ve had some trouble before while staying with friends,” I explained.
Pappy’s response is engraved on my heart. "There’s nothing in this house that means more to us than y'all coming to stay with us. If something gets broken, it's just stuff." With tears in my eyes, I accepted their hospitality.
It was Cowboy’s first time on a farm. And Flash’s. And mine. The guys took to it more naturally; me – not so much. I’m a city mouse who wants to be a country mouse, but has no idea how to do that. I don’t like poop from any species. Or stink. Or hay. Or dirt. And horses make me sneeze uncontrollably. And, of course, most farms have cows.
Sitting in Pappy’s lap, Cowboy drove the tractor. Then my other wannabe farmer, Flash, took a turn by himself. Teach a man to drive a car, he’ll have the ability to go buy ice cream late at night; give him a set of wheels made for rough terrain, he may never come home. If we had more land, I’d be a tractor widow.
When it was time to go down to the lowlands, we hopped into the bed of the pickup truck. The uneven terrain made it more fun as the truck pitched back and forth from right to left on our way to where the bovine grazed. When they saw us, they started coming toward us and gathering around the back of the truck. Eyeing me, they had the same gleam in their eyes as my dogs when they see a roasted turkey come out of the oven. The cows could smell my fear.
“They know we’ve got treats,” Pappy said. These were the biggest animal treats I’ve ever seen. Far larger than Milkbones, they were long and cylindrical, like cigars. Maybe they were compressed alfalfa or something like that. Whatever the contents, those snacks were equivalent to catnip for cattle - cownip.
“Do you want to hand some out?” Pappy asked me. Clearly, he didn’t know my history with cows.
I froze. “Me?”
“Sure. They love these. Just put them in their mouths.”
Just put them in their mouths. As if it were that simple. Never, in my wildest nightmares, had my hand been anywhere close to a cow’s mouth. I imagined drawing back a nub where my hand used to be; I was living out a Fear Factor episode.
“Do you want to feed them, Cowboy?” It’s a fine moment in motherhood when you cheerfully try to pass the buck to your child, in a life-threatening situation.
He shook his head no, profusely.
Be brave for Cowboy; set the example, I told myself. I looked down at the truck bed; I had a buffer of metal between me and them. Trembling, I held out a treat to Bessie. As soon as her fat lips wrapped around the other end, I let go of my end. It freaked me out. I glanced over at Cowboy, ready to encourage him again to face his fear. He was tossing treats into their cavernous mouths. Smart kid. His technique left no room for cow tongues touching his hand.
Then Flash and Cowboy got out of the truck. Onto the ground. Into the midst of cows. I couldn’t look like a sissy, so I leapt into my own little pasture of horrors. Immediately, the herd walked toward me. Me. Not toward all of us, but specifically to me. Nowhere to run; nowhere to hide. I was quickly surrounded.
“I’m a chicken lover,” I screamed, “a poultry person!” While proclaiming myself an anti-beef eater, I avoided words like "steak" and "burgers." I stuck some grass in my mouth and tried to look like a vegetarian. They weren't buying it.
As they licked their chops, I prayed I didn't look like a hay bale to them. Finally, there was a break in their circle of terror. I slowly backed away. No sudden movements, I thought, we don't need a stampede.
I looked them in the eyes. Who’s going to blink first?
Suddenly, they were sort of cute, in a humongous way. Has my fear been unfounded? Have I conquered my bovinophobia in three easy steps? From a safer distance, as we rode away, it seemed so.
The next morning, when Pappy needed the cattle to come up near the house, I thought I'd lend a hand. With my newfound courage, I walked to the top of their path and called the cows. “Mooo, mooo, mooo, mooooooooo,” I sang to the tune of the Gone with the Wind theme. I’d had years of practice mooing out of the car window at 70 mph on road trips, but this was my first performance to a front-row audience. Like rats following the pied piper, they came to me. I was the Cow Whisperer. Flash looked on in disbelief.
Oh sure, some might say my new friends climbed the hill out of habit. But the cows and I know the truth. We had a connection and, unlike my fellow humans, they appreciated my vocal talent. I've always said cows are insightful, intelligent creatures with discriminating taste.
We’ll be going to the rodeo again, soon. There will be bulls, calves, and horses galore. I’ll wear my new boots, root for the competitors, and watch Cowboy’s face light up. But it will never match the thrill of standing in a pasture with a group of cows who reminded me that fear, often unfounded, can cause me to miss beautiful moments in life.
In loving memory of my friend Wrangler, who was never afraid of cows. Your heart of gold and love of animals and people are already missed. I will see you again, in the green pastures of Heaven.