Lee Pitts: Epidermal Cowboys

The most influential person in my life was my grandpa and I found it very comforting recently when I was told I turned out to be just like him. After my grandmother, rodeo was my grandpa’s favorite thing, so much so that he started an RCA (forerunner to the PRCA) rodeo in our town and with the proceeds bought land for a big sports park that now bears his name.

My grandpa’s favorite rodeo cowboy was Gene Rambo and he told me countless times that when Gene came to town for the rodeo he stayed in grandpa’s “bunkhouse,” which was just a big building behind grandpa’s house for cowboys to stay. 

The one thing I did in my life that most pleased my grandpa was I became friends with Gene. I wrote a story one time about Gene’s setup where he could gather a single animal from the big country he ran in, take it to the corrals and lock the animal in the squeeze all by himself without getting off his horse through the use cowboy engineering that included several ropes and pulleys. I wrote that Gene’s commercial cattle were so good other cattlemen bought his crossbred calves to use as herd bulls.

My grandpa let me know he thought that story was my greatest literary accomplishment.

Another thing my grandpa always told me about Gene was that he always wore a cowboy tuxedo: clean Levis and a white shirt. And he competed across the board, entering every event and I still have the entry sheets to prove it. 

Gene competed at a time when other contestants looked like they shopped at Goodwill, picked out the cleanest shirt in the dirty clothes hamper and threw their clothes on with a pitchfork. So my grandpa didn’t know how to take my next rodeo hero, Larry Mahan.

For you youngsters, Larry Mahan was one of the greatest rodeo cowboys to ever straddle a horse. He won six All Around Cowboy awards and two bull riding championships riding in all three rough stock events. “Larry literally could ride anything that wore hair.” But old-timers like grandpa didn’t know how to take Larry because they had preconceived notions of how a cowboy should look and Larry didn’t look like that. He wore his hair a little longer, looked like he just stepped off a Hollywood film set and wore his pants so tight you could count the change in his pockets. In other words, he was no Gene Rambo. And guys like Gene never spent their days off in western wear stores. I don’t know if Gene Rambo was ever in a “changing room” in his life. Let’s just say that he was a man of few fashion surprises.

But then Gene Rambo never appeared in movies, released a record with Warner Brothers or signed big dollar deals with boot and hat labels that carried his name like Larry did. And there was some resistance amongst old-timers because Larry didn’t exactly come from rodeo country. I mean, for gosh sakes he was born in Salem, Oregon! That’s one of the reasons I liked Larry, he was more living, breathing proof that the far west could produce championship cowboys too. And did Larry have charisma! I got to see this from a front row seat one time when he and Les Vogt invited my wife and I to a horse camp near my house to sit around a campfire singing old cowboy songs along with an original member of the Sons of the Pioneers.

Now I’m old and I can understand how my grandpa felt about guys like Larry Mahan. I was devastated the first time I saw one of my basketball heroes, Michael Jordan, wearing a diamond earring. And I was just getting used to guys wearing women’s jewelry when along came tattoos. Watching a rodeo recently I saw a “tat” wink at me from the neck of a bull rider and I have a feeling there’s a lot more of those than I’d like to think.

But I’ve learned my lesson. People with style like Larry are “trendsetters” and it’s because of them we now have blunt toed cowboy boots, “formal wear” that includes shirts with advertising embroidered all over them, and cowboys with tattoos of ex-girlfriend’s names they’ve tried desperately to have erased.