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Original Issue

General Bill Fox: the Blue-eyed Charro

The Mexican 'charreada,' forerunner of the rodeo, is a highly stylized, almost ritual form of horsemanship—and among the most brilliant of its performers is a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer

At a distance he looks like any other Mexican charro. He dresses like one and rides like one. He even talks like a charro—but with a north-of-the-border accent. He is blue-eyed, silver-haired and compact of build. His name is General William J. Fox, and he isn't a Mexican, of course. He is a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer, now 67 years old. He took up the spine-twisting charreada or Mexican-style rodeo as a retirement hobby and is so good at it that he was one of a group of riders who recently represented Mexico in a goodwill tour of Spain.

How did Bill Fox become a charro? By trying everything else first. In 1918 he was enrolled in the engineering school at the University of Southern California. He dropped out briefly to attend Artillery Officer Candidate School at Fort Monroe, Va., then returned to California for his degree; while there he gained a reputation as one of the most peppery athletes on the varsity boxing squad. He became interested in military flying and transferred from the Army Reserve to the U.S. Marine Corps aviation.

In World War II he was a "flying colonel" in the Pacific combat area. By war's end Fox had won the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism in combat over the Solomon Islands. He had been made a brigadier general and had held several important Marine Corps administrative posts. He retired from the service in December 1945 and became Director of Aviation and Chief Engineer for the County of Los Angeles. In the mid-'50s he gave up these duties to spend more time with his teen-age son, Stuart, who is now a music major at USC.

In 1959 Bill Fox was 60 and he decided to retire. He was ready for leisure—so he thought. He figured he might settle somewhere around the Mediterranean, possibly in Spain, and he went to Mexico with a vague ambition to study Spanish. By chance he arrived in a picturesque upland town, San Miguel de Allende.

"The town didn't impress me much at first," says Bill Fox, "but I liked the horses, the surrounding country and the people I met. Soon I became interested in the charreada. I loved the excitement and the Mexican way of handling horses. I knew this was it. I dropped the idea of Europe."

He read everything he could lay his hands on concerning below-the-border horsemanship. He rode with Mexican cavalrymen and ranchers. He learned that the Mexican charreada, which gave birth to the American rodeo, is quite different from its offspring. American rodeo riders are usually professional performers striving for prize money. In Mexico the contestants are all amateurs, generally well-to-do ranchers plus a sprinkling of urban businessmen, lawyers, architects and doctors who enjoy risking their necks in the charreada for pure sport.

The Mexican riders belong to local charro associations, of which there are 365 throughout the country. They maintain contact with one another through their National Federation of Charros. Each club observes rules of conduct, dress and companionship based on a 300-year-old tradition. Their sport is no poor cowpoke's pastime. Their magnificently trained horses are expensive, as is the gear they wear. For civic parades and fancy exhibitions the rider's costume may cost upward of $500. Their gorgeous, tooled-leather, silver-inlaid saddles can run more than $1,000.

The charreada follows a ritual as well defined as that of the bullfight. Even when a rider is breaking his wrist lassoing a racing bronco or perhaps snapping a vertebra while leaping from his own galloping horse to the bare back of a wild mustang in the spectacular paseo de la muerte (ride of death), it must all be done with elegance. "You've got to do it all according to very strict rules," says Bill Fox. "It makes for a great show. Your horse, of course, is the key to the whole thing. Naturally charros are as fussy as the devil about their mounts.

"The best mounts are quarter horses," says the general. "They're fast, have iron stamina, courage, loyalty and intelligence. They stand steady when a lasso sings past their noses. They'll thunder down the long alleyway leading into the ring, racing beside a wild steer, hide-to-hide, until their riders can grab the steer's tail and toss it on its back." But any old quarter horse won't do. Arabian traditions, brought to Mexico in colonial times, still dictate how a performing horse should be selected. Dark colors are preferred because the Arabs (so the legend goes) believed light horses were untrustworthy. Most highly prized is a dark mount having no white socks. A horse with one white sock on the mounting side is tolerated. In high demand, also, are horses with clearly defined white stars on the forehead.

In rodeos Mexican horsemen delight in exhibiting the centaur relationship of horse and man. Their horses will dance to music, or a rider will gallop his mount across the ring and, without using the reins, bring the horse to a full, rearing stop upon the hide of a cow. Without rein guidance a rider will run his horse straight across the ring, stop it, then have the animal back up as swiftly and smoothly as if it were going forward.

For six years Fox has been out in his corral at least three hours a day roping and riding. Although his specialty is the manganas a pie, that is, lassoing a running animal's forefeet, he also takes part in all the events in a charreada.

On almost any Sunday, Fox rides to the charro ring on the outskirts of town to join the other members of the San Miguel association. Among them are old friends like Don Felipe Villegas, president of the club, Don Javier Origel, the captain and best rider, and Pancho Olvera. Some of the men have already herded a string of wild mustangs and a dozen steers into the corrals behind the ring. The ring looks like hundreds of others throughout Mexico. It resembles a frying pan with a long handle or walled-in alleyway. This latter, the lienzo, about 13 yards wide and 80 yards long, is the setting for a spectacular event known as the colas or tails.

For the colas a bull is let loose in the alleyway, and a horseman races beside it. "You've got just a few split seconds to do a lot of things," says the general with animation. "First, as you start the run you have to remember to salute the judges' stand. Now while you're racing beside the bull you lean forward and over, placing your palm on the animal's back. You let the bull slip ahead slightly until you can reach down and grab its tail. You raise your right leg in the stirrup and hook the bull's tail around your leg. You guide your horse a fraction to the right, pull, and the bull flips over on its back, with four legs straight up. But it has got to be done with flair and precision! Every wrong move means a loss of points. If you lose your sombrero you're disqualified."

Throughout Sunday morning the events go on: riding wild steers, the pass of death and fancy roping. To add to the exuberance and color there are pauses for mariachi music and the traditional charro dances. For special charreadas there is often a spectacular exhibition of riding called La Escaramuza (scrimmage) performed by groups of handsomely costumed teen-age girls who execute daring maneuvers on horseback. "Their performance is patterned after the Musical Ride of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police," according to Fox. "They ride sidesaddle, and to say they are daring is to put it on the mild side. There are sometimes nasty spills."

The roping events are Bill Fox's specialty. He is fascinated by rope work because there is more to it than twirling a reata and snagging an animal. Working from horseback or on foot, there are a dozen different type throws, each with its required flourish. In the manganas the lasso catches the forefeet of a wild horse running by at full speed. In the piales the hind feet are caught. In each case the running animal is stopped or thrown without injuring it. Recently the former roping champion of Mexico, Señor Hector Gomez, spotted Bill Fox at a charreada and offered to help him in rope training. "For me, learning Don Hector's skills and tricks is a rough go," says the general. "Years of amateur boxing put strength in my arms, but it also stiffened my wrists. To handle a reata properly your wrist has to be as flexible as a violinist's."

A half a dozen times each year the team with which Fox works out gets calls from ranchers to come out and help at a roundup and branding. Most ranches are undermanned, and the charro tradition requires that the charros lend a hand. These several-day sessions entail hard work, but there are also rich rewards: the lively companionship of Mexican ranchers, the smell of dust, of seared hide and the ranch fiesta that usually climaxes a roundup. After such a fiesta Fox rides home, his body bruised from falls, his hands seared and scarred by the stiff maguey-fiber lasso.

In the spring of 1964 word went out from the headquarters of the National Federation of Charros in Mexico City that the regional associations should select two or more riders from each sector—Guadalajara, Mexico City, León and other areas—to form a national group that would be sent to Spain and, later, to the Argentine on a goodwill tour. Bill Fox took part in the San Miguel eliminations. He had no expectations of being selected. After all, there were a dozen of his teammates more qualified than himself. And, after all, he had just celebrated a 65th birthday.

When his turn came up in the manganas he did his best. He made a wonderful floreo or twirl with the rope, threw it and hooked the flashing feet of the wild horse racing by him. Suddenly he was in trouble. The stiff rope had tangled about his wrist and hand. He was jerked head over heels by the running horse and was dragged through the dust. When he freed himself he found that his hand had been badly lacerated and one finger almost severed. His companions provided charro-style first aid, a liberal dousing of the hand with fiery tequila that left him gasping with pain. The team's captain, Javier Origel, offered to borrow someone's car and drive him to the town hospital.

"I should have let them drive me in," says Fox, "but for some reason I felt I ought to take my horse." In a semidaze he made the two-mile ride to the hospital where his mangled hand was stitched up and the finger saved. Then instead of going home, he rode back to the ring. "It wasn't very sensible, but I thought I ought to be there." He arrived just as the judges and his teammates had finished a conference. When he entered the ring he was told that he and Origel had been selected as the two regional representatives to go to Spain and Argentina. He would be riding in the plazas of Madrid, Seville and Buenos Aires with some of Mexico's greatest charros: Mariano Pedrero of León, Carlos Sanchez of Guadalajara and Mexico City's Dr. José Islas Salazar. It hardly seemed like retirement at all.