Some of y'all may recall when I told you in these pages about the days when me and four other worthless cowboys were getting it down the road from one rodeo to another (SI, April 2, 1979). If you do, you'll remember that we had what we called the double-barreled pickup, which we had bought on time from one of our daddies and had subsequently converted to what was maybe the first of the two-seated pickups you see on the road today. I believe they call 'em crew-cab pickups, and it seems like they're pretty popular, but when we put ours together back in the early '50s, we had no thought of taking out a patent, else we might be wealthy men today. But that right there is a fair indication of how our luck was running, not only in contesting the bucking events in the rodeo but in just about all else.
As I said, our intention was other than commercial when we cut the cab of Player's daddy's 1948 Ford pickup in half and moved it back three feet and welded in a piece of sheet metal. If we'd known then that the idea was going to catch on, we'd have painted that piece of sheet metal and done better for a rear seat than the leatherette and chrome bench we'd stole out of the Greyhound bus station in Amarillo, Texas. God knows we took enough hoorahing about the appearance of that pickup from the cowboys who'd be standing around the contestant's gate when we'd come skidding up, late as usual, for the next rodeo. But I'm not bitter about our loss, even though Detroit stole our idea. All we were trying to do at that time was alleviate the suffering of the two of us who usually rode in the truck bed. This had been a sore spot ever since we'd all five gone rodeoing together, and it generally ended up in dispute, especially when we had to make a long haul through rainy weather or when there was a cold wind blowing that those in the truck bed claimed aggravated the cuts and bruises they'd received from being bucked off some bull or bareback horse.
But this story isn't about the double-barreled pickup. I only mentioned that to put you in touch with the general class of our outfit. This story is about rodeo cowboy hats—in particular, the hat that was the pride and joy of J.B. Kingman.
The five of us had gone rodeoing in a partnership. We were going to pool our money to pay expenses and entry fees and then split all winnings equally. Another way of putting it, given the caliber of our ability at riding bucking stock, was that misery loves company.
There was me, who, at 18, was an adequate-to-useless contestant on bareback horses and saddle broncs, primarily because I was too tall and generally ended up spurring myself in the heels instead of spurring the horses in the shoulder. I could've been a good bull rider because of my size and the strength in my right arm, but I was what was generally referred to as a 50-50 man. I had 50 percent of my mind on riding the bull and 50 percent on getting to the fence ahead of him. That isn't a combination that often goes to the pay window.
Then there was Player, whose daddy had sold us the pickup. To digress a moment from rodeo talk, in which praise is the kiss of death, Player was the best man I've ever known. He wasn't much in appearance, just a scrawny boy from East Texas with sandy hair and a crooked grin. He wasn't very much as a rodeo contestant, either; he wasn't my equal on the bulls and couldn't ride bucking horses better than me or any of the rest of the partnership. But he was our leader and I'll never know why. I've searched the souls of men ever since and never found one that could match Player's.
But, Lord, was he a joker! He once mayonnaised the sheets of my motel room bed just as I was about to tumble into it with a lady that I'd just fallen in love with and wanted to marry. But that's another story for another time.
Nor am I going to tell about the time when I'd broken my neck at the rodeo in Albuquerque and was lying in the hospital and he come in the room and give the nurse a raw calf's liver and told her it had fallen out of my body in the ambulance and ought to be replaced.
I will tell you that he got me out of that hospital by wearing one of those green doctor's smocks and without my having to pay the deductible that was due off the insurance we got from the Rodeo Cowboys Association.
Player wasn't his real name. He got it as a nickname because he was so good in the card games that were constantly going on in the rodeo clown's trailer. At 20 he already knew a good deal more about cards than the rest of us would ever learn.
We called Jack and Billy Jack the Twins because they were both from Louisiana. When me and Player had got up the partnership, we'd needed two other sources of $10 a month, and Jack and Billy Jack had been afoot and willing to put in that amount. We owed Player's daddy $50 a month for the pickup, and we figured that the best way to pay him was to have five partners at 10 bucks a head. That'll reinforce your idea of just what a classy outfit we were.
But, to tell you the truth, Jack and Billy Jack weren't all that bad. As a matter of fact, Billy Jack later developed into a pretty fair saddle bronc rider. But at that time they were both kind of square built, both in the shoulders and in the head, and we treated them accordingly—especially by making them ride in the back most times.
But now to bring you to the man whom this story is about, J.B. Kingman. He was what you'd call an all-around good fellow and a wonderful chap. He was also the best rodeo contestant among us, and he never let us forget it. He'd been without transportation just like the rest of us until we'd put together the deal to buy Player's daddy's pickup, but he'd somehow forgotten that. After we'd got on the road and he'd been winning a little more than the rest of us, he'd sit up in the middle of the three of us in the front seat of the pickup and say, darkly, "I name no names, but since I'm carrying this outfit and some of us have not been winning as much as others, I ought to be riding on the outside."
I always took that personal since I had the seat by the window.
I'll give you an idea of J.B.'s loyalty to the group. As poor as we were, we'd always send in one guy to rent a motel room as a single, and then the rest of us would slip in on the sly and bunk down the best we could. J.B. once went down to the front office and complained that there weren't enough towels. Naturally we all got thrown out, but he never admitted it was his fault.
On another occasion me and Player were trying to borrow gas money from a rodeo producer. At the exact second that we were into making deep and serious assurances about our reliability, J.B. walked up and folded his arms and said, "Huh! Well just be damn sure you get enough to cover that four dollars I loaned you three days ago." Ah, yes, he was a wonderful human being.
But he did have a hell of a hat.
Now a good-looking hat, a quality hat, is a rodeo cowboy's main show-off. RCA (Rodeo Cowboys Association—now called the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association) rules required that all cowboys in the arena be attired in a representative Western hat. We pretty much all wore the same jeans and the same shirt. And we all wore fairly cheap boots because they were going to be cut and scarred by our spurs and by the way we treated them.
But a hat was different. When we weren't getting ready to go out on a bronc or a bull, we'd all stand in the arena with our backs up to the bucking chutes and our arms folded, staring up into the crowd for any good-looking girls that might catch our eye. We figured that a good-looking, high-quality hat was the best possible advertisement for what was underneath. So you could depend on the fact that a cowboy was more careful of his good hat than he was of his mother's picture in his billfold.
And in the first (and last) year of our partnership, J.B. bought himself an M.L. Leddy Supreme. It caused a little bit of a sensation on our circuit. Now, of course, rodeo cowboys like Casey Tibbs and Jim Shoulders could afford hats like that and never turn a hair. But for brush hands like us, cowboys who found out what rodeos the good contestants were going to and then went the other way, that hat was a sharp stick in the middle of a sore eye.
We warned J.B. about it, that he was building up a lot of antagonism, but he never paid no mind; he just went on flaunting that hat. Now at that time we were eating Vienna sausage and crackers out of little roadside grocery stores and sleeping in $5-a-night motels. I wanted a Leddy Supreme, as did every other man in our outfit. In that day a Leddy Supreme, made by M.L. Leddy of Fort Worth, cost $90, and I could never get within $40 of owning one. Since that time, since I've gotten too old and belly-buckled to stand with my arms folded and look up into the grandstands and wonder which Shiny Bright would like to take me home, a friend has given me one. It set him back $350, but still my wife wonders why I treat it with such reverence. Well, she never knew what that hat could get you.
So there we were, with that wonderful human being, mostly riding between me and Player—Player driving, me on the outside, and him with his hat on his head in the middle.
It was a beautiful hat. Some hat companies rate a hat by the amount of beaver in it, triple X or four X or even eight X. A Leddy Supreme was all beaver, 10 X, and the maker didn't have to put a symbol on it to prove it. J.B.'s was a high-crowned, pearl-gray beauty with a 4½-inch brim. He used to sit there in the pickup, being careful that it wouldn't touch the roof where the sheet metal was.
We used to eat in a lot of cheap cafés in small cattle towns. They were the kind of places where you'd walk in the door and find a little hat rack right there where you could hang your hat before you went on back to sit down at a booth or table. I guess it was one of those kind of places that gave Player the idea about J.B.'s hat.
The rodeo circuit ended up at Dallas, where they also had the Texas State Fair in conjunction with the rodeo. One day me and Player were kind of wandering around the fairgrounds when we come upon one of them booths that stitch your name or your girl friend's name or whoever's name you want on hats the booth provided. A whole bunch of hats were hung up like strings offish from the poles around the booth. They was nothing but cheap junk, and I could see that and was about to walk on past when Player said, "Now, look here. Just wait a minute."
He was staring hard at one of them poles of hats. I couldn't see what he meant. All I saw was a bunch of cheap beaver-board imitations, the kind that would wilt if you got them out in a light fog.
But Player said, pointing, "Look at that! Don't that look like J.B.'s hat?" Then I saw what he was seeing. It was at the top of one pole. True, it was pearl gray and it had a high crown and a 4½-inch brim, but I knew it was just made out of cardboard. I said, "So what?"
But Player was already pushing through the crowd of teen-agers around the booth and taking the hat down and asking the lady how much it cost.
She told him $2 and he bought it. We walked away, him carrying that hat and me asking what the hell he wanted with it. But he had that crooked, cynical grin on his face, and he just said, "Never you mind. I'll show you later."
Well, it wasn't until we got to Weatherford, Texas that I found out what he intended. We got out of the pickup there and went into a cafe to eat supper. We'd just made one of our standard drives of about 300 miles, and we were all tired and should've been just a little cranky. We all stopped near the door and hung up our hats just like we always did. Then we went on back and found a table. That's when I should have seen something coming, for just as J.B. was about to take a seat that would have had him facing the door, Player got him by the arm and steered him around to a chair on the other side of the table. J.B. said, "Now what the hell is this?"
Player said, kind of whispering in his ear, "Listen, there's a good-looking girl sitting in the back, and I figured you'd want to sit like this so you could see her."
J.B. give him a suspicious look and said, "Now when did you ever take any interest in my pleasure or comfort?"
Player sat down by him, leaned over and said earnestly, "Well, I don't think we've been treating you fair, J.B. You've been winning the biggest part of the money we've won lately and we ought to show you more appreciation." Then he clapped J.B. on the shoulder like he was the most sincere man around.
J.B. looked at him a long time, but Player never changed his expression; he just kept sitting there looking grateful.
Finally J.B. said, "Well, if you mean it, it's been a long time in coming. I'll just tell you that—it's been a long time in coming."
And Player said, "Hell, I know that. And so do the rest of us. And to show you how appreciative we are, I think you ought to have a double order of chicken-fried steak."
This set up a squawk from Jack and Billy Jack, but Player waved his hand at them and said, "No, now look at it. J.B.'s been winnin' the money that's allowin' us to eat tonight. Hell, we got to keep him strong and healthy!" Then he clapped J.B. on the shoulder again.
After that, J.B. turned nearly impossible. He kept wanting us to pass the salt and pass the pepper and pass the butter and pass the bread. Hell, he even sent me to get the waitress to bring him some more coffee. I looked at Player, but he merely had the satisfied expression on his face that he got when things were going just as he wanted them.
Then about halfway through the meal Player suddenly remembered he'd forgot something in the pickup. I was the only one who saw him take J.B.'s hat off the rack before he went out the door.
He was gone about five minutes, and when he come back in, he hung a hat on the rack that looked a lot like J.B.'s, but that I knew for certain wasn't.
We sat around for a good while, like we always done, stretching out our meal with crackers and ketchup. Finally, when the waitress refused to bring us any more crackers, we got up and paid and then went on over to the hat rack and got our hats and started to leave. Except J.B. just kept standing there with his hat in his hand and a funny look on his face. Player stopped and turned back to him and asked, in this real serious voice, if something was the matter.
"Hell, yes," J.B. said. "This ain't my hat!"
Player looked at it, even reached out his finger and touched it. He said, "Why sure it's your hat, J.B. Looks just like it."
"But it ain't!" J.B. said in this kind of anguished voice. "It ain't got no silk lining on the inside, and it ain't got that little tag that says it's a Leddy Supreme. Hell, it's just a damn old junk hat!"
Player put his arm around him again. "Why, it looks just like your hat, J.B."
He turned to me. "Ain't that J.B.'s hat?"
"I—I guess," I said.
"Don't it look like it?"
"Yeah," I said. "Sure does."
But J.B. said, in a voice that kind of went up and up and up and then took off from there, "But this ain't my hat! This is just some old junk hat."
After that J.B. went kind of crazy. He went around that café, grabbing customers and waitresses and demanding to know who had his hat. We tried to restrain him but he was like a bull on the loose, and somebody finally called the law and a deputy sheriff come in and told us in meaningful tones to quit the premises or we wouldn't have to pay for beds that night. He said, "Now I don't know what you rodeo bums are up to, but I know ain't none of you got a hat anybody would want to steal. And if you don't get out of here and quit bothering these good folks, I'm going to put you where you won't need a hat to keep the sun out of your eyes."
We got a motel room later that night, but Player had to sit up with J.B. I was in my sleeping bag over in the corner, and I could see them in dim outline sitting by the window and hear Player saying, "J.B., it's all in your mind. This is your hat."
"But it ain't!" J.B. said, and it almost sounded like he had tears in his eyes.
And Player saying, "Now, J.B., you know you been taking some hell of a lot of crashes lately on them bulls. You know they say that can mess up your eyes."
I'd asked Player on the sly if he'd been careful with J.B.'s real hat. He'd said, "Don't worry. I got it in a cellophane bag under the driver's seat of the pickup."
Things got sort of strange after that first night, because J.B. took to wearing that hat just like it was his real one. But he'd changed. It appeared that the poor quality of the hat was giving J.B. a poor opinion of himself. Nobody ever, in my hearing, actually said anything bad about his hat, but you could see cowboys giving him kind of funny looks. It appeared like it was working on his mind. He didn't stand in front of the chutes anymore with his arms folded, looking up in the stands for a Shiny Bright. And he didn't even seem to take as much personal care of himself.
But what was worse was that his contesting had gone into a dead tailspin. He was bucking off of horses and bulls that he once might have rode, and he wasn't getting us those third places that had previously formed a substantial part of our income.
I told Player one night, after the joke had run on for about two weeks, that we had to put a stop to it, that we couldn't afford it, that if he didn't give J.B.'s hat back to him and get him back on track, we weren't going to be able to make the next payment on the pickup. Player just nodded.
But I knew what he was up to. Ever once in a while I'd hear him talking quietly to J.B. He'd say, "Now, J.B., I know you're a man who is generally right. I know you was right that time you reported to the management of that little hotel in Wichita Falls that we didn't have enough towels." Or he'd say, "Now, J.B., I know that's your hat because you are not a man that makes a mistake."
Well, the next night, in Fort Smith, Ark., we went in a cafe and Player took pains to make sure that J.B. was seated with his back to the front door. Then, just as he'd done before, he made some excuse that he had to go out to the pickup. I saw him take that wreck of a hat off the rack by the front door and I saw him come back in a few minutes later and hang up J.B.'s real hat.
We left not too long after that and stopped at the rack to get our hats. J.B. took his down from where he knew he'd left it. But he just stood there, holding it in his hands and staring at it. I'd wondered what his reaction was going to be when he got his real hat back, but I hadn't counted on the way Player had been working on him.
After a long moment J.B. said, "This ain't my hat!"
Player said, "Sure it is. Look at it. Ain't it got that silk lining and that M.L. Leddy Supreme tag in it?"
"This ain't my hat!" J.B. said louder.
"Hell, yes, it's your hat."
Then J.B. said, in a loud voice, "This ain't my hat. Somebody stole my hat."
I was standing right beside him and I saw little drops of sweat suddenly come out on his forehead. Player tried to say something reassuring to J.B., but he suddenly yelled, in that high voice of his, "Some son of a bitch has stole my hat!"
There was a party of four men eating at a table pretty near the door. One of them was a pretty good-sized old boy with a bald head. J.B. suddenly launched himself at that man and began beating him over his bald head with that $90 M.L. Leddy Supreme, screaming, "You stole my hat!"
I rodeoed off and on for six years and I got my share of injuries. I had a broken neck and a broken leg and had both my collarbones broken twice and had several broken ribs and have bone chips in the elbow of my riding arm to this good day. And I'd seen a bunch of injuries that were comparable or worse. But I never saw a man as broken up as J.B. Kingman was over the recovery of his hat.
We were lucky that it happened at the end of the season, 'cause after we got J.B. out of jail, we didn't have enough money to go on rodeoing.
That was just as well. We were of too uneven a caliber to go on rodeoing as partners. Jack and Billy Jack went on and done pretty well on their own. Me and Player went on together in the partnership and then drifted off into other things. J.B. quit the rodeo that year. The last time I saw him he was driving a custom farming truck that would turn your corn, stalk and all, into silage for cattle feed. That Leddy Supreme of his had become a work hat and didn't look a hell of a lot better than the cardboard one that Player had bought him.
But he was still full of advice. Standing by his truck, he folded his arms and told me never to marry a pretty woman or buy a good hat. "Because," he said, "if you do, someone will steal them."
But that was a long time ago, when we were so young and strong that you could have thrown us against a wall and we'd have bounced right back.
And I didn't take J.B.'s advice.