I grew up quick as a child. The fourth daughter in line of daughters ahead of me, I was out to prove that I could be the son my father always wanted. It was the 70’s and Nixon ran for President; Go-Go boots set the fashion scene and I lipped synced in my bedroom to Nancy Sinatra’s song, These Boots Were Made for Walking, but my boots were red cowboy boots. I wore my red cowboy boots everywhere; to the cardiologist with my eldest sister, who at 17 was a heart attack away from death. I slipped them on with pale blue Bermuda shorts, the back of my legs sticking to the vinyl seat covers of the family Impala as we commuted to the epilepsy research center with my second sister who lived her teenage years with wires to her head. Sundays required a dress; I defiantly anchored the boots to a lime green checked sundress with tiny yellow daisies, caring little that my boots failed to match—my sister who resided at the Richmond State School for the mentally ill couldn’t even recognize me, bad fashion, or my boots. I was out to prove that I could survive just about anything, and my boots became my uniform and hope.
My boots were the first to be packed when my parents decided that at twelve I was at vulnerable stage and should spend time with one of two of the Catholic priests in the family, Uncle Bob.
Now Uncle Bob wasn’t like most priests—reading, writing, and praying in a cool dark office that smelled like last week’s incense. No, my Uncle Bob wore the obligatory black shirt and collar, but his shirt topped black jeans and a black leather belt, with a large silver longhorn cow as the buckle. The tips of the buckle, the actual longhorns of this four-inch silver cow, held up Uncle Bob’s small-but-growing beer gut. And he liked his beer. His boots, black Ostrich, held dust in the fine creases of the leather with the outside heals leaning an inch lower than the inner heal. He walked bow legged with a slight limp.
When I stayed with Uncle Bob, there was no telling what the average day would look like. It started out simple enough, morning mass at 7 a.m., held with reverence in an un-air-conditioned bingo hall that served as the church since the parish was too poor to have an actual church yet. Two six-foot by four-foot wide fans flanked the altar, which was just constructed of a folding table on cement blocks. The fans circulated the Hill country heat through the hall in a meditative hum. Blue, my uncle’s mutt, the derivative of a love affair between a black lab and hound dog, howled outside. The dog’s vibrato echoed through the fans an eerie way when my uncle said the “Our Father.” He often, stopped mid-sentence, and yelled, “Blue. Shut UP. Shut the hell up, ya damn dog!” He continued with the sacred prayer not missing a word.
This morning ritual was followed by a breakfast of Cheerios, Dr. Pepper, and a brownie for dessert. He usually sat and smoked a Lark, placing a new pack in his black shirt pocket along with his lighter, a little Bic with a naked woman on it. He flicked his ashes in between his lectures on life and love to me as I washed down my breakfast with a second Dr. Pepper. When a phone call interrupted him and he talked in his office awhile, I started a new game of gin rummy with my grandmother, who lived with him. Also with a Lark in her hand, she smoked fast and with passion, but she moved slowly with a replaced hip.
I heard the office door open and I got the nod it was time for his rounds. Most days I got to ride with him wherever he went. It may be to the convent down the street, where Sister John and Sister Helen were the last of the parish nuns. Sister John and Sister Helen had been ordered to return back to Italy, when their Order decided that the smallest of Brazos county parishes could live without their services; however, they decided to defect, preferring Uncle Bob’s brand of priesthood and the offerings of Texas A&M down the road. With room for 12 nuns, and one chapel in the center of the convent, Sister John used the space to set up a kindergarten and day care in the summer. Sister Helen worked at the hospital over in Brennan. Both were in school at Texas A&M, seeking official degrees in teaching and nursing, and they served as organizational liaisons for Uncle Bob’s annual fundraiser, The Somerville Stampede. Although Somerville was a one-stop-light town, one weekend a year, it was a hopping place, since my Uncle’s rodeo was on the official Texas Rodeo circuit.
Hundreds of horse and cattle trailers would line up side by side, with most entrants camping at the rodeo site, in lieu of driving over to Brennan, the next town 30 miles away. Even the Blue Bell ice cream, a landmark in Brennan, couldn’t beat the local parishioner ladies’ BBQ and authentic Mexican food. The hand-rolled tortillas and BBQ sandwiches created enough profit for the ladies not to not have to work for the rest of the year. For one weekend a year, Joe Esparza’s small ranch became a rodeo Woodstock, and all the proceeds blessed St. Anne’s parish.
My uncle’s claim to fame, earning his nickname, Bullet Bob, was the fact that he was the only bull-riding priest in Texas. Before he embarked on his yearly ride (which usually landed him in the ER), he would ride through the ring with a ten-gallon Stetson, circling for cash all in the name of Jesus and St. Anne’s parish. This took at least an extra 30 minutes, with the aid of the rodeo clowns, picking up the cash, making up a skit to increase the donations, Bullet Bob trotting his horse slowly around the ring as he laughed and cajoled people out of their Benjamin’s, Hamilton’s, and Jackson’s.
Most of the weeks preceding the stampede were filled with organizational duties—little did I know but most of our errands pertained to critical issues like beer sponsors, prize money, food, parking, you name it. I often sat reading The Secret Garden anywhere from an office to a barn to a bar.
One day went out to a ranch lined with short mesquite trees following a dusty gravel road. Although I was only twelve, I was already 5’10” and Uncle Bob needed help backing up a trailer. I stood tall and waved him back so that he would not hit the back of his denim-blue ‘69 Ford truck to the front hitch of a long black trailer, the kind that is so big it could fit six longhorns steers. After directing the truck to line up to the trailer, my second lesson was to include how to load a bull. The bull, who I renamed Pepper, needed to be delivered to the rodeo site where he was going to get REAL and not just I-dare-you-to-ride lessons on bull riding. Every twelve-year-old girl from Houston needs to know how to properly load a bull in a trailer, right? Right.
A large greyish bull circled the trailer bucking and spewing, and I was smart enough to jump on the hood of the truck and watch while Bullet Bob and a bevy of Mr. Hernandez’s ranch hands talk Pepper on the trailer. The only thing I really learned is that the best place to be is on the hood of a truck when loading a bull, and that men are not as brave, or as smart, as you think. Eventually, the bull got corralled in the trailer, and we were off to Frog’s for a greasy hamburger and another mid-day Dr. Pepper.
Frog’s is the kind of place where all the locals go. The air was cool; the place was light with large windows revealing a field of yellow wild flowers across the highway. The tables and benches were dark, made from an old barn from the back of the property. The tablecloths were the typical red-checkered plastic; complete with an occasional fly stuck to leftover BBQ sauce and like many of the patrons, too comfortable to move. The jukebox honored Willie, Johnny Cash, and the Rolling Stones. Willie blended the hippies and the cowboys together, and so did Frog’s. Everyone was welcome, young and old alike.
Once when I was in a crucial scene in Secret Garden, I ignored my manners and the waitress as she served me another Dr. Pepper. She was missing a tooth and her Extra Long Benson and Hedges fit right where her tooth should have been. She wore a man’s navy blue sleeveless shirt that at one time really did have sleeves, and it seemed snug on her large breasts, and I could smell her deodorant vanishing as her cigarette bounced up and down with each syllable on her large bottom lip caked with a bright pink lipstick.
I felt a large hand on the back of my braided pony tail yank me outside. The same large hand yanked me up by the back of my jeans and I landed squarely on the hood of a black Chevy truck– my bottom just missing a rather large longhorn hood ornament. The heat from the sun on the black truck made me feel like hell was awfully close.
“Listen hear, Murph. And listen good.” Bullet Bob, less than a foot from my face, his eyes glaring at me, gave me very little choice.
“Let there be no mistake how serious I am when I say this: Never forget. Never forget. YOU. Yes, YOU. Are no better than any one else. People may be different, they may not have what you have, they may not be as pretty, may not be as smart, but NEVER EVER Forget– YOU are no different than they are. Everyone and I mean EVERYone should be treated like the Lord would treat us all…with love and respect. You got that cowgirl? YOU got that? I am serious here. YOU go in there and treat Miss Bea like she was last year’s Miss Texas and be nice. Ya, hear?”
I quickly got used to a different way of life. Folks eating egg tacos and drinking a Lone Star seemed natural at ten in the morning. Frog’s served as the local diner and the local bar, and kids were welcome if you were with family; I was with the Father of the town. And he played that priest card often and well. He held a lot of official meetings at Frog’s, and a lot of unofficial meetings too. He could play a round of poker and do marriage counseling all in the same 15 minutes. He knew he was sure to find what any local he needed, counsel a wavering parishioner, and everyone knew where to find the priest. Remember, this was circa 1972, before cell phones and emails.
Six hours later, and at least six beers later, maybe more, my Uncle Bob thought it would be a good idea if I learned how to drive the Ford and Pepper back to the rectory. It sounded like a good idea to me. One of the benefits of being tall at an early age was that I looked older than I really was. I looked at least 14. Anxious to grow up, and feeling sassy in my red boots, I sat tall, my foot easily reaching the pedal and my hands at ten and two. I sauntered down County Road 420 with the bull shifting his weight to and fro behind me in Darth Vader’s cattle trailer. When I pulled right to get on the big highway, Highway 36, I felt his weight shift a bit. Uncle Bob decided we needed to stop for cigarettes—one can never run out of Larks. I pulled into the one gas station in town, and he decided we would get gas too. Fortunately, the gas tank was on the driver’s side. I slowly pulled the Ford to a stop and let out a sigh of relief. Uncle Bob staggered in the store, and I pumped the gas, having learned this on previous Uncle Bob adventures.
I waited and waited in the truck. Bullet Bob appeared to be listening to a last minute confession with the store employee. He was still laughing when he jumped into the truck and handed me a Dr. Pepper and a handful of penny candy. While lighting his Lark, he said, “Murph, you look like a pro there driving. Now let’s take this bad-ass bull home. I’ll take her to the Joe’s tomorrow.”
I pulled out of the gas station as if I drove a truck with a trailer every day of the week. Unfortunately, I cut left to get on the two-lane highway a bit too soon, and the trailer took the last gas pump with it. At first I didn’t know what happened; was the bull moving, or did I hit something? Then I saw this geyser of fluid, and the bull shifted too and fro and all in a matter of seconds, I screamed, and the priest shouted, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Oh, my GAWWWD, Oh SHIT!” I stopped dead on the highway. The bull fell forward with another large MOOOOO. Bullet Bob was yelling and laughing all at the same time, “Well, don’t stop now, Murph, keep on going! Pull ahead to the Dairy Queen!”
About two hundred yards later, I sat and watched kids eating their dipped cones inside the Dairy Queen with their mom and dad. In the rear view mirror I watched the dark shadow of my uncle as he weaved a jog back to the gas station as the pump spewed and filled the pot holes of the parking lot with clear danger. I could see the fire truck and sheriff cars approaching, their lights bright and fast. I just knew I was going to jail, and I would be there until I was too old to drive again. I wondered if they would ever give me a Dr. Pepper in jail, or would every meal consist of gruel like in the movie Oliver? I wanted to be with the family in the Dairy Queen.
Time passed slowly. The family gobbled chocolate dipped cones as they laughed and talked with each other.
My knees jiggled, and sweat was pouring down into my red boots my eyes fixed in the rear view mirror watching the chaos and the police talk to Bullet Bob. I wondered what they would let me wear in jail. About 30 minutes later, Uncle Bob jumped back in the truck, nodding his head forward. “Okay, Murph, keep on driving straight and turn left at the bingo sign, and head for home. God is with us. Always remember that.”