Cowboy infantryman living life 8 seconds at a time
August 8, 2005
BAUMHOLDER, Germany — Robert Blair is a skinny, red-haired, freckled-faced cowboy; 6 feet tall, 165 pounds.
Sally is a buff hell horse, a good 15 hands high and weighing maybe 800 pounds.
“I love that horse,” Blair says, laconic cowboy style. “We’re best friends.”
When they get together, their dates last eight seconds.
“Eight seconds. Eight measly seconds,” Blair says.
The gate opens and they come out of the chute, Sally using the massive power in her chest, back and flank to fling Blair like a rag doll.
“You get to that part and you’re thinking, ‘My God, this takes forever.’ And about the time that thought goes through your mind, the bell rings.”
Sometimes, Blair hears the bell ending his saddle-bronc ride as he hits the ground running to escape Sally’s hooves. She trampled him during the wild horse race at a rodeo in Berlin a few weeks back.
Most of the time, he’s still on her back. That’s pretty good, considering Blair has seen Sally rear up and pull three cowboys off their feet.
“She’s crazy,” he says, shaking his head like he’s talking about a spirited woman all the cowboys love, but cannot tame.
Blair understands, even if you don’t.
His own grandparents back in Central Florida, where he grew up breaking horses at 12, don’t get it either. Not even his father, Allen Blair, who used to ride rodeo.
“My parents think I have a death wish. And my grandfather said, ‘First you joined the Army, with the risk that, you know, you’ll go to war. And then you started bull riding. And now you say you want to be a firefighter when you get out of the Army. What the heck’s wrong with you?’” And he laughs a squeaky laugh that sounds more like the peach-fuzz, 21-year-old private first class he is than John Wayne.
It is hard to understand why he and the other soldier/cowboys of the Baumholder Rodeo Team do what they do. Take the risks. Take the beatings. Drive all night after their duty day ends Friday to make a European Rodeo Cowboy Association event in Berlin or Stuttgart. Ride all day Saturday. Camp out in a field that night. Nurse their bruises and cuts on the long ride home on Sunday.
Mostly it’s about friendship.
“I’ve met lifetime friends,” says Cpl. Phillip Steve, the Baumholder Rodeo Team’s 22-year-old president. That includes his wife, Melanie, a German who was into cowboy culture long before they met, Steve says.
“It takes the pressures off being in the military,” Blair says.
It’s been a good first season. Blair has stayed on nearly every bronc or bull he’s tried to ride as he wandered across Germany. He even stayed on Lucky Seven, a bull no one could master, for six of the eight seconds needed to score.
“Yeah, I think he did better than anybody until somebody finally covered [Lucky Seven] in Berlin,” Steve says.
“He drops down, lowers his shoulder and spins to the left,” Blair says. “That’s where he gets me every time.”
One of these days, he’ll get him.
“They tell me I have natural talent. I need to keep doing it.”
“That one [Blair] dove into it with both feet,” said fellow Baumholder cowboy Pfc. Jake Emerson, 24, from Hamilton, Ala. “He’s taken a stronger run at it than a lot of guys just startin’ out.”
Like soldiers, rodeo cowboys have modest expectations.
On the Fourth of July, Blair won $200 at the Stuttgart rodeo. Of course, he spent $240 to enter the six events. But he’ll keep riding as long as he can, which isn’t long. You don’t see many 30-year-old cowboys riding rodeos, he says.
“I ain’t seen anyone who’s not been hurt,” Blair says, rubbing a reddish-brown scab in the crease between his right hand thumb and forefinger, burned deep by the rope that connects him to the bull. “Ain’t a cowboy made who can’t be throwed.”
But the cowboy life puts a hook in you.
“It’s an adrenaline rush that’s unmatched,” Blair says. Especially the bulls. “The first time I rode a bull, I didn’t remember anything. Everybody said, ‘You did good!’ I said, ‘What did I do?!’”
Horses are fast, but they don’t have the power of bulls, Blair says. With a 2,000-pound bull roiling beneath you, “the power is outrageous. It’s like being under a tornado.”
“Bulls are unforgiving animals.”
The best cowboys don’t use strength because there isn’t a cowboy on earth who can out-muscle a bull. They use smarts. They use weight, balance and cunning to follow the bull jump to jump, he says.
“Basically, you’re dancing. You’ve just got a 2,000-pound dancing partner,” Blair says.
“You just got to let him lead, that’s all.”