It’s something to have the biggest of anything. And when you have the biggest trail ride, the biggest western parade, the biggest livestock exposition, the biggest calf scramble contest, and the biggest rodeo, and it’s all part of the biggest show with the biggest heart in the biggest city in Texas—well, neighbor, that’s really something. And that’s exactly what they have every year at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, an extravaganza that produces a unique story for every pile of manure in the Astrohall.
For a full two weeks in late February and early March, an epidemic of “Go Texan” fever strikes Houston as the Old West makes a modest comeback against the freeways, astronauts, and air pollution that have just about driven it from the city. Not everyone is affected, to be sure, but nobody fails to notice there is a lot of it going around. Accountants appear in western outfits, policemen don string ties, service stations sprout rodeo banners and bales of hay, and motel signs say “Howdy” to visitors who pump over $15 million into the local economy during the two weeks of the show.
The Livestock Show and the people involved in it have style—a friendly, flamboyant style whose symbols are custom-made boots, hats kept on through meals and cocktail parties, and a colorful disregard for the niceties of diction and grammar that should not be mistaken for lack either of intelligence or formal education. Run largely by hardworking volunteer committees that include executives, entrepreneurs, and salaried workers, the Livestock Show and Rodeo not only serves important educational, entertainment, and commercial functions, but also provides an opportunity for a great many folk to get in touch with their roots and to reaffirm the traditional values they feel helped make America great.
In the week before the show officially opens, thousands of Texans and out-of-state guests recreate a bit of the old ranching west by saddling their horses, hitching up their wagons, and joining in one of the dozen trail rides that wind their way into Houston over courses that range in length from 40 to just over 200 miles. They ride along major highways and backroads for five to ten days, camping out at night and finally converging, six thousand strong, on sprawling Memorial Park the night before the Big Parade. Folks who have ridden horseback for a week in the sun, wind, and rain of a Southeast Texas February take on a somewhat raw appearance. Dirty clothes, grimy hands, a week’s growth of whiskers, and sweaty hats pulled low over scowls practiced for days all help sustain the notion that, as one man put it, “If you crossed one of these old boys a little bit the wrong way, they’d liable to stomp the pure-dee living crap out of you.” So, although it is virtually impossible to wander through the crowded park without being invited to sit down for a beer and a bite to eat, when the hatband of a grizzled old saddle tramp warns, “I’M NOBODY TO MESS WITH,” you don’t hanker to mess with him.
Each trail ride has its own personality. The Flying H outfit takes pride in its family-type atmosphere. “We don’t have the type of person that gives trouble. We just get people that want to go out and enjoy theirselves in a good clean way.” Other groups glory in their image as hell-raisers. Steve Deiss of the Rojos marveled that some of the trail rides do not allow drinking. Rojo girl Sheila Nelson agreed. “When you’re riding all day and having a party all night, there ain’t no way you can do without drinking. We’ve come 125 miles, and we’ve got some sore butts to show for it, but we have more fun than anybody else. If you don’t believe it, you come go with us next year.”
After a night of visiting and carousing, the trail hands ride through the skyscraper canyons of the city the next morning in a giant western parade, an event of such magnitude that Houston schoolchildren receive a holiday to attend it. Interspersed between the covered wagons and horses of the various trail ride outfits, pick-up trucks bear local dignitaries on bales of hay, and high school bands and drill teams remind one of the painful awkwardness of adolescence. Band uniforms seldom display their wearers to best advantage, and some attempts to alter them to fit the western motif produce striking incongruities, as when the Jebbettes of Strake Jesuit High School twirl by in scanty cowgirl outfits. One can almost hear the whirr as Saint Ignatius of Loyola pinwheels in his grave.
Trail ride and parade ended, the focus shifts to the sprawling Astrodomain complex. Inside the eighteen-acre, air-conditioned Astrohall exhibit building, the distinctive but somehow not really unpleasant smell of hay, urine, manure, disinfectant, and 19,000 animals fills every corner and permeates clothing as if it were smoke. The woman at the Feed Office window, her hair done up on large plastic rollers, takes orders for Beet Pulp, Sho Glo, Pork Pellets, and Calf Manna. In every direction are the green clover signs of the 4-H club and the blue corduroy jackets that identify Future Farmers of America. Large gold letters on the back of the FFA jackets proclaim that these youths have been reared close to the soil in and around small towns like Roscoe, Quail, Bangs, Arp, LaPryor, DeKalb, Thorndale, Tom Bean, and New Caney. They answer to names like Fayetta, Billy Bob, Biddy Lou, and Yo Yo (“It’s spelled just like it sounds—‘Wah-O Wah-O.’”). They wear their hair neat and say “Yes, Sir” and “Yes, Ma’am” to grownups. And as they tend their animals, one senses they