The walls of the cafe are decorated with historic photographs of the community starting with its heyday at the turn of the century. Photographs of Buddy are among them.
One shows him as an elementary school student. But the more predominant is of Buddy as a young man dressed in his rodeo uniform: blue jeans, a western shirt, cowboy hat and thin as a rail.
Buddy, now nearing 80 and still just as thin, wearing the same uniform, stares at the photograph. The two are decades apart, but the intense, blue eyes are unchanged: the kind that can size up a man’s character as easily as the cut of a steer.
It's a talent that has served him well since he started rodeoing right out of high school. It was the early 1950s, in the middle of a drought, when dollars was as scarce as raindrops.
“It looked like a good way to make money,” Buddy says, “You could make a lot more money than working on the ranch. But, I didn’t know you couldn’t make enough to live.”
The key to successful rodeoing, he reveals, “is a good horse.”
In 1954, he bought his first horse and went “up north.”
North, to Montana.
“You had a better chance of winning up there,” he says. “Less competition.”
He went with a friend.
“He had a trailer but no car. I had a car but no trailer.”
Trouble was, his companion was just married.
“I went with them on their honeymoon,” Buddy says, laughing. “I just found out his wife has been mad at me for 57 years.”
They followed the circuit, from Custer, South Dakota, to Great Falls, Montana, to Deadwood, South Dakota—anywhere there was a rodeo.
Buddy specialized in calf roping.
By the next year, he knew he needed a better horse.
“You don’t win unless you have a good horse.”
Buddy found him. An all-brown steed he called “Salty,” which he bought for $2,500—on credit.
“I started sending almost all of my winnings home by money order to make the payments. I only kept about $200 for entry fees.”
Many are the moments in a man’s life, some pivotal.
Buddy’s was somewhere on the circuit, with nothing but faith and $15 in his pocket.
His conversation in Van’s takes an unexpected turn. His eyes mist, and his voice breaks. He reaches for a paper napkin to wipe his eyes. “I got down on my hands and knees and asked for help,” he relates, trying to control is emotion.
“I roped that calf in the fastest time the rodeo had ever recorded,” he says. “I won $650.”
Was it divine intervention when he prayed for help or when he found Salty?
“Both,” he smiles.
“Salty didn’t live for very long,” he says, remembering what he still considers the best-performing rodeo horse he ever owned. “Stopping a 400-pound calf was nothing to him.”
A photograph and Buddy on Salty is testimony. Beside him is another rider on a horse with an arched neck, looking as if he is about to prance for the camera. No such showmanship for Salty. He appears strong and straight, all business.
“I’ve been looking for another horse like that,” Buddy says, “for 57 years.”
Although he once hitch-hiked from New York to Texas, for subsequent trips he bought a 1949 GMC pickup. He put two barrels of gas in the truck’s bed (his father operated a number of service stations in George West), had his mother make sandwiches which he packed in a shoebox and headed east.
It was winter; no heater in the truck. Twelve miles out of Alliance, Nebraska, a fan blade broke off and went through the radiator.
A man pushed Buddy’s trailer and pickup to town, where a mechanic removed a second blade opposite the broken one to balance what now was a two-blade fan, and sliced the radiator in half.
“He didn’t quite fix it,” Buddy recalls. “It had a small leak, so I had to add water about every 20 miles.”
On a cold Sunday in Broken Bow, Nebraska, Buddy found a small building with a sign on the fence that read “Radiator Repair.”
“I woke him up,” Buddy remembers. “ He said he couldn’t fix it, but then he did.”
When he got to Missouri the water pump failed.
He took a taxi to town, bought a water pump and installed it with a wrench and a pair of pliers. “It was easier to work on things under the hood back then,” he says.
He was traveling with a companion, C.T. Jones.
I got us a hotel room for $1.50, but C.T. wanted something fancier so he got us a room for $3. We had a simple agreement,’ Buddy says. “Whoever wins at the rodeo pays for the room.”
In his early days of rodeoing in Montana, he noticed a lithe, young Sharon Mae Buchli winning a cutting-horse competition.
“I asked her if she would marry me.”
“I might,” she replied.
On Oct. 18, 1956, just days after she turned 18, he and Sharon married.
In 1964, with his two daughters attending school, he started looking to buy some land. His father loaned him $20,000 to buy 400 acres near Oakville. It was time, if not to settle down, for the lure of a rodeo ring to give way to the responsibilities of a wedding ring.
As his life was changing, so was rodeoing.
“When I started, you could make a lot more money—it seemed like a lot of money to me at the time—than staying on at the ranch,” he remembers. “Today, you have to make it to the finals before you can make any money.”
Buddy raises cattle and a few horses, just to keep his hand in the business. “And I do whatever Sharon asks me to do.”
Quite often, he attends the Friday sale at the Beeville Livestock Commission auction — as much to eye the cattle for sale as for what arguably are some of the best hamburgers in the county, where he often sits with other ranchers whose rodeo times are becoming far and few between.
“Rodeoing is a lot more fun than working,” he says.
His blue eyes follow an 18-wheel gravel truck raising dust on the I-37 frontage road next to Van’s.
“What’s dangerous is the highway.”
W.K. Stratton, in his book Chasing the Rodeo, helped describe the anachronistic role of people caught in an Internet age who still respond to the rodeo’s call.
“Rodeo...is a ritual...it defines people who take part in it as well as the community in which it takes place....It’s a family with an untamed lifestyle, maybe not as much so as it once was, but immeasurably so when compared to the lives of suburbanites on commuter trains or struck in freeway congestion.”
Would Buddy do it again, given the chance?
“It’s the only thing I would do.”
Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.