Tuesday, September 27, 2011

In Memoriam

Last week, we all received the news of the passing of PBR superstar Little Yellow Jacket. It had been a while since I had heard anything about the three-time bull of the year, and I simply imagined he was relaxing in a pasture somewhere between Tom Teague’s place in North Carolina and the Berger Bucking Bulls HQ in Mandan, North Dakota. Lots of stud service, I figured. And I am sure that was true in both locations and beyond via straw sales. So I was taken by surprise when I heard that my old pal from my favorite TV show had crossed over the Great Divide, as we say out here in Montana.

The news took instantly me back to the glassed-in back porch of our house in East Los Angeles. It was a typically overly warm summer evening (we did not have air conditioning), and I was flipping through the cable listings when I ran across Professional Bull Riding. “Bull riding, eh?” I thought, “Could be worth a look.” This was in 2001, and Little Yellow Jacket was just a little shaver, although still plenty formidable. I took to watching bull riding right away. I knew a quite a bit about rodeo, and as the curator of a major collection at one of the world’s greatest museums of Western American culture, I knew ALL about cowboy traditions and cowboyness. It was the bulls that really grabbed me, though. I was, and still am, just fascinated by those amazing, athletic animals.

Inevitably, my lovely Stockyard Queen stepped out onto the porch, most likely with a cold beer in her hand. “Uh, what is this, a rodeo?” she asked. “Professional bull riding! ‘This ain't no RODEO!’” I responded, parroting the proud pronouncement that I had only heard for the first time myself a few minutes before. “Check out this bull action!” And she did. I was surprised that she gravitated to the bulls right away, just as I had, and it was not long after that we were hooked.

There were giants in the land in those days—literally. Blueberry Wine and Mossy Oak Mudslinger, Moody Blues and Dillinger. We loved those bulls and got to know them by their personalities (as well as you can ever know a TV star’s personality). One of those bulls rapidly became our favorite, however: Little Yellow Jacket. We could tell right away that he was something special.

For the two of us, he was the ambassador of the PBR. When we talked to our colleagues at work or to our family or friends about our new obsession with bull riding—and rooting for the bulls—they usually gave us a selection of cock-eyed and skeptical looks. “Bulls? Really? ” “Yes, REALLY!” we told them, “There’s this bull named Little Yellow Jacket and he is so smart, so well trained, that he busts out of the chute, does his job of throwing a cowboy, and then stops dead still right there in the arena and looks straight at the crowd. He’s showing off! He’s clearly saying ‘I’m the big daddy in this house and don’t you forget it!’”

Our friends mostly thought we were crazy, but they did like the stories we continued to tell them about Little Yellow Jacket’s ongoing triumphs. When he won Bull of the Year in 2002, we told everyone, “See, I told you that bull had promise.” One year, one of our friends even made us a Little Yellow Jacket Christmas ornament that we always hang proudly on our tree.

Over the years, we have come to appreciate the amazing feats of the PBR’s human competitors as well. We still miss Justin McKee in the PBR announcer’s chair (remember that guy?), and we are happy that we can say we saw Adriano win this second PBR championship back in 2001.

More than anything else about our 10 years as PBR fans, however, we will always remember Little Yellow Jacket. His crooked horn, his incredible strength, and most of all his endearing sense of style in the arena made him a symbol of everything that is right about Professional Bull Riding. Even now, in 2011, when the Queen and I sit in front of our much-larger TV in the living room of our air-conditioned house in Montana, when we see a particularly spectacular bull performance, there’s a good chance that one of us will be thinking “Yep, that reminds me of that yellow bull from Mandan, good ol’ Little Yellow Jacket.”

Happy trails, Pardner!

1 comment:

Shawk said...

Thanks for the tribute to one of the greats. LYJ was part of the reason I got into the sport, as well. When I first began watching, he was in his prime, and I adored his bucking style and his attitude.

It seems like his progeny haven't done too much, but I hope that changes.