The story of Uncle Pete and 1 last rodeo


My Uncle Pete was an almost mythic figure among Florida cowboys, winning the Best All-Around Cowboy a record 10 times in the state. That's a feat on par with Alabama football. In the 1970s, he wrote a piece for Guideposts magazine. I want to honor him by sharing it with you.

Uncle Pete's story:

I had rodeoed all my life in between working cattle. As my wife Ida says, whenever we needed a new refrigerator or stove, I'd ride a bull. Fact is, we just about lived on our rodeo winnings until we got our livestock market going in Okeechobee.

By 1967, I had slackened off rodeo. When you're 40 you have no business being in that arena. But it just didn't seem right to fade out. And when I saw billboards advertising the All-State Championship Rodeo at Arcadia, Florida, on the Fourth of July weekend, I knew what I had to do.

Arcadia was where I won my first all-state championship at age 15. Now it would be my last rodeo, and I'd try for the championship. This meant entering all five events - the calf-roping, saddle-bronc and bareback-bronc riding, bulldogging and bull riding. I hoped to win back the entry fees and then some; we had a lot of bills to pay.

On Friday morning, I loaded my horse Junior into the trailer, and we drove over to Arcadia. I got Ida and the boys situated in the stands and ambled down to the chutes where the cowboys hang out. You never heard such whooping and hollering. "Hey ol' timer, what you doing at the rodeo!" But I didn't mind. Rodeo men enjoy razzing each other; it helps ease the tension.

I drew calf-roping for my first event on Friday. This and saddle-bronc riding are classic cowboy events since they're part of daily ranch work. Junior and I waited at the arena's edge. The calf streaked into the arena, and we took off after him. My rope floated down, and Junior stiffened his legs to snap the rope taut and bring the calf down. Now I had to jump down and tie three of his legs together. But, as Junior skidded, I saw I hadn't roped the calf clean. Should I even get down? In my indecision I half fell off my horse, so I scrambled over to the calf and finished the job.

I trudged back to the chutes. "What's the matter, gramps? You're getting clumsy in your old age!" Right then I'd have gladly sold my time to anyone. At lunch my sons didn't say much, and Ida's eyes showed concern. I ate my sandwich silently, thinking about the saddle-bronc I had to ride that afternoon.

As I sat on that bronc in the chute, he was like a coiled-steel spring. Clang! And we shot into the arena, the bronc exploding in all directions. I was allowed to hang on to the buck rein with only one hand. Whupp! We soared into the blue. I twisted and rocked with him. Could I hang on the 10 seconds! I did, then hit the dirt.

The next day, I was a little more hopeful, figuring I might make back some of my entry fees on the saddle-bronc. I drew a mean-looking roan with a glint in his eye. There was only a rigging around his stomach and withers with a leather grip. Again, only one hand could be used. In a neck-snapping lunge, we were in the arena. His head dove, and he kicked at the sun. I was flat on my back on his surging haunches, my legs flying. He whirled, twisted, tried every trick. My free hand clutched the air for balance. Time!

Well, I had stayed on him, but my rhythm and balance weren't good. Sunday morning, Ida, the boys and I went to church as we always do, whether we're at home, or traveling the rodeo circuit. I fall in a lot of areas of the Christian life, but attending church and tithing are two things I always try to do. That Sunday morning, I looked up to see a missionary in the pulpit. He told about what our denomination was doing in the Far East to help bring people to Christ through radio and television missions. Something about what he said, his urging for more support, touched me. I couldn't think of much else. As we drove back to Arcadia, I touched Ida's arm, "Honey, what would you think of us giving whatever I win to that mission work?" She looked at me, then leaned over and kissed my cheek.

It was awfully hot that afternoon. And you could hear the angry bellowing of the bulls above the noise of the crowd. I am really built too small for bulldogging; you need height and weight. Out in the arena the steer thundered up like a locomotive. We wheeled up beside him on the left. I leaned over to grab his horns, and my horse accelerated out from under me as he was trained to do. The steer and I crashed to the dirt. A nice quick throw, I was surprised.

By late afternoon I was ready for my last event - the bull riding. Sitting on my bull in the chute, I could feel his hide moving. Again you get only one rope to hold onto. The chute gate opened, and the mountain beneath me erupted. He roared and spun, twisting that monstrous head to hook me with his horns. I sailed through the air, hit the ground and somersaulted up on the run to escape. But it turned out that the eight-second whistle had blown before I was thrown.

That was it. For me the rodeo was over. Soon the shadows stretched across the arena, and all us cowboys started packing our gear. Finally the loudspeaker crackled, and everybody's head jerked up. First were the runners-up. But my name wasn't among them. Then, as I was leading Junior into the trailer, I heard "And now, the All-Around Champion - Pete Clemons of Okeechobee!" The prize was $1,500 in cash and a hand-tooled leather saddle.

An hour later we were driving home through the Florida flatlands, the boys sleeping in the back seat. Ida snuggled over against me. "Congratulations, champ," she said. "Honey," I said, "you and I are the only ones who know that I had nothing to do with it. God surely must need that money in a hurry."

Uncle Pete was not a perfect man by any means. But he was a man of his word. The Lord got the money. My sister, Clemie Jo, got the saddle.

Uncle Pete passed away Sunday. He is a believer, so I know he is with Jesus. I'd like to think God let Uncle Pete see the greater prize; how many were touched by his faithfulness, his gift. That's a prize that lasts forever.

Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church.