The first time I went on a large animal call with Kyzar, I was seventeen. Once in the truck and headed out, he asked if I’d like a chaw, which I gladly accepted, confident that I was a rough and tough cowboy and a seasoned veteran of tobacco products. He pointed to the dash where a large wad of chewing tobacco sat without any sort of wrapper in the hot sun. He informed me that it was Redman Tobacco but that he had thrown away the bag because nobody cured tobacco properly anymore and it needed to be aired out and dried a little more before being enjoyed.
I pulled a good-sized chunk off the wad and stuck it in my mouth. It took a considerable amount of moisturizing and chewing and readjusting the stubs and sharp edges to get it to rest painlessly in my cheek. As soon as I had my wad tolerably situated, Kyzar told me to roll up the window so he could turn on the AC. Without any cups or spittoons for my excess tobacco juice, I concentrated on trying not to produce any more saliva and trying not to swallow the mouthful I already had. Pretending not to notice my precarious discomfort, Kyzar then engaged me in an active conversation requiring a periodic response from me which I tried to provide with nods and grunts and the occasional “uh huh,” which I delivered with my head tilted back to prevent a stream of drizzle from running down my chin.
After the longest half-hour of my life, we finally pulled into the Capital City Cattle Auction lot where we were scheduled to be Brucellosis testing all the cattle to be auctioned off that day. Brucellosis, also known as bangs, is a venereal disease amongst cattle that is also transferred back and forth between wild deer herds. It was such a bad epidemic in the early seventies that all cattle had to be tested before being sold or shipped. One positive test result would cause the entire herd to be quarantined.
At any rate, I dashed from the truck around behind the closest bush where I expelled my chaw, saliva, and a little of my stomach contents, although it was mostly just dry heaves. Still pretending not to notice my pathetic situation, Kyzar told me to hurry up pissing or whatever I was doing 'cause we were late and should already be down at the stock pens. Pale, dizzy, and sick as a dog, I managed to follow him without puking but never quite recovered that day from my morning chaw.
This was further exacerbated by my job that morning, which involved catching the snout of cattle with nose tongs after they were somewhat immobilized in a squeeze chute. They were only partially immobilized because the squeeze chute held their body while the stanchion closed on their necks, but their heads were still free to whip back and forth, slinging snot and foaming saliva mixed with the runny shit that tends to fly everywhere when wild cattle are run through squeeze chutes.
My job was to catch these cattle by the nostrils with a pair of nose clamps in order to immobilize their heads further so that Kyzar could get a needle into their juggler vein to draw blood for sampling. Nose tongs are like a large pair of pliers tipped with rounded knobs designed to clamp down on the insides of their nostrils, allowing a handler to control their heads in the fashion that nose rings allow handlers to control large bulls. Catching the nostrils of a flailing steer with large horns is challenging on the best of days and usually something I really enjoyed in spite of being the target of horns, snot, saliva, shit and most every other substance secreted by cattle, but it wasn’t much fun on this particular day.
Things did not improve much as we progressed on to the only other secretion to which I had not already been exposed as we moved on to fertility testing. Now my job advanced from nose tonging to semen collection. This involved the insertion of a large electrode, about the size of a rolling pin, into a bull’s rectum. This alone would bring on an extreme case of nervous squirts, snot, and foam-flinging head contortions resulting in a 360-degree slime shower before they even applied electricity. Kyzar would then use a dial on the control box to pulsate voltage through the bull’s sphincters, causing erection and ejaculation, with the bull’s penis flying around in even more directions than his bellowing and his roaring head was in a frantic state of agonecstacy. In the midst of this commotion, it was my responsibility to wait until the spewing slime changed from a clear substance to a cloudy substance and then snag the head of the wildly gyrating erection with a small butterfly net type of contraption with a large condom-looking attachment instead of a net. Following the longest half-hour drive of my life, that morning was the longest day of my life.
After finishing the last call of the day, Kyzar generally liked to unwind by driving around and drinking beer. We drove back roads endlessly, stopping only to piss or pick up another sixpack of cold Pearl beer. These were the times I got an education on the ways of true cowboys, which in Kyzar’s judgment, existed only in West Texas. This is where Kyzar told me about ‘nervous goats,’ which, he informed me, would faint when surprised. Having already been fooled by the old rancher, James Stewart, teasing me about ‘stump broke” heifers only to learn that this was a joke about barnyard sodomy, I didn’t believe Kyzar, thinking I was merely being set up again. It wasn’t until years later that I saw this sort of goat fall down in some kind of seizure when spooked.
When Kyzar quit drinking beer and instead reached for his old army canteen behind the seat, I knew we were getting ready to go flying. After he’d drank water instead of beer for about a half-hour, we’d be heading to the airport to trade his half-ton Chevy for his Cessna 172. After checking out the cedar hill country west of Austin, he’d turn back toward the airport and practice his instrument approach. Instead of ‘foggles’, the half-fogged goggles used in instrument training that allow the pilot to see all instrumentation without being able to see out of the cockpit, he would sit low and pull his cowboy hat halfway down his face to achieve the same effect. He then would tell me to watch for other traffic or emergency situations, but otherwise, not talk or give any clues as to where we were until we were about twenty feet off the runway.
That is how I think of Kyzar—Slouched over with his hat pulled a little too far down, appearing oblivious while being keenly tuned into his surroundings. It would be easy to think that Kyzar played dumb, except that Kyzar never ‘played’ anything except his true self, which was enough in itself to confuse most people. He was, first and foremost, a West Texas cowboy. He didn’t even know for sure how old he was because he was born on the ranch and his parents never got a birth certificate until they figured he was old enough to go to school. By then, there was a dispute over which year he had been born, and his folks never came to agreement on this.
Kyzar seemed almost embarrassed by his brilliance, as though he would rather have been a top-notch ranch hand than top of his class at Texas A+M School of Veterinary Medicine. Almost everyone mis-judged Kyzar, and he seemed to enjoy that. It’s not as if he intentionally mis-led anyone. Folks tend to do a good enough job of mis-leading themselves, especially when it comes to judging country folks. He just made it a little easier for those prone to pre-judging others to make fools of themselves, usually without even being aware they’re doing so. Probably the most important of the many things I learned from Kyzar was the folly of pre-judging others. Any form of prejudice is like a mirror that provides a more accurate statement about the person doing the judging than about the person being judged. That and the value of being underestimated.
DANCES WITH DONKEYS: The Memoir of a Half-assed Cowboy is coming in September 2023! Pre-order now.
“I’ve always wanted to be a cowboy…”
So begins the adventures and misadventures of author Jim Duke in his debut book, an often hilarious, occasionally poignant, sometimes hair-raising, and always entertaining memoir about the relationship of man and beast. A mix of cowboy poet laureate Baxter Black and gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.