The Bionic Bullrider earned his nickname after a near fatal injury in a rodeo arena led to an extensive chest surgery to reattach his sternum. Barry Brown would go on to become the first recipient of the Comeback Cowboy of the Year award from the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association in 1971 and a National Finals Rodeo qualifier in 1974.
Brown said as much in a message sent via Facebook to the Weatherford Democrat recently, informing us of a local book signing event.
“I thought perhaps the Democrat would be interested in mentioning this in the paper,” his message concluded, followed with a simple, “Thank you, Barry Brown.”
I wrote back asking Brown to send his book to the office. He said he was living in Weatherford and could come to the office right away and hand deliver a copy.
Not long afterward, a crusty cowboy with a lined face and easy smile pulled into the parking lot behind the wheel of a flatbed work truck. Brown, 77, wore a vintage pearl-snap shirt, boots, jeans, leather belt, metal buckle and black felt hat, and was holding a copy of his book in his left hand.
Brown is what the kids call “old school.”
His book was a large paperback, simple in design and production and obviously self-published. A black-and-white photo on the cover depicted Brown atop a rank bull. The much younger looking Brown is shown hanging on with his left hand while swinging his right arm and wearing a similar pearl-snap shirt and black hat. The 1,500-pound beast has managed to kick it’s back legs six feet high in the air while twisting sideways, and the dust is flying beneath his hooves.
It’s a great photo.
“The picture cover on this book was taken at Deadwood, South Dakota in August of ‘71,” Brown told me. “It was my first rodeo back after being out for eight months.”
He’d sat out after a bull hooked him in the chest with his horns and broke Brown’s sternum in two, he said.
“The doctor told me I’d be at least a year healing up, and I may never ride again,” Brown recalled. “They didn’t know if the surgery would work. It was the first of its kind.”
It worked, and in 1972 the Orlando Sentinel published an article that dubbed Brown the “Bionic Bullrider.” Brown liked the nickname and used it for his book, which he spent five years writing between 2005 and 2010.
“Oh,” I said. “Generally, we write about new books only. This one is 10 years old.”
We spoke a while in the parking lot, and Brown was a humble, friendly and savvy guy with a twinkle in his eye. I liked him immediately.
“Can I take your picture in case I end up writing something about the book signing?”
“Sure,” he said. “Don’t get too close or it’ll show my wrinkles.”
I photographed him standing near a tree and told him I would read his book and perhaps write a story.
He thanked me and was about to leave, when I asked him where he was from. Owosso, Michigan, he said, but he has lived many places.
“I moved here about two months ago.”
“What brought you here?” I asked.
“Do I have to tell you that?” he said.
“Well…yeah,” I said.
“It’s kind of embarrassing,” he said. “I have one horse left now, and we are homeless. I live wherever I can find a place for that horse.”
The mare’s name is Zing.
“I had a ranch in Alabama once upon a time, and she was born there in ‘01,” he said. “I watched her be born and broke her when she was a 2-year-old and trained her to run barrels. I’ve had her all her life. She is 19 now and a heck of a mighty good horse.”
A rancher friend with property near Tin Top Road is allowing Brown to park his truck, horse trailer and RV on the property and put Zing to pasture in exchange for Brown doing chores and helping with the livestock.
“How long are you going to be here?” I said.
“The rest of my life,” Brown said before climbing into his truck and heading down the road.
The next day, I picked up the book, started reading and didn’t want to put it down. Brown isn’t flashy in person or on the page, but his anecdotes exude warmth and a genuine affinity for the world and the people and animals who breathe its air.
Brown dropped out of school at 15 to join a Wild West Show, a Western-themed carnival that paid cowboys little money for dangerous work. He slept in livestock pens during tours, lying his blanket on discarded peanut hulls for a mattress.
The pay was short, and Brown was hungry most of the time. Some of the most gripping portions of the book describe how weak and faint Brown would become after living on a hamburger a day for too long. One of his jobs was watching livestock graze for hours in fenceless pastures and making sure none of the cows wandered away. The irony wasn’t lost on him — slowly starving while watching cows eat for hours. He tried to eat grass himself but was unable to force himself to swallow, he said.
He made tomato soup using hot water and ketchup packets taken from restaurants.
In another story, he lost his bus ticket home and was broke and hitchhiking back to Michigan after a season on the Wild West show. A truck driver picked him up alongside a highway. After hours in the cab, Brown asked if they could stop for food. He hadn’t eaten all day but didn’t mention it to the driver. Brown had 20 cents in his pocket.
At a walk-up hamburger stand, Brown was relieved to see a small hamburger on the menu for 19 cents. (This was in the 1960s.) Before he reached his turn at the service window, however, he became dizzy and collapsed.
The truck driver gave him a Coke and hamburger to revive him and then fed him bacon, pancakes and chocolate milk. Brown survived another day.
“I thanked the driver and tried to give him the 20 cents I had, but he refused to take it,” Brown wrote.
Simple stories such as this are what make this book so enjoyable. Brown uses vivid details to make the scenes pop, such as not knowing whether to put his gripping hand palm up or palm down while sitting atop his first bull.
The stories about his beloved dog, Rod, are fascinating. At the dog’s funeral, Brown cried so hard, his mother said, “I hope Barry will feel that way when I die.”
Some stories, particularly those from his hard drinking days, can veer toward the uncomfortable, but they are honest. Brown comes across like Montgomery Clift’s broken down cowboy in “The Misfits” at times.
Many of Brown’s recollections culminate with a positive summation of what are often dire situations. Brown might have created his own type of book genre — rowdy zen rodeo parables.
The book makes clear how wild, difficult, dangerous and low-paying it was to be a cowboy working the rodeo circuit 50 years ago, but also makes clear how much the cowboys loved the life.
Brown will sign copies of “The Bionic Bullrider” from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 24 at Tractor Supply Co., 1818 S. Main St., in Weatherford. He sells his book for $23 a copy.