I wanted to do a documentary on Florida Cowboys. Cow Men, actually. There is so little in the America Myth about them, but the first cows in American were the ones that escaped from the Spanish troops of Ponce de Leon. They survived in the prairies and bush, smaller cows, stunted by heat and shitty food, perhaps. But that was the start of it all. During the Civil War, Florida supplied most of the meat to the Confederate Army. Florida is still the second largest producer of beef today, just behind Texas but ahead of Oklahoma. It is difficult to understand how eastern Cow Men have been so largely ignored. By all accounts, they were rough men, good on horses, and called Crackers because in the scrub brush a lasso was of no use. They herded the cows with whips you could hear cracking from a mile away. There were Black Cow Men, too. My intention was to start the credits with the title, "Cracker," rolling across an image of one of them. ,
But I never got that far.
This is the head cowboy for the largest landowner in Florida. Was. If memory serves, he died in a small plane crash out west on a hunting trip. He was a ruggedly handsome fellow, a bit like the Marlboro Man. I was invited on a hog hunt with some cowboys because a friend of mine was his nephew.
"Be at my house at four," he told me. A.M.
By dawn, we were headed for the prairie we would be hunting on. I rode with the second cowboy who was half crazy. He kept a six foot rattlesnake in the toolbox in the back of his truck.
"Reach in there and get me a wrench, will you? I never worry about anyone stealing my tools."
As we walked through the prairie, he would bend over close to my feet and pick up snakes I didn't even see. Apparently, they were everywhere. He'd just hold them up and laugh.
I thought they would be hunting with hunting dogs and guns. The hunting dogs, though, were just strays they picked up on the side of the road, mutts, not hounds at all. Most of them were small. They were housed in a big cage on the back of a truck, and when the cowboy released them, they went running wildly across the plain sniffing for hogs. When they found one, we could hear them in the distance barking and whining. The cowboys would take off running then, me trailing behind with my camera gear.
By the time I'd catch up, they already had the hog on the ground. No guns. Just string. The cowboys would just jump in and hog tie them. Sometimes, one of the dogs had gotten gored. One of them died in front of us.
"You're going home, son," was the eulogy they gave him.
If they had jumped a female, they would just let her go. If it was a male with testicles, they would cut them off, untie him, and let him stagger off.
"Jesus--aren't you going to put something on that!?!?" I exclaimed. They looked at me like I was crazy.
"You can't eat their meat. It tastes bad. Without his nuts, he'll get bigger, fatter. Next time we see him, he'll be sweet meat. That's the ones we eat."
They kept the nuts.
While we were eating lunch, they put the dogs back in the cage. One of the bigger ones, an obviously dominant male, began sniffing a younger dog sweetly. I watched as it licked his ears and nuzzled him, then crawled onto his back and mounted him. The snake handler began screaming at him and banging the cage with a tire iron.
"Get off him you goddamned queer!"
And he did. For a bit. Then I saw him start all over again and for a second time, he mounted the young pup. And I took a chance.
"See? This is what I try telling people. That dog ain't courting the older ones in the cage. You know which one he's going for. Everybody loves a puppy."
They all looked at me. Nobody said anything. Then they started telling a tale about another cowboy they used to work with.
"Remember old Cock Breath?"
After lunch, we got in the trucks and headed out for another part of the prairie. A lot of the land was wet, so there was much weaving about to stay on dry ground. Occasionally they would have to stop and get out the chainsaws so they could cut up and move a fallen tree. And, as usual, I sat in the truck and watched. Nobody asked me to help.
When we got to a new place, they let the dogs out once again and they went running. And so did the cowboys, me trailing behind carrying my cameras and gear. Only this time, I didn't keep up. I stopped to listen. They were just gone. There I was standing in the middle of a bunch of trees in a long stretch of swampy prairie. Holy shit! I was lost. Had no sense of direction on this one. Which way had they gone? Which way was the truck? My breathing was quick. Oh, they would get a kick out of this. I stood still. There was no sense in walking and getting further lost. I listened. Then I heard something coming through the grass. I crouched waiting for an attack, but it was one of the little dogs.
"Come here boy. Come here. Let's find the others. C'mon."
I was just hoping he wouldn't run away. I didn't know where he was going, but I followed him getting more panicked by the minute. But the little fellow was good. He took me back to the truck. It was not the way we came, though. I had to wade through some waist deep mucky water to get to the other side of a wide ditch. When I got to the truck, the cowboys were already there. They looked at me coming up out of the water like some Swamp Boy. Nobody said anything, but there was some chuckling and shaking of heads. Yea, those cowboys got a kick out of that one.
Eventually they found a hog they wanted, a sweet meat keeper. I was there for that one. The cowboy jumped in and tied him with the string, then looked at me and said, "Come over here and hold him down."
I went over and put my knee on the hog's back and my hands on his head. He lay there worn out and passive. One of the cowboys began to tell me about all the diseases you can get from handling wild swine. There were a lot of them.
"Remember how old Bob got sick that one time? Christ, he almost died."
These guys were true pals.
The head cowboy came back and took my place on the hog. What came next was brutal and I'll spare you the details. It was enough, though, to make you consider vegetarianism.
It was deep into the afternoon at that point, and the hunt was over. We drove back to the snake handler's trailer. It was a wreck of a place in the middle of nowhere but situated on a big lake. They broke out the skeet guns and started chucking clay pigeons or whatever out over the lake.
They offered me a turn. I had shot a rifle only once before in my life and wanted to pass, but no, they insisted. I, of course, never hit a thing.
That night, they were going gator hunting, but I was done. I couldn't take pictures at night, and I was worn out. For them, this was the vacation time. This was fun. They would be back to work the next day with the cattle.
I thanked them for taking me out with them and climbed into my car.
Those were some really rough guys. I never made the documentary.
And so it goes.