It’s Travel Tuesday. Today, I’ll visit the past.
On the peaceful grounds of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum this fall, I stumbled upon the final resting place of a number of rodeo animals from across the country, including a bucking bull aptly named Tornado who hailed from Oklahoma.
I wrote a piece for The Oklahoman on the story beyond the grave. This is what I found out:
The hurler of cowboys packaged 1,500 pounds of muscle and bone and grit under his bull’s skin. Malice, though, never lived behind the whites of his soul-piercing eyes. He threw almost all of ’em off without pulverizing ’em, at least not on purpose.
These things and more I learned about Tornado, the bucking bull.
The gardens at Oklahoma City’s National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum are a confluence of some of the West’s rodeo greats — of the livestock variety. There are three other animals buried here, Midnight and Five Minutes Til Midnight, both bucking horses, and the museum’s Longhorn mascot, Abilene. There are also memorials to a handful more. The markers are part of an initiative that began 50 years ago, when the museum first opened, explained the museum’s curator and McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture, Don Reeves.
There hasn’t been a new animal buried here for decades.
Tornado, born in 1957, went to that big ranch in the sky in 1972. His final resting place lies down a winding stone path beyond the sculpture garden outside of the museum.
A few monuments and graves dot the green landscape cut with a lily pad-dotted stream. A crow caws, and a breeze rustles the crisping leaves of nearby oak trees. A honeybee sips nectar from an azalea, and the interstate hums in the distance as I walk with the Reeves to Tornado’s grave.
Words on a plaque tell me a little more about Tornado.
“Red with a white face, he was a crossbred bull — half Brahman, half Hereford. Some say he was the best rodeo bucking bull that ever lived. Unridden in six competitive seasons, Tornado bucked off 220 professional cowboys, all victims of that storm of turbulence for which he was named.”
There’s more to the story. A wiry, aging cowboy called Freckles Brown. A night — Dec. 1, 1967 — at the National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City. An encounter: Champion man vs. champion beast. I want to know more.
King of bucking bulls
I’m led to the belly of the museum, where I’m handed a manila folder that holds the whispers of the past.
I sit down and open the one marked “Tornado.”
A beast in black-and-white tops the pile. He stares back at me in a gentle sort of way; I can make out his eyelashes. The animal looks more likely to lower his massive head in search of a meal than whip a cowboy into arena seats. I flip through the stack of clippings, letters and drafts of magazine articles.
Jim Shoulders, a Henryetta rancher and rodeo immortal, winner of 16 world championship rodeo titles, bought a 3-year-old Tornado in south Texas, according to columns by legendary Oklahoman sports writer and columnist Frank Boggs.
Boggs recalled the time he visited the Shoulders’ ranch to conduct an “interview” with Tornado on a windless and quiet Oklahoma morning.
“I forgot to ask Tornado any questions,” wrote Boggs. “For one thing, my voice wouldn’t work, having saved itself for screaming when it became necessary.”
Boggs mused that Tornado could be “one of the greatest athletes ever produced by the state.”
Tornado, king of the bucking bulls, became as legendary as his larger-than-life owner as he wiped out all of the best bull riders in the sport.
There came a duel
On Dec. 1, 1967, rodeo’s best cowboys were in Oklahoma City for the National Finals Rodeo — among them, Freckles Brown, a beloved cowboy from Soper known for his small stature and longevity in the rodeo world. At 41, he became a world champion. Most of the competitors in 1967 were half the 46-year-old’s age.
Man and beast were each champions known for giving it their best shot.
The crowd stood in silence as Tornado burst out of the chute.
Eight seconds later, the bull’s seven-year undefeated streak ended and fans screamed themselves hoarse.
“It was the greatest experience of my life,” Brown told a reporter. “He came out of the chute and started kicking and bucking. I couldn’t hear nothing. I just held on. When I got off I heard the crowd hollering and they wouldn’t let up. They just kept on and I knew I’d done it.”
Just a few years later, Tornado retired to the Shoulders’ ranch, where the bull spent lot of time with his head in the feed trough and with female cows he hadn’t had time to date while tossing cowboys.
One spring day in 1972, he laid down.
Newspapers carried dispatches of Tornado’s death, and black cowboy hats bowed as the bull was laid to rest under a grassy knoll at the then-National Cowboy Hall of Fame.
I close the manila folder and return to my office, where I pick up the phone.
Jim Shoulders died in 2007, but I call his widow, Sharon Shoulders.
Time and again, reporters of the era noted Tornado’s apparent lack of malice, but it remained unclear to me how someone could draw that conclusion about an animal.
From her home in Henryetta, Sharon Shoulders tells me about the cookies, fed to Tornado by hand by their two youngest daughters when their dad, Jim, worked as a professional stock contractor producing rodeos all over the United States.
In the pasture, Tornado was docile and gentle, she said. Though a fearsome competitor, he never fought in the chutes or stomped cowboys. He wasn’t like the bulls of today, bred and fed and trained to fight, either. His talents were natural.
“He’d just stand there; he’d look out between the chute boards, almost like he was sizing up what he was going to do,” she says.
Sometimes, a really, really good bull rider would get on him, he would buck so hard. And sometimes, if you had some of the locals, he would hardly buck at all.”
Shoulders thanks me for the call. She loves to talk about her husband and Tornado.
Tornado’s song ended long ago, but at the museum, and in the hearts of those who knew him, the melody lingers on.