Cowboy people are so connected, and one thing always seems to lead to another. It’s as if we’re all synced up, and living life according to a grand, symphonic plan—you know, that master script we call the story of our lives.
It happened again this week when Betty Muzio posted a picture of the late and colorful cowboy character Evert Muzio Sr. and my dad (Dr. Frank Santos), which was snapped right after they won the Chowchilla Stampede Century Roping decades ago. Betty, who’s Evert Muzio Jr.’s wife, asked on Monday via the worldwide web if I had a clue which year those two awesome old amigos won one of our most beloved California cowboy classics.
By cowboy coincidence, I’d just perused the July issue of The Team Roping Journal, and though I was the only one in the room at the time, smiled and said, “Hello, Junior!” out loud when I flipped over Page 80 and saw his smiling face, as captured this spring by my photographer friend Dan Hubbell in front of the Clovis Rodeo chutes during the California spring rodeo run.
Our climate on the California Coast comes complete with some wide-ranging weather swings, and here lately—when we went from an unseasonably mild, coastal-cloud-cover 74 degrees one day to a scorching 109 the next—my afternoon happy place has been over at my dad’s, where for fitness and desk-duty stress-relief reasons I tread water for an hour while talking to my dad, who typically uses the father-daughter time for his own version of underwater aerobics over in the shallow end.
On Wednesday—which just happened to be Junior’s 83rd birthday—I showed my dad the picture of him and old Evert, and asked if he remembered which year they won that roping, so I could respond to Betty. He did not remember offhand, but thought he might have that buckle in his house somewhere. He dried off, went inside, came back out, and handed me the buckle while I continued to tread water under the cover of one of my sons’ old, beat-up straw cowboy hats.
I’ve known all along that my dad always loved Junior’s dad (and I remember his genuinely joyful laugh from when I was a kid). Dad absolutely adores Junior as one of his dearest old friends. I remember Junior and Dad winning the team roping a couple times together at the Cow Palace in 1976 (the second year my dad won the all-around there) and ‘79, back when all the big dogs migrated to San Francisco for the fall classic formerly known as “The Playoffs to the NFR.” At that time, the Cow Palace was the final National Finals Rodeo-cut battleground, and every year there was a dramatic, finish-line shuffle for those last few Top 15 spots.
I also remember Dad and Junior laughing in recent times in recognition of the fact that, “The odds of a grape farmer and a horse doctor ever doing that again are probably slim and none. Team roping is just so unbelievably tough today.” Kaleb Driggers and that other Junior are likely not going to let weekend warriors take a few swings over one’s back and coast to the winner’s circle with layups when they’re perfecting the Hail Mary three-point play.
My dad fondly remembered that he’d seen that picture of Junior’s dad and him at Chowchilla on the wall at Evert Sr’s house over in the Central California Valley many moons ago, and was touched that it now hangs in Junior and Betty’s home. Dad also remembered that old Evert had to borrow a cowboy hat for that picture because—like his son—ball caps were more his style.
“Evert borrowed Tom Flenniken’s hat for that picture,” my dad told me, as I continued to tread water.
Care for another cool cowboy connection? Tom Flenniken, who’s a contemporary of my dad and Junior, is the dad of BFI champ Tommye Flenniken, who won that prestigious Reno roping heeling for my Cal Poly comrade Rocky Carpenter back in 1990. You’re all now also getting to know the third long, lean, roping Flenniken. Tom’s grandson and Tommye’s son, Jeff, is second in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association rookie heading race only to Oklahoma’s Brenten Hall right now.
If his name is starting to ring a bell, Jeff Flenniken—who calls Caldwell, Idaho, home—won the short round and finished 10th in the average with California’s Wyatt Hansen at the 2017 BFI. Last month, Jeff and Jake Minor placed in the second and fifth rounds at the 2018 BFI.
Back to that picture that now hangs on a second-generation wall in The House of Muzio, it sparked a memory from conversations my dad had with Evert while waiting horseback to run their next steer at ropings like Chowchilla all those years ago. Evert grew up in Italy, as did my dad’s descendants on my Nana Lucy Cavazza Santos’s side.
Though old Evert was bluffing when he told my dad back then that his “Bobalee” nickname stood for grandfather in Italian—I Googled it, and Nonno is actually the Italian word for grandfather—his humble stories of his original homeland are heartwarming. For all of you who know that Junior Muzio is the consummate cowboy storyteller, you should also know just how naturally he comes by that skill. It’s in his DNA from his dad.
“Back in Italy, Evert’s family had dairy cows,” my dad recalled. “Those cows calved in the spring, because they herded them up into the high country for the summertime. The calves didn’t make the trek, and they milked those cows twice a day by hand when they took a break in the meadows. That’s why the Italians have so many veal dishes. They needed to milk those cows. They couldn’t send the fresh milk down the mountain fast enough for it to stay fresh, so they made cheese instead. That was their product, and how they made their living.
“In the wintertime, they kept those milk cows under their house. It protected the cows from the cold—no different than keeping them in a barn—and hot air rises. They used the body heat from those cows to help keep their house warm.”
That’s common-sense cowboy ingenuity for you. Anyway, Betty Muzio, to answer your question and make a short story long, my dad did find that buckle. And your dear old dad-in-law and my dad won the Chowchilla Stampede Century Roping almost 40 years ago in 1979.