As a reporter, I often ponder my perception of life. As I continue in my career and pen stories and photograph events, my soul seems calloused, jaded, and almost as black as a Virginia coal miner’s face.
I have penned a story about a spouse who takes the life of his love simply because he had a thought. I witnessed the senseless destruction of young lives because they were racing their peers back school. I stood next to the wreckage of vehicles and covered bodies because an individual could not control their own desires.
As my pen records these events, I feel my lower body descending into an ancient tar pit. The black oozing fingers grasping tighter around my ankles drag me further into the mire.
To many people’s surprise, I yearn for Winter. I know most of you are scratching your head, or in hipster language, you are smh knowing my soul must truly be lost.
I do not yearn for the physical characteristics of Winter. I am allergic to the cold. Therefore, Winter means itching body parts, whelps, and broken skin.
Yet, I long for the principals of Winter. I long for the hope and rebirth Winter offers.
Winter begins by forcing us to recount our blessings and demands. We pause from our IPhones, IPADS, Playstations, and careers and offer thanks to those who touch our lives. Winter prepares our souls and minds for the lessons to come as the season progresses.
December offers magic, hope, and love. Some of my fellows focus on the cost of December—and try to outmaneuver their friends and families more skillfully than Michael Jordan driving to the basket. Yet, December’s end humbles us all even if it is for just a moment.
However, the true magic of Winter happens in January and February. This transformation, this phenomenon happens in the stock show barns across Texas each January and February. Most do not understand the battle or the fight the young stock show kid endures just to arrive at the calendar months, January-February.
Grown men have crumbled under the stress and carnage of battlefields across the world. Grown women succumb to the pain, torture, and depression of childbirth. The stock show kid is in a fight far worse. The fight they will endure conjures memories of the battle between Ali and Frazier.
I know, most at this time may dismiss this piece as melodramatic. Some my question my comparisons because many have not lived the fight. I am not now nor will I ever claim this is the only battle young people will endure. There are those children who live homeless, or who are trapped in slavery and human trafficking that experience a very different fight. So please bare with me as I begin to commentate the new “Thrilla in Manila.”
A young stock show kid’s first trip to the canvas begins innocently enough. His/her Agriculture teacher, 4H leader, or parent will help them select their project. This project may either be a live animal or a product the youngster must construct from scratch.
The first rounds of the fight are more of a teasing session between the stock show kid and his opponent. Here the first cruel reality becomes apparent they are not battling another person or object—entering the right corner weighing in at 260 pounds wearing yellow trunks—life.
The stock show kid must make responsible decisions. They have to tell their friends no, they have to budget their time, they must travel to the barn at least twice a day. They must exercise, they must feed, they must clean, they must groom, and they must give their heart to their project.
Life scores a few jabs and hits when the stock show kid has to give up the cell phone, give up the weekend with the girlfriend/boyfriend because of a jackpot show, and have to give up new clothes and other items they wish to purchase because their money is being spent on feed, medicine, and show supplies.
Parents stand in their child’s corner happy. Life has landed few punches and they watch as their child strikes back growing confident in his swing and his footwork.
However, Life is an experienced opponent. Life faced the child’s parents, grandparents, and great-grand parents—the battle is only beginning.
The first right hook lands. The stock show kid, successful in their previous five jackpots, stands in awe as the judge places their animal last. Other competitors who do not spend the same hours in the struggle move past them. Animals lesser in stature move in front, to the side, to the championship circle. The first lesson about timing, over confidence, complacency, and sometimes connections land with an impressive thud against the ego and stamina of the stock show kid.
During the ride home from the ring, the parents try to explain the lesson of “politics, networking, and just lucky breaks.” The stock show kid returns to the barn determined to control his/her own actions. Complacency never built championships. Ego uncontrolled is never an ally but a silent partner with the opponent life. The stock show kid exercises his animal harder; they practice their techniques in the ring.
The Agriculture Mechanic student tweaks their design, reconfigures their layout and vows to remain committed.
Life entered the “Thrilla in Manila” intending to win. In a blur of fancy movement, a feinted jab, Life lands the upper cut. The stock show kid enters the barn to find his project animal laying prone on the ground, breathing shallow, eyes glazed over. The project animal has prepared to exit the ring and the fight.
The stock show kid must race time to bring their “project to the vet.” However, now it’s no longer a “project”. This animal has been dependant upon the stock show kid for food, water, shelter, support, and love. The “project” moved from the barn to the kid’s heart. Now this kid must confront an emergency. The lucky kid receives grand news that with time, care, and effort their animal will live.
Life wears upon the kids physical strength and emotions. Sleepless nights pass in the barn as the stock show kid hand feeds his animal—a part of his soul willing him to survive. Some do, some do not.
Yet, you will find the stock show kid who lost a part of his soul in the stock show barns in January and February. He will offer assistance to his fellow brother/sister who is showing five animals but only has two hands. He/she will stand near the ring and cheer on his fellow brothers and sisters as they try to win the championship.
I know you are scratching your head and saying brothers and sisters? Stock show kids develop bonds not only with their animals but also with their fellow stock show kids. They travel across the state to compete against each other. Yet, they will spend time assisting one another with grooming and preparing each other’s animals for the ring. The stock show kid, views life differently. Each one of them has spent months fighting the same opponent. They see in each other’s eyes the marks left by the battle and snatch a glimpse of the final “rumble in the jungle” (forgive me for using a different metaphor here.)
Parents stand in the stock show kid’s corner. Their role is relegated to the bucket person. They can hold the bucket; they can hold the towel, dab the cuts, and offer encouragement and warning. However, they cannot take their place. They cannot take their child’s grief, nor can they take their child’s beating. They must bear witness to the fight knowing if they throw in the towel, the stock show kid loses more than a bout.
Most are waiting for the end of the fight. For those who enter the show ring and place in the sale, parents and spectators may believe the fight has ended.
Yet, life is a crafty opponent. If you glance into the right corner, at the pause between round 14 and round 15, you will see Life smiling. It is not a smile of congratulations for his opponent. Life is not cheering for the opponent’s triumph. It is a smile of evil. The stock show kid soon learns the brutality of his opponent. The bell rings, the opponents march to the center of the ring—round 15 winner leaves battered, bloody, but victorious.
Life dances around the mat, Life moves to the right, and then back to the left—the stock show kid watches in anticipation. Suddenly, Life springs into the stock show kids’ field of view arm drawn back prepared to deliver the roundhouse punch—the TKO.
As the auctioneer’s gavel bangs down upon the podium and his chant rings out sold—reality in the form of a roundhouse punch lands square upon the jaw of the stock show kid. His project animal and he/she are separated for life.
The project animal will soon be processed at a slaughter facility and enter the food chain. A small piece of the stock show kid’s soul has been cut.
For some it is the TKO—the grief and pain of loss so great, they choose never to relive the experience. They choose another activity.
For the vast majority—they brush a small tear from their eye understanding now the circle of life—understanding the battlefield ready for the next challenge.
They turn to their teacher or their parent and say “lets head to the truck, I know where there are some better lambs, goats, steers, or swine.
Parents exhale silently proud, knowing life was not the victor and that their child has developed the skills and weapons to defeat any challenge.
The stock show kid is much like Ali, who remarked the “Thrilla in Manilla’ as the closet thing to dying that I know”, the battle may be bloody but they are the greatest of all time.
Winter—my camera’s lens captures the battle, the triumph, and the sadness—it is these images that allow me the strength to escape the tar pit.