At the end of the rodeo, Lee Greenwood's anthem blares through the speakers at Westgate River Ranch: "I'm proud to be an American ..."
The crowd stands. The music builds. As the singer asks God to bless his country, four horsemen gallop into the dusty arena, unfurling 7-foot-long flags.
The flags are red, with white letters rimmed in blue sequins. Each man gets a word: GOD. BLESS. THE. USA.
You wonder: Who's the THE guy?
Think about it. The dude two horses ahead gets to be GOD. The next rider is BLESS. The cowboy at the end is Mr. USA. The third horseman isn't even a noun or a verb. He's just an article. Superfluous - except for grammatical purposes.
Who is the THE guy?
- - -
You ask Leroy Mason, who runs the rodeo, if he knows him.
"Sure," Mason says. "He's my son, Grant."
So on a Saturday in June, you meet Grant and his parents for lunch at the ranch. They take off their cowboy hats. Grant blesses the chicken fingers.
He's 15, been riding horses since he was 2. He was homeschooled until last year, when he enrolled at Lake Wales High so he could join the ROTC. Finished the year with a 3.9 GPA. Wants to go to West Point.
He's not what you had in mind. You were expecting some lackey who wrangles calves and lives in a mobile home with his girlfriend, her kid and a bunch of dogs.
"Grant doesn't want to be a cowboy, and I'm thankful for that," says his dad, who used to be one. "Been on the road most of my life. We moved here so Grant wouldn't have to grow up like that. Now he has a permanent home, land, horses." Mason smiles at his son.
"He doesn't know how blessed he is."
- - -
You watch Grant get the animals ready for the rodeo. He works with a guy named Ike.
Grant's cowboy hat is white. Ike's is black. Grant doesn't shave yet. Ike has a droopy mustache. Grant's shirt has dry-cleaner creases; Ike's wilts with sweat.
The teenager and the ranch hand cover more than 300 acres on horseback, flushing bulls from pastures, driving cattle.
Mostly, the THE guy leads.
Ike brings up the rear.
- - -
A half-hour before the rodeo, you're waiting at the deli for a piece of pizza. Ike comes up and asks what sort of story you're doing. You tell him you're here to write about the guy who carries the THE flag.
Ike looks confused. "Well, that would be me."
What? you ask. How can Ike be the THE guy?
"It wasn't by choice," he tells you. "They just handed me that flag four years ago, and I've been carrying it ever since.
"But for some reason, tonight they asked me to carry BLESS. Usually, Grant's BLESS."
- - -
You find Grant's mom outside the ticket booth. Tell her about your conversation with Ike.
Judy Mason hesitates. "Oh, that Ike," she says softly. "He'll say anything to get in the paper."
- - -
As the rodeo riders get ready, you thread through them, asking: Who carries the THE flag?
Ike, says a bull rider. That would be Ike, says a trick rider. Ike, says a steer roper, then the rodeo clown. Barrel rider Caity Wall tells you she choreographed that closing number years ago. Her mom sewed the flags. Her husband is GOD.
"The THE guy?" she says, laughing. "Oh, that's always Ike."
- - -
At the end of the rodeo, as Greenwood's anthem blares through the speakers, GOD gallops into the arena.
Next comes Ike, bearing BLESS. Grant follows, gripping THE.
"I'm proud to be an American ..."
- - -
Afterward, you track down Ike.
His last name is Stein. His horse is Topper. You had it about right: He's 25, lives with the girlfriend, her kid, three dogs.
During the week, Ike takes care of 2,500 cattle. Weekends, he works at the rodeo. He's the guy who opens the bull chutes and prods the steers.
"I'm just the grunt," Ike says. "You don't want to write about me. Write about Grant."
But Grant is BLESS (except when reporters come).
You're the bridge between God and country, Ike.
The genuine article.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at (727) 893-8825 or email@example.com.
Suggest an encounter
Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes they will play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes they may be part of the news. To comment or suggest an idea for a story, contact editor Mike Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)892-2924.
About the rodeo
Westgate River Ranch is on State Road 60, a two-hour drive east from Tampa. It's a timeshare, hotel and RV resort. Every Saturday night, there's a rodeo. For more information, call (863) 692-0727 or visit www.wgriverranch.com.