R. V. Schmidt, known to many as Richard, is not a small man. Standing well over six feet barefoot, his worn cowboy boots add an extra inch and a half. Then there’s the cowboy hat sitting on top of his silvered hair, adding another couple of inches to the already impressively tall figure. His eyes shine out from under the brim, kindly and thoughtful.
Seeing Richard towering over whoever he stands next to, it’s easy to imagine Virgil Cooper, namesake and main character of Richard’s newest book, Virgil Cooper. Virgil, who stood six feet, six inches off the ground and had “the arms of an orangutan,” spent his career as one of the great bulldoggers of the mid twentieth century. Virgil lived a life jumping off horses and wrestling angry steer to the ground. His long arms allowed him to “stretch so far out of the saddle that he was touching horns before his boots left the stirrups.” To get an idea of the strength and courage it takes to jump of a running horse and land on a steer’s neck, look at this video.
But Virgil was more than just a great bulldogger. He joined the rodeo not so much for a new life, but rather to get away from his unhappy, abusive family. He hated the day-in, day-out misery of working on his family farm. So when his buddy Cody gave him a chance to ride an unbroken horse, he gave it a try. Virgil took to it like a natural, and Cody immediately saw a future for him.
“He showed up with a Sunday suit and some tall tale about never ridin’ a horse before and then proceeded to wrestle one of my green broke mares down like a nanny goat and shoot out across the flatland bareback,” Cody told his friends. “When I seen eem hangin’ from that mare’s neck I changed my mind about makin’ eem into a steer roper. I figger he’s about strong enough and crazy enough he may just be a bulldogger.”
Thus began Virgil Cooper’s first career. Soon he began to work the rodeo circuit, caring for horses and slowly learning how to handle the massive weight and strength of a steer, wrestling it to the ground. He was quite good at it, and within a few years was able to make some money, putting it aside for a ranch when it came time for him to retire.
Then came the Pendleton Roundup. Already a national champion, Virgil knew what he was doing. But this time, things didn’t work out. He ended up in a pile of dust on the arena floor with a broken neck and leg. The horse didn’t make it. As he lay in the hospital bed, his neck in traction and unable to feel his toes, he knew his rodeo career had ended.
“Don’t take it so hard, Virgil,” his buddy Cody consoled him, spooning ice cream into his mouth. “You ain’t the first cowboy that’s broke his neck.” But the kind words offered little consolation. Virgil knew he had a long trail ahead of him, one that began with moving his toes.
However, even though he had to walk away from the bulldogging, he never gave up his love for animals. He went back to school, became a veterinarian, and tried to begin anew.
But that’s where the story begins. Although it chronicles much of his career, Virgil Cooper isn’t just about a bulldogger who made it big. It’s the story of what happens when a life is radically changed, altered in a way that makes the old one impossible. It’s about healing broken bones, recreating an identity, and remaking a life.
You can purchase a copy of Virgil Cooper on Amazon.
R. V. Schmidt is an award-wining cowboy poet, artist and storyteller. He is the author of several books and has been included in an anthology by the Lakeside Writers’ Guild. He recently received a certificate of acknowledgment from Congress for his work, some of which has been published in American Cowboy magazine. He is the current Poet Laureate in Lake County, California, where he also is Literary Chair of the Lake County Arts Council.