FORT WORTH -- "We're going to enter you into the goat milking contest," my boss said during a planning meeting for the paper's coverage of the Fort Worth Stock Show. "And you need to buy a cowboy hat."
I knew the Stock Show was an annual happening in Fort Worth. I'd heard stories about the "Stock Show crud," the wintry mix of fever and coughing that often accompanies the annual celebration of livestock.
I'd never been told, however, that goat milking was part of the Stock Show. And I hadn't worn a cowboy hat since I was nearly 8, back when my mother and I enjoyed trail rides through the Hill Country around Austin.
I've got vague memories of slipping in and out of the painted steel bars of cattle holding areas, chasing friends while a good country song blared in the background at rodeos in Austin. I remember seeing my mom race around the arena with the crew of women who performed the opening ceremonies.
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I was always (read: still am) a cautious kid. Seeing her ride took away any fears I had about being on horseback.
The first horse I ever rode was named Dallas. A few minutes into my first ride he bucked me off, and I landed on a cactus.
At the age of 8, I didn't care about any cliché phrases involving getting back on the horse. I was done.
I remember looking up, tears welling, and seeing Horace, a longtime family friend who was teaching me to ride. He yanked my arm and threw me back up on Dallas.
Fast-forward a decade or so. My goal was to uncover what draws nearly 1 million people to the Stock Show and Rodeo every year. After two days, I realized that I already knew the answer. I had just forgotten.
Experiencing the Stock Show meant getting back up on that horse and revisiting a part of my childhood, while also discovering much about Fort Worth, my new home.
It would have been easy to eat a cinnamon roll, look at the animals and enjoy the novelty of it all, while ignoring the real reason for the event. I tried not to do so.
The Stock Show stands as a testament to a lifestyle centered on hard work and dedication. There is a commitment to honest work that capitalizes on our natural resources. You see it in the faces of the young FFA members showing their Jersey and dairy cows. You see it in the mothers and fathers showing their young children how to finish chores around the cattle barns.
Farmers and ranchers make up only 2 percent of the population. The other 98 percent of us rely on them, however, for the basic unit of sustenance: food. Farmers and ranchers today pocket only 19 cents of every $1 from retail sales of their products. In 1980, they took home 31 cents.
Delores Ward, owner of Hatters Custom Hats, helped me buy a cowboy hat. Her family bought Hatters from its original owners in 1980. The company has been doing business for 57 years and makes its hats in a factory in north Fort Worth.
"The Stock Show is where we make our money," Ward said.
While I never truly felt comfortable in my hat, it was a great experience to get to know one of the numerous vendors at the show. Ward isn't alone in her reliance on the Stock Show.
It struck me that the show, while mostly fun and games for me, is extremely important to the farmers, ranchers and all those dependent upon the agriculture and food industry. This is the time of year for harvesting some fruits of their labor.
Country music and cowboy hats are the outward signs of this lifestyle, but the character of everyone I met is what resonates from my two days at the show.
When the Stock Show isn't all about business, it sure knows how to entertain. I went to the first night of Bulls' Night Out and had a blast. The crowd was loud and the bulls were insanely angry.
In the middle of the show was Cowboy Poker - a game in which four players sit at a poker table in the middle of the arena. The bullfighters release a bull, who charges the table. The last guy to flee wins a cash prize. (I'm grateful that participating in this wasn't another Star-Telegram tradition.)
That night, however, the bull in Cowboy Poker didn't attack anyone.
"I haven't seen that since I started writing my rodeo column in 1987," Star-Telegram rodeo correspondent Brett Hoffman said.
Another anomaly of this year's show was the pristine weather. Leading up to the Stock Show opening, I'd been told to anticipate bitter weather. It was warm and sunny for my visit, and I wondered if I had missed out on the true spirit of the Stock Show. Turns out, it really didn't matter.
I had been separated from this community for 13 years and yet it took only two days to recall the encouragement and respect that courses through the veins of its people, just like Horace and my mother.
It's not the fashion, food, animals, music, midway or arenas that make the Stock Show. It's the people. They are Cowtown.
And I am one lucky guy to call it home.
Nick Dean is the Star-Telegram's social media and Page 2A editor.