OPINION: A service station stop finds a determined future bull rider

By Rheta Grimsley Johnson

It was a bitter cold day before Christmas, the kind that gives winter a bad name. I was sitting in a service station office to stay out of the wind while waiting on the station owner to check my car’s vitals.
The mechanic had an assistant, his boy, about 9 or 10, a kid working instead of goofing off during school holidays. The boy hustled outside to help whenever a new customer drove into the bay. I liked his hustle.
At one point, the industrious kid and I ended up sitting there looking at one another. Adults don’t handle silence well. He ate a cookie. I blinked first. For lack of anything better to say, I asked that stupid question I used to hate when I was a child: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I remember panicking as a child when some well-meaning adult, usually one of my parents’ friends, would throw out that rhetorical challenge. I’d be standing there, looking at the ground, shuffling my feet, trying to think of the correct answer, when the grown-up finally would give up, shrug and saunter off, not caring all that much what I wanted to be when I grew up anyhow.
Until I was 13, I wanted to be a veterinarian, only a vet who didn’t have to pass a lot of math and science courses or do any bloody surgery. I basically wanted to groom horses and walk dogs. By the time you listed the qualifications and amendments, nobody was listening.
After age 13, I wanted to write stories for a newspaper, but that sounded preposterous. I wasn’t even sure how one became a reporter. Nobody I knew was a reporter, and the ones I’d seen on television – except for Superman’s perky Lois Lane and voluptuous Brenda Starr in the funnies – were men. I figured the interrogating grown-up wanted me to say nurse or mother or teacher, something respectable and gender-appropriate and not the stuff of comic strips. So, struck dumb, I appeared too stupid to have an opinion on my future life.
This boy didn’t hesitate. “I want to be a PBR,” he said.
PBR? PBR? I ran through the list of professions that go by their acronyms: EMT’s, CPA’s. I even though of Pabst Blue Ribbon, but decided that couldn’t be.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“A professional bull rider,” he said, looking incredulous that a grown woman didn’t know such an obvious thing.
“Oh,” I said. Of course. A PBR. “What’s your best subject in school?” I resorted to the second most hackneyed question adults ask children.
“Math,” he said. Then – I didn’t blame him – he turned away from me and started scribbling on a piece of paper.
Before I left, the boy handed me a piece of paper.
On it he had written in a careful hand: “Matthew Ryan Smith. Subject: Math/Works Hard. Wants to be a professional bull rider. PBR.”
I bet Matthew will become whatever he wants to become. He may change his mind a few times – or some bull may change it for him – but I suspect he’ll never let clueless adults whittle away at his ambition and dreams however preposterous they might sound when spoken aloud.

Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a syndicated columnist. She lives in the Iuka vicinity. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.