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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
Willis “Bunky” Hall, 70, enjoys bringing people a smile.
TAMPA -- Morning in the northern suburbs and the cars flow south toward the ashen horizon and the drivers stare straight ahead looking tired. Vacant. Bodies at the wheel, minds somewhere else. Still in dreamland, maybe, or already in the cubicle, or preoccupied with cell phones that seem fused to their skulls.
Here comes a rider, clip-clopping down the green shoulder, bareback on an Appaloosa horse. He is almost Willie Nelson, nearly Gandalf the White. He would be Santa Claus if the saint wore moccasins and weighed 123 pounds.
The commuters see him, and they are startled and they are delighted and they are suddenly aware, and through the glass you can see them smiling.
A man in a Chevy Avalanche snaps his head around. A woman in a white Suburban turns away from her cell phone. When they pass they look in their rearview mirrors for one more glimpse to prolong this moment. This moment of the horse in the morning.
The rider causes thousands of these moments, these holes in the veil of commuter gloom. His name is Willis Eugene Hall, but he goes by Bunky. He is 70 years old. He rides his horse, Cheyenne, along these roads almost every day. He has been riding here since the 1940s.
"The horse is everything," he says. "Without the horse, I'm just another strange-lookin' fella."
He goes on.
"I tell people that if I walk into your neighborhood, I'm a suspicious character. You'll call the law. If I ride a horse into your neighborhood, you'll come out and hand me your children. A horse gives you credibility."
He goes on.
"Once upon a time in everybody's life, they wanted to be a cowboy."
This last point, as much as anything else, seems to explain his effect on people. In a place where the grasslands have been carved into rectangles, the coastlines striped with asphalt, the air crisply conditioned and the men mostly domesticated, Hall is a symbol of the old and the wild, of open range and tumbleweeds, of campfires on ridges under undiminished stars.
He is riding bareback up Anderson Road in the thick of morning rush hour on his way to get some breakfast. At Gunn Highway, something worries Cheyenne.
They are crossing at a red light when she rears up and spins around. Hall holds tight and speaks softly in her ear. He looks limp and frail there in the crosswalk, in the frozen sea of machinery, struggling with his thousand-pound horse. Finally he calms her. They cross and move north on Lynn Road, toward Essrig Elementary School.
On the sidewalk a man is walking his son to school. The boy is squirming and misbehaving. The horse flashes by and the boy stands straight up, pointing in fascination. He runs to catch up. Hall stops to grant an interview. He always has time for those.
"Well," he says, responding to the boy's question, "I keep 'er in the barn."
He rides on at a ragged canter, under the Veterans Expressway, north on Hutchison, west on Mobley, past Pretty Lake and Little Lake, to a restaurant called Yvonne's Cafe. He has gone roughly 8 miles in an hour and 45 minutes. He dismounts and ties Cheyenne to a telephone pole. It's time for a low-cholesterol breakfast: oatmeal and black coffee.
This is his grudging concession to the doctor, even though he has gone off his Lipitor.
"If it's not working," he says, "what am I doing alive?"
More than 50 years ago, Hall used to round up cattle on a ranch a few miles north of here. Now he is a broken cowboy. He has survived two heart attacks, a fall from a building, a motorcycle crash that shattered his lower right leg. He worked with iron and sold junk to provide for his wife and son and five daughters. He taught his children to talk straight and work hard and ride horses. But he smoked too much weed and drank too much whiskey.
"He was a violent, violent nasty drunk," says his son, Will, who still loves his father and sees him regularly. "That's all I'm gonna tell you."
Hall admits this but will not elaborate. His wife left long ago for reasons he prefers not to discuss. He lives alone in a run-down house on Linebaugh Avenue. He drives an old minivan to buy groceries when it's raining too hard to ride. He gets by on Social Security and pension checks and rent from a waste-disposal company that keeps trash bins on his property. Some people mistake him for homeless.
But he has his horse, and a growing audience. In the first six years of this decade alone, Hillsborough County's population increased by nearly 160,000. It has more than quadrupled since 1950. Less open range, more fans. He does not mind the attention.
For Hall, being seen and appreciated is not merely a fringe benefit of riding the horse - it is something like the point.
"What greater purpose in life can one guy have," he says, "than to make people happy?"
He goes on.
"I made a little kid so happy today, and he'll probably remember me for the rest of his life."
He goes on.
"I'm in the lives of so many people, it's frightening."
Almost noon now. Time to be going. "Yvonne," he says, abandoning all pretense of following doctor's orders. "Burger to go."
The burger comes in a Styrofoam container. Hall unbuttons his denim shirt and tucks it next to his heart. His pants are soaked with sweat, caked with horsehair.
"All right, pony," he says. "Let me up."
With supreme effort he swings his bad right leg upward and vaults onto Cheyenne's back. He rides on toward home, quicksilver hair bouncing off his shoulders. Clouds like cotton overhead. Plenty of daylight left.
Thomas Lake can be reached at email@example.com or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 3416.