He was a man…a big, big man…a Bullman!
I got to wondering about a sliver of my long ago the other day. What ever happened to Byron “Bullman” Gilbert? He was unquestionably one of the most unique characters in a cast of movie-worthy personalities I met as I was alternately spending and misspending my youth.
Thanks to Google, I did not wonder long. I found his obituary. He died just a couple of months ago.
Funny how a random memory pulls at you like some ethereal force, a connection to the universe and its workings in the matters of life and death. How could the death I did not know about of a man I have not thought about in years pull on me like this? It’s like my soul intuitively felt a hole in the world that was once filled by a one-of-a-kind presence.
Some might say God put him on my mind…or, if you grew up in the kind of churches I did, you might say, “God laid him on my heart.”
We are the Stars! The mighty, mighty Stars!
When I was in the 5th grade, my parents decided it was their duty as Bible-believing Baptists to get me out of public school. We lived in Mineral Wells, Texas, a has-been burg where an army base and a famous hotel once made it a happening spot, where the options were public school, Catholic school, or…well, that was it.
Mom and Dad weren’t about to send their Baptist boy to Catholic school.
There was a solution on the horizon. Our little church had decided to join the Accelerated Christian Education movement – A.C.E., as it was called. This organization offered a ready-made curriculum for mostly self-guided education. God help you if you had issues with reading or otherwise lacked language skills. I say God help you because most of the teachers and “monitors” (how is that for a job title?) were unqualified to be much help.
I was bitter about the whole thing. I was into sports – football and baseball, especially – and this little fart of a school would only have facsimiles of those – and not even that for a few years. We eventually played eight-man flag football and struggled to find eight boys to field a team. Instead of baseball, it was slow-pitch softball. You needed ten whole bodies for that sport.
My baseball coach stopped by Dad’s auto repair shop to reason with him about leaving me in public school. He believed I had a future in the sport. Dad was not having any of it. It was far more important that his boy learn proper “standards” and take Bible electives. So, off to the Bible Baptist Academy I went, where the uniform was Polyester pants, a baby blue button-down shirt, and an American flag tie.
You didn’t have much hope of actually winning many games when you had to use everything from 6th graders to seniors to scrape enough warm bodies together just to make up a team.
We were determined, however, to play, whatever the outcome, whatever the cost.
We were democratic about choosing the school mascot and colors. The student body voted on both. Ironically, We chose “Stars” as our team name. Ours never shined very brightly until one year, under the leadership of coach and school principal Big Al Henager, we made a run at the championship in football, softball, and volleyball. I say we made a run. We didn’t win any of those championships. But we were competitive.
We did, however, smoke everyone in ping-pong, thanks to my Uncle Troy (three years my senior) and me. We were the best by a mile in Palo Pinto county. A.C.E. combatants were no competition, really.
Our first foray into football was when I was about 14, I think? We did not yet have a team, but we had an invitation to put one together. It seems the mighty Castleberry Christian School in Ft. Worth was all set for a homecoming game, but had no opponent. Whomever they were supposed to play backed out.
Uncle Troy was dating a girl from Castleberry and knew the principal there. He managed to arrange for us to put together a team and play them.
We were a rag-tag bunch. Troy elected himself quarterback. I was a wide receiver and safety. We would only manage just enough players for each of us to play both ways, offense and defense. There was Troy, my best friend and the toughest hombre I have ever known, Robert Bunnell, a few others, and me.
The only two I remember besides Troy and Robert are the Kite twins. One of them, Doug, was into sports. The other, Donald, was not!
I will never forget the sideline huddle before the opening kickoff. Troy, who served as head coach and quarterback, was going over positions and duties. Donald raised his hand.
“Yes, Donald?” Troy sighed.
“Offense is when we have the ball or when they do?”
I think I thought, right then, “This is going to be a dadgum disaster.”
If I did think that, I was completely correct. I believe they had hung 50 on us by halftime. We were wheezing and sucking air like we had scaled Everest.
To add insult to injury, sometime late in the fourth quarter, when it was apparent we were powerless to stop the mighty machine that was Castleberry (who had enough players for both offense and defense plus subs – and uniforms and an actual football field with stands), they came to the line of scrimmage, somewhere deep in our territory. Instead of the quarterback calling out the snap, the entire team sang, “M-i-c-k-e-y M-o-u-s-e.” They hiked the ball and scored. Again.
I hated those sons of bitches. Jesus could love them all He wanted. I wanted no part of it. A couple of years later, my family moved to Arlington. I enrolled at (relatively speaking) sports powerhouse Southside Christian Academy. We beat the piss out of Castleberry and I scored a long touchdown.
Their fastest player, Lance Something, said to me after I scored, “I have never been torched like that.”
I replied, “Get used to it. It’s gonna be a long game.”
We beat those bastards in everything. Football. Softball. Basketball. Volleyball. Besides all that, I walloped their best ping-pong player and outpreached their preacher boy at the State convention. Sweet, sweet revenge.
Work that out theologically, if you can.
The legend of Bullman and the Little Imperfections
Sometime after the Castleberry humiliation and before my family packed up and left Mineral Wells for brighter lights, I met Byron “Bullman” Gilbert. His obituary omits his time at Bible Baptist Academy.
It was a grand old time!
Byron was not quite 16 when a severe football injury caused him permanent brain damage. He was already on the varsity team as a 15-year-old and was touted as perhaps the most promising athlete ever to come into Mineral Wells High School. His injury was a community tragedy. It was, no doubt, devastating to his parents.
Sometime later, those parents met my grandfather, who was pastor of the church and head of the school I attended. Byron, by then, was 23. His parents were looking for ways to assimilate him back into society, to help him grow his social skills again. Whether they suggested it to Granddad or (more likely) my Granddad – who was forever taking in long shots and lost causes – suggested it to them, I do not know. What I do know is that Byron “Bullman” Gilbert enrolled in our little school at age 23 and set Bible Baptist Academy on its ear.
Troy, my uncle and the only son of “Big” Granddad Henager, the aforementioned pastor and school man, became especially close to Byron. I asked him to share some memories and impressions.
Following is our interview.
JourneyMan: Do you remember why Byron chose Bullman as his nickname? How old do you think he was when he came to our school? He was nine years older than me, apparently, based on his obituary.
Troy: He was 23. He loved rodeos. I regret never taking him to one. He never wore a hat but always wore his boots. His parents were the sweetest. I remember being in their home.
He wasn’t really fat – just large & big-framed. He probably outweighed us by 100 lbs back then. We both were so skinny.
JourneyMan: He was probably twice as strong as any of us.
Troy: Exactly! I don’t think he knew how strong he was.
JourneyMan: What is your lasting impression of Bullman?
Troy: Well, he was bigger than life! He was really a gentle giant. He could’ve crushed us to smithereens!! Because of his size, most folks were afraid of him. He had a tender heart. It was easy to make him cry. He just loved life & I don’t think he was truly conscious of his energies. He always helped us to live in the moment. He was not selfish.
I also caught up with my dearest friend Robert Bunnell and asked him what he remembered about Byron. His answer was interesting…
“He’s the only real coach we ever had, and he’s the only one that knew anything about football. He used to say success begins in the classroom.”
Journeyman: He also told us we could horse around in the classroom but not on the football field.
Byron Gilbert was damaged when I met him. I heard the legendary stories of his athletic prowess and promise. I heard how he was a great student, near the top of his class, a phenomenal football player and highly-touted baseball prospect.
I never got to know that Byron. I knew Bullman.
Honestly, I cannot imagine him any other way than as Bullman, the massive, strong, good-natured guy who was “one of the kids.” He would practice football with us, though he was not allowed to play because of his age. He hated it when we horsed around and did not take the practices seriously.
I can hear him clearing his throat and saying, “You can mess around in class. Out here, it’s serious!”
I remember him wrestling four or five of us at once. If he got his hands on you, he would give you “the Texas titty-twister,” a fate worse than death. He would plop down on his rear on the ground and grab at us with those powerful, meaty hands or kick us with his cowboy boots. He was a bull of a man with the mind of a kid and the heart of a saint.
Grasshopper Doo-Doo on you!
When my kids were small, I would hold up two fingers, like the peace sign.
“Know what this means?”
“Two,” Number two daughter Holly would say.
“Peace,” Firstborn Ashley answered.
“No! It means grasshopper doo-doo on you!”
“Dad! That is stupid.”
“No, it’s not. It’s genius.”
Bullman used to do that in class, on the playground, in church, wherever. He would hold up the peace sign and declare, “Grasshopper doo-doo on you.”
He gave that to us and we cherished it.
I named this article, “Bullman and The Little Imperfections.”
You might think I was implying something about his imperfections or deficiencies. Not so.
I should say, we, that rag-tag football team getting Mickey Moused under the lights at a homecoming game…we, that group of kids, some attending Bible Baptist Academy because of their parents’ religious “convictions” and others as a last resort before Juvy or something worse…we were not the Stars. That was the hopeful name we gave ourselves.
We were The Little Imperfections.
Bullman had been a star. He still was to us.
Byron “Bullman” Gilbert was sent to Bible Baptist Academy to be helped by us, but Robert, Troy, and I agree, he made us way better than we ever made him. His parents sent him to us to help him. Granddad took him in to help him. God, I believe, sent him there to be the friend and champion of The Little Imperfections who imagined themselves Stars.
God bless the little imperfections that make us who we are.
God bless Granddad and his heart for the outcasts and the down-and-out.
God bless Bullman.
God bless you if you are, yourself, a little imperfect in great big ways.
Grasshopper doo-doo on the rest of you…especially if you went to Castleberry.