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John Payne knows what is to be done the next time he dies. A little more than 20 years ago, he purchased the land where he was born in downtown Shidler, Oklahoma. There is no longer a small doctor’s office there, that was torn down long ago. But Payne has put a large wire basket corner post filled with rocks to mark the spot. It is topped off by a large metal cross with the metallic sentiment of “didn’t get a lot done, but sure had a lotta fun”. Payne figures the second time around he will do a better job of burning himself up by being cremated and the ashes can reside among the rocks of the corner post. There is also an old metal rim of a wagon wheel that will symbolize the complete journey made. “I started here and ended up here after being around the world”. He would have never made it around the world if he hadn’t died the first time.
Payne and his four brothers were raised in a ranching family outside of Shidler in the grass and brush of the Osage oil patch. It was here that the early 20th century surprised so many tribal members with sudden wealth. The young John Payne couldn’t see himself being anything be a cowboy.
But only two months after his 20th birthday, he was helping his dad tear down an old house when he climbed a pole 25 feet in the air to cut the electric lines feeding the run-down structure. He thought the power was off. It wasn’t and 7200 volts shot through his body for at least 10 seconds. Later he would recall how he felt his blood “boiling” inside. He fell the full 25 feet to the ground and his friend Gary Hughes began pounding his chest and giving him mouth to mouth. It was later estimated that he had been “dead” for about five minutes.
The closest ER was Ponca City and by the time he was hauled there, he had regained at least part of his sense of humor and dry view of life (which was getting drier). A nurse was trying to get some basic information as they were getting him ready for surgery and ask if he was allergic to anything. “Electricity makes me break out a bit” was the quick answer.
The fingers of the right hand had been burnt through as had most of the arm and the thighbone of the left leg was exposed. The doctor determined that the right arm had to come off at the shoulder and also the left leg. Payne let them have the arm. But the leg would have to stay. Taking it would mean he couldn’t ride a horse and then there would be no point in saving him anyway.
After five weeks, the doctors announced there was no apparent brain damage. Both Payne and all who knew him for 20 years wondered how they could tell.
More times than not tragedies open doors we would have never guessed. They almost always show our true nature, individually and nationally. For the next 15 years or so, John Payne proved over and over again that a one-armed cowboy can be a hell of a hand. He even managed to keep rodeoing some, pinning that empty right sleeve to his shirt to keep it from flapping in his face while on a bareback or saddle bronc. Unlike most, he never had to worry about being DQed for slapping the horse with a free hand. He ranched on his own, owned a saloon for a while, and with the help of some well-trained cow ponies and a few Blackmouth Cur dogs were known far and wide for his ability to gather wild cattle. He took calls from all over the nation to pen cattle no one else could get near.
In fact, it was a bunch of wild bulls captured in the swamps of Florida that started him on his last (at least for now) career path and worldwide acclaim. He had them pastured but had to bring them in every evening to water. He found that with some patience and help of a good horse, the cracks of his bullwhip, and those Cur dogs he could put the bulls up on the covered porch and have them stay as long as he wanted. His wife and grandmother (it was her house) objected strongly and so he dragged an old flatbed dump truck that wouldn’t run any moreover from his dad’s and started doing the same thing on it.
This was toward the end of the 1980s and the combination of a fading cattle market, interest rates, and a couple of questionable decisions had Payne over $100,000 in debt and living with his grandmother. So when the great Walter Alsbaugh of the 101 Wild West Rodeo Company offered to buy those Florida bulls to see if they would buck, John jumped at it. If Mr. Walt were still alive you would know him in a minute. He would be the one behind the bucking chutes giving the order in a slow drawl and a smile big enough to see that the front tooth on the right side was missing. But he was “close with a dollar”.
When Payne showed up at Ponca City to watch the bulls perform, he commented to Alsbaugh about the poor entertainment they had between events. Mr. Walt told him if he thought he could do any better, he was welcome to try and John told him he would be ready by the next year’s rodeo.
He had thought he could maneuver stock on anything if he had a ramp for them. He bought an old stock trailer from his brother for $800 (it only took him three years to pay it off) and with a cutting torch, welder and one good arm began making alterations. The old trailer soon had a ramp that could be accessed from the flatbed truck pulling and what could best be described as a “runway” on top.
At the next Ponca City Rodeo, Payne put four Corrientte roping steers on top of the trailer by way of the bed of a truck and a built-on ramp. That performance was for free as were the next few done for Alsbaugh.
Payne’s first paid performance occurred when the great Hall of Fame rodeo announcer Clem McSpaden hired him to do his thing at a pasture roping he was contracting outside of Brushyhead, Oklahoma. A pasture roping is just a team roping contest in an 80-acre arena with few rules other than catch the cattle on both ends. “Clem always paid me upfront. He never paid me much. But he always paid me.”
That was the beginning of probably the most successful specialty act rodeo will ever have. The next year he worked over 90 rodeos. Over a 22 year period, “John Payne, the One-Armed Bandit” was named the PRCA Specialty Act of the Year a record 15 times. The animals used in the act have ranged from cattle to zebras to buffalo. All paraded around through their steps by Payne riding a well-trained horse or mule mostly a full speed with the reins down.
John Payne is a natural ham and character. But he was above all a first-rate, sure-enough horsebacker and a patient and insightful trainer of animals.
“I look at animals and people pretty much the same. There are some who just naturally want to be the stars. You might have to go through a lot of ‘em to find what you want. But they are there.”
If you doubt either his skill or nerve, try getting on a horse or mule and then asking it to jump three feet up on a truck bed, climb a ramp onto the top of a trailer. Then, with no reins, put the animal into a full reiner’s spin on that metal “walkway” which is no more than 6 feet wide. Then take out a pistol in your one good hand and begin firing it into the air during the spin. Be sure and keep it up while you, the horse and the trailer are pulled from the arena at about 10 mph.
John likes to use a horse with some white on them because they show up good in the arena, especially under the lights. He is really fond of tri-colored paints that he buys from the Rosebud Sioux. Mules are a little more sure-footed on those ramps and trailer tops but they also come with a different disposition. “If a mule don’t like ya, they’ll wait for a chance to buck you off and then kick at ya on the way down. One broke my good arm like that”
He is not sure how many horses he has on the place. “I would count ‘em but if Judy (wife) ever heard a hard count on ‘em, I might have to sell some.”
The One-Armed Bandit has traveled the act as far as Asia and the Middle East, done request performances for kings in empty stadiums, and waved to thousands with one pass of the hat in packed coliseums. But it is still pretty hard to tell his present self from the cocky but folky show-off who still had two arms before he climbed that power pole. Neither tragedy or success affects him much.
If you meet John Payne today on the streets of Shidler, he will have a big brimmed hat, hair brushing his shoulders which in your mind could stand some washing, a beard (of sorts) that some who call a little ragged and probably be wearing a pair of wrap-around dark sunglasses regardless of the weather. There are those who say his voice is a little high-pitched with a drawl and twang to it. I don’t hear it myself, sounds kinda regular to me. He doesn’t sound funny, you know like those people from the Ivy League do!
Next spring the One-Armed Bandit will turn 70 years young. He thinks he might not show quite so much and spend some more time with Judy. But the act itself is safe. His son Lynn and daughter Amanda have been a part of it for some time now and have, according to him, become his right arm. And who knows, there might even be yet another career for a man who takes life as a joy ride at full cock. “The Lord just keeps giving me fun chances!”
But regardless of the turns in the remaining path, John Payne knows where he will end up. There will be ashes placed among those rocks in the wire basket and then there will be a party. And “it will be a celebration, anyone with a tear in their eye will be sent home. It won’t be about dying, it will be about living!”
One of the truths of history is that men and nations will be tested. Often their greatest trials will come from their own mistakes. There are few things that seem more fatal than cutting into 7200 volts. It might just be that both men and nations are intended to take those seemingly darkest days and make them shine with energy and purpose, and then look with expectation for the next turn of fate that will grow us even more.