LILY, Fla. — From the tip of his cowboy hat to the jingling spurs on his boots, Jack Duncan is a throwback to a time when the world was simpler and a little less tame.
Duncan is a living, breathing cowboy--not the drugstore variety, but the working kind. He ropes, rides and punches cattle for a living, then settles back in his easy chair with a glass of iced tea and says things like, "If you can't do it on a horse, it's probably not worth doing."
Duncan has had plenty of time to sharpen his quips and break a few colts. At 67, he is a dinosaur among a vanishing breed--a Florida cowboy riding a steamy range graced with palm trees and sand.
Champion Rodeo Performer
Duncan rode his first horse when he was 3 and earned his first daily wage riding fences at the tender age of 6. He's been a champion rodeo performer for 50 years, although quintuple heart bypass surgery in 1984 forced him to quit bulldogging, and a part-time deputy sheriff for the last few.
He's got a trusty horse named Sonny, a beloved dog named Skipper and a son named Bushrod (although his given name is William).
Tall, lean and rugged, Duncan is a cowboy straight through.
"He's a legend," said Doyle Carlton, one of Florida's biggest ranchers and landowners whose friendship with Duncan goes back more than five decades. "He's about 100 years after the fact. He's a typical Marlboro man. He's so nice and gentle--he wouldn't bully you for a minute--but if he had to, he'd fight you at the drop of a hat."
While others his age hone their shuffleboard skills not far from his backwoods home, Duncan keeps right on doing the same things he's been doing since Franklin D. Roosevelt was merely a presidential contender and Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse were still strangers.
The leathery lines on Duncan's ruddy face draw a road map of a life fraught with bumpy trails. Like a character out of "High Noon" or one of Clint Eastwood's spaghetti westerns, Duncan exudes a silent steeliness. He measures his words carefully, but those he chooses are warm and generous. His favorite response to most questions is a gravelly but twangy, "You bet!"
He never ventures far without his horse or cowboy hat and feels "like a pallbearer or something" when he dresses up in a Sunday suit.
Loves His Work
"He's really in his element out here," said Winnie Duncan, his second wife, who watches as Duncan shoos Brahman cattle into a trailer for hauling to another ranch. "There's nothing he likes better than riding and roping.
"He about scared me to death when he tried riding a little horse a month after his surgery. Well, that colt bolted and Jack went flying. He laid there about a minute before getting up. Nothing was broken and he was OK. He just had to get on a horse. That's the way he is."
Duncan grew up in the town of Lily, a mile from the modest 10-acre "Duncan Country" ranch where he and Winnie now live. Lily, a loose-knit community 50 miles southeast of Tampa, is more memory than town. Even the general store, which once was about all there was, is no longer there. Arcadia, a small town by any other standards, is the biggest city nearby.
His grandparents raised him after his mother died of tuberculosis when he was 3. He learned self-sufficiency at an early age and never encountered electricity or indoor plumbing until he joined the Army in 1941.
Life Revolves Around Cattle
His entire life has revolved around cattle, which have been in Florida since the 1500s when Spanish settlers brought the animals to the state's grassy pastureland. Today, Florida is among the top 10 cattle states in the nation and the largest producer of beef cattle east of the Mississippi River.
Where there are cattle, cowboys cannot be far behind.
"Texans used to think if you were from Florida, you weren't a cowboy," said Duncan, who does not mind hanging a gift set of Texas longhorns over his fireplace. "But they found out Florida cowboys can rope and bulldog just as well as they can."
A Florida cowboy's list of obstacles includes most of the same problems encountered by his Western counterparts--plus alligators and drug smugglers.
"Alligators get in those ponds and they get big," Winnie Duncan said. "Then a calf goes over to the pond to get a drink and he's gator-caught."
Drug runners, who appreciate the flat, rural nature of this part of Florida, tend to be a tad more dangerous.
"There's this little highway that runs from Arcadia to Limestone, and it's so straight some dope peddlers have landed planes on it," Duncan said. "A few years ago, one old boy came up and found some of the marijuana they'd dropped. Those dope peddlers are pretty bad. I'd say they're more dangerous than cattle rustlers."
Duncan also has found tracking poachers to be on the hazardous side.