At a distance he looks like any other Mexican charro. He dresses like one and rides like one. He even talks like a charro—but with a north-of-the-border accent. He is blue-eyed, silver-haired and compact of build. His name is General William J. Fox, and he isn't a Mexican, of course. He is a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer, now 67 years old. He took up the spine-twisting charreada or Mexican-style rodeo as a retirement hobby and is so good at it that he was one of a group of riders who recently represented Mexico in a goodwill tour of Spain.
How did Bill Fox become a charro? By trying everything else first. In 1918 he was enrolled in the engineering school at the University of Southern California. He dropped out briefly to attend Artillery Officer Candidate School at Fort Monroe, Va., then returned to California for his degree; while there he gained a reputation as one of the most peppery athletes on the varsity boxing squad. He became interested in military flying and transferred from the Army Reserve to the U.S. Marine Corps aviation.
In World War II he was a "flying colonel" in the Pacific combat area. By war's end Fox had won the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism in combat over the Solomon Islands. He had been made a brigadier general and had held several important Marine Corps administrative posts. He retired from the service in December 1945 and became Director of Aviation and Chief Engineer for the County of Los Angeles. In the mid-'50s he gave up these duties to spend more time with his teen-age son, Stuart, who is now a music major at USC.
In 1959 Bill Fox was 60 and he decided to retire. He was ready for leisure—so he thought. He figured he might settle somewhere around the Mediterranean, possibly in Spain, and he went to Mexico with a vague ambition to study Spanish. By chance he arrived in a picturesque upland town, San Miguel de Allende.
"The town didn't impress me much at first," says Bill Fox, "but I liked the horses, the surrounding country and the people I met. Soon I became interested in the charreada. I loved the excitement and the Mexican way of handling horses. I knew this was it. I dropped the idea of Europe."
He read everything he could lay his hands on concerning below-the-border horsemanship. He rode with Mexican cavalrymen and ranchers. He learned that the Mexican charreada, which gave birth to the American rodeo, is quite different from its offspring. American rodeo riders are usually professional performers striving for prize money. In Mexico the contestants are all amateurs, generally well-to-do ranchers plus a sprinkling of urban businessmen, lawyers, architects and doctors who enjoy risking their necks in the charreada for pure sport.
The Mexican riders belong to local charro associations, of which there are 365 throughout the country. They maintain contact with one another through their National Federation of Charros. Each club observes rules of conduct, dress and companionship based on a 300-year-old tradition. Their sport is no poor cowpoke's pastime. Their magnificently trained horses are expensive, as is the gear they wear. For civic parades and fancy exhibitions the rider's costume may cost upward of $500. Their gorgeous, tooled-leather, silver-inlaid saddles can run more than $1,000.
The charreada follows a ritual as well defined as that of the bullfight. Even when a rider is breaking his wrist lassoing a racing bronco or perhaps snapping a vertebra while leaping from his own galloping horse to the bare back of a wild mustang in the spectacular paseo de la muerte (ride of death), it must all be done with elegance. "You've got to do it all according to very strict rules," says Bill Fox. "It makes for a great show. Your horse, of course, is the key to the whole thing. Naturally charros are as fussy as the devil about their mounts.
"The best mounts are quarter horses," says the general. "They're fast, have iron stamina, courage, loyalty and intelligence. They stand steady when a lasso sings past their noses. They'll thunder down the long alleyway leading into the ring, racing beside a wild steer, hide-to-hide, until their riders can grab the steer's tail and toss it on its back." But any old quarter horse won't do. Arabian traditions, brought to Mexico in colonial times, still dictate how a performing horse should be selected. Dark colors are preferred because the Arabs (so the legend goes) believed light horses were untrustworthy. Most highly prized is a dark mount having no white socks. A horse with one white sock on the mounting side is tolerated. In high demand, also, are horses with clearly defined white stars on the forehead.
In rodeos Mexican horsemen delight in exhibiting the centaur relationship of horse and man. Their horses will dance to music, or a rider will gallop his mount across the ring and, without using the reins, bring the horse to a full, rearing stop upon the hide of a cow. Without rein guidance a rider will run his horse straight across the ring, stop it, then have the animal back up as swiftly and smoothly as if it were going forward.