Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Chicken Ranch report no. 21

Back in December I set for myself a June 1 deadline to get this Chicken Ranch book completed. It was an arbitrary deadline, but a necessary one considering I'd spent nearly three years of my life working on it at that point. Suffice to say, I didn't hit my target. I'm not much farther along today than when I posted my last writing update almost a month ago. This chapter is proving to be exceptionally difficult.

Part of the problem is summer vacation. The kids are out of school, and the family's routines are in upheaval. That makes dedicated writing time kind of wobbly for me. We're also traveling more, which puts a serious damper on my writing--I'm not someone who is just as productive on the road as at home, although I do manage a trickle of output. The day job and other life issues have proven quite demanding of late as well, making it hard to martial the functioning brain cells required to write coherently. In truth, though, while those issues slowed my progress, this chapter itself--the actual closing of the Chicken Ranch--is to blame in large part for my snail's place. There is a lot of material to convey. At the basic level, there are dozens of newspaper articles covering a five-day span, plus several extensive magazine articles that came after the fact. There are the first-person interviews I conducted, letters, DPS reports and other bits and pieces I've picked up along the way. It's all very fascinating, and none of the accounts agree. It's like playing a giant four-dimensional game of Tetris with pieces that constantly change shape.

For example, not one primary source actually pins a date on Marvin Zindler's first news report that "exposed" the brothels operating openly in Austin and Fayette Counties. The closest I've found mentions "the last week of July" but that "last week" in 1973 consisted of just Monday and Tuesday, almost too short a span for all the events to happen. But the previous Monday is too long a time, and there are issues with other dates as well. People involved remember different meetings and different encounters happening at conflicting times. Also, Governor Dolph Briscoe and other folks long insisted he was blindsided by Zindler. Some of Briscoe's aids, and Zindler himself, indicate Briscoe was briefed in advance and knew what to expect during the interview. What's the truth? Nearly 40 years on, it's well nigh impossible to say with any certainty. To complicate matters still further, certain folks who with an inflated sense of self-importance have gone online and added their own accounts (which they believe to be the Gospel truth) that only serve to muddy the waters still further. If anyone out there is looking to do research on the Chicken Ranch, avoid Wikipedia at all costs. The Handbook of Texas Online isn't entirely accurate, but heaven help us, it's infinitely less wrong than most other sources out there.

Here's another example of the headwinds I'm flying against: Marvin Zindler commissioned three biographies/memoirs on himself over the years. Of the three, two pages is the most any single one devotes to the broadcasts and closure of the brothels. There's plenty of talk about the buildup and aftermath, but Zindler's actual series of exposes? Practically nothing. Well, mine won't consist of practically nothing--I'm up to 30 pages on this chapter, and still going strong. Here's a sample of where we are:

In the end, Governor Briscoe called a war room meeting with his top staff as well as Attorney General John Hill and DPS Director Colonel Wilson Spier for the following Tuesday. Late in the day, Attorney General Hill happened by the office of the governor’s press secretary, Robert L. Hardesty, and stuck his head in the doorway.

“What's this meeting all about?” Hill asked, suspicious.

“The Chicken Ranch,” Hardesty replied simply.

“If Dolph thinks I'm going to touch that tar baby,” the attorney general scoffed, “he's sadly mistaken.”

Colonel Spier proved equally reluctant to take on the Chicken Ranch, although he chose more measured words than Hill when Houston media cornered him about the scheduled meeting with the governor.

“We’ve been trying to see if there is any connection with organized crime,” Colonel Spier explained carefully. “I envision an exchange of information on the subject, but I don’t know exactly what shape the meeting will take.”

Clearly, Texas’ top law enforcers were chomping at the bit to eradicate prostitution from the rural areas of the state.
Fingers are crossed that I can get this chapter put to bed in the next couple of days. After that, I'll have just two chapters left to knock out, both of which should be comparatively short and straightforward to write. At least, that's what I keep telling myself...

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