Thursday, July 19, 2012

Chicken Ranch report no. 24

Author Jayme Lynn Blaschke at the Chicken Ranch, La Grange, Texas.
I last posted an update on my writing progress. Since then, I did indeed finish Chapter 14 (in record time!). I have since thrown myself headlong into writing Chapter 15--the final chapter of a book originally outlined with only 12 chapters--and I can't say it's been smooth sailing. The chapter's title, "Enduring Legacy," gives some hint as to what I'm up against. There are many, many rumors, falsehoods and strange (if not bizarre) pop culture appearances by the Chicken Ranch that need to be addressed. You, dear readers, would simply not believe how many times the Chicken Ranch injects itself into some media story by virtue of only having existed, and subsequently elevates that story into a Major Event. Seriously. It is nuts. It also goes a long way toward explaining why we're still so fascinated by a little country brothel that closed down 39 years ago.

There's a little bit here, a neat story there, a strange happening off to the side... all of these vignettes, incidents and happenings are fairly small, but taken together become an unwieldy mass. The chapter lumbers along, growing far larger than it should be, and I still have several pieces left to include. The finish line, after more than three often agonizing years, is teasingly within sight. But like Tantalus, I feel like that ending continuously moves just beyond my reach. I have to finish it soon--I have a short story for Joe Lansdale due next week at Armadillocon. The final chapter will have to be cut, and probably cut heavily to keep it from bogging down, but that's what second drafts are for. Right now I'm focused on finishing this marathon known as the first draft, and praying I don't pull a charlie horse on the final 50 yards.

Oh, and here's a bit of what I wrote yesterday, just to tease a little:

Toward the end of 1999, a group of former Texas A&M students decided to throw a Y2K party for around 100 of their closest friends. Aggies being Aggies, during the early planning stages someone suggested they hold the party on the site of the old Chicken Ranch, as a nod toward the historical ties between the school and all-male student body.

“I come from a long line of Aggies who have been reputed to have visited the Chicken Ranch in its glory days,” said party organizer Ray Prewitt, explaining the allure of the long-closed brothel. “My father and all my uncles went to A&M, and just being around them and their classmates, some story always pops up.”

Just for the hell of it, Prewitt tracked down Ron Jeffrey, the owner, and asked if they might rent the property for the party. To Prewitt’s surprise and delight, Jeffrey said yes.
So, yes, shenanigans ensue. But not the particular shenanigans you might expect if you hadn't heard the story before. And this is how legends grow...

Now Playing: Stan Getz Volume 7
Chicken Ranch Central

8 comments:

  1. Anonymous10:11 PM

    My husband was forced to go to the chicken ranch during his freshman year at a&m (66-67) by the corps upperclassmen. I only learned about this in April 2012 after nearly 35 years of marriage. It has caused me great anguish that he was forced to go and that he didn't have the guts to stand up to the upperclassmen because he was scared. His response is that "It was a tough school. You had to do what it took to survive." I have developed an extreme hatred for a&m because the leadership there knew what was going on and did nothing about it.

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  2. That's certainly a valid response. Hazing was rampant in the Corps of Cadets back then, and through at least the early 1980s. To be fair, the administration didn't actually condone the majority of hazing that went on, and much of it would (and is) difficult to stop without a great deal of effort. I work at a university, and despite ongoing education and efforts to the contrary, every year we have fraternities get into trouble because of this. Back then, in the "Mad Men" era, a great deal of society viewed hazing as harmless, "character building" events. The Corps of Cadets could be brutal, but little went on there that wasn't mirrored by fraternities at universities across the country.

    That's not to condone any of the hazing. But A&M was hardly alone in turning a blind eye to it.

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  3. And I might suggest you cut your husband a little slack. A&M was small and isolated then. Standing up to the upperclassmen may have been the moral thing to do, but it would've branded him an outsider and isolated him, making him a continued target for future hazing. Tribalism works that way. I can't presume to make assumptions on his personal circumstances, but I suspect he navigated the pitfalls of school life at the time the best his youthful inexperience would allow.

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  4. Anonymous12:32 AM

    Are you an a&m graduate? I appreciate your taking the time to respond to my comments. I just can't seem to get past this. My husband is a good man, but I have just really felt disappointed by this new revelation about him. I don't feel that I can talk about this with anyone. Many of his family members are a&m graduates, and I am expected to think that it is a great and honorable school when I just don't feel that way. To make matters worse, our youngest daughter is working on her masters there now, and it just really irks me.

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  5. I graduated from A&M in 1992 and wasn't in the Corps of Cadets, so my experience was very, very different from that of your husband and his generation. The era and culture there was complicated and often self-contradictory, and difficult to boil down to black vs. white terms. Being an all-male, all-military institution for most of its existence up to that point contributed a lot to the environment. The fact that there were very few women around had the paradoxical effect of elevating women almost to an obsession (albeit a potentially unhealthy one). It's like the old psychological study of telling someone to think of anything *except* a polar bear. The result is that they're *only* going to think of polar bears no matter how hard they try.

    And realize the Chicken Ranch wasn't the only den of iniquity available to them. There was prostitution in Bryan. Corps members made regular trips to the Wagon Wheel in Sealy. Until the early-to-mid 1960s, Dutch Lane in Brenham was closer and more convenient than the Chicken Ranch in La Grange. Unlike the Wagon Wheel and brothels in Galveston and elsewhere, the Chicken Ranch operated outside the direct control of organized crime. The CR had strict rules of conduct--drunkenness was not tolerated, nor was mistreatment of the women--so in that regard, at least, it was a less corrupting influence than its competitors.

    Again, it was a different era. LBJ went there while president, as did Governor John Connally, his brother, State Senator Wayne Connally, along with politicians, businessmen and celebrities of every stripe. That's not to justify it, but it does show how that was part of the "old boys' club" sense of entitlement. Heck, Clayton Williams lost his bid for governor in part because of his openness about patronizing the Chicken Ranch in his younger days. The closure of the brothel in 1973 put an end to the so-called "freshman initiation" at A&M (at least that component of it) but all the high-powered movers and shakers simply shifted their business to high-priced call girls. There's no less prostitution in Texas today than in the 60s, generally speaking (there may actually be more) but for the most part it keeps a lower profile.

    I'm sorry if I sound like an apologist. That's not my intent. It's just difficult to give a full account of the complexities and nuance of the situation in a blog comment--if it wasn't, I wouldn't have written an entire book on the topic. The long and short of it is that if you're going to hold against him an unfortunate indiscretion that happened nearly 45 years ago, then you have to condemn half the men of Texas in his generation and nearly every single elected leader of the past century. It's not something to be proud of, but it is reality.

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  6. Anonymous11:49 AM

    You are a very nice man, and I appreciate your taking so much time to respond to my situation. I love my husband, and I would have probably been better off if I'd just never known about his experience. He tells me I am not living in the real world, and I guess he is right. The thing is, I guess is that even though you are telling me about a lot of generalizations about the entire experience of a&m, etc., it is my husband and a personal thing to me. It is like saying that this thing only happens to a small percentage of people, but if it happens to you that is 100% in your case. You are a very articulate writer, and I really appreciate your patience with me. I am curious-have you ever heard from any other wives whose husbands had the same experience? Has your book been published yet?

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  7. I understand your position and sympathize. Something like this can be a shock if unexpected, and I'm pretty sure your husband didn't intend to cause you any distress with his revelation. So you both have my sympathy. I hope our conversation has helped you work though your feelings to some extent.

    As for your main question, I'm sure the vast majority of wives had no idea their husbands ever visited the Chicken Ranch. That's not something normally discussed in mixed company. Modesta Williams is the most well-known woman I can think of off the top of my head, although I never spoke with her directly. Back when Clayton Williams was running for Texas governor and word of his patronage of the Chicken Ranch came out, she was interviewed by the Houston Post and said “What he did before we were married is certainly his business. That doesn’t bother me at all. Everybody has a past, and for the West Texas boys, that was part of their growing up. I hope no one is offended.”

    I wouldn't venture to say Modesta's response is entirely indicative of the reactions most women would have, but I think the general sentiment isn't too far off the mark. The personal politics of sexuality in the U.S. (and the world in general) are dysfunctional. There's this strange fiction that every preceding generation is/was more chaste and morally upstanding than those which came after. Nothing is farther from the truth. I was frankly bowled over by some of things I uncovered in my historical research (not necessarily Chicken Ranch related) and the degree of effort put into covering some of that stuff up and pretending it never happened. The only real difference between now and then is the extent to which instantaneous communication pervades our culture. That which was hushed up and largely unknown even 40 years ago is now forwarded via email minutes later. We're presented impossibly high standards to live up to by our elders, and invariably fail. The secret is that our elders went through the same thing and fell just as far short of the purported ideal of behavior. Maybe that's just part of being human--the inability to acknowledge our own failing to our children, thus setting up impossible expectations.

    The Chicken Ranch itself, though the strange, high-profile closure and subsequent Broadway musical and movie, has transcended reality to a great degree. It's become part of Texas folklore, and as such, my read on it is that men who visited the brothel are more apt to admit to the fact and wives/girlfriends (provided said visits occurred before they got together) are more willing to make allowances, simply because it connects them with a part of Texas history. Not a particularly glamorous or noble piece of Texas history, but Texas history nonetheless. I'll say I've had nearly as many women as men email me with questions or comments about the brothel. The curiosity crosses gender lines, simply because the legend of the Chicken Ranch is much, much bigger than the little brothel in that old, white, clapboard farm house ever amounted to when it was actually in operation.

    My book--thank you for asking--remains unpublished at this time. It is under consideration with one publisher, but they've warned me that could be some months before they reach a final decision on whether to publish it or not. This "hurry up and wait" phase is one I'm all too familiar with, unfortunately. As soon as I have any publishing news one way or the other, I will post it here on my blog and also on my main website.

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  8. Anonymous7:14 PM

    Thank you for your information and advice. I appreciate your patience in letting me vent. By the way, my husband didn't tell me about his adventures at the chicken ranch. My college roommate's second husband, a former a&m student, enlightened me after asking my husband if he had ever been there. I don't think my husband is proud of it-to him it is just something that happened a long time ago. I think he is right, but my emotions haven't caught up with the logical part of my brain yet. I wish you success with your book, and I will be looking for it. I am thinking of buying a copy-knowledge is power. :)

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