Thursday, August 30, 2012

Chicken Ranch report no. 27

Hey howdy hey buckaroos and buckarettes! As I press along with the second draft revisions of the Chicken Ranch book I cannot express my appreciation enough for all the encouragement I've been getting from the bleachers. Seriously, folks. I feel like one of those guys in a marathon who thought they'd trained themselves up enough, but hadn't, so they're struggling like hell by mile 10 yet folks keep bringing him water and urging him on. Not like I've ever run a marathon. I many be crazy, but I'm not nuts.

In any event, it very much does feel like I've run a marathon and am now hitting the final mile (in a metaphorical sense, of course. After extensive on-site testing, I've discovered that I'm not one of those people who experiences the euphoric "runner's high." I'm more of the "runner's agony" kind of fellow--and yes, that metaphor does indeed extend to writing). Since last I posted an update, I have completed second draft revisions on Chapters 9, 10, 11 and 12. I have Chapter 13, "Hell to Pay," open right now, which by interesting coincidence is the very first chapter I wrote, more than 18 months ago to serve as a sample in my futile efforts to land an agent. It's undergone some significant changes since then, mainly because the rest of the book got written, thereby rendering some of 13 redundant and other parts of it needing expansion. That's the nature of writing chapters out of sequence, but other than one or two small additions, I don't expect 13 to require much in the way of revisions at all in this go-round.

Chapter 9, on the other hand, was a bitch and a half. In all honesty, I knew it would be before I ever wrote a single word in the book. The chapter's title, "The Wagon Wheel," tells you all you need to know. The brothel in Sealy shut down by Marvin Zindler at the same time as the Chicken Ranch played a significant role in how events unfolded, but received very little media attention at the time and almost nobody remembers it today. So I was faced with the dilemma of a very, very lean chapter. My solution was to lean heavily on tangential biographical material for Austin County Sheriff Truman Maddox. Among Texas law enforcement circles, Sheriff Maddox was almost as big a legend as Sheriff Jim Flournoy over in La Grange. The reason Sheriff Maddox isn't as famous is because he never beat up Marvin Zindler. But Sheriff Maddox was a fascinating figure, and the great historian Thad Sitton has published two books with some amazing stuff about Sheriff Maddox--as well at other lawmen in the state--and even used a fantastic photo of Sheriff Maddox as the cover to The Texas Sheriff: Lord of the County Line (see above. Isn't it great?).

The trouble was, fascinating as Sheriff Maddox's life was, I relied way too heavily on Sitton's earlier interviews, which unfortunately, never so much as touched on the Wagon Wheel and Marvin Zindler (I know this for a fact, as Sitton was kind enough to chat with me on the subject for a couple hours early on in this project. Very helpful and encouraging fellow. If you haven't read his books, I highly recommend them). I have a good story from retired Texas Ranger Ray Martinez as well, but the bulk of the material comes from Sitton. And then there's the fact that almost all of the Sheriff Maddox stuff amounts to hand-waving on my part, distracting the reader from the fact I had so little information on the Wagon Wheel itself.

Well, I mentioned that I lucked into a trove of information on the Wagon Wheel not too long ago, after I completed the chapter. Which meant that Chapter 9 underwent a huge second draft rewrite when it's time came. The chapter is much better for it, I assure you. The downside (which is also the upside) is that much of the Sheriff Maddox material is superfluous now. It takes up too much space and distracts from the important stuff (whereas before it distracted from the fact there wasn't much important stuff). It had to go. It pained me to cut it, because I really, really grew to like Sheriff Maddox and wanted to give him his due. But the quality of a book is dependent as much on what the author leaves out as it is what he puts in.

Not one to waste anything, I now present some of the choice bits of Sheriff Maddox's story--as interpreted by myself--for your reading pleasure. This gives you a glimpse of what my book almost was.


With the meat market doing good, solid business, Maddox had no reason to go looking for other opportunities. But other opportunities came looking for him in 1949. Marcus Steck had won election as sheriff the previous year and needed a dependable deputy for Sealy. Austin County had no police radios and the county commissioners frowned on even the 10 cent cost of a long distance phone call from Bellville, the county seat, to Sealy. The 15 miles separating the two sizeable towns meant unacceptably long response times for Sealy, so Sheriff Steck needed a deputy who could manage the southern half of the county on his own without depending on backup or even regular direction. Maddox’s outstanding service record from World War II made him an easy choice for Sheriff Steck, but Maddox wasn’t so easily convinced.

“I’ve been running from the law for 30 years,” Maddox said in classic form, “why should I change and start running with ‘em now?”

After a good laugh, Sheriff Steck persisted, more convinced than ever he’d found his man. Maddox, on the other hand, saw the huge responsibility the job and judged himself inadequate.

“I got more serious in deciding I didn’t want to take it because I didn’t know enough about the law,” Maddox recalled years later. “I thought that a man should know more than the average man on the street to become an officer, to tell someone else what to do. I said if they found that it was possible for me to go to some kind of school, then I would consider it.”

As fate would have it, the Texas Department of Public Safety held a program at Camp Mabry at the time known as the School for Texas Sheriffs, which Sheriff Steck promptly signed Maddox up for. A quick as that, Deputy Maddox found himself part of the Austin County Sheriff’s Department, making the grand salary of $150 a month. Although technically a full-time deputy, Maddox worked most days in his meat market to pay the bills, and Sealy residents quickly learned to telephone him there if they needed the law. That proved to be the most effective arrangement, because in addition to having to use his own car--a 1949 Oldmobile Rocket 88--for official police business, Maddox discovered the miserly county commissioners provided only a $25 monthly mileage allowance, which effectively ruled out regular patrolling.

In 1953, worn down by the stress of the job, Sheriff Steck announced he wouldn’t run again. Maddox threw his hat into the ring, but he had an uphill climb ahead of him--he hadn’t grown up in the county, didn’t have a Czech or German surname, seemed too young for some and to top it off, he didn’t live in Bellville, the county seat. No previous sheriff had won the election without those prerequisites, but Maddox’s reputation carried a lot of weight. Many of the county’s power brokers lined up behind him, and Maddox campaigned hard, becoming a regular fixture at all 18 of the county’s public dance halls whenever they held an event. The effort paid off--Maddox beat the odds and won.

In the late 1960s, Interstate 10 supplanted U.S. 90, running right through the center of Sealy and bringing more than enough trouble into Austin County to keep Sheriff Maddox busy full-time. Once, a man pulled over and murdered his wife right there on the side of the highway. The suspected killer had an arrest record, indicating he lived in Sutton, Texas, so when Sheriff Maddox received a tip the killer was hiding out in Anahuac, Mexico, he contacted the local police chief there to make the arrest. Once the killer was in custody, the Mexican police chief made arrangements to turn him over to Sheriff Maddox on the International Bridge in Laredo.

“The sheriff flew into Laredo with one of his constables,” said Texas Ranger Ramiro Martinez, who accompanied Sheriff Maddox to the rendezvous. “We went to the bridge at the designated time, but no prisoner.”

A frustrated Sheriff Maddox sent the constable back to Austin County while he checked into a hotel room to try and unravel the problem--made doubly difficult since he couldn’t reach the Mexican police chief by phone. The next morning, Ranger Martinez happened into the commandante of the Mexican Federales from Nuevo Laredo. The commandante directed him to the Mexican newspaper, emblazoned with the headline, “Ignorant police officers arrested for clandestine extradition.” The killer hadn’t been from Sutton, Texas--such a town didn’t exist--and was, in fact, a Mexican national. When the trio reached customs, the truth finally came out, and the officers as well as the killer ended up behind bars.

When Ranger Martinez relayed the information to the sheriff, an exasperated Maddox asked, “What the hell am I going to do?”

In the end, Sheriff Maddox flew back to Sealy and with the assistance of the American Consulate in Nuevo Laredo, translated, notarized and filed the proper paperwork to transfer the case to the Mexican prosecutor’s office. The imprisoned Mexican officers were released with a reprimand.

“The guy was tried over there and I think he got 10 years. Over there, 10 years in a Mexican prison is 10 years--it’s not like here,” Ranger Martinez explained. “So, the sheriff was happy. That saved the county a lot of money!”

Other officers might brood over losing “their” arrest to another jurisdiction, but Sheriff Maddox had a way of looking at things that cut through everything that didn’t matter. Serving out a sentence in a Mexican prison worked just as well as a Texas prison. Either way, the killer was brought to justice, and that satisfied Sheriff Maddox just fine.

Not all of Austin County’s trouble arrived via I-10. In one particularly noteworthy instance, it came from the skies, sparking a statewide scare and talk of alien invaders. It sounded like something Fox Mulder might investigate on The X-Files, but in reality, a panic over so-called cattle mutilations swept the state in the early 1970s with many cases reported in Austin, Harris and surrounding counties. The hysteria grew so much that the Texas Rangers eventually looked into the matter, but for the most part county sheriffs handled the investigations on their own.

“Over the years, I’ve had calls on everything you can imagine, but some of the strangest had to do with dead animals,” Sheriff Maddox said. “There was a lot of publicity throughout Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, and some into Colorado, of the little green men from Mars killing the cattle and using some means of killing ‘em that nobody could find out what was going on. Some people even thought they would take out all of the blood of the calf or cow. They had certain things that they did. They would cut the eyes out of the animal, they would remove the sex organs, and they’d do this with and extremely sharp, surgical-type knife. No one was supposed to be able to do a job that good. It spread like wildfire.

“Well, being a country boy, I couldn’t believe in these people from Mars coming in here and doing anything to us, and I couldn’t believe that no type people, even thought there is some weird people in the world, could go from place to place and kill these animals,” he said.

Sheriff Maddox made up his mind to get to the bottom of it, and being a straightforward man, went about it in the most direct manner possible: He purchased a calf, slaughtered it, placed it in an isolated field then sat back and waited. Within 24 hours, black vultures arrived. They attacked the carcass at its softest points–the eyes, the genitals and the anus, slicing openings with their sharp beaks and pulling out the entrails. Within a surprisingly short time, they’d hollowed out the calf leaving behind cuts of surgical precision that perfectly matched the techniques supposedly employed by aliens.

“I went back to town to get some proof of this, carried some people back out there and let several people see it,” Sheriff Maddox said. “Then I made a tape on this particular deal. It got out through the news, and it stopped most of the stories of the little men from Mars. I was a country boy, and I just couldn’t believe it. That’s the way that we solved the notorious gang from Mars.”
No two ways about it, that's a pretty big chunk of prose, isn't it? So you can imagine how much directly relevant good stuff went into the chapter forcing this out. I'm a particular fan of his investigation of the "Little Green Men from Mars" and wanted to make everyone else got a chance to enjoy it as much as I did. Hopefully, this is the last major blood-letting I'll have to inflict on the manuscript.

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