Friday, March 30, 2012

Friday Night Videos

Earl Scruggs died this week, and with apologies to Roy Clark and Steve Martin, he may well have been the greatest banjo player to ever live. Here he is with Lester Flatt performing "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" a the Grand Ole Opry:

Of course, I wasn't even born during the height of their career. I learned about Flatt & Scruggs--as I'm sure many of my generation did--through their guest appearances on the Beverly Hillbillies shown in syndication on weekday afternoons. It always baffled me how Flat & Scruggs, presented as being from Bug Tussle on the show, same as the Clampetts, could have assimilated to modern, urban life so readily whereas Jed and his kin consistently flailed around as fish out of water. Heh. Such is the logic of The Beverly Hillbillies.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Shawn Brown.

Now Playing: Original Broadway Cast The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Chicken Ranch report no. 16

These past few days have proven interesting on the book front. I realize I've kept fairly quiet here, but rest assured that's only because life is overwhelmingly busy of late. The current chapter continues to defy my attempts to finish it, and shows every indication of becoming the longest installment of the book thus far. It's frustrating, because every extra day I spend on it puts me farther behind schedule. I can't very well impose an arbitrary ending and move on, so I have little choice but to press on as best I'm able.

I also received some very crummy news yesterday that I'll not go into now. It's a definite setback that's put me in a bit of a mood, but I'll deal with it and move on, as I always do.

On a more positive note, yesterday also brought to me an invitation to present a paper at the East Texas Historical Association's fall conference. There are quite a few details to work out between now and then, but it'd certainly be a nice opportunity if things work out.

I also filed a Public Information Request with the Texas DPS. Yes, I feel such the investigative reporter now. This is something I should've done several years ago, but I put it off, partly out of the hope my other research would turn up the information, and partly out of... well, paranoia isn't the exact word, but when you've invested as much time, money and effort into a project as I have with this book, you don't want to tip your hand. The last thing I want to happen is Texas Monthly screw me over again as they did with the San Antonio Worldcon back in 1997, and I guarantee they'd jump at the chance.

At any rate, I am so ready to finish this book and move on to other projects!

Now Playing: The Police Message In A Box
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Friday, March 16, 2012

Friday Night Videos

Back in 1984, rap was still a novelty. So novelty rap was one of the most successful versions of the form. Shawn Brown struck pay dirt with "The Rappin Duke," a song I'm sure many of the folks I went to high school with will remember. Just try and get that chorus out of your head!

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Bruce Robison.

Now Playing: Pink Floyd Piper at the Gates of Dawn
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Friday, March 09, 2012

Friday Night Videos

Here's one that needs no explanation: Bruce Robison with Kelly Willis at Gruene Hall performing "What Would Willie Do?"

Previously on Friday Night Videos... The Monkees.

Now Playing: Pink Floyd Obscured by Clouds
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Thursday, March 08, 2012

Chicken Ranch report no. 15

This has, without a doubt, been the one of the most demanding two weeks I've experienced in a long time. Obviously, Miss Edna's death kept me very busy last week, but this week the Titanic piece blew up overseas and kept me rushing to manage all the media requests (and today we've got vultures hitting the news in a big way, so I'm not home free yet). Plus, I came down with a virus nearly two weeks ago, and even now I'm still battling congestion and cough. Needless to say, writing on the book has taken a hit.

The good news is that I had a night of very good production yesterday, and hope to keep that up for the foreseeable future. The current chapter centers heavily on Sheriff Jim Flournoy, and here's a sample of last night's effort:
As he arrived and got out of his vehicle, Saunders confronted the deputy and raised his shotgun as if to shoot. Big Jim had only an instant to react. Grabbing his pistol, Big Jim fired without ever removing it from the holster. Saunders dropped to the ground, dead. Remarkably, in a violent and often bloody period of Texas history, Saunders’ was the only life taken by Big Jim over the entire span of his career as a peace officer.

“That was once too many for me,” Big Jim said, “but I knew it was him or me.”
It's interesting that Flournoy's reputation grew so much that cases solved by his predecessor, Will Loessin, have been attributed to Flournoy in some quarters. That's an interesting quirk of local lore--when someone becomes larger-than-life, it's almost as if they sprang to life fully formed and never suffered anything akin to a learning curve. I'm trying to avoid that sort of breathless puffery, because I firmly believe it does a disservice to the subject (in this case Sheriff Flournoy) by diminishing his actual accomplishments.

There's also my column from the San Marcos Mercury to share. The editor, Brad Rollins, emailed me last Friday and asked if I'd put something together for him, a more personal piece about my experiences with Miss Edna. I thought that would make a nice counterpoint to the standard obituaries going around, so I agreed. I think the end result was quite effective. Here's the opening, the rest of which may be read at the link above:
The first time I ever spoke with Edna Milton Chadwell, better known to generations of Texans as “Miss Edna,” I was seated on concrete steps smack-dab in the middle of the ruins of the Chicken Ranch. I carefully dialed her number on my cell phone, as nervous as I’d ever been in my life. When she answered, I swear my heart skipped a beat.

After I’d introduced myself — she’d been expecting my call — I told her where I was calling from. She paused only a moment, considering this, before answering, “Well, you take whatever you want, honey, and put a match to the rest.”

Yeah, that got my attention.
I also have what could be very fun news in the works (not a publishing contract yet, alas!) that I'm dying to share, but as it is in the very, very preliminary stages, I'm not about to jinx it with premature announcements. Still, fingers crossed that I might be able to share within a few weeks!

Now Playing: Pink Floyd Staying Home to Watch the Rain
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Tuesday, March 06, 2012

The iceberg’s accomplice: Did the moon sink the Titanic?

I am--to put it mildly--exhausted. I developed the release below last week in consultation with Texas State researchers who authored this latest paper in Sky & Telescope, and yesterday afternoon sent it out to various media. It's fun stuff, and I knew it would get pretty significant pickup over time, especially considering the fact that this April marks the centennial of the Titanic disaster. But I have never, ever seen a story catch so quickly like wildfire before. I spent all day responding to email requests, answering the phone and trying to manage and arrange a wide array of radio and television requests. The kicker? These requests are all coming from overseas--the BBC, Russia, Australia, Chile, you name it. National media here in the U.S. hasn't been quite so quick to pick up on it, but they will. I've seen my words translated into German and Turkish today. That's crazy. But I'm bushed now. No Chicken Ranch writing for me tonight--I'm heading off to get some much-needed shut-eye.
The sinking of the ocean liner Titanic 100 years ago is perhaps the most famous--and most studied--disaster of the 20th century. Countless books and movies have examined in great detail the actions, choices and mistakes that led to the Titanic colliding with an iceberg the night of April 14, 1912, and sinking within hours, with approximately 1,500 people losing their lives in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.

One question, however, has often been overlooked: Where did the killer iceberg come from, and could the moon have helped set the stage for disaster?

Now, a team of astronomers from Texas State University-San Marcos has applied its unique brand of celestial sleuthing to the disaster to examine how a rare lunar event stacked the deck against the Titanic. Their results shed new light on the hazardous sea ice conditions the ship boldly steamed into that fateful night.

Texas State physics faculty members Donald Olson and Russell Doescher, along with Roger Sinnott, senior contributing editor at Sky & Telescope magazine, publish their findings in the April 2012 edition of Sky & Telescope, on newsstands now.

“Of course, the ultimate cause of the accident was that the ship struck an iceberg. The Titanic failed to slow down, even after having received several wireless messages warning of ice ahead,” Olson said. “They went full speed into a region with icebergs—that’s really what sank the ship, but the lunar connection may explain how an unusually large number of icebergs got into the path of the Titanic.”

A tide for the ages

Inspired by the visionary work of the late oceanographer Fergus J. Wood of San Diego who suggested that an unusually close approach by the moon on Jan. 4, 1912, may have caused abnormally high tides, the Texas State research team investigated how pronounced this effect may have been.

What they found was that a once-in-many-lifetimes event occurred on that Jan. 4. The moon and sun had lined up in such a way their gravitational pulls enhanced each other, an effect well-known as a “spring tide.” The moon’s perigee—closest approach to Earth—proved to be its closest in 1,400 years, and came within six minutes of a full moon. On top of that, the Earth’s perihelion—closest approach to the sun—happened the day before. In astronomical terms, the odds of all these variables lining up in just the way they did were, well, astronomical.

“It was the closest approach of the moon to the Earth in more than 1,400 years, and this configuration maximized the moon’s tide-raising forces on Earth’s oceans. That’s remarkable,” Olson said. “The full moon could be any time of the month. The perigee could be any time of the month. Think of how many minutes there are in a month.”

Initially, the researchers looked to see if the enhanced tides caused increased glacial calving in Greenland, where most icebergs in that part of the Atlantic originated. They quickly realized that to reach the shipping lanes by April when the Titanic sank, any icebergs breaking off the Greenland glaciers in Jan. 1912 would have to move unusually fast and against prevailing currents. But the ice field in the area the Titanic sank was so thick with icebergs responding rescue ships were forced to slow down. Icebergs were so numerous, in fact, that the shipping lanes were moved many miles to the south for the duration of the 1912 season. Where did so many icebergs come from?

Icebergs run aground

According to the Texas State group, the answer lies in grounded and stranded icebergs. As Greenland icebergs travel southward, many become stuck in the shallow waters off the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland. Normally, icebergs remain in place and cannot resume moving southward until they’ve melted enough to refloat or a high enough tide frees them. A single iceberg can become stuck multiple times on its journey southward, a process that can take several years. But the unusually high tide in Jan. 1912 would have been enough to dislodge many of those icebergs and move them back into the southbound ocean currents, where they would have just enough time to reach the shipping lanes for that fateful encounter with the Titanic.

“As icebergs travel south, they often drift into shallow water and pause along the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland. But an extremely high spring tide could refloat them, and the ebb tide would carry them back out into the Labrador Current where the icebergs would resume drifting southward,” Olson said. “That could explain the abundant icebergs in the spring of 1912. We don’t claim to know exactly where the Titanic iceberg was in January 1912—nobody can know that--but this is a plausible scenario intended to be scientifically reasonable.”

Now Playing: Pink Floyd Atom Heart Mother
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Friday, March 02, 2012

Edna Milton Chadwell: One more media round-up

I've never been embargoed before. Yesterday I spent quite a bit of time doing phone interviews with various quarters putting together writeups on the late Edna Milton (Chadwell), providing fact-checking services (hrm, I gotta start charging for that) and in general, helping get the word out regarding Miss Edna's death. No, "getting the word out" isn't quite it... "Getting the word correct" is closer to the mark. With so much misinformation out there about the Chicken Ranch already, I didn't want any new wrong-headed notions getting loose in the wild (alas, this was not to be. Just last night I saw one story repeating the falsehood that the Chicken Ranch burned down, although this time in a new context). I spoke with Matt Schudel of the Washington Post and emailed back and forth quite a bit, and have to say I was impressed by his thoroughness, even though probably 99 percent of what we covered didn't make the final obituary. He just asked that I not mention to anyone I spoke with him until the article ran, which it did this morning. I guess he was worried the New York Times would swoop in and steal his thunder. In any event, here's the link to his comprehensive story, and a brief excerpt:

Washington Post: Edna Milton Chadwell, madam of Texas’s ‘Best Little Whorehouse,’ dies at 84
Edna Arretha Milton was born Jan. 3, 1928, in Caddo County, Okla. Her nephew said her family lived in sharecropper’s shacks and even in wagons.

At 16, Mrs. Chadwell was living in California, she later told writer Jayme Lynn Blaschke, when she was pushed into a marriage to Elva A. Hutson; they later divorced. She had a son who died in infancy.

With no other resources, Mrs. Chadwell moved to Texas and turned to prostitution.

“She told me she was on the brink of starvation,” said Blaschke, who is writing a book about the Chicken Ranch.
Elsewhere, the story continues to spread. It has conquered North America and is now running rampant in Great Britain and Australia. Some are reprints of the AP or the Houston Chronicle or the Washington Post pieces, but others are odd mashups, taking pieces from these stories and mixing them together with bits from Wikipedia and elsewhere. These are particularly interesting, because I can pick out my words there, paraphrased and altered slightly, but still sourced by yours truly, becoming part of the conventional wisdom and general knowledge base. It's a little heady, and a little scary at the same time.

The Telegraphs: Edna Milton Chadwell

Yahoo!Movies: Edna Milton Chadwell, Last Madam of ‘Chicken Ranch’ Bordello, Dies at 84 The Best Little Chicken Ranch in Texas

The Sydney Morning Herald: Madam of 'best little whorehouse' dies at 84

Thanks to all the people who have emailed me these past few days to offer encouragement and support. Needless to say, I'm feeling the pressure to knuckle down and get this book finished as soon as possible. I'll continue to post updates on my progress here and on the Facebook Page and as soon as I have a contract and estimated publication date, I'll let everyone know.

Now Playing: Talking Heads More Songs About Buildings and Food
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Friday Night Videos

I have to confess, it's a little awkward looking for a Monkees song to commemorate Davey Jones' untimely death this week, only to discover that Mickey Dolenz handled lead vocals on all my favorites. Well, fine. That just means I'll have to go with the obvious choice, "Daydream Believer," which is still a great song although a little on the sappy side. I first got into the Monkees back in 1986, when they had their first big reunion and scored a hit with "That Was Then, This Is Now" (another Dolenz vocal, by the way) and in college watched their TV show when MTV aired reruns in the late '80s. I never found them laugh-out-loud funny, but their goofy antics were endlessly entertaining.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Greg Kihn Band.

Now Playing: ZZ Top Tres Hombres
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Thursday, March 01, 2012

Chicken Ranch roundup

News of the death Edna Chadwell, née Milton, in Phoenix last Saturday has now spread far and wide, even crossing over to Britain, and hundreds of newspapers, blogs, television and radio stations are reporting the passing of the last madam of the infamous Chicken Ranch of La Grange, Texas. I've collected a sampling of the various stories with links below, but this is hardly exhaustive. I've left out many, many duplicates, most of which are simple reprints of the Associated Press article, which I found uninspired. The best of the lot is the first writeup by Tony Freemantle of the Houston Chronicle. I spent quite a bit of time with him on the phone yesterday, and while the piece is not without flaws, it's still the most comprehensive of the lot.

Houston Chronicle: Last madam of infamous Chicken Ranch has died

[Update: Texas Monthly adds their take, while once again conveniently ignoring me. Guess what guys, Reinert's "definitive" article is wrong on a number of points.] Texas Monthly: Last Madam at the La Grange Chicken Ranch Dead at 84

Broadway World: Last Madam of Original Inspiration for BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS Dies at 84

Chicago Sun-Times: Edna Chadwell, 84, last madam of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”

The Daily Yonder: 'Chicken Ranch' Owner Dies

The Daily Mail (U.K.): Last madam of infamous brothel that inspired 'The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas' dies at 84

And KTRK-TV, Channel 13 out of Houston, the station that unleashed Marvin Zindler on the world, chimes in as well:

I'm kinda left scratching my head as to why the Austin American-Statesman hasn't written it's own piece rather than relying on the AP, but I've never been able to figure out their editorial judgment. Maybe they're just saving it for John Kelso.

A special shout-out goes to Roy Bragg who worked with me for two days to put together a Miss Edna piece for his newspaper, only to have it bumped at the last minute in favor of someone else's writeup. Life sucks sometime. You're still a hero in our eyes, Roy. Keep fighting the good fight!

Now Playing: The Monkees Then and Now... The Best of the Monkees
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