"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Tag: texas monthly

My Brother’s Secret


Here’s a beautiful story by my pal Kip Stratton about his step-brother:

I’d not seen my stepbrother Dale in more than two years when a bitter norther slammed into Texas in December 1989. Schools closed, pipes burst, and sleet-covered highways took on the look of salvage yards. I was sitting alone one blue-gray afternoon, listening to the frozen rain tick on the windows of my house in Belton, when the phone rang.

It was Dale’s mother, and she was in a panic. She was at Arlington Memorial Hospital, where her son was in intensive care. “He might not live through the night,” she said. “You’ll have to tell your mother and stepfather. They’ll never believe me if I call them.” I knew she was right; ever since her divorce from my stepfather, more than thirty years earlier, he had done little to hide his loathing for her, even after he’d retained custody of their two sons, Elden and Dale, and rebuilt a family with my mother and me. I promised to be at the hospital as soon as I could, then phoned my mother in Oklahoma. “What’s wrong with him?” she asked, stunned. I told her I didn’t know.

But that was not exactly true. Sitting in the car on my way to the hospital, inching across the ice on Interstate 35, I played news headlines from recent years over and over in my head. AIDS, a disease unknown to Americans just a decade earlier, was filling hospitals and clinics and hospices across the country with patients covered in lesions and fighting for each breath as their lungs were steadily destroyed. And in the late eighties, only one outcome awaited its victims: death.

[Photo Credit: Bruce Wrighton via MPD]

Farewell to Cracker Eden


Just as a quick follow-up on Grover Lewis. Check out this memoir piece he wrote in 2005.

In 1943 my parents—Grover Lewis and Opal Bailey Lewis—shot each other to death with a pawnshop pistol. Big Grover had stalked us for a year, fighting divorce tooth and nail, and when he finally cornered Opal alone and pulled the trigger, she seized the gun and killed him too. They’d started out as Depression kids who had eloped from the Trinity Heights area of Oak Cliff, where they’d both been friends with Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Like Clyde, my father was an unschooled country jake who fell—or jumped—into low ways in the big city. Opal, like Bonnie, was a bright student who left school early to help support her family—a moral girl with high ideals. Like Bonnie’s, Opal’s main crime seems to have been picking the wrong guy. In the end, she managed to save my father from everybody but himself.

The fatal events took place in my hometown of San Antonio when I was eight, and I became the ward of a brutish Fort Worth in-law who amused himself by trying to break my body and spirit. By today’s standards, he would have been deemed abusive enough to serve jail time. After five years, when I realized that my options were either suicide or homicide, I ran away and refused to return if I died in the process. Many of my mother’s kin considered me unsalvageable because I was a “pure Lewis.” They’s give me that look: “Just like his daddy.…”

Spook—my great uncle, C.E.Bailey—saved my life. When he took me in, I was badly damaged—withdrawn, lacking confidence, blind as a bat, smart as fire, dumb as hell. Still, with a friendly home base only a block’s walk from my high school classes and the local library also close at hand, I began to mend. My case was extreme but hardly singular in a workingman’s district where a lot of families got blown to smithereens.

A sagging condo pile with a “No Drugs” sign out front occupied the lot where our old family boarding house had steed. Spook and I had lived upstairs in a bare room with a bare bulb above the iron bedstead. When I started working after school, I bought us reading lamps, feeling grown-up about pitching in.

Spook’s insight—his special grace—was to treat me as a younger brother instead of a ward. In is fifties by then, a union machinist and a lifelong bachelor, he kept his mind sharp by studying the Bible and parsing out “the lies in the papers.” Half a Wobbly in his secret heard, he taught me a multitude of useful things, one of the germinal ideas being that decency and common sense were most likely to be found in common people. He offered general advice, specific if asked, and never raised his voice or hand to me. In the long haul, I think I was less trouble to him than his batty sisters, both of whom constantly schemed to lure him into their religious cults.

If Spook was our family Samaritan, Matthew Bailey—my mother’s father—was our scourge. A Snopesy little jackleg-of-all-trades—he had been Bonnie and Clyde’s favorite bootlegger—he worked for thirty-odd years as a maintenance engineer at the Wholesale Merchants Building in downtown Dallas, where he routinely slept with maids as a condition of their employment. With a flame of rage perpetually flickering in his head, he once put a black man off a city bus at knife point for sitting in front of him. I loved the old devil regardless and helped him out sometimes on weekend plumbing jobs, mostly just handing him his bottle. Matthew approached everything with a maximum violence required for the job, he never swatted me around, because as a rule, he only beat on the people who lived under his own roof.

And then dig this nice oral history on Grover by Texas Monthly:

Peter Bogdanovich (director of The Last Picture Show): I don’t remember how Grover got on the set, obviously through Larry [McMurtry]. He introduced him. And at some point we decided he’d be good to play Sonny’s father. I had written something, and we told Grover what the lines were, and he did it. I don’t remember that I was told that he was going to write a piece about the film until it was a fait accompli. Because I never saw him take notes. No tape recorder. No interview. I was surprised when I saw the piece. At the time, I remember being very unhappy with it and thinking that it was ungenerous, unkind, and inaccurate, if well written. And I remember being rather angry about it at the time. I don’t believe I ever saw Grover again.

Rae Lewis: The thing about Grover—I saw this time and time again—was he had a reporter’s instinct for relaxing his subjects. By the time he’d interview them, he had researched them. When he talked to Robert Mitchum [for Rolling Stone ], he knew about Mitchum’s short stories. He would start talking and point out that he was taping the conversation. He wanted them to understand that they would be quoted. But he just had a way of talking so they’d relax, and next thing you knew they were going to town.

Robert Draper (correspondent at GQ; former writer at Texas Monthly; met Lewis while researching Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History): Around the time I interviewed him for the book, he hadn’t really done any work at all for two or three years. His confidence was shot. Maybe, to put a finer point on it, his ability to reconcile his standards with the realities of the publishing business had gone the way of the buffalo. Not to give myself too much credit, but in his eyes my book had restored his rightful place in magazine journalism, and it was only after that that he started to churn out magazine stories again. Although by churn out I mean three stories a year rather than one a year.

Kenneth Turan (film critic for the Los Angeles Times; worked with Lewis at New West): Posterity is so quirky. Grover was as good as anyone who wrote nonfiction journalism in his era. You can hold his stuff up against anybody’s. Who knows why some people get to be better known than others? But in terms of quality, Grover took second place to no one.

You’re Waylon Jennings, Ainchoo?

Also, rest in peace Chet Flippo. Man, yesterday was a tough day.

Here’s a piece that Flippo wrote on Waylon Jennings for Texas Monthly back in 1975:

Jack C—-, the federal agent stationed at Gate 56 of the Dallas airport, signaled to his partner when he saw the pair coming, The signal meant “search” and that signal was followed by an announcement to the 23 passengers waiting for Texas International Airlines flight 925 to Austin: “TI 925 will be delayed momentarily due to transient passengers.”

Those transient passengers, the suspicious pair, carried no luggage, had paid cash for their tickets, and were similarly attired: rumpled leather suits, scuffed boots, and hair a little longer than is allowed in the VIP lounge just down the corridor.

Cowboy singer Waylon Jennings and the writer with him slowed down their loping run for the plane as Agent Jack stepped in front of them: “Please step this way… gentlemen.” Jennings carried no identification and Agent Jack was summoning his superior when a light bulb went on above his head: “Aren’t you . . . you’re Waylon Jennings , ainchoo? I thought you was an entertainer. Hell, yes, I see you over at Panther Hall. I go over to Panther and get drunk and raise heil ever wunst in a wile. Go right on through, gentlemen.”

Jennings laughed about it all the way to Austin.


BGS: Leroy’s Revenge

Here’s a tough, griping story by Gary Cartwright. It appears in his fine collection Confessions of a Washed-Up Sportswriter:Including Various Digressions about Sex, Crime and Other Hobbies and was originally published in Texas Monthly. It appears here with the author’s permission.

“Leroy’s Revenge”

By Gary Cartwright

Otis Crater was late for the fanciers’ organizational meeting at the Cherokee Lounge for good reason. He had just stabbed a U-TOTE-M attendant following a discussion of the economic impact of a five-cent price increase on a six-pack of beer.

Crater kicked open the lounge door and bounced off the wall, scattering a table of Arabs who had made the mistake of thinking the Cherokee was a hangout for University of Texas exchange students. Crater carried the remnants of a six-pack under one arm and cradled his baby pit bulldog, Princess, under the other. He looked like a crazed, bloody scarecrow.

“That sorry bastard started it,” Crater told those already gathered for the meeting. “I had turned my back to leave when he came at me with a butcher knife. He tore open my right side. Daddy was out in the truck with Princess and a load of cedar. I said, ‘Don’t ask me why right now, just give me your knife.'”

“Did you kill the sorry bastard?” Stout asked.

“I don’t know,” Crater said, as though he hadn’t considered the question until now. “I ‘spect I made him a Christian. Daddy told me, ‘You’re a goddamn fool springing a knife on a man when you can’t even see straight. You’re liable to cut yourself as him.’ I think I got myself in the thigh.”

Crater and his family are cedar choppers, a profession they have followed for a hundred years or longer. Cedar chopper has become a generic term, like redneck, almost without precise meaning. But there are still real people out among the evergreen hills, spring-fed creeks, and wild backroads west of Austin who earn their keep by clearing stands of scrub cedar for land developers. Their wages are the wood they cut in a day. They drive broken-down pickup trucks, deal in cash, preach self-reliance, and maintain a fundamental faith in the use of physical force.

Thus, an increase in the price of a six-pack is of genuine concern. One could well imagine Crater’s old daddy embellishing the story for the domino players, who would nod approval and observe that Otis was a good boy, if inclined to be a little hotheaded on occasion. “Heh, heh,” his daddy would say, “I taught him better. First slash, he missed by eight inches and cut his ownself in the leg.”

Stout, a telephone company lineman, had summoned the fanciers to call to their attention an ad in Pit Dog Report, an earthy, nearly illiterate “Mag. of reading and not to many picturs” published in Mesquite and circulated nationally.

The ad read:


any time … any where

BULLY, male, 54 lb.


Parties interested could contact Mr. Maynard at a post office box in Phoenix, Arizona. It wasn’t necessary to mention that challengers lacking the proper securities need not respond. They had all heard of Mr. Maynard and his legendary beast, Bully. Mr. Maynard was the Max Hirsch of pit bulldog breeding, and Bully was Man o’ War. Bully had every quality a fighting dog can have—gameness, biting power, talent, stamina, bloodline. As the saying goes, a dead game dog.

‘We’re gonna get it on!” Stout declared, cackling and slamming the magazine on the table.

“He’s crazy as a mudsucking hen,” Crater said, addressing the table. J.K., a professional breeder who works with his daddy, ran the tip of a frog sticker under his walnut-colored fingernails and said nothing. Annabelle, a girl with an Oklahoma Dust Bowl face who lives with J.K., was practically sitting in J.K.’s lap, which was as far away as she could get from Stout.

“I got fifteen hundred bucks,” Stout said. “That leaves fifteen hundred for the rest of you.”

Crater looked down at Princess, who was chewing on his foot. “What are we gonna use for a dog?” he inquired. “I’m afraid Princess here is a shade might young. Boudreaux’s dead … Tombstone’s dead … and that dark brindle of J.K.’s wouldn’t make a good lunch for a beast like Bully.”

“Tell him,” Stout said. Then J.K. related what fate had brought their way.

It seemed that J.K.’s daddy knew a driver who knew a dispatcher who had a brother in El Paso who had a dog named Leroy. Leroy was so god-awful bad nobody in El Paso would speak his name, but for a price his owner was willing to loan him out. J.K. and his daddy had taken a pretty game dog named Romeo out to El Paso where Leroy had had him for high tea.

But that wasn’t all. J.K.’s daddy noticed that one of Leroy’s toes had been cut off-cut clean, not like in a fight, but like a man had taken a chisel and cleaved the toe with a blow from a mallet.

Crater looked around the Cherokee and whistled. Stout yelled for some beer. They had all heard the story, how you never saw a genuine Maynard dog with a full set of toes. This was the result of a legendary training technique peculiar to the Maynard kennel. On a pup’s first birthday, Mr. Maynard drops him in the pit with an older, experienced dog. As soon as the animals hit in the center of the pit and get a good hold, Mr. Maynard cleaves off one of the pup’s toes. If the pup lets go his hold, if he loses heart and whines and slobbers, Maynard cleaves open his head and goes about his business. But if the pup holds on, if he keeps on fighting, Maynard has found a new beast to ward off the wolves of his trade. Anytime you see a three-toed dog, move over.

“You trying to tell us Leroy is one of old man Maynard’s stock?” Crater asked.

“I’m trying to tell you Leroy is the son of Bully!” Stout cackled, banging his giant fist on the table. “Only the sainted Doctor Maynard don’t know it. He thinks Leroy is dead somewhere out in California.”

“He won’t for long,” Crater said. “Don’t you think old man Maynard won’t recognize his own work?”

“Me and daddy cut off a toe on his other foot,” J.K. admitted. “Then I dyed him brindle.”

“Hell,” Stout said. “You seen a thousand pit bulls. After a few fights, who knows the difference?”

Crater had to laugh. Leroy, son of Bully. Even his own daddy wouldn’t know him.

“That’s still a lot of money,” he said, tumbling Princess with his other boot. “How do we know he can take him?”

“That’s just a chance we have to take,” Annabelle said. flinching as Stout grabbed her knee. Stout was leaning forward, grinning like a berserk grizzly bear. His shirttail was out, and you could see the bulge of a .38 Super pushed down into his jeans.

Pit bulldogs. Killers, yes. For two thousand years or longer, pit bulldogs have been bred for a single purpose—to fight. To fight to the death, if necessary. To attack anything with four legs. They do not defend, understand. They are worthless as watchdogs unless the intruder happens to be another dog, or a lion, or an elephant. No, they attack. That’s their only number. They were bred that way—short neck, tremendously powerful body and legs, an undershot jaw capable of applying 740 pounds of pressure per square inch (compared to a German shepherd’s 45 or 50), a nose set back so they can hang on and breathe at the same time. The symbol of Winston Churchill and the English-speaking race.

The American Kennel Club refuses to register the breed. In its well-stocked library in New York, which includes such titles as The Dog in Action, Spine of the Dog, and Canine Madness, there are few references to the pit bulldog, or American pit bull terrier as they call it, careful to distinguish this nondog from such registered breeds as the ordinary bull terrier or the Staffordshire bull terrier.

Pure pit bulldogs are descendants of the old English mastiff, which Caesar greatly admired and brought back to Rome after his invasion of England in 55 B.C. Years before the Roman invasion, peasants kept mastiffs, or tiedogs as they were called—after the Anglo-Saxon practice of keeping mastiffs tied by day and letting them run loose at night. It was a practical method of regulating populations of wolves and other predators. Nobility, clergy, and other public-spirited citizens enjoyed dog fights and bequeathed legacies so that the common folk might be entertained on holidays.

Common folk are still entertained by the sport, especially throughout the South, the Southwest, and Southern and Central California, but also in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, and most likely everywhere else. Fanciers, as they call themselves after the old English tradition, gather on Sunday mornings, in the thickets or bayous, along river bottoms or arroyos, in grape arbors, in junk yards, under railroad trestles. They bring their dogs and their wages and plenty of wine and beer and knives and guns, and they have one hell of a time.

Until recently, the fanciers bothered no one except each other, which was by free choice. Then, in the post-Watergate doldrums, newspapers in Dallas, Fort Worth, San Diego, and Chicago joined forces with the New York Times in exposing and deploring the sport, which they customarily refer to as a “practice.” Boxing and auto racing are sport.

“This metropolitan area has more active dog fighting than any other region nationally,” an investigative reporter wrote in the Dallas Morning News. Not only that, the story continued, but prostitutes and gamblers are rumored to congregate around the pits.

Almost every state has a law against dog fighting, but the sport is so clandestine that enforcement is nearly impossible. A vice squad detective for the Los Angeles sheriff’s department told the New York Times that his department knew when and where the fights were held, but they couldn’t get on the property to obtain evidence. Dog fighting is a Class A misdemeanor in Texas and can cost you two thousand dollars and a year in jail; the catch is you can’t prosecute without a witness. There’s not a pit bulldog breeder alive willing to testify against a fellow fancier.

But now that pit bulldog fighting has become an issue, all that may change. The Dallas Morning News (which supports the death penalty and Manifest Destiny and longs to invade Indochina) published an editorial titled “Despicable ‘Game,'” the final paragraph of which I quote: “Every effort should be made to stop these fights. Quite simply, they are inhumane and appalling to any thinking citizen. Such senseless mayhem should not be tolerated in our midst.”

Noble sentiments, but if history has taught us anything, it’s that one man’s mayhem, senseless or otherwise, is certain to be another’s calling. Fanciers—like other individualists or subcultures—consider themselves to be a special breed, a class apart from what, to their point of view, are the drones of mainstream society. Fanciers care for their animals fanatically, certainly as conscientiously as most football coaches or generals treat their charges. Preservation of the bloodline is every fancier’s solemn duty and privilege. When an insurance man advertised “White Cavalier (Pit) Bull Terriers” in the Austin American-Statesman, Crater and Stout called on the gentleman, pointing out that he was attempting to pass off lemons as oranges and promising to break his spinal column if the ad ever reappeared, which it did not. The American Kennel Club should take note, if not of the method, at least of the diligence.

Otis Crater’s jaded old daddy had reached an age where he’d lost interest in most dog fights, but he couldn’t resist this one; there he was in Stout’s house trailer, spitting Garrett’s snuff juice into a paper cup and recalling the morning in Dripping Springs when the legendary Black Jack Jr. went nearly two hours before turning Marvin Tilford’s Big Red.

The match ended when Marvin Tilford’s dog turned, or gave up. Big Red knew when he’d had enough, but Marvin was so humiliated (and broke) that he didn’t show up for a year. Big Red was later drowned by a boar coon who got him by the back of the neck in the South San Gabriel River.

“He should of never gone in water,” Crater’s old daddy pontificated as he rocked slowly and watched Princess chew on his boot. “Men and dogs belong on ground. Birds belong in air. Fish belong in water. When a creation starts believing they invented how things are, they forgot how things are.”

“Hey, daddy,” Crater interrupted, “tell ’em about the deputy sheriff.”

“That’s another story,” the old man snorted, dabbing his gums with a frayed matchstick. ‘We was going pretty good when the deputy called and asked me how things was going. ‘Pretty good,’ I said. ‘The dogs been fighting twenty minutes and the people seventeen.'”

Watching Princess tumble around the floor of Stout’s trailer, you wouldn’t take her for a killer. She’s no larger than a football, this furry little alligator with sad eyes and a wrinkled face, chewing mindlessly, somehow reminiscent of J. Edgar Hoover. According to procedure, Crater had already clipped her ears, which now looked like two raw navels. They were adequate for hearing but impossible to bite down on.

Princess was fun to play with—the trouble was she didn’t like to stop. She was playing with a big black poodle one afternoon when someone noticed that the poodle was no longer playing, or moving: the illusion of movement was caused by the steady jerking motion of Princess’s head. Shortly following life’s final measure of response, Princess dropped the black curly mess on the lawn and trotted over to examine a rosebush.

Before he got Princess, Crater traveled with a big brindle pit bulldog named Boudreaux. Crater was managing an Austin tavern when Boudreaux tore into a German shepherd three times his size. In the ten seconds or so it took Crater to separate them with his hickory wedge, Boudreaux ripped out the shepherd’s chest.

You could already hear the yelps and groans of men and animals down at the creek bottom when Stout arrived, carrying a package wrapped in brown paper.

“I guess you heard Claxon got stabbed,” Stout said.

“I heard he got some new marks,” Crater said. “What happened?”

“In the bathroom at the Cherokee. Claxon called this dude a Meskin. The dude was a Indian. Hell, I could tell right away he wasn’t no Meskin.”

“How’s he doing?”

“He’s about half dead and half proud,” Stout said, and his laugh sounded over-oiled, hollow, and obligatory. He tore away the brown paper and held up a framed, hand-lettered scroll. There were tears in his eyes. The scroll was a poem, written by his mama, Toots; her first poem since Stout’s daddy was shot to death by three blacks who hijacked his tiny grocery and market. Toots watched her husband die as she fired off several rounds at the fleeing killers. Austin police captured two of the hijackers, and the third, so it’s said, was captured by Stout’s vigilantes and is now fertilizing a worthy crop in a cedar chopper’s garden. Who knows?

Stout turned his head so that the others wouldn’t see the tears, and he looked for a place to hang the scroll. He selected a spot on the wall next to a poster of Pancho Villa enjoying a smoke under a mesquite tree.

Toots’s poem went like this:

The clock of life is

wound but once

And no man has the power
to tell just when the hands will stop.

At late or early hour.
is the only time we own,

live, love, toil with a mill; 

Place no faith

in tomorrow for 

The clock may then

be still.

There was silence throughout the trailer as Otis Crater read the words of Toots’s poem aloud, but Stout excused himself and slipped outside. He kept his back to the trailer and his head down, following the fossilized debris of an ancient riverbed. He stopped in front of an oak almost as wide as himself and took something from a homemade cabinet nailed to the tree trunk. It was a package of sunflower seeds. His short, knotted arms stretched for a low-hanging branch, and he filled a bird feeder with sunflower seeds.

Judging from the license plates of the campers and trucks scattered throughout the woods, the fanciers had come from as far away as California, Mexico, Florida, and even Canada. It was a young crowd, mostly in their twenties and thirties, a mixed bag of longhairs, cedar choppers, and high-risk investors, with a few blacks and Chicanos and some transients from a Houston motorcycle gang thrown in.

There were some women and enough children to make it look like a club picnic. A skinny kid named Tarlton, who stole ten-speed bikes for a living, passed out beer in paper cups. Tarlton wore a homemade T-shirt with a picture of Snoopy dragging a dead cat by the tail. There was no mistaking Mr. Maynard. He was the tall, lean, silver-haired man in a blue jump-suit and wraparound shades standing by his Winnebago talking to J.K.’s daddy. You’d figure him for a bomber pilot in World War II, but he was just another dog soldier a long way from home. The cold scars in Maynard’s eyes reached back to quarrels too horrible to translate: it had been a long time since he found it necessary to look tough or talk big.

There were a dozen bulldogs chained to heavy iron stakes around the perimeter of the clearing, but there was also no mistaking which one was Bully. While the other beasts were whimpering and sniffing blood and straining at their chains for some action, Bully relaxed on his haunches, observing the scene with sad, patient eyes.

Mr. Maynard and J.K.’s daddy talked and shared a drink, not at all interested in the fight in progress or the other fanciers clumped around the hay bales that formed the pit walls. A spotted cur owned by two black kids was trying to survive the jaws of one of Marvin Tilford’s pups. The match was hopelessly one-sided, which meant there was hardly any betting, and the crowd was restless.

“Why don’t you do the fair thing and give that leopard of yours a rest,” Marvin told the black kids. They conferred in whispers, then picked up their pet and paid off. The bet was fifty dollars.

That’s how most dog fights end, with a humiliated owner “doing the fair thing,” picking up and paying off. Dogs are frequently wounded and occasionally killed, but only in serious challenges where the stakes are high and the owners’ reputations well traveled. Even then an owner will usually do the fair thing when his beast is clearly outclassed, greatly preferring a healthy animal to an over-exercised ego.

“Dogs that are the best performers aren’t necessarily the best dogs,” Mr. Maynard told me as we drank scotch in his Winnebago. He knew that I was a writer. He even helped me with my notes, spelling out names, and carefully considering dates. He was only anxious that the sport not get a bad name.

“People talk about pure Maynards as they do about Picassos,” I observed.

“It’s an art,” he said.

“How do you do it7 What’s your secret?”

“No secret,” he smiled. “I just breed best to best. Now, knowing what is best, that’s a gift. I can’t tell you about that any more than Sugar Ray could tell you how he boxed. The best performers aren’t necessarily the best dogs, that’s just one quality. You look for everything from performance to pedigree to conformation to the way a dog holds his head when he pees. ‘Course, gameness is everything in a fighting dog, and you’re not gonna know that until you see him scratch for the first time. I’ve heard it said that if fanciers had millions of dollars like horse people we could come up with the perfect fighting dog, but I haven’t heard anyone claim they’ve come up with the perfect racehorse yet.”

I asked him about the familiar story, how he tested a pup by cleaving off one of its toes, then cleaved its head if the dog wasn’t game enough to suit Maynard standards.

“Naw,” he said, pouring two more drinks. “That’s an old story. I did it once or twice when I was getting started. I’m a businessman. A man growing corn doesn’t burn his fields because a few ears aren’t sweet. I raise dogs, I don’t kill them. Best to best, that’s the secret of a Maynard dog.”

“Some people think this is a cruel sport,” I said, understating the position as much as I dared.

“I guess it’s cruel as anything else in life,” he said, after considering the question from all sides. “These dogs only have one purpose in life, that’s to fight.” Fanciers are not long on philosophy. They accept what they do with the same lack of introspection that they accept war and General Motors. Their sport is part of their life.

The October sun came through the Winnebago window, overexposing the pastiche of fanciers around the hay bales. From the swell of the crowd it sounded like a hell of a fight. Then I realized it was Crater and Stout doing the cat number.

The cat number is traditional at dog fights, much like clowns at a circus or halftime bands at football games. What they do is throw live cats—which they buy for fifty cents a head from the city pound—to assorted dogs who aren’t fighting that day but who need exercise, self-confidence, and a show of affection. J.K. and his daddy use cats for training. Some handlers claim you shouldn’t run a dog, but J.K.’s daddy runs all of his beasts, using a homemade device consisting of an axle and a crosspole on which he can leash one dog and one cat. The leashes are measured so the dog can chase the cat till doomsday and never catch up, which he usually will attempt to do. If a dog has worked well, J.K.’s daddy will toss him a reward—the cat of his recent ordeal. A cat who has had a run-in with a pit bulldog is something out of a wax museum—a statue frozen in terror, eyes wide with disbelief, front claws arched, fangs bared in a silly, final grin.

Several wax museum cats lay in the grass around the hay bales. Marvin Tilford’s little boy walked by, swinging a dead cat by the tail.

It was a few minutes after 2 p.m. when Stout and Annabelle brought Leroy down from the trailer. They had changed his name to Tag. If he made it through the day, he would be Leroy again. He would return triumphantly to El Paso, but for now he was Tag, a dog with no past and an unenviable future. Tag looked more like a walking anthill of petrified Jell-O than any animal that might come to mind. He had so much scar tissue that you couldn’t tell what part was the original dog. J.K.’s dye job was blatantly atrocious; it looked as if Leroy had been tie-dyed.

“He wants Cajun rules,” J.K.’s daddy told Marvin Tilford, who by previous agreement would referee the match.

“Yessir,” Marvin said.

“He says, if you see a turn, call it. But let them maneuver. Don’t let the handlers push their dogs out of corner. Check the handlers … make ’em roll up both sleeves, and make sure they taste their dogs’ drinks. No sponges … no towels … all the handler can take in the pit is his dog’s drink and a fan to fan him.”

“Yessir,” Marvin said.

When the handlers had carried the dogs to the pit, Mr. Maynard walked over and examined Leroy’s teeth.

“Nice animal,” he said. “Good head.” If he thought the markings curious, or observed the stubs of two toes, one so recently cleaved that the skin hadn’t grown back, he didn’t let on.

“Let’s roll,” he told Marvin.

Both dogs scratched hard out of their corners, and Bully took the lead, going low, forcing Leroy to bite around the nubs of gristle that had once been ears. Christ, he was strong. But there was no doubt Leroy was his daddy’s boy; he just kept coming. “It’s gonna be a long afternoon,” Crater said. Unless you have more money than you can possibly afford riding on the outcome, a dog fight is about as interesting as a college wrestling match: the beasts hit, lock on, and hold fast, in endless repetition. The fight quickly settles into a test of strength, endurance, and gameness. Even the blood takes on a surrealistic quality after a while, like ghost shadows in a hall of mirrors.

After forty-five minutes—when Marvin Tilford called the first pick-up and broke the dogs apart by forcing his hickory wedge between their jaws and twisting counterclockwise—it was still impossible to say who was top dog.

While the handlers were cooling off their animals, Crater and I walked down by the old Indian mound. You could feel the excitement bouncing off the limestone walls of the creekbed: it wasn’t watching the dogs that did it, it was being there, experiencing an almost-vanished culture of blood rites and a close familiarity with death.

Then we caught sight of Annabelle, coming out from behind some bushes, buttoning her pants.

“Damn,” she said, ‘Tm so nervous I almost wet my britches.”

“You think Mr. Maynard knows something?”

She shook her head. “I’d hate to find out. Old men like him can be real bad customers.”

“He didn’t say nothing when he looked at Leroy’s teeth.”

“That’s not what worries me,” Annabelle said. ‘Wait till his beast gets off on the acid.”

“What’s that suppose to mean?” Crater asked, squinting into the sun.

“Ask Stout.”

“I’m asking you.”

“We rubbed Leroy’s chest with acid,” Annabelle said. “Very shortly now Leroy’s daddy’s gonna take his first trip on LSD.”

Crater watched the light hit and fracture off the creek walls.

“Oh, me,” he sighed. “I get this awful feeling the center’s not holding.” Crater walked to his truck and got his gun. One of the fascinating things about Crater and his friends is the way they use the language. They are not educated, but they are amazingly literate.

At the second pick-up an hour later, both dogs were bloody but strong. Bully’s handler whispered something to Mr. Maynard, but Mr. Maynard shook his head and the handler told Marvin: “Let ’em roll.” Leroy was bleeding from the chest and from the stifle of his left rear leg.

The battle was into its third hour when J.K. told his daddy: “His leg is starting to pump blood.”

“I can’t help that,” his daddy said.

“He’s making you like it, Leroy. You better eat!” Annabelle hollered out suddenly. At the name Leroy, both Stout and Crater felt for their guns, but Mr. Maynard didn’t blink.

“Work him, Tag!” J.K. yelled.

Bully was clearly the top dog now. Leroy was losing blood and weakening noticeably, but Bully was zonked far past the fatigue and mere dogdom. The ploy of the LSD was backfiring. The hair and blood in Bully’s mouth told him that he was a sixty-ton gorilla at the Captain’s Table reciting compound fractions in a tongue not previously heard on this planet. “Stand back,” he said in his strange tongue. “This one will be for keeps.” He took Leroy down by the front leg and chewed on the stifle, shaking hard, lifting Leroy off the ground and working him against the pit wall.

“Goddamn it, Marvin,” Stout hollered, “keep ’em off the wall!” Marvin moved in with his hickory wedge, but before he could break the beasts Bully shook Leroy so hard he snapped off his hold and flew halfway across the pit. Then, by God, Leroy was on him, tearing at the soft part of his throat. This time Marvin called a pick-up, which was the proper thing to do. Marvin had to help the handler restrain Bully and drag him back to his corner.

“Jesus, he’s pumping,” said Tarlton, the bicycle thief. “Don’t let ’em roll again.”

Marvin looked at Mr. Maynard, then at J.K. “You want to roll again?” he asked. J.K. answered by releasing his beast, who lunged straight at Bully and got him by the eye.

“No more pick-ups,” Mr. Maynard said quietly. “Let ’em roll.”

“Let ’em roll,” J.K. agreed.

So that would be it—one of the dogs would have to die or quit, and it wasn’t difficult to project which alternative would prevail.

Three hours and fifty-eight minutes into the match, it happened. Bully was going for the chest, boring in like a jackhammer, when suddenly Leroy got a leg and flipped him easy as you turn a pancake. There was a wailing sound like echoes colliding, then Bully’s eyes froze over. He lay still as Leroy tore out his throat. Leroy relaxed his hold, sniffed his dead opponent, then limped over and licked J.K.’s hand.

“If that don’t beat all!” Otis Crater’s old daddy said as they stood over the corpse of the late, great Bully. “It’s like his old heart just give out on him.”

J.K.’s daddy nodded. “Looks like he busted apart inside.”

“If that don’t beat all!” Otis Crater’s old daddy said again.

Mr. Maynard walked over to his Winnebago and returned with a .44 Magnum and a sheaf of hundred-dollar bills. “Here’s what I owe you,” he told J.K.’s daddy.

Mr. Maynard turned the cold scars of his eyes on Stout, then on the others, taking his time.

“I don’t know what you little bastards did to my dog,” he said, “but you’re the ones that have to live with it.”

He walked over to Leroy, patted Leroy’s head, then raised his .44 Magnum to Leroy’s head and blew it off. No one moved or spoke a word.

“If you boys ever get to Phoenix,” he said, looking each of them over one more time, “look me up.”

Postscript (from 1982)

This is my all-time favorite story, maybe because it was turned down by nearly every magazine in the country. Rolling Stone, Esquire, Playboy, Sports Illustrated, they all had a shot at the story and rejected it. It wasn’t just a judgment call; they truly hated the story. “Good Lord, dogs killing dogs,” Sports Illustrated editor Ray Cave (now editor of Time) told me. “My wife would never speak to me again if I printed that.” The story touched some primordial sense of revulsion in all these editors; people were killing people daily, by the hundreds of thousands, but there was something about dogs that was too much for their sensibilities. I had to beg Texas Monthly editor Bill Broyles to accept the story, though he loved it once he saw it in print. Everyone did. Not long after publication I received a call from Esquire editor Geoffrey Norman, who had rejected the piece when he was still articles editor at Playboy, but apparently didn’t remember. Norman wanted to know why I never sent any really good pieces like this to him.

People still ask me if this really happened. It did, though I changed the names and combined several dog fights into a single big event. It’s interesting to note the blow-by-blow account of the fight, a holdover from my sportswriting days, no doubt: a fascination with the ritual itself. But more than that, it shares a fascination with the almost-vanished “sub-culture of blood rites and a close familiarity with death.” I remember Broyles asking if Crater really said “the center’s not holding”; that seemed a little esoteric for a mere cedar chopper, but then that’s what I was trying to show. These guys read books, too.

Incidentally, Patrick Henry Polk (see ‘The Endless Odyssey of Patrick Henry Polk“) and his clan were fringe members of this subculture.

As Margaret Mead so eloquently phrased it: “I don’t judge ’em, I just write down what happened.”

Gary Cartwright has had a distinguished career as a newspaper reporter and as a freelance writer, contributing stories to such national publications as Harper’sLife, and Esquire. He was a senior editor at Texas Monthly for 25 years until his retirement in 2010 at age 76. He has written several books, including Confessions of a Washed-up Sportswriter, which grew out of an essay he wrote for Harper’s. He has co-written three movie scripts, J. W. Coop (Columbia, 1972); A Pair of Aces (CBS-TV, 1990), which he also co-produced; and Pancho, Billy and Esmerelda, which he co-produced for his own production company in 1994. In addition, he co-produced Another Pair of Aces for CBS. Blood Will Tell was filmed by CBS-TV as a four-hour miniseries in 1994. In 1998 his book, HeartWiseGuy, was published.

[Illustration by Francis Bacon]

Everything Is Not Enough

From the Texas Monthly archives here’s Michael Hall’s 1998 piece on Townes Van Zant:

Townes Van Zandt perched on a chair in the little nightclub in Berlin and sang for an hour and a half. It was October 1990. He was sober, which was a surprise; he was soulful and funny, which wasn’t. The adoring audience sat transfixed through his entire set: the precise playing, the weary singing, the apt covers like “Fraulein,” the country chestnut. The Germans loved him. They knew his lyrics by heart, though most of his jokes sailed over their heads.

Two and a half years later, Townes played at La Zona Rosa in Austin. He was so drunk he couldn’t finish a single song during the entire abbreviated set. Embarrassed fans started filing out after fifteen minutes as he fumbled with chords and slurred his words into gibberish. Some stuck it out to the end, feeling guilty for watching, but—well, you never knew what might happen when Townes Van Zandt was onstage. After the show, he collapsed.

Townes was a holy mess, his life a mix of the sublime and the horrific. By the time he died of a heart attack at 52 on New Year’s Day, 1997, the Fort Worth native had written a large batch of enduring songs and become the subject of colorful tales—many of them even true. They will be retold on March 28 when Austin City Limits airs “A Celebration of Townes Van Zandt,” during which Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle, Guy Clark, and others reminisce about their friend and play his songs. At the taping of the show on December 7, Nelson and Harris did “Pancho and Lefty,” which he and Merle Haggard took to number one on the country charts in 1983. Harris and Earle sang “If I Needed You,” which she and Don Williams took to number three in 1981. Griffith sang “Tecumseh Valley” and Lovett “Flyin’ Shoes,” as each had been doing in concert for years. Griffith called Townes “one of our greatest native folk songwriters.”

And here is an exclusive: “Heavenly Houseboat Blues.”

Shotgun Willie

Last year, Texas Monthly ran a terrific oral history on the outlaw country music scene in Austin during the 1970s. John Spong did the work. And it’s well-worth your time for sure:

Halfway between the coasts sat Texas, where hundreds of honky-tonks functioned as Nashville’s farm system. But that music belonged to the old guard. Texas kids were more interested in the state’s thriving folkie circuit. The hub was a Dallas listening room called the Rubaiyat, from which young singer-songwriters like Steve Fromholz and B. W. Stevenson sallied forth to coffeehouses around the state. The music they played was distinct from the protest songs of Greenwich Village. Texas folk was rooted in cowboy, Tejano, and Cajun songs, in Czech dance halls and East Texas blues joints. It was dance music. And when the Texas folkies started gigging with their rock-minded peers, they found a truer sound than the L.A. country rockers. There was nothing ironic about the fiddle on Fromholz’s epic “Texas Trilogy.”

It’s impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when that sound and scene coalesced into something cohesive enough to merit a name, but then again none of the labels people came up with—cosmic cowboy, progressive country, redneck rock, and, ultimately, outlaw country—made everyone happy. Still, the pivotal year was 1972, and the place was Austin. Liquor by the drink had finally become legal in Texas, which prompted the folkies to migrate from coffeehouses to bars, turning their music into something you drank to. Songwriters moved to town, like Michael Murphey, a good-looking Dallas kid who’d written for performers such as the Monkees and Kenny Rogers in L.A. He was soon joined by Jerry Jeff Walker, a folkie from New York who’d had a radio hit when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band covered his song “Mr. Bojangles.” In March, Willie played a three-day country festival outside town, the Dripping Springs Reunion, that would grow into his Fourth of July Picnics. Then he too moved to Austin and started building an audience that didn’t look like or care about any Nashville ideal. By the time the scene started to wind down, in 1976, Willie and Austin were known worldwide.

Top Notch

The Best American Sports Writing 2011 is out. Good news for us. This year’s edition of BASW is edited by Jane Leavy and features excellent work from the likes of S.L. Price, Sally Jenkins, Wright Thompson, Nancy Hass, Chris Jones, and Paul Solotraoff.

Here’s a sample of one of the best stories in the collection, a bonus piece by Mark Kram Jr. for the Philly Daily News:

CHICAGO – Quietly, Sonia Rodriguez got out of bed and padded into the other room, where the evening before she had laid out her clothes for work. It was Wednesday, 6:30 a.m., and her husband Paco was still asleep, the gray light of a cold Chicago dawn beginning to seep through the windows of the small house that the couple and their baby daughter shared with his parents. Sonia slipped into the outfit that she had picked out, brushed her hair and stopped back in the bedroom to look in on Ginette, who slept in the crib that was wedged against the wall. Sweeping up her purse, she glanced over at Paco and told herself she would phone him when he arrived later that day in Philadelphia. But as she stepped out the door he called to her.

“Oh?” he said, blinking the sleep from his eyes. “Are you leaving?”

She looked over her shoulder and said softly, “Yeah.”

“Come here,” Paco told her. Sonia walked over and sat on the edge of the bed. He reached up, drew her into his arms and said, “I want to say goodbye.”

Goodbyes were not easy for them. In the 5 years they had been together, they seldom had been apart. Even when they were still dating, he would stop by and see her at the end of the day, if only for an hour or so just to talk. But Sonia had not chosen to accompany her 25-year-old husband to Philadelphia, where that Friday evening Paco had a 12-round bout scheduled at the Blue Horizon with Teon Kennedy for the vacant United States Boxing Association super bantamweight crown. Boxing had become a sport that Sonia looked upon with equal portions of acceptance and disdain. She accepted it because of the passion Paco had for it, and even now says that boxing was who he was. And yet part of her held it in disdain and she had stopped attending his bouts because of it, unable to cope with the queasiness that would send her fleeing from her ringside seat whenever Paco would engage an opponent in a toe-to-toe exchange. So when he asked her if she would like to come along to Philadelphia, he was not surprised when she smiled and told him, “No, you go. But hurry back to me.” And he told her he would, adding as always, “I promise you.”

And here’s a bit from Howard Bryant’s profile of Dusty Baker:

CINCINNATI — “Light a candle,” Dusty Baker says, his lone voice softly skimming the looming silence of the empty church. “I’m sure there’s someone out there you want to pray for.”

He lights a candle, points the flickering matchstick downward in his large hands, the athlete’s hands, dousing it into the cool sand. It is here in the solitude of St. Peter in Chains Cathedral — funded by Ohio Catholics who donated 12 cents per month toward its construction in 1841 — where Johnnie B. Baker, born Baptist in California, raised in the traditions of the southern black church, kneels alone among the long pews and nourishes his spirituality.

After several moments of prayer, he rises and walks gingerly toward the altar, marveling at the Greek architecture, the Corinthian columns and stained glass mosaics, comforted, despite its bruises, by the sanctuary and the ritual of the church.

“I come in here before homestands, sometimes a couple of times a week during the season,” said Baker. “I pray for my family, for my team, and for Barack Obama, because I’ve never seen people try to take a president down like this, never seen such anger. I mean, what did he do to anybody?”

And from Gentling Cheatgrass, by Sterry Butcher in Texas Monthly:

THE MUSTANG HAS eyes that are large and dark and betray his mood. His coat is bright bay, which is to say he’s a rich red, with black running down his knees and hocks. He has a white star the size of a silver dollar on his forehead and a freeze mark on his neck. He cranks his head high as a rider approaches, shaking out a rope from a large gray gelding. The mustang does not know what is to come. His name is Cheatgrass, and he’s six years old. In May he was as wild as a songbird.

The little horse belongs to Teryn Lee Muench, a 27-year-old son of the Big Bend who grew up in Brewster and Presidio counties. Teryn Lee is tall, blue-eyed, and long-limbed. He wears his shirts buttoned all the way to the neck and custom spurs that bear his name. He never rolls up his sleeves. A turkey feather is jammed in his hatband, and he’s prone to saying things like “I was out yesterday and it came a downpour,” or, speaking of a hardheaded horse, “He’s a sorry, counterfeit son of a gun.” Horse training is the only job he has ever had.

Teryn Lee was among 130 people who signed up this spring for the Supreme Extreme Mustang Makeover, a contest in which trainers are given one hundred days to take feral horses from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), gentle these creatures, and teach them to accept grooming, leading, saddling, and riding. Don’t let the silliness of the contest’s name distract from the difficulty of the challenge. Domestic horses can be taught to walk, trot, and lope under saddle in one hundred days; it’s called being green-broke. But domestic horses are usually familiar with people. The mustangs in the Makeover have lived on the range for years without human interaction, surviving drought, brutal winters, and trolling mountain lions. The only connection they have to people is fear. Age presents another challenge. A domestic horse is broke to saddle at about age two, when it’s a gawky teenager. The contest mustangs are opinionated and mature. The culmination of the contest is a two-day event in Fort Worth in August, where the horses are judged on their level of training and responsiveness. The top twenty teams make the finals. The winner takes home $50,000.

For Teryn Lee, however, there’s more at stake than money. Most of his clients bring him horses that buck or bully, horses that have developed bad habits that stymie or even frighten their owners. Teryn Lee enjoys this work, but his goal is to become a well-known trainer and clinician who rides in top reined cow horse and cutting horse competitions. To step up to that level, he’ll have to do something dramatic. Transforming a scruffy, feral mustang that no one wanted into a handsome, gentle, willing riding horse would make people take notice. Winning would get his name out there, he says.

The Best American Sports Writing 2011 can be bought here.

[Featured image photo credit via My Modern Met]

Falling Comet

Here’s a must-read for you, from Texas Monthly.  A long profile on Bill Halley by Michael Hall:

There are many reasons why Bill Haley hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves. The main one, at least the one that comes to mind when you first think of the man, is that damn curl, which you can see in every picture ever taken of him. It looked like a gimmick, a symbol of the cheerful good-time music Haley made, songs such as “Rock Around the Clock,” “See You Later, Alligator,” and “Crazy Man Crazy.” This wasn’t the sex-crazed, dangerous music made by those other guys. Elvis was all about sex. Bill was the pudgy guy with the curl. Wearing the plaid dinner jacket.

Yes, Haley was a bit of a square. And I’ve been a fan of his ever since I saw American Graffiti, in 1973, when I was fifteen. “Rock Around the Clock,” the first song in the movie’s first scene, jumped out of the theater speakers: an exuberant 128 seconds of driving guitar and sax riffs, an amazing guitar solo, and Haley’s breathless vocal. It made me feel good; it made me want to move. And if it did that to me, imagine what it did to teens in 1955. Kids—to say nothing of grown-ups—had never heard anything like it before. There’s a before “Rock Around the Clock” and an after “Rock Around the Clock.” The before is Glenn Miller, Perry Como, and Bing Crosby. The after is Elvis, the Beatles, and Lady Gaga.

Like so many people, I wondered, How did Haley go from The Ed Sullivan Show to Sambo’s, from the top of the world to the bottom of Texas, where he would suffer a lonely death in February 1981? No one seems to know much about his last twenty years. Five books have been written about Haley, and the best one, by his son Jack, treats that period in a fourteen-page epilogue. And those last desperate months—what happened?

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver