THE HALLS SEEMED EMPTY AS MY HEART. I walked past some old wooden doors that looked like they’d been closed for a hundred years, some pebbled glass, and about seven spittoons. Before I knew it I was sitting in a big office in front of a big desk behind which sat a big woman. Everything was big in Texas, I thought. Even the small towns.
“The old lady who died last night,” I said. “The one with her lips sewn shut. That one definitely goes down as murder, right?”
“Of course it was murder,” said Sheriff Frances Kaiser, looking fairly murderous herself. “Can you think of anything else you could call it?”
“There’s always the possibility,” I said, “that she might’ve had a nearsighted tailor?”
I chuckled a brief, good-natured chuckle. A large vein throbbed in the sheriff’s neck.
“What in the dickens would lead you to believe it wasn’t murder?” she said. “Poor old thing was strangled and her lips sewn shut. Doesn’t that sound like murder to you? Maybe you’ve been in New York too long.”
“This kind of wanton violence never happens in New York,” I said. “We’re all good, God-fearin’ little church workers up there. Mind if smoke?”…
“We’re really very busy,” said the sheriff as she studied her fingernails. She performed this gesture, I noticed, not with her palm outward as a woman might, but palm inward with fingers curled toward her, as somebody who drove a tractor might.
“I guess I’ll wait till another time,” I said, “to ask you to quash my parking tickets.”
“Cut the bullshit,” she said. “I’m late for my Rotary luncheon.”
—from Armadillos & Old Lace, by Kinky Friedman*
Kerr County, deep in the conservative, hunter-friendly heart of the Texas Hill Country, has long been the kind of place where Jesus could walk in with three nails and somebody’d put him up for the night. Not that it’s the only place in Texas where some folks have wide open spaces between their ears, but there’s no shortage of brontosaurus material. “Women votin’ is bad enough,” said a former deputy last seen flipping cheeseburgers at the Burger King, “but a gal runnin’ for sheriff? It ain’t gonna happen in God’s lifetime.”
Those words were uttered long before last March, when Sheriff Frances Kaiser was effectively reelected to her third term in office after defeating ex-Texas Ranger Joe Davis in the Republican primary (she had no Democratic opponent in last month’s general election). It was also long before Governor George W. Bush had appointed her to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education. Today she is one of the few female sheriffs in the state of Texas. Six feet tall in cowboy boots, wearing her trademark sheriff’s star earrings, the 55-year-old works Winston Churchill—like eighteen-hour days beginning at six o’clock. As she told the state sheriffs’ convention during her first year in office, to thunderous applause, “What a great job these men have done. And I’m one of these men.”
Not surprising words actually for someone who, though she faithfully read her Nancy Drew, has always thought of herself as “my dad’s boy.” Raised near Medina, the eldest of ten children born to Buddy and Nora Hubble, Frances helped take care of her five sisters and four brothers and helped her father with farm chores. Earl Buckelew, a longtime neighbor and the unofficial mayor of Medina (who, when asked about his cholesterol, said, “Hell, when we were growin’ up we didn’t even know we had blood”) remembers her well as a child: “Wearin’ those damn ol’ overalls, hair cut short—you’d see her all the time workin’ the fields with her dad, bailin’ hay, milkin’ cows, and drivin’ that big ol’ tractor. Sometimes she’d sneak onto my place to go fishin’, but I didn’t mind, of course. I figured any ten-year-old girl who drives a tractor can do just about anything she wants.”
And she did. In the great barefoot tomboy tradition of Amelia Earhart, Emily Dickinson, and Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird , Frances grew up strong, stubborn, and compassionate, with an occasional righteous temper that earned her the nickname Fire Eyes. Along the way, she met one of those Center Point boys, a tall, handsome marine named Richard Kaiser. She married him, had three children, drove a school bus, worked as a teacher’s aide, and finally, strapping on a .357 Smith and Wesson, took to the back roads of Kerr County as its first woman patrol deputy.
When Frances thought the time had come to run for sheriff herself, her father was one of the first people she told. He didn’t quite give her his blessing, but he didn’t stand in her way. “I’ve never thought a woman should have a job like sheriff,” Buddy said, “but when I look around and see the way the damn men have screwed things up, maybe it’s not such a bad idea.”
But certain Kerrverts, comprising a good ol’ boy network carbon-dated back to the australopithecine times, did not share Buddy’s cautious encouragement of his daughter’s political ambitions. Friends told Richard Kaiser, “You want your wife runnin’ around at night? How you gonna put up with it?” And some local officials in Kerrville seemed even less enlightened. “She’s just a damned woman,” said a former county commissioner I last observed loading a U-Haul. “She doesn’t know what she’s talkin’ about.”
But there has never been a shortage of bubbas in this world and even after the biblical miracle had occurred and Frances Kaiser was elected sheriff, things didn’t get much easier. “If you were a man,” threatened a courthouse politician shaking with rage, “I’d have handled things differently.” “How would you have handled them?” Frances asked coolly. The man sputtered, stammered, and eventually drove off in a vintage 1937 Snitmobile. And then there was the county court commissioner who, when Frances’ name came up for a raise, told her, “You don’t need a raise. Your husband makes a good salary.”