THE SPACEMAN’S LAST GASP
CRAIG RASPBERRY IS NINE YEARS OLD and strikingly reminiscent of Mr. Peabody’s pet boy Sherman on the old Bullwinkle show, down to an air of scientific detachment which seems to be a trait he shares with his fellow citizens of Aurora, Texas, of whom there are not a great many. Aurora is a former small-potatoes boom town a little to the northwest of Dallas that was squeezed into virtual oblivion near the turn of the century when the railroad came to the bordering towns of Boyd and Rhome and siphoned out its lifeblood and its people, even its buildings. Now, 75 years later, Aurora is barely there at all, unmapped and largely unheard-of even by hard-core truckers.
But the ghost town image is not wasted, especially in light of the context it forms for what some people might consider some fairly spooky events.
In 1897, late in the spring and early in the morning, a large cigar-shaped aircraft came flying through the air over Aurora, powered by two propellor-type engines and displaying a row of windows on its bottom half. It was flying low enough to plow into Judge J.S. Proctor’s 18 feet high windmill and explode in the air, scattering debris and burning out the better part of a hillside.
According to the story, which was recounted soon after in a Dallas newspaper, there was some sort of pilot inside, variously described by the people who saw it as non-human, charred, tiny, with a disturbing number of dismembered limbs. Eyewitnesses seem to drop out of the story here, but somebody apparently decided that, human or not, the thing deserved a decent burial and interred it in the Aurora cemetery, which was burgeoning from the effects of a spotted fever epidemic.
The newspaper story sparked a flurry of sympathetic sightings (including one in which the aliens wore sailor suits and told a farmer they were “off to bomb the Spaniards” in Cuba). But after the immediate concern wore off the event gradually wafted into a local legend, something colorful for the children of Aurora to grow up with.
But today, Aurora is a boomtown once again. A Dallas reporter named Bill Case came across the original newspaper story, made some investigations and came up with some odd-looking metal from the purported crash site, along with a reading from a metal detector that indicated the same substance was lying in an unidentified grave in the Aurora cemetery.
Coinciding with the resurrection of the UFO was the emergence of The Blob in nearby Garland, an unrelated slime mold that Could Not Be Stopped as it pulsated and mutated in Ms. Marie Harris’ backyard. A dose of nicotine spray finally did it in about the time it was being pronounced harmless and terrestial by biologists. But it was enough to give the press a true-life double horror feature and focus still more attention on Aurora, whose bizarre and modest legend was now a global sensation. The town’s occupants were either pestered or delighted by hundreds of reporters and UFO officials and roving sci-fi mongers.
Reports about the origin and composition of the metals come almost daily, with the UFO center in Oklahoma City consistently casting a debunking eye on any otherworldly attributes. Other UFO centers are not so sure and have expressed, at the least enthusiastic, “interest” in the fragments. More tantatizing is the possibility of the procurement of a court order to exhume the grave of the pilot, a project that at last report was still pending.
Craig Raspberry charges a dollar to take you on a tour of the major UFO attractions in Aurora, an itinerary with two stops, a visit to the crash site, which is now a chicken coop owned by Craig’s grandfather, Brawley Oates, and to the famous grave, which until recently was under guard to protect it from premature necromancers.
For a nine-year-old boy with an even chance that someone from outer space bit the dust in his own back yard, Craig is peculiarly terse and skeptical. Maybe all the publicity, the dozens of people asking him What Do You Think? has dulled his willingness to fantasize.
“I don’t know what it was,” he says moderately, “something happened though.”
Craig’s grandmother, Bonnie Oates, doesn’t seem to get too worked up about it either, just chuckles over her leatherwork at all the fuss and seems to enjoy it.
“They think they’re going to find something from outer space. But how are they gonna know that that’s what it is if they’ve never seen anything from outer space?”
The crash site looks like and is a chicken coop, and that’s about it. It still has the base of Judge Proctor’s windmill, but three-quarters of a century has replaced the charred grass and scattered or buried most other evidence. The accessible metal fragments have been dug up already and sent away to labs to be analyzed or to relatives for paperweights.
The alleged grave of the pilot is isolated under a large oak tree, haphazardly marked by two big rocks on which someone has scratched a just barely visible primitive depiction of the spaceship. According to the original account the pilot had a logbook with him, written in “hieroglyphics,” which also went into the coffin, a courtesy that now seems a little exasperating.
C.C. Stephens was four or five when the spaceship crashed. Now he’s over 80 and much-visited by the press, since he remembers when his father came home one morning and said that he’d seen something explode and burn over in Aurora, about three miles away. The next day he rode up to see what it was and found a ruin of debris and torn metal strewn over Proctor’s land. He said nothing about a body.
“He didn’t know anything about a man being in there. Nobody knew about that ’til lately.”
Mr. Stephens is reticent about offering opinions as to what was going on back in 1897, he just remains philosophical about the possibilities.
“Oh, I wouldn’t dispute what it was. I just believe it. I’m pretty sure what I’ve told you is the truth, though. The people came a lot closer to telling the truth then than they do now. Of course, I heard that in those days there were a lot of things flying around.
“Yessir,” he says, lapsing into a nostalgia that somehow doesn’t seem inappropriate. “Aurora in those days was a boomin’ little town.”
An impression works itself out of his demeanor, and out of the smiles of his grandchildren on the mantelpiece, that the power of the legend easily eclipses its factuality, however impressive. The vibes in Aurora go beyond credibility; the UFO was for this town a minor apocalypse; if not the harbinger or the agent of Aurora’s demise, at least a sort of honored guest, a watcher.
“I heard that the next day some people thought it was the moon. But the moon rose up the next night and that killed that.”
Craig gets off at his grandfather’s Arco station. I gave him another dollar for taking me to see Mr. Stephens and thank him for his help. Inside his grandmother is thinking about the scrapbook she’s going to make from all the articles about Aurora.
A man has parked his pickup in the cemetery and seems to be wandering about aimlessly. But it turns out he’s from Aurora. We ask him if he’s looking for the pilot’s grave.
“No, but I’ve heard that story all my life. Never have paid much attention to it. Mostly I just like to come to the cemetery. I’ve got a boy up yonder.”
Does he believe the story’s true?
He looks away awhile, then makes a slight, lugubrious smile; but it doesn’t seem to be an answer.
THE MAN WHO KILLED BONNIE AND CLYDE
In February I rode on the Salt Grass Trail, an event billed as “the largest horseback movement of modern times.” While on the trail ride I ran into Ted Hinton, one of the lawmen (the only one still alive) who ambushed Bonnie and Clyde and machine-gunned them into history May 23, 1934.
Ted Hinton in no way resembled the character depicted in the movie “Bonnie and Clyde.” He sat erect in the saddle and talked with the conviction of a man whose personal philosophy is rooted in “the hard facts of life,” a man for whom questions of right and wrong are cut and dried.
I rode with him for over an hour just listening to his story, saying very little because all I knew about Bonnie and Clyde was what I had seen in the movie. Ted obviously enjoyed talking about it, and of course I enjoyed listening.
“It was pretty rough chasing those two around. There was six of us altogether and four of us who trailed ’em over the five states they operated in. Me and my partner took out after ’em in ’33, and we never give up on ’em until we got ’em a year and six months later.”
I don’t guess they expected to escape. They had to know they would be caught eventually.
“Well, you gotta understand, they had no return. In those days people went to the electric chair for killin’ people. They don’t now. Hell, they give ’em a medal for shootin’ somebody now. But back then after Bonnie and Clyde killed their first man—that was Mr. Belcher in Hillsboro, Texas—they had no return. They had to keep goin’ cause they was gonna get killed anyhow. They went nearly two full years and was in 21 gun battles before we finally got ’em. During that time they killed 11 peace officers and two civilians.”
How did they manage to live through so many gun battles? You’d think the law of averages would’ve played out on them.
“They shot their way out. You don’t know how an officer starts lookin’ for that cover once a gun battle starts…And another reason they run so long is because they didn’t, neither one of ’em, drink. They didn’t smoke either. Most of the people you catch fool around with somethin’. They get drunk and get caught. They don’t have enough sense to stay away from that whiskey. Or they’re on that marijuana. Clyde didn’t fool around with none of that stuff. They was smart, plenty smart, both of ’em.”
Yes, but you’d think if they were holed up someplace and the police had them surrounded they wouldn’t have had a chance.
“Well, they shot their way out of two houses they was pinned up in. They killed three detectives in one lick and four in the other. In less than three weeks time they shot their way out of two houses and this park. They was surrounded in this park, and they shot their way out.
“They’d steal all the guns and ammunition they wanted from the national armories. You see, in that time of the century there was armories all over the country. Bonnie and Clyde could get anything they wanted—.45 automatics, machine guns, shotguns, everything, shells and all.”
They must’ve been prepared to blast their way out of anything.
“Oh, they’d go down the road and—you know there wasn’t any communications like there is now; if there was they would’ve gotten caught the next day—but they’d go down the road shootin’ them insulators, knockin’ them right off the telephone poles, bustin’ out people’s windows, shootin’ cattle, shootin’ whatever they wanted.”
How did you catch them? Were you tipped off?
“We didn’t catch ’em. They was never captured. They was killed.”
How did you discover their whereabouts? According to the movie, the father of the kid that traveled with them tipped you off.
“Well, I never saw the movie, but there wasn’t no tip off to it. We caught up with ’em about 15 miles southwest of Gibson, Louisiana. We kidnapped one of em’s daddy-in-Iaws, that Methbin boy’s daddy. We had him kidnapped and they was tryin’ to get back together. We knew they was split up and tryin’ to get back together, and we knew where or man Methbin drove up and down the road all the time in his truck. So we just stopped him when he come by.”
I thought the old man cooperated with you.
“No. It wasn’t like that. We kidnapped him and put his truck on the side of the road then handcuffed him to a tree off in the woods. You didn’t have to go too far in those jungles over in Louisiana before you was out of sight. The next mornin’ Clyde and Bonnie come down the road and when they saw that truck they went to slowin’ down. They mighty near stopped right in front of us, and that’s when we took it over. I hit ’em with a thirty-aught-six machine gun. It was powerful enough to shoot through the car, through them, and come out the other side. Bonnie had a .45 automatic shot out of her hand, and Clyde never got to use his. He had it in his hand when he died. It was still in his hand when we took him out of the car. He had around 54 bullet holes in the car right where they was sittin’ and where they come out the other side.”
In the movie they were portrayed as pretty glamorous people, but I suppose Bonnie and Clyde weren’t anything like that?
“Well, they was, both of ’em, good lookin’ people. They wore good clothes too. And Clyde always drove a Ford. He wouldn’t steal nothin’ but a new Ford. That picture of Bonnie with the cigar in her mouth? I’ll tell you somethin’ about that picture. That wasn’t a cigar; that was a rose she had in her mouth. We got into Joplin the day after they killed them three detectives. The investigators had found a bunch of pictures in their motel room, and one of those pictures showed Bonnie holding these two guns and with a rose in her mouth. I didn’t think much of it, but the next day there was this picture in the paper and the rose was gone and there was this cigar in her mouth. You know, some smart photographer, he took that picture and did it all up. After that was printed people started callin’ her the cigar smokin’ gal, but she didn’t smoke at all.”
Do you know anything about them before they became outlaws?
“Oh, you don’t know about that? I grew up with Bonnie and Clyde. I knew ’em when I was a kid. Clyde was a bad little boy, always gettin’ into trouble, small stuff at first—car theft, burglary, stuff like that. Bonnie liked him so they just took off together. But there was no return for them after they killed their first man.
“Later, when I’d come into Dallas after chasin’ them I’d go out and talk with their mothers and daddies. I visited Clyde’s mother and daddy lots of times. His parents were miserable about it, but there wasn’t nothin’ they could do. After we killed ’em I went to their funeral and saw ’em buried.”
How did you feel about the whole thing? Knowing them and all?
“Well, I was just workin’ for a livin’. I was a deputy sheriff. It was my job.”
A GADFLY’S HISTORY
The long-faced, lanky fellow from Maine hovered in the doorway, pressed by a claque of inebriated journalists, politicos, and groupies. He never really made it into the party, but just perched briefly on the edge, shaking hands and smiling.
Senator Muskie was not on the guest list, but we doubt that anyone was outraged that he crashed the party. Most of the 500 or so folk who had crammed into the elegant home of Martin and Ann Wouldron to pay their respects to the Houston Journalism Review probably didn’t even know he was there. What’s interesting is that Senator Muskie saw this party as politically useful enough to drop by after speaking to a horde of Young Democrats.
The throng included numerous media types—both young Turks and oldtimers—plus the usual mix of cause-supporters and perennial party-goers. But also in attendance were Houston mayoral hopefuls Fred Hofheinz and Bud Hadfield, city councilman James McConn, famed attorney Richard “Racehorse” Haynes, plus a large percentage of the Farenthold clan, including Sissy. Perhaps the only ones not impressed with the proceedings were the Houston men-in-blue who towed away a number of cars parked in the vicinity, including that of Houston City Controller Leonel Castillo.
The party’s featured guest was Washington Post columnist/wit Nicholas von Hoffman who charmed the inner circle and plugged the Houston Journalism Review to the crowd, calling it one of the nation’s best.
HJR belongs to a family of some 15 similar publications around the country, the youngest of which is the Dallas Journalism Review, now into its second issue. The elder statesman is the Chicago Journalism Review, founded in 1968 in response to media coverage of activities around the Democratic Convention. The other nationally-important review is (MORE), published in New York City. The journalism review phenomenon is the outgrowth of a growing tendency among working journalists to- ward self-analysis and constructive criticism of the news media.
The Houston version is a monthly tabloid-style newspaper written and edited by journalists, the vast majority of whom are in the employ of local commercial media. The purpose of the publication is to provide an ongoing critique of area media operations; to analyze the content and style of local news coverage. As its masthead proclaims, HJR is “…dedicated to improving journalism in Houston and Texas, both by serving as a watchdog for the media and by stimulating discussion about journalism.”
The Review has hit especially hard on hiring practices among local media. It has profiled media personalities and has also opened its pages to news-makers who feel the media have distorted their message. A regular feature awards “feathers” and “black eyes” to news outlets for their reporting efforts.
The HJR crew produced a special issue on cable television that pulled in kudos from all directions: Several groups, including the ACLU and the National Education Association were so impressed they purchased bundles to distribute.
Into its second year now, the Houston Journalism Review appears solid in terms of staff, finances, and community support. Which may come as something of a surprise to those who predicted doom when the noble experiment first rolled off the press in June, 1972. No doubt there were many who hoped to see it sink, and fast, but even the folks who wished HJR the best had their doubts.
“There really was and is an atmosphere of fear among working journalists,” says Susan Caudill, former Houston Post reporter and one of HJR’s founders. “I think this is a very sad comment on Houston journalism.” But nevertheless, numerous Houston journalists have run their bylines in HJR and only one firing is thought to have been a direct result of Review activities. (All HJR articles are signed by the author—that’s been the policy from the beginning.)
Of the nation’s journalism reviews, HJR probably reflects the most extensive involvement on the part of broadcast people, or so believes Randy Covington, news director at the local ABC PM outlet, KAUM, and a vital force behind the Review. Much attention is paid to the electronic media, and radio and television folk contribute heavily in writing and editing. There are three editors for any given issue; they each serve three months running, on a staggered basis. Thus, a television newsman learns entirely new skills while sharing the helm with more experienced editors. Says Covington: “We’ve developed some fantastic editing talent this way. Sometimes we pay the price a bit in quality, but we’ve gained much more.”
Susan Caudill says the Review’s standards are often higher than those of the local dailies. “A reporter will usually do more rewriting and reworking for us than they would ever have to do in their own shop.”
“I was getting so damn depressed before the Review,” she added. “There was no spark, no outlet for people’s energy. It’s just the opposite with HJR. There’s cooperation and excitement.”
There are those who are not so enthusiastic, to be sure. A major criticism raised with the very first issue stimulated debate among the staff. The inaugural number included an article on the then recent struggle for American Newspaper Guild representation at the Post. The piece, highly critical of Post management, was written by Post reporters Caudill and Darrell Hancock. Chronicle scribe Steve Singer had an article in the same issue dealing with the Chronicle’s handling of a story that he, Singer, had worked on. The critics felt the Review lost credibility by assigning reporters to write about situations in which they were themselves directly involved. HJR staffers accepted this criticism as generally valid and now seem to make a rule of writing only about institutions other than those where they work.
The most common early criticism was sloppiness. If you’re going to set yourselves up as judges of the media, said some, you simply can’t make any mistakes yourselves. The opposing argument posited that professionalism would come with practice and time, and that even an imperfect publication would serve an important role by raising issues and fomenting debate.
Steve Singer, who is now a reporter for Dallas television station KERA’s Newsroom program, writes about the HJR experience in the first issue of the Dallas Journalism Review: “Perhaps the single most alarming aspect of what we had done, in the eyes of our colleagues, was consider the notion that our allegiance rested with our craft, and not necessarily with our employer. Heresy. What we’d done had made things uncomfortable in the newsrooms, and for this, some of our cohorts could never forgive us.”
The Dallas Journalism Review is being edited by Colleen O’Connor, 23, a former UPI reporter. The Dallas publication has a magazine-type format and is printed on heavy stock paper. Unlike the Houston effort, DJR was not primarily instigated by members of the working press. It was inspired, in fact, by a citizens’ group calling itself Free Flow of Information.
“I was skeptical at first,” says Colleen O’Connor, “But it appears the time is really ripe. People are disgruntled, and willing to do something about it.”
The situation in Dallas is tense enough that the DJR is not requiring its contributors to use bylines. In fact, Dallas Times Herald editor Felix McKnight was so incensed with the first issue that he sent a copy boy around to collect complimentary copies that had been placed on reporter’s desks and then called an editorial meeting to denounce the upstart publication. DJR’s lead item was a behind-the-scenes account of the Times Herald’s probable plans to kick McKnight upstairs in favor of young, handsome LBJ protege Tom Johnson.
If the sparks keep flying in Dallas, the DJR may have a tough row to hoe. But who knows, maybe a lanky politician will crash their first anniversary bash.
PETS IN PARADISE
From the outside, the Pet Hotel looks like a very small hotel. Constructed of dark brown brick with a circular driveway graced by poodle-cut pittosporum and monkey grass, it is located on Royalton just off Chimney Rock (“on the fringe of the Magic Circle” the brochures say) in one of those as yet uncompartmentalized areas of Houston. There is an S.E. Teaff warehouse a block away but across the street is, appropriately enough, a stable of horses and a rooster which often crows at approaching Pet Hotel custo mers. Perhaps he wants in, who knows? There is a red and white flourescent sign atop the building announcing, like those “EAT” signs, “Pet Hotel.”
You enter Pet Hotel through its nine-foot, carved wooden doors to find a world of Mexican tile, overhanging chandelier, sunken lobby, Muzak, and a smiling face behind the front desk inquiring, “Would you like regular accommodations, a split-level suite, or our Pampered Pet Care?” All this and cookie snacks, too, await PooPoo, Andromache and Deidre, as well as Romeo the goldfish (if you can carry the tank), and Delbert your duck. Your pet will be registered at the hotel’s desk on a guest card. Information included on the card: services desired, pet’s favorite snack, mealtimes, diet, and the particular form of attention that is gratifying to the pet’s ego (“likes to have her ears massaged” or “enjoys a gentle scratching on his tummy”).
Pet Hotel is the brainchild of Irvin A. Harrison, an ambitious young man who spent three years researching the pet market and traveling across the country inspecting kennels before deciding how the hotel should be designed and convincing investors that the need was there waiting to be served.
“We are not veterinarians here,” Harrison says. “We will not accept an animal who is not vaccinated or who has any kind of skin disorder. In fact, we will even turn away a pet that is excessively dirty, or that, say, has not been bathed in a year. Cleanliness is the basis of our operation. It will be the key to our long term success.”
And if cleanliness will do it, they ought to make it. The place is spotless. After touring the accommodations, which potential customers are invited to do (“We’re going to remove that aura of mystery always prevalent in the kennel business,” says Harrison. “No more closed doors.”) you begin to miss a certain something which you had previously associated with any confined animal—the smell. It seems the air has been charged with negative electrons which kill the smell-producing bacteria. When asked how that is done, Harrison replies, “Very expensively.” Whatever charging the air with negative electrons means, and however it’s done, it does seem to work. You can’t help wondering, though, if the pets can smell their own; and if they don’t, do they long to.
There is a sober and dedicated seriousness about the operation. You’d think they were curing cancer there when they describe how they bathe their dogs in foamy coconut-based shampoo, then fluff dry them by hand on a grooming table. And when Harrison spots a pile in one of the dog’s “suites” and close examination reveals that it has been disturbed, he exclaims, “We thought Herbie had been eating his droppings. Dogs will do that, you know, and it makes them sick. You see, we were right.” You feel obliged to examine Herbie’s stool, as Herbie prances about unapologetically, because it all seems so important.
Pet Hotel will take any pet they can handle, even goats. Monkeys, however, are out. They accepted one just once. “No more,” says Harrison. “They are uncontrollable and they smell. Monkeys and male cats are by far the biggest odor producing animals.” And woe to the odor producing in an operation that sells itself primarily on its cleanliness.
Cats are housed in a room kept constantly at 50 per cent humidity and 78 degrees, “an atmosphere they do well in.” The birdroom is canary yellow. Hamster cages and aquariums are kept in the same room. All the rooms are distinctly shut off and squared away so that if an animal gets loose, it won’t have far to run. There is a coffee shop for owners (Koffee Kennel) and a special “Poochie Penthouse” right by the front desk with fireplace, furniture, rugs, and big windows all around for the nervous pet who needs acclimatizing.
In the pet boutique, you can buy Itch Rid, Breath Deodorant, and rhinestone-studded gold-filled collars. There is Hairlax by the bottle for “regularity and catball elimination” and Doggy french fries whose ingredients are beef hide, salt, vegetable oil and preservatives, nary a potato in sight. There is a Doggie Dooley red plastic fireplug, combinating piddling post and pet toy chest as well as Petite Panties for those times of the month, and Puppy Potty paper which is impregnated with ascent that invites puppies to piddle properly.
Actually, the hype of the Pet Hotel is worse than its reality. It’s a nice place, not unduly expensive if you leave off the frills and certainly, as advertised, clean. They like pets out there, and probably if you ask your veterinarian he’ll tell you he boards healthy animals only as a service to his regular customers and that he’d really rather not if he didn’t think he had to. And if your pet really needs those stewed apricots and a belly rub, you may begin to think…well, why not?