THE KING IS BACK

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One of Kentucky’s baddest bad men got resurrected last Saturday (November 5) just a few yards from the corner where he met his end—baddest of the bad if you believed the press of the day, but a hero to the downtrodden if you listened to the poor and the powerless.

His name is John Fallis, the King Of Craw.

Craw was the notorious red-light district in Kentucky’s capital city that flourished during the Roaring Twenties and was famous all the way down to New Orleans.

A story brought him back – the new novel, Concerning The Matter Of The King Of Craw, making its debut at the Kentucky Book Fair. The book sold out before noon and was one of the best sellers at the event.

This was my fourth trip to the Fair. I’d been before with Theo (the Theo Trilogy.) Enjoyed them all. This one was the best – thanks to John Fallis and the power of his story.

JF’s rise and fall is the stuff of which legends are made, which Concerning The Matter Of The King Of Craw attempts, for the first time, to draw out and illuminate. The story begins with the night of the Big Shoot-Out when he takes on the entire city police force and ends with his death eight years later in saloon across the street from where the Frankfort Convention Center, the site of the Book Fair, now rises.

The Kentucky Book Fair is one of the largest  in the Southeast. One hundred seventy authors were on hand this year and over 3,000 book lovers came, drawn by authors such as Craig Johnson, who brought Walt Longmire with him. Wendell Barry was there. And Barney Frank and Bobby Ann Mason, and J.D. Vance with his Hillbilly Elegy, along with a host of other first rate story tellers from all over.

Now resurrected, the King and his story can be found at Poor Richard’s Books, Frankfort’s premiere  book store,  on Broadway just across from the Old Capitol where the the event that triggered the Big Shoot-Out took place (that’s me with Lizz Taylor of Poor Richard’s in the shot above,)  or at your local bookstore, or on-line at Amazon, or from the publisher, Outer Banks Publishing of Raleigh, N.C.

 

KICK-OFF

Kick-off next week. Thursday (Oct. 25). Six p.m.

Lizz Taylor of Poor Richard’s Books is hosting the official launch of Considering The Matter Of The King Of Craw, The venue is the Paul Sawyier Library in downtown FK. The heart of the historic districts is just a few paces away. The old Capitol is two blocks down St. Clair, and the spot where the Big Shoot-Out took place just a block down St. Clair and a half-block up Main. No better venue. No literary doyen more popular.

The formal release of the book isn’t due until the day of Kentucky Book Fair (Sat. Nov. 5) at the Convention Center on the edge of what used to be Craw. But the pre-launch release to what will be an exclusively Frankfort gathering seems appropriate since this is a story with so much local meaning.

King of Craw by Ron RhodyI’ll talk a bit about how the book came to be, share some of the challenges and difficulties in putting together a story of so much complexity and uncertainty, then turn it over to everyone for questions and discussion. Jim Wallace, whose oral history of Craw and the Bottom served for much the raw material for the book, will join me for that.. If you’re in town that night and not otherwise engaged, Ms. Taylor and I would be delighted to see you. It should be a fine event

 

The Girl’s Name — Or The Woman’s?

We’re getting early copies of the new book, Concerning The Matter Of The King Of Craw, out to reviewers and a few others whose opinions make a difference.  Nash Cox is one of them. She was Mary Nash when I knew her as a girl in that little town in a bend of the Kentucky River where we grew up. Nash now – an accomplished and sophisticated woman.  Should I sign the copy for her to Nash or Mary Nash?

Professor Charles M. Hudson, noted academic, author, and world-renown authority on Indian cultures the Southeastern United States, was Monk when we were boys there together. I never, ever, called him Charles, or Charlie,  as all his colleagues did. I didn’t know a Charlie. I knew a Monk. I did not do that in circles where he might find it embarrassing,  But otherwise, anywhere, everywhere – Monk. He did similarly, smilingly, with me … Ronnie – especially in circles where I pretended to bit of dignity.

Nash? Or Mary Nash? The girl’s name … or the woman’s? Not as inconsequential a thing as it might seem.

The Things You Remember

 

ED DIED

The things you remember…

When I first came up to New York to take over Kaiser Aluminum’s eastern public relations effort, I came in range of Ed Block.

I had just turned thirty, coming up out of Ravenswood, population six thousand, West-by-God Virginia, where Kaiser Aluminum had its biggest plant, coming up out of the wilds of rural West Virginia to the Capital of the World where all the God-like creatures roamed.  And there was Ed Block. Ed Block of AT&T.  The AT&T. The biggest, most influential telecommunications company in the country, maybe in the world.

I didn’t get to meet him right away. I first saw him at a Public Relations Society of America event at the Waldorf where he was being honored for one of the things he was always being honored for.  I remember sitting in the audience that night and being awed. I watched him, listened to him, and knew with absolute certainty that here was a master of the craft, a man who knew what to do and knew how to do it, no matter the challenge. And he was unpretentious, and graceful, and dignified, and disarmingly charming. I remember leaving that event thinking that’s what I want to be. I want to be Ed Block like.

There wasn’t that much difference in our ages, but he was a couple of classes  ahead of mine in our field — like a senior if you were a freshman. He was the star of the senior class who lowly freshmen were to walk respectfully in the presence of. I did. Willingly and with admiration. Ed Block was the standard you aspired to.

Later I got to know him well, worked closely with him on some things we both felt were important. I never lost that thought, though.

Ed died a few weeks ago.

I was so very, very lucky to have had the gift of his friendship and pleasure of his company.

Ed’s passing reminded me of the debt we all owe to the men in the class ahead of ours whose friendship and coaching played such a key role in helping us get from where we were to where we got. I think I said thank you. Lord, I hope I did. Only Shep is still around to hear it. If I didn’t, with regret and apologies, I do so now. And if I did, I gladly do so again.

For my part, and for the record – to Bob Sandberg of Kaiser Aluminum and Bill Shepard of Alcoa, to Larry Foster of Johnson & Johnson and John Verstrate of 3-M, and to the first in that line, Harry Towles of Kentucky’s Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources, thank you, gentlemen.  I am truly beholden.

 

MORE A LOOK INSIDE

We jump further ahead now, getting more deeply into the story. This will be the last of the “look inside” chapters. We’ve run enough of them, I hope, to give you an idea of what to expect. In a way it is sad that it has taken this long for the JF story to be  told, or at least a fictionalized version of his story. But fortunate for me  in that it has given me the opportunity to pursue it first.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: Is He Coming?

“They seek him here, they seek him there, those Frenchies seek him everywhere. Is he in heaven? Is he in hell? That damned, elusive, Pimpernel.”

I couldn’t get that rhyme out of my mind.

No charred body in the ashes of the store. No fleeing figure darting through the dark.

His escape is complete.

No one has seen him.

His whereabouts are unknown.

Like the Scarlet Pimpernel, John Fallis has vanished.

It’s Thursday.

By mid-morning the search on Fort Hill is abandoned. The roadblocks are dismantled.

Stores have opened on time and people have gone to work like they always do. But the mood is apprehensive. No one knows what to expect. No wants to think of John Fallis on the loose. After all that happened last night he’s as likely to come back to town and shoot it up as he is to run for Mexico.

The Governor, at the urging of the city fathers, from his desk in the mansion on Capitol Hill, announces the posting of a reward for the capture of John Richard Fallis—a five-hundred-dollar reward to be paid from the state treasury. State money being put up for the capture of a local desperado, that’s how serious the concern is.

Of the casualties, Patrolman O’Nan’s and Patrolman Scott’s lives are said to be hanging in the balance. Scott, the first to fall, is shot through the liver and the arm. Several times during the day his life is despaired of. O’Nan, who took the shotgun blast on JF’s porch, is wounded in the chest, the calf, and the shoulder and is in great pain. The others have been treated and released.

Toward mid-afternoon the sightings start coming in.

JF is said to have been seen heading for Frankfort with two forty-fives dangling from his belt and a shotgun in his hand. He’s said to be coming from the direction of Stamping Ground, a small community about twelve miles away. Then he’s reported at a train station near Georgetown, further out, and has told the station manager he’s on his way to Frankfort. A little later a doctor named Stewart says he saw him leaving Woodlake, which is closer, headed for Frankfort still carrying those two forty-fives.

All the reports are from roughly the same area, the country east of town where Fallis, because of his business dealings with the farmers there, has friends.

The reports are enough to shake the city.

The Mayor authorizes the addition of six special police. They’re sworn in immediately. The Sheriff starts deputizing men again, sending them out to guard the approaches to town. Practically every physician is on alert and all off-duty nurses are being called in to help … in case.

Throughout the afternoon and evening the newspaper and the police station are swamped with calls. Is he coming? Are we safe? There is talk of reassembling the posse. Even of calling out the National Guard.

The sun goes down a little after nine that night. Thursday night.

And while the town waits and marinates in unease, every scandalous thing that has been said or thought of John Fallis gets repeated and embellished upon.

Gambler, brawler, bootlegger.

Gangster. Ward boss. Bully.

Womanizer.

Devil.

He doesn’t come.

Friday dawns clear. The sun is up by six-fifteen. Armed men still man the entrances to town.

That morning John Fallis, Jr., age fourteen, and a friend show up at the grocery on Wilkinson armed with shotguns and a rifle. Practically the entire contents of the house and the grocery have been destroyed by the fire. Why they are there isn’t clear but the police, who are still on the scene, disarm them and take them to the county workhouse. They’re questioned vigorously, but have no knowledge of JF’s plans or whereabouts and are released in the late afternoon. The police confiscate their weapons.

By nightfall Craw is packed.  It seems everyone who can crowd in has done it. The regulars and the uptown upper-crust, thrill seekers from all around, are drawn by the excitement and the suspense. They all want to be there for whatever happens, because something has to happen and it sure as hell is gonna be stupendous.

There is a constant flow of people on the streets, drinks in hand, laughing, jostling—like Bourbon Street at Mardi Gras.

At the Blue Moon and the Tip Toe Inn the bets are going down. He’s coming back with two guns blazing to wipe out the rest of the police force!

No! He’s running like the coward he is and will keep on running.

Very few are putting their money on him running.

A few fights break out. Nothing serious. The cops don’t interfere. They usually don’t, and anyway, this night they have other concerns to deal with.

The party doesn’t wind down until almost daylight.

JF doesn’t make an appearance.

On Saturday morning one of JF’s sons drives a truck to a gasoline station on the edge of town, parks it, and leaves in another car. The truck is filled with clothes and food. The Sheriff follows the car, but loses it. Later that day the Sheriff announces that he’s had word from an emissary of the fugitive. He says he knows the hiding place and will go alone, to apprehend and return him to justice.

No one sees the Sheriff go…or return. Whatever he does, when night comes JF is still on the loose.

My father is still away. We’ve talked by phone. He’s seen the stories. There’s been almost daily reportage in all the area newspapers. He knows we’re all right.

“You saw the shooting?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yes, sir.  No, sir. I don’t know. I think so.”

“How’s Lucas?”

“He’s all worried about Mr. Fallis.”

“Help him if you can.”

I was afraid he’d tell me to stay away. He didn’t.

“I’ll be home Wednesday. We’ll talk then. Take care of your mother.” He pauses for just a moment.

“Yes, sir?”

“Don’t do anything dumb.”

(More to come November 5 when CONCERNING THE MATTER OF THE KING OF CRAW is formally released at the Kentucky Book Fair in Frankfort.)

 

A LOOK INSIDE, CONTINUED

CONCERNING THE MATTER OF THE KING OF CRAW will be released at the Kentucky Book Fair on Saturday, November 5. To give readers an idea of what it’s about and how it unfolds we’re running a few of the opening chapters  — an early look inside. Last week, The Prologue ran. This week, we go a little further inside. Owen is  sealing his rep in the new environment. 

CHAPTER FOUR: RISE PEON

Monday came.

Collection day.

The day Tubby and his merry men would be expecting to collect their tribute, the day that would mark the start of my second full week of school in this town still strange to me, the day that would set the way my peers would think of me.

I knew they knew of Tubby’s shakedowns. They must have talked of it. The word must have gotten around. Not that they were likely to ostracize the timid and the weak among them. They’d just have no respect for them.

I understood that. If you don’t respect yourself, no one else will. To prove that you do, you can’t let others push you around.

While I was a boy, the only instruction I ever had in fighting came the afternoon Andy Charbonneau got beat up.

Jigger Swinson beat hell out of him. Jigger was the biggest and meanest boy in class.

We were playing marbles after school behind the swings. Jigger said Andy cheated. He grabbed Andy’s taw and wouldn’t give it back. Andy called him a liar.

“Don’t call me a liar you little bastard.” He took Andy apart.

When Andy couldn’t stand up any longer, Jigger kicked him in the side and walked away with Andy’s taw.

Jimmy D. and Winston and me helped him home. Andy’s dad, the guide, the elk hunter, was there. “What happened, boys” he said as he washed the blood from Andy’s face.

Mr. Charbonneau, Baptiste Charbonneau, was a cheerful man with an easy way and the build of a bear. His face was wind-burned and sunburned and his eyes crinkled at the sides when he smiled. No smiles now.

When we finished, Mr. Charbonneau said, “Did anybody help this Jigger Swinson beat on Andrew?”

“No, sir.”

He waited a moment or two, considering, then said, “I’m not for fighting, boys. But some things you can’t let pass.”

He looked around to each of us. “I want all you boys to pay attention to this.”

Another long pause, waiting to be sure we were listening.

“I don’t expect you to fight unless you have to. But from time to time you’ll have to.  Life works that way.” He seemed saddened by that, but continued.

“If there’s going to be a fight, don’t stand around jawing. Don’t waste time pushing or shoving. Knock the sonofabitch down and stomp on him. Hit him as hard as you can! Go for the stomach. Knock his wind out. When he bends over to try to get a breath, hit him behind the head with both your hands locked together. When he falls, stomp on his hands so he won’t be able to hit again for a long time. Don’t give him any quarter. Don’t give him time to collect himself.”

Mr. Charbonneau was a respected man. He had to master the mountains. Sometimes had to master the egos of the swells who could afford his skills but who drank too much or wanted to take a calf for the meat when it was bulls only season and he wouldn’t permit it.

We listened.

“Beat him so bad he’ll never want to fight you again,” he said. “Blow through him like a Maria and then stand over him and tell him if he ever sees you coming he damn well better get out of the way.”

We were gathered in his kitchen when he told us this. Andy was sitting on a stool by the sink with the bloodstained washcloth floating in the basin and we were ringed around him. Mr. Charbonneau was standing behind Andy with his hand on Andy’s shoulder.

“Understand, boys? Understand what I’m telling you? Don’t get caught up in ideas about fair fights. There are no fair fights.  You hit first! Hit with as much force as you’ve got. Drop him down and stomp on him before he knows what’s happening. Make him never dare mess with you again.”

He ran his gaze over each of us, satisfying himself that we understood.

“Now, Andrew,” he said, moving around to stand in front of Andy.  “I want you to go find this boy Jigger Swinson. I want you to give him that message. And I want you to get your taw back.”

He walked to the corner by the fireplace where he kept a staff that he used when he was scouting in the mountains, a long wooden staff of fire-hardened oak that had been shaved into round and varnished slick. He hefted it, swung it, slapped it against his open palm a couple of times, walked to the window and looked out. The afternoon was fading but there was still an hour or two to sunset. He walked back across the room to stand in front of Andy.

“This boy’s bigger than you. Take this to even that up. When you find him, don’t say anything.”

Mr. Carbonneau raised the staff above his head and swung it down in a sweeping arc.

“Smash him! Hit down, like you’re chopping a log. Hold the staff in both hands. Hit hard. Aim for a spot between the shoulder blade and the neck. Then switch your hold and swing like you’re hitting a baseball and hit him across the upper arm.”

He drew back, pivoted and stepped into the swing as if he expected to drive it out of the park.

“Then swing it down and bark his shins. Then stab it into his gut. When he falls, stand over him and jam the stick into his neck where the Adam’s Apple is. Not too hard. You’ll kill him if you press too hard.”

Mr. Charbonneau stood there, legs apart with the staff’s point shoved into the floor at his feet and him leaning into it, steel in his tone.

“Tell him give me back my taw. Tell him don’t you dare come at me again.”

He handed the staff to Andy. “Go now.”

And turned to us. We were breathless at what we’d seen, shocked at what we’d heard.  “You boys go with him,” he said. “See that no one interferes.”

No one did.

Andy got his taw back.

Jigger Swinson didn’t mess with any of us again.

I remembered.

Tubby and his three merry men circled me when class let out for morning recess.

“Pretty boy, pretty boy, we’re waiting for you. It’s Monday morning and tribute is due.”

They were standing by the outside water fountain.  You had to pass it on the way to the playground. Tubby made his little sing-song chant loud enough to be heard by those who were passing. Most of the class knew what to expect. They didn’t stop as they passed but began to gather in little groups just far enough away to be close enough to watch.

The morning was chilly. Tubby had on knickers again and a neatly knotted tie and a button- up sweater, with hair slicked back and an arrogant smile. He stood hands on hips, looking big and threatening. The three merry men grinned at each other.

He held out his right hand, palm up, smirking. I smiled right back and drove my fist into his gut with all the force I had. Tubby’s eyes widened.  He folded over, gasping, and I hit him behind the neck with my interlocked hands. He splayed out flat, almost bouncing off the concrete pavement at the base of the fountain.  I let him lay gasping for a minute, then rolled him over and knelt down with my knee in his chest. I grabbed his tie and forced his gagging face up to look me in the eyes. The surprise on his face was deeper than the pain.

“Wha….” he tried say but he was fighting too hard to breathe.

I tightened my grip on his tie. “Tubby, the peons have risen,” I said.

I dropped him down then and rose to deal with the merry men. But there was no need.  Lucas was standing behind me, protecting my back.

Across the schoolyard kids were running in to get closer.

Tubby was still on his back gasping for breath.  The merry men seemed dazed. Lucas nodded his head toward Tubby and said to them, “Your little shakedown is over, boys. I wouldn’t try it again or pretty boy might get mad. Now pick your friend up, clean him up, and get out of here.”

Then he turned to me laughing and shaking his head said, “Where’d you learn that!”

(more to come) 

 

 

 

 

A LOOK INSIDE

CONCERNING THE MATTTER OF THE KING OF CRAW will be released Nov. 5, 2016 at the Kentucky Book Fair.

         King of Craw by Ron Rhody I’m not sure how to characterize it. It is a work of fiction, yes —  but it is based on real people and real events. A mystery? Yes, but not of the usual kind. This one has to do with a man of glaring contradictions —  a mercurial man of lethal temper and tender compassion  whose acts cause him to  becomes an iconic figure in Bluegrass folklore. No one who knew him, not even he himself, could explain why he did the things he did.  He was either Lucifer let loose or Galahad  to the rescue of the poor and the powerless. The debate on whether the sum of his actions was good or evil was intense then and remains so now. And the matter of his death is still suspect.  Was it a fight over a game of dice  as the newspapers reported, or a killing ordered by powerful men who had had enough of the King of Craw?  The book is about all that, and friendship, and the odd turns love can take. Considering this, I thought it might be  good  to give prospective readers an idea of what the story is and how it unfolds. So over the next few weeks we’ll run a  few of the opening chapters here. The one that follows is the Prologue – the “overture” before the curtain rises. Comments and questions are welcomed.

* * * *
“The essence of good and evil is a certain disposition of the mind.”
                                                                                    Epictetus

PROLOGUE

 

I have been able to reconstruct most of the facts of his life, but I still cannot explain the man.

The sudden explosions of violence.

Like the cutting of Semonis.

The surprising acts of compassion

Like the burial of the mountain child.

What drove him?

He and Semonis were friends. At a dance. A woman. A remark by Semonis that John Fallis thought insulting? The knife was out and in Semonis’ side before anyone could move.Some spark, some circuit in his mind connected and he reacted violently and without thinking.

That happened often.

Ted Bates.Not serious. The bullet missed the bone and the leg healed. Tubba Dixon had a pool cue broken over his head and would have had the jagged stump shoved down his throat if he hadn’t been pulled out of Fallis’s reach.

There were other shooting and cuttings.

Anger? Surely.Self defense?  Perhaps.

For the Semonis knifing, he was arrested, charged with cutting and wounding with intent to kill without killing, and jailed. But nothing came of it.

From his bed, Semonis petitioned the Judge to set John Fallis free. John is my good friend, he declared. It was a simple misunderstanding, as much my fault as John’s.  Please let him go.

The battered and the wounded often petitioned the court to let him go.

Because of acts like the burial of the mountain child?

A stranger, a man from the mountains, had come to town to find work and feed his family. No work could be found. While the man searched, his baby son caught the river fever and died.

The man knew no one. Had no friends or family to call on.  No job. No money. No way to bury his baby son, his only son. For a man like him, a man from the prideful culture he came from, the shame of it was damning, the despair of the loss of his son crippling.Then someone told him about a man who might help.

No need to belabor the story.

The stranger came to the grocery. Stood before the counter. Humble. Humiliated. Told his story. Promised somehow, someday, if only Mr. Fallis could see his way clear to lend him enough money to bury his son, he’d pay it all back, swear to God.

John Fallis listened quietly. Took the measure of the man. Didn’t lend him the money. Gave it to him. More than was needed.  And stood with the man and his wife at the burial so that they didn’t have to endure it alone.

Like the spark that set off the violence, there was a spark that triggered compassion.

I doubt he was aware of either.

Whatever the case, to most of those in that section near the river where the poor lived, that section where the bad-ass bars and the honkey-tonks and the cat-houses huddled, to most of the people in that part of town where John Fallis had his grocery, and to many others all over town that were poor and powerless, he was revered. He stood up for them.

To the proper folk of the city, though, he was Lucifer unleashed. He was a lawless, thuggish, un-intimidated insult to decency and the Powers-That-Be. They wanted him gone.

John Fallis was ten when he began to carry a knife.

The older boys, the bigger boys, picked on him. He fought back. They thought it was funny. Until he got the knife.

When he became a man, no one thought it would be funny to pick on John Fallis. He brooked no insult, would not be cheated, would not be pushed around. He bent a knee to no man.

He was the King of Craw and Lucas Deane was his acolyte.

I came to know Mister Fallis through Lucas. That’s how I thought of him—as Mister Fallis.

He was strikingly handsome. He had a charm that was almost magnetic. When he chose to use it, which was not always, he won friends easily and women became willing prey. Being around him was like being swept up in a vortex of energy where something exciting, something dangerous, something unexpected could happen, would probably happen, at any second. I fell gladly into his orbit. I was only a boy then. We were in the seventh grade, Lucas Deane and I, when we met. I was transferring in from a distant school. Lucas was already there. That year was nineteen-twenty. The Great War was over. The country was opening the door to the Roaring Twenties.  The Big Shoot-Out was a year in the future.

The Big Shoot-Out. The day John Fallis took on the entire city police force. You’ve heard of it. Everyone’s heard of it. Even the New York Times was appalled. But John Fallis was special to Lucas Deane long before that. Lucas and his mother would have starved but for John Fallis.

Lucas’s mother was ill and couldn’t work. They were penniless.  No money for food, no money for rent. Lucas was only seven at the time.  John Fallis heard of it. He found Lucas and gave him a job … things he could do, sweep up at the grocery after school, stock the shelves … and paid him enough that they could get by.

Later, Mr. Fallis kept Lucas on. He liked the boy. Lucas’s gratitude was endless, his admiration boundless. I could understand that. I came to admire John Fallis, too. But not to the point of blind devotion.

Lord, save us from our heroes.