When I left Sul Ross at Alpine for my final two years of college at Southwest Texas State College in San Marcos (now Texas State University), there followed jumps to newspaper jobs in Bay City, Kerrville, and San Angelo before I landed a general assignments reporter job at the San Antonio Express and News in 1960.
I covered three major hurricanes for the Express and News, along with many other assignments, and I also wrote a daily column, but before I recount those early newspaper jobs and experiences I will recall the defining time in my career as a big city newspaper reporter.
I was in Crystal City, Texas, a small South Texas town that residents still proclaim to be “The Spinach Capital of the World.” It was circa 1970, and the statue of Popeye on the town square belied the explosive atmosphere which was beyond my sense of comprehension at the time.
La Raza Unida had been formed by Chicano activists Jose Angel Guiterrez and Mario Campean, both Mexican-American firebrands whose party translated to National United People’s Party.
I was in the midst of a political racial takeover as La Raza, with help from the Teamsters Union, fielded their own candidates and trucked South Texas migrant farm workers to the polls in an unheard-of takeover of all municipal offices. None of the candidates, including newly elected Mayor Juan Cornejo, had better than a fifth-grade education. La Raza had made a statement.
La Raza candidates won every municipal office in Crystal City that spring as tensions hummed like a fiddle string fixing to break. Anglo townspeople were boarding up their houses and leaving town as the governor sent famed and feared Texas Ranger Captain A.Y. Allee in to keep the peace.
The Express and News articles I wrote during and after the Crystal City political phenomena resulted in me being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Ironically, the man on the Pulitzer committee who nominated me, Express and News executive editor Charlie Kilpatrick, was to fire me from the newspaper in years to come. Times were crazy in those days.
As the polls closed and final votes were tabulated, I heard shouts on the streets which made it plain and clear that gringos such as myself were not welcome in Crystal City. I heard a couple of bottles shatter on the street asphalt. They were tossed from moving cars, but I saw no faces. There was fear in the air. It was almost palpable. I had rented a motel room from friendly Anglos who had moved to Crystal City from New York State. They had customers and friends with white faces and brown faces. They did not know what was happening. They didn’t understand what the racial divide was all about.
For many years the Texas Rangers had been a feared and hated force in the beet fields and the barrios of South Texas. The Mexican-American people have charged ranger brutality for years, and while there has no doubt been some justification for the racial prejudice charges, the rangers have proven themselves through the years as the unstoppable crime fighting machine of Texas.
Joaquin Jackson was the last Texas Ranger to be appointed by a ranger captain, Alfred Young Allee. Now the rangers come up through the Texas Department of Public Safety ranks like regular patrolmen. In his book One Ranger, Jackson devoted an entire chapter to Captain Allee.
In his prime, Captain Allee weighed about 200 pounds and stood about 6 feet tall. But Ranger Joaquin Jackson told me there was not a man on the planet who could stand up to Captain Allee.
Joaquin Jackson was my friend. I put him on the cover of my magazine once, and I also wrote about his wife Shirley, a country music vocalist with a lot of talent. So I believed every one of Jackson’s words when he described the ranger captain who gave him his job.
“Cap Allee is the most formidable man I have ever met,” Jackson said. “I believe him to be totally fearless. You meet him you know. It is in his eyes. There is no fear. It’s the A.Y. Allee presence. Nobody can stand up to it.”
I was to meet Allee and understand that presence on my first day in Crystal City. He was getting up in the years then. Allee called me “newspaper man” but I could sense he meant “newspaper boy.” We became friends over the ensuing months. and I believe the tough old ranger captain developed a genuine liking for me. He chewed cigars, but I never saw him spit. He grunted on occasion, and I came to learn that some of his grunts were to emphasize his wishes or meanings.
The streets of Crystal City were almost deserted on election night. There was an eerie quiet when Captain Allee said, “Come on, newspaper man. You can go with me to the election party if you like.” Then Allee started walking and I fell in behind him. It seemed like the safest place to be at the time.
The election victory party was being held in a ratty, run-down, whisky bar known as The Veteran’s Club. It resembled an ancient army barracks that had long since said goodbye to its orignal and then peeling paint job.
The La Raza celebrants had a snoot full when we arrived. They were hooting, hollering, and filling the air with Spanish language invective which suggested raw danger.
Captain Allee’s cowboy boots thumped loudly as we crossed the Veteran’s Club flooring toward the bar. It sounded like a drum beat of doom. When Allee grunted it was like a combination of grunt and clearing of the throat. Grrruuump.
The Veteran’s Club was crammed with some sinister-looking characters, the shine of alcohol hatred and menace in their eyes.
“Grrruuump.” He did it before he spoke. Utter quiet. You could have heard a matchstick hit the floor.
“I need your attention,” Allee said. Not loudly but evenly. “Some of you know who I am. For those who don’t, I am Alfred Alee, captain of Texas Rangers. I have been appointed by the governor to see that the law is upheld in Crystal City. I will now take a minute to congratulate you on your election victory tonight. You won fair and square and I would be the last one to deny you.” Another pause. Another grrruuump before Allee finished his speech.
“You won this election,” he said. “But if any one of you tries to take the law into your hands, I will kill you.”
He grunted again and headed for the door. I fell in behind. No graveyard was ever quieter than the Crystal City Veteran’s Club that night. I was waiting for the bullet to crash into my back as I followed Allee across the floor and out the door.
The next day, I visited the captain at a small temporary office he maintained on Crystal City’s main street. I asked him about his stunning promise to the party celebrants and he told me something I will remember for the rest of my life:
“You will always be okay newspaper man if you say what you mean, mean what you say, and cover the ground that you stand on. Not one of those drunks last night doubted for a minute that I would kill the first one who broke the law and violated the peace.”
Allee was over 70 then and not far from retirement. He epitomized the legendary saying: You got one riot, you need only one ranger. His era was coming to an end and I think he might have sensed it. After the Crystal City showdown, Allee’s antagonists were relentless.
Crystal City Mayor Juan Cornejo, a diminutive fellow who might have stood 5-foot-4 at the most, flew from Crystal City to San Antonio where he filed federal assault charges against the ranger captain.
If I asked Captain Allee what was going on his answer never wavered. “”You are the newspaper man. You tell me.”
He answered a specific question with a straight answer.
“Mayor Cornejo has filed a federal assault complaint against you in San Antonio,” I told Allee. “What do you say to that?”
That warranted an Allee grrruuump and a typical Allee answer.
“If I had assaulted the mayor,” Allee said with a laconic grin, “he wouldn’t have been able to crawl on an airplane and fly to San Antonio to file any complaint. He would have been in a hospital. I didn’t assault him. I just picked him up and shook him a little.”
Captain Allee died in 1987 at age 82. The legend of the Texas Rangers has had a good run. Ranger Manuel (Lone Wolf) Gonzaullas tamed the oil boom towns of Texas; Captain Gully Cowsert of Junction wrecked every carnival that came near him; and Ranger Captain Frank Hamer ended the lives and bloody crime spree of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.
A.Y. Allee was the last of the breed. He averted a race riot in Crystal City.
His tormentors danced around him near the end, filing lawsuits and complaints like a bunch of kids poking sticks at a proud but crippled wolf.
I was proud to call him friend who was true to his word. He said what he meant, he meant what he said, and he always covered the ground that he stood on.