Escaping the Wildest Show on Earth.



Wild horses.

Tough bulls.

Crazy men.

They say they are as rugged, as tough as the animals.

I prefer crazy.

Down in Huntsville, in another day, there was no event rougher than the Texas than the Prison Rodeo.

It began during the 1930s and was known as the wildest show on earth. For convicts, the rodeo became the one bright light of entertainment slipping the past the dark clouds of the Great Depression.

For a month during the fall, they became cowboys.

Some had never seen a horse before.

They saddled up bucking broncs.

Or they rode bareback.

Mostly they didn’t ride at all.

They ached for weeks.

The broken bones took longer to heal.

Nobody cared.

Some of the convicts had never been closer to a bull than a second-hand sirloin steak, yet they crawled on the backs of brahmas with stars in their eyes and saw even more stars when they hit the ground.

Stay in the saddle for eight seconds.

That’s all it took.

Eight seconds were an eternity.

They walked into the arena chewing tobacco.

They walked out chewing dirt.

Big name country stars always came to perform, singers like Ernest Tubb, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Dolly Parton.

But the inmates furnished their own entertainment, too.

The most popular was Juanita Phillips.

She always stole the show.

She danced a little.

She sang a little.

Everybody knew her better by her stage name: Candy Barr.

On the far side of the walls, she had danced at the club owned by Jack Ruby.

Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald.

Lee Harvey shot the President, or so they said.

Candy Barr was everybody’s sweetheart, even when she wore clothes.

I told you it was a crazy place.

During one fateful autumn, a pair of convicts sauntered through the arena, trying to appear inconspicuous, wearing stolen clothes, and hoping they looked as though they belonged with the great unwashed with tickets in their pockets.

They glanced uneasily up at the crowd. On some years, it would number a hundred thousand.

There, amidst the corn dogs, popcorn, and cotton candy was the tumult.

And the shouting.

And mostly confusion.

The convicts grinned.

The planets were aligned.

It would be a perfect time to escape.

They had spent months hatching their plan.

A ex-wife had stolen the clothes and smuggled them in behind the walls.

She would be waiting outside with a car.

She might not be an ex-wife for long.

The plan couldn’t fail.

They were sure of it.

The two conficts slowly and casually worked their way into the crowd. It was easy to get lost or at least misplaced in that many people, all shoving elbow to elbow onto the rodeo grounds.

The two convicts cut away and moved behind the arena.

They made their way to the barbed wire fence surrounding the grounds.

They glanced both ways.

No one was around.

They were crawling through the barbed wires when they heard the man’s voice.

It was loud.

It was deadly.

It sounded like thunder.

They looked up and saw a prison guard marching across the yard, his shotgun dangling loosely in his hands.

He had a scowl on his face.

He was not a happy man.

The guard waved the shotgun in the faces of both convicts.

His voice was cold.

It was devoid of humor.

He scolded them – two grown men – for trying to sneak into the prison rodeo without paying.

If they couldn’t afford a ticket they could just turn aground and go back home.

He didn’t care.

But one thing was for certain. He was not about to allow them on the rodeo grounds.

The guard grinned.

It was a sardonic grin.

He placed his shotgun on his shoulder.

And he promptly threw them out.

“Don’t come back,” he barked.

The men smiled and walked away.

Good riddance, he thought.

Nobody was above the law.

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