Beyond the Western
Heinz Noonan, the “Bearded Holmes” of the Sandersonville Police Department, was just about to bite into a chicken salad sandwich when Harriet, the office administrative assistant and common sense guru burst into his office and snatched the sandwich from out of his hand.
“What was that for,” snapped Noonan as he reached for 100% of his noontime repast as his wife had him on a strict diet.
“Some chicken gave its all for that,” Harriet growled. “It deserves better.”
“I was about to give it better!” Noonan shouted in return. “I was sending it to a better place than it has ever been!”
“That’s the Colonel Sander’s excuse,” Harriet hid the sandwich behind her back. “I,” she said as she stretched her head ceilingward, “will give it a much better home than you,” – she snarled the word you – “ever will.”
Noonan squinted at her suspiciously. “In a salad perhaps. Like the one in your lunch pail?”
“Already gone,” Harriet said as she pulled the sandwich from behind her back and took a bite. “Mumm,” she said and tapped her stomach. “The salad’s already here so the chicken will have a soft landing.”
“What about me?!” Noonan whined. “That’s my lunch!”
“Was,” Harriet said as she munched away. “Too much mayonnaise. Besides, you’ve got six chickens on your plate.”
“Really?” Noonan’s eyes squinted at her with suspicion and rage.
“Absolutely,” Harriet said between bites. “Death chickens. Six of them.”
“You mean dead chickens?”
“Nope. Death chickens. They’re on Line 2.”
“There are dead chickens on Line 2?”
“No. Death chickens. Six of them. Line 2. Cheerio.” And with that Harriet was gone, chicken salad sandwich and all, leaving Noonan to ponder what a death chicken – not a dead chicken – was.
* * *
With a mixture of trepidation, confusion and hunger, Noonan punched up Line 2. “I hate to ask, who’s this and what does it have to do with dead chickens?”
“No dead chickens,” an elderly woman’s voice responded. “Death chickens.”
“Death chickens, dead chickens, what’s the difference?”
“Do you know what a death chicken is, sir?”
“No, to be honest with the you I do not. And I’m Heinz until there’s a crime. Is there a crime here? A dead chicken crime?”
“Not yet, (pause), Heinz,” the woman said hesitantly. “But there are the death chickens.”
“OK,” Noonan muttered. “What’s the difference between a dead chicken and a death chicken?”
“Nothing,” the woman replied. “It’s where they appear that makes the difference.”
Noonan rolled his eyes and started digging in his desk drawer for a notebook and pen. “Let’s start from the beginning. Who is this and what do you have to do with dead chickens?”
“Death chickens. My name is Alphansa Herrington. Don’t laugh at my first name. My father was Italian, wanted a son and planned on naming him Alphonso. After his father. I was a surprise so he just changed the ‘o’ to an ‘a.’”
“Girls always are a surprise. Alphonso is an Italian name. Or Spanish. Herrington is hardly either.”
“Married name. My husband was an American soldier who settled in Milan during the war. He worked as a translator for NATO before we moved stateside.”
“And this is important because . . .”
“Because I do not want you think this is a crank call. I am calling from far way. For you, anyway. George, Georgia. An odd name for a town in Georgia. Named for a former Governor of Georgia, Walter Franklin George.”
“Interesting. Now, the dead chickens.”
“Death chickens. A dead chicken is something you eat. A death chicken is a cooked chicken you take to a funeral. The bereaved family doesn’t cook because, well, they’re in mourning. So neighbors and guests bring food. If you bring a cooked chicken to a funeral, it’s call a death chicken.”
“So someone has died?”
“No. And that’s why I’m calling you.”
Noonan put a big question mark on the page of his notebook. “Let me see if I have this right. You are calling about six death chickens which are cooked chickens at a funeral but no one has died?”
“Correct. That’s why I’m calling you. The local police can do nothing because no crime has been committed. They just call it a gag. They suggested I call you because you handle what they call ‘oddball’ cases.”
“How nice of them. What exactly is going on?”
“That I do not know. All I know for certain is I am receiving death chickens. I’m not dead so I take the action as a threat.”
“How do you know they are death chickens?”
“Because they come with a copy of my obituary.”
“But you’re alive.”
“The obituaries are dated next Wednesday.”
* * *
“OK,” Noonan said, now taking the phone call more seriously, “I’m inclined to believe it is a gag. A poorly considered one but a gag. People who kill people usually just do it.”
“I agree,” Alphonsa said. “Which is why I’m calling you. The local police – we’re a small town – really can’t do much. They only have four men on the street, three actually. One is a woman. We don’t have a crime laboratory the kind you see on LAW AND ORDER so the best the locals could do was take off the plastic covering from the death chickens and search for fingerprints.”
“Did they find any?”
“Yeah. And they all belonged to the fryer cook at the local grocer, Jefferson’s.”
“No other prints?”
“Not another one. And so many fryers are sold there’s no way to pinpoint who might have bought the six death chickens. They were delivered in the early morning hours, before I get to the Methodist church. I do the church’s bookkeeping three days a week.”
“That’s where have the chickens have been left?”
“Front porch. The Church doesn’t have a surveillance system. I mean, on a Methodist Church? The only eyes there are the crows and they know when the chickens are delivered. When I get to work and see crows on the parking lot fence, I know another chicken is on the door mat.”
“OK. How about the obituary. Anything special happening on the day you are supposed to die?”
“Yes, a matter of fact. The name of the community, on paper, is changing. From Felton to George. The name change was voted in last year.”
“Did you have anything to do with the name change?”
“OK. So there were disgruntled people?”
“115 of them. That’s how many voted against the change. Same number as Trump voters.”
“How many voted to change the name?”
“Not much of a
contest.” Noonan leaned back in his chair. “OK, I’m inclined to
believe the death chickens are a prank but let’s see what I can do.
Just off the top of my head, tell me about the 115 who voted no. Are
they all part of any kind of an organization? Why the name change,
how long as the change been in the mill, how many churches are there
in George, any cults like the KKK in the area, how close is the next
town, how many banks are in town, any specialty shops that sell items
only available in George and that’s all I can think of now.”
“I can answer all of those questions now.”
“There are about 115 old time conservatives in town. These folks are vocal Confederate monument supporters. More than a handful of them are kinda/sorta KKK types but we have had no violent confrontations of any kind.”
“Not unexpected,” Alphonsa said. “We’re a small town and everyone knows everyone else’s business. We don’t have any kind of a secret cabal of cross burners.”
“That’s not true across Georgia.”
“World’s changing. That’s why the town is changing its name. From Felton, who was a slave owner to George, a former United States Senator. A moderate. FDR man. From Georgia no less.”
“The name change came because we’re trying to bury the past, so to speak. We’re 45% black so the vote was not a white versus black thing. Everyone – except 115 people – felt it was time for a change. The name change was a long time in coming. Maybe 18 months. We have three churches in George. One is an evangelical Baptist. Another is the Methodist church and we have a multidenominational church, mostly Unitarians and recovering religious whatevers. The only cult we have are Mormons, maybe a dozen, who meet in private homes. The nearest town to George is actually called a hamlet because it’s so small and it’s ten miles away. The next community you’d call a town is 30 miles in the opposite direction. There is not a bank building in George. We all cash checks at a back counter in Jefferson’s Groceries. The only specialty shop we have is a second hand store and we are not talking valuable stuff here. Old watches, rings and the like. Sorry, not a lot of clues here.”
Noonan finished writing in his notebook and then shut it. “Let me think on this. Give me a call in a day or two.”
“Certainly before next Wednesday.” Alphonsa chuckled. “If I’m still around.”
“Well, don’t eat any death chickens.”
“I don’t. The crows get them. That’s why they gather in the mornings when the death chickens arrive. Did you know groups of crows are called murders.”
“Don’t go there.” Noonan said as he hung up the phone.
* * *
Whenever Noonan was confronted with one of his loo-loo calls, he went to his two most productive crime fighting tools: history and the newspapers. History was not the story of the past; it was the study of the future. So into history he dove.
In the case of George, both the city and the man, it was easy to find documentation. Georgia, the state, was named after King George II, a monarch who was better known for his, to quote Wikipedia, “mistresses, short temper, and boorishness” then his kingly duties. He died in 1760. Walter Franklin George, no relation, died in 1957. George, for whom the town was now named, had been born in Georgia and had a stellar career. He had sat on the Supreme Court of Georgia for five years, 1917 to 1922. He resigned from the court to run for the United States Senate. A conservative Democrat – no surprise there coming from a Solid South – he did not endorse Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 but did support the bulk of the New Deal legislation. He was Chair of the Senate Finance Committee through the Second World War. He was more moderate on Civil Rights than his Solid South colleagues and opposed integration but declined to renounce its implementation in Brown v. Board of Education. Over his career he transformed himself from an isolationist to a fervent internationalist and played a pivotal role in 1945 to approve of the United Nations Charter. When he died in 1957, then Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson attended his funeral in Vienna, Georgia, a town which today has 3,000 people.
Interestingly, Noonan noted, George and Rebecca Ann Latimore Felton, for whom the town had been originally named, had been congressional ships passing in the dark. She was the first woman to serve in the United States Senate – but it was only for a day, November 21 to 22, 1922. She was also the oldest freshman senator in history, 87 years, nine months and 22 days old. She was also the last Congressperson to own slaves.
Felton’s flash of fame came in 1922. One of Georgia’s Senators, Thomas E. Watson, died unexpectedly and the Governor, Thomas W. Hardwick, ordered a special election and chose to run himself.
Against Walter F. George.
Hardwick did not want to appoint someone to the late Senator’s seat who might mount a campaign against him so he appointed Felton. Congress was not in session at the moment so she was not seated immediately and voted on no legislation. It was a shrewd move by Hardwick for a number of reasons. First and foremost, she was a woman and the just-passed 19th Amendment was pulling thousands of women across Georgia to the polls – and Hardwick had been opposed to the 19th Amendment. Felton was also a plus for his campaign because she was an advocate of prison reform, in favor of prohibition and a proponent of what is today called equal pay for equal work.
On the other hand, though not yet a political liability in Georgia, she was an ardent white supremacist who was strongly in favor of lynching. She claimed increasing money spent on black education increased the black crime rate, referred to young blacks who demanded equal treatment with whites as “half-civilized gorillas” who had a “brutal lust” for white women and proselytized that allowing blacks to vote would lead directly to the rape of white women.
None of this really mattered because at the moment of her appointment, Congress was out of session and not scheduled to reconvene until after the election. Even then, when Congress did reconvene, on November 21, it was unlikely she ever be sworn in.
The ploy did not work.
Hardwick lost to George.
And George allowed Felton to be sworn in thus cementing his reputation as a supporter of the 19th Amendment. Felton retired from public life after her 24 hours of glory and wrote THE ROMANTIC STORY OF GEORGIA’S WOMEN. She died in 1930.
While George, now the city, did not have a newspaper, Noonan found several articles on the community in newspapers from surrounding counties. Black Lives Matter had made inroads all across the South and Felton, now George, was not immune to the change. Even though black voters were only about a minor part of the electorate, the mayor and three of nine assembly people were black, two of them women. The police chief was a Filipino/Mexican-American and the city manager gay.
In terms of racial tension, there did not appear to be any in George. It was simply another Southern community coming to grips with the past. That being said there was an active Confederate Descendants organization but it was historical, not politically activist. There were three plaques honoring Confederate heroes in town but the vote to change the town’s name had also been to remove the plaques. There was an active KKK Klan in the area but it was small, distant from George and was more of a laughing stock than a threat to any person, property or petition. It only made the paper because one of its members had been caught poaching watermelons.
The only article of note was a letter to the editor by a woman who referred to herself as a “Southern Matron” who lamented the name change from Felton to George had been “too far and too fast” for many of the residents and Felton, the woman, was being unfairly pilloried for “beliefs which were current and popular in her time” and this was no reason to treat her with the disrespect of renaming the town. Then she referred to herself as a “working woman who took full advantage of the equal pay for equal work which Felton advocated” and stated Felton was the trailblazer for women like Lilly Ledbetter.
A gong went off in the depth of Noonan’s brain.
* * *
“Don’t you dare touch it!” snapped Noonan as he – again – protected his chicken salad sandwich from the grasping clutches of Harriet. “It’s all I’ve got for lunch!”
“Moi?” Harried said with a faux French accent. “Why would I want a dead chicken sandwich?”
“Well, you snagged the last one handily. And, yeah, it is a dead chicken sandwich. Not a death chicken sandwich.”
“Funny you should mention that,” Harriet said as he put a Manilla envelope on his desk. “It’s an invite to a ‘Death Chicken Jamboree.’ But it was held last Wednesday.”
“Ah,” said Noonan looking at the ceiling and then at Harriet. “It seems some people actually take my advice.”
“The death chicken lady?”
“Yes. She listens well. You should do the same.”
“Yeah. Right. What did you tell ‘the death chicken lady?’”
“Throw a party! Invite everyone in town! Make it an event! Everyone in town knew the death chickens were being sent so, the day of the city’s name change, I suggested everyone have a little fun. Celebrate the passing of the deceased with death chickens.”
“What good would that do?”
“Humor, Harriet, humor! It’s the way to sooth wounds. I suggested the name, The Death Chicken Jamboree, and invite everyone who was against the name change, the Civil War buffs and any KKKers lurking the neighborhood. Make it fun! Give away the old pens and note pads with the name of the old city. Give away T-shirts with the portrait of the man for whom the town is now named. Make it a joyous occasion.”
“Will that solve the problem? I mean, the death chicken problem?”
“Don’t know. But the death chickens came with an obituary which was the date of the name change. So live it up, so to speak. Nobody died so I guess you’d call that a win for the good guys.”
“But nobody got arrested.”
“For what? Giving away cooked chickens? No crime. No harm. Just a gag that backfired. Turning the death chicken deliveries into a joke made whoever was doing it look stupid. No one wants to look stupid. Whoever was doing it will be very quiet.”
“I guess that’s all for the best,” Harriet shook the envelope. “At least you have something for your files.”
“Not so sure I want a death chicken haunting my crime drawer,” Noonan said pointing at his file cabinet.
“Yeah. You know what they call the ghost of a chicken past?”
Harriet rolled her eyes. “OK, what?”