So this is how William S. began Henry V:
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
Death in the Afternoon: at a Cockfight
I’m going to (safely) assume 99% of you have never attended a cockfight before. If you have, then maybe you know me. If you haven’t, then let me introduce myself.
I’m the Portly Producer – the stout, steadfast friend of the Literary Man, a friend to ferrets and a tabloid TV muckraker who relishes in reporting on scandals, corruption and confidence men. Maybe you’ve seen me on TV chasing rats before – maybe not. It doesn’t matter.
Before I digress any further, let me start by saying the stench of chicken shit and sweat was ubiquitous. On a recent Saturday morning in South Alabama, a frenzied crowd about 40 strong, including women and children, had gathered to witness a blood sport with historic literary ties. There was a fat purse at stake – some $40,000.00 to the derby winner – and by 10AM the spectators were eager for blood.
“I got fifty bucks on the red rooster,” a grizzled man wearing a University of Alabama: National Champions t-shirt called out.
I glanced casually at the informant sitting across from me. He nodded. I took the bet.The ‘referee’ traced two ‘scratch lines’ in the dirt of the pit with his index fingers. Standing behind each line, respectively, were the fighters: a brown-white speckled gamecock and a slightly larger red capon, each being held a foot off the ground by their handlers.
“Cocks ready?” shouted the ref.
I glanced down at my hidden camera – a micro lens planted inside one of my shirt buttons – making sure it was pointed towards the birds. The red indicator light blinked intermittently inside my pocket; I was recording video. And a wire, taped to the inside of my ‘Bama Roll Tide’ sweat shirt, was picking up the cacophony of sounds.
The two cocks suddenly collided into eachother in mid air. There was a furious flash of feathers followed quickly be a series of crowing screams from the cocks and shouts of encouragement from the crowd.
Each bird, wearing 4.5 inch gaffs – a sharp medal blade attached to their legs – tried its best to puncture the other. The red cock was the first to draw blood. I crept forward trying to get a better angle thru the translucent plexi-glass that surrounded the make shift pit hidden inside an old barn. The birds traded blows with their sharpened shivs for the next few agonizing minutes. And before you could say ‘cock-a-doodle-doo,’ the white-brown cock was oozing blood out of a dozen wounds and barely moving – it’s broken left wing hanging limp at its side.
I assumed the fight was over, but then, shockingly, the bird’s owner reached down and began administering what looked like mouth to mouth resuscitation. Bewildered, I looked back to the informant who had brought me passed security and got me safety into the fight.
“It’s a ‘whistler.’ He got a punctured lung. So he’s sucking the clotted blood outta the bird to keep the fight goin,” said my companion, an informant working for the FBI.
The bird’s owner then reeled back and coughed up a blood-soaked wad of phlegm, spitting it against the pit’s glass. Apparently his makeshift mouth-to-mouth was enough to revive the bird long enough for another spat. But it collapsed dead two minutes later. The victor, wounded but alive, crowed proudly. The crowd roared – and I was suddenly $50.00 poorer.
I spent the rest of the day much of the same way; watching the fights, smoking a few Camels, making a few side bets and trying hard to blend in.
“Get made and they’ll beat the shit out of you,” the retired FBI agent working with us told me over coffee and grits earlier at a nearby Waffle House earlier that morning.
“This story ain’t worth dying for. You get made or get me made and you’re on your own,” said the informant thru a haze of cigarette smoke across the booth.
“I’ll cut my way out if I have too.”
The informant made an excellent point that morning. And now, sitting next to him on a row of bleachers inside the barn, I started to wonder how I’d make my escape if things started to heat up…
And now, at last, to my point…and a question for you loyal Literary Man followers: Is cockfighting a cruel blood-sport or a storied past time with historical significance that holds a place in Southern Literature? Should those who defend it be repudiated for malicious animal cruelty (cockfighting is a felony in most states, but only a misdemeanor in AL) or allowed to uphold this southern tradition of their ancestors?
References to cockfighting in literature can be traced as far back as Shakespeare:
“Shakespeare’s reference to the Globe Theatre as a ‘cockpit’ in the prologue to Henry V (1599) acknowledges a floor plan indebted to a sport begun in Asia thousands of years before and popular in England at least since around 1500, when Henry VIII installed a cockfighting arena atWhitehall Palace. Henry’s interest in gamecocking led to its denomination as a “royal” sport. Before its prohibition in 1849, cockfighting was widespread among both nobles and commoners in England, passing to America during colonial times to engage such distinguishes followers as Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton.”
That’s right my friends, at least three of our nation’s greatest Commanders in Chief were avid supporters of this ‘royal’ sport. Though you don’t hear too much about all the coffers Washington filled gambling at a cockfight after he chopped down the ‘Cherry Tree,’ there’s no denying he was a fan. And while horse racing may now more aptly be called the ‘Sport of Kings,’ there was a time when watching roosters fight to the death was as common a past time as watching a weekend football game would be today.
In ROOTS, Alex Hayley deftly captures a “well researched view of southern cockfighting during the half-century before the Civil War” in several chapters about the career of cockfighter “Chicken George” commented Mills.
And in later fiction, southern crime author Charles Willeford portrayed the life of one fighter hell-bent on claiming a coveted cockfighting championship in his novel THE COCKFIGHTER (1972). The blurb on book’s jacket reads: “The dedicated obsession of a fanatical sport. As in the bullring—to the death. Legal in Florida—illegal in the forty-nine other states. The iron will of a man, whose entire life was channeled into one supreme ambition!” The book was later adapted for the screen, starring Warran Oates. Check out the awesome movie poster (below)
Hollywood has often made other hilarious and gruesome references to the sport. Most notably, perhaps, is the Seinfeld episode entitled “The Little Jerry,” in which Kramer’s pet chicken (he originally bought the bird b/c he was tired of eating bad eggs – but Kramer, being Kramer, bought a rooster instead of a hen) winds up fighting in an back-room bodega cockfight as part of deal to get one of Jerry’s bounced checks taken off the bodega’s wall-of-shame. Hillarity obviously ensues and Kramer winds up getting violently pecked by Little Jerry’s fierce opponent.
More recently, Kenny Powers (the hilarious Danny McBride) takes up cockfighting to make some extra scratch while trying to reinvent his beleaguered pitching career south of the border. Before the episode premiered Time Magazine asked McBride about his portrayal of the sport:
TIME: Are you expecting any backlash for Kenny’s new cockfighting ways?
MCBRIDE: Oddly enough, we had a guy on set who is a real cockfighter. We call him the cock whisperer. When we met the guy, we were like, “Do people name the cocks?” And he was like, “No, they’re just cocks.” He thought we were idiots. But it’s pretty brutal. Cockfighting is legal in Puerto Rico, where we shot, and there’s this place where they hold cockfights. It was just crazy. There’s an area where you can order chicken fingers. I guess you can eat the loser.
While they didn’t serve up any of the losers at the fights I attended, they did have a fully operating concession stand. The informant and I ate cheeseburgers and sipped Dr. Peppers between rounds. There were over 100 entries that day and close to half of the birds died that afternoon. The winners were ‘healed-up’ with potions of antibiotics and steroids and tossed back in their cages to battle another day.
But perhaps the most shocking thing that afternoon, aside from the gore, was seeing the half-dozen kids that were in attendance. I watched several of them taking in the chaos on their father’s laps (hunting season and college football having ended weeks ago). There was one boy, couldn’t have been more than 11, who was quite proficient in the sport. He must have made over $200.00 gambling that afternoon. I quickly learned NOT to bet against any bird the youngster picked.
Regardless of whether or not you think this sport is inhumane and should be decisively outlawed, I can’t fathom any reason a parent would permit their kid to attend, let alone gamble at a cockfight. But I guess, until AL legislatures draw up stricter laws against it (currently there are harsher laws for speeding in AL than for cockfighting), the sport will continue to flourish in the backwoods barns of the deep South. And who knows, maybe one of our future Presidents may even be in attendance…
For now, the Portly Producer is signing off (its time to go grab some chicken wings for lunch). And for all you book worms, make sure you pull your noses out of your books long enough to catch my report when it airs…