Curl Up and Burn

Every building and every landmark in Boerne, Texas is built from the chalky limestone native to the region. Other than a few wood accents, little cedar posts or oak accent walls, and the water tower gleaming white in the hot Texas sun, everything else is stone. This is how Ford Randall Kempe prefers it. “It’s more durable,” he says.

On larger houses and business buildings, this white stone facing is called Austin stone, a pale yellow-white rock named for the quarries near the Texas capital, though Ford says these days it’s all veneer. “They take that Portland cement and mix it in with some other stuff,” he explains as we survey his city. “Seashells and dyes and stuff, they slather it into these molds that are supposed to look like rock but ain’t.” He points behind him to his own house. “That there is fake. It’s all fake.” Then he sweeps his arm over the expanse of the tiny city below us. “This here is all rock. Dug them up with my own hands, cleaned and shaped them, fit each one together myself. This here is the only thing that’s real.”

We’re standing in Ford’s back yard, a sloping acre that descends a hillside into a shallow valley just on the edge of town. Ford has adopted a conscious stance, one leg cocked and his hips at a tilt, a thumb in one pocket, as if he’s posing for a cigarette ad. He’s wearing a denim shirt and tight jeans, his heavy work boots secure on the rocky slope. His land is terraced into three distinct stages. At the top sits his house, a small wood and stone one-bedroom with a detached garage. The middle level is a narrow yard, scrubby grasses and an old doghouse that Ford says has been abandoned for several months now. And then the bottom, where the hillside curves out into a flat plane cleared of trees and brush, with a small trench carved through the middle. This lowest level spans roughly half an acre, and here, Ford has constructed a perfect scale model of the entire town.

The scale for Ford’s Boerne is 1:80, making most of his Texas ranch houses three inches tall. The county courthouse, where he was convicted of rape twelve years ago, stands over five inches tall; the city hall is six inches. The tiny people who populate his city—and Ford claims to have a figure for each resident, even if not all are visible on a given day—are railway model figures he has meticulously repainted to resemble individual residents. At a standard model-train scale of 1:76, they look slightly bigger than they ought to, like lumbering Goliaths who would have to stoop through every door, but Ford explains that “folks around here were always a little bigger than they were. Acted bigger, anyway.”

Ford himself is a massive man, tall and wide-shouldered, but with narrow hips and strong, wiry legs. A dozen years ago he was the town hero, a star high school football player and a sports legend even outside the Texas Hill Country. In prison, he played on the inmates’ football team, and he says it was his sports prowess, and not his intimidating size, that kept him safe while behind bars. “There was pressure to join up with one gang or another, you know, lots of it. But those prisoners did a lot of business betting on the football games, the boxing matches, whatever, and I kept out of their way by just doing what I always done. I had my share of scares, but mostly, those cons never much messed with me.”

Ford always refers to his fellow inmates as “those prisoners” or “those cons,” separating his own experience from theirs. He maintains his innocence even now.

In the winter of 1995/1996, Ford was charged with and convicted of the statutory rape of his fifteen-year-old girlfriend, Chen Sung. He was sentenced to fifteen years in the French M. Robertson maximum-security prison near Abilene (he was released on parole two years ago, having served ten years). Robertson is known among offenders and their families as a “rough” prison; wives and girlfriends corresponding on the Prison Talk Online forum frequently exchange news of gang wars or lockdowns. Even now, Ford keeps his ashy blonde hair in a buzz so short it sometimes looks as though he’s bald, just a heavy five-o’clock shadow on his head. He cites the Roman military as the inspiration for his cut: “Makes it so guys can’t grab your hair in a fight.” He has two recent scars, one on his right shoulder and one on his left forearm. The one on his shoulder is a shiv-wound from prison. The one on his arm is a deep bite mark, two jagged crescents facing each other. He claims he got this, too, in prison, but the bite looks small, the teeth finely detailed.

Ford likes details. He’ll study and study a thing, get in close to it, pull out magnifying glasses, peer and poke. He’ll disassemble anything, and he can usually put it together again. The tiny tools required for detail work are fragile in his thick hands, but he uses them a lot, because the smaller the details, the more pleasure he takes in them. In prison, Ford used his fingernails and the bent end of one bedspring to carve his bars of soap into figurines. He got so good at it that guards convinced him to sign up for the arts and crafts classes led by community volunteers, and Ford began making models. To be safe, all of his model figures were men, action figures rather than dolls—he didn’t want anyone getting the wrong idea about him. But all his model homes and dioramas were of Boerne.

 

I drove into Boerne from the lazy city of San Antonio, a quiet sprawl just south of the hills. The city is the true center of Texas, as much Mexican as Texan and defiantly quaint despite its concrete expanse and, on the outskirts on the way into the Hill Country, its nouveau-riche suburban facade. Because San Antonio and the surrounding Hill Country towns are growing into each other, the veneers of each resemble the other more each year. But get into the tangled roots of the German-influenced Hill Country (folks here always capitalize it), and you find a wildly different culture.

The German Hill Country has a conflicted history. Though the region today is a haven for conservative traditionalists, most of the communities in the area were founded by atheists, socialists, and freethinkers. This heritage has long informed the dogged independence of the people here. Kendall County, for which Boerne is the county seat, was formed in 1862, in the midst of the Civil War; Texas was a unique case during the war in that it was the only Confederate state to hold a public vote on secession. Texas hero and then-governor Sam Houston opposed secession, but Texas had only recently been an independent nation and Texans were used to doing as they pleased, so, unhappy with federal meddling in private and state affairs, the citizens voted for war. But most German immigrants were anti-slavery and pro-Union, and many chose to escape conscription into the Confederate Army by packing up and heading to Mexico.

One such group of sixty-eight Germans and a handful of other Union sympathizers from Kendall County were on their way to Mexico when they camped overnight on the Nueces River. There, they were ambushed by a Confederate cavalry unit and massacred: nineteen of the Germans were killed in the skirmish; another nine were captured and executed on site. The remaining forty survivors continued their flight to Mexico but were caught yet again while crossing the border—another eight were killed. Among the few that made it to safety was a young girl of British descent, Mary Fairbanks, who would later marry a small-time rancher named John Kempe. Mary was Ford’s great-great-great-grandmother.

The family wouldn’t return to the Hill Country for two generations. When they did return, they settled near their ancestral homestead and took up the profession they’d left almost a century before.

Out along the edges of Ford’s clearing, the trees give way to a wide, flat grassy area dipping into the dusty ribbon of a dead creekbed, scrub brush and small cacti—prickly pear, desert willow—spots of green and brown among the yellowing summer grass. It looks like the Texas prairie that existed here before the cedar trees invaded half a century ago. Ford likes to sit outside, in a plastic lawn chair, and simply listen to the land. “I love the sound of cicadas in the summertime,” he says. “That whirring, afternoon to dusk. Reminds me of my childhood, all those summers out on the ranch. Them cicadas, they always bring the heat. I like the heat.”

We stand and watch the trees until Ford squats and points. A doe and two fawns are creeping through the treeline. They spot us and freeze, watching, then they turn back into the woods. I ask if Ford hunts. “Nah,” he says. “I’d like to, but people get nervous when I start looking at rifles down at the Walmart.” He stands and I follow him up toward the house. “Besides,” he says, “hunting’s changed since I was a kid. Most folks these days just rent a deer blind and hunt from there all day. People been doing that for generations, I guess, but it’s not the hunting I was raised on. A real hunter won’t wait for nothing to just come to him—a real hunter knows how to catch what he’s after with his own two hands. That’s how it was out on the ranch.”

These days Ford doesn’t ranch or even work as a hand, though he’d like to. As a registered sex offender, finding work has been all but impossible. “They got these flyers,” he says, “with my picture and my name, some stuff about what they said I done, those things are pasted all over. At the HEB, at the library, at the schools, at the old folks’ home. So it’s hard. I got a job mowing lawns, for one, and I go around collecting trash, not like a garbage man but more like a salvage man, picking things out of the trash I can sell off other places or fix up, things like that. I make ends meet.”

We’ve reached his truck; it’s time Ford goes on his trash rounds now, and he invites me to ride along. He digs in the truck bed a moment, tossing out bits of trash and scrap, then climbs into the cab. I swing open the passenger door and climb in beside him.

Ford’s truck is flare-side, a Dodge. On his bumper is a sticker his father put there ages ago: “My student can kick your honor student’s ass.” It is faded and peeling, but it is still there. Inside, carved with a pocket knife into the plastic of the glove box, is an old heart encircling two pairs of initials: FK and CS. I ask Ford about it. He says, “She put it there,” emphasizing the “she,” but he won’t say any more about it.

 

Chen Sung does not like to talk about the episode with Ford or her life back in Boerne. Her remaining time in high school was miserable, and soon her parents moved away and decided to home-school their daughter. When she graduated, they quickly sent her to a small private college in northern Texas. She lives nearby still, in the busy two-university city of Denton. I met her on a humid summer afternoon in a small coffeehouse. She drank iced tea and rarely looked me in the eye. She is pretty, her fine black hair cut into a neat bob that hugs her soft jawline, her bangs always dancing in her deep black eyes.

She escaped the stigma in Boerne, but up north, she continues to live a troubled romantic life—three years ago, she was engaged to a local man named Jacob who one day, without explanation, left town, drove cross-country to Washington, DC, and died there in a violent car crash. Afterward, Chen started taking drives in the countryside herself. It was every other weekend at first, then every weekend. Now she drives out on the small farm-to-market roads almost every day, leaving straight from work and eating dinner at a Sonic or a Dairy Queen or sometimes just snacking at a gas station. She has no place to get to, she explained, but she needs to go somewhere. “I know the sick irony in that,” she said, “given how Jacob died, but driving, I don’t know, it’s become this compulsion.”

I asked if she knew that Ford is out on parole. She nodded, but didn’t say anything. She has very little to say on the subject of Ford, really, an attitude that hasn’t changed since his arrest: she did not testify at his trial. “I was embarrassed,” she explained quietly. “Ashamed. They said he was guilty, but I was guilty too. We thought what we were doing was beautiful, but they made it sound so disgusting, so perverted, and the more they talked about it that way, the more I felt perverted too. Made me sick. Still makes me sick, but for different reasons.” What reasons? I asked. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

I pointed to Chen’s décolletage, the heavy bead-chain there that disappeared into her neckline. Dog tags? I asked. She reached into her shirt and held the end of the chain in her fist a moment, as though meditating on a rosary, then dropped the chain back inside her shirt. She wouldn’t discuss it. Later, I dropped my pen her direction—an old ruse—and when she bent to retrieve it for me, the chain slipped loose. There was a heavy class ring on the end of it. I asked if it was her boyfriend’s. She glared at me a moment, then swept the ring and chain into her shirt and handed me my pen.

“Used to be,” she said.

It’s the last she would say about it, but I noticed as the ring dangled there that the inscription on one side read BHS. Boerne High School.

 

As Ford and I pass through town on his salvage rounds, he points out various places he remembers from childhood—Bergman’s Lumber Company, Johnny’s Feed and Supply, the Bumdoodler’s sandwich shop, the Raccoon Saloon—and, taking a detour outside of town, he shows me his family’s ranch. “Kempes have deep roots in the Hill Country, Boerne especially. My great-grandfather played trumpet in one of them oompa bands from back before the Depression. The Boerne Village Band. Still going, that group, plays every Berges Fest,” the annual summer festival celebrating Boerne’s German heritage. “We fell in with them German traditions pretty strong,” he says. “Smoked corn, heavy beer. Man, I was practically raised on that shit.”

Growing up, Ford worked his family’s ranch from a young age, doing simple chores as a child, then heavier labor in high school. Every morning, he would wake before dawn and feed the family’s chickens, pigs, cows, and horses. He would bring in eggs, he would milk their two dairy cows, then he would shower and dress for school.

Working the ranch helped Ford develop his massive size, which made him perfectly suited for football. The feedbags for the pigs weighed twenty-five pounds each, and the hay bales for the cows came in at ninety pounds; one bale fed three cows, and the ranch was home to eighteen head. Their six horses ate roughly the same. By the time he was in high school, Ford was lifting, with his gloved hands, a cumulative total of more than a ton of feed each morning before heading to school and lifting weights in the gym.

Ford’s academic career wasn’t brilliant—he repeated the tenth grade—but he maintained a stellar football career. Playing both running back and linebacker, Ford was known for his aggression on the field. “Kempe plays offense like it was defense,” one local sportswriter wrote at the time, “and he plays defense like it was offense. For him, every play is both an opportunity to push toward the end zone and a chance to take out opponents through bone-crunching tackles.” Comments like these weren’t always compliments; Ford was frequently cautioned both on and off the field for his physical style of play. Still, he was celebrated for his ability to win games. His junior year, he totaled 1,374 yards rushing, completed twenty touchdowns, and made more than a hundred tackles (several of which resulted in hospitalizations). He won several state and national honors, and the summer before his senior year, he was approached by scouts from Texas Tech, Texas A&M, and the University of Texas.

His senior year stats were less impressive, which everyone, including Ford, attributes to his relationship with Chen Sung. “I won’t say it was her fault,” Ford says, “but I was sidetracked, that’s a fact.”

Others in the community have a different perspective: “He had to have known what he was doing was wrong,” says Ben Hague, the local minister who reported Ford and Chen’s relationship to her parents and later testified at Ford’s trial. “It was guilt that interfered with his game. Guilt, and maybe the judgment of God.”

One local man insists it was the girl herself. “God wouldn’t have stopped that boy playing, not ever,” says businessman and sports sponsor Cliff Lyman. “I mean, I know what he’s supposed to have done, but I’ve seen this boy play. Just a few years back, there was that Gary Maltsberger who went and played defensive end for UT, he was damn good and did our town proud. But old Ford, he would have been better, and it’s a damn shame what happened with that girl.”

Lyman and I were drinking coffee at the Daily Grind, a coffee shop and eatery on downtown Main Street. He sipped from his cup and shook his finger in my face. “Of course, there’s the other side to that story that nobody talks about. Ford always said it was consensual, and I for one believe him. Who wouldn’t have wanted to be with Ford Randall Kempe? Hell, I would have dated the boy.” He pushed his coffee mug away. He looked out the window at the people passing on the street, the out-of-towners in for the weekend to shop for antiques. “If I’d had the son I wanted, when I wanted him,” he said, “instead of that waste of a boy I got, I’d have named him something strong, like Ford. Hell, I’ll be honest, Ford was the son I wanted.”

 

Ford’s father, Herman Kempe, doesn’t like to talk about his son. After Ford’s conviction, the family retreated into isolation, and eventually—around the same time the Sung family left—they sold their ranch and moved up into the Texas Panhandle. Herman Kempe spoke with me on the phone only long enough to tell me he didn’t want to talk, and when I drove out to their new ranch, he met me at the cattle guard, more than half a mile from the house, blocking the gate with his truck parked sideways. In the back of the cab, hanging in a rack across the rear window, was a shotgun, and he made sure I saw it; he left the driver’s door open and kept glancing back at it. He left his engine running. We spoke there in the dirt, him leaning against the fence rail that separated us.

“Ford was a quiet boy, never gave no trouble to no one,” he told me. “Least, that’s what I thought. Tell you the truth, long as he did his chores, him and me mostly left each other in peace.” I asked if he—Herman—had also played football in school, and he nodded but said nothing else for a long minute. Then he looked out across the prairie. “Out there on the ranch, there was a lot of open space, me and Ford would toss the ball around. I could tell early on he had a head for the game. But me and him didn’t have much cause to talk beyond that.” Herman looked between his boots, kicked dust up from the grass, and spat. “There in middle school, high school, when he was playing ball, I had high hopes for the boy. But when he was younger, I don’t know. I should of seen it coming, I guess.”

I waited, not wanting to scare him off, and after a minute—still not looking at me—he continued:

“Boy was always out in the back end, down near the woods, playing by himself. I went out there one time. Boy was playing with dolls.” Herman looked at me then, his narrow eyes hard and gray in the bright Texas sun, his face crinkled from years of squinting. “Mind you, some of them was the old GI Joes, which would of been all right, but a lot of them weren’t. A lot of them was Barbies.” He hissed and shook his head, looked away again. “Should of known something was wrong.”

I asked what Ford did with the dolls, but Herman only looked at me a few minutes, then he climbed into his truck. He stroked the butt of his shotgun as he turned in the seat, then he adjusted his mirror and slammed the door shut.

“Don’t you come out here again,” he said. And he sped away.

* * *

When Ford was eight, he set up a small fort in the woods, not for himself but for his GI Joes. And Ford didn’t play with the four-inch toys of his own generation—he used the big twelve-inch dolls his father had played with as a boy. At first his father helped him collect the dolls, and when they couldn’t find any more, Ford bought Ken dolls and had his mother sew tiny uniforms for them. But Ford’s fictional universe in his boyhood yard was a realistic one, and he knew he needed women in it too. His mother bought him Barbies and Skippers and even, once, a Jem doll, the “rock star” doll with heavy punk make-up.

Ford built a small military base from old wood shingles and sheets of paneling veneer, scrap metal from the local junkyard, and, as he uses now, rocks dug out of the yard. His mother helped him cut up an old canvas tent so Ford could build a wartime hospital. And tucked into the trees, across a river Ford dug out by hand, was a brothel. The Barbie dolls were whores. All of them.

In the truck, driving through Boerne looking for trash, Ford points to landmarks, to houses of old girlfriends, old teammates, old coaches. He points to the liquor store, to the barbecue joint, to the Dairy Queen. There are no brothels in Boerne, neither in the town itself nor in Ford’s model version. I wonder if Ford’s Boerne has its whores hidden away somewhere, but something about the way Ford talks about his town and his past makes me decide I’d better not ask.

* * *

People have been making miniatures and models for millennia. The ancient Etruscans crafted their tombs in the form of model homes, often based on the deceased’s real house, and filled them with carvings or even copies of domestic implements, like a life-sized dollhouse for the dead. The Chinese, too, included wooden and terra cotta models of utensils, servants, and guards in the graves of royalty. But the art of crafting models for the living is a more recent development.

Dollhouses first gained widespread appreciation in Europe during the 17th century. In Germany, the dockenhaus served as entertainment for adults as well as educational tools for children, particularly young girls—a primer of sorts on how to arrange a kitchen and run a household. Bavarians also used the houses to reflect their own real-life wealth: unlike the Dutch cabinet houses, with closing doors to protect the valuable miniatures, the Bavarian houses stood open, the point being to display their possessions.

When the British caught the trend in the 18th century, the attitude toward dollhouses shifted from training models and adult displays to childhood playthings. For British girls, the dollhouse was not a showpiece or even an instructional tool, but simply a toy—albeit a toy designed to reinforce domesticity and the quaint ideal of British home life.

Melissa Wyatt, dollmaker for museums and celebrities, comments that “there is something comforting about the peace and serenity in a dollhouse […]. We all like to picture a dollhouse as a place where we can exhibit control and order and perfection. We may not have it in real life, but we can surely have it in our doll life.”

Small comfort to Herman Kempe. He might have preferred his son engage in the manlier form of model-making, train sets, which came into vogue just as dollhouses had peaked in popularity. In Sam Posey’s Playing with Trains: A Passion Beyond Scale, he explains how Melissa Wyatt’s sense of order and control from “doll life” had been translated to trains and taught boys the art of Western masculinity: “Remote control,” Posey writes, “was one of [Lionel Trains founder] Joshua Cowen’s most cherished concepts, relentlessly promoted as instilling in young boys a sense of responsibility for their actions. As Ron Hollander wrote in All Aboard!, his history of Lionel, ‘Remote control became symbolic of the button-pushing and emotional distancing that would be required of men in the real world.'”

Yet Ford didn’t have a train set—not even a troop train—in his childhood model, and in his model of Boerne, no train exists either. Posey seems to understand why: When he was a boy, Posey writes, “you were either a train guy or a fort guy—no one had both trains and a fort. […] But the only way to play with a fort was to move things around by hand.”

Ford is a hands-on guy, a controller, a manipulator. Ford is a fort guy.

 

We’ve returned to Ford’s house—his scavenging trip was a bust, but I suspect he really just wanted me to see the town through his eyes, the better to compare it with his model. Later, he says, we’ll try the landfill outside of town, or maybe the brush behind Boerne City Lake. Right now, though, we’re back where we started, overseeing Ford’s version of Boerne. He stands here three or four times a day, looking for any repairs or changes he needs to make based on what he’s seen in town. He kneels in the dirt, then leans forward into a careful crawl, working his way into the town. His knees leave shallow depressions in the parks and front yards. He reaches into a tiny porch and lifts a small figurine—a man from a train set—and shows him to me.

“This here is Old Man Gerhardt,” he says. “Been sitting on his porch waving at cars for as long as I can remember.” I study the town, the tangle of streets and landmarks, trying to get my bearings. Ford is beside his hand-trenched Cibolo Creek; he’s on River Road, toward the back side of town where it leads out to Texas Highway 46. Ford studies the tiny Gerhardt, picks a bit of dirt away with his fingernail. The figurine is waving. Ford shows him to me again and says, “He wasn’t out today, least I didn’t see him.” Then he lifts the roof off Gerhardt’s stone house and drops the tiny man inside. As in life, so in the model.

Ford rearranges cars and figurines, squatting or kneeling carefully among the houses and shops, then he turns and asks me to play stenographer in my reporter’s notebook, to write a list of supplies he’ll need for repairs. Half-inch mosaic tiles, one bag of craft sticks, glue, moss. “Not the green moss, the brown moss.” Light bulbs—three white, one yellow. “This light here”—he points to a miniature street lamp—”has always been yellow, or at least the cover for it is, don’t know why they never changed it when they upgraded the lights in town.”

For sidewalks, Ford uses half-inch mosaic tiles; front walks to houses use 3/8-inch tiles, known to mosaic artists as “Tiny Tiles.” He also uses the Tiny Tiles for edging along gardens, standing each tile on end and pushing it gently into the dirt. “Those disappear a lot,” he says. “Just get swallowed up or carried off or washed away, I don’t know what all.”

None of the houses has glass, because the scale is small enough that fitting each tiny window would be nearly impossible. The largest windows on the city courthouse, for instance, would be roughly the size of a fingernail. Besides, Ford explains, because the houses are all rock and are mostly unfurnished indoors, the glass windows are unnecessary anyway. And he likes knowing that every home, every business, every government building is open to him.

After he climbs out of the model, Ford steps carefully around it and stands off to one side, looking into a small subdivision neighborhood. The houses there are mostly two-story, tidy homes with clean driveways (Ford pours them from thinned mortar mix) and trim grass lawns (green moss). He is silent for a long two minutes, then he walks past me and up toward the house. I check my mental map, figure the street layout, realize he was looking down over what once was Chen Sung’s house.

 

The notion of age of consent is doubtless ancient, but the laws that govern it are nearly as old: according to Judith Levine’s book Harmful to Minors, our modern laws descend from the British Statutes of Westminster, which date from the late thirteenth century. Those laws established young girls—or, more precisely, their virginity—as the property of their fathers. Sex was not a young woman’s right—if she chose to sleep with any man, older or younger, she and her lover were guilty of theft, and the male lovers were treated in much the same way as cattle rustlers and horse thieves were in the “Old West” of Texas.

The Sungs weren’t by any means medieval in their parenting, but they preferred Chen didn’t date. They didn’t outright forbid it, but they made dating difficult with a slew of curfews, chores, and rules. When they found their daughter chatting with boys online, they set strict restrictions on their Internet. Chen got around these restrictions in the usual way, using friends’ computers or sneaking in e-mails through an account she set up at school. Most of her chatting and e-mails involved nothing racier than the digital equivalent of passed notes, gossip and snarky banter among her circle of friends. But some of those friends were helping Chen arrange meetings with a new love, a football star named Ford Kempe, who had just graduated the year before.

The one day, a rainy Saturday, on which Chen dared sneak in an e-mail to Ford from her home, her father intercepted the message. Ben Hague, the youth pastor at their church, had been tipped off by one of Chen’s friends (to this day, he refuses to reveal who), and Hague in turn called John Sung, Chen’s father, to warn him that his daughter was seeing an “older man.” Chen’s parents interrogated her about Ford, and after nearly an hour of questions, lectures, and stern looks, Chen let slip Ford’s age. The Sungs locked the doors, grounded their daughter, and unplugged the computer. They guarded the telephone and answered all calls, not trusting the answering machine lest Chen hear Ford’s voice.

Chen and Ford, however, were already ahead of her parents: she’d arranged for all his calls to the house to come through her friend Sharon, and in fact Ford had been calling her for weeks.

Eventually, her parents uncovered this ruse as well, and they banned all calls for Chen. They notified the school and arranged for the administration to monitor the teens. But the lovers soon were meeting in the football stadium, where Ford had always enjoyed unrestricted access. She sneaked off campus to join him for lunches and then whole afternoons. They spent the fall in the woods behind Ford’s ranch or out at the city lake, making love among the cedars or in the back of Ford’s pickup. At the lake, city cops would pull up behind the truck and bang on the sidewall until Ford rose up to lean on the fender. The cops would peer down at Chen, covered in a camp blanket, and then at Ford. Every time, they would ask Chen, “Is he making you do anything you don’t want to?” She would say no. Then the cops would tell Ford to take her back to school, or to take her home, and that would be the end of it.

Until Chen’s parents called the police.

Ford and Chen had taken Polaroid photos of each other, nothing terribly sexual or explicit but in poses and stages of undress that certainly embarrassed them both when Chen’s father found her photos of Ford. When John Sung confronted Ford, he demanded the teenager turn over his photos of Chen. “I don’t want to see them,” John Sung snarled (Ford insists he snarled), “I don’t even want to think about them, but I want to know for certain they’re not going to wind up on some pornography website or passed around among your buddies.” He told Ford to bring the photos to the Sung house, cut them up, and burn them. Chen’s father wanted to witness their destruction. Ford cut them up before he arrived and presented them in a can filled with lighter fluid. He dropped in a bundle of lit matches, then he kicked over the can, the lighter fluid spilling out into the grass and erupting into flames, the shreds of the photos floating out to curl and char in the fire. As John Sung cursed and stamped at the grass to prevent a full-blown brush fire, Ford walked silently away.

He did look back, more than once. He thinks about those photos even now. “I don’t even remember much what they looked like,” he says. “I don’t know what she was wearing or how she was posed, nothing dirty like that. But I remember her face. I can still see it, her cheeks bubbling in that heat, peeling back, her whole face coming open and burning black. Felt like her funeral, like I was out there cremating her or something. Makes me sick that I even did it, that I didn’t just tell that old man to go fuck himself. But I was broken, you see. I was all torn up myself, I done burned out already.”

Chen had called Ford two days before, her parents and Ben Hague in the living room with her, watching. She’d told Ford she wouldn’t see him anymore and he should just forget about her. She told him to do whatever her parents asked.

Ford won’t say how he took it, whether he cried or yelled or slammed down the phone or begged her to reconsider, to fight for him. He refuses to talk about it.

That day with the photos, Chen had been watching from her bedroom window. She saw Ford present the can, light the fire, spill the flames across the yard. She watched him walk away. She says he looked back once, but only once; to her, it looked as though he were only making sure he’d managed to set fire to her father’s yard. It was a destructive act, and for the first time, she saw Ford as the kind of man her parents insisted he was. She felt betrayed.

Two days later, Ford was arrested for rape.

Ironically, these photos helped convict Ford. Their presence would, of course, have looked bad in court, but if they had been presented alongside the photos Chen kept, the jury might have considered that evidence of their mutual affection and of Ford’s assertion that their relationship was consensual, even if it wasn’t, strictly speaking, legal. But John Sung had destroyed his daughter’s photos, and then he mentioned Ford’s photos in his testimony. In his sworn statement, he insisted he had only asked for the photos to prevent their distribution; Ford had brought them over but, in an act of defiance, had elected to burn the photos and to attempt arson. The jury didn’t buy the arson line, but they did view the burning as an attempt to destroy evidence, which contributed to Ford’s heavy sentence.

 

The longest serving sheriff in Kendall County remains Lee D’Spain, who held the position for twenty-eight years and who still is both revered and reviled in the community, depending on your politics and on which side of the law you found yourself. Ford respects him, though D’Spain presided over his arrest—Ford reserves his hatred for the man who actually put the cuffs on him, a young deputy named Gerald Thorp.

On December 18, 1995, Ford climbed into his pickup and headed down the cold rocky drive of his family’s ranch. He turned onto Highway 46 and roared up to speed, cruising with his windows cracked and the winter air slicing underneath his Carhartt jacket collar. He’d gone about four miles when he passed a sheriff’s cruiser heading the opposite direction. It was Deputy Thorp, who was himself headed to Ford’s ranch to arrest him.

Thorp whipped a wide U-turn and flashed his lights; he set the siren wailing. Ford checked his speed and cursed the deputy, but he pulled over dutifully. He cut his engine and stepped down from the cab to face the deputy. Surely, he thought, once the deputy saw Ford, the local football hero, he’d simply wave him on as they all had before. But Thorp was young and eager to make an arrest. Worse (for Ford), Thorp had been a scrawny loner in high school, the subject of frequent bullying, especially from the jocks. He was a few years older than Ford, but many of Ford’s older friends had been among Thorp’s bullies.

The deputy was still on the wiry side, a few inches shorter than Ford. He wore thin-framed glasses, and his uniform beige cowboy hat sat wide on his head. He faced Ford for a moment on the highway, standing in a slant-hipped, cock-legged stance. He had thin, delicate hands, one on his hip and the other on his nightstick, his small knuckles white.

He announced his intention to arrest Ford, then he stepped toward the truck.

It had been only two days since Ford had faced Chen’s father, cut up his photos and burned them in her yard. He was in no mood for anything but to go his own way, to mind his own business. He resisted the deputy, and Thorp lifted his nightstick a few inches from his holster. It was an aggressive act that Ford knew only one response to: he punched Thorp so hard the cop’s head whipped and his arms jolted, then he sat down hard on the ground, his feet splayed.

He shook his head and looked for Ford, who had paused with his fist raised again but now was sprinting away, and the cop scrambled to chase him. When he got close enough to reach Ford with his nightstick, he swung out, clipped Ford on the back of the head, and Ford stumbled, reeled, whirled with his fists up to face Thorp, but the deputy jabbed him in the gut with the stick and then took to wailing on Ford, stick, fist, and feet. He beat Ford dizzy and cuffed him and just managed to push Ford’s massive body into the back of the cruiser.

He drove fast, and along the way he radioed in and collected two more cruisers, one a city cop and one a state trooper. Their lights and sirens screamed behind him as they wove through the cars on the antiquer-crowded downtown streets.

When they skidded into the station on the edge of town, across from the elementary school, Ford shouldered through the rear door and jumped past the deputy and ran, but the other two officers blocked him well enough that Thorp managed to chase Ford down and tackle him, which Ford said later (and everyone, even the trooper, agreed with him) could not have been done if his hands had been free and he could have run the way he did on the field.

Ford spent one night in jail; though the charges were serious, the judge waived his bail and sent him home.

Thorp, however, wasn’t ready to let Ford go, and he followed Ford for days, the two young men winding their ways through the backroads and sullen neighborhoods of the town, around the schools and back into the subdivisions. Ford led the deputy for hours once he figured out what was up, and Thorp followed anyway, sometimes in his truck and sometimes in his cruiser, though he was off-duty. Then, on the fifth day of crawling chases, Ford pulled over, tires popping in the dry scrub grass at the back edge of the cemetery they’d been driving past. Thorp pulled his cruiser behind and turned on his lightbar, for good measure, then he got out and walked to Ford’s truck. Ford was already out and facing him, his shadow just a circle on the ground beneath his feet.

“You want something, buddy?” Ford asked, chewing on a stick of gum and smacking it loudly.

“You belong in jail,” Thorp said.

“Listen, buddy,” Ford said, his fists clenching already, “you just better watch it—”

“No!” Both men agree that Thorp yelled this, though the sound died at the headstones and no one else heard. They were alone. “No” he said, calmer. “You, you better watch it. I am the law in this county, me, and I know what you do. I know all about you. And you better just watch your ass, Ford. Because I could draw piece and shoot you dead right here, and no one, no one would question that at all because I am the law, I have a license to kill, buddy, and I will use it.”

“You and me both know you ain’t never drawn that piece on anything but a target in the shooting range.”

Thorp drew his pistol, his fingers tight on the plastic grip, and he leveled it at Ford, the muzzle pressed against Ford’s huge chest. Both men stood and breathed, watching each other’s eyes. Thorp cocked the hammer.

Ford inhaled and held it.

Thorp stared at Ford. Then he lowered the hammer and replaced the pistol in its holster, and he took a half-step back and nodded at Ford and spat on the ground. He returned to his cruiser and pulled the car up next to Ford, who had not moved. He lowered the passenger window and leaned over and said, “Just you remember, Ford. I’m watching.”

Ford drove for an hour, bouncing his truck through ruts and mudholes around the lake and even into the lapping lake water itself, great fins of murk arcing out over the rocky beach, then he screamed his way back out to the highway, passing the county constable and a state trooper along the way though they did nothing to stop him. He drove fifteen miles north to the town of Comfort, where he drank in a small bar there despite his age because Ford was known even in Comfort. When he got back to his parents’ ranch, he called around to some friends and discovered Thorp’s home telephone number, and he called it, and the deputy answered, and Ford said simply, “Fuck you.”

 

I follow Ford inside his small house, uphill from his model town. The house is cramped but tidy, a stack of work clothes and a dozen plastic bins of modeling supplies on a cinderblock shelf, a small TV and a second-hand armchair in the living room, a card table and metal folding chair in one corner where Ford’s boxy second-hand computer sits. The screen saver is on, a whirling orb that distorts the screen as it bounces from corner to corner; behind the orb, a green felt background and a deck of digital cards. When he’s not working on his model, Ford passes the time playing computer solitaire. “The cards, they’re all out of order,” he says. “I like putting it all right again.” I ask why he only plays on the computer—he’s old-fashioned and hands-on enough that I figured he would have preferred playing at a table with a deck of cards. “I like to sort things right,” he says, “but I ain’t the one to mess them up in the first place. I let the computer do that.”

Ford is in the kitchen, drinking water from the tap. He offers me a glass, and we walk into his bedroom, where he shows me photos of his mother and father, one of his paternal grandparents, a small framed photo of a ranch house in the midst of vast acreage.

Ford maintains no relationships anymore. His parents moved away, his friends avoid him, Chen is long gone and he hasn’t tried to find her. But he was determined to move back to the town where he grew up. “This is where I’m from,” he says, “where my family is from. It’s in my blood. It’s hard, on a lot of people besides me I know, but damn it, they can’t take away my roots. I belong here same as anyone, got the same right to be here as anyone.”

I ask him if he’s had difficulty fitting back into his old life. He looks at me. “I ain’t got a old life,” he says.

 

On January 24, 1996, Ford was escorted to the county courthouse, across the street from the old jail. He stood behind the defense table, wearing a brown suit, his hands folded in front of his heavy belt buckle, his head stiff, his face frozen. Witnesses described him as looking “dead inside,” like a sociopath. Ford says he was simply numb—and maybe, he admits, a little defiant. He was convicted on six counts of sexual assault on a minor, the number of times the prosecution could prove Ford and Chen had had sex. These were based mostly on police records of the teenagers’ visits to the city lake—those occasions when the city cops had checked the bed of Ford’s truck and then sent to two lovers on their way. The sentence for statutory rape in Texas ranges from two to twenty years. Ford got fifteen.

Part of Ford’s conviction stems from unfortunate timing: That same year, under political pressure from all sides, President Clinton instructed various government authorities to more vigorously investigate “the problem of statutory rape” and signed laws that encouraged stricter prosecution of statutory rapists. Several states—including Texas—spent millions of dollars bolstering statutory rape prosecutions. At the time Ford’s case came to trial, there was a witch-hunt out for older men who had sex with minors. That Ford and Chen both were teenagers was beside the point, as was the consensual nature of their relationship.

Also, at Ford’s trial, prosecutors made much of Ford’s physicality. They mentioned his assault on Deputy Thorp during Ford’s arrest. (The confrontation at the cemetery days later, when Thorp drew his weapon on Ford, never came into evidence.) They brought in witnesses that attested to Ford’s short fuse and his tendency to elevate arguments to fist-fights—he’d been reprimanded many times for fighting in school, and he was known as a bruiser on the football field. And then there was the most damning evidence: In the rivalry between Boerne and a nearby school district, Ford had escalated the usual schoolyard taunts to the level of physical threats, and one wealthy family from the rival district had taken out a restraining order against him. The defense pointed out that the “threats” were confined to the upcoming football game—he’d told a rival student that he would “fuck him like a bitch on the field”—but all the jury heard was “fuck him like a bitch.”

Ford was sent to the rough, maximum-security Robertson unit, where his cellmate was a man serving ten years for manslaughter. Two years into his sentence, Ford got into a fight in the mess hall and put his opponent in the hospital; he was transferred to solitary, where, off and on, he spent much of his remaining sentence.

Back in Boerne, Chen returned to school, but she soon felt overwhelmed by her celebrity. Some students flocked around her like disciples, in awe of her adult sexual adventures. Others bullied her in the halls, taunting her with accusations of promiscuity. Boys in particular harassed her, many offering to pay her for sexual favors. At home, things were deteriorating as well. Her parents continued to fight over whose fault her relationship had been, and John Sung’s business lagged as the community tried to put the ugly trial behind them by ignoring those involved with it. Eventually, the Sungs divorced and moved away in separate directions, and Chen—who was relieved to escape Boerne High School and start over—bounced back and forth between her mother’s house in San Antonio and her father’s house in Dallas.

Chen resisted commenting about this period when I spoke with her in Denton. I asked her when she last saw her mother and she shrugged; I asked if Ford’s return to Boerne was the reason she’d stayed up north in Denton. She said, “It’s not him, it’s that fucking town. It’s my parents, that minister. It’s everyone.” Then she pushed away from the table, grabbed her purse, and left. I heard tires scream in the street and saw Chen’s car flash past the window. I wondered where this drive would take her and what map she’d use to get there.

 

Anna C. Salter, in her book Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists, and Other Sex Offenders, notes that in some rapists the line between sexual fantasy and violent sexual action is dangerously blurred. She suggests that the propensity for aggressive sexual fantasy exists in all men—any man, she seems to think, who has ever imagined a woman with her clothes off has the capacity for rape. The difference is that unlike most men, rapists act on that desire. To illustrate her point, she describes the narrative of one convicted rapist who tells about his first rape in group therapy:

There’s this one situation where this woman had fallen asleep on the couch, and the T.V. was on but the shows have gone off. There was just fuzz, and she had on a very little negligee, and there was a very beautiful woman like Playboy and, you know, I’m looking in there, and lots of times it’s a hurried, rush situation. I’m just going to catch a glimpse; let’s get off here. But this is, I’ve got all night.

Salter pauses to set the scene in the therapy room, where she was videotaping the session: “The rapist, Mr. Hodges […] tells the story softly, hypnotically, and the group grows very still listening to him. I am the only woman in the room, and as I look around, I realize that all the men—cameramen and director included—seem to have glazed eyes. The image of a beautiful woman lying on the couch in a negligee speaks to all of them.”

Then Mr. Hodges goes too far:

So I’m going to go inside. I’ll just go inside. I didn’t have a mask. I didn’t have gloves. I didn’t have a weapon. I didn’t have a plan like I’m going to do sexual intercourse, anal intercourse, oral intercourse. […] I just had all this energy, and I just went to another window and opened it and went in and told her, woke her up…I turned off the T.V., woke her up, and I said, “I’m just going to have sex with you.”

To men like Mr. Hodges, the key to sexual violence is rationalization. Sometimes a rapist will simply objectify a woman, view her as a receptacle or a tool for his sexual needs. But often the rationalization goes deeper: Women, some men will reason, are gentle, compassionate creatures who want to comfort men, and because the rapist has urgent sexual needs, the woman must want to help him relieve his desire. Or, women have sexual needs the same as men, and whatever the rapist desires, the woman must also desire.

Whatever the rationalization, men who commit rape seem to believe they’ve done nothing wrong, even after their convictions. In fact, most convicted rapists report that their sexual fantasies get darker, more complex and more violent, during their time in prison. Most convicted rapists spend the majority of their sentence replaying their rapes, discovering where they went wrong, and devising new fantasies, new plans not to get caught the next time. According to Salter’s research, almost all convicted rapists say they plan to rape again as soon as they’re released from prison.

 

Before his involvement with Chen, Ford had had plenty of other girlfriends, all of them closer to his own age. One girlfriend had actually been a couple of years older, and during their sexual relationship, she was statutorily “raping” Ford, though no one ever thought to bring charges against her. He was known at the high school for his sexual escapades before Chen, but no more than any other popular jock on campus. “I can name you two dozen people my age did the same damned thing as me and Chen,” he says. “What else you supposed to do in this town but drink and screw? We was all doing it.” None of Ford’s or Chen’s former classmates that I spoke with contradicted this assessment.

During his time in prison, Ford claims not to have had any sexual fantasies at all, at least not any he cares to share in or out of group therapy. “If that whole business with Chen didn’t turn me off sex, prison sure as hell did,” he says quietly, but he won’t say any more than that.

When Ford was released early from prison two years ago, for good behavior, he was required to register as a sex offender. Look him up online now, and you will see his photo and a description of his crime, “indecency with a child.” Click forward in the registry and you’ll find a man convicted of anally raping a three-year-old boy, his nephew. Click backward from Ford and you’ll find a man who serially raped half a dozen girls as young as twelve and as old as seventeen; he was forty-eight at the time of his conviction. Both men bear the same criminal tag as Ford: “indecency with a child.”

When Ford first arrived in town, he sought any jobs he thought he could manage. At the HEB, a major grocery chain in Texas, Ford was turned down as bagger, a job mostly filled by high schoolers. At the cement plant off John’s Road, he was turned down for a job hauling equipment and loading trucks—the foreman has a teenage daughter. At the town’s senior center, Ford tried for a job in the center’s small kitchen.

“He came looking for work driving our meals,” the center’s director, Martha, told me. “You know he went to prison?”

An elderly woman called Tiger Lily chuffed and flattened her palm over her breast, then, before I could speak, she announced, “Everybody knows he did, Martha. What was that girl’s name? The young one. It was something foreign, Chinese. Only girl like that in town. You’d think I’d remember.”

I asked Martha why she’d turned Ford down, and she scratched a pen into her permed hair. “We just couldn’t use him,” she said, but Tiger Lily had a different explanation.

“That man is sick,” she announced. She wagged her finger at me. “Sick in the head. Least he was then. I suppose the good Lord made us to change, but I just don’t know.”

I pointed out that the center was currently advertising for a driver, and Martha flattened her lips and fixed me with a stern gaze. “We could use a man here, it’s true. But not that man.”

 

The next day I meet Ford at his house in the afternoon. He’s backed his truck up to his open garage, where he’s unloading an old push mower and a grease-stained, gas-powered weed trimmer. He’s just come from mowing a handful of lawns. He tips his mower upside down and uses a barbecue grill brush to sweep grass from the housing and the blades.

“Back on the ranch,” he says without looking up, “we grew some hay and feed corn. Hay was easy, but that corn was just a hell of a hassle. I had the worst job there was, had to ride the damn planter.” The planter attaches to the rear of a tractor and distributes seeds through a chute to the soil spreader, two angled discs that slice into the earth as the tractor moves. At the back of the planter, a row of chains hang like a curtain to drag the tilled soil over the seed rows. The Kempe family used older machinery, and to ensure the blades were turning properly and the shoot remained clear so the seeds would fall neatly in their rows, Ford would have to ride standing on the rear of the planter, behind the tractor. “I’d stand out there in the heat, even with a rag or a old t-shirt over my face, I’d still spend all day sucking on diesel fumes and dust and bugs. When we was planting, I’d take three showers a day, scrub myself raw with that orange pumice soap for mechanics, and I’d still find grit in places I didn’t think God intended anything ever to get into. And I smelled like fuel for days.”

He checks the lines and levers on the mower, then uses an automotive rag to wipe grease and grass from the trimmer. He arranges both machines neatly in the corner, slaps the grass from the grill brush outside the garage, then replaces all his tools, his rag, his brush, everything in the garage at right angles to everything else. He slaps the side of his truck then heads for the driver’s door. “Let’s go hunt,” he says.

We cruise Boerne again, ducking down new streets, rounding corners I hadn’t seen the last trip. Even with the model of the town fresh in my mind, I am surprised by how many neighborhoods hide in this small Texas town. We come out onto Main Street and cruise through several lights. Then, as we near the town’s large public library, housed in the historic and allegedly haunted Dienger Building, Ford swings left. He points ahead down Main Street as he turns. “That’s the middle school and one of the elementary schools up there,” he says. “I’ve caught all kinds of shit just for driving down that road. People convinced I’m cruising for kids or something.” We pass a squat bank and then dip into a low-lying area known locally as The Flats. Ford swings left down a residential street. He muses, not looking at me but at the curbs: “Mexicans live down here, mostly. There’s some good stuff back in here sometimes, good salvage.” But as we roll through the neighborhoods, men and women appear on porches with their arms crossed over their chests, some carrying axe handles. They all nod at Ford’s passing truck, not head-down in greeting but chin-up in a sign of threat. Back off, they all seem to say. Keep moving.

We turn onto School Street and head uphill, away from the schools, past several houses, past the senior center where Martha refused Ford a job. Suddenly Ford hooks a sharp left and heads back into town. He jerks a thumb over his shoulder. “Montessori school. Don’t go near there, either.”

He swings right then pulls in behind the HEB, cruises past the line of dumpsters in the rear. He stops and hops out to dig among the boxes and broken milk crates, but he returns empty-handed. We exit through the parking lot and turn up the access road, get onto the highway. After a mile or so we pull off again and slip over an overpass toward the city lake. Ford cuts down a few shaded country roads I don’t recognize and then we’re rumbling over a rutted dirt path. We flash past a sign pointing to the local dump. Several hard, bumpy minutes later, Ford parks at the lip of the dump and stands on its edge, gazing down into it. I walk up beside him, but without a word he climbs down into the refuse, leaving me on the rim. He picks his way over the heaps of bent metal, broken furniture, battered refrigerators, pausing now and then to lift a section of pipe or a tangle of wires. He pitches a few things up to the rim, narrowly missing me. After a few minutes he stops, squatting in the trash, holding a dark green rag. He’s shaking his head. I call out to him and ask what he’d found, but he only answers, “Fuck.”

He clambers back to the rim and hauls himself out again, shoves the rag against my chest. I spread it out. It’s a torn t-shirt, stained with what looks like grease or blood—it’s hard to tell. On the front of the shirt is the Ford emblem, that iconic blue oval with the swirling white script. Except this t-shirt is a novelty shirt; instead of “Ford,” the logo reads “Fuck.”

Ford’s engine revs, and I jump back into the truck. He’s loaded the bed with the few scrap items he’d pulled from the dump, and he’s roaring back down the dirt road. I have to hold onto the door handle just to keep myself on the seat.

“Some days I feel like I ought to cut out of here after all,” Ford says after a while.

I ask him what would happen to his town, the tiny Boerne in his back yard.

“I’d burn it,” he says.

I point out that it’s made of stone. He looks at me a moment and then skids off the dirt road and back onto asphalt, speeding toward home. With his eyes squinted and forward, he says, in a gruff and quiet voice, “Anything burns if it’s hot enough.”

Samuel Snoek-Brown teaches and writes in Portland, Oregon. He also works as production editor for Jersey Devil Press; online, he lives at http://snoekbrown.com. His work has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Ampersand Review, Fiction Circus, and Eunoia Review, and is forthcoming in SOL: English Writing in Mexico.

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11 Responses to Curl Up and Burn

  1. Pingback: New publication | Samuel Snoek-Brown

  2. kvennarad says:

    I dare say the author will read this comment. I hope so anyway. If I belong to anything like a ‘circle’ of writers it’s an informal one, and I’m glad to say it includes Sam Snoek-Brown, whom I regard as being exceptionally talented. The storytelling device used here – presenting it as reportage – is a very good one when used as cleverly as this. It gives the narrator a level of detachment, but his persona is allowed to interact with the personae of the story and draw things out of them. It’s an approach I’m considering employing (though with a narrator who is a degree or two less detached) in a novel-in-progress that has been problematical regarding bringing threads of story together. Anyhow, the main thing is this – Eunoia Review as a blog can always be relied upon to feature good writing.

    I am considering reviewing this story on mairibheag.com

    M
    __________
    Marie Marshall
    author/poet/editor
    Scotland

  3. Pingback: A Tale from the Hill Country « Marie Marshall

  4. kingdewk says:

    Your descriptions of the area are right on. I’m a Texas native living in the Houston area and know the Hill Country very well. I’m also a writer and I loved the story.

    • Wow — thanks! I’ve always felt this story is kind of my love-letter to the Hill Country (or, catharsis-letter, maybe?), so it’s important to me that people who know the place get the story. I really appreciate your positive feedback!

  5. Pingback: BER-nee, Texas | Samuel Snoek-Brown

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  8. Pingback: The confidence of knowing your fictional universe – Samuel Snoek-Brown

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