WEST TEXAS TALES
The Legend of Clay Henry
Last seen on the Mexican border in 1992, I've always wondered what became of my favorite politician.
When I was nine my dad and I embarked on an epic road trip from our home in Austin to Big Bend National Park. Our destination was the one-building border "town" of Lajitas on the park's western fringe, where we planned to set off on a multi-day rafting expedition down the Rio Grande. It was here, in what seemed like the edge of the world in those rustic days before smartphones and Wi-Fi, that I first laid eyes upon Lajitas' enigmatic mayor, Clay Henry.
Trust me when I say that when it comes to delinquent political shenanigans, Toronto mayor Rob Ford is a novice compared to Clay Henry. A surly, snake-eyed politician known for his public consumption of alcohol (upwards of 40 beers a day, at times) and his penchant for headbutting constitutuents without provocation, he had garnered national attention for being the only mayor in the United States with cloven feet. Clay Henry was not only a veteran officeholder and Lajitas' most popular citizen, he was also a goat. Not in the figurative sense, but in the literal sense of being a member of the Bovidae family descended from the steppes of southwest Asia with horns and fur. He was also, it should be said, a mean sonafabitch.
By all accounts, Clay Henry's thirst for suds began in the 1970s when he was a fixture at the Lajitas Trading Post, but it wasn't until 1986 that he was elected mayor in a race organized by prominent Houston businessman and town owner, Walter Mischer. By the 1990s he'd amassed a cult following, appearing in movies and carousing with Texas celebrities like Willie Nelson.
More of a grunter than a talker, locals noted that his spotty voting record made it difficult to discern where he stood on the issues. Democrat or Republican? NAFTA friend or foe? Proponent of immigration reform? Nobody knew and opponents even raised the possibility of a birth certificate scandal, quietly suggesting that the wild-eyed mayor may have originated on the other side of the river, seeing how it was literally a stone's throw away and goats are known to wander. But the crafty statesman kept his own counsel, preferring to keep everyone guessing while he charted his political asendancy, or so the legend goes.
Politics aside, he captivated me. He had a curious, impudent charm, a sort of "fuck the world" attitude that my adult self associates with rappers, which went hand in hand with his preternatural ability to consume massive amounts of cheap alcohol. In fact, from the moment I watched Clay Henry drink beer, all I wanted to do was watch Clay Henry drink beer. It was like a civics lesson gone wonderfully awry, one that trumped looking for arrow heads, river rafting or playing Texas Ranger with my toy rifle. Watching this delinquent down cervezas in 1992 was like getting a glimpse of YouTube absurdity two decades ahead of schedule. And it seemed to epitomize the undercurrent of lawlessness that you can still feel among the rugged mountains and meaningless expanses that either boggle your mind or wipe it clean it when you visit West Texas. This was truly the Wild West and it was certainly more exciting than my comfortable life in Austin.
I never actually witnessed Clay Henry "drink" a beer. I did see him slam them, guzzle them and ferociously ingest them at a rate capable of incapacitating a full-grown man in minutes. To see it in person was nothing short of incredible.
Lacking opposable thumbs, Clay Henry had two methods for consuming alcohol. The first involved a holster affixed to the wall of his pen—er, office—in which a bottle could be placed like a water feeder in a hamster cage. Other times, as if to flex his municipal muscle, Clay Henry would crane his neck demandingly and paw at the ground until a constituent inserted a longneck (usually a Lonestar) directly into his mouth. The lawmaker would hold it aloft with great skill as the alcohol disappeared down his gullet, polishing off a 12-ounce bottle in 10 seconds or less. Once finished, he'd spit out the bottle and unfurl a long tentacle-like tongue, which he used to wipe any remaining suds from his thin, purple lips. The aggressive pawing would begin once more and it was on to the next round. He was, without a doubt, a full-fledged alcoholic. He was also a goat.
I never forgot about Clay Henry (clearly) and I've always wondered what happened to him. Was he still attempting to impale voters with his horns? Was he still in office? Was he even alive? Could any creature, man or beast, cling to life after more than two decades of consuming the equivalent of two kegs of beer a week? Wikipedia says goats are thoroughly hearty creatures who can eat almost anything, including "tin cans" and "cardboard boxes." No word on whether that includes two kegs of warm beer each week. It would seem unlikely.
During the 10-hour drive out to west Texas with my girlfriend, I pondered the possibilities. Best case scenario: Clay Henry was alive, but not by conventional standards. Instead, he existed in some sort of alcohol-induced stupor, his managerial duties handled by loyal staffers behind the scenes, his reign purely symbolic, like Kim Jong-il during his waning months in office. That was the BEST case scenario. Worst case scenario: Clay Henry had died a slow, painful death years earlier as his liver gradually failed him, only be be denied a funeral and instead ended up roasting on a grill beside a steaming plate of tortillas. I didn't want this to be true, but deep down I knew it was the more likely scenario.
After a few days in Marfa, we set out for Big Bend on a rainy morning in early November. After hiking all morning, the plan was to swing by Lajitas afterwards to investigate Clay Henry's whereabouts. By the time we arrived, mud-covered and tired, the Lajitas from my childhood memory had vanished. Gone was the tiny, dust-covered village overlooking the Rio Grande set to an Ennio Morricone soundtrack. In it's place was a much less tiny resort, buffered by an emerald green golf course full of khaki-wearing anglos driving golf carts, drinking Bud Light and spontaneously hi-fiving. The soundtrack here was Nickelback and it seemed to increase in volume with every wrong turn. Suburban, ranch-style homes dotted the hilltops and an entire row of shoddily-constructed buildings resembling cowboy-themed Cracker Barrels had been hastily erected in the center of town. It was as if we'd wandered into Universal Studios' Wild West Stunt Show. I half-expected a fake shooting to break out and a microphoned cowboy to fly through a saloon window.
To make matters worse, Clay Henry was nowhere to be found. In fact, the only vestige of old Lajitas was a 100-year-old miners' cemetery with unmarked graves, a decaying reminder of a forgotten past. It's proximity to the ritzy golf course is like placing a Red Lobster within eyesight of Vasa, the 17th century Sweedish warship that sank on it's mainden voyage, but was salvaged 400 years later and turned into a stirring Stockolm museum. I fear it's only a matter of time until some big city twat turns it into a Western-themed haunted house.
Speeding out of town dazed and angry, we stopped to use the restroom in "The Ghost Town" in Terlingua, another mining town turned tourist trap 10-miles up the road. Inside the "Terlingua Trading Company," I stumbled onto a wall full of old Clay Henry photos in a back room. There he was guzzling beer and wearing top hats, just as I remembered him.
"See," I told my girlfriend, "I didn't make him up! He's a real goat and an elected official...and an alcoholic!"
Reluctantly, I picked up a $20 Clay Henry t-shirt and walked to the cash register.
"Do you know what happened to Clay Henry," I asked the woman behind the counter. "I was here 21 years ago and it seems like he just disappeared."
"Sure I do," she said. "He's next door in the cafe."
"Finally!" I whooped.
I purchased the t-shirt and hurried next door, pushing my way through a crowd of tourists until I found myself face to face with the mayor. It was him all right, iconically posed, his favorite beverage protruding from in his long snout. Though he was wedged in the back of a dimly lit restaurant beside some speaker equipment, he looked pretty similar to how I'd left him in 1993. Only stiffer, brown-colored instead of black, and without the fevered look of dependency in his eyes. The mayor was dead, his carcass stuffed like a hunter's trophy. Gone with him was the dream of seeing Clay Henry wrap his tiny mouth around the neck of a Lonestar one last time.
It wasn't until I spoke with a local Brewster County lawman that I found out what actually happened. Clay Henry, as it turns out, was killed shortly after my visit in 1992. It was mating season and he was in a pen with his son, Clay Henry, Jr. The two were drinking heavily when a drunken brawl erupted over the affection of a nanny and the son—like Oedipus before him—struck down his powerful father, claiming his crown in the process. Clay Henry Sr. was 23.
Junior's reign was far shorter and nowhere near as distinguished. He lacked his father's brash demeanor and early on gained a reputation for being a moderate drinker, unable to put away more than a case a day. Like another well-known Texas politician who went on to claim his father's office after years of wallowing in his daddy's powerful shadow, the pressure on Clay Henry Jr. to over-achieve was enourmous. By 1996, he was consuming close to 40 beers a day, a level that briefly rivaled his slain predecessor. Never the goat his father was, however, he died that same year at the ripe old age of 12.
His successor, Clay Henry III, elected after defeating a wooden Indian and a dog named Clyde, fared no better. In 2002, two years into office, he was the target of a jealousy-induced assassination attempt, when a Val Verde County man, tired of seeing perfectly good beer "wasted" on a goat, slipped into his office under cover of darkness and castrated the fledgling politician. The pepetrator, Jim Bob Hargrove, sparked the ire of Brewster County residents and was arrested and charged with animal cruelty after the mayor's testicles were discovered in his freezer. Clay Henry III's death is murky, but several years ago county residents claimed they were planning to elect another hooved mayor. Today, the office remains vacant.
"I was thinking of running for Mayor until I heard about the castration," the county lawman told me, barely concealing a smile. "I decided it wasn't worth it if that's how they treat their elected officials down there in Lajitas."