Law and Order in Claflin, Kansas
- Or The Law East of Cow Creek
Before I was a Marine I was growing up in the small central Kansas town of Claflin (population about 900 back then). They tell me that Claflin now has a police force, but if you needed a cop there in the not too distant past, you had to call the Barton County Sheriff's office in Great Bend, the county seat, which is about 18 miles away. Of course you can cover that distance in about 10-12 minutes coming down Kansas Highway 156 at about 100 MPH. There's nothing to stop you on 156 unless a cow wanders onto the road.
Claflin, Kansas as it was in the 1950s and as it is now
The aerial photo of Claflin shows it to be a town about 12 blocks long east to west, and about 5 blocks wide north to south. You will notice a creek running along the west edge of town. That is Cow Creek, thus the subtitle of this tale. If you look closely you will see a loop road and several buildings just to the southwest of the high school football field and track. That is the sewage disposal plant for Claflin. Due to its proximity to Cow Creek, we renamed that tributary “Shit Creek” in the 1950s. But I couldn’t very well have called this story “The law east of Shit Creek”, so I used the proper name.
But I digress. Back to law enforcement. During my high school days in Claflin ('53-'57) we had our own cop. There was a town marshal, and one of the most famous, or infamous, depending on your point of view, to hold that job was a gentleman named Tom Porter. He had one wandering eye that sometimes made him look cross eyed. We called him "Tangle-Eyed Tom". He was somewhat quiet in demeanor and there was no danger of mistaking him for Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, Matt Dillon or any of the vaunted lawmen who served in that part of Kansas during the 19th century. Nor could you mistake him for Judge Roy Bean, who was the “Law West of the Pecos” in Texas during the 1880s. His wife Alice, on the other hand, was a ball of fire. She was as mean and nasty as Tangle-Eyed was meek and mild. It was rumored that she carried a revolver of some indeterminate caliber on her person. Tangle-Eyed carried his .38 special in plain view, but you never knew about Alice. Sometimes Alice would be in the patrol car as Tangle-Eyed Tom watched over his town. Often you'd see the tan car sitting in the CO-OP grain elevator parking lot at the south end of Main Street across Kansas Highway 4 with Mr. and Mrs. marshal's beady eyes surveying their kingdom (Well, Tom's eyes weren't beady, they were crossed, but Alice's sure as hell were.)
If Alice was in the car, you didn't mess around with the local gendarme, but when she wasn't, Tangle-Eyed was sometimes fair game...especially on and around Halloween. He kind of lent himself to mischief with ineffectual warnings and threats to the local high school boys, of which yours truly was among the perps. I can admit that now since the statute of limitations has run out. You’ll notice that I haven’t named any of the perps. I do this to protect the guilty.
But before I get into that, let me relate a famous incident that occurred one summer afternoon in Claflin that will give you an idea of what kind of lawman Tangle-Eyed Tom Porter was. A drunk from out of town was getting rowdy and destructive in Ed's pool hall on Main Street. Ed called the cops and Tangle-Eyed showed up just as the drunk was leaving the tavern. The drunk knocked the marshal flat on his ass on the way to his car, which was parked right in front of Ed's. As the drunk started to pull away from the curb, Tangle-Eyed whipped out this .38 and fired six shots at close range at the front tire in an effort to flatten it. He missed the tire every time but did succeed in blowing off the hubcap. I challenge any shooter reading this to duplicate that feat. The drunk headed east out of Clafin on Highway 4 at a high rate of speed and promptly plowed into a bridge abutment on the outskirts severely injuring himself. He did survive, but I don't recall what he was charged with or what happened to him.
Back to Halloween antics. Every city block in Claflin has an alley running through it behind the houses facing the streets. In those days people burned their trash in 55 gallon drums in their back yards near the alleys. We would operate in small squads of 4 or 5 kids. One 2 man fire team was sent out to attract the marshal’s attention and get him to follow them onto the street where we wanted him to be. The remaining squad members would drag 4 or 5 of the trash cans across one end of the alley. Then we would set off strings of firecrackers in the alley. Firecrackers were only legal in Kansas on the 4th of July, so this got Tangle-Eye's attention. He would careen down the street and into the alley. We would promptly seal up the other end of the alley with 4 or 5 more trash cans thus closing the trap. As we ran away and Tangle-Eyed tried to get the patrol car out of the alley we could hear him loudly swearing..."I know who you are you little sons-of-bitches! I'll get you! You won't get away with this!" But we all did get away with it. Nothing ever happened to any of us.
There were other incidents in the never ending battle between the boys of CHS and Tangle-Eyed Tom, but I think you get the idea. Columbo would have nailed us all, but it was beyond Tangle-Eyed Tom's ability to even come close to pinning us down. After a number of years Alice and Tangle-Eyed Tom moved on to greener pastures than Claflin could offer. He was replaced by a gentleman named Lyle Komark. Lyle was a big burly man who was a Marine veteran of Iwo Jima. He wore bib overalls and patrolled Claflin on foot. You didn't mess with Lyle. Thus the comic antics of Tangle-Eyed Tom were no more, and peace reigned on the streets of Claflin. Lyle was still the marshal when I left Claflin in 1959, but when I returned as an officer of Marines in later years, the city marshal was no more. Once in a while you'd see the brown and yellow cars of the Barton County Sheriff patrolling in town. Law enforcement had become regional rather than local. But they tell me that Claflin now has 2 full time cops, and 3 part time officers. How did Tangle-Eyed Tom ever do the job by himself? Did Alice do the work of 4 men?
And you thought it was exciting in Dodge City back in its day.
Dirck Praeger sends