The Lost Houston of Sig Byrd

Forty years ago, one writer captured our city better than any before or since. Now he's forgotten. And the Houston he saw? All but gone.

In his best work Byrd wrote about character and fate, so you have to wonder if he ever recognized himself in his writing, or if he ever realized that in some stories he was predicting his own destiny. That he was becoming, in effect, a Sig Byrd character. Probably not. Of course, if Byrd were writing the tale, the way fate exposes a man's limitations would be an essential element to the story.

Byrd returned to the old Houston Press in 1964, just weeks before it was bought out by the Chronicle. As one newsman remembers it, Byrd had by then already burned his bridges with the Chronicle and couldn't go back to work for them. So he first went to work for NASA in a public relations post, and then finally left his beloved Houston for Cincinnati and its Scripps-Howard (the same chain that owned the Press) paper, taking with him his wife, Ruth. His middle son, Arthur, the only of the three to follow him into the newspaper business, died in Vietnam in 1967. From that point Byrd's life was never the same. In a manuscript he was working on near the end, almost 20 years later, Byrd wrote, "Some essential part of me died, too, and lies buried beside him in the Veteran's Cemetery on Bear Creek."

By this point Byrd was distanced from his other sons. The oldest, Sig Jr., kept his emotional distance; he would still rather talk about him as a writer than as a father. On the other hand, Byrd's youngest son, Stephen, still refers to him "Poppa" and cries when he talks about his father for too long. "It's only been seven years since I lost him," he says now. But Stephen moved to Omaha after his own military service, so he was geographically separated from the old man when the end came.

After he retired from the news business in 1974, Byrd isolated himself even further. Instead of returning to Houston, he and Ruth moved to Austin. He was working on a novel about the Texas Revolution (along with a science fiction novel about a manned trip to Mars, and a newsman's memoir), and wanted to be near the state archives. By this point Byrd had become a brooding, bitter and downright paranoid man. According to that final manuscript, he and his neighbors never hit it off. He saw himself as tormented by them and their cats, and he wound up shooting one of the felines with his dead son's old .22-caliber "plinking rifle."

He described the killing in some detail. A pack of cats apparently got inside their house and divvied up a roast Byrd had prepared for himself and his wife, who was by then an invalid. According to his manuscript, when he ran the cats off, one reacted as if rabid, then hid under their bed. "I took careful aim and fired a round that I expected would enter the brain and range through the length of the body without exiting. The shot was successful."

According to Stephen Byrd, "Poppa couldn't just shoot the cat. He had to go tell its owners he had shot it." Byrd was arrested, charged with cruelty to animals and placed in the Austin State Hospital. "A snake pit," Stephen says. His father called it "the madhouse." He spent ten days there. According to his manuscript, and to the recollections of Stephen, he kept his sanity in Bedlam only because he met one other sane man, a black Louisianan who was "the greatest domino player I ever encountered."

An unjustly committed black man who was also a domino king; this would have once been the stuff of a Sig Byrd column, and even in this final manuscript you can feel Byrd's old juices bubble a little, but not quite flow. He had other things on his mind.

While Sig languished in the state hospital, Stephen flew from Omaha to Austin and tried to both get his father out, and his mother, who suffered from osteoporosis and whose mind was beginning to weaken, into a nursing home. He succeeded at both, even though Stephen remembers now that the state tried "to get me to help commit him to Rusk [the state hospital for the criminally insane]. But they couldn't get me to testify against him."

In the nursing home, though, the staff discovered that Ruth Byrd was dehydrated and that her skin was bruised in various places. The state combined that knowledge with Byrd's cat hunting, and decided he was abusing his wife.

No one who knew him well believes this is so. Father Don Moss, an Austin Catholic priest who became one of Byrd's few friends, says, "She was his one connection to life. He loved her and was devoted to her. He would never have hurt her." Stephen agrees, and says that his mother has very thin skin, and bruises easily. "She can get a bruise getting in and out of her wheelchair."

Sig was finally allowed to go home, but Ruth wasn't. Not surprisingly, Byrd came to loath everyone connected with the home. In an act that got Sig Byrd's name into the papers one final time, he took Ruth out of the nursing home without authorization and brought her back to their house.

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