Midnight. Euless, Texas. John McCord holds forth in Denny’s Restaurant with a tale about the day he and Jack Ballas did a book signing somewhere in the wild and wooly boonies south of Dallas.
“Big ole boy in coveralls strolled up. Blocked access to our whole table. After he’d told us everything he ever knew about the legendary West, we each tried to sell him one of our fine literary efforts.
“Man wasn’t buying. Proudly declared, ‘I don’t read. Never cared for it.’ I shot a glance at Jack. He snatched the pipe out of his mouth and growled, ‘You poor, pitiful, misguided son of a bitch.’ Big boy hit the deck running.”
“That’s Jack,” McCord said, “rougher’n a petrified corn cob.”
Ballas has lived a life most men only fantasize about. Born in rural Alabama, he ran track and played football and baseball in high school, and he spent his free time working horses or roaming the woods. After graduation, he lumberjacked, boxed, busted heads in a stump-holler honky-tonk, rode the depression rails and once got so lost in the Florida Everglades, his shoes rotted off before Seminole Indians rescued him.
As we sit in Ballas’ den, he says, “My love of the West developed early. Seemed to me that cowboys and the knights of old held to similar values. Chivalry wasn’t just a word—it was a way of life. That’s why all my tales have strong female characters who ride beside their men.”
Ballas joined the Navy in 1940 and served 22 years. His most valued possessions can be seen the moment you enter his home. Hung in a place of honor is a framed display of his numerous service ribbons enhanced by 12 battle stars. Two years ago, the Navy added to the collection by awarding him the Combat Action Ribbon.
“I retired from the service in 1962. Went back to school with kids a third my age. Graduated from Oklahoma University. Got a degree in Journalism. Worked in the aircraft industry. Retired from that, and started writing. Took eight years to get my first novel published. Tomahawk Canyon was on its way to a fourth rejection by everyone in the publishing universe when I met Gary Goldstein. He bought it, and then went through my computer like a Kirby vacuum cleaner. Just finished work on my most recent manuscript, The Homesteader. Should be on the shelves in 2004.”
Ballas’ extensive knowledge of American history is based on tours of Old West mining, railroad and cow towns. He still sits with whittle-and-spit crews on Main Street and talks to chamber of commerce members.
“Always make it a point to spend time at the local library and flirt with the help. When I write about a place, you can lay odds I’ve been there.”
During Western Writers of America’s 2000 Conference in Kerrville, Texas, Ballas’ name came up at a prayer meeting held in the Y.O. Ranch’s saloon. Surrounded by some heavy hitters in the writing game, David Marion Wilkinson put it better than anyone in attendance: “Jack Ballas is the real deal. Rough-hewn.”
Amen Brother Wilkinson. Brother Robert J. Conley will pass the plate while he leads us in the next hymn.
J. Lee Butts is the author of Texas Bad Girls, Texas Bad Boys, Lawdog, Hell in the Nations and Brotherhood of Blood, which is due out in March 2004.