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Remembering a West Texas showman

May 15, 2021

I found it in the bottom of a box of old T-shirts on a shelf at the back of my closet, wrinkled but otherwise none the worse for wear.

My guess is that this shirt is about 25 years old, having survived many years of annual demands from my wife to thin my collection.

This one is unlike any other I have. The front is emblazoned with a pocket-size advertisement for the Sportsman Restaurant and Bar in a town most people have never heard of – Quitaque, Texas (acceptably pronounced as either kitty quay or kit-ta-kway.)

The back displays a cartoon featuring a gregarious pig, chowing down. Around the design are big, bold letters that can be seen from half a block away: PIGG OUT AT ROYE’S.

Seeing and touching the shirt reminds me of a West Texan with a memorable name and a lively spirit. It also forces me to recall his untimely end – a bullet in the darkness of the early morning hours.

I don’t know why that, nearly a quarter-century later, I still find myself thinking about Roye Pigg. I no longer wonder alot about his mysterious death. Mostly, in my mind’s eye, I see flashes of his vibrant life, scenes from the days of a small-town character with a big personality who was as fun-loving as his name might imply.

Quitaque is located in sparsely populated Briscoe County, about 100 miles south of Amarillo, near one of the two great wonders of the Panhandle, Caprock Canyons State Park. Like the other great wonder of the region, Palo Duro Canyon, Caprock’s reddish buttes and scrubby badlands seem to have been carved into an unforgiving land by a generous God. The largest state park in Texas is home to the state bison herd and a 1920s railway that was converted to a hiking/biking trail in the 1990s.

While working as a reporter for the Amarillo Globe-News, Caprock was my getaway place. I would pack up my fishing gear on hot summer days off and drive down to the park to bank-fish for catfish at tiny Lake Theo. I rarely caught much more than a wicked sunburn, but I considered no day at the canyon unsuccessful. Once, a family that had been cooking out all day over a rocky slope across the water bridged our language barrier and invited me over to eat. On other days, I would make the short drive to the Sportsman for air conditioning, the barbecue and a cold beer. That’s where I first recall meeting Roye, the restaurant’s owner, who slid into a booth across from me. Have you ever noticed that, when years have passed, you do not remember the conversations as clearly as you feel the presence? Roye was tall and lanky, curly haired. He wore a 1970s mustache, plaid shirt, blue jeans and cowboy boots. I cannot picture him without a smile, and sometimes a mischievous grin. He was warm and welcoming.

The Sportsman became my sanctuary and retreat. When a real, honest-to-goodness gullywasher flooded our tent camp site in the canyon one night, my wife and I rushed for my pickup and headed to The Sportsman to wait it out. That may have happened more than once. I don’t remember Roye ever not being there.

Oddly, Roye will forever be associated with guinea fowl, which were another aspect of our relationship. My Dad had a flock of guineas when I was a kid. I never had much use for them. I remember going with him to snatch them from the limbs of mesquite trees at sundown when they stubbornly refused to return to their assigned roosts. Roye liked to drop them from airplanes.

After the rail trail was completed in the 1990s, Quitaque heavily promoted a Trails Day festival on the first weekend of June. Pigg, who of course headed the Chamber of Commerce, was the spokesman and main cheerleader for the “Guinea Drop,” in which $100 bills were attached to the birds’ legs before they were dropped over the city by low-flying aircraft. When they hit ground, festival-goers would try to catch them and nab the cash.

That was in the beginning days of the contest. Later, coupons were attached instead of money, along with the requirement that the bird be safely returned in order to receive the pay. The precautions were taken to further ensure the safety of the guineas, Roye said, to keep everyone from “jumping on the bird and smashing him.”

In 1997, the guinea drop received national attention when animal rights groups learned of the event and began sending out news releases in protest.

For some business/civic types, this kind of attention would be most unwelcome. Roye ate it up. Whenever a new allegation was made, Roye would come to the phone to respond. He believed any press was good for the cause.

Soon, we had a genuine controversy on our hands. I had mixed feelings. I couldn’t stop thinking about that famous episode of “WKRP in Cincinnati” featuring the Thanksgiving turkey drop, which ends in mayhem as horrified newsman Les Nesman reports that the birds hit the ground like “bags of wet cement.” Disheveled and devastated station manager Mr. Carlson says, solemnly, “As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”

Animal rights advocates maintained that guineas lacked the natural ability to fly from the height from which they would be dropped, and, even if they did land safely, would have undergone a terrifying experience. A Texas A&M professor countered that the birds fly well, and as far as any psychological damage, “you’d have to ask the guineas.” Roye explained the guineas’ flight to the ground as one might describe seeing a bald eagle’s graceful glide, a once-in-a-lifetime experience that everyone should have the chance to enjoy.

Model Christie Brinkley asked the town to discontinue the practice, saying it would be more fun and less dangerous to simply drop the money without the birds.

Roye invited the critics to come to the festival and see for themselves. When rumors surfaced that Brinkley might attend (rumors perhaps started by Roye himself), the guinea drop became a plum assignment. And so there I was on the streets of Quitaque on a summer morning in 1997, scanning the crowd for Christie Brinkley. (Neither she nor other protestors were anywhere to be found.)

With the sound of an aircraft engine humming overhead, groups of young men scouted for last-minute strategic positions and took off running, continuing the wild chase after the birds floated to the ground. The next thing I remember is running up to Roye, who was cradling one of the guineas like a prized puppy, surrounded by children who were petting the fowl.

“ROYE, HOW’S THE BIRD?,” I said breathlessly upon arrival.

“She’s fine,” he said, in a tone indicating there was never a doubt.

This particular guinea had been caught by a road construction worker from Carlsbad, N.M., who explained that “some old boy dove for him,” causing the bird to fly directly into his arms. “I caught him like a football,” he said.

Later, I joined Roye and others in autographing the man’s official Guinea Drop T-shirt. Trying to keep my professional reputation intact and avoiding the issue of whether dropping guineas from planes was appropriate, I wrote,
“Coverage of the annual guinea drop, only in the Amarillo Globe-News.”

One night, a year later, according to his employees, Roye left at closing time to make sure a patron of the bar got home safely. Sometime, between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., at the man’s house, Roye was shot dead. He was 48 years old.

Authorities said they did not know what led to the shooting, and the 63-year-old man who shot him refused to talk. He later pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide, was placed on probation and ordered to pay $5,000 in restitution to the family, plus court costs.

As the restaurant prepared to open later that same day – because everyone said Roye would have wanted it that way – I stood outside with other news reporters. When I knocked on the door, it first seemed that I would be turned away, but I heard Roye’s son say to the employee that he recognized me as a friend of Roye’s and a regular at the Sportsman. “Let him in,” he said.

As I slid back into a familiar booth, the darkness and quiet solemnity contrasted with the usual lightness and laughter that filled Roye’s place. I talked for a few minutes with the family. We mostly shared memories. And silence.

On Sunday, the paper published my story, in which I had learned much more about the man than I had known before. Yet nothing I found out by walking around Quitaque on that sad day was surprising. It all fit with the man I did know:

  • Roye’s cousin recalled him bringing people in off the street and feeding them for no charge.
  • Once, when his business was heavily damaged by an early morning fire, he worked all day cleaning and opened the place the same night for dinner and two dances.
  • He delivered meals to people who suffered deaths in their families. One family remembered a surprise Thanksgiving feast.
  • A woman who ran a nearby hardware store said that when she was going through her divorce, Roye would check on her, saying he and his wife were concerned.

I have no idea why memories of Roye have stayed with me all these years.

I wish I had known him better.

I wish we were sitting across from one another right now, on a summer day at the Sportsman in Quitaque.

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