Sunset in Alabama. The woods of Butler County are something else tonight. The crickets are out.
I’m chewing the fat with men who know a thing or two about these woods. They’re sipping beer, eating pulled pork, swatting gnats.
These men are peace officers. This party is being thrown in honor of Sheriff Joe Sanders. The sheriff has been dead a long time.
But he’s not dead tonight. At least, not when they retell his stories.
People form a semi-circle. Former deputies, family, in-laws, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. They tell tales they’ve been retelling for decades. Good stories about an even-tempered man who once watched over Butler County.
There’s the story about the sheriff handling an armadillo problem for a local farmer. Or the time he bought snuff for a woman he was carrying to jail.
They talk about how he used to sleepwalk in his skivvies; how he’d been married for fifty-three years; or how he always ate lunch at the Chicken Shack.
But those stories are only warm-ups. Everybody here knows the best story. It’s about when the sheriff was held hostage.
I’ll hit the highlights:
Thirty years ago. A Monday. A gunman walks into Butler County courthouse and takes a courtroom hostage. The sheriff uses his natural charm to negotiate.
“If you let these folks go,” says the sheriff, “you can hold ME hostage.”
It’s a gutsy move. The gunman lets the people free. The sheriff is his bargaining chip. Things are going fine until a struggle erupts and shots are fired by the gunman. Sheriff Joe takes a bullet.
Things go from bad to worse. The gunman holds the sheriff at gunpoint. The sheriff is losing blood. A six-hour standoff ensues.
We’re talking FBI, out-of-town cops, Alabama Bureau of Investigation, snipers, and national-news choppers.
Greenville is the epicenter of the world.
One former deputy remembers: “It was a hell of a day, I’ll tell you that much.”
The small-town sheriff bled on the courthouse floor. His legs were shattered.
But there he was, telling jokes in a friendly voice.
Another former deputy recalls: “He was treating the man like his best buddy, kept the guy talking about hunting, fishing, everything… Anything to keep him engaged.”
It worked. The traumatic event ended peacefully. Nobody died.
The national news called the rural lawman a hero, but Joe didn’t see it that way. While they wheeled him to the hospital, someone asked the sheriff how he felt.
He told them exactly how he felt: “Like Minnie Pearl—I’m just glad to be here.”
The world could use a few more sheriffs like Big Joe.
So there’s not enough room to tell you everything about him, but you know enough already. You know he was a dying breed.
He was a time without cellphones, radar guns, or supercomputers. Big-city policemen were working in high-tech crime labs. Sheriff Joe was buying groceries for the jailhouse.
He was the end of an era. He was a smaller world, with less electrical wires.
“He was a good man,” remarks one deputy.
“The best,” says Joe’s daughter.
“He was a GREAT man.”
“I loved him.”
“We all did.”
Things get quiet. You can feel something in the sticks of Butler County. Something heavy. Maybe it’s the spirit of the high sheriff himself.
“He made a man outta me,” says one. “I was just a skinny kid when he hired me as a deputy.”
The same man who said that is running for sheriff this year. When asked about it, he says: “I hope to be the good man Joe Sanders was.”
A good man.
I believe I’d like to be one, too.