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This particular morning, Hodges is on quite a roll.
"These goddamned, limp-wristed, urbanized, busybody animal rights fanatics, they like to portray us [cockfighters] as a bunch of inbred, illiterate individuals who like to watch animals get hurt."
Hodges looks like he's about to snort in disgust. And then he does.
"Hell, I don't know any cockfighter who likes to watch his bird get hurt. They want to see the other guy's bird get hurt. You want to know what the motivation is for cockfighting?"
"Winning. Breeding as damn near a perfect fighting bird as you can . . . raising it from a chick, giving it the best of care and the best food, and then watching it win. Because that's the greatest thrill known to mankind, the greatest emotion--winning. When I was a little boy, and my daddy's rooster won, I walked tall in the neighborhood, because my daddy's bird had licked the hell out of the neighbor's bird, and I saw the smile on my daddy's face, and he'd say to me: 'Boy, you remember when that bird was sick and we doctored him, and I made you hold him and he pecked you and you hollered? Well, that's why this is all worth it, son. We raised a damn fine bird.'"
Hodges grew up in South Phoenix two generations before the era of drive-by shootings, when the area was mostly dairy farms and orchards, and he and his daddy trapped muskrat on the Salt River, and pulled trout from its pools, and he climbed the cottonwood and mesquite trees on its banks, and shot from the sky the quail, ducks and geese along its flyway. Norman Rockwell shit. He's old school. Says things like, "My daddy was a cockfighter, and so was his daddy."
Within the brick walls of Hodges' modest home is a museum of cockfighting folk art, trophies and memorabilia. In one room is a framed picture of his daddy at a cockfight in Bisbee in 1909. Hodges proudly announces he used to fight cocks with liquor magnate Kemper Marley, and with the brother of former governor Rose Mofford. He tells of how Arizona's first governor, George P.W. Hunt, returned from an ambassadorship to Siam with a flock of game fowl he kept tethered on the lawn of his mansion on East McDowell.
While Hodges talks, he dips Skoal and spits into a plastic travel mug from a truck stop in Kingman.
Hodges went to work for Southern Pacific Railroad when he was 18, served in Europe during World War II, came back, and worked the same job for 47 years before he retired.
"All I want to do is live out my days in peace, and raise and fight my birds if I damn well please," he says. "I think I've earned that, by God."
Malarkey, says Jamie Massey.
"Belton Hodges is a very effective lobbyist," says the chairman of Citizens Against Cockfighting. "He likes to paint cockfighters as normal, red-blooded, salt-of-the-earth people. But we're talking about a man who has probably watched over 100,000 birds die in violence. Boy, what a life he's led."
Hodges lives with his wife, Allene, who's 72. They've been married only 10 years, although both grew up in South Phoenix, and Allene's daddy fought birds with Belton's. Their first spouses were in the same hospital before they died--his of Alzheimer's disease, hers of diabetes. Hodges calls Allene "mom" sometimes, and "chief" others.
"Mom," he calls from the kitchen to the back of the house, "I'm gonna go see about these chickens."
Hodges keeps about 75 gamecocks and breeding hens on a ranch in Buckeye, and another 25 in his backyard. Every afternoon, he feeds them 30 pounds of powdered milk, yellow corn, green protein pellets, and some truly putrid-smelling soaked oats, mixed in a machine.
He sprinkles handfuls of feed to the hens, which run free, and fills the plastic bowls attached to the front of the three-foot-by-three-foot cages that house the fighting birds. Early fall is molting season for chickens, and the gamecocks sport ragged yet brilliant plumage of brown, white, red, blue and black.
One cock is tethered well away from the rest in grass, not the dirt, free of any cage. Hodges' prize bird. Traditionally, cockfighters don't name their fowl, yet Hodges calls this one Pretty Boy, and says he's a real ass-kicker. Pretty Boy lost his first fight, Hodges says. Just got knocked out somehow. Then he killed the next five roosters he faced.
"He gets in there and does the job quick," Hodges boasts.
If Pretty Boy emerges from the pit victorious three or four more times, Hodges says, he'll be retired as a battle-tested genetic model, a brood cock, allowed to live out his natural life span of eight to 15 years. Like most cockfighters, Hodges says he doesn't fight his roosters until they're at least 2 years old. One of his roosters won nine straight fights before he was retired to sire a line of battle cocks, and lived to be 12.
Before the typical broiler chicken becomes dead meat on plastic in the supermarket, it has been hatched, shot full of growth hormones, and kept alive for just 50 days in the equivalent of a poultry slave ship--unable to move, wallowing in excrement, often diseased--before it's clipped by its feet to a wire to have its throat cut by a minimum-wage worker who then ships its carcass down the line for dismemberment and packaging.