And in all this Yankee Nation
There’s no better place to go
For a quiet meditation
Than this ruined Alamo.
—“To the Alamo” by L. P. Baen
People expect it to be larger, they expect it to be visible for miles across an archetypal stretch of Texas prairie, perpetually silhouetted in a lavish sunset. What they find, of course, is a grim, gnarled building in the heart of downtown San Antonio, a building whose peculiar curved parapet has so long ago sunk into their consciousnesses that the actual sight of it would seem anticlimactic were it not for the fact that the Alamo, like certain great paintings, has an immediate force that can never be reproduced.
At the entrance they are met by high school girls in coonskin caps who say, “Hi! I’d like to welcome y’all to the Alamo” and hand them a leaflet. “Here is your passport to history.” The girls then point them in the other direction, across Alamo Plaza to a block of second-growth drugstores and pawnshops, and invite them to visit “Remember the Alamo,” a “dramatic reenactment” of the battle. The visitors, sensing private enterprise at work, mostly just tell the girls they’ll think it over while they tour the real thing, which after all is right in front of them and free. Then they take a picture of themselves in front of the famous Alamo facade, read a bronze inscription (“Be silent, friend. Here heroes died to blaze a trail for other men”), open the big, post-apocalyptic wooden doors, feel a wall of cool air from the dark air-conditioned chapel, and walk inside, where the first thing they encounter is a stern sign warning gentlemen to remove their hats, coonskin or otherwise.
Maybe they realize then that this is sacred, not just historical ground. The only sound in the chapel is the reverent shuffle of feet and the whispers of fathers misinforming their children. In a glass display case, David (never Davy) Crockett’s fork, one of its prongs missing, radiates such solemnity that it could be the shinbone of a saint. Positioned like stations of the cross along the thick, moist walls are sentimental and inexplicably eerie pictures of the Alamo defenders—Tapley Holland holding his hand over his heart and simpering angelically as he crosses Travis’ famous line; James Bonham bolting forth on his horse with a message from the besieged garrison; Robert Evans, in a greenish, predawn light, convulsing as he is shot in an attempt to blow up the powder magazine.
It’s those pictures I remember most vividly about my first visit to the Alamo, when I was seven years old and riding the crest of Alamomania generated by Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett . My brother and I were wearing T-shirts with fuzzy pictures of Fess Parker on the front and brown shorts which I remember as being subtly fringed to resemble buckskin. I had some standards—I knew it was a shade too goony to actually wear a coonskin cap—but I was still a fanatic. I was lucky enough to get my hands on a Davy Crockett at the Alamo set before some wretched toy consultant, no doubt thinking that a preadolescent consumership would never know the difference, began substituting plastic Indians for Mexicans.
But they misjudged us. My generation was then transfixed, obsessed by a single image: in our heads Davy Crockett was forever up there on the Alamo ramparts swinging Old Betsy, toplling Mexican after Mexican off the scaling ladders, and never quite dying himself. That rifle was our common metronome, and there was only one song it kept time for: “Davy, Daaaavy Crockett . . . Last one to die at the Aal-amo!”
But that kind of rapture cannot last indefinitely. Now, of course, I realize that Davy Crockett was not the last one to die at the Alamo, or, if he was, it was because (as certain revisionist historians and general cynics have suggested) he lost his nerve at the last minute, tried to surrender, and was ignominiously executed. I realize, too, that Jim Bowie was in the Alamo fighting—in part, at least—to rebuild the fortune he had once made smuggling slaves with Jean Lafitte and selling fraudulent land claims, and that the men in the fort, as their once sure hopes for reinforcement faded, did not so much choose certain death as adapt themselves to the fact with a great deal of patriotic verbiage with which, to this day, anything connected with the Alamo is still inundated. I realize that, yes; but I walk through those doors, a full-grown cynical human male, and I know that if I had a hat on I would remove it.
Say, you talk of Balaklava
And the bloomin’ British Square,
Of Waterloo and Ballyhoo,
Why, that’s nothin’ but hot air;
Like the story of Thermopylae,
An’ yarns about the Greeks,
An’ Persians and Egyptians—
Not to speak of other freaks.
Why, sonny, down in Texas,
Not so very long ago,
They had a scrap with Greasers
At a place called Alamo.
—“The Alamo” by Horace Chaflin Southweck
“Remember the Alamo” is located on the site of the Alamo’s command post, which has long since disappeared but which is experiencing a form of reincarnation in RTA’s adobe-esque facade. The $1.50 ticket price for a half-hour slide show has drawn, on this day, only a handful of German-speaking tourists and a nostalgic journalist. The screening room, with long rows of benches, is nearly empty.
“Please sit in the second row,” a man in his early twenties says. It is such a weird request, with all that unoccupied space to choose from, that I feel compelled to comply. The usher has a brown mustache and a flashlight. His RTA uniform—brown pants, brown checkered shirt, brown bandana—looks like something you might wear to a very uptown square dance.
Soon the lights go out, the quad speakers blare out music appropriated from John Wayne’s $12-million epic The Alamo , and black-and-white drawings waft across the long slender screen,