THE CRISIS HIT, NOT IN THE southern part of Texas in the town of San Antone but on U.S. 83 somewhere between Abilene and Childress. My siblings and I were driving along a few years back, belting out the “Ballad of the Alamo” at the top of our lungs, when our vocalizing suddenly came to a screeching halt: None of us could think of the lines that follow “Travis answered with a shell/And a rousing rebel yell.” We had to la-la-la our way through the rest of the verse before resuming the song and intoning the last line in appropriately dirgelike fashion (“To the thirteen days of glory at the siege of Al-a- mo-o-o”).
As a kid I had listened over and over again to Marty Robbins’s version of the song popularized in John Wayne’s The Alamo. No decent Anglo Texan of my generation should forget those lyrics, right? Fortunately, I knew the perfect person to ask when I got home: William Chemerka, the Google of Alamo buffs, who obligingly e-mailed me the complete lyrics. The missing lines? “Santa Anna turned scarlet/’Play “Degüello,”’ he roared./’I will show them no quarter/Every one will be put to the sword.’”
Chemerka, you see, is a Serious Alamo Guy—one of a small, tight group of amateur and professional historians who are Bowie-knife-sharp on the subject of the Alamo. Most of them are male, bearded, Anglo, and fifty-plus. Most have written extensively about the Alamo, and all have strong opinions about what did or did not happen there. Depending on doctrinal stance, they either defend or attack their peers, even to the point of name-calling (“troll” and “curmudgeon” are two of the printable epithets I’ve heard). And they are shaping the way Texans and Americans—of today and tomorrow—interpret that climactic event.
With the hoopla surrounding the upcoming movie that stars Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett, the Serious Alamo Guys are fixing to bask in at least thirteen days of reflected glory. A new paperback edition of The Gates of the Alamo, the ambitious 2000 novel by Austin’s Stephen Harrigan, has been published in advance of the movie’s April opening. Fellow Austinite Jack Jackson, an artist, a cartographer, and a historian, is bound to sell some copies of his latest Texas supercomic, The Alamo: An Epic Told From Both Sides. And the film’s historical advisers—authors Stephen Hardin, of Victoria, and Alan Huffines, of Katy—will surely rack up a few sales too.
Many non-Texans also claim the fort as their forte. Frank Thompson, a television writer in Los Angeles, is the author of several Alamo books, including an addictive treatise on Alamo movies; fittingly, he landed a bit part in the new cinematic epic. Historian Paul Hutton lives in Albuquerque and is an expert on Crockett B.A. (Before Alamo); he is a regular talking head on documentaries about the Alamo and the American West. James Crisp, an exuberant revisionist, teaches at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh. And the Yankee contingent proves that the Alamo is as American as the Statue of Liberty. Bill Groneman, the primary spokesman of the Like Hell They Surrendered school, is a retired New York City fire captain who was at ground zero on 9/11 and who now lives in Kerrville. Chemerka, founder of the Alamo Society, publisher of the Alamo Journal, and king of the wild minutiae, is from— New Jersey! Not all of the Serious Alamo Guys are writers, though. Brian Huberman, a Rice University professor who was raised in England, has produced three Alamo-related documentaries.
They’re amazing men—and they make me crazy. Once upon a time I fancied myself pretty darn smart about the Texas Revolution, but I have long since surrendered. I’ve learned that I don’t have a historian’s dedication (those who do, obsess; those who don’t, dabble). I remember, some fifteen years back, challenging my colleague Steve Harrigan to recite William Barret Travis’s famous letter. He rendered it eloquently on the spot. And whenever he and I talk Alamo, our conversation goes something like this:
Me: What are the odds that in the new movie Billy Bob goes down swingin’ Ol’ Betsy?
Steve: Ol’ Betsy wasn’t at the Alamo.
Like most native Texans, Steve and I were suckled on Alamo myth. And like most baby boomers, we were weaned on Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. The TV show starring Fort Worth native Fess Parker debuted in December 1954, and America went Davy crazy. It made a hero out of a largely forgotten frontiersman and spun a blend of fiction and fact that bedevils Alamo scholars to this day. The show was the Harry Potter of its day. “It influenced my entire life,” says the 58-year-old Chemerka, who went on to teach high school history for thirty years. Crockett thrilled kids because he could, among other skills, shoot, wrestle, ride, fight, and track. “And,” Chemerka adds, “he didn’t lie. I’m sure young Bill Clinton missed viewing Davy Crockett.” In 1960 John Wayne’s full-length movie further blurred the line between the historical event and the embroidered legend. But both screen versions, notes Harrigan, were “an irresistible intoxicant for impressionable young nerds.”
To me, Davy Crockett will always have Fess Parker’s face. But I was equally affected by one of the many children’s fables about early Texas, 1958’s We Were There at the Battle of the Alamo. I read and reread it, pretending I was twelve-year-old Billy Campbell (back in the fifties, boys had all the fun). I loaded Crockett’s pistols and helped hoist James Bowie’s cot over the line in the sand. Though the book boasted Walter Prescott Webb as “historical consultant,” the author, Margaret Cousins, of Munday, really schmaltzed it up. Consider her glamorization of Susanna Dickinson, the wife of a Texian captain and the only Anglo woman to survive the battle: “Her light gold hair curled up naturally, and her eyes were violet blue.” As a brunette tomboy, I thought, bleah.
But Walter Lord’s A Time