Like most AARP-eligible, Caucasian American males, I grew up under the sign of Davy Crockett Alamo, as interpreted by Walt Disney and Fess Parker. I wore a faux coonskin on my head, and once told an adult that everyone called me plain old David, but that my real name was Davy Crockett.
And because I grew up in South Texas, not far from San Antonio, the Alamo connection was particularly strong. When my mother went shopping at Joske’s, that Taj Mahal of San Antonio retail, I’d tag along, hoping to talk her into buying me a book and into letting me visit the Alamo just a few steps away.
All this was memorable enough for a small town boy, but when word came that John Wayne was going to make an Alamo movie, and play Davy Crockett himself, I suddenly felt a little closer to the center of the universe. The excitement that attended the movie’s world premiere in San Antonio made its way to my hometown. So couple of years later, when I was in seventh grade, I was reasonably excited to study Texas history, even if it was at the hands of a strange, and possibly emotionally disturbed former coach.
That’s when I first realized that the legacy of the Alamo defenders was more ambiguous and complicated than I’d realized. I distinctly remember the comic book about the Texas Revolution that we read in class. Its overt racism made me feel embarrassed for my “Mexican” classmates. I distinctly remember the panels in which Texian sharpshooters killed Mexican soldiers and celebrated by exclaiming “Got a taco bender!” and “Got a bean eater!”
That was my first inkling that the Alamo’s appeal might not be universal.
The older I got, and the larger Vietnam loomed in my life, the more ambiguous the lessons of the Alamo became. It didn’t help that LBJ was exhorting U.S. troops to “nail the coonskin to the wall” over there in Southeast Asia, where I had no intention of ever setting foot.
But the Alamo fire never completely went out for me, and part of the process of reconciling myself to being a life-long Texan, when at times I really wished I were somewhere else, was to re-embrace the Alamo, dark side and all. Yes, the epic battle was to some extent fought in defense of slavery. Jim Bowie himself was a big-time slave trader.
But still…the Alamo defenders may not have literally crossed a line drawn in the sand, but they were surely brave, just as were the Mexican soldiers who crashed the Alamo’s walls. I still can’t read Travis’ final letter — "I shall never surrender or retreat" — without getting an emotional jolt.
And the more I learned about Crockett (which isn’t a lot), the easier he was to cling to. He fell out with his extremely powerful patron, Andrew Jackson, because he opposed Jackson’s policy of Indian removal, which was the ethnic cleansing of that day. There’s a lot of mythology surrounding Crockett, of course, but he really was witty enough to say (after he lost a re-election to Congress bid) “You may all go to Hell, and I will go to Texas.”
Last Christmas, when my 12-year-old son, Gabriel, and my 10-year-old grandson, Cameron, and I made a trip to San Antonio, I took them to the Alamo and wondered how they would respond. They knew a little about the Alamo and Crockett, but they’d never experienced Fess Parker or John Wayne, and I wasn’t sure how this would all translate to their wired and digital generation.
But somehow the old shrine worked its magic, as they each left wearing coonskin caps, which they kept on as we explored the rest of the city. Gabriel even wore his to a Christmas party attended by boys his own age, and who responded predictably to the sight of the absurd headgear (which does, somehow, actually look pretty good on Gabriel). “Is that a condom on your head?” one kid asked.
I expected Gabriel to throw his cap away and foreswear Davy Crockett, but instead he got his back up. Davy Crockett was cool, whether his friends realized it or not.
Earlier this month, Cameron, Gabriel and I went back for the 175th anniversary of the Alamo’s fall. It was quite a time. The boys were very taken with all the re-enactors, and even volunteered to be get up at 5:30 for the commemoration of the battle’s bloody pre-dawn conclusion. Gabriel bought a copy of Crockett’s autobiography, which he’s promised to let me read when he’s through.
I also reconnected with Steve Hardin, whom I hadn’t seen in decades. As Stephen L. Hardin, my old friend and former fencing companion has become quite a writer and historian. He made a name for himself with his military history of the Texas Revolution, Texian Iliad. In Literary Houston, an anthology of writing about Houston that I recently published with TCU Press, I included two pieces by Hardin, who is simply one hell of a writer. One excerpt, from Iliad, vividly brings to life the Battle of San Jacinto and its revenge-and-blood-filled-conclusion; the other, from the unjustly neglected Texian Macabre, memorably describes Houston in the 1840s as “the worst place on earth.”
I rehearse all this because Hardin is so good at bringing history back to life, and to making you understand that the fighters on both sides were human beings, subject to the same emotions as us. Hardin led us on a tour of the greater Alamo battleground, which extends far beyond today’s Alamo grounds. When he came to the story of Susanna Dickinson’s exit from San Antonio, he became quite moved. This despite the fact that he’s told it, and contemplated it, many times before.
We were standing at the very spot where Santa Anna had the naked bodies of the Alamo defenders piled up and burned. Shortly thereafter, when the Alamo-survivor Dickinson left town, en route to Gonzales, she would’ve had to pass right by the smoldering ashes and blackened bones of her dead husband. As Hardin imagined the pain she must’ve felt, he was briefly brought to tears. He apologized, saying, “It’s just such a human moment.”
Despite the fact that the Alamo is surrounded by a impressively tacky atmosphere, complete with a Ripley’s Believe It or Not, these human moments still shine through, and you feel them whether the gray on your head comes from your own hair, or from your coonskin cap.