An Ostrich-Plumed Hat: Chapter Sixty-Two

Above, Gathering the Dead in Vera Cruz, Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress

an ostrich-plumed hat

Begin with Chapter One ~ Return to Chapter Sixty-One

Andrew Stevens, April 1914

“Failure to fire a twenty-one-gun salute to the American flag?” fumes Mr. K. “After all the damage to property owned by American interests in Mexico? After all the seized assets?”

The Colonel interrupts. “After the continuous transgressions all along the border from Brownsville to El Paso? Governor Colquitt has begged and begged Washington to let him take action. Secretary Bryan kept telling him to turn the other cheek.”

Mr. K strides back and forth, back and forth. “Now President Wilson,” is using the flimsy excuse of the Tampico incident, tantamount to nothing, to invade Vera Cruz. The seven seized sailors were released as soon as the Mexican commander realized the error of his subordinates. He sent a formal written apology to Admiral Mayo. But the war-hungry admiral demanded the American flag be raised and a twenty-one-gun salute.”

Just as Mr. K finally sits back down, the Colonel stands up to take a shift at pacing. “And President Wilson backed his admiral up on it. Instead of righting the miniscule wrong at Tampico, we seized the customs house in Vera Cruz. Killed more than 200 Mexican soldiers over the perceived dishonor to our flag. President Huerta offers at least a modest degree of cooperation with Governor Colquitt along the border, but President Wilson long has favored anyone but him. President Huerta is an angel of purity compared to a cutthroat like Pancho Villa. The timing of the invasion represents a blatant blockade of the German ship attempting to deliver arms for President Huerta’s federalist forces. America now has picked sides in Mexico’s civil war.”

“With 60,000 American civilians still in Mexico, picking a fight seems particularly dangerous,” grumbles Mr. K. “Steamers are evacuating them as fast as possible, but how many must be trapped aboard trains between Mexico City and Vera Cruz? All telegraphic communication with Mexico City has been cut.”

“Otto, within forty-eight hours we’ll have 15,000 men available at Vera Cruz. The American armada is formidable enough to blow the entire continent into smithereens. Why, President Huerta probably has fewer than 4,000 at his command anywhere near Mexico City. His troops can’t even outlast a blockade.”

Mr. K shakes his head. “Republican senators argue that the invasion should be expanded to cover reparations. They urge marching right into the capital itself.”

The Colonel stops and faces Mr. K. “Perhaps that would be best for our mining and rubber interests.”

The Colonel sits back down, and Mr. K resumes his shift walking the floor. “We might be able to seize Mexico City easily, but the rest of the country would be worse than quicksand for our troops. It would become President Wilson’s Waterloo. There’s no more desire in Mexico for American occupation of their land than to be ruled by the late Emperor Maximilian. Our fate would be no better. History books are filled with such mistakes.”  

“Governor Colquitt says President Huerta has not one chance in a million of uniting those revolutionary forces together to fight the United States now.”

“He certainly does not.” Mr. K slams his palm on the desk as he sits down. “President Wilson is providing them with a major military distraction, leaving General Carranza’s Constitutionalist armies and Emiliano Zapata’s rabble-rousing peasants free to attack at will.”

“And that they are!” John waves several newspapers in his hand as he joins the men. “President Huerta’s Federalists panicked in Nuevo Laredo. They fled well ahead of Pancho Villa’s advance and set the entire city ablaze. Damn near succeeded in blowing up the International Bridge, jammed as it is with civilians trying to escape across the river. There’s some speculation that their rapid retreat is a ploy to try to catch the Constitutionalist forces off guard while they regroup, but it appears more likely the Federalists are petrified of getting sandwiched between invading Americans and Pancho Villa. Caught like sitting ducks.”

Mr. K glances at a headline on the newspaper John placed before him. “The plan of General Carranza is for the American troops to withdraw and for Washington to recognize him as de facto president. He and his followers will then dispatch with President Huerta and those they deem traitors. And if he can’t have the meat he craves, General Carranza can certainly lick up the gravy the American Navy is delivering to him.”

The Colonel pats the top of his head with one hand. “Who knows what agenda’s hidden away under Pancho Villa’s sombrero? One day he talks about teaching gringos a lesson, the next minute he’s in Juarez presenting the representative of the State Department a hundred lamb’s wool rugs for delivery to General Scott. At their dinner meeting, he was all smiles.”

John puffs out both cheeks and pats them with his hands. “Between mouthfuls of food, Pancho Villa said he hoped the Americans bottled up Vera Cruz so tight they can’t even get water into it. Claimed our Admiral is accomplishing what it would have taken the Constitutionalists a long time. Thanked him for the assistance in occupying President Huerta.”

“He’s currying favor with the State Department to convince them to lift the new strict embargo,” says Mr. K. “More than a million rounds of cartridges and dozens of machine guns have arrived in El Paso for delivery to Pancho Villa. He wants that ammunition.”

The Colonel waves a hand dismissively. “Governor Colquitt’s convinced we’ll end up fighting any guns delivered to that bad hombre. Said Pancho Villa floated a harebrained scheme of surrendering all his arms to our soldiers in Juarez for shipment to Vera Cruz. We would then provide trains to transport his soldiers all the way across Texas to Galveston, where we ship them off to Vera Cruz. Expects us then to gift the port to the Constitutionalists and reunite his troops with their arms and the ammunition we withheld from delivery. The cherry on top of this would be that, while he advanced on Mexico City, our Navy would kindly maintain a blockade to prevent any form of assistance from reaching President Huerta.”

“When pigs fly!” exclaims John.

The Colonel twists a tip of his moustache. “Unless Uncle Sam annexes a part of Mexico as restitution, these military operations will cost the government a fortune.”

Mr. K frowns and shakes his head at that idea. “Tranquilizing an empire is no child’s play.”

“Latin America distrusts us already,” says John. “If the United States plants a flag in Mexico, what would prevent us from marching all the way to the Panama Canal?”

The Colonel switches his moustache-twisting to the other side. “Countries that cannot keep up with the march of civilization always fall into stronger hands. Central America is the garden spot of the world. And outright ownership of the canal would prove lucrative indeed.”

The comment elicits another frown from Mr. K. “The Wilson Doctrine stands in the way, Colonel. President Wilson pledged we will not seek to acquire a single foot of territory by conquest.”

John takes a few choppy, nervous steps. “The whole situation is like that of a volcano. The top could blow off at any minute.”

“And the Governor feels the whole Texas border is endangered by the lava flow,” says the Colonel. “Instead of joining us for Fiesta San Jacinto, he’s monitoring the situation. All artillery has been stripped from Fort Sam Houston to entrain for El Paso. The rest of the border cities scream for more protection. The Governor says the state troops will not only repel any attempt by Mexicans to invade but will pursue invaders back across the Rio Grande.”

John wheels on his heels to face the Colonel. “After Vera Cruz, there’s is no reason to worry about violating our supposed neutrality.”

“The Secretary of War,” continues the Colonel, “objects to having the state troops in close proximity to the Army. He whines about the danger of having them operating side by side under different commands. But the real danger is leaving Brownsville unprotected. Governor Colquitt flat out refuses to order the state militia to break camp until the arrival of a full United States regiment.”

John barks a cynical laugh. “No need to risk venturing into the bullet-ridden republic to experience Mexico, is there Andy?’

“John and I found it last night, right here in Hay Market Plaza. We witnessed a reenactment of the Battle of Torreón winding up with Pancho Villa’s triumphal entry. It appears most of the twenty families occupying the Mexican Village created for Fiesta are recent Constitutionalist refugees.”

John nods in agreement. “Little brown children spill out of primitive adobe huts thatched with palm leaves. Women grind corn for tortillas, while their sons offer tourists burro rides.”

Jolly Trixy

Mr. K sighs. “From freaks to wonders, the carnival shows occupy every open space downtown.”

The Colonel chuckles. “The fat lady, Jolly Trixy, weighs in at 685 pounds. And her girth continues to expand by the day. The tiny lady barely surpasses two feet in height. The barbell-lifting lady. The snake lady. They’re all here for the entire week. Smooth-tongued Spielers stand at the entrance to each sideshow promising their ladies are the greatest living attractions in their particular eccentric lines.”

“Working in my Alamo Plaza office is nothing short of impossible,” John complains. “The motorcycles race around the autodrom. Applause and shouts erupt with every bicycle plunge Dare-Devil Schreyer makes into a tank of water. Constant catcalls echo down the hall every time one of the lady swimmers of Sibley’s water circus emerges from the pool. Cheers great Teddy, a little black bear roller-skating around the plaza. And children scream with every loop of the Eli Ferris wheel.”

Dare-Devil Schreyer, Frederick W. Glasier, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs

“Some label it a desecration of Alamo Plaza,” says Mr. K. “That’s actually the term used by Mayor Brown to describe the ludicrous proposal to extend Crockett Street straight through the park.”

John nods. “Bettie went to the meeting at the Plaza Theater about it. Ernest Steves tried to convince attendees that, instead of having one park in front of the Alamo, the street would create two. There would be two real beauty spots for citizens to enjoy. No one bought that cockamamie argument. Bettie signed the letter of opposition for the Daughters of the American Revolution. The Daughters of the Republic of Texas, the Women’s Club and the Battle of Flowers all have come out against it.”

“Well, the governor can attest to the powers of that coalition drawing a line in the sand,” says the Colonel. “Ernest Steves should surrender while there is still quarter. Crockett Street will not cut through the plaza.”

“A full-time guard is needed to protect the Alamo,” adds John. “Vandals are stripping the building’s walls, rock by rock. The Daughters planted cacti in the windows to discourage loafers, but that alone is not enough. There’s also concern about all the nails driven into the walls to string wires for lights to illuminate Fiesta.”

The Colonel’s face grows long. “Makes me once again pine for our neon sign shining over the plaza.”

Mr. K slaps his palm on his desk again. “Alamo Plaza is not a mere war memorial. It is a city park. A breathing place for all the people. The poor man’s playground.”

“And playing they are this Fiesta,” says the Colonel. “No plaza lacks entertainment. They flock to see Fairley’s Filipino midgets and the Oriental dancing girls. I understand a 12-year-old girl was removed from the chorus of the American Beauty Show on the south side of Military Plaza and sent home to her parents. We missed our chance to witness the show before the entire cast was ordered to don more clothing, to dance less suggestively.”

John laughs. “The morality police tend to eliminate some of the fun in the fiesta.”

“The Ministerial Association,” growls Mr. K, “wants Sheriff Tobin to force motion picture and theater proprietors to close on Sunday. Calls the Sheriff’s inaction nonperformance of duty.”

“The unions won’t stand for that.” John takes a slap on the desk. “Sunday is the only day they and their families can enjoy those diversions.”

Mr. K’s eyebrows unite. “The holy rollers claim it a sin to deal a hand of playing cards but fail to notice men manage to substitute dominoes for the same purpose.”

“How long will it be,” asks the Colonel, “before some fool in the Legislature introduces a bill making it a misdemeanor to play checkers?”

“The checkerboard obviously is frivolous and immoral,” John quips. “There is red on it.”

“The opening salvo fired by Thomas Ball in his speech in Greenville doesn’t bode well for us.” Mr. K returns to the political threats concerning him most. “His campaign is like a cannonball heading for the brewery. He claims his governorship will represent the state’s divorce from the saloon.”

“If statewide prohibition fails, Thomas Ball plans to ignore the will of the people,” warns the Colonel. “Wants every watering hole in the state to close by six or seven at night. Precisely when a working man wants a drink. Ball’s pushing for a sealed package law to close saloons completely. And he refers to this plan as a square deal for all Texans.”

John rubs his hands together. “Fortunately, Jim Ferguson’s campaign is ablaze here. A thousand Bexar County Democrats already are enrolled on his election committee. Mayor Brown and Sheriff Tobin are leading the way.”

“This is making me feel parched.” Mr. K tugs at his shirt collar. “Andy, open a few beers for us.”

Andy rises to open the box he always keeps stocked with beer on ice. He pours three into three cold glasses.

“Have one yourself, Andy,” Mr. K adds. “We certainly are not providing you with much you need to take notes about.”

The Colonel raises his glass. “We should toast all the Germans in Texas. This week’s gathering of 3,000 German Americans at Hermann Sons’ Hall represented the 50,000 voters in the ranks of the state’s German-American Central Union. Every single one of their social and fraternal organizations. C.A. Goeth drafted the resolution in German, and the vote was unanimous. They all pledged to do their utmost to check prohibition propaganda and to defeat any candidate supporting prohibition.”

Mr. K swallows a gulp of Pearl. “Painfully irksome to tolerate him, but we Germans in Texas all wear Farmer Ferguson on our hearts now.”

Queen Catherine Franklin, San Antonio Express-News

John raises his glass. “Prost.” They all take a voluminous gulp.

Mr. K yawns. “I might be in need of a nap this afternoon. The glittering coronation of the queen last night tuckered me out. And Emma and I left after the supper dance. Never set foot in the Saint Anthony Hotel for the final ball. You both must be dog-tired.”

“The gold and diamonds shimmering in the Majestic Theater,” says the Colonel, “was blinding last night. The sheer number of emeralds Thomas Franklin had draped over his daughter, Queen Catherine—astonishing. Between duchesses on stage and dowagers in the boxes, more than two-million dollars in jewels must have been on display.”

“It’s much less expensive,” John pronounces, “to marry a daughter off than to have to dress her for the coronation.”

Mr. K again raises his glass. “May the next Fiesta be a celebration of the Battle of San Jacinto. A battle of flowers only. Not the real-life embarkation of the United States on the warpath.”

Footnotes

San Antonio’s ties to Mexico were so strong at the time that the newspapers covered any stories on or across the border extensively. The Author is not positive how the men in this book would view the invasion of Vera Cruz. As one of Governor Colquitt’s appointed colonels, Otto Wahrmund would presumably echo many of his opinions. Plus, the two Ottos and John Stevens had numerous investments in Mexico. Aside from assigning opinions to the men, everything in this chapter is based on actual occurrences.

Continue to Chapter Sixty-Three

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