Two Roads to the Alamo* and the Conservation Society Book Awards

book-awards-closeupThere we were, sitting beside each other. Phil and I.

I’m talking about Phil Collins. But I just call him Phil now. Because I sat beside him for about one minute.

As you can tell this is leading to one of celebrities’ worse curses: people who don’t know them writing about them.

But, of course, this is different. Because I know him. Because I sat beside him for about one minute. And he politely introduced himself to me and shook my hand.

That, and we have several things in common.

Davy Crockett, for one.

When Phil Collins was a kid growing up in a London suburb, he would often watch an amazing show on his family television.  There, in black and white, was Fess Parker as Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.  As he matured, Collins not only acted out the exploits of his new hero, but he often refought the Battle of the Alamo with his toy soldiers.

Texas History Store introduction to The Alamo and Beyond

While I’ve never sure been it’s psychologically healthy to adopt Texans’ fascination with the battle they lost, playing Alamo seems a better alternative than the Davy** Crockett chapter that influenced me as a child in Virginia Beach.

I sat alone in my room, playing the record. Over and over and over.

It wasn’t this one, or, if it was, it was part of a much longer recording. I can’t find the version in my mind online.

Perhaps what I remember didn’t exist except as a compilation in my jumbled file cabinet of a mind. But it was Davy Crockett. Or Fess Parker. And it was a life and death struggle with bears and Indians… and the part that haunted me.

I have no idea how many times I listened to that recording, but definitely many times too many.

Even I knew my mother was exasperated.

I would wet my bed. We’re not talking about a three-year old. I was six.

But I had my reasons.

I ran screaming to my parents one night about the bears in the house – my visiting Great Aunt Mary snoring.

There were Indians in my closet. I finally learned keeping the light on in the closet kept them at bay.

But the light filtering through the louvered door did not help with the Crockett family’s other adversaries.

Alligators.

http://blog.nyhistory.org/davy-crockett-almanacs/

Davy Crockett’s Almanack, 1837. Tenn. 1837 .D38 N3. New York Historical Society Museum and Library. http://blog.nyhistory.org/davy-crockett-almanacs

The women then slacked the rope a little and made it fast round a hickory stump, when my oldest darter took the tongs and jumped on [the alligator’s] back, when she beat up the “devil’s tattoo” on it, and gave his hide a real “rub a dub.”…My wife threw a bucket of scalding suds down his throat, which made him thrash round as though he was sent for. She then cut his throat with a big butcher knife. He measured thirty seven feet in length. (Davy Crockett’s almanack,*** of wild sports in the West, life in the backwoods, & sketches of Texas. 1837, p. 10).

My self-preservation instinct was strong. Who in their right mind would risk getting out of bed with alligators on the prowl? Alligators hungry for a “tongariferous” fight. Bladder be damned if I would.

Not only would I not set foot on the floor when alone in my room at night, I would not let a pinky slip over the edge because…. Snap! Those alligators were fast.

And I had a family to protect – a toucan whose name now escapes me; George the green monkey whose rubbery pink hands and feet were comforting to chew nervously upon when trying to make it through dangers lurking in the night; and Nipper, a huge RCA dog who took up easily half of my single bed. I never once let George’s tail hang over the edge. I would sleep rigidly, never ever tumping one over the edge into the alligator pit.

To dream of an alligator, unless you kill it, is unfavorable to all persons connected with the dream.

“Dream Interpretation,” spiritcommunity.com

The flaw, of course, was no one understood this was why I wet the bed. And, when I finally managed to explain, no one took the danger seriously. Of course, now they have books about this. But that was the late ’50s, and they had not yet been written.

Finally, midway through first grade, a solution was found. A path of folding chairs was set up each night between my bed and the bathroom. Somehow, I was able to summon the courage to imperil myself by crawling across this wobbly bridge to the safety of the bathroom, and, of course, everyone knows alligators would never cross the threshold onto the tile floor.

So, as I was writing, Phil’s interest in perpetually fighting – probably trying to change the outcome – the losing battle at the Alamo seems a preferable Davy chapter in which to be stuck.

And Davy seems to have stuck with both of us, Alamobsessive souls that we are.

I focus on and fret about the Alamo as the city’s front door. I constantly nag, in blog form, the city to enforce its historic ordinance to keep illegal signs from multiplying at night. I have even used some of the historic postcards I have assembled to create protest collages.

weve-lost-the-alamo

Postcards from San Antonio ~ No. 21 ~ “We’ve Lost the Alamo.” 2010 edition of 25. Yes, Numbers 21 and 22 are the ugliest collages ever to reflect the overwhelming commercialization of Alamo Plaza. Even Waldo (Yes, he’s there.) is easier to find than the Alamo. An early 1900s postcard of a parade float, “Save the Alamo,” and “Letter from the Alamo” from a plaque on the grounds are surrounded by some of the plaza’s clutter, including a dinosaur, Stumpy, snow cones, the Odditorium, the t-shirt bearing the unheeded message “Don’t Mess with Texas, San Antonio” and even the Daughters of the Republic of Texas’ own unsightly addition of a pop-up tent pushing their “Live the Drama”‘ guides (Fortunately, this pop-up was removed). http://www.postcardsfromsanantonio.com

“They’ve Breached the Walls.”

Postcards from San Antonio ~ No. 22 ~ “They’ve Breached the Walls.” 2010 edition of 25. Mary Bonner’s tasteful woodblock print originally made to help raise funds for the San Antonio Conservation Society is paired with an inscription from the Cenotaph, “In Memory of the Heroes…at the Alamo, March 6, 1836.” The images are overwhelmed by surrounding offers to shop at “Liber-T,” view repulsive world records, obtain henna tattoos or consume ice cream cones and hoagies. Sorry to have left out the coonskin cap. http://www.postcardsfromsanantonio.com

These efforts have had limited effect. And, not surprisingly, these particular collages have not resonated well with art collectors.

Now, legislation has been filed to form a commission to study the state of Alamo Plaza. Good news to some, but the bill would go farther than my Alamobsession wants by giving the commission the mission to “reclaim its original footprint.” I might not love Ripley’s, but I love the Alfred Giles’ Crockett Block.

Plus, if returning Alamo Plaza to its appearance at the time of the battle is taken literally, the Alamo would get a crewcut (Click here for a long-winded post about that particular issue).

"San Antonio: A Descriptive View Book in Colors," 1913

“San Antonio: A Descriptive View Book in Colors,” 1913

I don’t know how Phil feels about this. Because how much ground can you cover in one minute?

But I do know, while I was collecting postcards of chili queens on Alamo Plaza, Phil was collecting everything else Alamo. When Phil does something, he doesn’t fool around. He gets serious. He even collected a building off the plaza. This is from his myspace page:

From Bill Wyman’s metal detecting to Alex James’s cheese-making, every self-respecting musician is obliged to cultivate a hobby to relieve the stresses of the rock star life. Collins is no exception, utilizing the basement of his Swiss home for his twin enthusiasms: building model railways and tending to his vast collection of Alamo memorabilia.

“… it’s an all-consuming thing for me. I spend as much time in San Antonio as I can. I rent a little property out there on the walls of The Alamo itself where I’ll dig for artifacts. I’m always looking for stuff to buy and the collection is growing fast. I’ve got a huge number of cannonballs, muskets and bowie knives that were used there, Lady Crockett’s pouch and many documents that were written by the main protagonists. One of my prized possessions is a receipt signed by Commander William B. Travis for 32 head of cattle used to feed the Alamo defenders.

“My kids are convinced that I was present at The Alamo in a previous life. Just recently I attended a convention out there and met a clairvoyant who is married to a man who’s attempting to restore the Alamo compound. She walked up to me and said, ‘’You’ve been here before. In a previous life you were John W. Smith, one of the major couriers who survived the Alamo and become one of San Antonio’s first mayors.’ Oddly enough one of the first documents I bought for my collection was the receipt for Smith’s saddle. So maybe my kids are on to something.”

philcollinsbook31Phil collected so many Alamo things that photos and information about them now fill a 400-page book, which brings us to another thing we have in common.

We are both authors, which is how we met. Our books – his, The Alamo and Beyond: A Collector’s Journey, and mine, Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill: Voelcker Roots Run Deep in Hardberger Park – both were honored with awards presented by the San Antonio Conservation Society at a luncheon on Friday.

phil-collins-1-closeupYes, there were eight other publications about Texas history recognized, but those authors need to write their own blogs. Because this one is about Phil and me.

Because I sat beside him for about one minute. And, as you can see, we obviously engaged in animated conversation. Probably because we have so much in common. And I didn’t even get a chance to tell him I’m married to a bluesman.

Somehow, KSAT-TV failed to catch this important connection on camera, which is good because I would not have wanted to end up in the pages of some publication, such as The Star, where they zoom in on the superficial shortcomings of someone my age – the preponderance of wrinkles, protruding bellies and falling bustlines.

Another thing Phil and I share is we have changed careers. I have changed career directions several times and feel free to sprint off in any direction I choose. If I choose to write books, that’s fine. No one objects; no one cares.

But, poor Phil. He’s worked hard his whole life – “I enjoyed Genesis when I was 19” – and wants to pursue his hobbies now:

Reporters repetitively bombard him with “why?” Some fans of the Grammy-winning star express anger at him for retiring from concerts. This, even though, according to his myspace page:

His less prolific work rate is partly down to health reasons. Since 2000 he has suffered from loss of hearing in his right ear. More recently he was diagnosed with severe nerve damage to his hands, making drumming extremely challenging. During recording sessions for his new album, he was forced to tape his sticks to his hands.

Owsers. That sounds totally painful. Give this man a well-deserved break.

Keen to accentuate the positive, he explains that his medical concerns have forced him to take stock of his life. “I never used to think of myself as a workaholic,” he says. “I used to work non-stop because I couldn’t believe my luck that I was able to do all these things that I loved. I was everywhere and I can see why that must have been annoying to some people. Then I reached a point where I no longer felt the need to go zooming around the world and attend the opening of every envelope. Basically I stopped.

“I’ve got a nine-year-old and a five-year-old. I take them to football. I like to take them to school and pick them up. That’s my life now. I love doing the things that other people probably find tedious because they’ve been doing them for so long. I never did those things in the past as I was always working flat out. That was my loss. Now I’m able to do all that and also have time to indulge my passions.”

Besides, somehow I feel this man’s Alamobsession will end up helping shape the future of Alamo Plaza. I’m sure it will accomplish more than my haranguing collages and blog posts.

Oh, and, Phil, if you get tired of staying in hotels when you visit San Antonio, the Mister and I might be able to work out a house swap with you. The Alamo’s less than a mile away from our door. Call me next time you are in town and you’ve got a minute. Who knows what else we might have in common?

*With apologies to William C. Davis, author of Three Roads to the Alamo: The Lives and Fortunes of David Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barret Travis. Hey, at least I didn’t title the post My Life with Phil Collins. Now that would have been a stretch.

** David would be more historically correct, but does not represent the popular culture upon which we – Phil and I – were weaned.

***Oh, dear. I had to stop in the middle of this post to order a copy of Davy Crockett’s Riproarious Shemales and Sentimental Sisters: Women’s Tall Tales from the Crockett Almanacs, 1835-1856, for which I paid a penny, plus $3.99 shipping – quite a bargain unless the alligators return ‘neath my bed. And, as that is an “our” bed, I’m positive the Mister would not relish the thought.

Update on March 25, 2013: John Spong of Texas Monthly spent considerably longer than a minute with Phil Collins.

Phil Collins at age 5, an image (now blog-altered) originally appearing in the San Antonio Express-News

Phil Collins at age 5, an image (now blog-altered) originally appearing in the San Antonio Express-News

Update on March 27, 2013:

A follower reminded me to look back for this photo of Phil Collins, coonskin-hatted at age five playing Davy, that appeared alongside an article by Steve Bennett in the San Antonio Express-News last May.

Which reminded me of another obvious thing Phil and I have in common – the Battle of San Jacinto. His collection began with a receipt for a saddle purchased by John W. Smith, who was at both the Battle of the Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto and seems to continue to haunt the collector a bit. My desk currently is haunted by reams of paper pertaining to the families and relatives of John Coker who settled on his land grant on the north side of San Antonio. Jack Coker was a hero of San Jacinto credited with the idea of blowing up Vince’s Bridge, blocking one of the possible escape routes for the Mexican troops.

And, on another note, one of my sisters fessed up that she was the one who told me I’d be safe from dangers lurking in my room if I let no part of me slip over the edge of the mattress. So nice after all these years to finally unload the psychological burden for bedwetting on a sibling.

Update on May 6, 2013: Mary Dearen’s version of the same awards luncheon as published on mywesttexas.com.

Update on June 24, 2014: Phil Collins is donating his entire collection of Alamobsessive artifacts to the Alamo.

Around Alamo Plaza: Been a long time, but the signs are still there.

There have been many posts in this blog ranting about haphazard appearance of the front door for many a visitor to San Antonio – the Alamo Plaza Historic District.

Most businesses evidently believe duplicate signs are critical; even the city’s newly remodeled Visitor Information Center has two extra, twin signs flanking its doorways. I thought the Hotel Indigo was going for cool, but apparently not. And, although it’s not in the district, the city’s recently redone plaza with its strangely homuncular statue of Henry B. gets graced with an illegal sandwich board advertising a garage a block away.

There is no need for many words this time; the photos of illegal signs speak for themselves.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

If you have the stomach for more ugly signage greeting our millions of visitors annually, here is a small sampling from older posts:

Please complain about the lack of enforcement of signage regulations in the Alamo Plaza Historic District to your city council representative and consider dialing 311 to report violations you see.

Oh, no! Not the Alamo (again). Can the lost mission of St. Anthony be found?

Oh glorioso San Antonio!…. Tu alcanzaste con tus oraciones que las cosas perdidas fueran halladas….

Prayer from a holy card

St. Anthony, St. Anthony
Turn around.
I’ve lost something
That can’t be found.

one of many versions of traditional rhyming appeals to St. Anthony of Padua

He is petitioned for help in finding almost everything that is lost, from car keys and misplaced papers to a lost job, a lost lover, or a straying partner. People who are regarded as “lost souls” may also be placed in his care…. Quechua Indian charm vials from Peru containing tiny blue-robed St. Anthony statuettes are carried for the return of a lost lover; they also always contain a piece of the coiled jungle vine called “vuelve vuelve” (“come back, come back” in Spanish).

from luckymojo.com

St. Anthony, the patron saint of miracles and finding lost things. A preacher so effective fish in the river once raised their heads out of the water to hear his words. But can he find his mission now lost in the heart of the city named in his honor?

According to The Handbook of Texas Online, Mission San Antonio de Valero was founded on May 1, 1718, at San Pedro Springs. Heavily damaged in a hurricane, St. Anthony’s mission was moved to the east bank of the river in 1724 to a location now known as Alamo Plaza. Despite epidemics of smallpox and measles and attacks from marauding Apache, the Native Americans – including Karankawas, Yutas, Tacames and Payayas – populating the mission numbered more than 300 in the 1750s.

Their lives and the first half of the history of what is now called the Alamo seem mainly forgotten, overshadowed by a mixture of folklore and fact surrounding a siege that ended on March 6, 1836. Mexican troops under the command of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna were the victors in this battle.

Few countries commemorate the battles or wars they lost, but the lost battle at the Alamo survived the days of the Republic of Texas as the centerfold of Texas history. Perhaps the Texas psyche finds it far less painful to demonize the enemy and embrace the battle lost than to celebrate the eventual victory at San Jacinto, where Texians gained their bloody revenge threefold.

“Mission San Antonio de Valero Missing,” digital collage on display at King William Art through July 27, view online at http://postcardssanantonio.com.

My personal battle of words over the banner hung to commemorate the 175th anniversary of the fall of the Alamo only represented a continuation of a series of unheeded rants about rampant signage violations in the historic district encompassing the remnants of the Mission San Antonio de Valero. I’m not saying we need to forget the Alamo, but seeing the gigantic 175th on the side of the Emily Morgan Hotel constantly reminds me of the missing mission.

Should not the upcoming 300th anniversary of the founding of St. Anthony’s mission be something for his entire city to rally around? This heritage is what distinctively flavors San Antonio – our most precious quill. Dallas, Houston and Austin don’t share it; they weren’t even born until more than a century after San Antonio.

The banner compelled me to create a rather uncomplicated digital collage – not quite as unappealing as my two earlier signage protest pieces – drawing attention to the prominently missing mission. St. Anthony wistfully gazes down from his holy card (Okay, I confess. This antique card was not originally his; I helped him “find” it. It belonged to a teenage image of Jesus. But, since I made Jesus younger, gave him a friend for company and gave them both better halos than they had, I don’t think I really need to say two “Our Fathers” and three “Hail Marys” over the appropriated card.) at a hand-tinted postcard of the Alamo as though looking for “his” church. Despite the size of the 175th, the lace of the holy card curls around the date – 1718. I slipped this protest piece into my current show at King William Art.

This photo of “Flippin’ San Alamo” is from the June 14, 2010, online edition of the San Antonio Express-News.

This token print pales beside the protest slated for 6:30 p.m. on Monday, June 13, on Alamo Plaza – the Flippin’ San Alamo Fiesta. St. Anthony not only gets asked to turn around but ends up upside down. The event was the brainchild of artist Rolando Briseño and received extensive media coverage last year, including this from the San Antonio Express-News:

Briseño called the performance art piece “part of a cultural adjustment for the Alamo” and the lore that surrounds it. He describes the Alamo — a hallmark emblem for Texans most often used to inspire loyalty and patriotism — as a symbol of Anglo hegemony that ignores the role played by Tejanos and slaves of African descent in early San Antonio.

“I decided to let some of the skeletons out of the closet on the Alamo,” Briseño said Sunday. “Some days they try to get the history right, but they need to try harder.”

The event began with actors representing African slaves, Tejanos and indigenous Americans carrying a sculpture of Saint Anthony standing on a replica of the Alamo. Once they mounted it to a bar, the actors continually flipped the statue — when Saint Anthony was upright, the Alamo was upside down, and when the mission was upright, the saint stood on his head.

Briseño said he wanted the event to reaffirm the contributions of Mexican Americans to the United States.

Cartwheels seem a larger transgression than the absconded holy card; Rolando might need the full confessional prescription.

We’re not sure how St. Anthony would feel, but Gene Elder recently sat sculptor Tony Villejo on his “chartreuse couch” for an interview for Voices of Art Magazine. Villejo said:

Just a short mention of the spinning Alamo project…. It has gotten to be a bit unsettling with me…. it’s been a bit odd walking into a gallery or whatever the venue may be and seeing this piece making the rounds, thinking about the very personal connection I have to the sculpture.

And then there is the spiritual connection. As Gene’s interview with Tony continued, Tony said he was commissioned to create a bronzed St. Anthony holding Jesus for an actual church – St. Anthony Catholic Church in Spring Branch:

…the whole process from start to finish was the most difficult project I had ever been involved with. Technically, it was fine, but emotionally it drained me. Just the fact that it was to be a saint that was to be viewed by a serious Catholic community.

The project was so successful, Tony received another private commission for a plaster St. Anthony. And he delivered again.

Although Tony refers to himself as “the biggest skeptic I know,” strange things have been happening in his client’s backyard since St. Anthony took up residence. Tony described the events to Gene:

Well, this guy is new to the neighborhood. Keep in mind that every single home in the area has its own six-foot privacy fence. A couple of weeks later his neighbor informs him that the night before he had seen this really bright light radiating from his patio. That happens to be where this statue is situated….

A few days later, same scenario, from the other neighbor. Another incident happened during a very hard downpour. This time it’s the neighbor directly behind his home….

Well, he has a friend visiting for a few days and at around 3 a.m. his home alarm goes off. He rushes out of his bedroom and lo and behold, through the blinds there is this really bright light or aura radiating from you know what. The good thing is that he woke his guest from the other bedroom and had him sit there and experience this with him.

I’m just repeating things. But maybe I’m thinking the San Alamo sculpture might possess some powers unaccounted for by logic.

Maybe it’s not a mere coincidence that after St. Anthony – the patron saint of miracles – cartwheeled around the plaza, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas are turned all topsy-turvy by the State Legislature.

St. Anthony, St. Anthony,
Please look down.
Maybe there’s a mission
To be found.

Messing with miracle-makers might be dangerous. Maybe the Daughters need to sign that agreement and rush to set up committees to plan the 300th anniversary of Mission San Antonio de Valero in 2018.

By the way, did you ever hear the story of St. Anthony and the miser’s heart? The scolding he gave Ezzelino? Or the shamed simpleton who severed off his own foot?

Just saying. Just in case, maybe it’s time to sign on the dotted line.

Update: View event photos and video in this follow-up post