Tuesday, October 25, 2016

They Vacuum the Alamo

Fifty-five years ago, I spent 13 days in a cardboard box in my backyard. I wore a coonskin cap and peered over the edge of the box. I clutched a treasured and venerable toy flintlock rifle I had convinced my parents to purchase for me at Gettysburg. I scanned the green yard, was shot at and returned fire. Periodically, at the height of battle, the box overturned and I fought hand to hand on the grass. I do not recall loosing the battle, being killed or becoming a captive to be eviscerated alive the next day. I defended the Alamo with all my honor and guts. Through the haze of discharged percussion caps and various dinner calls, it has become vague to me as to whether the time elapsed was exactly thirteen days. I do remain assured that MY re-enactment of the historic conflict was devastatingly accurate.

A decade later, my imagination had traveled to more restricted visions of the world and I became an antiques dealer, a rare books dealer. I retained a nagging habit of preferring American history in ancient print or curious artifact, but my commercial instincts kept my passion for Davy Crockett’s ANYTHING concealed. I became a very good antiques and rare books dealer for the next forty-five years and remain one today. I still fall deeply in love with American History and my ...imagination. Or what’s left of it.

In the course of the rare books business, I was offered an opportunity to travel to San Antonio to... buy and sell rare books. We specialize in Western American History known as “Western Americana”. We hate “old books” preferring to deal in “source documents”, the seemingly trivial slips of paper that historians prowl through to “write books”. We buy and sell the footnotes of American History.

“San Antonio is where the Alamo is, I can go there.” I thought to myself. I loaded my wife and daughter and we were soon eating Frijitas on the street. I had to “check-in” at the trade fair as well as contact the few experts with whom I deal that were anticipating my arrival. We find the “rare books” in old barns in Maine and sell them to the “higher calling”. We, I suppose, are at the bottom of the food chain of American Western History. I have altered this somewhat by attracting the attention of numerous individuals who... “know what they are doing”. This provides for the payment of the cost of bringing the family to see... “The Alamo”. It is “The Alamo”. My then five year old daughter will be glad to explain this to you if you don’t have enough... imagination.

After breakfast on the second day, I scheduled our visit. It was a cool morning and we approached from the far side, on foot, away from the tourist army’s route. The village is more run down in this direction. People sit huddled on park benches guarding shopping carts filled with worldly processions. There is a large and transposed post office with a Woolworth’s kitty-corner from it on this approach. We went in both. Both are upon bloody ground. The post office is where the bodies were burned.

We arrived ten minutes before the opening so wandered the streets peering at the exterior architecture and landscaping. Both are subtle and fine, having now lived sixty years in this format so that the little weeds and patina of time has blended the fortification into a charming whole. If you don’t like my use of “fortification”, you may substitute “church”. At the Alamo, one must remember these words are interchangeable. These past sixty years represent an extraordinary period of stability for the structure and landscape. I believe it is the longest time it has ever been the same... ever.

I wanted to be a little misty on my tour so was gratified that only the fewest others arrived. Several couples took photographs of each other, a Texas Lawman tended to the locks and gates. I read the sign requesting “men” remove hats. Shouldn’t that be “persons”? I crossed the worn brass line that Travis drew with his sword. I would stay until death.

When we were admitted, my daughter and I rushed to our right and peeked in the room where the surviving women and children hid. Then we peeked in every other room. Then every display case. The exhibition space in the Alamo has been cleaned up since the early days. They’ve removed all the curiosities that used to be mounded about. As an antiques dealer who hates clutter... I have mixed emotions about this clean, minimal display. My daughter and I both read the “DO NOT TOUCH THE WALLS” signs. We both looked at the walls.
Then we looked at Davy Crockett’s rifle, so inscribed, “presented 1822” at Nashville. The stock was not broken. He did not die clubbing anyone with that gun. After my battle in the cardboard box, my rifle had its stock broken. I mourned this for several days and then concluded that it was MORE authentic because... Davy’s was broken... too. It was several decades later that I finally realized that Crockett had more than one, in fact, many... “guns”. Periodically one of these is bought and sold out in antiques land.

Then we left the room, which it is; a room. We, as a family, walked the enclosed grounds. Sixty years has grown into a bewitching tour of Pecan trees, cactus, foot paths and very modest use. The visitor comes, peeks and splits. The local traffic bee-lines from one end to the other. An occasional young child touches a mounted cannon barrel or drinking fountain. The service systems are concealed from view.

There is no trash and everything has a sign explaining all. A Yucca growing in a drainage ditch was a major aberration. The wind had overturned a potted tree. Two women attendants surveyed the situation and called in a male to correct this promptly. Our family covered every foot path in detail. It was very refreshing. No one else seemed to care.

I carefully choreographed the excursion to conclude at the “museum - gift shop”, something most other visitors bee-line to directly through the side door. We approached along the deserted side with the Yucca in the drainage ditch. When we entered I was gratified to be greeted by cased curiosities and clutter. They’ve preserved some of that old style museum display and intermingled it with the trashy souvenirs. In the center is a stunning miniature diorama of the battle, also in a glass case. Meticulously constructed by an obvious freak who made my childhood imagination look like an empty cereal box, both my daughter and I concluded it would be “fun to make”, her words. It was also fun to view from all four sides but I kept being distracted by a higher calling; the trashy souvenirs.

My taste is not as good as yours, nor are my sensibilities. Having spent fifty years buying and selling the material oblivion of our various civilizations on earth, usually found at the back of YOUR garage and bought for nothing except shrewd Yankee diction by ME... I really don’t have much patience for ...YOUR taste. The faux-pas of “The Alamo”… for many… would be this seeming disparity of intermingling charming historic site, grounds and artifact with... trashy souvenirs. Not for me. I looked at the display case housing a large blue historical Staffordshire “Texan Campaign” soup tureen. Why... I’d just sold a bigger and better platter to one of the “knowledgeable” at the trade fair. My glazed euphoria turned to the opportunity of …trashy souvenirs. Let the others dwell on historic object of virtue. I wanted a snowdome.

I reviewed everything, from one end to the other. Then I made a long purchasing mud run down the counter being serviced by a Texan College girl. She has taste and sensibilities so my selection of the most, most, trashy, trashy were... foul… until it cut-in that I was buying consistently. At that point I became a preferred client an she shooed other trivial sales away while attending to my “big” sale. The moment of the collapse of the Alamo came at the end of the counter when I requested a price and to inspect one of four ceramic tea pots “hand painted” in the shape of... The.

They weren’t priced. They weren’t on the computer sheet. I was the first person to inquire about them… in this century. The matronly lady in charge didn’t know. The ancient, in-house, aging duff, souvenir expert reviewed the crisis. They, as we say in the trade, “flipped” a price. I bought. They rearrange the remaining three specimens. They boxed mine. They muttered about the teapot, the price, then adjusted the arrangement again. Remember; I had already sold a better piece of historic Texan “china”. It was “antique”. For me to acquire this obvious rarity in the shape of The Alamo is all in a days work. They have three left (?).

Then we departed. I looked back at the structure. Looking forward, we watched a school bus disgorge a load of screaming children. “Good thing we got here early.” said my daughter. We crossed the street and walked down it, past the Woolworth’s. Half way down a street barker in Western wear extolled the “special effects” inside their ...store. A large cannon outside this store went off as we walked by. It scared the entrails out of my daughter and wife. My daughter started to cry. A few steps later… during this crisis… a gigantic dinosaur loomed in motion and growled from behind its window display. All of my daughter's systems broke down and we scurried out of danger, managing to calm her down on a tranquil street corner above the Riverwalk. “Never” go there again, I was instructed. We didn’t, for the rest of the day.

I had to go be a rare books dealer. I was more pleased with my teapot. I was greeted by the knowledgeable who wanted to know... “what” I “had”. Rare Western History, unlike rare Western Books, does not take up much space so I had “it” slung over my shoulder. A few commercial moments later, I no longer had “it” and had “a check”. That took up even less space. For the rest of the trade fair I “talked shop” with various “knowledgeable” and numerous not so knowledgeable whom I ...suffered. I read a guide to San Antonio, looked up places on my map and held a round table with any... “client”.

Back at the “museum - gift shop” I had discovered a display by the staff offering a folding cardboard mock-up of The Alamo filled with blue and brown plastic soldiers (the brown are the “Americans”) and a metal cannon that is also a pencil sharpener. It was so... accurate and… my daughter was so... that I purchase two “sets”; one for her and one for the cousin, a male. This required purchasing three separate productions to complete the each package. The cannon pencil sharpener came in its own box. The cardboard fort was a “for the Museum store” only production. The soldiers included “accurate” historic representation of Crockett, Bowie, Travis and the lone Mexican General, Santa Anna. My daughter began playing with hers in the hotel room as I departed for the rare books fair.

Since I had sold all but eight tid-bits of my travel stock of Western Americana, my booth (I prefer “stall”) was a little sparse for display. To counter this I purchased a TEXAS MONTHLY and a quart of seltzer that, along with “my card”, I filled out my display. As this residue would not entertain many for long, I spent my time in other floor trader’s more amply stocked booths. The “knowledgeable” to whom I sold the platter provided a clear view of my stall so I resided there. He entertained numerous “prominent collectors” of, principally, “Tex-iana”. At one point he offered one a fine and truly rare Texas map. The collector discussed the nuisance of framed display in his office. The Alamo WAS on the map, I observed. Sales pitches and superlatives were offered by the “Knowledgeable”. The collector’s wife appeared burdened with large, full shopping bags, collected from the surrounding stores. The “deal”, to no ones surprise, fell through. “I’ll get a call in a couple of days.” said my "knowledgeable" friend.

We both watched a women pick up the MONTHLY over in my booth. “I bought my daughter a plastic mock-up of the Alamo.” I said. “The cannon is a pencil sharpener”.
“Your incredible.” he replied. I’d already told him about the tureen but... not my teapot.
“Look, when you were that age you would have peed your pants for that set and today you sell fat Texas Boys fat Texas maps”.
“I like to think I’ve made progress.” he said, but this was annotated by a look indicating I had successfully stormed the walls of his inner Alamo and ... eviscerated him alive. He HAD once... once owned a... metal cannon. His was not a pencil sharper. But now he’s too “knowledgeable” for that.

When I sell these... people; these wandering souls, my treasure, my tid-bits of Davy’s (et al) souls of American History, I must relinquish my hold on the object but I never give up MY wandering soul of acquisition. The Alamo and Davy have always alluded my search for history; I have never found a “rare book” about Crockett, except once.

Decades ago, when my wife and I were just married, my brother was on leave from a military college. Although out of uniform, his behavior continued per schooling. He suggested we, as a group, “4-wheel” into a remote hilltop farm in remote rural Maine to see if “there was anything left in it”. Anything left meant anything we, as antiques dealers, could discover and sell amongst the residue of this abandoned farm. Our odds were good that it “had something” for it was extremely remote and one had to be very much in the know TO know it existed. We were very much in the know because we knew why the farm was way out there in the first place.

Back when rural was wild and civilization was less accommodating to family crisis, a retarded child was not offered community support, particularly in rural Maine. Space was plentiful and it was not uncommon for a family to resolve the situation by constructing a very rural home for this retarded child. There, it could not hurt anyone and still live out existence in a direct ratio with space and time. The family would support this “farm” for the decades of life. Then abandon it, for, it was truly remote. In fact, it would be unlikely that one would even know about such secluded farms unless... one was an insider. In our case, my grandfather’s role in both birth and death of this child allowed us a historic overview of the farm. We had already purchased “the estate” years ago. Markets change and trash becomes treasure. Another visit to a farm frequented only by hunters and porcupines would not be amiss.

In we went. We got stuck half way in, a feature of 4-wheeling that is a must. My brother liked this the best but tagged along as we walked the last miles in crisp November air. The farm lay desolate. We wandered each building and gathered a small mound of detritus that was... “salable”. For those who prefer decorative arts, I was smitten with the Country Queen Anne drop-leaf table, lacking leaves and having its legs cut off at the knees to become a plant stand on the front porch. This artifact had been further embellished by the chewing of porcupines. Today, I am confident it is displayed as an “exceptional” coffee table, “totally original”, which... it is. May I observe that these “second homes” in rural Maine were never furnished “new”. They always brought all the “old” things there, so... for the antiques buff, they are an unmatched source. In many cases, particularly if the family supporting the farm was from the Victorian agrarian aristocracy, they used these farms as a giant attic.

As I stood in this home’s attic, I looked down at a torn pamphlet. It was torn nearly in half. “GO AHEAD. DAVY CROCKETT’S ALMANACK OF WILD SPORTS IN THE WEST AND LIFE IN THE BACKWOODS CIRCULATED IN ALL THE STATES OF THE UNION 1836”, this embellished with a woodcut of Crockett crossing a river on stilts, carry gun and having a steamboat in the background. I bent down, picked it up, folded it and put it in my pocket. It lay in my various mounds for numerous years. I looked at in sentimentally many times. It always made me recall the crisp November walk. I don’t become sentimental with material oblivion for... I’m a dealer.

Periodically someone would want to purchase this... artifact. I would offer it for ten dollars and they would “pass”. I discerned it was a... “rare book”; number 39 on the Grolier Club’s ONE HUNDRED INFLUENTIAL AMERICAN BOOKS. I would look at Davy every now and then. He would look back. He was Davy, I was a dealer. Eventually two “knowledgeable” from Vermont were “buying a load” one afternoon and asked about Davy. “A dollar” I said and away he went. We had finished our affair; our love for each other, for the moment, but we would meet again. My ageing and desperate antiquarian soul has always wandered with such love affairs on material earth.

Back at the trade fair, I left the booth of the “knowledgeable” and returned to mine. I, as one now may denote, hold my hallowed ground rather well in these circles for I have a certain background expertise that they... lack. A few visits to an abandoned farm in abandoned Maine and... they’ll get the idea, won’t they. When the fair ended, I packed up my residue and TEXAS MONTHLY then left. I wouldn’t read the magazine until I was on the plane. When I did I was very surprised to find the Alamo mock-up reviewed for a full page as very “authentic” as plastic soldiers go. And I mean a full page, including color illustrations.

I discovered upon return to the hotel that… my daughter was unwilling to leave the exploding cannon and growling dinosaur alone. We had to make repeated visits to be distant voyeurs of these atrocities. At each visit, we would position ourselves on a safe street corner and peer at the removed forces in action. The dinosaur never ate any children. The cannon never killed any bystanders. My daughter remained fearful of approach. I, on each visit, got to peek at the Alamo.

When we first went in the door on our visit and dashed from the first room to the opposite side of the main room, I was stunned as I observed promptly that... The Alamo had been vacuumed. I notice these things because I am always in very old buildings that HAVE NEVER BEEN VACUUMED. I said “The Alamo has been vacuumed” to no one in particular. It is immaculately vacuumed, a better job than I'VE ever done to anything. Every crack, every crevasse, every bit of coonskin cap fur has been sucked away. This, as the restoration goes, is a most impressive feature of ...human filth and its arbitration by other humans. The Alamo is always being arbitrated by humans.

During the trade fair, in the hotel room, my wife had said “They want to take the Alamo away from the Daughters. There’s an article about it in the paper. Do you want to read it?”.

“No.” I replied for I was not listening and was too busy planning how to squeeze the last dollar out of some last piece of Western History. I vaguely understood the issue. The Daughters of the Republic of Texas own the Alamo. THEY vacuum it. They let YOU in, sans hat. Various armies, either State or National “park” forces feel that a better job could be done, this defined in trivial points that fail to reach my lay interest. These forces want the small resistance band to surrender the property. They are in arbitration at ...The Alamo. The situation is historically correct. There is a siege at the Alamo, 185 humans are surrounded by superincumbent humans, at least 25,000 in number. The padlock on the display case of Davy’s rifle has been unlocked. The ancient cannon barrels have been positioned to point at the door. A cache has been dug to hide the gift shop stock. It, the coming battle, will be very bloody. No one will survive and in the end, the bodies will be burned at the deserted Post Office.

We could not get my daughter away from the Dinosaur and cannon. On the last evening, at dusk, we made our final visit. I insisted we take higher ground for observation, flanking the usual street corner for a centralize vista within the Plaza, directly opposite the two evils and, for my benefit, having the front lit Alamo to our rear. We stood holding our daughter’s hands. The Dinosaur reared, growled, menaced the passing crowds with it tiny hands, over and over. “I’m not afraid anymore because Dinosaurs are extinct” appraised my daughter. The cannon discharged with inconclusive results, apparently killing no one. A few were startled. My daughter remained unwilling to approach either. I turned to gather my last vista. The cannon smoke whist across the plaza. A Texas lawman checked the locked door. Couples took photographs of each other. The flash from their cameras reflected on Travis’ brass line. The reflection from this crossed the faces peering over the top rim of the Alamo. Women’s faces, many wearing bandannas around their heads. Wet bandannas soaked in water to keep off the grime of musket fire. They waved a small, hand sewn flag I did not recognize, its symbol undefined by history... yet. The arbitration would become a bloody battle on hallowed ground with eviscerated bodies burning afterward. Perhaps they’ll make a snowdome of it.

We returned home, to Maine. I was on the telephone acquiring more Western History at a nominal price. My daughter and a friend were in the other room playing with the mock-up Alamo. Occasional growling, loud and sustained came from their play. I could not see the battle. Eventually this growling defied my complacency and I peeked in. The blue Mexican army was intermingled with the brown “Americans” on the edges of the Alamo interior. Across a vista stood the pencil sharpener cannon and a large plastic dinosaur. Periodically this dinosaur would rush the fortification and devour a blue or brown human. The remaining army would drive him back until they, in turn, were driven back by the cannon. It was devastatingly accurate. This siege continues. It is in its eleventh day as I write.

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