Originally a Roman Catholic mission, later a military fort and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Alamo is found in the Texan city of San Antonio. Today much of the site is parkland where long-trunked deciduous trees cast dappled shadows and provide shelter from the unrelenting Texan sun. The atmosphere there is infinitely pleasanter than it was between February 23rd and March 6th, 1836, when, amid a ruckus of cannonballs, rifle-shot, bayonets, flames, smoke and blood, a hundred Texan defenders held out against a besieging Mexican force of 1500. The siege ended with the deaths of the Texans – who were then known as ‘Texians’ and whose number included such personages as Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William Travis – but it had an important legacy, inspiring many to join the Texian army and hasten the success of the Texas Revolution and the formation of the Republic of Texas.
The few buildings there, such as the chapel and barracks, seem to be kept in pristine condition. But I have to admit that on the day I was there, I made a mistake common among many visitors.
What happened was, I wandered into the Alamo gift shop, housed in a historical-looking building that, according to www.thealamo.org, was “built in 1937 as one of nine Texas Centennial Museums honouring the hundredth anniversary of Texas independence. Dedicated in 1938 the Alamo Museum held historical artefacts until the Daughters of the Republic of Texas decided to also use the space to sell souvenirs in order to raise money for care of the mission.” And as the website notes, this building is “often mistaken as part of the original Alamo compound.” That’s certainly what I thought. I went into the eighty-year-old gift-shop building and assumed I was somewhere that’d seen heavy-duty action back in 1836.
Confronting me at the entrance was a sign that urged me to “shop and support”, in order to “preserve the Alamo and its legacy for future generations”. Fair enough, I thought, but it seemed a bit tough that such stout-hearted defenders of Texan, or Texian, liberty as Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William Travis had to depend on hard-core capitalist retailing for the memory of their sacrifice, and the scene of it, to survive into the 21st century.
As I wandered among the wares on sale inside – flags, T-shirts, Davy Crockett-style raccoonskin hats, cuddly-toy eagles, lots of things emblazoned with the defiant old Texian slogan ‘Come and take it’ (which, when you think about it, is actually what the Mexicans did) – I still mistakenly believed that the building containing this shop had existed during the 1836 siege and Texians and Mexicans had really died here. I got a bit cynical about it. I found myself thinking sourly: “Here’s where William Travis went down, bravely battling to prevent the Mexicans from taking the Alamo’s supplies of fried-egg shapers… And here’s where Davy Crockett heroically gave his life whilst holding off the Mexicans from the Alamo’s stock of hoodies… And over here is where Jim Bowie was bayonetted to death as he tried and failed to stop the Mexicans from getting their hands on those boxes of delicious Alamo fudge.”
Anyway, I later discovered I was wrong. So while you’re spending money in the Alamo gift shop, don’t feel you’re desecrating a site of the fallen. The only thing that fell there was the occasional Alamo souvenir, falling off a rack.
In the centre of the shop is big glass case containing a model of the 1836 Alamo and a depiction of the siege with toy soldiers, horses and cannons. Mind you, the siege is much better represented by a diorama that’s featured in San Antonio’s Briscoe Western Art Museum. There’s also a selection of Alamo-related DVDs on sale, including films like 2004’s The Alamo with Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patric and Patrick Wilson, and 1964’s The Alamo with John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Laurence Harvey and Frankie Avalon, and the mid-1950s Disney TV mini-series Davy Crockett with Fess Parker as the raccoonskin-wearing frontiersman. No sign, though, of the 1969 comedy Viva Max!, in which a rogue Mexican general played by Peter Ustinov leads a small company of Mexican soldiers into present-day Texas and retakes the Alamo. The original plan was to shoot some of Viva Max! in the real Alamo but the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, its then caretakers, were so outraged that instead it had to be filmed at a replica Alamo elsewhere.
Outside, the most interesting feature for me – being something of a Japan-o-phile – was an inscribed stone from Japan that commemorated the medieval soldier Suneemon Torii. He’s sometimes known as the ‘Bonham of Japan’, after James Bonham, an Alamo defender who was sent out to get military aid for the garrison, only to have his requests for help turned down. Bonham finally returned to the Alamo three days before the culmination of the siege, even though in doing so he doomed himself to the same fate as his comrades. Suneemon Torii performed a similar feat of heroism / martyrdom at the siege of Nagashino Castle in 1575, which has been dubbed ‘the Alamo of Japan’.
I also saw the name ‘Bonham’ sculpted into one side of a square, stone fountain. As I walked around the fountain, I saw that three more names were sculpted into its three other sides: “Travis… Crockett… Bowie.” I have to confess that, as a Led Zeppelin lover, I would have been pleasantly surprised if instead the names had read: “Bonham… Page… Plant… Jones.”