Authors: Lawrence Wright
Generations of Wrights were ruined by that cursed decision. My father, John Donald Wright, the youngest of five children, was the only one of his siblings to escape. He worked his way through college and law school, then spent seven years at war, in Europe and Korea. Disgusted with the law, he decided to become a banker, which is how we got to Texas. Daddy was a vice president of Citizens National Bank in Abilene at the same time that Steve’s stepfather had his office downtown. We wondered if they might have had coffee together.
In 1960, my father finally got the opportunity to be president of a little independent bank in a strip shopping center in East Dallas, between a drugstore and a beauty salon. He built that bank into a major institution, and used its resources to renovate the declining neighborhood, granting innovative loans to young people willing to apply “sweat equity” to resurrect the old houses. Texas was a place where ambitious young men like Don Wright were welcomed and given a chance to succeed.
Many years after my father had put down roots in Dallas, he paid a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon to see if he could figure out what had caused his ancestor to leave such a civilized spot and move to Kansas, where he lived in a sod house, like an igloo made of dirt. Our ancestral English home, on the other hand, is a tidy brick row house on West Street. My father knocked on the door, but no one was there. Daddy remembered his grandfather as a cantankerous old man who hated children. Perhaps my ancestor’s dark mood was colored by regret.
Years later, Roberta and I were in England, hiking in the Cotswolds, and we also made a pilgrimage to the old place. A young man from Bangladesh answered the bell, saying, “Master not here.” While we waited for Master to come home, we walked over to the Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried. He’s inside the chapel, but the churchyard itself is filled with Wrights, the patrilineal mother lode.
We finally did meet the landlord of the two-bedroom house that gave birth to our portion of the Wright clan. He cheerfully confided that it was now an illegal jeans factory—a sweatshop, I suppose, but on a small scale. The rooms upstairs were filled with sewing machines. The landlord gave me a pair of very nice jeans as a souvenir.
I must have inherited some of the restlessness that propelled Edwin Wright to leave the land of his birth and my father to fight his way out of Kansas. By the time I graduated from high school, I was sick of Texas. I did everything I could to cleanse myself of its influence. I had been pious, but I became a bohemian existentialist. I ditched the accent, which I hadn’t been conscious of until my first session in the language lab when I heard myself speaking Spanish—with that high nasal twang so typical of North Texas.
I’ve seen the same thing happen to people who come from other societies with a strong cultural imprint; they reverse the image. But being the opposite of what you were is not the same as being somebody new. As soon as the doors to liberation opened, I fled. I wanted to be someplace open, tolerant, cosmopolitan, and beautiful. I thought I would never come back. I turned into that pitiable figure, a self-hating Texan.
“I can see you’re doing your part,” I observed.
He grinned and said, “I’m with management.”
“Is that your altar?” Steve asked, gesturing toward the low mound of red sand that remained from the ceremony. The altar is usually crescent-shaped, signifying the journey from life to death, but this one was angular. An older man leaning on the tailgate of the truck had been watching us with squinted eyes, but he suddenly brightened and acknowledged that the altar was his handiwork—“the Quanah Parker altar,” he said, referring to the last great Comanche chief.
Farther down the river we passed the ruins of the old Hot Wells Hotel, a once grand resort where Will Rogers and Rudolph Valentino came to take the waters. A pioneering French filmmaker, Gaston Méliès, set up a movie studio next door in 1910, hoping to turn Texas into what would become Hollywood. That didn’t happen, although the first movie to win an Academy Award for best picture—
in 1927—was filmed nearby on Kelly Field. We rode on, leaving behind the alternate history Texas might have had.
There was a time when Steve and I considered moving to L.A. and going into the movie business—our own alternate history. We had just sold a script to Sydney Pollack, right after he finished directing
, when he was the king of Hollywood. On the first-class flight home, we mulled over what our lives were going to be like from now on. A friend of ours in the trade had warned that writing movie scripts was like raising children for adoption. On the other hand, we’d be consoled by the weather and our enormous wealth.
Out of Africa
instead of our script, but our next project was for Jane Fonda. When we arrived in her office in Santa Monica, she opened the door and stuck out her hand. The collar on her blue blouse was turned up, and it matched the startling blue of her eyes. Her hair was blond and leonine. This was at the peak of her exercise video sensation, and she looked like she could jump over a building. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Jane Fonda.”
“Hi,” I said. “I’m Steve Harrigan.”
I don’t know why that came out of my mouth. Jane never got us straight after that, always seeming a little anxious in our presence. In any case, Jane married Ted Turner and retreated from the film business, while Steve and I returned to our books and articles. The lure of Hollywood faded, although we each continued to do occasional screen work from afar. Another friend of mine moved back to Austin after spending a couple of years in the screenwriting business. “One day in Los Angeles, I heard a mockingbird imitating a car alarm,” she told me. “That’s when I knew. I was like a bird that had lost my song.”
We were hot from the ride, and Steve suggested we indulge in a snow cone. Bees swarmed around the syrup dispensers at the shaded stand in front of the Alamo. On the plaza, we examined the Alamo Cenotaph, which the former lead singer of Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne, peed on in 1982. (The conscience-stricken celebrity later apologized for his actions.) The stone barricade that once enclosed the mission has given way to parasitical tourist attractions such as Ripley’s Haunted Adventure and the Guinness World Records Museum. Steve pointed out the area where the Mexican forces broke through, near the corner of what had been the north wall, now occupied by Tomb Rider 3D.
The Alamo itself is a modest construction of limestone, yellowed by the patina of age, like old teeth. The primitive symmetry of the facade, with its arching pediment resembling a child’s drawing, is a familiar feature of the Texas imagination. Steve once described it as “a squat and oddly configured structure that is in almost every way inscrutable.” Here in 1836 about 250 men and a number of women and children gathered, determined to block the progress of the army of General Antonio López de Santa Anna, the imperious president of Mexico, who styled himself the “Napoleon of the West.” Santa Anna might easily have gone around San Antonio or stationed a small garrison to keep the rebels penned up inside the mission as he pursued Sam Houston’s army of insurgents. The hapless defenders were expecting to be reinforced at any moment. “The Alamo guarded the Camino Real, the only road and supply route into Texas from Mexico,” Steve observed. “The defenders just got trapped there, and Santa Anna wisely attacked before help could arrive.” As for Houston, he never wanted to defend the Alamo; he had proposed simply blowing it up.
The defiant Texians—as they were then called—held off Santa Anna’s forces for thirteen days under the command of a prickly young Alabama lawyer, William Barret Travis. With him were Jim Bowie, a land speculator and renowned knife fighter, and David Crockett, a legendary frontiersman and former U.S. congressman who had once been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate. After being voted out of office, Crockett advised his Tennessee constituents, “You may all go to hell and I will go to Texas”—an example followed by many since.
As boys, Steve and I had fallen under the spell of the Alamo legend, having been indoctrinated by the Disney television series
, which Steve compares to
in terms of its cultural sway. Like every other boy we knew, we sang “Davy! Davy Crockett! King of the wild frontier!” We owned replicas of Davy’s coonskin cap, a fashion statement that is perhaps hard to account for but now seems ripe for revival among the tattooed ironists of the coffee shops. My family had just moved from Abilene to Dallas in 1960 when
, starring John Wayne as Crockett, came to the Capri Theatre. At the time, the movie was widely read as a rallying cry for the right-wing politics that Wayne trumpeted, with the Mexicans serving as stand-ins for the forces of international communism; in Texas, however,
was our creation myth. In some elemental and irresistible manner, the movie told us who we were.
One of Steve’s fans is the British rock star Phil Collins, who has amassed the world’s largest private collection of Alamo relics, including a rifle owned by Crockett and a knife that belonged to Jim Bowie. As a child, Collins had also been fixated on Davy Crockett and the Alamo myth. His grandmother cut up a fur coat to make him a coonskin cap, which I suppose wasn’t as readily available in London as it was in Texas. Collins once told Steve that when he finally saw the Alamo in person—in 1973, when he was the lead singer for Genesis—it was like meeting the Beatles for the first time.
Collins inadvertently triggered a bitter legal and political contest between the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, the jealous guardians of the Alamo for more than a century, and the newly elected Texas land commissioner, George P. Bush, son of the former Florida governor and presidential candidate Jeb Bush. In 2014, Collins offered his artifacts to the State of Texas under the condition that a suitable repository—i.e., a $100 million museum—be constructed to house the Phil Collins Alamo Collection.
George P. muscled control from the Daughters, who had a history of financial trouble, pledging to repair the infrastructure of the building and make the plaza more sober-minded. Given his mother’s Hispanic roots, George P. is expected to bring more balance to the legend that the Alamo has enshrined. One hopes that he will address the original sin of the Texas Revolution. Stephen F. Austin founded the Texas colony as a cotton empire, manned by slave labor. Mexico outlawed slavery in 1829, but appeased the colonists by granting an exemption to Texas. The Constitution of the Republic of Texas not only legalized slavery, it prohibited the emancipation of any slave without the consent of Congress. In 1845, with the price of cotton on the floor, the bankrupt young republic faced a choice of being annexed by the United States as a slave state or accepting a bailout from Great Britain and remaining independent. The loan came with a catch: Texans would have to pay wages for all labor. Despite the chest-thumping Tea Party bluster about secession these days, Texas tossed away its independence when it appeared it would have to surrender on slavery.
As you pass through the heavy wooden door into the hushed sanctuary of the Shrine of Texas Liberty, men are advised to remove their hats. “Be silent, friend,” a plaque commands. “Here heroes died to blaze a trail for other men.” Since I last visited, the exhibits have improved and the sacristy rooms, where the women and children took shelter during the massacre, have been opened. The relics inside glass cases include Davy Crockett’s beaded leather vest, Bowie’s silver spoon, and Travis’s razor. The garish paintings depicting the battle, which once adorned the walls, have been taken down, revealing the faded frescoes of the original structure.
We passed through the gift shop, which as you would imagine is a kind of Lourdes of Texas kitsch. Coonskin caps are still available for $12.99, along with reproductions of Travis’s farewell letter pledging that he will “die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor that of his country—
Victory or Death
.” All this meets with Steve’s approval, to a point. “You don’t want to take away everything,” he said. “You don’t want it to be in ‘excellent taste.’ ” Steve actually owns a tie he bought here some years ago depicting Travis drawing the legendary line in the sand with his sword. He is supposed to have said on the occasion, “Those prepared to give their lives in freedom’s cause, come over to me.” Travis fell early in the assault, which lasted only ninety minutes; his slave, Joe, was spared, as were the women and children.
It was twilight when we finished our ride. On the way back to Austin we stopped to eat in Gruene, a little German town where, in 1979, my decision to return to Texas began to take shape. I was writing an article for
magazine about the twelve men who walked on the moon. One of them, Charlie Duke, was living in New Braunfels. When I got to town, I checked in at the Prince Solms Inn, named after the military officer who established the German colonies in Texas. There was a rathskeller in the basement. I figured I would have a beer and a kraut and then retire with a book—Saturday night in New Braunfels—but destiny placed an insurmountable obstacle in my path in the person of Frank Bailey,
’s restaurant critic. Away we went on a gallivant around the Hill Country, eating at a roadhouse where Frank ordered a three-inch steak, rare, a bleeding brick of meat, and winding up at Gruene Hall, Texas’s oldest dance emporium. A band called Asleep at the Wheel was playing Texas swing. A young man named George Strait opened for them. Dancers were two-stepping; the boys had longnecks in the rear pockets of their jeans and the girls wore aerodynamic skirts. There was something suspiciously beguiling about the scene, verging on being staged for my benefit. Memories were stirred. The tunes, the accents, the food—they all felt familiar and yet curated so that they could be properly noticed and appreciated by the susceptible exile.
At the time, my wife and I were living in Atlanta. That night, I called her and said, “Something’s going on in Texas.” I couldn’t put it all into words then. It was subtle.