Coffee With…An Alamo Survivor

Would We Have Coffee with Susanna Dickinson?

Cammy: Given my previous post, do I really even need to answer this one?  Of course I would have coffee with this woman, one of a mere handful of survivors of the Battle of the Alamo.  For one thing, I have a deep need to compare the real thing to the fictional character I knew as a kid.  And also….she is going to have one of the most unique views of the battle of the Alamo of anyone.  I’m a little worried that querying too much might result in a melt down.  As much as stories of the battle might be interesting, I’m even more interested in hearing of her one on one encounter with Santa Anna after the carnage ended.  By most reports I’ve ever heard, Santa Anna was quite interested in her and her little girl Angelina, and he offered to take them in and have Angelina educated in Mexico City.  That is the moment I want to hear about.  What was he really offering?  Why did she think he did?  And how the hell did she feel about getting that offer only hours after that man had ordered her husband to be killed?  And maybe just maybe, she could tell me where to look for the kind of sign I’ve wanted at the Alamo.Kristy:  Um… I kind of think I have to.  I may not have grown up in Texas, but I was the child of a Texan and Susanna Dickinson was definitely a story that factored into my childhood.  As Cammy has alluded, history as it’s told tends to focus on the big moments and overlooks the role of women entirely, so when you’re a little girl, and finally there’s someone of the female persuasion in the story, it’s a big deal.  Add to that I’m dissertating on female culture heroes and while she is not part of said dissertating, I have seriously contemplated a later article on Susanna Dickinson and the Angel of Goliad.  So you know… this would be fieldwork.  I have much less specific questions than Cammy being as I’m less familiar with the history.  But I would like to get her view of what happened and I’d also be interested in hearing what she thinks about the sanctification of the Alamo narrative to later generations.  How does she feel about the way her narrative has been shaped?  What would she add to the story?  What would she take out?  Etc, etc, etc.

Back in 1836…

This is a few days late, but besser spät als nie.  March 6 marked the 175th anniversary of the Alamo (and remember kids, when you Remember the Alamo, you need to Remember Goliad, too).

In the Southern part of Texas, near the town of San Antone…

So starts the ” Ballad of the Alamo”.  Now, unlike the ballads that have street credit in Kristy’s pro-folklore world, this historically inaccurate, though very catchy, musical telling of the Battle of the Alamo didn’t come about until the 1960s.  It’s been recorded by Frankie Avalon (which, really, I can’t take seriously.  Because it’s Frankie Avalon), but more importantly, by Marty Robbins, a man whose name is synonymous with Western Ballads.  The song was authored, at least in part by Dimitri Tiomkin as part of the soundtrack for the John Wayne classic version of The Alamo*.

This is not a scholarly work.  There are errors and exaggeration and a tendency to romanticize, and yet, in spite of all that, it’s still powerful as a way to introduce someone to this part of history.  Since the 1960s, plenty of kiddos in Texas have been exposed to the song–and more than one of us who can’t remember numbers for shit has run through these lyrics in 7th grade Texas history to make sure we had the right year for our final exam “Back in 1836, Houston said to Travis…” And “One hundred and eighty-five, holding back five thousand” is a highly speculative set of figures when it comes to the head count for the battle.  But, since scholars are not completely settled on the exact population of either force (particularly not the Mexican side), we can accept this–and again, it can sure help narrow the options on that multiple choice test.  You hit most of the high points of the story (holding against multiple advances, the playing of “De Guello”, the lack of back up/support, the lack of gravesites) and the key names involved.

Any perceived failure comes in the overly romanticized frame for the story–much as I like the image of the “fortress all in ruins that the weeds have overgrown” the fact is that what remains of The Alamo is in the great big middle of San Antonio and has been for a very, very long time.  To get to the very-well-maintained remains of the sanctuary (the rest of the presidio walls are long gone), you have to exit into downtown SA.  But that doesn’t matter–to a kid who is just starting to discover the story of the battle (and who isn’t growing up in Texas) the place might as well have been a fortress in ruins just waiting to be uncovered.  And if a catchy tune, some snappy guitar work and the smooth lilt of Marty Robbins’ voice draws the kind of mental picture that capture’s someone’s imagination and gives her a reason to seek more information about this little tidbit of history?  Then the accuracy sacrificed in the name of rhyming and romanticism is totally worth it.

*Incidentally, Tiomkin also gave us another gem in the theme for that same film –“The Green Leaves of Summer” is an absolutely beautiful theme (with or without the lyrics by Paul Webster).  In terms of pure music, I prefer it to “The Ballad of the Alamo”

In Which Cammy and her Dad Watch The Alamo

At long last, I have finally seen all of the 2004 rendition of The Alamo.

I’m not saying it’s a bad flick.  It’s not great, but I’ve sat through much worse.  And I’m not going to say it’s the least accurate representation of a historical event I’ve ever watched–hell, it’s not even the least accurate rendition of this particular historical event that I’ve ever watched–but it’s definitely not a movie you want watch while in a room with two Texans who are familiar with said event.

I know that historical accuracy has to be sacrificed in the name of storytelling and structure, but that’s really not going to stop my Dad and I from yelling”Bullshit!” at the screen over and over and repeatedly saying, “Well, actually, I believe….” and then whipping out the laptop to Google and confirm ourselves.  We devolved into the worst form of know-it-alls who completely obliterated the movie watching experience.  It would be like watching a sci-fi flick while sitting next to Dr. Brennan from Bones (in an odd ball connection, Emily Deschanel actually shows up in this movie as Rosanna Travis, albeit a Rosanna Travis who looks kinda consumptive).

We actually held ourselves together until cannons got involved.  Then we started with the innocent musing on the utilizations of exploding projectiles (no actual assertions of wrongdoing here, but we had some questions…).  But by the time the Mexicans were coming at the walls we were definitely skewering things.  “That guy wasn’t down there!”  “They didn’t breach into those rooms until later!” “That is NOT how Almeron Dickinson died!”

The aftermath of the battle only made it worse.  I was ready to punch someone when it came to the delivery of the news to Houston (“Where the hell is Susanna?!?”)  Dad nearly jumped up out of his chair while watching the Battle of San Jacinto (to which I had to say, “Seriously?  You’re going to get pissed over the distance where they started shooting, more than over the entire Crockett ending??”).  At one point we even turned on one another (“They didn’t have a cannon at San Jacinto!”  “No, they had TWO!” “Did not!”  “Did so!  The Twin Sisters!”)

And while we both ended the experience shaking our heads at all of the little things they could have done to make it right without sacrificing the story in the process (and Mom was thanking God we were finally done)–it was strangely fun.  I honestly think the movie would have fallen a bit flat if not for Dad and I having so much to rip into.  After all, watching The Alamo is kinda like watching Titanic:  you know the ending.