Last week this Texan had the distinct pleasure of returning to the most famous of landmarks in the Lone Star State, the “Cradle of Texas Liberty”: The Alamo.
To many residents of the State of Texas, journeying to see the Alamo is a kind of sacred pilgrimage. My last chance to pay homage was more than 2 decades ago. So with this year being the 175th anniversary of the famous battle, and with my having meetings in downtown, well…it was time.
It was strange to go back if only because I was struck by the impressions I’d had as a child returning with the same strength. Memories I’d forgotten came back with the strength of not just vision and smell, but emotion.
Coming up to the doors of the sanctuary, you are greeted with a sign reminding you that this is a sanctuary and that not only are cameras unwelcome, but so are loud conversation, cell phones and gentlemen wearing hats. As you open those heavy doors and enter….
It’s so very small. Granted, the sanctuary (with the facade of which we are so familiar), is only a fraction of the whole mission which was known as The Alamo, but it’s still a bit strange to see that the most prominent image of something so large in legend is so small in fact. Even when you walk the gardens and the Long Barracks (the gardens are not part of the original grounds, the Barracks are), it’s simply…not what you expect.
And for me, well, my images of the Alamo legend are formed primarily from the children’s book Girl of the Alamo by Rita Kerr. It’s the (slightly fictionalized) tale of Susanna Dickinson, one of the women who survived the battle. In the testosterone fest of male battle figures, Susanna Dickinson is one of few females who gets any attention out of the entirety of the Texas Revolution. When you’re a your female child, this is the one thing you have to latch onto. It’s the perfect combination of a female connection, wrapped in the mystique of a character. I might never meet Anne Shirley or Jo March or any other such character from my formative years of reading, but Susanna Dickinson was real. She was legitimate. She lived and breathed and made a mark on history in a place you could see and visit.
So, obviously, as much as the Alamo is a symbol for Texas, for some of us it’s also a literary journey. A place to see where a character who entered the pantheon of key figures in our formative minds, lived and suffered and survived an incredibly event.
And no one tells you anything in that building.
The sacristy is where the women and children took refuge in the battle, but just walking through, you see nothing of where. It was a disappointment as a child. I still remember walking through that sanctuary, in awe of what it was and what had happened, but still disappointed that there was not some indication, symbol or sign that the character in my book had been in a particular spot in that smaller-than-you-might-imagine building.
And I felt it again this time. As I walked to the back of the sanctuary, where a series of plaques list the names of the fallen, I strained to see something. Was there a new sign? Was there a place where it would tell me that “Susanna Dickinson and her daughter Angelina crouched here as the Mexicans entered”? But no. And the sinking feeling entered my stomach just as it did so long ago. The room seemed even smaller, and the display cases seemed lower, but at the end of my day as I walked back out of the gardens by the Long Barracks, past the Texas Lawmen that watch that entrance, I felt that same little let down I did as a child.
Maybe in another few decades, I’ll find what I’m looking for. Or perhaps grow up enough to let go of the need to find a character that’s only partially real.