(August 28, 1998)
On the morning of March 6, 1997, William Davis sat in a room overlooking the Alamo in the Emily Morgan Hotel in San Antonio, putting the final touches on a book almost as extraordinary as the events that had transpired on the same site 161 years earlier.
The world remembers the Alamo, and I predict it will remember Davis' book, "Three Roads to the Alamo." It is a stunning work -- well written, exceedingly well-researched, interesting, and enlightening. Published by Harper Collins, the 791-page book sells for $35.
"Three Roads to the Alamo" is the story of three men: David Crockett (he preferred that to Davy), James Bowie and William Barrett Travis. It is not an Alamo book per se, but it puts the Alamo in perspective and shows how its three most famous defenders got there.
Daniel Laney, Austin attorney and Civil War buff who knows Davis through his many books on the conflict between the North and the South, gets the credit for coming up with a new word to describe this biography times three: Triography.
"Three Roads to the Alamo" is the story of three men whose lives are interesting to us -- and generations before us -- mainly because of the manner of their deaths.
Davis begins his book with a chapter on Crockett, who was the oldest, then devotes a chapter to Bowie. The author advances the story of Crockett and Bowie's lives in alternate chapters until Travis enters the picture chronologically. Then he alternates chapters on all three men until, finally, they are together at the old Spanish mission in San Antonio known as the Alamo.
A novelist could not have woven a better story, or come up with a better structure for its telling. We know how the story is going to end, but getting there is an adventure of discovery.
Because of courthouse fires, lost papers and the passage of time, there is much we will never know about these three men. But Davis has come up with enough previously unmined information (with the help of the State Department, for instance, he gained access to the Mexican military archives in Mexico City) to expand what we do know about Crockett, Bowie and Travis. His research also refutes a fair amount of what we thought we knew about the Alamo triad.
One myth was easy to shoot down: That the three heroes of the Alamo met prior to their arrival in San Antonio early in 1836. A supposed meeting in 1828 at a dinner in honor of President Andrew Jackson in New Orleans simply did not happen. Travis was only 18 years old at the time, still living in Alabama. Crockett was elsewhere and though Bowie might have been in New Orleans at the time, he did not make the dinner.
Davis' research shows that Bowie was more of a scoundrel than most die-hard Texans would like to think, that Crockett was not as much of a bumpkin as popularly believed and that Travis was more competent than generally perceived. Further, Bowie should have ended up in prison for forgery and land fraud, Crockett wasn't successful at much of anything other than talking and Travis was a womanizer who fled to Texas to escape debt.
But on March 6, 1836, Travis died game, one of the first to fall as Santa Anna's soldiers poured into the makeshift Texian fortress. Bowie would have died fighting, too, if he hadn't been in bed racked with chills and fever, about to die anyway from typhoid. And Crockett? Well, Davis says he could have been executed after the battle as some have claimed, he might have died swinging Old Betsy as many Texans would like to believe or he might have climbed over the wall when all was lost and died trying to run for it. We probably never will know for sure, Davis says.
"Three Roads to the Alamo" has nowhere near as many flaws as the men whose lives it explores, but it could have benefited from one more edit. A few -- but only a few -- sentences are a bit too convoluted and some of the paragraphs go on longer than they should. Still, these are merely a scattering of rough spots on a literary monument of, for the most part, gracefully carved marble.
Davis' endnotes and bibliographic essay are nearly as interesting as the text itself. In a critical look at previous books on the three men whose lives he has captured to the extent that he could, Davis wields a figurative Bowie knife in cutting the literature down to size.
The principal problem with almost all of what has been written about Crockett, Bowie and Travis (with a few exceptions Davis is fair about naming) is the reliance on folklore. As Davis said in his introductory essay, "Men and Legends," previous authors "perhaps . . . were too enamored of the myth to want to supplant it with a reality that might be prosaic rather than lurid or heroic."
An unwillingness or inability to dig as deeply as Davis has done is more likely the reason that most of the previous studies of these men are of lackluster quality and heavy on legend. (Legend does make for interesting reading, but it should always be so labeled.)
Even though Davis has debunked many of the myths surrounding the three men whose death at the Alamo assured them a form of immortality, he reminds us that we let go of our myths reluctantly. When we do give up on a myth, he said, "we leave a hole in the story that we cannot fill with fact, for in proving something did not happen, we do not automatically establish what did."
(August 21, 1998)
Mr. Green Jeans. Dead.
Captain Kangaroo. Dead.
Buffalo Bob Smith. Dead.
Roy Rogers. Dead.
Many of the cultural icons of the Baby Boomers are dead or nearing the proverbial last roundup, but one rides on, though he's well into his 80s. And the character he played will live on forever.
"Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear..." Need I write more? "Hi-Yo, Silver. Away!"
I always though it was "Hi Ho, Silver," which is pleasant alliteration, but that makes no difference here. I'm talking about the Lone Ranger, of course, a white-hatted straight shooter in both the moral and ballistic sense who was such a good shot he never had to kill a bad man. His well-aimed silver bullets always made neat flesh wounds or shot pistols from hands. In fact, bad guys messing with the Lone Ranger and "his faithful Indian companion" Tonto were more likely to be decked with a punch than a pistol.
The Lone Ranger, created during the Depression by Detroit radio station owner George Washington Trendle and scriptwriter Fran Striker, served the parents of Baby Boomers on radio, beginning in 1933. In 1949, the show had its television debut and until 1954, ran concurrently with the radio program. The TV show went on for 221 episodes until 1957, but in the memory of millions of Americans born after World War II, the Lone Ranger always will be riding the West of their imagination, slugging it out with evil doers.
The man behind the mask for most of the time during the TV years was Chicago-born Clayton Moore, who at 84 lives with his fourth wife in Los Angeles. With Frank Thompson, a writer specializing in Hollywood history, Moore has written a memoir. Aptly titled "I Was That Masked Man," the 266-page book was published by Taylor Publishing Co. in 1996 and has just been released in a trade paperback at $10.95. The hardback is still available at $22.95.
Actually, Moore was only one of many masked men who played the role of the Lone Ranger, but he is the best known. Four men portrayed the Lone Ranger on radio. Moore had the television job the longest, but was replaced for a couple of seasons by John Hart.
Graying Lone Ranger fans will enjoy Moore's recollections as will anyone interested in television history. His is an insider's look at what it was like on the set as the Lone Ranger made history -- it was the first Western produced for television. Hopalong Cassidy had been the first on the air, but the material telecast was old movie footage. Beyond the recollections of his -- and the Lone Ranger's -- heyday, Moore reflects on his post-Lone Ranger life.
Books like "I Was That Masked Man" provide much previously unknown detail in the lives of these people who were the role models of a generation, but they raise questions, too. Not necessarily questions that should be answered in books about entertainment figures, but pertinent questions worth addressing by someone.
A few that come to mind:
The answers to those questions could help us in our struggle to decide whether some aspects of popular media today -- particularly television shows with violence or heavy emphasis on sex -- are harmful, or merely something another generation will look back on with nostalgia. It's hard to imagine "Beavis and Butthead" being the subject of future fond reminiscences, but the show probably will get similar attention as its current fans age.
The notion of getting a Big Picture from the little screen aside, Moore and Thompson's "I Was That Masked Man" is an interesting read, especially for those of us for whom the William Tell Overture will always be the theme music for the Lone Ranger.
(August 14, 1998)
Many of my friends probably wonder why, during a summer marked by record-breaking heat and dozens of heat-related deaths, I would want to go to a remote beach with no conveniences to be as one with the sand crabs and sea gulls.
Well, the lack of conveniences is the answer, of course. Particularly the lack of convenient communication. Cell phone and pager service might actually be available where I'm going, but I hope not. As you read this, I will be playing Robin Crusoe on Matagorda Island. The only way to get there is to be shipwrecked or to take a ferry across from Port O'Connor. The Karankawa Indians are long gone, but otherwise the island is pretty much as it has always been.
"There is no drinking water, concession, electricity, or telephone" at Matagorda Island State Park reports "The Camper's Guide to Texas Parks, Lakes and Forests." Compiled by Mickey Little and published by Gulf Publishing Co., the 216-page guidebook sells for $18.95.
This part of coastal Texas, happily, is not overly developed. It's one of the few places within an easy drive of Austin where a person can truly get away from it all. Oh, there may be a few other hardy souls camped out on the island, but trust me, there won't be many.
After taking a ferry from Port O'Connor to the old air base dock on the bay side of the island, the beach camping area is still a 2.5 mile walk away, though there is a shuttle for those not inclined to hoof it.
If pretending to be a shipwrecked sailor is not your idea of fun, the newly released fourth edition of this camper's guide offers plenty of other choices. More than 80 state parks have camping areas in addition to 26 lakes under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 17 lakes under various other entities, four national forests with 16 recreational areas offering camping and six national parks.
Since this book was first published several years ago, 16 new state parks have been opened in addition to five other major non-state supported camping areas. That's why it has been updated and reissued. The new edition features color photographs by Wyman Meinzer and a detachable Texas map.
The book divides the state's camping places into four regions. For each area, the book provides an updated map, information on how to get there and a listing of the facilities and activities available at a particular spot.
At Matagorda Island, for instance, there is two miles of Gulf beach, an historic light house and cemetery, hiking paths and plenty of fishing, boating or swimming opportunities.
Beyond the basic information for each public camping area in Texas, the information offered on pages 14-15 of the book may be the most important. Those pages, suitable for personal photocopying, contain checklists of basic camping equipment, basic cooking equipment and basic hiking/backpacking needs.
If you've ever been on the road to camp and suddenly remembered you had not remembered your sleeping bag, you will find these lists very helpful. Even if you are a veteran camper, lists are a good idea. In fact, most veteran campers routinely fall back on a checklist as they get ready for their latest adventure.
Speaking of remembering things, I just thought of another reason I like to go camping in remote places: The first hot shower after two days on the beach makes those every day showers absolutely mundane in comparison.
(August 7, 1998)
The Federal Parity in Punditry Act (FPPA) -- a law which mandates that all columnists weigh in with their opinion on certain issues everyone else is writing about -- requires attention today to The List.
Surely you have read about The List, a ranking by a jury of writers and scholars (with some overlapping) of the 100 best novels written in the English language this century. The List even made the cover of Newsweek, if only as an across the upper right corner teaser.
Random House's Modern Library imprint got the kind of publicity you can't buy (actually, you can, but that's another column) for releasing the list of the 100 best 20th Century novels. (Probably coming soon: the 100 best novels never written.) James Joyce's "Ulysses," the book which marked the emergence of the modern novel, was top on the list of published works of fiction since 1901.
In accordance with FPPA, columnists of all ilk, from political pundits to humor writers to book critics, have seized on the release of The List as an easy way to turn out one more column in the midst of a slow, hot summer.
To save you from having to read all these other columns, four principal themes have emerged:
All this aside, the truth is that once again, the dark forces of one world conspiracy -- the people who fly around in unmarked black helicopters monitoring and controlling our thoughts through the signals transmitted and received by the computer chips they have secretly implanted in our brains -- have begun with the release of The List another clever mind suppression operation. (Aluminum foil wrapped around your cranium will block these waves, incidentally.) The latest trick of the conspiracists is to tell us what we should be reading. This plot hinges, of course, on whether anyone these days is reading anything published on paper.
It should be known that there is a Texan involved in this sinister mind control scheme -- Salado writer A. C. Greene. The University of North Texas Press has recently published a revised edition of a book Greene did in 1982, "The 50 Best Books on Texas." The new version is "The 50+ Best Books on Texas" (120 pages, $19.95).
To be precise, "The 50+ Best Books on Texas" lists 57 titles. Why did Greene stop only 43 books short of listing the 100 best books? When his list amounted to only 50 books, Greene offered an explanation in his original introduction: "When this idea [for the book] was first proposed, it was suggested that a list of the best hundred Texas books be made, but I said no. While a hundred good titles could be assembled, one hundred opens the gate too widely. So, fifty it is."
Green's list, as opposed to The List, includes both fiction and non-fiction. In fact, Greene lists slightly more non-fiction books than novels, though a precise count is impossible since some Texas non-fiction contains a section or two of blanket-stretching (as provided for under the Literary License Act), while some fiction contains more truth than non-fiction.
One of Greene's new additions to his best list is Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove," winner of the 1986 Pulitzer Prize. In including "Lonesome Dove," which is Texas' "Ulysses" with Homer's "Odyssey" thrown in, Greene rightly expunged McMurtry's "Leaving Cheyenne" from his first list.
Greene emphasizes in his book that the opinions expressed are his, and not an attempt to sway others to his way of thinking. But one of those opinions definitely deserves to be singled out: "While the American novel becomes more personal and interior, and national publishing turns more and more to celebrities, certain stories will continue to draw their inspiration and interpretation from the land and culture that surrounds them, and the power of Texas [the word "Texas" should be optional here] literature will continue to come from that enormous source."
Most students of Texana will agree with the majority of Greene's choices in "The 50+ Best Books on Texas," though there is certainly Texas-size room for argument on some of his inclusions as well as on some of the titles he did not list.
Of course, that's the point of lists. The real value of Greene's book and other comparative orderings of a literary nature, including the recently-released list of modern English-language novels, actually is a sort of mind control. They cause us to think about books -- and maybe even read books.