First Alamo, Then Shopping

The Seattle Times
September 4, 2002
By Alex Tizon

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — He is a vision in beige. Calhoun is his name, Julian T. Calhoun, but he wants to be called Jake. He is an ex-Marine, 80 years old, in beige slacks, a striped beige shirt and matching leisure shoes. The cane that props him up looks positively lively by contrast; it is brown. If it must be known, Jake is not in a good mood. It might have to do with being stuck in a car, from Lakeland, Fla., his home, to this sweltering metropolis in south-central Texas, 1,200 miles in a Mercury. It is a family road trip. They came to see the Alamo.

“I guess this is all there is,” he says, wandering the Alamo’s main courtyard, which is now a garden. Jake thought it would be bigger.

And no wonder the old mission seems small. It is dwarfed by the shopping malls that surround it. The malls have even encroached on some of the old mission property. But this is only his secondary gripe. The main at the moment has to do with September 11 and the whoop-de-do over the first anniversary. He can’t flip the channels without somebody somewhere weeping about the pain and so on. “Good Lord,” he says. “Let’s move on. Enough already with this ceremony and that!”

It’s a sentiment shared by not a few, but Jake is eight decades old, and as an official Grumpy Old Man (with a wink and a pat on the back), he can say so with impunity. First, he doesn’t care what anybody thinks of him. Second, he took a bullet for his country and has earned the right to say whatever he pleases. No one at the Alamo argued with him.

Lone Star State’s soul

The road from New Mexico on Interstate 10 went from baked desert through the arid southern tail of the Rockies to the Texas hill country that constantly pours floodwaters down on San Antonio. With 1.2 million people, S.A., as locals call it, is the second-largest city in the nation’s second-largest state. It is a cosmopolis at the intersection of East and West, Central Plain and Southern swamp. Here we heard the first hints of an indigenous confederate twang. As a city that’s half-and-half gringo and Latino; parts cow town, shopping center and office sprawl; it’s been suggested the city icon be a bronze businessman in a Stetson carrying a shopping bag.

At the center of it all, in geography and symbol, lies the Alamo. If Texas had a soul, it would reside here, in the stone sanctuary of the former Spanish mission where took place in 1836 the famous battle we are exhorted not to forget. Jim Bowie of knife fame, Davy Crockett with the furry hat, and 187 other frontiersmen fought against 5,000 Mexican soldiers and lost. The battle took 13 days. Every Texan defender was killed. Afterward, Texans fed their fighting muse with “Remember the Alamo!” to eventually beat the Mexicans and gain independence.

That was then. The instant visual snapshot, upon descending into the downtown, is how forgotten the Alamo appears. “Forgotten” may be too extreme; “overlooked” might be closer, at least in the big picture.

San Antonians had the business savvy — some might say bad taste — to build one of the world’s glitziest shopping malls next door. The Rivercenter Mall, with a Venetian-style canal flowing through its heart, may be the most picturesque retail Mecca in the country. It is three stories of adobe and glass, and boasts all the trademark stores. People flock to it; the majority of them tourists. “Remember your Visa card!” might be the new battle cry.

In the year following September 11, an estimated 20 million people visited the mall. By contrast, a hundred feet over, Alamo officials hope to attract 2.5 million visitors by the end of the year. That means a whole lot of people came to San Antonio, went to the mall and passed over the shrine. We asked a number of people wandering the shopping center if they had visited the Alamo during this, the year of shattered security and resurgent patriotism. Some answers:

“Not really.”

“Is that here?”

“I thought it was a movie.”

“Maybe later, if we have time.”

“Isn’t that where, like, some war happened?”

To be fair, the same dynamic would likely occur anywhere in the country where a sacred place sat side by side with an opportunity to shop. At Pearl Harbor, for example, if the Ala Moana Shopping Center floated next to the Arizona Memorial. Or at Gettysburg if a Wal-Mart Superstore loomed across the battlefield.

Not everyone takes a dim view of this.

“I don’t feel like Jesus with the money-changers in the temple, all mad,” says H.R. “Lefty” Luster, an ex-Marine who lost his right arm in the Korean War. He lives a few hundred miles from San Antonio and is a regular patron of the Alamo. The money-changers, in this case, the retail stores, may in fact bring more exposure to the shrine, a viewpoint shared by the S.A. Chamber of Commerce. Of the 2.5 million hoped-for visitors at the Alamo, maybe half will come because of its proximity to the mall. Without it, Luster says, the shrine would be much less visited.

That isn’t a reality that Julian T. Calhoun, the man in beige, was in the mood to swallow. He and his family came to see the Alamo, and there it was, smaller than life.

September 11 brought them here. Like a whole lot of other Americans, Jake, his wife and their children experienced a renaissance of nationalism. And though he was disappointed in the Alamo’s current posture, he liked its quiet. Jake’s spot in the courtyard represented the confluence of two epic stories: the Alamo and the battle of Iwo Jima, where 7,000 Americans and 20,000 Japanese died. Jake was a member of the Fourth Marine Division. He spent 16 days at Iwo Jima before he was wounded and shipped out. “I saw a lot of men die,” he says.

So when he complains about the hoopla over 9/11, it isn’t as if he has no basis of comparison. The terrorist attacks were dastardly and tragic for the country, and we should rightly grieve, but he says, “They’re making too much of it, the media, the TV people, the politicians who’ve got their hook in it.

“Every time they find part of a bone, they make a ceremony out of it,” he says. “It just goes on and on. It was a terrible thing what happened, but it’s time to move on.”

By contrast, he says, there was something appealing about the atmosphere at the Alamo. It felt like a true shrine. It felt the way maybe grief should be handled. People walked in and walked out and didn’t say too much in-between. At the entrance to the sanctuary, next to the arched double doors that bore the weight of history, a sign read: “Be Silent, Friend. Here Heroes died to blaze a trail for other men.”