Stories From Texas

Defenders Of The Alamo

They other day I was looking over a list of those who died at the Alamo. The one thing that struck me about the list was that the men who gave their lives there were, collectively, incredibly young.

I saw John Wayne’s film, “The Alamo,” when I was a kid and for years I had in my mind that the men who fought there were mostly in their 40s and 50s. Legends like Crockett and Bowie who dominated the film, and dominated the actual siege, too, were rightfully played by actors who were about their age. Crockett was 50 in his last days at the Alamo and John Wayne was 52 when he played him. Bowie was 39 and Richard Widmark was 46. And many of the other actors who surrounded them on screen were also over 40.

But the reality was something quite different. Well over half of the defenders of the Alamo were under 30. Fourteen were teenagers. 14! Two 16-year-olds died for Texas’ liberty there. The typical Alamo fighter was 26 years old, which was the age of their commander. That’s right, William Barret Travis was just 26 years old and the sole commander of the Alamo, at least in the last days. Bowie was originally a co-commander but he was so very sick – bedridden from typhoid or pneumonia – and that left Travis fully in charge.

Eighty percent of the men at the Alamo were 34 and under. Today we would consider folks their age millennials. And the gift they gave was all the more precious because they knew in the last days, when Santa Anna raised the pirate flag, that no surrender would be accepted. They had to win or die. And as they looked across the prairie at a force ten times their size, they knew these were likely their last days. They could have left. There were chances to get out under the cover of darkness. But they stayed, knowing that they were giving up not just their lives, but all the long years that generally awaited young men. There were even men from Gonzales who actually fought through the Mexican lines to join their brothers in arms in the Alamo. Astonishing.

And the Alamo men came from all over. Numbers can be tricky with this history, but here’s what we know based on the Alamo’s official website, 32 were from Tennessee, 15 each came from Pennsylvania and Virginia, and 14 were from Kentucky. Eight were Hispanic -– born in Mexican Texas. And Europe was involved, too: ten came from England, ten from Ireland, four from Scotland, two from Germany.

Santa Anna was enraged that the Texans were rebelling. His plan was to launch a massive military campaign to crush the rebellion and make the Texans pay for it. I’m not making this up. The great historian T. R. Fehrenbach pointed out that Santa Anna planned to make the Texans pay for the military operation they caused by taking all of their lands and giving it to his soldiers and other Santanistas.

Meanwhile, William Barret Travis, though very young, wrote the most famous letters of the revolution. One letter, addressed ‘To the People of Texas and All Americans in the World,” asked for immediate reinforcements. He specified that his situation was dire. If they were not victorious, they would all be “put to the sword.” But he vowed he would “never surrender or retreat.” The letter was signed, “Victory or Death.”

Another that Travis wrote to the Texas government, which was more significant for what it prophesied, said this: “the victory will cost the enemy so dear, that it will be worse for him than a defeat.” And indeed, Santa Anna lost a third of his troops, about 600, which greatly demoralized the rest. This was followed by a forced march of 300 miles to San Jacinto, which so exhausted Mexican soldiers that they were actually caught napping when General Sam Houston attacked.

The Texans’ victory over Santa Anna after the fall of the Alamo and Goliad was so unlikely that it was similar to the odds of a baseball game in which the home team is down 29 runs to nothing. It’s the bottom of the 9th. Two outs. It’s a full count. Houston at bat.

Against those kinds of odds, the Texans rallied and crushed Santa Anna’s forces so decisively that it was all over in 18 minutes. Some say ten.

Without the men at the Alamo softening up, demoralizing and exhausting Santa Anna’s forces, it is unlikely that Houston’s army would have enjoyed such a resounding victory at San Jacinto. That is why we should always “Remember the Alamo,” and the mostly very young men who gave their lives for Texas’ freedom.

Texas As A Unit Of Measure

By W. F. Strong

Tom Hanks in the movie “Cast Away” was stranded all alone on a deserted pacific island. He was the lone survivor of a plane crash. The seriousness of his situation sunk in as he did the math in his head. He explained radial geometry to Wilson (his Volleyball friend) as he illustrated their predicament on a stone wall. He concluded, impressively, that since they went 400 miles out of their way to circumvent the storm the search area would be (400 miles squared x pi) 500,000 square miles. And he thought a moment and added, dejectedly, “it’s twice the size of Texas!”

Texas is often used as a unit of measure like that – in movies and in the real world. Exactly 30 years ago this week, Texas Congressman Mickey Leland’s plane disappeared over Ethiopia. It took a week for a massive search to find the crash site. During that week people around the world couldn’t believe that they couldn’t find the plane, despite dozens of aircraft looking for it. A frustrated Search Commander explained to the media, “We are looking for a needle in a haystack. The haystack is half the size of Texas.”

More recently many a news report warned about the growing environmental disaster of a floating island of plastic trash out in the Pacific, which is twice the size of Texas. And this is not just for U.S. consumption. Worldwide it seems to be a comparison that provides clarity for people because most people around the world know at least one thing about Texas – it’s BIG.

Even Alaska uses Texas to explain its size. “We’re more than twice the size of Texas,” they say. Of course one of those Texases is mostly snow and ice.  Just kidding Alaska. As far as states go, we’re brothers. BFFs.

People have a good deal of fun on the Internet laying Texas over other countries and regions of the world. It’s bigger than Spain, bigger than France, bigger than Germany, twice the size of England and bigger than Japan.

Texas was even used as a unit of measure in relation to Pluto. When Pluto was kicked out of the Solar System (as a planet anyway) and demoted to a dwarf planet, there were people who said, as justification,  “It’s smaller than Texas!” That was truly an exaggeration. As the Austin American-Statesman pointed out in 2015, Pluto is has almost twice the diameter of Texas, if you use the state’s widest point, which is north to south, and Pluto is 24 times larger than Texas by land area. Still, interesting that was used as a unit of measure even way there in space, or 4.6 billion Texases away.

Even we Texans like to use Texas distances to illustrate things and amuse ourselves. We enjoy noting that El Paso is closer to the Pacific Ocean beaches of San Diego than it is to Beaumont. Brownsville is closer to Mexico City than it is to Dallas. Reminds me that a friend from Chicago once had a conference in El Paso to attend. He decided to take that chance to get a good look at Texas. He flew into Dallas, rented a car and enthusiastically started driving to El Paso. He said I knew it would be long drive,” but after driving about 3 hours I got to Abilene and was immediately depressed by the sign I saw there: El Paso 444 miles.”

We Texans know that the first day of a driving vacation to anyplace outside of Texas will be devoted to getting out of Texas. Maybe our version of the Chinese saying should be, “A journey of a 1000 miles begins with a long drive to the border.”

We do have fun finding all the ways that border cities are closer to Chicago or Denver or Nashville than they are to other parts of the state, which is why we measure distance in hours more often than miles. And most Texans think we are closer to heaven than most anywhere else – we’re God’s Country, they say. This time of year, though, it often feels like we are closer to – Well I’m out of time. Gotta run. I’m W.F. Strong and these are stories from Texas. Some of them are true.

Texas Standard: March 21, 2018

With more than 500 federal state and local agents closing in, the Austin serial bomber blows himself up by the side of I-35. What we’re learning about the 24 year old behind a series of bomb attacks that gripped the state capitol city. We’ll speak with the mayor of Austin, Steve Adler on what might be some early takeaways from an incident unprecedented in the city’s history. Also, danger: the state’s credit rating may be primed to take a hit, the Texas comptroller joins us do discuss. Plus calls from republicans for Governor Abbot to show some humility? Those stories and more today on the Texas Standard:

Texas Standard: September 20, 2017

7.1 on the Richter Scale: a deadly earthquake in central Mexico on the anniversary of a historic temblor. We’ll take you to Mexico city this hour. Also, the military plane is designated for TX and it could be a shot in the arm for you know where, we’ll have the story. Plus Ken Paxton says president Obama tried to confer citizenship status on daca recipients: Politifact Texas looks into that claim. And they say that news is the first draft of history. Now comes an important second draft you might say, with an exploration of a Texas reshaped by Harvey. Our conversation with the editor in chief of Texas monthly. Those stories and so much more today on the Texas Standard: