My San Antonio

You can take the man out of Texas…

The dates of the siege of the Alamo are so ingrained that I always think about home at this time of year. I’ve laid down some memories and offer a warning that they’re my memories and mine, unapologetically, alone.

The Mexicans must have had mixed feelings about San Antonio of the early 1970s. In the 130-some years since General Santa Anna was sent home with his tail between his legs and Texas won the right to ally itself however it wished or not at all, San Antonio had grown and flourished. It managed, quite remarkably, to become a true metropolis – “America’s 10th Largest City!” boasted the tourism literature – while maintaining the rich historic charm of its past.

Directly across the street from the unmistakable front face of the Alamo sat a Woolworth’s, what was known regionally not as a Five-and-Dime but simply as a Dime Store. It might have perplexed some visitors that they could buy piñatas, postcards and mouthwash on the very spot where Mexican troops once breached the fortress’s west wall. But that was Texas the gangly teenager of a state, caught in the mystery land between chaste youth and unavoidable, sometimes reckless maturity. San Antonio experienced this push-pull more than its larger, glitzier siblings Dallas to the north and Houston to the east for several reasons. First there was its unique geography, equidistant from Houston – America’s 6th Largest City! – and the Mexican border. But also playing a big role in San Antonio’s evolution was the fact that it was home to not one but four United States Air Force installations and to Fort Sam Houston, headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Army.

The Alamo, of course, drew the most visitors. It had been only a decade since John Wayne’s caricature Davy Crockett went to glory swinging his rifle on the Big Screen and interest was never higher. People came from around the world to stand before the “fortress that became a shrine.” Invariably the first words out of these pilgrims’ mouths were, “It’s smaller than I expected,” but any momentary disappointment dissipated quickly after entering the chapel. The unsmiling nunlike women of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, the group entrusted with the preservation and operation of the Alamo, met guests not with smiles of welcome but with loud shushes and gusty admonitions to “take off your hat!” Hats in the Alamo were, on the Scale of Sartorial Sin, equal to hot pants in St. Peter’s. It was not unheard of for one of these women to step primly from behind the reception desk and remove a man’s hat for him.

Despite the less-than-effusive greetings people received, they were nevertheless always moved to be standing in the same chamber where Crockett, Travis, Bowie and the rest spent their final hours. Visitors to the Alamo experienced both the solemnity of the great European cathedrals and the heart-racing thrill of meeting a movie star.

Back outside, San Antonio played its own music. Not just from mariachis – they weren’t yet cliché – but from the only-in-Texas symphony of drawly speech, honks of traffic, mamacitas beckoning their jovenes back from the curb. Along the Riverwalk – the unabashedly artificial buildup of paths and restaurants along the artificially rerouted creek known as the San Antonio River, all of it 30 feet below street level – the grumble of Evinrude outboards could also be heard as they chugged bargefuls of diners back and forth while they ate enchiladas. Those barges were an attraction unto themselves, and the tourist-diners were themselves photographed at least as often as they memorialized their own views. Aboard the barges these folks sat not more than ten feet from the so-called riverbank.

San Antonio didn’t clang like New York or growl like Chicago. It snored. It snored and it was proud. In a world of motion picture extravaganzas and Movies of the Week San Antonio was AM Radio. It didn’t carry a chip on its shoulder like Houston and Dallas. (Those cities were perpetually engaged in a game of one-upmanship. Houston: “We’re bigger.” Dallas: “Our metropolitan area is bigger.” Houston: “That doesn’t matter. It includes Ft. Worth and that’s a whole ‘nuther city.” Dallas: “Think what you want.” etc.) San Antonio became a big city seemingly without trying. It just grew. It developed sprawl like other American cities of the age, and the farther one traveled from downtown the less distinctive it became.

Five miles out was a ring of shopping malls, spaced like turrets on a medieval castle. A person could live for a year in one of those malls and not mind it very much. They were air-conditioned. Another five miles beyond lay expanses of country – low rocky hills, scrub oaks, rattlesnakes, roadrunners and two-lane highways (speed limit 55).

Between these two belts is where most of middle- and upper-class San Antonio lived their lives. They moved about, of course, and making a trip “inside the loop” was like a Belgian hopping into Holland for the afternoon to buy tulips. Not a big deal. Subdivisions, schools, office buildings, supermarkets would have been hard to distinguish from their counterparts in St. Louis or Denver. At the beginning of the 1970s Mexican restaurants were still a novelty, something exotic.

“Ma’am, can you tell me how to eat this?” “It’s a tostada.” “Yes. How do I eat it?” “With a knife and fork.”

By decade’s end the city was thick with Taco Bells, McDonald’s and Church’s Fried Chicken. Chinese restaurants flourished. Freeways clogged with motorists wanting to get somewhere besides where they were. Somewhere, anywhere else.

The San Antonio of tourist guides became more and more a circus confined to a few square blocks downtown. HemisFair, the site of the 1968 World’s Fair, was semi-derelict. The Alamo and Riverwalk had become parts of an amusement park, and their names might just as well have had “Land” tacked on at the end.

Still, people enjoyed going there and being there. Natives and visitors alike always smiled. Even in nine-months-out-of-the-year heat that hung over a person like a wool blanket, folks made jokes more than they complained.

“Hot enough for ya?” “Boy howdy!”

 

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