Sunday, July 02, 2006

San Jacinto

With a couple of days off we decided to try and make it to the destination we were thwarted in visiting two years ago: San Jacinto Battlefield and the Battleship Texas. In 2004 a really nasty, blinding, typhoon-like storm jumped us and finally turned us back. This time its lesser cousin tried the same thing, especially as we headed down through the middle of Houston. This kind of thing almost made us wonder if perhaps we're not meant to visit this particular tourist attraction, but we rejected that as mere superstition and pressed on.

Along the way we ate parts of our lunch. I'd bought 24 tamales from the sister or sister-in-law of one of our managers at work, and we'd eaten those for lunch, along with my son's marvelous double chocolate cookies and a jug of Jamaica Kool-aid.

Eventually we arrived and found that the San Jacinto Monument -- the tallest memorial edifice in the world -- had been closed for a year to bring it up to code and just opened this very day! I don't recall seeing that in the news at all, but it contradicts the storm's idea that we shouldn't be there. Not all of it is open yet unfortunately, the most disappointing being a way to get to the tippy-top of the monument. What a view that must be.

But the museum at the base has a fascinating collection of first-hand memorabilia from Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, and the like. From the Spanish era they even have a sword discovered in Kansas and dating from the time Coronado came through. It's one of the few pieces of evidence we have for what his route may have been, and it's here at San Jacinto. Very impressive! My daughter took videos until she got bored with it.

Very few people were there, which was surprising to me. I thought with the low entry price ($1 per person, and kids 12 and under are free), significance to Texans, and holiday weekend the monument would be pretty busy. Maybe the rain drove them all away -- although my daughter saw one of her school friends there among the tiny knots of visitors.

In a totally empty area of the monument parking lot we found a time capsule, filled with documents and messages by the people of 1960 -- from Ike on down. It's due to be opened in 2036, 200 years after the Battle of San Jacinto and in 1960 there was no doubt an impressive ceremony when they placed it there. But at the present moment, it looks like nothing more impressive than an obscure inscribed stone, tucked away and overgrown with grass.

In fact, the whole area looks as though it hasn't been cared for in a while, but signs assure you it's supposed to be this way. They're trying to get the flora and fauna back to what it was in 1836. The huge reflecting pool, which had nothing but a drizzly, grey sky to reflect, looks particularly overgrown, and is filled with highly aggressive mosquito's. I wore long pants but my poor son didn't and was thoroughly chewed up.

The dark blue Battleship Texas, the world's last surviving dreadnought class ship and a participant in both World Wars (including such epoch making events as D-Day and Iwo Jima) was just as fascinating. You pay your $9 and are free to wander the entire mostly restored ship. The looks, smells, and accoutrements are completely authentic, particularly the engine room which is three or four narrow, darkened stairwells down in the deepest bowels of the ship.

People were killed on this ship, as signs remind you, including one episode where a German shell smashed into the bridge and exploded. The radar antennas are still rotating, the deck guns swivel just like the old days, and the whole place smells like diesel in varying degrees. If you have a group of some kind they'll actually let you sleep on board, though it's quite stuffy so I think I'll wait till winter to make my reservation. It would be interesting to ride out a hurricane on the Texas though!

Coming down the gangplank we found ourselves in the site where Texans camped during the battle with Generalissimo Santa Ana, and began exploring that. Unfortunately two misfortunes happened about that time. First, my son noticed that the pictures we'd taken thus far with our cheapo digital camera had somehow been erased! That's why none of these photos show all the things I've described so far; the photos we have start as we were walking down the gangplank.

Then while I was videotaping granite markers in the Texan's campsite, the picture in my viewfinder suddenly went berzerk, fell dark, and the camera shut itself down. I was hoping it had just run unaccountably out of batteries but at home it still refuses to do anything at all, on batteries or current, including show us the video we took. Looks like it's dead, and I really do not have money for a new one.

At any rate, we continued to explore and I got a few shots of such things as the graveyard and the tree (well, a replacement tree) where painfully wounded Sam Houston accepted Santa Ana's surrender.

The disappointing but intrinsically Texan thing about San Jacinto is that the very well-done monument, battlefield, and ship are surrounded on all sides by oil refineries. It's sort of the same thing I noticed with the Alamo: A magnificent shrine to freedom and democracy has been reverently erected -- and then throttled on every side with everyday, prosaic business. At San Jacinto, the birthplace of Texas freedom, you're almost asphyxiated with toxic crude oil aromas, and the very spot of surrender is backgrounded with refinery towers and tug boats.

But aside from that, if you turn your back on the 21st century and concentrate on the dreadnought of the 20th and the battlefield of the 19th, it's a fascinating and moving experience.

The rain had let up for the most part when the park closed and we drove home to Tarantino's Pizza for dinner. Too bad we couldn't watch the video.

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