(photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)
The first thing you notice about the Alamo is that it stands right in the center of San Antonio. The small, sand-colored building, surrounded by trees and a lawn of green grass, ringed by tall buildings, sits like an antique, rough-cut stone, in a modern setting.
Of course, the Alamo was there first. Everything else came along later.
I visited the Alamo for the first time late in the afternoon two days before the 175th anniversary of the battle that shaped both the legend and the aura of the Alamo, as well as the state of Texas.
I watched as people walked the grounds, stopping to read the names on the tall memorial. Some were in costume. Members of the Texas Living History Association were there to reenact the event. Horses, tied to lines strung between trees, dozed, lifting one foot and then another. Men strolled around in buckskin and homespun, some in the uniform of Mexican soldiers. The women were in bonnets and calico.
Finally, I opened the heavy wood doors and stepped inside. I am always struck by the power of a place with a past. The way inanimate buildings can breathe with life and echo silently with the sound of all they have witnessed.
In the wide central hall, visitors moved from one display to another, their voices hushed as though they were in a sacred place. The people of Texas would say they were.The air was perfumed with the cool, dry, mineral smell of stone and time.
As I stood there, listening to our guide speak of the battle, the deaths and indignities, I noticed a man walk through the door. Tall, lanky, wearing jeans and a wide cowboy hat - the quintessential Texan - he stopped and looked around him.
Then, slowly, he reached up and removed his Stetson and, with his big, rough hand cupped over the crown, held it over his heart.
I came back for the ceremony commemorating the anniversary of the battle. Standing in the crowd, shivering in the dark, I listened to the speakers and felt the concussion from the musket volleys fired at dawn. I wondered if the man who’d stood so respectfully a few days before was there, lost in the crowd.
History is such a personal thing. But it is a collective experience, as well.
I hadn’t expected to be moved by the Alamo. That is their history, after all. Not mine. But I was moved. I was deeply moved by words and faces of the people who stood there with me as the sky lightened into a deep violet over the rough stone walls of the old mission.
I came away with the lesson we so often forget in a world that moves too fast to do much more than hold on to where we are at the moment.
Ultimately, history asks only one thing of us: Remember.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org