If you grew up in Texas during the ‘60s and early ‘70s, were somewhere on the middle-class continuum and had a giant blazing red Plymouth with giant, totally nonfunctional tailfins (think Christine), then you probably did the Lone Star tour during summer vacation. The Lone Star tour is generally this:
1. Lots of “Did you remember to bring XX?” followed by a few hours of “How much longer?” 2. A stop at a breakfast place in a small town café where people suspiciously eyed you “city slickers.” 3. More “How much longer?” 4. Austin, the state capitol and lots of bragging about how our capitol building is taller that that little Washington, D.C., capitol building. 5. San Antonio and a stately reverent tour of the Alamo that rivals a visit to the Vatican. Watch mom wipe a tear from her eye as she hears the tragic tale of the defenders’ sad fate. 6. On the road for more “How much longer?” 7. Houston, visit with obscure relatives who, unlike your parents, smoke. 8. “How much longer?” and “Who were those people again?” 9. And, as we pass Baytown: “What’s that smell?” 10. Boredom, whining, followed by a promise to visit the San Jacinto monument. 11. Then the capper: the Battleship Texas, which you wish was in your backyard. 12. Wait a year. Repeat.
I went back to San Antonio last week. My car is much sleeker, the radio is much nicer, but I miss the plastic-covered seats of our ’57 Belvedere, the loud-blasting air-conditioner, the blinding chrome dashboard and my sister’s vain attempts to entertain me. I’ve toured San Antonio enough that I avoided the usual historical blather. So I decided to check out a ghost tour. I didn’t really expect much. I’ve seen enough of the various “reality show” ghost programs to expect the historical veracity of a carnival barker. Still, it would be a nice walk to balance the River Walk dinner. Our tour met at the Alamo on a rainy, cool evening and our guide was James A. Swartz, part of a thriving Sisters Grimm ghost tour business. He was dressed as sort of an old West card shark – black felt hat, vest, string tie – but he had a clear commanding voice and an easygoing manner. We discussed first, of course, Texas national shrine, the Alamo. Following the battle, Swartz said, Santa Anna sent some troops back to destroy the Alamo chapel. The colonel who was sent to carry out the order returned saying they had been met at the door of the Alamo by six spirits brandishing flaming swords yelling “Depart! Touch not these walls!”
I put most of that tale less to spirits with flaming swords that just plain spirits. Swartz then took us to the Menger Hotel and gave us a bit of history of the hotel and the moment it became part of American history. That was when future President Theodore Roosevelt recruited his famous Rough Riders at the hotel bar, reputedly riding a horse into the bar. Teddy’s ghost is said to make an appearance or two, as does the ghost of Sally White, who worked at the hotel and was slain by her husband in front of the hotel. Next up was another piece of history – what is left of The Council House in San Antonio –basically a wall. I didn’t know there was anything left of the place, the scene of one of the most ill-fated and ghastly moments in Texas history – The Council House Fight in 1840, which led to years of hostilities between native Americans, in particular the Comanches – and what were then known as Texicans.
A supposed peace negation ended with 12 Comanche leaders shot to death in the Council House, 23 shot outside and 30 taken captive. On the Texas side, seven died, but many more hostages held by the Comanches were also killed in retribution. And years of animosity, war and vengeance followed. It was a bloody disaster. Ghosts? I can easily believe unquiet, unsettled souls associated with that event. One of the best stories on the tour had nothing to do with ghosts. Swartz’s wife, Lauren and her sister Allison Schiess, are partners in the ghost tour business and are also tour guides. The sisters’ great-grandmother was captured by the Comanches as a young girl. As she was being carried away she tore apart pieces of her red shawl, leaving a bread crumb-like trail. Her parents followed the bread crumb-pieces of the red shawl and rescued her. The final stop on the tour was a visit to the Old Bexar County Jail on Camaron Street, now a Holiday Inn Express. Hey, who were those original architects? Never waste a solidly-built building.
This tale involved hangings, in particular the 1923 hanging of the murderous Clemente Apolinar, who rather gruesomely killed a teenage boy. The gallows were on the third floor and the hangee would fall to the second floor – Room 304 to Room 204 to be exact. Apolinar refused the hood and when the trap opened, he fell through and the rope nearly decapitated him, spilling blood over the many pectators. They weren’t as bloodthirsty as they thought. That wasn’t the Lone Star tour of my youth, but I never asked “How much longer?” I could have gone on for hours.