I went on a research trip last weekend to Gonzales, Texas with my friend L.L. She’s a Texas history junkie (come to think of it, so am I) who is one of my first readers and last month she told me that Gonzales had a Pioneer Town and that since the 175th anniversary of the Battle of Gonzales was coming up, it was time for us to go on a research trip.
Some time ago when I first heard about research trips, I sort of scoffed at the idea that they were a necessity if one was writing historical fiction. Do I really need to so that? Surely I could use pictures and let my imagination do the rest. As time progressed, however, I came to realize that what I had heard was correct. There is absolutely no way a picture and my imagination could substitute for actually being there. Pictures are a flat representation and never fully transport us to the place they capture. They only convey the image, leaving all other senses out, depriving us of a full body, mind and soul experience. Think Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls. Being there humbles you and amazes you in ways that photos do not. So when L.L. told me about Pioneer Town, I was all for it.
With my trusty camera, I took scads of pictures. Buildings, how everyone dressed, children and adults alike, musket balls being made, which was one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever seen, and people whose features I can use for my characters.
Then there were the Mexican soldiers. A few walked through the settlement but did not acknowledge anyone except other soldiers. Now these soldiers didn’t actually do anything but their mere presence was enough to make me feel as if I needed to be extra careful with what I say and how I act. I felt myself sink into the past as my senses sharpened on heightened alert. As I walked around, I found myself keeping my eye out for them and I felt a bit of fear as I expected that they were watching me. It was disturbing, confusing, upsetting, and distressing all at the same time, something I never expected.
It brought to mind how the English colonists, before the American Revolution, lived with British soldiers everywhere, including their homes. Can you imagine what it would feel like if a soldier, who is not part of your family, took up residence in your home as part of his or her job, whether it be a time of war or peace? I shudder to think how different our lives would be today if our founding fathers did not include this text as the 3rd amendment in the Bill of Rights:
No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.
The soldiers I saw in Pioneer Town were not residing in the colonists’ homes but were camped on the outskirts of town in white tents with benches sitting out front. Even so, it put a damper on my spirits. Town officials also mingled at the outskirts and they talked with some of the leaders of the soldiers. One civilian leader held his child in his arms as he did so, which was another disconcerting image.
Right before the re-enactment of the actual battle, on the steps of the tavern was a debate between the norteamericano colonists concerning the government’s goal of disarmament of all Mexican citizens, including all colonists. Each side argued their position for or against this goal and I was struck at the similarities between this argument and the arguments we use today when we want the government to leave us alone to live our lives as we see fit. We humans never change.
As the debate continued, tempers flared. Imagine a group of rough men, testosterone surging, arguing that their opinion is the right opinion and that everyone else is wrong. I wanted to take a step back as the atmosphere thickened with tension and anger but at the same time I couldn’t help but watch in fascination as it seemed that a brawl was going to break out. Oh how I wished I had a video camera!
But then something amazing happened. A small group of Mexican soldiers, no more than three or four, made their way through the crowd of witnesses, mounted the steps to the tavern and entered the building. They said nothing. They did nothing. But their mere presence was like a bucket of cold water that had been thrown on the men, abruptly ending the heated discussion. It’s amazing how the power of simply being present can change everything. The civilian men dispersed, grumbling, but that was not the end of it. Not by a long shot.