The Alamo Playing Cards
This is about the deck of Alamo cards.
Or that’s what we kids in my family called them back in the fifties in Rhode Island where I grew up. Now that I look back on it, there was a lot those cards had to say on things historical, cultural, and political—really political, for me, anyway.
Here’s the story on the cards, which begins well before those fifties. In 1936 my father was a 27-year-old lawyer working for the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. (Yeah, I could assure myself as a kid that if our state with its saltwater coastline, hilly woods, and a few smallish cities tossed in for good measure was dinky, at least it had the longest official name of any state.) With a fellow young lawyer he was tapped to represent the state at a national convention for those involved in health and drug legislation, the way I understood it. The meeting would be held in Fort Worth, surely scheduled to coincide with the Texas Centennial celebration; the big expositions were being staged in both that city and neighboring Dallas. My father was still a bachelor then, and I guess it would be an adventure for him and his buddy—to travel those long miles by a whistling steam-locomotive train more than halfway across the country and do whatever business had to be done at the convention, and also enjoy themselves a bit. Which is what conventions are all about, no?
The whole thing gradually became the stuff of family legend, as such long-ago adventures often turn out to be. There’s a photograph of my father from the trip, I think, maybe shot en route and possibly in New Orleans. My father was what they used to call a “terribly handsome man.” (I can say this without any personal vanity, seeing that—sad to say—I inherited none of his good looks.) Slimly tall, fine-featured, and with a mane of wavy black hair, he’s shown in the photograph standing in sunshine in front of city buildings, one hand in the side pocket of the light-colored double-breasted suit he’s wearing. At that time he was already beginning to develop a solid professional reputation, a thoughtful and good-natured man who could become extremely eloquent once he began his courtroom cross-examination. That cross-examination was what he would be close to famous for in Rhode Island legal circles in subsequent years, as he went on to serve as a prosecutor in the state attorney general’s office, eventually going out on his own to practice. He did considerable criminal defendant work and was sort of a local hero in our town halfway up Narragansett Bay, frequently challenging the often untrustworthy local police and generally smug powers-that-be on behalf of clients not entirely well-off.
Of course, whenever my father told stories about being in Texas in 1936, there was little about the convention proper. But there was a good deal about the Fort Worth Centennial fair, smilingly recounted. How he saw Sally Rand assume the stage to perform her notorious feather-waving fan dance. How he lost 20 bucks on a gambling wheel, always convinced that the hustler running the operation in what must have been a tent booth along the fair’s mall spotted him and his Yankee buddy as a couple of easy marks (attorneys or not) and used a foot pedal to control exactly where the big spinning disk eased to a stop. How my father and the buddy apparently discovered that they could return to Rhode Island by way of a passenger boat on the Mississippi River for the same price as the train, and how they did exactly that, using a northerly rail connection to eventually get back home. My father always emphasized that somewhere chugging up the wide Mississippi, he strolled into the boat’s dining room to sit down for what he would always remember as the absolutely best grilled-trout dinner of his entire life.
Those stories would often come up when the Alamo cards were bought out. You see, one of the souvenirs he brought back from the trip was a deck of playing cards commemorating the Texas Centennial. The cards came in a fine gilt-edged black box with a cover that lifted off and that bore on it the image of the design of the cards themselves. The top half showed a black-and-white etching of the Alamo at night under big, big Texas stars. A horizontal gold stripe separated that from the lower half that had a red-white-and-blue Lone Star flag and art deco-style numerals announcing boldly in more gold, “1836-1936.”
The cards were something special, all right. They were never to be used for simple giggly games of “Go Fish” or “Hi-Lo-Jack” among us kids and our pals in the basement knotty-pine rec room, but only taken out when maybe company was assembled in the living room or when the family itself was enjoying a holiday or the like. A card game like that would entail cocktails for the grownups and ginger ale in fancy glasses for us kids, probably as preceded with the excited plea from one of us: “Can we please use the Alamo cards?” In fact, they were always kept safely in a drawer in my father’s upright secretary desk in the living room. The desk was a mahogany artifact with glass doors and brass handles, given to him as bachelor party present when he married my mother not too long after getting back from Texas. Actually, only the most important family documents were kept in that desk—deeds and diplomas and report cards, plus big-headlined newspapers from maybe the day Japan surrendered and such. True, the tales of that Texas trip would often accompany the appearance of the cards taken from one of the wide drawers lower down in the desk, but, as I said, now that I look back on it, there was more to it than that. Much more, historically, culturally, and politically.
The historical is obvious. Not only the role the cards played in our own family’s lore, but also in documenting that Centennial, a landmark Texas event. From all reports it was surely a celebration of great significance, perhaps a real gleam of hope and even national pride in the tough Depression years. The cultural, or sociological, is a bit more complicated. But the way I see it now, the cards gave me an edge, some insider’s track that put me somehow beyond most other Rhode Island kids. They knew of Texas only from the usual clichés in the TV and movies, just cowboys and oil wells and longhorn cattle lowing at twilight on the prairie. Texas, however, wasn’t merely imagined exoticism for me. There was a personal contact because my father actually had been to Texas, and we actually had the deck of Alamo cards, a little chunk of Lone Star corporeality. Not to get carried away with it in my college professor’s way, but it does bring to mind how the late literary critic Edward Said—best known for his book Orientalism—talked so often of cultural misunderstanding stemming from building up stereotypes about those we don’t know and seeing them as “the Other.” With those cards, Texans were no longer so much the Other for me. (Granted, it can work both ways, and I can easily imagine kids in Texas in the fifties summarily and mistakenly envisioning the Northeast as just a tract of overcrowded gray cities, people talking altogether too fast and putting up with altogether too much snow, a species very much the Other and nothing like themselves.) But the political aspect, that’s the one that seems most intriguing.
I remember once—either with the taking out of the cards again or just the mention of them when talking to my father about Texas—my father saying to me, very honestly and very seriously, speaking as if it was something that I as his only son should always know: “There are good Democrats in Texas.” That reflected just about the largest praise my father could give to any person and any place, because, hell, was my father ever a Democrat. Specifically, he was a dedicated, reform-minded New Deal Democrat whose supreme heroes in life were Thomas Jefferson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Okay, maybe Lincoln got thrown in too, the one Republican of suitable stature.) My father served for many years on Rhode Island’s Democratic State Committee, and also worked hard to help rewrite the state constitution as an elected Democratic delegate on a committee charged with that task. He was a presidential elector for at least one of the election years Roosevelt led the country through that stormy Depression and then the stormier times of World War II. (In the desk was a yellowing 1944 Providence Journal newspaper with the headline “Roosevelt Elected Again, Again, and Again!” as well as a formal invitation from the Roosevelt White House, the blue and gold great seal of the spread eagle and escutcheon on top. If I remember correctly, it requested my father to attend a reception there honoring presidential electors—which apparently he never did; maybe he couldn’t get away from his own busy courtroom schedule at that stage.)
Sure, my father could sometimes joke about Texas. When I was about to head to the state in 1976 for a one-year visiting professor job at a brand-new campus out toward the New Mexico border, the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, he wasn’t entirely immune to the clichés about Texas, because, let’s face it, no non-Texan really ever is. He asked me, “What the hell is the Permian Basin? Where John Wayne washes up?” And when some years later I got ready to return to Texas in 1980 to take a permanent job at the University of Texas at Austin, he laughed and said, “Be careful, you know what happened to the last LaSalle who tried to make a go of it there.” He was referring, of course, to the dauntless French explorer René- Robert Cavelier, Sieur de LaSalle (a shared name, but certainly no relation), murdered unceremoniously in 1687 by his own men inland from the doomed Fort Saint Louis settlement he established by Lavaca Bay. But all of that was simply my father’s joking.
The “good Democrats” pronouncement was entirely serious and important. Because on that trip, besides the Sally Rand show and the gambling-wheel loss of the 20 bucks—a lot of money in 1936—my father apparently did meet and befriend enough Texans at that convention in Fort Worth to assure him that Texas was overwhelmingly a place of very kindred spirits—a land of good Democrats indeed, as it definitely was at that time. And toss in any of the old diluting modifiers that you like, “Yellow Dog” or others, in the end it all came down to about the same thing—there were some good Democrats in Texas. It seems significant to note that an iconic progressive personage like LBJ, who himself was politically molded as a young man by New Deal principles, was just about the same age as my father, who passed away in 1994.
I think the cards still are in that very same desk in the big old wood-shingled house where I grew up on an out-of-the-way two-lane state road in Rhode Island and where, as a kid, I did wonder about Texas now and then—maybe in bed before dozing off and as the snow plows clanked by below my upstairs bedroom window, their red roof beacons revolving in the dark and the blades sparking blue along the pavement. One of my sisters still lives there with her family.
And now I live in Texas, far away from all of that. But I can honestly say this: More than once when I have gone over to my polling place at the little buff-stone Lutheran church on West Forty-fifth Street in Austin, I have told myself that, if nothing else, my father would be proud of me, his son, trying his best to be that very entity that in the state’s current political climate can sometimes seem a pretty tough go: “a good Democrat in Texas.” Maybe as I step up to one the new electronic voting machines, with the dials and touch screens that did take me some time to figure out, I vote with a little more conviction. I whisper to myself as sort of my own personal Texas political battle pledge and a constant reminder not to be deterred: “Can we please use the Alamo cards!”
Believe me, even today, it feels so damn good just to say it.
Peter LaSalle, who spends at least some time every summer in the town of Narragansett in his native Rhode Island, recently received the 2005 Award for Distinguished Prose from the Antioch Review, in recognition of his fiction writing.