Friday, 22 April 2016

Popeye's Concentration Camp

It's the weekend and the kid is away, most likely on his father's boat down in the Gulf of Mexico, face glued to a screen as he plays a game in which you have to manoeuvre a virtual kid onto a boat and get him fishing; so Bess and I have a day of doing whatever we like.

'How about Crystal City?' I suggest. 'How far is that?'

'Not too far,' She tells me, and it's settled.

She has been reading Jan Jarboe Russell's The Train to Crystal City, an account of the internment camp which was there during the second world war - the concentration camp, if we're to be honest. It was set up for the detention of persons of Japanese and - to a lesser extent - German or Italian heritage, those mostly American citizens whom the government suspected of having potentially divided loyalties. It was a long, long way from being fair, and life in the camp was tough in many respects, but on the other hand, aside from no-one being able to leave, I gather the inmates were for the most part looked after at least as well as anyone staying at a Ramada Inn. Some were to serve as bargaining pieces to be repatriated in exchange for the release of American families or hostages trapped over the other side, and so it was in everyone's interest that they should suffer no great hardship. In the historical hierarchy of concentration camps, Crystal City had very little in common with those set up by the Nazi regime in Poland; and yet the very existence of the place seems peculiar, like something from an alternate history - America's concentration camp.

It was nothing to be proud of - not least when some Jewish families were repatriated back to what had then not quite been officially recognised as a genocidal regime - but it was otherwise tame compared to what was happening in Europe and Japan.

Crystal City is about twenty miles from the Mexican border, south-west of us, therefore a drive of about 120 miles which we guess will take a couple of hours. The place isn't exactly near anything, which is presumably why it was chosen for the camp.

It's sunny, hot but not unpleasantly so, and we set off, initially heading for Pearsall - which is where Bess grew up - then taking US-57 west towards La Pryor. I've been west to New Mexico, but this is further to the south and the landscape is quite different. Mostly it's flat and arid, a forest of mesquite trees from one horizon to the other, and these are small, crabby mesquite, nothing ever reaching the heights or stature of the one we have in our garden in San Antonio.

As my wife read about Crystal City, I'd been ploughing my way through W.W. Newcomb's The Indians of Texas, picked up when I realised how little I actually knew about those who had occupied this land for most of its history. Unfortunately it turns out that not too much is known of the native Texans, partially because so many of them were nomadic cultures, and partially because it seems their decline began even before Europeans turned up and started building. San Antonio borders the former territories of a number of different groups, and the land to the south was inhabited by a disparate array of wandering tribes now remembered as Coahuiltecs, more for the sake of geographical convenience than anything. I was familiar with these people only in so much as that the Mexica who built temple platforms in Tenochtitlan far to the south would have dubbed them Chichimecs, a generic term for the nomadic tribes of northern Mexico roughly implying those who suckle at nature's breast. In the case of our Coahuiltecs, Newcomb suggests that the lifestyle was a matter of making do rather than choice, and that tribes inhabiting land such as is found in the far south of Texas have most likely done so having been driven away from some more fertile terrain. As nomads who lived rough and left few significant cultural artefacts behind, the Coahuiltecs are not so well remembered as their more settled neighbours, seeming more suited to the misleading historical role of the savage. Newcomb's book somewhat redresses this misconception, suggesting they were a quick-witted, civilised, and above all, adaptable people who managed to thrive in an environment which would have left most of us struggling at best.

Now as we head for Crystal City, I realise we are passing through what might be considered former Coahuiltec land, which is an oddly exciting thought. I gaze from the car window and consider what it would be like trying to get by out here. It's a subject Bess and I have stumbled across in the course of idle conversation many times, most recently as I related what I'd read about Coahuiltecs finding themselves obliged to eat poo.

It's not such a leap as you might think - or at least it doesn't seem so to me - but there is simply no milder way of putting it. I regularly see deer turds whilst I'm out cycling, and to me they resemble a more rustic version of the Lion Bar, containing plenty of large seeds, some dry grass, and very little material left to be identified as the actual turd. Barring the advent of the apocalypse, I'm never going to pick one up and take a bite, but I can see it might not be such a terrible option if your hunger becomes a matter of life or death. Hunger almost certainly was a matter of life or death for the Coahuiltecs, some of whom occasionally went one stage further and recycled undigested seeds found in their own poo, a practice referred to as the second harvest, and I can't even tell if that's funny or not. It's either disgusting or else it seems disgusting to me, but times were tough and I guess they knew what they were doing.

'Wouldn't you just eat grass?' Bess often suggests, horrified. The question usually arises as she describes the true story of someone forced to eat their own sofa during wartime conditions. It was a leather sofa.

Now we're following US-83 from La Pryor down to Crystal City, the home stretch, and we're both looking at the scrubby mesquite forest thinking about how it would be to live in this land without any real shade.

'What about mesquite beans?' she asks. 'Those trees make a ton of those things.'

'They ate those too, but not all year round.'

'Well, there are cacti.'

'Yes.' I note how there is barely a patch of sandy ground as far as can be seen which doesn't have nopal cacti springing from it. Black vultures circle in a distant part of the sky, so I guess there must also be the occasional bunny, maybe even deer.

Bess is still scowling. 'I don't know - eating your own poo...'

'Well, they probably had a lot of mouths to feed, and we'll never know how it was for them. I guess they did what they had to do.'

We pass a wild turkey at the side of the road. It's tall, slender, and quite dark. It reminds me of a dinosaur from Jurassic Park. This is only the second time I've seen one.

They're very intelligent,' Bess tells me. 'Not like the farmed ones. Those things are really goofy.'

When we come to Crystal City the place looks deserted, although to be fair, having grown up tightly packed into the twenty or so square miles of England's countryside, it doesn't even resemble anything I would call a city. The road is long and fairly straight and I can see a sum total of about three houses set back in the bush at any one time - as I suppose you would call it - rusted farm machinery occupying adjacent plots of dry ground. Eventually some of those buildings we pass seem a little bigger, and one of them is a library, so I suppose I may as well accept that it's a city by some definition.

'Wait,' I say, struggling to recall something to which I hadn't paid too much attention on the local news. 'Isn't this the place where there's no-one left in charge?'

Bess nods, but she doesn't recall much detail either.

The mayor and a whole load of city council types presently reside in the stripy hole on charges of corruption. We watched them all led away in cuffs on the KSAT news programme a few nights ago as we were waiting for Wheel of Fortune. There is no-one in charge - whatever that means - and this realisation strikes me as momentarily alarming in relation to the state of the place. We pass an occasional vehicle, but I see no people. I'm half expecting a tribe of cinematic anarchists from a TV show to emerge from a distant street, all shaking firearms and crowded onto the battered skeleton of a truck pulled by a team of horses.

We find the concentration camp on Popeye Lane. There's a sports ground, an athletics track, and a housing project a little way away. All that is left of the camp are crumbling concrete squares marking where the huts once stood, smaller squares at the centre of each which I guess may have been fireplaces. The ground is flat and incongruously waterlogged with crab grass concealing puddles here and there. We stand and read the plaque which has been mounted in acknowledgement of the place and how we probably shouldn't feel too proud of this detail of American history.

Bess is looking for Popeye.

Crystal City was known for its spinach, and in turn for its spinach factory, which I assume must have been a canning plant. Half of the accounts recorded in the book my wife has been reading mention a statue of Popeye, the cartoon sailor and spinach enthusiast, seen by inmates arriving at the camp. She consults Google on her iPhone, and then we drive a little further to where the statue has been relocated. I guess no-one felt too good about having Popeye the Sailor Man associated with a concentration camp. We find him under a canopy on what I assume to be Crystal City's main strip. For some reason I was expecting something on the scale of the Statue of Liberty, but this Popeye is more or less actual size. In fact, aside from the chin, his proportions seem oddly human. Perhaps the statue originally commemorated some nautical culture hero on whom Popeye was based, I think to myself.

We look around a little, inspecting a line of inexplicably closed-up shops one of which continues the Popeye motif with enthusiastic frescoes of both himself and Olive Oyl jigging a sailor's hornpipe across the facade. There's also the stalled caboose of an old railway a little further along the main strip, and no explanation as to why it's there. We look inside and find Christmas lighting of the kind which tends to be hung from lamp posts at the centre of town.

After another few minutes, we drive home.

'Wouldn't it be funny if that turkey was still there?' I suggest as the thought occurs to me. 'I wish I'd taken a photograph.'

Mere seconds later I realise that somehow I have been able to distinguish this particular section of highway from the rest, and had therefore been reminded of the turkey because there he is, or possibly she - still pecking away at the side of the road.

Bess slows the car some way past, and I get out, pulling my camera from its pouch, but the turkey is already gone.

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