How are we formed by the stories we tell and the songs we sing? Do the stories/songs matter? I think they do, and over the past few weeks I’ve seen some vivid examples of this process in action. In fact, seeing “how it’s done” at The Alamo in Texas gave me some new eyes to see “how it’s being done” right here in Stouffville, Ontario.
The second-to-last stop on my spring USA tour was in San Antonio – home of “The Alamo.” As a Canadian prairie boy whose first decade of life coincided with the 70s, I have a mental picture from our black and white TV of some guy with a rifle and strange ‘coonskin cap and a little ditty (which I can still sing) “Daveeeey, Davey Crockett, king of the wild frontier!” I’m familiar with the phrase “remember the Alamo!” having something to do with being brave and bracing yourself to face impossible odds in a hopeless situation (“last stand”) of some kind. And that’s about all I knew, until a few weeks ago.
Spending a couple of hours at the Alamo site in San Antonio is a tremendous education in how history itself can be enlisted to form identity, character, and behaviour in powerful ways.
- The Alamo is called a “Shrine” (with a capital “S”) and a “sacred place” (“Welcome to the Alamo, the Shrine of Texas liberty.”)
- Colonel William Travis’ “Victory or Death” letter from within the besieged Alamo, calling for reinforcements (“I shall never surrender or retreat… the Lord is on our side…” – Feb 24, 1836)
- Guides in period costume, explaining and demonstrating everything from weapons to medical techniques to games played by soldiers of the time.
- The (historically uncertain) story of Travis taking his sword and “drawing a line in the sand” has become familiar language denoting bravery and resolve and decisiveness in any conflict.
- So many ways of drawing us into the story, with the sense that we continue to be not only heirs of this legacy (“freedom vs. tyranny”!) but participants in the ongoing struggle (“When Colonel Travis called for reinforcements, you’re exactly who he had in mind… Cross the line. Join the Allies of The Alamo today…”)
I didn’t get a picture of it, but in the gift shop I jotted down over 30 different kinds of “take-home” items commemorating The Alamo – everything from keychains, mugs, and postcards to movies and toys and dolls and cardboard cut-out model sets to re-enact the siege at home. In one corner of the gift shop there was a movie trailer playing (“Alamo: The Price of Freedom”) – another vivid example of what I’m talking about.
As a songwriter for the church, who cares deeply about the songs we sing and the stories we tell and how they help to form us, I found all of this fascinating. And having rolled past Crawford, Texas on the train en route to San Antonio, I couldn’t help but feel that I could now understand George W. Bush and the rhetoric of the “war on terror” just a little bit better.
The BIGGER surprise, for me, was what was going on in my hometown while I was on tour. I’m not used to following Stouffville news in the national media, but that is what has been happening over the last month or so… and it has to do, again, with how we remember our history and the way that memory forms us.
While there have been numerous articles and interviews (and even a television news story) on what has been unfolding in Stouffville, I think Arnold Neufeldt-Fast’s article in the Toronto Star says it best. Not only is the history of the war of 1812 being enlisted by our federal government to bolster support for a particular political/military agenda – our local history is being intentionally fabricated, manipulated, and effectively erased right before our eyes.
On June 16 a group of about 60 of us were present on Main St. Stouffville to protest, in a quiet way, this falsification of history. More than that, we were there to bear witness to a different story (see this article as well). The story of “The War of 1812″ in the town of Stouffville is actually not the story of our community’s “military heritage” – it is the story of a community seeking an alternative to war. The Mennonites, Brethren in Christ, and Quakers who settled this area in the early 1800s were war resistors – to “remember Stouffville” and the war of 1812 in our community could be an opportunity to remember and celebrate this heritage of the pioneers of conscientious objection in Canada.
This is a story that our political leaders were invited to acknowledge, include, and even celebrate, and they chose to ignore it instead, in favour of a military parade complete with tanks rumbling down Main St., rows of goose-stepping soldiers, showers of ticker tape, and invitations to children to wear combat helmets, sit in military vehicles, and hold assault rifles in their own hands.
“Remember the Alamo!” indeed.
Member of Parliament Paul Calandra, on the right, and Mayor Wayne Emmerson, on the left, with the sword given to him by the Governor General’s Horse Guards. The sword was presented with the declaration of the hope that it will hang in the Town Council chambers for the next 200 years. Note the Whitchurch-Stouffville town crest in the background – if you zoom in you can see the dove-and-olive-branch at the top, representing the “peace church” tradition of the town’s founders. This photo (taken by Arnold Neufeldt-Fast) is, it seems to me, an apt representation of the different narratives that are available, and which stories are chosen to be remembered (or manufactured) and passed on.
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