Sunday, May 07, 2006

Blast From The Past- Teddy Roosevelt, Carrie Nation and the Ghosts Of the Menger Hotel

RL is keeping me running right now. With your indulgence I'll pass along this piece from May of 2004. I originally pubbed it in Dolores del Queso Diablo for TurboAPA #214.

A Short History Lesson, I Guess

The ghosts in this hotel are at peace this rainy afternoon.

There’s no sign of Sallie White today, even though she regularly revisits the corridors of the hotel at night in her long gray skirt and bandana. She carries an armload of towels that she’ll never deliver. Her husband murdered her here one night in a drunken rage. Some say he was jealous of her job and of her friends at the hotel.

Captain Richard King doesn’t come into this barroom anymore, but he is occasionally seen entering the suite named for him through the wall where a door once stood. King founded and built The King Ranch 150 years before. His 1300 square mile dream lives on but he is seen only in the halls of the hotel where he spent his final days in 1885.

There are others. A rude lady knits in the lobby wearing a blue beret. When a helpful employee asks, “Can I get you something?” She curtly replies, “No,” and disappears. A guest is wakened by a man clad in buckskin and brown trousers standing by his bed. The man is speaking to someone on the other side of the room. "Are you gonna stay or are you gonna go?" he asks three times and then takes his leave, unhappy with the unheard answer.

These are the ghosts of the Menger Hotel in San Antonio. They are not here with me on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Today we are a soggy crowd of tourists and passers-through. The table under the loft is full of soldier boys, called up but not yet shipped out. The man on the stool next to me is waiting for his sister to come in from the rally for peace next door…at the Alamo. “It rained on us in Boston on Thursday, too.” he says, matter of factly, as if flying cross country for anti-war demonstrations was a commonplace activity in his family.

This was an afternoon in the first days of our war in Iraq. Sadaam and Qusai were still up for grabs. No one had declared, “Mission accomplished,” and no one had heard of Abu Ghraib. Most of us thought that there might still be WMD to be found and that there was hope that the Iraqis would soon have a provisional government in place.

All of this was in the conversations in the barroom at the Menger Hotel that afternoon but then this was a room accustomed to conversations of conflict. Built in 1887 to be a replica of the taproom in the House of Lords Club in London the solid cherry bar, cherry-paneled ceiling, French mirrors, and gold-plated spittoons were the wonder of San Antonio.

Theodore Roosevelt first visited the Menger in 1892 on a javelina hunt and enjoyed a cold beer, chilled in the Alamo Madre ditch which passed through the hotel courtyard. Five years later he returned. Legend holds that he put a tablet of paper on one of the tables, ordered an unending round of beers for the assembled cowboys, and laid down a challenge to sign up for the First United States Volunteer Cavalry. The men who answered the call that day, along with volunteers from El Paso and Fort Sheridan and their Eastern gentleman officers charged, on foot, up San Juan Hill and into glory as The Rough Riders.

But on this day that noble cause seems far away. We discuss quagmires and Viet Nam. We talk about mandates and duty and purpose. There were doubts on that rainy Saturday 15 months ago but not one of us guessed how badly the mission in Iraq could turn. How is it possible that a generation could grow up in this country thinking that Grenada was the last good war?
Now some of those soldier boys that we treated to a round that day are probably back in West Texas. It’s very possible that a few of them are never coming home or that some are forever changed. But on that one day we sat together and let the ghosts of the Menger rest while we dealt with our own personal ghosts.

I sat at the end of the bar waiting for Nancy to return from shopping. In front of me was a vee of wood, lighter than the cherry of the rest of the bartop. During a lull in the conversation about weather and war I asked the barkeep for the story behind the patch.

“Oh, that’s where Carrie Nation took exception to the menu,” he deadpanned. When you live with ghosts nothing seems out of the ordinary.

No comments: