Thursday, December 17, 2009

Mount Carmel, after the fire: Part 3, Travelogue

After the swamps, bridges, and call-boxes, you gradually hit Port Chuck, which has a huge edifice of refineries, later repeated in Orange, Beaumont, Houston. One Port Chuck refinery has a tall torch that burns off residue, almost Olympic in its waste of natural gas. At night, the glow on the horizon looks like the city is on fire. Even by day, you feel like you're headed to perdition. The water stinks of sulphur there: ick.

On I-10 through west Louisiana, all cars bounce from concrete plate to concrete plate. (A-chunk, A-chunk, A-chunk.) Eventually I hit that pinnacle of road-building skill that signifies Texas to the cross-country driver. I-10 stretches 878 well-tended miles through the state with Alamo Syndrome, from east of Orange to El Paso. I stuck with it into Houston’s sprawl, then headed north to Waco on I-35, through sprawl again, looking for the hills that seemed right.

The Waco siege is dogged by questions of the press, and procedures that were hampered by the press:
1. The Waco paper began an article series on Ranch Apocalypse the day before the ATF planned to serve their warrant. That would have freaked Koresh out and made him notice intruders even more than he usually did. Many accounts suggest he was already quite wary of other intruders.

2. The ATF invited or tipped the press that a raid would occur. What with all the tipping, Koresh and his followers knew about it in advance. Why did they go in then? The Charge of the Light Brigade?

3. With wide press coverage, the ATF and then the FBI had to issue statements of their side, constantly. They couldn't sound weak to the American public, but it ended up sounding threatening to the compound.

4. One of the things David Koresh wanted was a chance to be broadcast, on KRLD and on CBN, the Christian Broadcasting Network. This netted some hostage releases, but then it wasn't enough for either side. Maybe that offer should have been tossed around again. I don't think it was much hardship for the media.

5. The negotiation sounded more like a pissing match. That always bothered me. I wondered why there wasn't anyone conciliatory on the law enforcement side. I specifically wondered why they didn't get a woman negotiator to talk to Koresh, at least to say 'uh-huh' twenty-four hours a day, since he clearly liked women.

6. All that scrutiny, and still nobody could figure out what happened.

The sky stretches endlessly in Central Texas. In December, cloud cover makes this sky mostly a flat gray. Also in December, the plains of Texas are covered in a dull yellow grass, with a leafless few blackjack oaks that look like nerve endings from far off. Plairies are not flat. They roll gently, long low hills you travel up and down. Most of the land is fenced, though. There are always gas stations, warehouses, billboards for Dairy Queen or invitations to subdivide and build.

Eventually you climb in elevation, hundreds of miles from where I started in the swamps. Two hours from Houston, you are almost in Waco, going from one huge city to a smaller one. I wouldn’t say it was the middle of nowhere.

But the landscape is stark. In Louisiana, the eye trains on little particularities, small vignettes, large potholes. You don’t get a long view. I was thinking of northeastern journalists, used to hiding between skyscrapers, now stuck in a Motel 35, and homesick.

Baylor University, a Baptist institution, resides in Waco. The journalists made much of this, implying and sometimes outright stating that the city was a center of Christian fundamentalism.  I was raised neither Baptist nor Adventist. But I didn’t see what a four-year, state-accredited institution with a pretty good football team had to do with an offshoot of the Seventh-Day Adventists standing off with law enforcement. That was another clue that everything had been oversimplified to a lie. Those northeastern journalists, bored and picking on people. Go find a good book to read.

Photo Credits: This is I-35, northbound into Waco. Image from, looks like April and not December. Dairy Queen sign from Kyle, Texas, daily photo blog; refinery, ENS newswire.


Slamdunk said...

Looks like you have busy posting some interesting insights Ann T., and I am behind on my reading.

Two comments:

1) I think your opinion that the Christian conservative label of Waco had little to do with the Branch Dividians is accurate. Though from what I read, Koresh had Seventh Day Adventist and other protestant denominations, the Davidians were a cult and should not have been associated with the Christian churches.

2) Local law enforcement had dealt successfully with several violent encounters involving the Davidians previous to the siege. I would be interested in learning more about how the federal officials consulted with (or didn't consult with) local officials during the incident.

Ann T. said...

Dear Slamdunk,
You can catch up on your reading whenever you want! None of this is going anywhere. However, I'm very flattered that you want to.

1. At one point during a trial, Koresh told the court that his group was the 'Davidian Branch Davidians' as opposed to the Branch Davidians. I think things like this helped send that trial to mistrial. Local law had made arrests, but nobody in court knew what to do with him.

But they were for sure a cult.

2. The local McLennan County SO did have some ongoing relationship with Koresh--I mean this in an upright way, not a bad way. A UPS driver delivered a busted package with grenade cases in it to the compound and reported it. Based on interviews about the number & frequency of packages, they called ATF. It was going to be a big job. Then Lt. Lynch, later Sheriff Lynch, brokered a ceasefire (?). Somewhere in there.

Eventually, the FBI called the SO back in to be part of the negotiations, because Koresh was not talking to anyone Federal any longer.

I will try to find more, but so many alternate accounts exist from so many unreliable or over-invested witnesses . .. I don't think I have it all straight yet myself. I'll keep trying to piece it together . . .

Thanks for checking it out!
Ann T.

Slamdunk said...

Ok, thanks for the clarification on the locals participation. My memory of this is filled with more speculation than fact.