Saturday, December 19, 2009

Mount Carmel, after: Part 5--Back of Beyond?

The first thing that worried me was my dossier: would people think I was some sort of a crank, coming out there with magazine pictures? And the people there, rubbernecking after the fact. Were they cranks?
Yeah, we were. (Well, you're not going to back out now, Ann T. Get out of the truck.)

The first thing to notice is how close to the road the compound was. That house in the background was across the street. That's the one with the Big Wheel and sandbox in the front yard.

The Side by the Side of the Road
I didn't have a camera. The included pictures are from Wikipedia, 2 years later. They resemble what I saw. Here are my notes:
off some unnamed road off old mexia road near 84/ Ranch Apocalypse--the Branch Davidians have a display here amid a lot of construction trash/ a blue building/ "The Branch Davidian Seventh Day Adventist office"

The inside had wooden chairs in it and the building was totally blue in my notes, (although in picture it looks like the blue is going over white). It was not covered in inscriptions. The platform was part of the foundation, like a grand stage, for perhaps presentations on Branch Davidian/Waco Siege material. As you can see, it looks like a modified building, something that had been worked over to a new purpose. My notes say:
Pier and beam foundation/ Platform 3 plywood sheets long, sixteen feet wide (so, 16 x 24 feet long)/ A stage/ The back side was exposed plywood sheets
Behind this, was an area with a table consisting of a wooden pallet and four columns of stacked 5-gallon buckets for legs. This area also held stand-up information boards, also made of plywood with little peaked roofs on them. I'll get back to the information boards in a second.
[a drawing of an information board]/ pallets over cement liner bricks in puddle--holes w/ yellow grass and oiled gravel/
The white building behind was about the size of a garden shed from the 1930's or 40's.  The back of it was covered in sheet plastic, clear, and it had lighting. Amo Bishop Roden, widow, lived in that shed. Since the plastic was translucent, I could see she was sleeping on the floor. My notes say:
A lean-to shed/ vinyl siding/ padlock on the door [drawing of the electric meter on a post with a lot of crazy wiring going to the roof]
Amo Bishop Roden
After the fire, Amo Bishop Roden returned to the site.  She was the "contract wife", (whatever that means) of George Roden. George Roden's mother Lois was the leader of the Branch Davidians until her death. She was also one of David Koresh's wives starting at age 67.

In 1989, George Roden fought David Koresh (then known as Vernon Howell) for possession of the compound. After one or more pitched gun battles, Roden lost. With Koresh gone, you could say the Rodens were back. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) she was not there when I was. Only her dog, a short-haired mostly white collie was hanging around, untethered. The dog was neither friendly nor unfriendly. The lot behind the building had randomly lined-up five-gallon buckets filled with pieces of wood and empty cranberry juice bottles. I guess Amo Bishop Roden was pretty much living on Ocean Spray.

Another Whacky Takeover
Since ABR had taken over the premises, she was the one who got to present her version of events and take in whatever donations. Neither her presence nor her version were universally accepted by the rest of the Branch Davidians. Eventually she was displaced.

Two information boards, one plywood sheet each, both sides covered with presenations: the little roofs on them jut out about a foot on either side. The information was presented in bad handwriting on paper, then put in acetate sleeves and stapled to the wooden surface. You could buy the whole set for $10.00, but Ms. Roden wasn't around.

Mt. Carmel
A history of Mt. Carmel is written in the rubble here. In front of you is the heating and cooling system of the church torn down by David Koresh in 1989 for building materials. The old white bus behind you was used in the March 1988 takeover of this property for David Koresh by thirty Branch Davidians led by Perry Jones.
(next sheet)
As you circle the fence to the left there is a view of David Koresh's underground room. Throught the left hand end of the far quarantine fence gate the concrete chunks bulldozed into the swimming pool may be discerned by careful study. Also on this side of the fence you can see the piles of lumber to finish roofing the underground rooms and bales of the concertina wire used to encircle the compound
(next sheet)
during the standoff. On the back fence are the remains of the retirement community torn down by David Koresh for building materials. near David Koresh's tour bus is the tree that sheltered George Roden when David Koresh shot him Nov. 3, 198, note the bullet marks. Here also are spilled fuel tanks pushed away  from the compound during the standoff and more bales of concertina wire
(next page, but I stopped writing)

What I also remember, is that the "Story of Vernon, Squared" was also posted in the same handwriting. In it, the writer explored some rambling connection between George Roden at a psych hospital at Vernon, Texas, and Vernon Howell/David Koresh driving him to it. (George Roden was tried for killing his housemate as a spy for David Koresh before being put in an asylum.)  In these pages, coincidence was considered a significant sign of--some force at work--

The Other Visitors
People wanted to talk. Some were truck drivers, parked in Waco or Bellmead for the night who had rented a car. Some were vacationers and at least two were members of a biker association. None were locals.

All the ones I talked to wanted to revisit their own faith and put it next to these who had died for theirs. None of them wanted to talk about the government. They were all there on a pilgrimage of faith. I was on a pilgrimage about doubt, and that didn't decrease with the conversations. I do believe it's necessary sometimes to die for what you believe, but was it necessary in this case? I never said that to any of them. They were all finding themselves wanting. A dissenting voice would only have driven them closer to some brink. They were all quite vulnerable, I thought.

This is a picture of Carol Moore Baechler, longtime activist, in late 1993 at the compound. I don't know her, but the point is, there is some of the fuel tanks, etc, still hanging around.

You walked down a grade past the collie dog and ABR's sleep-shed. In front of the fenced-off compound was a gravestone, low, dark brown granite, at least in my memory. It was crowned by barbed wire. It is not, I think, the stone you see there now, which is grey. For sure the barbed wire "crown of thorns" is gone.

The fence behind Ms. Baechler is nothing compared to the fence I saw. It was tall and had warnings against entry, saying that the material beyond the fence was Hazmat, especially any standing water. Maybe my memory is poor, but the fence seemed a lot higher. It doesn't matter. That was the extent of the governmental control--keeping people out of the bunker and swimming pool, the teargas residue, explosive residue, and whatever else.

Beyond that, two rusted buses sat apart from each other and the rest. I walked out to one of them and discovered what was wrong with all the newsmagazines. Because I looked backward. And wow.

I remembered a photo in one of my news magazines. It was of Koresh with one of his teen wives with the exact same vista. The house with the Big Wheel in front of it was clearly in that vista. And in the news magazine, that house had been covered by an inset photo, strategically placed to reinforce the appearance of Koresh's isolation. I was mightily angry then.

So this is what I learned:
1. the press constructs stories along some tragic parameter, and they're honor-bound to keep the theme going, whether it turns out to be the best explanation or not. That's CNN, Fox, everybody.

2. people react to events separate from themselves according to what they need at the time (reassurance of faith, a desire to strengthen their faith, a need to verify doubt, reinforce the unreason of the Bible Belt, whatever.)  In other words, they personalize outside events. Those events usually get twisted into a pre-existing world-view.

3. you need to pick your leaders carefully.
4. you need to pick your causes carefully.
5. you need to examine your journalists carefully, even/especially the visual record.

6. no truth was coming out of there anytime soon. That didn't make the messages meaningless. To the contrary: it gave them more meaning, and a lot more unpredictability.
7. Sometimes you have to go and see for yourself.

I guess it doesn't sound like a big deal, but it was to me. One last post, and then I'm done.


Books of the World said...

I had always wondered about that place myself. You provided a very powerful post. Thank you for the more accurate info, and you are indeed right about the press. They see only what they want to see (or what will tell the best story) not what is really there/going on. Sounds a little bit like the govt., eh? Thanks for the post-amazing read.

Ann T. said...

Dear MBB,
I remain irritated with the press over this kind of thing. And I think politicians shape their message to take advantage of it.

Our one recourse is to get really good at evaluating our sources and how they edit. We've become used to sitting and "receiving" but as a people we have to be active listeners.

Wow, up on my soapbox again!!

Thanks for commenting!
Ann T.

Slamdunk said...

As what your first commenter said--thanks for posting this and helping to sort through the rubbish that exists on the incident. I need to work on my active listening as well, and thinking about incidents like this are certainly good practice.

I think you are very good at not doing your #2, but considering an event through mulitple perspectives instead of believing it to be real through only your own experience.

Finally, as descriptive as your visit notes are, when you went to the site, was your plan to write a book or other publication regarding some angle of the incident?

Ann T. said...

Dear Slamdunk,
At the time, I wasn't planning anything except to get some perspective on the tragedy. I'm by nature a kind of recorder, though, saving written artifacts.

I ended up writing a paper on it for an independent study in philosophy of art. And I painted four scenes of it in my art class.

Thank you for your kind words and for reading this long series!

Very truly yours,
Ann T.