Monday, June 21, 2010

Filling in the Blanks: An Idea Garage Sale Interlude

It is a truth not at all universally acknowledged that scientists and historians, when interpreting data, are making stories every bit as much as novelists are.

The big difference between a theory or hypothesis and a story is that a story is entitled to bridge gaps and fill in story holes with invention; whereas the most a theory or hypothesis is allowed to do is to point out a hole and offer suggestions for where to look and what to do in order to fill it. If these suggestions are investigated and pan out, this is called "successful prediction" and the hypothesis is strengthened; if investigation contradicts the hypothesis, the hypothesis is discarded or changed, as appropriate.

A fiction writer can, up to a certain point, change her story to accommodate new information, too, but once she's published she's locked in for the duration. Jean Auel, for example, is now stuck with inarticulate Neanderthals even though evidence uncovered since the first publication of Clan of the Cave Bear indicates that they would have had a full range of phonics available to them.

I do not, at the moment, have all the available data behind the site of the dig just completed at the Old Alsatian Steakhouse site in Castroville, but based on the data I have - consisting of local tradition, US Army reports, and the parts of the dig I witnessed - this is what went down.

In April of 1861, due to the secession of Texas from the Union, all units of the US Army were recalled from the frontier. Ben McCulloch, with dubious authority, corralled General Twiggs of the San Antonio garrison and persuaded him to surrender. His men were variously imprisoned or inducted into the Confederate Army (more or less) and their equipment confiscated. When Robert E. Lee came through town on his way to report to Washington, McCulloch demanded his surrender, too, but Lee declared that, though he had not yet decided where his duty lay, he knew he owned none to "any rebel government of Texas" and refused. His luggage was confiscated, and was still in San Antonio when the war ended.

The garrisons of the distant frontier forts Quitman, Davis, and Bliss were still en route to civilization in early May. When they reached Castroville - which, despite the presence of a castle of the Knights of the Golden Circle, voted overwhelmingly against secession - they were warned of a force being sent out to meet them from San Antonio. The force arrayed against them was variously reported as somewhere between 1500 and 1700 (the offical count was 1370) and included cavalry and artillery to the tune of six field pieces. The full force of the US Army at the time of leaving the frontier was 320, including 12 musicians. The meeting of these two forces at San Lucas Springs 15 miles west of San Antonio on May 9 was not so much a battle as a surrender, since by then the Union force had been reduced to 270 by "sickness, desertion, and stragglers...who remained at Castroville from drunkenness and other causes." (All this is according to the official report.)

At some point in the process of straggling and getting drunk in one of Castroville's 30+ liquor-providing establishments, some contingent of the US forces got into conversation with one of Karle family, Unionists who had recently purchased a property on the corner of Houston Square from the equally Unionist Widow Krust on condition that they build her a little house in the rear of the property and rent it to her at a dollar a year. Ben McCulloch was confiscating all the US Army-owned equipment he could get his hands on for the Confederacy. To prevent this, Mr. Karle offered his property as a dump site for anything the people he was talking to wished to get rid of. The soldiers took him up on this offer, unlimbered their trenching tools, and dug a deep, narrow pit on the east side of his smokehouse.

According to local story, these soldiers wished to take their chances heading north on their own, so they would have counted in the official report as deserters, though they were motivated by a desire to evade capture and report for duty with the nearest Union forces. Based on the number of mule bits found, all jumbled together, and the quantity of black leather, at least one of them was a mule driver. At least four people dumped their sabre belts, and one officer knew about the plan, because the leather holster of his sidearm wound up in the pit; though in the absence of an officer named in the report as a deserter I conclude that he gave the sidearm to one of the deserters, wished him well, and returned to his duty station. Mr. Karle donated some meat from the cookhouse (possibly fearing that the soldiers would break in and help themselves if he didn't), and they ate and drank as they dug, dozens of wine and beer bottles finding their way into the pit. Perhaps Mr. Karle, originally planning to do a kindness to one or two people, grew fearful as more men showed up - so many, and so drunk, and him with children in the house! An infection of fear spread through the soldiers as their alcohol intake increased, so that they dumped armloads of harness and belts willy-nilly till, perhaps, dawn approached. The soldiers covered the hole, but the disturbance of the ground was visible, so the Karles, along with Frau Krust, piled trash on top of it as the men lurched away.

The spot became the household's regular dumping spot for all manner of trash until garbage service was introduced in the 20th century. Once or twice, before the construction of Medina Dam upstream changed the flood zones, it was inundated. The cookhouse deteriorated and underwent repair, fences came and went, tenants came and went.

In the early 21st century, Ken Smith rented a portion of the property from Don Belcher, the current owner, for a restaurant, and undertook extensive renovations to the portion of the sprawling structure (comprised of four different houses) containing the restaurant space. Belcher agreed to the construction of a barbeque pit by the old cookhouse, and his son participated in part of the work. Belcher Jr. knew the trash pit contained interesting junk, as he had once found a US Army belt buckle out there, and worn it for some years. Sure enough, he and his fellow workers pulled out lots of bottles (some of which they smashed for the fun of it), belt buckles, a huge interlocking mass of mule bits, a leather holster, and another belt buckle, before Arlene Smith asked them to stop. As a member of the local historical society, she knew an archeological site when she saw one, but it took her most of a year to find an archeologist who was interested. At last she did, and the TAS field school was the result.

We never found what we most wanted - the insignia of the 8th infantry, which would have confirmed the identity of the people doing the dumping - unless it turned up in the last bucket of the last day, the one I was too dizzy to attend. Everything we found was consistent with the story I told here, but a number of different interpretations are also possible. Maybe the Karles didn't volunteer. Maybe they were intimidated by drunken ruffians intent on escape, or maybe the drunken ruffians dug the pit by night without consulting them, or maybe the drunks broke into the smokehouse and littered the property with their cast-offs, leaving the Karles to dig the pit in order to hide the material and avoid the condemnation of their few, but triumphant, secessionist neighbors. Maybe the material doesn't date from this period at all, though since Castroville was never a military station it's hard to match any other event with the distinctive army gear found. (All those mule bits!) Maybe there was more than one deposition of army gear, or it was moved to this location from another one at some point - with so many artifacts coming out of an unstratified pile of barbeque pit spoil, the available stratigraphy doesn't prove much.

As a novelist, I can pick a story and run with it. As a historian or scientist, I would have to acknowledge lots of alternative scenarios and try to suggest further action that could give us more information. In this case, a painstaking document search (including perusal of private sources from the time, such as letters and diaries) and digging up even more of the yard and or digging deeper are almost the only options.

If you go to the Old Alsatian (and I recommend it - they accommodate dietary restrictions and the food is wonderful) and ask Ken or Arlene or a random server, they will happily tell you their version of the above story, which will differ from mine in many respects because they are not me. They will also, with varying degrees of prompting, tell you another story, one the historians and archeologists won't, about the daughter of the Karle family who died in 1856 at the age of 16, was buried in the yard, and now haunts the dining patio. They might even tell you that the dig turned up part of her gravestone.

This last detail is not true. While moving the rock fence, field school members found a slab of native limestone with a broken edge and the numbers "56" carved into it, but the carving is far too casual for a gravestone and by 1856 the cemetery at Cross Hill was well-established. There would have been no reason for the good Catholic Karles (remember that rosary? And the property is cattycorner from the church) to bury a daughter in the yard.

Unless she was a suicide and the priest refused to bury her in sacred ground; as I thought, but did not say. I would never slander the memory of these people, whose family still live in the vicinity and of whom I have heard nothing negative, by openly positing such a thing. But if I were writing a story, and I weren't using Castroville but an analog small town, and I needed a grave in the yard - well, that would be different.

When telling a story, you do what's good for the story. Facts are useful servants but a bad master to a storyteller, and as long as that's clear in everyone's head, no harm is done. Nor should we blame the Smiths if the stories they tell their patrons polish the rough edges and fill in the holes of the messy, incomplete truth. A historic restaurant without a ghost, especially in an area with a high tourist traffic, is at a commercial disadvantage; and one with a ghost moving bottles or appearing as an apparition without any explanatory tale attached is not much better off.

Stories. We all make them, and we all use approximately the same methods to do so, whether as historians, as novelists, or as contributors to the oral tradition. The difference lies in the use to which we put the stories and the degree to which we lock them into final form. History and the oral tradition are fluid and can be adjusted with the discovery of new facts or (in the case of oral tradition) new motives in telling the tale. Only fiction has a point at which it is locked in; in which case, you'd better tell it well enough that the audience that now has better information is willing to set that information aside and believe in your story for the time it takes to read it.

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