Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Only Honest Lawman in Texas

I have to confess that I've never actually seen the movie Bonnie and Clyde. I've seen chunks of it, including the ending, never the whole thing from beginning to end. But I've read a good deal about it and have no doubt that the crtics are correct. The film is a masterpiece. It is a great bit of visual story-telling and it probably tells a profound truth about young desperadoes who endeavor to live fast, die young and leave bullet-riddled corpses. It just doesn't tell the actual story about Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.

We in Texas are used to Hollywood taking extreme liberties with our history. Heck, we're a state of such inveterate bullshit artists, we bring most of it upon ourselves. And recognizing this about ourselves, we're generally willing to cut Tinseltown some slack on this. But the movie Bonnie & Clyde seriously pissed some people off in Texas for its portrayal of Captain Frank Hamer, the Texas Ranger who led the party that hunted down and ultimately bushwacked Bonnie and Clyde.  It portrayed him as a bumbling goober who got captured and held hostage by them for a while.  That was a fabrication which many in Texas simply could not abide in. That's because Frank Hamer was neither bumbling nor a goober nor someone who would ever allow himself to be taken prisoner.  Frank Hamer was an exceedingly tough, scary hombre. During his long career, which started in the earliest days of the Twentieth Century and continued on until 1948, he probably shot and killed at least fifty bad guys. He was himself shot and left for dead five or six times.  He spoke little, was by all accounts unfailingly honest and his skills as a tracker and hunter of men were honed from growing up on the wild Texas frontier of the late 19th Century.


Hamer told few about his life, but one of the things he did admit to was that he very nearly embarked on a life of crime as a cattle rustler.  But at the last moment he changed his mind and soon after was invited to become a Texas Ranger.  Of course, this was at a time when the Texas Rangers weren't considered necessarily all that honest themselves. A lot were political appointees of crooked governors, of which we've had many.  But Hamer was honest and not someone to be trifled with.  He was revered for his toughness and his honesty and this did not make him popular with every governor that he served under.  A couple times he quit and went to work for Colonel Edwin L Simmons at the Bureau of Prisons.  There had been a breakout from Eastham Farm, engineered by the recently-released  Clyde Barrow.  Simmons ordered Hamer to hunt down the Barrow Gang and bring them to justice.

Hamer spent months driving around parts of Texas and Louisiana and learning about the Barrow Gang's habits.  He visited countless roadhouses and talked to informants and then he gathered up a posse and after cutting a deal with the father of a Barrow Gang accomplice, set up an ambush, using the father as the unwilling bait. The fact that he was planning to kill a woman didn't seem to bother Hamer that much.  He apparently referred to Bonnie as a "female dog."  One of the people in his Barrow Gang ambush party was a Dallas sheriff's deputy named Ted Hinton, who'd known Bonnie fairly well, when she was a waitress in a Dallas cafe where he often ate. He'd known Clyde as well a few years before that. Whatever personal feelings Ted Hinton may have had for them, he was able to put them aside and kill them when the time came.

It was an ambush. For a number of years, the ambushers maintained the fiction that Bonnie and Clyde had been given a chance to surrender, but it was a lie. It was a massacre.

Hamer was celebrated as a hero.  There is a good chance he may have split whatever money they recovered with the local cop who'd joined the ambush party. Hamer certainly did keep all the weapons which the two outlaws had with them and sold them off.  He was still a hero. He did what had to be done and he did it in a merciless and methodical manner.

After that Hamer stayed out of the limelight.  But then fourteen years later, in 1948,  he strapped on his holster and went after another criminal,  this time in the streets of Alice, Texas.  The crime in question was the stealing and stuffing of ballot boxes in a US Senate election. He faced down the criminal on the streets and if only the standoff had turned into a shootout, the history of the world would probably have been completely different.  The criminal in question was one overly ambitious young congressman name Lyndon Baines Johnson. The ballot box he'd stolen and switched with one he'd stuffed allowed him to win the senate election by a margin of a mere 48 votes.  Five years later, the junior senator from Texas was the Senate Majority Leader and one of the most powerful politicians in American History.  Fifteen years after that, Lyndon Johnson was President and captain of the American Nation's disastrous course into the Vietnam War, which we've yet to fully recover from.

If only Hamer had gotten to gun down one more bad guy!

Frank Hamer is a major character in my novel, Friend of the Devil. I've taken a few liberties with him myself, but I've tried very hard to stay faithful to the character as I understand it. Bonnie and Clyde are in there, as well, and I would have to say I think I nailed those two young snakes pretty accurately.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

When the Nazi Government finally convened

One of the strange things about going back to study and learn about Nazi Germany after a couple decades of doing other things (like, for instance, having a job) is finding out how much the field has changed while I was gone. Back when I was all obsessed with the subject in the late-1970s, the subject of  "Future Nazi weapons" AKA  "Luftwaffe 1946" was stuck at a really rudimentary level. There was interest, to be sure, but the nerds and geeks into it had no way of finding each other and sharing information, at least not on the scale necessary to really move the subject forward. Then the internet got invented and that allowed communities to form and information to fly back and forth.

A field similar to this is The Nazi Germany that was planned and designed, but never brought into existence. The best example of this is Germania, the future capital city dreamed up by Hitler and designed by Albert Speer. There was always a lot of interest in that, probably beginning the moment that the plans were found. For years and years all there was were some drawings and this film clip that the Nazis had made at some point before the war,  showing a tiny working fountain spewing water and expert use of lighting and shadow. It is particularly strange and almost sad to look at especially when compared to the sheer gross tonnage of  the geek-boy computer animations which in recent years have sprung up all over YouTube. Speer did all these designs for stuff that never existed, except in the minds of men who remain 12-year olds at heart. It takes that sort of adolescent imagination to jump into that world and dream about what it would have been like. The rest of us haven't got the attention span.

But Speer did design things that were actually built. He designed the new Reichschancellery building and a number of other impressive buildings, none of which survived the war.  About all there is left standing of his architectural legacy are a couple of street lamps.  But there are the drawings and photographs and they're all easily accessible.  Rather than go into an orgy of assessing how good or bad an architect Speer acually was, it is enough to say he was a highly competent designer.  He sold his soul for the opportunity to design a city that was supposed to last a thousand years.  He got to work on the big canvas and he wasn't shy about making the most of it. Of course, the joke ultimately was on him.

What I myself always found fascinating in Speer's designs was the degree to which he was willing to sweat the small details with the same attention and care that he put into the large, megalomanical stuff.  Look at the grand corridors of the Reich Chancellery,  how at one side was an immense bank of windows, while on the inside, there were a long line of couches, stuffed chairs and coffee tables. I could always imagine diplomats and ministers sitting and conferring on them.

There were also the drawings and photographs of Hitler's offices, but one of my favorites was the massive rectangular table where the government ministers would sit during government meetings. The photographs always noted that the table was never used since the Nazi government never actually convened a single session in their twelve years of existence. It tells a lot about Hitler's particular genius. More than one historian observed that the Nazis weren't truly totaliarian, because nothing about it was ever clearly enough delineated to actually be totaliarian. There was never an official Number Two after Hitler.  What it really was was a German version of an Oriental court.

Hitler didn't like order. Schedules were for other people to adhere to. Some of his old-school critics in the Army would secretly refer to him as the "Bohemian Corporal," because of his free-wheeling, non-organized ways.  He was at heart an artist, and he ran his Reich exactly that way. He liked keeping people off balance, rules and points of order went against his way of doing things.

The real funny thing is that ultimately the Nazi government only started convening after Hitler was dead. Hitler's successor, Grand Admiral Doenitz, ran his version of the Reich, for a little over three weeks and on every one of those days, the cabinet met and held meetings, with himself, the Reich's President, dutifully presiding over them.

He continued to do so even after it became clear that their juristiction only went as far as the gates of the Flensburg Marineschule, which served as the Third Reich's final capital. Since the Germans had by then already surrendered, Allied officers often sat in on the government meetings to observe the proceedings. When Eisenhower finally decided that enough was enough and directed the British Army to roll up the Flensburg Government and arrest everyone they could find,  they made a point of doing it in the middle of a morning cabinet meeting. The tommies burst in with bayonets on their rifles and helmets on their heads, shouting at everyone to put their hands up. They stripped the Germans, beat them up, relieved them of all their medals, watches, rings, pistols, and daggers, which they claimed as souvenirs. All a bit of fun on Jerry and a fitting way to end the last chapter of the Third Reich.

Anyone wanting to learn more about the bizarre, surreal, three-week "Flensburg Reich"  might want to read my bizarre, surreal novel GERMANIA, published by Simon & Schuster, available in hardcover, paperback, and as an ebook.