“Hey, Lady, What’s Your Favorite Book?”

By Carla Kelly

Could it be that last month’s school and college graduations brought out the nostalgia in me? Whatever the reason, I’ll indulge in a reminiscence. 

I suspect that the most common question novelists get is, “Where do you get your ideas?” Correct me if I’m wrong, fellow novelists, but I believe the usual answer is a thoughtful look, and then a shrug, as in “Heckifino.” You know, sort of like, “Doesn’t everyone grab those ideas that flit around in the ether and run with them?”

Another question I get is also common to other novelists: “What’s your favorite book that you’ve written?”

That’s a bit like asking, “Do you have a favorite child?” Possibly it’s the same with books and children, as in, “Wow, kid, that earned you a spot on my S List,” or, “You sweet thing, you.”

I do have a favorite piece of writing, something that only a small handful of you have ever read, or likely will ever read. It came about in this wise:

In the spring of 1965, we on The Trojan newspaper staff, A.C. Jones High School, Beeville, Texas, decided to feature a series of places to go and things to see, all on one tank of gas. We called it “Texas Tours.”

I had long been interested in archeology, and a project dropped right into my lap. Thirty miles from Beeville is Goliad, a historically famous place for several centuries, from its early mission, Espiritu Santo (1722), to an early Texas fort, Presidio la Bahia (1749). The presidio (fort) is notorious as the place where Col. Fannin and his 341 soldiers, fighters for Texas independence, were marched out from on Palm Sunday, 1836, and massacred. It’s arguably the most haunted place in the state, but that’s a story for another day.

For you Spanish speakers who might wonder why an obviously inland fort was called la Bahia (Bay), the original such presidio was built in 1721 on/near Lavaca Bay. Presidio la Bahia was moved inland in 1749, but retained the name.

Under the auspices of the Catholic Diocese of Corpus Christi [Texas], wealthy lady Kathryn O’Connor (thank you thank you), sponsored an archeological dig to restore the presidio, which through the centuries had turned into rubble. It was a restoration and not a reconstruction, as in, the material was there, but it needed to be reassembled, then buffed and polished a bit. The work began in 1963. A major reason for this project is that the presidio is attached to a still-functioning Catholic church, the charming Nuestra Señora de Loreto. 

Miss D (Jean Dugat) our fearless, exacting and tyrannical journalism teacher, gave me permission to proceed with the article for “Texas Tours,” and I did, through a series of interviews with Raiford Stripling, archeologist/architect, and onsite visits.

It was a lengthy article, the kind suited to “Texas Tours.” I did my best. I gave it to Miss D and waited for the eventual return, complete with the usual red marks from her editorial pen that Never Missed Anything.

I waited, and waited. Finally, it appeared on my desk with nary a mark on it. Puzzled, I worked up my nerve and asked the grand dragon of journalism if she had found time to read the article.

“I read it,” she told me. “It stands as written.”

Oh, my word. That had never happened to me. In the remaining few months of high school, I don’t recall that it ever happened to me again. It stands as written. Stet.

Here’s a brag: others liked it, too. That article won a Best in Texas writing award in 1965, courtesy of University Interscholastic League. Remember now, we were a smallish school in a BIG state with lots of high school newspapers.

That’s my personal favorite bit of writing – not a novel, not a short story. When I am in South Texas, I always visit Presidio la Bahia, which is the finest example of a frontier Spanish fort in North America. I always go to the adjoining church, because I love it. For you fans of Cinco de Mayo, Presidio la Bahia was the birthplace of Ignacio Zaragoza in 1829. Zaragoza and his ragtag army defeated an invading French army (long story) at Puebla on Cinco de Mayo, 1862. A fun fact: Zaragoza wore spectacles. Mexico never had a better general. Age thirty-three, he died too young months later of typhoid fever. You know, I still regret that. 

Every year around the end of March, reenactors take over the presidio, do a little fighting, and demonstrate life in the Texas army of 1836. Psst. If you call the presidio anytime during the year, you might be able to snag an overnight stay in the fort itself. There is a wonderful, two-bedroom apartment. It comes with this warning: “With the exception of visitors from the spirit world, you’ll have the place all to yourself.” 

In daytime, the fort is open seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $4.50 for seniors, $2 for children 6-11, all younger for free. It’s worth every penny, with a great museum. And Mass on Sunday, if you’re so inclined. Presidio la Bahia is located south of Goliad on Loop 71 off US 183.

That presidio means more to me than Texas independence, or a chapel, or any bit of history that happened, and there was a lot and I love history. I realize now that it firmly cemented me on the writing path. 

In my mind, I never wrote anything better than that “Texas Tours” article.

Note: This charming plein air art is by my friend and fellow JHS grad, Nina Rossi Schenck. It’s a side view of the chapel from the courtyard of the presidio.