So, ages ago, Karen M. who manages the speaker’s schedule for the German Texan Heritage Society emailed me to ask if I would like to come and do a talk about the history of the Adelsverein in Texas, and how I went about writing three historical novels based on those events – which are dramatic to the nth degree and which hardly anyone outside of Texas has ever heard of. Of course I said yes, how could I resist any organization which contains a large number of people who are, or might be interested in my books, and whose’ tag-line on their website is “Guten Tag, Y’all?” Besides, they offered refreshments for afters; I will work for cookies and punch. Perhaps someday I will be able to throw all sorts of hissies and demand Perrier on tap, a fruit tray and a private dressing room before engagements, but that day is not yet – really, my sense of entitlement is all but stillborn. Either that or I haven’t become jaded – darn it, I still enjoy these things, once I get over the initial panic of standing up and looking at all those strangers or almost-strangers in front of me, waiting for me to say something deathlessly witty. This is where having been a broadcaster comes in handy. I know that I have spoken, through a microphone or a TV to larger numbers of people, but those audiences were not ‘there’, not in the same room. On those occasions, I could fake myself out, pretend that I was only speaking to a handful of people, be casual and friendly, informative and remember to stand up straight, not pick my nose and not cuss in front of them … but having them all look back at you – that is another kettle of fish. Fortunately, I am getting accustomed to a live audience…
Blondie programmed the GPS unit, and I did a google-map search for the venue, which was described as being “The Old German Free School” in beautiful downtown Austin, Texas… which is, I feel only fair to point out, really quite beautiful, as it is spread over a number of scenically lumpy and rather nicely-wooded hills on either side of a lovely deep-green river. A lot of the streets were strategically and alternately one-way, but – thank god – there was no particular festival going on, which might have clogged traffic unbearably – but we did have to go to one exit and then zig-zag through another couple of streets which afforded us some nice views of assorted college students enjoying their last day of spring break, and one particularly large complex which seemed to be ‘street-people central.’
The old German Free-School turned out to a lovely antique two-storey building, constructed of stone, and stone and plaster, and stone and plaster over rammed-earth, a long structure just one room deep and turned sideways to the street, with balconies and terraces overlooking a series of pocket-gardens connected by stairs. Most of the rooms opened onto balconies or the terraces, with long windows on either side, which reminded me irresistibly of 18th and 19th century townhouses in Charleston or Savannah or Beaufort, built up on relatively deep town-lots with the narrow end of the house on the street. All of the rooms had tall windows on both sides – to ensure a good draft through the room, essential in those far-distant summer days before the invention of air conditioning. It had just gotten over being unbearably chilly and rainy, so the rooms were quite pleasant.
The German Free School was the first institution of public education in Austin, according to one of the members of the society who came for my talk. In the mid-1850s, there were sufficient numbers of German-speaking settlers who were totally exasperated with the lack of educational resources; the only option for educating their children was to hire a private tutor, or send them to the Anglo-American ‘Sunday Schools’. According to my informant, one of the founders was totally fed-up, (possibly with listening to all his fellows kvetching about the subject) so he threw down a thousand dollars in gold and growled, “So, build a school!” and there you go – apparently the Free School predated the Austin Independent School District by at least a decade.
There were about fifteen or twenty attendees – and the room was fairly small, so I went ahead and used the podium, with my notes and my pictures of certain relics and locations, 81/2 by 11 pictures mounted on foam-core board, with little hinged supports to hold them up – all of essential items or evocative locations in Fredericksburg. It really went well, this time – I have quite a sort-of-planned talk-with-notes that I use for these occasions, a list of notes, names and things that I simply must cover, and in the proper order; not a set script, for that is the absolute death of this kind of event, just a memory-jogger of the high points. This is the best and most-spontaneous seeming kind of talk, I am not bound by an every-single-word script and can play up or play down things, and respond immediately to what the audience seems to be most interested or engaged in. I wing it, every time – but a wing-it with some sturdy yet invisible supports! Finished with a reading – a couple of pages from “The Gathering” – about the feast and bonfire the first settlers held among the trees of what would become Fredericksburg, and took questions until everyone repaired for punch, home-made coconut cake and a plate of little baked pastry and sausage nibbles.
The members of the audience were all enthusiasts – the very best kind of audience an author can ask for, for they had interesting questions and a lot of knowledge behind them – even if only one person among them had actually the Trilogy. Doris L. purchased the Trilogy and read it all – her husband is from one of the old Gillespie County families and by one of those interesting coincidences of history and the internet and all – it was her husband’s several-times great grandfather who owned the sheep-flock that a boy named Adolph Korn had been watching over, when he was taken by raiding Comanche Indians. Adolph Korn’s g-g-I don’t-know-how-many-times grand-nephew Scott Zesch wrote bout his life and the ordeal of a number of children taken by Indians from the Hill Country in his book “The Captured” – which was one of my references in writing Book Three “The Harvesting” – about the multi-leveled tragedy of young children taken captive by the Comanche or Apache and later returned to their white families. Some of the other questions asked of me were about Prince Solms – who I do still think was rather an idiot, in spite of what one of his particular partisans could say. Sorry, buying into the Fischer-Miller Grant was not an act bringing any particular credit upon Prince Solm’s financial or political acumen. Also, the train of personal servants and his insistence on his title of nobility – not a good move, all around, no matter what his qualifications as a serving military officer might have been in other fields. Although there was an excellent point made, about how perceptions about Germany and German settlers went to the bottom of the tank after about mid WW I or so.
Until that era, and in most places in these United States – being from the German settlements and of German ancestry were seen as pretty favorable things. It was OK to be one of ‘the folk’, to remember Germany as it was… until history turned a corner and Germany changed. The place that these hard-working and cultured immigrants came from, the place that they remembered with fondness and reminiscent affection morphed into something ugly. That Germany – or those duchies and principalities that they came from – changed during their absence, even as they changed themselves, becoming a place that they would not have recognized, these innocent and ambitious immigrants, taking ship from Bremen, carrying their memories and those wooden trunks with them. By the mid-20th century, their new country would have fought fight two wars against the old – against what the old country had become, even as they were busy building lives and towns, bringing up their children as free citizens in America. Funny, how history happens, when you are just trying do your business and get by.
All in all, a most gratifying Sunday afternoon spent, in the company of book and history enthusiasts. And Blondie did make sort-of friends with the garden cat.