We are headed north on Interstate 35 from Austin to Dallas, on the tail end of an unexpected trip to Texas. The dog days of August have not been quite as unbearable as we anticipated but are still startlingly hot by our Alaskan standards. Beside the interstate, we glimpse many small Protestant churches, mostly of the Southern Baptist variety, interspersed with the upstart Pentecostal competition. The Grace Gospel Campground proclaims by way of the ubiquitous large plastic sign that “Jesus Heals!” We arc passing through Waco, in the middle of the buckle on the Bible Belt.
It is Sunday morning and we are hungry, so we have breakfast at the Cracker Barrel, that quintessential interstate highway mecca for “country cookin'” at which one may conveniently eat and purchase from an abundance of useless, potpourri-scented items. I am vaguely surprised at the number of casually dressed folks in the dining room. Surely they cannot all be tourists, and yet I would have expected the denizens of Waco to be on their way to the “church of their choice.” Never mind. Neither are we on our way to the church of our choice. We have decided to take a look at Mount Carmel, once and future home of the Waco Branch Davidians.
We ask directions from a woman pumping gas at a convenience store and from a man fishing on a sluggish creek. Both arc friendly, smiling at our inquiry in the way that amused locals do when observing the antics of out-of-towners. But their directions are vague and unclear; we drive several miles out of our way down a pretty “farm to market” road, winding up at a little settlement called Elk. Retracing our path, we spot a man whacking weeds beside the road, so we slow down, rolling down the windows to call out to him. Before we say a word, he says peremptorily, “Go down to that intersection, turn right and it’s the first right after that.” We surmise that he has given these directions many times, yet he does not seem annoyed. We laugh and thank him, and in a couple of minutes we are greeted by a sign which says, “Congratulations—you found the compound.” Sabbath services are listed on another sign—morning prayer is at 9:00 A.M. and Bible study at 3:00 P.M. I wonder what attendance is like these days.
I am somehow surprised that we do not find a heavy iron gate and armed sentinels. Instead, we see only a small dog and a blonde, weatherbeaten woman who is doing chores, oblivious to our arrival. There are two or three ramshackle buildings which appear to be held together with duct tape; one, made of plywood and painted black, is identified as the “Loud Cry Museum,” and we are advised that admission is free. Another building, topped with a white wooden cross, appears to be a tiny office, while the function of a third is not readily apparent but seems to have some sort of stage attached to it. The only other structure in this cluster is an outhouse.
The weatherbeaten woman greets us, and in response to our inquiry says that we are welcome to walk all over the site. From the information in the museum and the literature she sells, we learn that she is Amo Paul Bishop Roden, wife of George Roden, whose parents founded the Branch Davidian sect. It was from George Roden that a handsome young hippie (her description) calling himself David Koresh wrested control of the Waco property along with dominance of the sect in 1987. Amo Roden was present when George was shot in the chest by Koresh, and since that time she has fought to regain control of the property. She has apparently spent the last eight years writing legal briefs, fighting the Texas welfare department for custody’ of her daughter, and struggling to navigate her way through the murky waters of sex and drugs surrounding the Davidian sect. By her own account, she is a college-educated “systems analyst” who once assessed the likelihood of a nuclear first strike by the Soviet Union; she offered her findings to the United States government but was rejected. She is 50-something, an untidy-looking woman wearing a loose denim dress and leather sandals. Her teeth are bad, and she has an unfashionable amount of body hair. Most people of modern sensibility would be repelled by her.
The Loud Cry Museum contains nine small bicycles, mangled and rusty, a few battered toys, and many pages of text which are an apologia for the Branch Davidian beliefs. The explanatory signs are hand-lettered, and on one we read, “Thirty years ago, the New World Order planned for you to be: Too dumb to notice, too stressed to care, too poor to act . . . [and] unarmed.” Another sign advises us that as part of the United States government’s ongoing persecution of the Davidians, Amo Roden is subjected to nightly tear gas attacks, along with repeated theft and destruction of religious artifacts from the site.
Vehicles are barred from moving further into the compound by a sawhorse barricade, so we proceed on foot. A sign warns that hazards here include: “broken glass, nails, sharp metal, razor blade wire, deep water, open pits, unmarked washouts, rubble piles, wildlife—Enter At Your Own Risk.” It is about 10:00 A.M., and the morning heat seems to be rising from the earth in steamy waves. At this point, there are no other sightseers, and the only sound besides the crunch of gravel is the whir and buzz of many insects in the tall dry grass. We see a small altar in front of an old delivery truck which appears to be someone’s living quarters. A sign says that “Christ the Branch was crucified afresh and became a curse for the sins of his followers.” There is no scriptural reference, so it is not clear to whom this refers; given the bad blood between the Rodens and David Koresh, it is difficult to believe that it refers to the latter. However, in her quest to transform Mount Carmel from a few areas fought over by warring sectarians into a place of memorial for the Davidian martyrs, perhaps Amo Roden has seen fit to bury the hatchet. Beside the altar is a donation box for the “Living Waters Branch of Righteousness —Rebuilding Fund.”
Across from the altar is the most striking sight in the whole compound. In a well-tended plot of ground are rows of white wooden crosses, each shaded by a blooming pink Crape Myrtle bush. With a few exceptions, each cross displays the name and, in some cases, a picture of each Davidian killed in the 1993 fire. A granite monument, erected by the Northeast Texas Regular Militia of Texarkana, Texas, reads: “On February 28, 1993, a church and its members known as Branch Davidians came under attack bv ATF and FBI agents. For fifty-one days the Davidians and their leader, David Koresh, stood proudly. On April 19,1993, the Davidians and their church were burned to the ground. Eighty-two people perished during the siege, eighteen were children ten years old or younger.”
We walk among the crosses, noting a few names here and there. Cross number ten is Shari Elayna Doyle, age 18, a pretty, smiling girl with long blonde hair. She looks no different from most of my teenaged sons’ female classmates. Number 14 is Dayland Lord Gent, age three. Three children play Ring Around the Rosy and smile at the camera. Dayland must be the little guy in the middle. Rachel Sylvia, age 13, is number 78. Her dark hair is held back by a headband and her smile is wide but a bit shy. She is holding what appears to be a book or a package. Next to her is Lorraine Sylvia, age 40, obviously Rachel’s mom. She is a youthful-looking, attractive woman, balancing a toddler on her hip. Chica Jones, number 33, was only one and a half years old. There is no picture, so we do not know if Chica was a boy or a girl. We search in vain for a cross dedicated to David Koresh. Possibly it is one of the unmarked ones—no doubt souvenir hunters would rip off a picture as soon as it was put there.
Across the road are ruins of the buildings, piles of dirt and rubble with sunflowers growing everywhere, riotously and incongruously. On the remains of a concrete slab is a tunnel entrance, outlined with weathered wood like an old mine shaft. Remembering the maze of subterranean paths hollowed out by the Davidians, we peer down into the opening but sec only fetid water with bits of trash floating on it. Beyond is a ruined swimming pool, insects skimming the surface of its dirty, greenish water. Charred bits of wood are lying in the water along with a partially submerged remnant of a building. We hear a loud plopping noise but turn our heads too late to see something dive under the water. I begin to think uneasily of snakes.
We continue to follow the weedy path and with every step, large crickets and grasshoppers fly up from the grass, occasionally brushing our faces and arms. Wc glimpse pieces of yellow metal sticking out of the dry, cracked ground. Is it possible that this is the infamous buried bus? A wrecked and rusty motorcycle, its detached seat lying nearby, rests near axles with their huge tires still attached. Where did all this junk come from? By Amo Roden’s own account, FBI agents literally sifted the ground and took away anything too large to fit through a mesh screen. It is tempting to think that, in their zeal to turn the area into a memorial park cum tourist attraction, Mrs. Roden and her friends placed the items here in order to heighten the pathos. But it’s a minor point; with or without the junk, Mount Carmel is an evocative place. We stand on another concrete slab and gaze out across the pond toward the road, imagining dozens of reporters, cameras fixed and microphones ready, anxious to catch the latest titillating bit of “news” to feed to the American public.
Other tourists have ventured into the ruins, but none have lingered as long as we, and I find myself becoming anxious to get away from this oppressive place with its almost palpably evil vibrations. I look in the direction of our rented car and long to return to the homogeneous and normal world of the interstate, to Cracker Barrels and convenience stores. We retrace our steps, past the altar and the monument and the 82 white crosses, back to the Loud Cry Museum for one last chat with Amo Roden. In response to our questions, she tells us that she wants to rebuild a barn on the other side of the ruins and dedicate it as a chapel. She hopes to receive the funds from a woman in Wisconsin. Mrs. Roden believes that although all the bodies were removed after the fire, some did not make it to the coroner’s office and were simply buried at the site. She plans to leave the ruin just as it is. She likes living here and enjoys meeting visitors and answering their questions. After purchasing some of her literature, we say goodbye and she returns to her shanty of an office to wait for the next pilgrims.
In the peace and comfort of the car. we trade impressions. “Cultish” and “strange” spring to mind when describing the Davidian mindset. If Amo Roden is any example, these aren’t exactly the kind of folks you would like to see move in next door. Their religious beliefs are nutty, their standards of morality are disturbing, and their ideas about architecture are bizarre.
But, wait a minute, aren’t the Clintons and their crowd always blathering on about how we should all “celebrate diversity”? Aren’t we lectured constantly about tolerance and understanding and, hey people, can’t we all just get along? Have we stumbled on Bill and Janet’s dirty little secret here? The Branch Davidians may not have been murdered by their own government, but even if they were, you don’t really have to care. You certainly don’t need to worry about a creep like David Koresh, an alleged child abuser and weapons violator who got what was coming to him, and, well, it’s too bad that all those other people had to get it too.
Waco is disturbing. It is disturbing because people died there under mysterious circumstances and because some of these people were children and because our own government may have deliberately killed them. Walking around Mount Carmel forces even the most casual visitor to deal with his or her attitudes about these people who, for whatever reason, chose to throw in their lot with Koresh. Standing on the ground of the ruined compound, imagining men, women, and children going about their daily lives (never mind our judgment of the quality of that life), compels us to come to grips with how we really feel about our fellow citizens who choose to live outside the mainstream. Maybe the fact that they are on the fringe is not a reason to kill them, but it’s a good enough reason to forget them.
Once again we are speeding north on the interstate, becoming absorbed in the cares and concerns of our own lives. But before we can put the Branch Davidians and their grisly end out of our minds, the eight-year-old in the back seat goes straight to the heart of this matter of the right and proper function of government. “If there was a fire there,” he asks, “why didn’t the fire trucks come and put it out and rescue those people?” Why not, indeed?