You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

A Return to Waco

No more cane on the Brazos

Bob Daemmrich/Getty Images

About the only thing open along Highway 84, the Sunday morning after that Monday morning when fire took the Branch Davidians, was the Central Texas Bee Supply. In Waco, eternal city of the Baptists, the Sabbath still means something; in Waco, commerce still yields to faith, at least until after church.

Bees, though, are evidently exempt from the instruction to “toileth not.” In Bellmead, the rusty suburb where I stopped, seeking sustenance, the Triangle Grocery offered “Home Made Sandwiches” and “Ammunition for Shotguns, Rifles and Pistols,” a succinct enough reminder of how it came to pass that (at last count) seventy-two people got crisped a few miles to the east. Texas is not the land of the meek, nor is it the only place in America where bullets and food enjoy a rough parity. We are not a nation that can be said to scorn ammunition, and the fact that the Branch Davidians had assembled an estimated million rounds (a figure not likely to be verified) does not, in a western context, seem particularly remarkable; nor did it mean that David Koresh and his Mighty Men were about to load up and march on Mexia, a small community some thirty-five miles up the road, distinguished mainly for having been the hometown of Anna Nicole Smith, the full-figured Guess model.

From tragedy it is seldom but a step to memorabilia. A woman at a convenience store told me that if I wanted to drive out to the roadblock where, she was confident, I would find the media, I should go east on Highway 84 and turn right at a sign that said “Elk.” I drove east a goodly distance but failed to spot “Elk.” On my second pass, though, I located the memorabilia. Two young women were piling it on a rickety table in the parking lot of the Egg Roll House Chinese Restaurant.

At that hour sales were not brisk, especially for the T-shirt that said I SUPPORT THE ATF. Another, showing David Koresh’s face in the cross-hairs of a scope sight, was captioned A SIGHT WE’VE BEEN WAITING TO SEE. The most expensive T-shirt, at sixteen bucks, showed the firecloud itself. The wittiest merely said, HI VERN, WEIRD ASSHOLE, COME OUT. (The Vern refers to David Koresh’s real name, which was Vernon Howell.) In our time, the T-shirt has replaced the broadsheet as the favored means of commenting on natural disasters, executions and other notable events.

Not much in life is unprecedented; certainly the destruction of the Davidians was not. The only thing that distinguishes it from hundreds of other actions throughout history in which religious sects or communities have been destroyed is that this destruction occurred in the era of the Great Eye — television — so that we as a nation, and the world as a global village, were able to watch the awful event unfold. For the past 150 years at least, homely little cults have flourished in America, dotting the moral and geographic landscape. Not infrequently these small cults, whether religious or secular, have found themselves in conflict with local, state or national authority. The Mormons provide the great example, but many less tenacious groups existed or still exist; and many have been burned out, shot up and hounded out. Religious intolerance, greed for acreage and sexual envy have all played their part in these conflicts.

However exalted their ideals, in practice these communities have rarely been free of the usual human spitefulness. When not fighting their neighbors or the militia, they frequently slide into schismatic violence — sometimes tragic, sometimes farcical. The Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857 is an example of the tragic: more than 100 westbound immigrants from Arkansas were killed by Mormon troops, perhaps to avenge the death of Parley Parker Pratt, the Mormon Isaiah, who had recently been slain in Arkansas. As for the farcical, it would be hard to beat the duel of the vanities that occurred in 1987 between David Koresh, then plain Vernon Howell, and the older Davidian leader Ben Roden, who, as a test of Koresh’s godhead, offered to provide a corpse for Koresh to resurrect. Suspecting foul play, Koresh came prepared, as was his right under Texas law, which permits (still does!) anyone who feels threatened to seek out his adversary and to do so armed if the threat seems heavy enough. A shoot-out occurred. Nobody was seriously hurt, but Koresh was charged with attempted murder. Sheriff Jack Harwell, the patriarchal lawman of McLennan County, arrested Koresh without getting out of his chair. The sheriff simply picked up the phone, called the Messiah and asked him to come along in. The Messiah came along in. It is not unlikely that Sheriff Harwell might have been helpful in February too. The Davidians might psych themselves up for jihad with the agents of Belial, as exemplified by the ATF; but shooting a local sheriff is something else again.

It’s easy to second-guess earnest lawmen doing their best in a confusing situation, but still it’s hard for this citizen to discern in the actions of his government in Waco even a few glimmers of rationality. From one county sheriff with a telephone to 100 agents with the backup of helicopters is quite some escalation, What were the Davidians doing to provoke that? Probably they were converting semiautomatic assault rifles to full auto. That is certainly a crime; even possessing the capability to convert them is a crime. But down here in the Fifty-Caliber Belt this particular crime is usually treated about as seriously as spitting on the sidewalk. The many people who fancy assault rifles are rarely content to be caught with half a hog; one of the selling points of these rifles is that they can be converted to full auto in a few minutes. War games are second only to sex games in this country; but war games aren’t war, and most of the converted weaponry, if it gets fired at all, is fired at shooting ranges, or at heaps of old mattresses, or into the sides of hills.

The Davidians, prior to February 28, hadn’t fired any automatic rifles, full or semi, at anyone. So why the 100 agents and the media, which we now know were alerted by the ATF? Could it be that the ATF was seeking some good publicity such as might result from a spectacular gun bust? If they could arrest some kooks with a bunch of bad rifles and a million bullets, people might stop thinking of them as hound-dog handlers with ax handles who go around busting up stills. Unfortunately, the Davidians refused to cooperate.

In the aftermath of irredeemable tragedy, the mind searches backward toward the moment when wisdom might have stayed or deflected the course of the terrible event itself. February 28 offered such a moment, but wisdom didn’t show; and neither was it in evidence on April 19, when the FBI showed to what extent it is the hammer of Hoover still. Attorney General Janet Reno, admirable as she may have been for bluntly accepting responsibility for the calamity, said nothing that smacked of wisdom in her explanation. Suggestions of recent child abuse were hardly out of her mouth before the FBI contradicted her. Perhaps the snipers were tired, was her other justification for going in; but the whole compound was surrounded by wire, and the only escape vehicle was David Koresh’s black Camaro. Who was going anywhere?

Reno essentially threw herself on the mercy of the public — O.K., I did it, stone me — and was rewarded with a wave of sentiment, obscuring the feel that she endorsed a plan born of nothing but impatience, pique and a fear of stalemate. Among the plan’s several flaws was its contempt for the will of the Branch Davidians, a fatal underestimation. Instead of stoning the attorney general, the public stoned the president, who ducked and then had to un-duck and allow himself to be chunked, slightly. The president dismissed the Branch Davidians as “religious fanatics” who, moreover, “burned themselves up.” He made it sound almost as if this level of belief were un-American, as if constancy to one’s faith until death — once a staple of many faiths — were some weird Asian practice that could scarcely be countenanced on these shores.

The uncomfortable fact is that the Branch Davidians did have a faith, and they were practicing it in a country founded on the principle of religious freedom. On the fifty-first day of the siege, tanks pounded the compound for more than six hours, squirting in tear gas, and no one came out. A sheet was hung from a window, and the message scrawled on it was WE WANT OUR PHONES FIXED, not as eloquent as the letter Colonel Travis sent out from the Alamo, but not without its poignancy.

Multinational though they were, the Branch Davidians in their last hours seemed pretty American: Koresh was royally pissed when they towed away his Camaro. When the fires started, some Davidians may have tried to get out and failed: some may have been prevented from leaving, or even been shot. But surely it is also possible that the majority of them were constant to their faith until death. It seems pretty unlikely that more than seventy people, some of them parents with children to defend, were held in the inferno against their will. The most Orwellian aspect of the final day was the FBI’s attempt to convince the Branch Davidians that they weren’t under assault, even as tanks were knocking the compound to splinters and pumping in the gas.

None of this excuses Koresh, who, as a shepherd of souls, was more than derelict in the care of his flock. Evidently he mainly liked to preach, fuck and play the guitar, preferences that are hardly unique in the annals of dipshit gurus. One would give Koresh no credence at all were it not for odd bits of testimony, A black woman who left the compound unwillingly because she considered it her duty to attend a sick woman spoke on “Nightline” after the tragedy. This woman said that Koresh was a man of nobility, and she said it with a grace and delicacy that arrested one’s attention as nothing else did in an evening of shallow chatter.

I did find my way, eventually, to the roadblock on Old Mexia Road, the easternmost edge of suburban Waco. It was a lovely spring day. Bluebonnets graced the roadways and the fields, and cattle egrets, the small, elegant white birds whose arrival on the Texas range some years ago did so much to make cattle ranching visually acceptable to the doctors, the lawyers and the architects who now own most of the ranches, were present in abundance, spaced amid their herds, white on the fresh green grass, as if arranged by Monet.

Along Old Mexia Road, the tragedy seemed to be a closed chapter, and life was going on as it normally would on a sunny Sunday. Two men were putting their fishing equipment in the back of a pickup, no doubt about to head over to the Brazos a few miles away. A woman with her hair in curlers was mowing the lawn. Three boys came zipping along in go-carts. A toddler chased a dog.

At the roadblock itself, a media-weary highway patrolman disposed of me with a jerk of his thumb. A little frustrated, I circled around to the other end of Old Mexia Road. The roadblock there was manned by two officers from the Highway Patrol and one from the ATF. The patrolmen’s vehicle belonged to the Division of Weights and Licenses; no doubt in a day or two they would have to go back to weighing trucks. Curious to see what it would get me, I played my ace, Lonesome Dove. It promptly got my picture taken with the two highway patrolmen.

By the road that leads to what is left of the compound, there was a small tent that looked like a relic from a 1950s Boy Scout encampment There was a sign on it: FORT WOODY. Two road markers on the tent said, “Laredo, 400 miles” and “Amarillo, 450 miles,” plus the comment, “We’ll Be Back.” The road markers were pointing toward El Paso and Texarkana, not toward Laredo and Amarillo. I asked why the tent was named Fort Woody and was told that it was named for a dog that had started hanging around, whose name may or may not have been Woody. As if on cue, the dog appeared.

I drifted back to Highway 84 and inspected the Wings for Christ International Flight Academy, whose fleet consisted of two planes. Then I had lunch at Parks’ Family Buffet, the cleanest, most well-lighted place in that part of the world. Where the buffet began, there was a sign that read: “Don’t Waste Food. Take What You Can Eat and Eat What You Take. No Carry Out From Tables.” Thus admonished, and aware that my appetite is apt to falter when I’m expected to clean my plate, I contented myself with a small dish of turnip greens and some banana pudding. The restaurant was full, the patrons an equal mixture of black and white, most of them dressed as if they had just come from church. There was very little chatter; everyone was intent on eating what they had taken. I hung around for an hour, taking advantage of an unusually liberal policy in regard to iced tea. I didn’t hear a single person mention the Davidians.

In a mood somewhat funèbre, I drove back up the road a little distance and took a walk through the Sleepy Hollow Pet Cemetery, a nicely kept acre of ground beside the highway. It was afternoon by then, and pickups zoomed by on the highway, many of them pulling boats; people were heading for the river or the lakes. The first grave I came to in the Sleepy Hollow Pet Cemetery might, but for a vowel, have been a family member: Kristi Lynn McMurtray, 6-76, 1-9-87. The next gravestone had a cameo of a white poodle set into it: Ami, April 1972, Dec. 11, 1983: Small in Size but Big in Heart, Bert Hernandez Family. I walked on, past the graves of:

Buster, Not Just a Dog, He Was Family

Cougar., My Friend

Loving memory, My Baby Hot Shot

Rosie, At Rest

Misty, Kim’s Friend

Honey Bun

Tasha Su



Coach Bear Buffy

Phemie Euphemine Fayette, Too Well Beloved to Be Forgotten, Our Little Girl

It is not to trivialize the dead Davidians or the dead agents that I list these names and epitaphs from the little pet cemetery beside Highway 84, though one grieving mother of a daughter lost in the compound spoke of her child in words identical to those carved onto the gravestone of Phemie Euphemine Fayette. The great mode, tragedy, doesn’t know proportion; it will take a child as quickly as it takes a poodle, and it offers no lessons to the lesson-seeker. But the epitaphs that attempt to say what the pets of Bellmead, Texas, meant to the families that loved them, and the epitaphs, likely not dissimilar, that will eventually grace the headstones of the Davidians and the agents celebrate a common blessing and express a common pain. The blessing is attachment, whether to a faith, a community, a friend, a lover, one’s mate, one’s family, one’s pet; and the pain is its loss.

Attachment is, for many, the only root holding them in this life — and dire circumstance, or that fell scorpion Time, is always trying to wither it, or wrench it up. Like it or not, the Davidians were attached: not merely to a man who may have been, as the T-shirt claimed, a weird asshole, or as the black woman believed, a man of nobility, but also to one another, and to belief. Once the fires started in the compound, a woman came out with her clothes in flames, then turned and tried to rush back to die with her friends. (An agent saved her.)

Well, one can say, these people were all weak, lame-brained, wacko, sick. One and all they needed to be “deprogrammed,” which I suppose means reprogrammed to a lifestyle that normal middle Americans would accept. One of the men who died was Wayne Martin (City College, Columbia, Harvard Law), who handled much of the Davidians’ legal business and was liked and respected around the McLennan County Courthouse. What program did he need to be reprogrammed to, one must wonder.

Probably when all the bodies are finally out, and all the evidence sifted from the ashes, the remains of the compound will just be scraped away. Prairie will return to prairie. Bluebonnets will bloom, and egrets dance. The fallout in Washington will be falling for a while, and in the end it may be the ATF that is deprogrammed or debudgeted out of existence. It requires, I think, no excessive cynicism about the ways of government to doubt that substantive changes of any sort will result from the destruction of the Branch Davidians. What happened off Old Mexia Road will simply be filed under that capacious heading, the Senseless Tragedy.

The category is appropriate. The Branch Davidians had more than seven weeks in which to save their own and their children’s lives. To everyone’s shock, they preferred to be loyal to their attachments, to their preacher and their faith and to one another. The FBI certainly could have spared them, and probably supposed they were sparing them, even as the tanks rolled and the tear gas spurted. Government proceeds, as perhaps it must, on the assumption that people are, within reason, predictable. (The FBI seemed to be banking on the mothers; surely when their children were threatened, the mothers would come out.) Government may proceed on that assumption, but faith needn’t; and one doesn’t have to be much of a student of the centuries of faith to realize how frequently and how absolutely this particular governmental assumption has been refuted.

The Davidians were not living within reason; they were living within belief. It may have been wacky, screwball, theologically dopey belief, based on the rantings of a false prophet, but it was still belief. In this irreligious age, it has become difficult for us to credit the fact that such a capacity for belief is still a part of the human makeup. Seventy-two corpses in a lab in Fort Worth, Texas, remind us that it is.