February 1, 2011
The guy never stops staring at me. He never speaks, but his gaze is constant – unblinking and focused. From his high perch down to me in my assigned place, he sends what I take to be positive vibes.
He’s got kind of a wispy gray beard, gray hair, a weathered face and dark eyes that reveal they’ve seen a lot – more, I’ll bet, than anyone truly knows.
Even as an old man, he looks determined. He looks sort of mad. He looks like a guy still spoiling for a fight.
And as he stoically surveys me, I examine him and wonder what he’s thinking about all the things he’s watching. I’m distracted by him – even as he gives me a deep sense of exactly where I am and the opportunity I have.
His name is Alfonso Steele (the card under his gigantic portrait spells it “Alphonso,” but the history books say “Alfonso”; maybe that’s one of the things he’s mad about). His giant portrait hangs right across from my desk on the floor of the Texas Senate – near folks like Barbara Jordan, President Lyndon Johnson and Mirabeau Lamar.
My friend Alfonso. I use his first name because I feel like we know each other pretty well at this point. We’ve spent a lot of time studying one another and, I must say, there are times I think he may be the only one in that chamber who’s actually listening.
Alfonso entered this rarefied air basically by fighting and, then, by surviving.
He was born in Kentucky, hoofed it over to the Mississippi River, floated down to Louisiana, hooked up with some folks looking to fight in the Texas revolution, and, as they say, got here as quick as he could. He was 18 at the time.
Unfortunately for Alfonso, the revolution wasn’t exactly underway yet. So he did what any self-respecting and aspiring revolutionary would do – he got a job in a hotel at Washington-on-the-Brazos, started grinding corn to make bread for the Texas Declaration of Independence signatories, and bided his time.
He was serving as a private in Sam Houston’s army when the Battle of San Jacinto got started (here’s a link, but really, if you’re not familiar with San Jacinto, you need to think about going back to California). He was badly wounded but didn’t quit the fight – in fact, Sam Houston apparently ended up riding on Alfonso’s horse for at least part of the battle (though the horse also got shot, I understand).
Alfonso recovered (his horse did not) and he went on to lead what reads like a very normal life. He headed to Montgomery County (near Houston), got married at 21, and then moved to Robertson County (which is now Limestone County, about 45 minutes east of Waco).
Alfonso got relatively famous (emphasis on “relatively” – the only famous people listed on Limestone County’s Wikipedia page are Anna Nicole Smith and Don the Beachcomber) back in 1909, when the 31st Texas Legislature honored him as one of two living survivors of San Jacinto.
And the other guy, whoever he was, died. So Alfonso was it, earning him a place in the Capitol and the right to be written about in highly informative email newsletters a century later. He died just shy of a hundred years ago, at the age of 94.
Now, he’s up on the wall, sitting in what appears to be a big, dark room, his head turned a bit so he can face me. Which he does … every day I’m in the Senate Chamber.
And so, for another 17 weeks of the session, I’ll be looking at Alfonso. And I have no doubt that he’ll be watching me, too.