By The Time You Read This, I Will Have Died.Oct. 13, 2003
"Texas has given me a second chance. Not just for land and for riches, but to be a different man - God willing, a better one."
- Actor Patrick Wilson as William B. Travis on the set of "The Alamo."
I've spent 12 nights outdoors during this blustery winter front. The winds that whip across the scrubby hill country greet me head-on regardless of which direction I face. My lips are cracking, my skin peeling, my feet cramping, my muscles knotting. Despite my discomfort, I'm not being paid in sympathy, and those whose orders I obey will soon wrest me away from the fire that gives me my only comfort.
Don't worry. I'm not a dead man in real life -- I just play one in the movies, and I should've expected as much travail.
Three months earlier, for three successive days, Captain Don did not allow the rain and near-freezing temperatures to deter him from doing his duty at the final audition. While sending us marching and crawling through the grass and mud, he was quietly deciding who would be dying in the Alamo; 120 of us would be selected.
On day one, I almost helped Don make his decision. Holding the cold, steel barrel of my Kentucky Long Rifle, I watched my hands turn from red, to purple, to orange, to green. And now, midway through the shooting of the movie, I've re-opened the same evaluation that began on that first day -- 38 degrees never felt this cold when I had the option of going indoors. But tonight, as for two weeks before and two weeks to come, I'll experience sunset, sunrise and every frigid moment in between under the canopy of God.
Billy Bob [Thornton] interrupts my pity party, elbowing himself into the circle of extras huddled around the flame, and says, "All you fellas need is some marshmallows." I made a mental note to bring some to the set tomorrow night. Then, as furtively as he arrived, he disappeared into the outer darkness to watch the battle scene unfold.
Billy Bob is but one eccentric among many, blending in seamlessly with the menagerie of musicians, retirees and tradesmen who fight alongside him. "We're a buncha losers and entrepreneurs," one extra quipped as we rode to the set for the first time in Big Lake Independent School District buses, "a mixed bag, just like the 183 that really died." Forming a convoy of irrepressible enthusiasm, we were the pantheon of Texian heroes that we had revered since we were barely old enough to say coonskin cap.
Our enthusiasm, however, was somewhat curbed by the realization that a significant percentage of our day would be spent waiting in lines -- wardrobe, hair, makeup, props and lunch. This letdown, however, allowed us to build relationships and to meditate upon the lives from whence we came.
On this night, we were feeling particularly reflective while the fellas defending the southwest corner were taking one for the team. Big Will, a building contractor outside the film who had spent 10 years as a sniper in the Special Forces, has a penchant for offering obscure observations, and he comes out with one now.
"I don't deserve to be where I am, coming from where I'm from and doing what I've done," he says, casting a somber mood. "During harder times, life offered me a second chance, but required that I cease what brought me to that point. So, for every man here suffering through whatever tragedy, there comes a choice. Will I die and live again, or will I go on living like I'm already dead?"
"Amen, brother," another extra said, a little uncomfortable with Will's homily, but I gave Will an approving nod. Texas is a land formed by people seeking a second chance, and we, the extras of the Alamo, represent many of those very souls. I, myself, have been the beneficiary of numerous second chances, but until I die to the pride that besets me, I never will completely become the giver of second chances. Wouldn't it honor Texas to become the embodiment of what this state has become for me -- to die to a limited sentimentality and to live with an unconditional grace?
The assistant director interrupts my introspection with a loud bellow of "Jones!" He's ready to insert me into the fray. "Now we can't lose," he jokes as I head out to meet my doom. Somehow, though, I feel that in getting on with my death, I can better get on with my life -- a life lived not just for land and riches, but to be a different man -- God willing, a better one.
Editor's Note: Jones, MDiv '01, found out about the film's casting call first from a friend and later through the Internet. He went in November 2002 to submit a photograph and fill out an application: 8,000 men applied. Shortly before Thanksgiving, Jones got a callback and was told the filming would last 10 to 15 weeks. It took place from Jan. 20 to April 26. Jones is a freelance writer and owner of Mason Jar Productions in Waco, which produces documentaries to preserve family legacies and educates business and churches in utilizing video technology.