By train and stage and horse and mule I went, and, when I had to, on foot. I cursed the Territories in general and Arizona in particular. I cursed Prescott and Phoenix and Maricopa; Sacaton on the Gila River Reservation and Snowflake on Silver Creek. At Brownell in the Quijotas I learned that William Howard Taft had signed the enabling act that would make a state of that hellish country, and thereafter I cursed him too.
The day started well, with clouds lower than the mountain tops out back of the house,
though that soon becomes boring, when it is all you see all the way down to the border.
The omens were mixed. We saw a road runner running across the road. Followed by a coyote running across the road. However, there were about ten minutes and ten miles in between these incidents, and the coyote was ill-equipped for the task of meep-meep! pursuit. On the other hand, there was a radio call-in show asking the vital festive question: ‘Are gingerbread men really cursed? Y’know, like a kinda voodoo thing?’ Sadly, we lost the station before a definitive conclusion was reached.
Odd moments of cognitive dissonance en route do not prepare you for the sheer ugliness and stupidity of the border wall – a rusty brown fence – stretching through the middle of Nogales. To cross over, you go down a narrow backstreet with a cardboard sign saying ‘To Mexico’, and then just walk through a turnstile and you are there; on the way back, you queue on foot for an hour and a half to snake through a too-small yet still undermanned border post, where there is not even a pretence of questioning, or examining the papers of, white folks. (Later, we drive through a checkpoint some miles into the US, where the same rules seem to apply.)
Most of the people crossing over live on the Mexican side, but some groceries are cheaper on the US side, where parts of their families also live. It is maddening, on all sorts of levels. The yanquis crossing into Nogales are there for one thing – affordable prescription drugs (and dentistry). On the Mexican side, Nogales is a lot like a seedy old English seaside resort, but for the first couple of blocks, every other store is a pharmacy selling drugs at a fraction of the price they cost in the US.
And the place is full of middle-aged white men you recognise from the TV, buying meds to combat their jaundice – and viagra.
To everyone’s surprise, we got back to Tucson without me spending any time in a Mexican jail or a Homeland Security holding pen…
They say nothing ever happens in Florence, Arizona. That no one ever goes there except prisoners headed for one of its nine prisons. That the only people who stay more than a couple of hours are either inmates or guards.
They say it is a place to pass through, but by this they mean ‘pass by’.
It is a town that does not want to be seen.
It is a town that knows shame.
It is where he came from, the man who nearly got us all killed.
There are monuments, weatherworn and decrepit, but they do not celebrate him. They recall his folly. They are a civic embarrassment the townsfolk are too ashamed to remove.
And so Florence, Arizona, hides away as best it can.
The story begin somewhere else, somewhere to the south, down past Tucson. In Pima county. The Baboquivari Mountains, perhaps, or maybe the Quinlans. Somewhere high up, where the air is clear.
Young Hans was a keen amateur astronomer. Enthused by Percival Lowell’s first book about Mars, he set out to observe the red planet during the 1896 opposition. Two years earlier, several observatories reported a great light on the illuminated part of the disk. An article in Nature had identified the specific location, and he subjected it to particular scrutiny.
He reported seeing an array of peculiar markings near the site. He wrote to Lowell, at his observatory up in Flagstaff, and to the Lick Observatory in San Jose. In their archives, you can still see his cramped letters, his painstaking maps. Preserved in curatorial atonement for the fact that no one ever replied. A refusal to expunge him, or to absolve those ‘betters’ who disdained him at such a cost to us all.
When he returned to Florence, he was a changed man, haunted, as if he knew something so terrible he dare not speak it aloud. And slowly and surely he drew his plans. Counted down the 780 days until the next opposition. Started to build.
Several articles about Hans appeared in the Florence Reminder & Blade-Tribune over the next two years. One suggests that he sought the assistance of Nikola Tesla, who was up in Colorado Springs during 1899, although there is no record of them actually meeting. Press interest may have waxed and waned, but it never seemed to affect Hans. He was firmly uncommunicative.
There was talk of having him committed, but it came to nothing. He remained tight-lipped.
The rocket still stands where it landed upon its return from its second flight in 1934. Back in 1901, it landed about a block further south, but Florence, slowly expanding throughout the twentieth century, long ago engulfed the spot.
Nor is any trace left of the construction site, from which he launched the rocket in 1899. A couple of miles further from Main Street, it is buried beneath an undistinguished suburban tract.
All that remains of this astonishing feat is the rocket engine, tucked away at the back of the local museum, and the towering shell of the craft – an unsanctioned monument, uncared for, decaying. Its spindly legs stubbornly refuse to collapse.
You cannot get near it. A row of stores and workshops, not all of them in business any longer, block the way, and it is surrounded by a high fence – not to protect it so much as to disavow the townsfolks’ vandalic urges. Every decade or so someone suggests the council demolish it, but somehow the proposal always runs out of steam. You get the sense that the town is waiting for it to collapse of its own accord, that if they make no overt move against the rocket its unwilled destruction will free them.
In 1899, Hans disappeared. The rocket, too.
When Sheriff Nichols inspected the construction site, he found a large patch of scorched desert earth. ‘Pretty much a precise circle,’ he told the Florence Reminder & Blade-Tribune reporter. The lack of debris scotched any suspicion that Hans had just blown himself up, but that did not prevent the rumour that he had merely fired the rocket off into the desert and absconded in the night. For two years, his fate remained a topic of gossip and speculation. In the saloons and private homes of Florence, it was something to chew over when the nights were cold or the days were long.
If no one saw his departure, everyone witnessed his return. Round about lunch time, smack in the middle of town. Descending on a pillar of flame, his craft ruby red with heat.
Night fell before the hatch opened. He lowered a rope ladder he could barely climb down. Two men clambered up to his swooning figure before he could fall, and brought him the last few yards down to earth.
He was starved and dehydrated. He had lost one arm below the elbow, and the crudely cauterised stump was gangrenous. A hasty second amputation was performed before he regained consciousness. He lay in a feverish slumber for nearly a week. He would cry out in his sleep, seem to wake, utter incoherent warnings. He spoke of monstrous beings, all brain and staring eyes and tentacles. Of humanoid creatures farmed on vast estates. Of the killing pens. The thirst for blood. He described a vast cannon, a space gun he called it, and the immense shells being shipped to it on broad planet-girdling canals.
He told us they were coming.
Frankly, he raved.
And no one believed him.
Not even when the big city newspapers carried stories about ‘a huge outbreak of incandescent gas’ visible on the surface of Mars.
He tried to warn us.
And then they started to fall from the sky. In the south-east of England, around London.
On the east coast, at Grover’s Mill, New Jersey and Grand Island, New York.
On the west coast, near Linda Rosa, California.
And, though it is often forgotten, one landed in the Sonora Desert, too. At dusk, as the dying sun turns the light a golden orange, a Martian cylinder punched a crater deep into the desert, cracking the air, lighting up the sky.
After a pause, a lull, noises started in the pit. An aura of dazzling light could be seen for miles. Some alien industry, hidden from human eyes.
That one, Hans insisted, was coming for him, and when the war machine, as the whole world would learn to call such alien tripods, emerged, it did indeed head directly for Florence.
All that saved Hans – and Florence – was the the thing that saved us all. The transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Infusoria. Bacteria. Or so the story goes, and it is not wrong, but there is more to it than that.
The press wasted no time in holding Hans responsible. He had, they claimed, recklessly awakened the Martians to our presence and led them here. Chronology did not seem to matter. They wanted a scapegoat, and that was that.
In those days it was much easier to disappear without a trace. Hans had friends among the Yavapai and Apache, and knew people down in Mexico. He was never heard of again, though some claim he returned to pay penance.
Early in 1934, when the rogue planet entered our solar system and came rushing in the direction of Earth, when the Moon shifted in its orbit and freak weather tore around the world, the rocket disappeared for half a year. As did a famous young polo player enjoying a desert winter at a nearby dude ranch – Flash Gordon.
Feted on his return from combatting the alien warlord of the planet Mongo, Gordon insisted that we really owed our survival to the intervention of Hans. But the press were untroubled by the facts. They wanted to present the public with an unabashed hero, the world with an American saviour. No one was interested in recuperating Hans, regardless of the sacrifice he had made.
In a dying statement, Gordon reiterated the role of his friend in defeating Ming, and added a tidbit that has been ignored for decades. According to Gordon, that was the second time Hans saved the planet. After landing on Mars in 1899, Hans discovered the plan to invade Earth and so deliberately infected the Martian population. He severed his own arm, left the flesh to rot and putrefy. He introduced the rotten remains into food and water supplies. The Martians had no immunity to terrestrial bacteria, and a recent analysis of infection rates among the invaders suggest they were sick before they landed. If so, Hans, who never put us at risk, in fact actually saved us.
Many remain sceptical about this evidence, preferring to retain the image of Hans as a monster, to demonise him. Why, they ask, did he not proclaim his innocence? Why did he not protest the defamation of his name and character? Why did he flee?
The answer, it seems to me, is simple.
Shame. A deeper and more tangible shame than Florence can ever know.
Hans did not betray us. He did something much worse.
On our behalf, he killed.
Nearly half a century before the word was even coined, to save us all Hans Zarkov committed genocide.
Note The last two times I tried to write this, my opening sentences took me in rather different directions, here and here.
We travelled over the mountains from Miami, and down to Florence. Perhaps it was the landscape we passed through to get there that made it seem in contrast so very very flat.
It is another Arizona town struggling to find a history.
Unlike Miami, its main street is now an historic downtown and, unlike Miami, it is, well, not so much pristine as shabby genteel. Scrubbed up nicely. Stripped of any sense of the passage of time. As if it was made this way and will stay this way.
Scattered over a handful of blocks are plaques. They are mostly about individual houses, recording maybe a century’s worth of possession, mostly English names but some Spanish, and how each owner in turn added bits, demolished bits, concealed bits. The five-room museum, in the former jail-turned-courthouse-turned-hospital-turned-goodness-knows-what over the years is far too spacious.
It’s as if nothing ever happened here.
Even in the afternoon sun, it feels a bit Twilight Zone.
Last year, Nerdwallet listed Florence as the number one ‘city on the rise’ in Arizona. But is difficult to imagine such an untethered-feeling place having a future. To picture it launching itself into the flow of history.
‘Nothing ever happens here’, would be a good motto. Especially if followed by ‘move along, there’s nothing to see’.
The as-yet-unincarcerated population of Florence is around 25,500, but the economy hinges on the ‘corrections industry’, on the nine separate prisons in town, so there’s a good chance the locals are outnumbered by inmates.
Arizona’s death row and death house are here, too, have been for more than a century, and in World War 2 there was even a POW camp. German and Italian prisoners, mainly from north Africa. If they signed a document renouncing the Axis war effort, they were housed in ‘Democracy Town’, and permitted to leave the camp and work in the local cotton fields; those who did not sign were kept in the ‘Nazi Town’ area of the camp.
There’s an exhibit about it at the far end of the final room in the museum.
The exhibit does not mention that the southern half of Arizona was in Military Zone No. 1, which Japanese Americans were encouraged to leave ‘voluntarily’ in 1942, and in which they were then ordered to stay, placed under a curfew, while the dispossession and internment policies took shape.
The exhibit does not mention that to the north and west, in Mayer and Parker Dam, there were ‘Civilian Assembly Centers’, temporary camps where Japanese Americans were held after being removed from their homes. Or, in the same directions, the Gila River and Poston ‘Relocation Centers’, that is, internment camps. Or, further north, in Leupp, the Citizen Isolation Centre, reserved for ‘problem’ inmates. Or, to the south, the Catalina Federal Honor Camp, which held Japanese-American draft resisters and conscientious objectors.
Perhaps these omissions are fair enough. None of that happened in Florence itself. And besides, drawing attention to systematic, institutionalised racial injustice is probably not the done thing when you’re dependent on the prison-industrial complex. No matter how desperate you are for some history – any history – with which to fluff up your downtown.
Odd though that the exhibit does not mention the Japanese American civilians held in the POW camp alongside the captured Italian and German soldiers.
I wonder whether they got to live in Democracy town, whether they got to pick cotton.
Note This is my second attempt to write up a light-hearted anecdote about Florence, but both times the opening line has led me in another direction. I will try again soon. Maybe tomorrow.
For another take on the town, try this – it is where I nicked my picture from cos I was too busy getting the ones I would need for that elusive light-hearted anecdote.
We came from Apache Junction, over the Superstition mountains, along state route 88, which owes much of its construction to the New Deal. It follows the old Apache trail, and most of the crews working through the mountains from either end to meet in the middle were Apaches and Yavapai from postage stamp reservations at Camp Verde and the like. There is still a 22-mile stretch of unpaved dirt road clinging to the curves of the mountain, with a precipitous drop on one side or the other.
The 88 passes the Roosevelt Dam. It takes you past Roosevelt Lake, back in 1911 the largest man-made lake in the world, and past the Salado cliff dwellings at Tonto National Monument, which date back to the 13th century.
History here feels strange.
If you ignore Whitey’s scarrings and other transformations of the landscape, there is a sense of a deep past, its traces light and often eradicated, but on a timescale that makes sense to a European. Its preservation by state agencies feels like a disavowal. There is a tangible disjunction between that history and the anxious celebrations of people and places and events from less than a couple of hundred years ago. They are tenuous, impermanent. Unpersuasive. Improper. You can feel the year-zero, like some endless mall car park, stretching beneath them.
We turn onto the 60 and stop at Miami for a late lunch at a Mexican diner. It seems to be doing okay, but all along the main street the stores are closed or closed down.
There used to be mining here. Now there is nothing.
It is a long time since anyone stayed at the Traveler’s Hotel.
Some believe that on 27 January 1864 a key battle in the Arizona Apache Wars took place nearby; others locate it in Fish Creek Canyon, back in the mountains. An expedition, led by King Woolsey, invited native leaders to a parley; and once they were seated, Woolsey ordered the killing of every Indian in sight. It is said the stream ran red with their blood, which is why it is now called the Bloody Tanks Wash.
But banners invite you to take part in the Bloody Tanks Riverwalk in Historic Downtown Miami.
They’re a couple of years old, it seems.
The sun has faded them.
Around the corner, on Inspiration Road, there are No U-Turn signs.
It is all there.
PS Someone just told me that the skew-eyed, crumple-faced Jack Elam, rubbish heavy turned grizzled sidekick, is from Miami, AZ. Which seems appropriate. If not to this post, perhaps, then certainly to the town.