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Waco:  Texas Crossroads - 2004-09-18

For many people around the world, the word "Waco" is still associated with a deadly standoff between U.S. federal agents and members of an armed cult at a rural compound north of Waco, Texas, in April 1993. But the central Texas city is getting some new attention these days because of its proximity to the small town of Crawford, Texas, where President Bush has his ranch. VOA's Greg Flakus is one of many reporters who have had to spend time in Waco while covering the president's visits, and he reports that there's much more to the city than meets the eye.

Most people first find Waco on their way up Interstate highway 35 to Dallas, Texas, 140 kilometers north; or the state capital of Austin, 163 kilometers to the south. But for the past few years, the small airport has seen a lot of traffic from Washington as well, as planes carrying heads of state like Russian President Vladimir Putin, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Mexican President Vicente Fox, all of whom have been welcomed as guests at President Bush's nearby ranch.

Waco Convention Center spokesperson Elizabeth Taylor says the regular visits by the president and all the reporters who follow him have been good for the city. "I think we have been very fortunate to take part in some historic occasions when the president has been here," she said, "not just with state visits, but also when he is just here, because there have been some pretty monumental announcements and some pretty significant things that have occurred from that little hamlet of Crawford, and we have been able to be a part of that."

Probably if you were to do a survey of first-time visitors to Waco, the event they would mention most often would be the tragedy that occurred in a rural area north of the city in April of 1993. A standoff between federal law enforcement agents and the heavily-armed followers of David Koresh of the Branch Davidian religious sect ended when the Davidian compound suddenly burst into flames, killing Koresh and dozens of men, women and children who were with him. An official investigation of the tragedy concluded that the fatal fire had been ignited by the Davidians themselves, and it cleared federal agents of charges they'd mishandled or provoked the confrontation.

Ms. Taylor says Waco has lived for a long time with the stigma of that event, but that as the years pass, the memories fade. "It was a tragedy, and it happened and it was real. This community will always have that as a little footnote, that it happened near this community and it impacted the community, certainly, in a great way," she said. "But, I think, that time tends to make some of those things less and less significant."

The other thing that especially intrigues many foreign visitors to Waco is its colorful history. The city has always been a crossroads and trade center. Cattle drives used to come through here and many a steer was lost trying to get across the sometimes tempestuous Brazos river. The crossing was made easier in 1869 with the construction of one of the nation's first suspension bridges - a structure that still draws visitors today.

Walking on the wooden planks of the bridge, many people are reminded of New York City's famous Brooklyn Bridge. Actually, the bridge over the Brazos is less than a quarter the size of the one in New York, but it was designed by the same man - John Roebling. The Waco structure, with its towers at either end to support the suspension cables, served as a prototype for the Brooklyn landmark, which was inaugurated in 1883.

Today, the bridge in Waco provides a tranquil stroll for visitors, like Charles Thompson and Marti Mangel. "I think this bridge is fascinating," said Mr. Thompson. "When you think about the age of it, and the fact that it was preserved, nobody decided to tear it down and build a new one." He said he could imagine the cattle drives coming across the bridge.

"I used to be a school teacher, so that even makes it more interesting to me because I did not know about it," said Ms. Mangel. "I never knew they had anything this far back, anything like this."

Waco has a lot of old West flavor still. The city traces its origins and name to the Waco Indians who once lived here by the river. During the cattle drive period of the 1870's, downtown Waco was known as "six-shooter junction." The famed Texas Rangers had a post here, and today Waco is home to the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum.

The museum has multimedia presentations and hundreds of exhibits about the famed Texas lawmen who fought bandits on the frontier and went on to become a modern, professional law enforcement agency similar, on a state level, to what the Federal Bureau of Investigation is on a national level.

The Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum's Assistant Director Christina Stopka says she has been impressed by the number of international visitors. "There are huge ranger fans in Germany and England," she says. "There are reenactment groups just like there are for the Civil War that do Texas Ranger reenactments. We have groups in Kiev and, I think, we have almost 200 re-enactors in Germany."

Driving much of the interest in the Texas Rangers is the image created by hundreds of western movies and television programs. Of course, the true stories of the Texas Rangers are quite different from the romantic portrayals, but Christina Stopka says the museum deals with both.

"What we have tried to do is balance that out," says Ms. Stopka. "We show sort of the popular vision and try to balance it with what is reality. In some cases the reality is much more exciting than what you see on television or in the movies. A lot of these guys are much bigger in life than fiction could ever make them."

Modern-day rangers continue their work at an office nearby the museum and close to the site where the original Texas Rangers outpost was established more than 160 years ago. For today's rangers, as for many Waco residents, pride in the city's colorful past is a comforting antidote to the painful memories of the 1993 Branch Davidian tragedy, and a sign, too, of their hope that Waco's best days are still to come.