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DOPPELGANGER: Parallel Lives

From the Texas Tech Vistas Journal, Summer 2004: Meredith McClain reveals the bond between her home of the Llano Estacado and Europe.

Written by Contributing Vistas Writers

As an exchange student in Berlin, Meredith McClain, Ph.D., was surprised to see young German boys and girls playing with toy six-shooters and plastic tomahawks, just like kids back home in her native Texas. What she was to discover decades later is a thread that runs between the two cultures, tying them together as an odd historical couple.

Hank Smith House in Near Crosbyton

The Schmitt House was the first home built on the Llano Estacado in Blanco Canyon. Karl May, a widely read German fiction writer, described the vastly isolated and dangerous Llano Estacado in the 1880s.

The Schmitt House was the first home built on the Llano Estacado in Blanco Canyon. Karl May, a widely read German fiction writer, described the vastly isolated and dangerous Llano Estacado in the 1880s.

In her work as a Texas Tech University German Professor, McClain has discovered the social phenomenon of German "Western Clubs" that appeared in all parts of West Germany. Her discovery points to an unexpected bond between that country and her selected home of Lubbock, Texas, on the Llano Estacado. In fact, she rediscovered on Western Club near Cologne, named "Old Lubbock Town," and most importantly, she uncovered an undocumented historical "Doppelgänger" pair: Karl May of Dresden, Germany, and Heinrich Schmitt of Blanco Canyon, Texas.

The German government and former President George H. Bush have honored McClain, who teaches German in the Classical and Modern Languages and Literatures Department at Texas Tech, for her historical and diplomatic research efforts.

She received the prestigious 2001 Lucius Clay Award, presented for outstanding work in the field of German-American relations. The Clay Award, named for American General Lucius De'Bignon Clay, who served as military governor of the United States' occupation zone in Germany during the Russian blockades following World War II, is the highest civilian honor bestowed annually to only one person by the Federation of German-American Clubs. The list of recipients of the award includes politicians, diplomats and military leaders. McClain is only the second woman, after Eleanor Lansing Dulles, U.S. Diplomat to Berlin, ever to receive the honor. She also received the German government's 2002 Bundersverdienkreuz, for her service in promoting German studies in the United States. In addition, she was on the guest list in October 2003 for the presentation of the George Bush Award for Excellence in Public Service to former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

McClain was drawn to German culture at an early age. "In my high school years, a family named Merzbach moved to Georgetown, Texas," she remembers. "They were very elegant people from Berlin. Because of his anti-Nazi sentiments, Dr. Merzbach, a high official at General Electric in Berlin, and his wife and child were put in a concentration camp. Once released, they came to America, to Texas, and finally to Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, where they became next door neighbors to the McClain family."

Original Smith House Ruin Near Crosbyton, Texas

The Schmitt house is now a sad ruin in Blanco Canyon near Crosbyton, Texas, the victim of a fire nearly 50 years ago.

Though McClain's interest in German culture began innocently enough as a schoolgirl, her passion blossomed during a junior year abroad studying flute at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria. As a student at Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, she first participated in a summer language program in Vienna and then met her conservatory colleagues for the fall/spring semesters in Salzburg.

"I was not a particularly good German student at Oberlin," McClain says. "But once in Austria, I was fascinated and very motivated to learn. By the end of the summer in Vienna, when I was wearing the typical Austrian 'Dirndl,' people would stop me all the time and ask for instructions. I was being initiated daily into the relativity of life, the biggest life-changing factor of all."

When her study time in Austria was up, McClain returned home, earning her doctorate in German at the University of Texas while working as a member of the Austin Symphony Orchestra, followed by a stint at the University of California in Bakersfield, where she taught flute and German.

"When I finished my degree in music, I didn't go to New York and try to compete with hundreds for one position," McClain remembers. "Music is great, I thought to myself. I'll always have it. I'll do whatever I can with music, but changing people's lives with language is what I really wanted to do."

An intriguing offer came from Texas Tech, a university in a distant and unknown place called Lubbock, located on the Llano Estacado, where Germans' interest had its roots in the best-selling novels of German writer Karl May. Through colleagues in her department, McClain obtained a copy of Karl May's book, titled "Der Geist des Llano Estacado." (The Spirit of the Llano Estacado).

"That's why German children were playing cowboys and Indians," she notes. "Karl May (1842 -1912) is the most widely read of all German fiction writers. For decades, German children read his works by flashlight under the covers. Young and old Germans today enjoy movies of his Westerns filmed in Yugoslavia in the 1960s. All these stories and convincing characters are placed right here on the Llano. May's main. character, 'Old Shatterhand,' a super German adventurer turned Western trapper, comes to the vast, isolated and dangerous Llano in the 1880s. He meets up with a handsome, young Mescalero Apache, Winnetou, the young chieftain in the Ruidoso area. These two heroes, after terrible battles, through thick and thin, finally bond as blood brothers. Seven novels follow, one after the other, depicting the adventures of these two most beloved of all German literary characters."

May, with sales of more than 100 million books to his credit, used first-person narratives to describe the West Texas landscape, creating the illusion that he actually was writing about his own adventures, an illusion he actively helped maintain.

"He pretended that he himself had really been out here on the Llano Estacado and had lived these adventures," McClain explains. "But, it was all fiction and, in the end, he had to admit he'd lied and was never here. Only late in his life did one journalist put it together that Karl May had not been to any of those places he had written about so convincingly and so successfully."

May was born into abject poverty, during a destitute time of German history. He was jailed several times during his lifetime for petty crimes. While imprisoned, May was given access the library and began writing about the Wild West. McClain has discovered and Irish writer, Mayne Reid, who created the fantasy characters of El Sol and La Luna, a chieftain and his sister. McClain explains that Reid's description of El Sol matches Karl May's description of his character, Winnetou.

Old Shatterhand & Hank Smith Photo

The parallel figures of Karl Mey and Hank Schmitt cross cultures on the Llano Estacado. (left to right)

McClain is a member and frequent presenter of the worldwide Karl May Society, which boasts more than 2,000 members. Her participation in Karl May congresses and research projects involving German immigration to Texas led her to Texas Tech benefactor Georgia Mae Smith Ericson, who shared the history of her grandfather, a real life 'Old Shatterhand,' named Heinrich Schmitt.

Schmitt was born in Bavaria in 1836, the same year Texas was gaining its independence from Mexico. McClain's research indicates that at the age of 15, Schmitt and a sister received permission to come to America and join another sister in Peru, Ohio. Once in America, he left his relatives, changed his name to Henry or "Hank" Clay Smith, and headed out, eventually to the West.

"There is a word in German, Doppelgänger," said McClain. "It means double-goer, or parallel figures. That is what Hank Schmitt and Karl May were. They were exact contemporaries and both died in 1912. Hank Smith was doing things in real life that May was writing about. May was a multimillionaire author and Smith was a multimillionaire landowner, but they had never heard of each other. The other side of my research is the documentation of German immigrants who settled the Llano Estacado."

According to McClain, Schmitt, the first white settler on the Texas South Plains, built the first house on the Llano Estacado. The two-story hand-hewn limestone structure, now crumbling and charred from a fire nearly 50 years ago, is a sad ruin in Blanco Canyon, near Crosbyton, Texas. The family built a replica of the original home, to house the Crosby County Museum, on the downtown square of Crosbyton.

Over the past 15 years McClain has organized four "Winnetours"® for members of the Karl May Society, showing the German historians, linguists, scholars and Karl May fans the wonders of Lubbock and the surrounding ranches and canyons. In 2000, she organized the Karl May Symposium at Texas Tech, bringing scholars from throughout the world to the campus.

German Cowboys in Lubbock Town Germany

McClain's research has moved easily from language into a historical context. "Really, what I do is diplomacy," she smiles. "It's sometimes not so much language as much as local, regional and state history. I have been unearthing connections never made before. It's not the normal academic trail. We tend to be very myopic as Americans," McClain continues. "Germans look like us – they even play cowboys and Indians like us – but they're not us. The understanding of the differences begins through language."

Like her subjects, McClain thrives in a parallel existence. She is equally at home on the Llano Estacado or on the banks of the Rhine. She carries out her research as both a historian and a diplomat, and she is constantly discovering and nurturing similarities, as well as differences, in her two adopted cultures of Texas and Germany.

Story originally produced by
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All images provided by and used with permission of
Meredith McClain, Ph.D.