I recently wrote a column on one of my youthful heroes, astronaut Jack Schmitt, and on June 20 we marked the birthday of another boyhood idol who I’ve never written about. But I have my old-age role models as well. Nana is one and another is 19th Century newsman, author and world-class cynic Ambrose Bierce, who would be 175 today if still alive. I say “if” because aside from the standard actuarial tables there’s no reason to suppose he’s deceased. Bierce disappeared into the maelstrom of revolutionary Mexico in 1913 and hasn’t been seen since.
He was 71 years old, severely asthmatic and suffering the usual aches, pains and losses of advancing age, depressed by the deaths of his two sons and his estranged wife. After a tour of the Civil War battlefields he had fought over as as a young man, he crossed the border at Juarez and apparently accompanied Villa’s forces as they drove south to Ciudad Chihuahua. In his last communication from that city in December, he closed the letter with, “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.”
Despite his prickly personality and sarcastic, biting wit, Bierce was not without influential friends and admirers, including long-time boss William Randolph Hearst. Inquiries were made at the time, but the chaotic conditions in northern Mexico made it impossible to conduct anything like a thorough investigation.
Numerous intriguing theories persist to this day. He may be buried in a mass grave at Ojinaga, across the river from Presidio, Texas, or Villa may have had the old man shot in a moment of anger, or Bierce may have ended as god of a tribe in the jungles of Central America. A bronze plaque in the campo santo of a remote village in the Sierra Madre Oriental in Coahuila is said to mark the grave of an old gringo killed by drunken federales. But nobody knows.
In one of his last letters he wrote:
Good bye. If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease and falling down the stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico – ah, that is euthanasia!