Friday, March 29, 2019

Entering Alabama

Soon after crossing into Alabama from Tennessee on I-65, near Ardmore, you hit the welcome center.  These welcome center deals vary from state to state.  Some are just the first rest area on the interstate when you cross the state line with an extra rack of pamphlets in the lobby.  Others are built out, tricked up, staffed, and designed to be special.  Alabama went all out in its center welcoming visitors on Interstate 65.  I rarely miss a visit to a welcome center, whether I have to use the facilities or not, but this one is especially hard to ignore. 

That’s a 224’ Saturn 1B rocket sitting on a concrete pad near the entrance of the Alabama Welcome Center.  Huntsville, Alabama is home to the second largest research park in the United States and to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center and its popular educational program “Space Camp.”  German scientist Wernher Von Braun arrived in Huntsville in 1950 and led the development of rocket technology that carried American astronauts in space, and at the same time of course advanced the reach of long range intercontinental ballistic missiles designed to carry lethal nuclear warheads.

Along a more pastoral vein, also near Huntsville is one of the northern most golf course along the Robert Trent Jones golf trail, Hampton Cove.  That trail of beautiful old golf courses, 26 in all, at 11 locations, offering 468 holes of golf, was designed by famous golfer Bobby Jones and stretches from The Shoals course in Muscle Shoals to Lake Wood in Point Clear on Alabama’s gulf coast. 

I’m told if you get started on one end or the other you can golf 18 in the morning, drive to the next course, find yourself some good southern food and hospitality, libations most likely throughout the afternoon and evening, play a nearby golf course the next morning, and repeat for as many days as you like.  Sounds like a wonderful way to spend a couple weeks or more.  But I digress.

This Alabama welcome center had what looked like a recently added building housing a staffed information counter and racks and racks of pamphlets for all the wonderful things you can do in Alabama. Swim on the beaches of Gulf Shores, gamble in the casinos near Mobile, raft in the rivers, fish, take your kids to a water park, visit old mansions and plantations, all the stuff.  But I couldn’t find what I was looking for.

“Excuse me ma’am,” I said to one of the older women behind the counter.  “Where is the information about the civil rights sites?”

She looked at me quizzically.  A younger man with a name tag and a vest, just coming in the building, heard me.

“Did I hear you asking about the civil rights sites?”


“We keep those over here.”

He pointed to a counter in the corner where sat a small rack with space for four pamphlets.  Three were filled.  There was a pamphlet called United States Civil Rights Trail which listed museums and other sites in 14 states, a pamphlet printed by the U.S. Dept. of the Interior on the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, and a pamphlet for the new national Memorial for Peace and Justice, commonly known as the lynching museum, in Montgomery.   I took one of each.

“Do you have anything for Selma?”

“I think that’s the one that’s missing.  We may be out of those.  Sorry.”

Of equal interest to me was the stone marker outside the welcome center.  It was inscribed with the state motto “We Dare Defend our Rights” which I found out was adopted in 1923.  Alabama’s motto begs two questions. What rights were they talking about in 1923?  And whose?

I drove straight to Birmingham, Alabama and made my way downtown to the 16th Street Baptist Church.  When I walked in the sanctuary a man was speaking to an all black audience of school kids and teachers.  I took a seat in the back pew and listened.

I learned that 15 sticks of dynamite were planted beneath the steps on the east side of the building, outside the church’s Sunday school rooms. They were connected to a timing device set to explode at 10:00 a.m., well after Sunday school started, on Sunday, September15, 1963.  That explosion killed 4 black girls: Addie Mae Collins (14), Cynthia Wesley (14), Carole Robertson (14), and Carol Denise McNair (11).  22 others were injured in the blast.

Four white segregationists, known members of the Ku Klux Klan, were implicated in the crime: Thomas Edward Blanton Jr, Herman Frank Cash, Robert Edward Chambliss, and Bobby Frank Cherry.  There were no prosecutions until 1977, when Robert Chambliss was tried and convicted of first degree murder of Carol Denise McNair.  Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry were each convicted on four counts of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2001 and 2002 respectively.  Herman Cash died in 1994 and was never charged for his alleged involvement.

At the end of his talk the speaker took questions.  A young black student raised his hand and asked this:

“Why did it take so long to punish the men who did that?”

The speaker took a long time to answer.

“There was no interest among the white controlled police department, prosecutors or the courts in Birmingham, or Alabama for that matter, to seriously pursue those suspects. The FBI took over those cases almost immediately, but they proved to be very slow and methodical in their investigation.”

He paused.

“1963 was a very different time in Birmingham and America.  To understand what it was like there is a lot your need to know. You can start learning about that time across the street at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.”

While I was inside I went to the lower floor of the church into a large conference room with smaller rooms on the outside wall.  They were the Sunday school rooms being used that morning the four girls were killed by the bomb.  I walked outside the building to the east side of the church where the bomb was planted under the stairs and looked in the window.  A new brick wall separated the bomb was planted the Sunday school rooms I’d just seen from the inside.  The dynamite, that morning in 1963, blew the bricks and mortar of the old wall into the rooms where children were gathered. I took a big breath, stood up, and walked across the street.
Outside the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is a life size statue of Fred Shuttlesworth.  Here he is pictured in a more familiar role.  Speaking loudly, above a bible, from a pulpit.

Birmingham’s International Airport is named after him.  I didn’t know who he was or what he had done in Birmingham to gain such fame.  His story was one of the many things I was about to learn. 

Friday, March 22, 2019

Road Trip Day One

The trouble with old people, just one of the many troubles old people suffer, is they take what they encountered personally or learned from others in the past as truth and ignore new information.  The world changes without them.  History is not so much rewritten as it is scrutinized and made fresh with new facts.  Old people think they know things, when in fact it’s often only half the story.

I had a smart uncle who read ravenously, talked about ideas and other places, and was always trying to learn new things.  Uncle Ed could truly have been called a life-long learner.  Trouble was, he was a farmer in a little town, never went to college, and had limited access to information such as a good library or a home computer   One of my nephews, reacting to me characterizing him this way, made this observation.   

“Think what Uncle Ed could have done with Google.”

He was right.  Give Uncle Ed a laptop, WiFi, and a rudimentary knowledge of search engines and the world would have opened up to him like a present on Christmas Eve.  He never lived to see it, but you and I live in a new time.  Never has life been richer for the curious, regardless of age.  Properly equipped and connected people now have scant excuse for ignorance.  Not only can you learn something new every day, you can use that new information to change how you view the world.

With Uncle Ed as my inspiration, I set off on a road trip to learn and experience new things.  My companions were a 2006 Buick Lucerne, a Rand McNally road atlas, a smart phone, a laptop in the trunk, a thermos of coffee, and a sack of CD’s.  I left well before dawn on a Tuesday morning, the 26th of February.  By the glow of its dash lights in the garage the Buick revealed 134,548 miles on the odometer.   

Driving in the dark is not a good way to go.  With little traffic, the Buick and I sped through the darkness, following our headlights as if we were in a tunnel.  As the day slowly brightened, somewhere on Interstate 65 in Indiana near the Lowell exit, I made out this message, black letters hand painted on a white 4x8 sheet of plywood wired to two steel fence posts. 




I don’t believe in hell as an eternal destination, or heaven for that matter, but something about that warning seemed a bad omen.  The fact that this blunt message was conceived and created by an individual, using their own resources, painting it freehand and displaying it for the world to see, told me someone believed the opposite of me in an emphatic way.  It woke me up.  I poured myself a cup of coffee and started paying attention to my surroundings.

I’ve chronicled trips in the past, noting each little town, each state road.  On some road trips I’ve managed to avoid interstate highways entirely.  That’s hard to do, and slow going, but you see such a different side of America.  My plan this trip was to concentrate on Alabama.  I was determined to get there as quickly as possible, and that meant Interstate 65.  After you pick it up in Indiana 65 is a straight shot south to Birmingham, via Nashville.

While at times it’s picturesque, I 65 is like all the rest of our interstate highways;  bland, controlled, banked and curved identically, one overpass exactly like the next.  With the advent of self driving cars interstate highways might well evolve into something like train tracks without the rails, carrying zoned out people reading their phones, sleeping, god knows what.  This being 2019 I still had to pay attention to where I was going and what I was doing, though cruise control helped a lot.  The speed limit was 70.  I put the Buick in the left lane, set it on 79, and leaned back.

That entire first day I didn’t turn on the radio.  I just thought.  There is something to be said for a good long think.  I can’t say exactly what I thought of, but by afternoon it felt like my head was less cluttered, as if I had stored nagging thoughts away into marked compartments, hid others in places where I was likely to find them, and threw others out entirely.  In the end I was able to move new ideas into the newly cleared space, unfold and examine them, see them more clearly.  I’d been waiting for that feeling all winter.

The day shaped up to where I figured I could make it past Nashville before looking for a hotel.  I like to drive past big cities so I can take off in the morning on open road without much traffic.  I didn’t take the beltway, instead I just plunged through Nashville on I 65.  Thought I’d see what downtown looked like these days.  Big mistake. 

Later in the trip a young bartender in Memphis, talking about his city’s growth specifically and Tennessee’s in general, described Nashville as a “sponge that can’t hold any more water.”  After my drive through downtown I knew exactly what he meant.

I could feel Nashville close in around the Buick.  Brake lights lit up ahead, cars changed lanes, horns honked.  And all the while we were slowing, cars bunching up, getting closer.  Finally we came to a stop.

There are cranes on the horizon on top of new building shells in downtown Nashville.  Apartment buildings with tiny balconies are built right out to the interstate.  I imagine rents have gone way up.  New construction is overtaking the old.   I had plenty of time to look around.  We weren’t going anywhere.  There were flashing lights ahead.  Probably an accident.  The exits were jammed too.  I hate it when that happens.

Time usually equals distance on road trips but in Nashville the Buick and I were frozen in time like a fly in an ice cube.  All the cars, the Buick included, idled.  Exhaust filled the air, and the sun began to set.  I imagined the cars on the beltway leaving the city behind.  I tried to conjure up my most Zen like attitude.  But it’s not easy being tranquil in traffic.  I have never found the answers to two questions I first asked as small town farm kid when encountering too many people.  Where did all these people come from?  Where in the heck are they going?  By the time the Buick got back up to 35 miles an hour it was almost dark.

I got off I 65 at the Brentwood exit.  It was equally jammed with cars.  Google maps was rerouting me onto what I thought would be back roads, but I don’t think there are any back roads in Brentwood.   The whole area looks like it was built last year.  But then it was dark.  All I really saw with the help of the Buick’s headlights were the faux fancy signs and guard booths of gated communities, strip malls, over engineered streets with turn lanes, one ways, stop lights and my new favorite-roundabouts.  Give me a regular street with two lanes and a sign in front of the building I am seeking any day.

After looping around suburbia I could see the sign for the Holiday Inn Express I was trying to get to but how to travel there was a complete mystery.  It was if it was floating behind a shopping center, not quite off a service road, somehow related to an Outback Steakhouse and a gas station.  My smart phone was equally confused.  I’m not sure how I finally pulled up in front of the place.

Upon entering, an over friendly hotel clerk handed me two bottles of water and began gushing about all the services they offered, the free hot breakfast in particular. 

“How’s that Outback restaurant I passed?”

Outback appeared to offer the closest and fastest way to get dinner.

“I never recommend that Outback.  It has terrible reviews on Yelp and all the sites like that.” 

“Aren’t they just steak, potatoes, and deep fried battered onions?  How do you screw that up?”

“I don’t know but apparently they do.”

“So what else is close?  You got a good independent joint, something that’s not a chain?”

“No.  Not out here.  Not really.  I always recommend Cheddar’s.  In my opinion you will never go wrong with Cheddar’s, and this one is excellent.”

I sighed, but I was too tired and hungry to argue.

“How do you get there?”

“It’s just across the highway there.” 

He then launched into a litany of lights, turns, a one way street, a roundabout.  I’m just polite when directions go past about three steps.  My mind shuts down.   I nodded like I understood.  I figured I’d find it, asked him to hold my bags till I got back, and thanked him.  One more trip in the Buick and my day would be done.

I did find it, after about ten minutes of U turns and rerouting from the barking woman in my smart phone.  I wish I could figure out how to change that voice.  I ended up in a parking lot of a doctor’s office or something right next to the place, unconnected.  Why they don’t link up those parking lots I’ll never know.  I just parked there and walked across the tiny no man’s land between the lots.   

It was crowded but a place for one is usually easy to find.  I was prepared to sit at the bar but they squeezed me into a little table.  When the waiter came for drinks I ordered a bourbon, a salad, and a burger.  I followed it with another bourbon.

There I was in suburban Brentwood at a Cheddar’s.  It was not the South I was looking for, but it was the South all the same.  Long day.  Tomorrow I’d be in Alabama.