Thursday, February 25, 2016

Is that the Moon? No … you’re just looking at Vulcan’s backside.

Turning the pages of Southern Living magazine, I came upon the article “The Place I’m Thankful For: Notable Southerners Share Their Most Treasured Spots.” Actress Andie MacDowell is grateful for The Gay Dolphin Gift Cove in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Novelist Nicholas Sparks appreciates his adopted home of New Bern, North Carolina. (Born in Omaha, he’s not a Southerner, but after 24 years in the South, I guess we can claim him.)  
Author Harrison Scott Key holds a special place in his heart for a Waffle House in Jackson, Mississippi. 

And musician John Paul White, half of the duo The Civil Wars, praises the music scene in his hometown of Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

I thought about the Southern place for which I’m most thankful. To choose just one seemed daunting. I’ve strolled the sugary, white beaches along the Alabama Gulf Coast, stretching from Gulf Shores through Orange Beach.
I’ve taken a scenic drive, punctuated with fascinating history and adorned with blazing, fall color, through Cades Cove, Tennessee in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Cades Cove Methodist Church
I’ve rejoiced over the salvation and restoration of the 1927-built Alabama Theatre in Birmingham - a majestic movie palace with a mighty Wurlitzer organ, where I saw the silent film version of Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney one Halloween night with Kathryn Tucker Windham telling Alabama ghost stories as a prelude.
In Key West, I’ve eaten conch fritters, touched a bar of gold from a 17th century Spanish shipwreck, posed for a photograph at U.S. 1’s Mile Maker Zero, stood 90 miles from Cuba, had my legs rubbed against by descendants of Hemingway’s cats, and watched the sunset with an eclectic assortment of humanity. At The Grand Hotel, built in Point Clear, Alabama in 1847, I’ve slept where Colin Powell, Margaret Thatcher, Barbara Bush, Dolly Parton, and Fannie Flagg have reposed (not all together!),
and I’ve imagined the faces of 300 Confederate soldiers who died in the hotel when it served as a hospital during the Civil War. They’re buried near the 18th tee on the Grand’s Azalea Golf Course. At Toomer’s Corner in Auburn, Alabama, I’ve seen rolls of toilet paper fly and unfurl over the branches of majestic oak trees to celebrate an Auburn Tigers’ win in Jordan Hare stadium (War Eagle!), 
and I’ve drunk lemonade at the fountain counter in the corner drug store that has graced that spot for 120 years.  
And twice I’ve drunk a paper cupful of water drawn from the Fountain of Youth in Saint Augustine, Florida – benefits as yet to be determined. 

But none of these are my most treasured. Instead, I choose an iron man wearing no pants. His most private area is covered by a leather apron area, but, yes, his derrière is bare. And his bottom is hard to miss, since he weighs 100,000 lbs. and stands 56 feet high on top of a 123 foot tall pedestal on the crest of a mountain where he looms 600 feet above the nearby valley floor. He’s the Roman god of the forge, but I’ve known him all my life simply as Vulcan. The mountain he crowns is Red Mountain in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. The city, founded in 1871 in the shadow of this iron ore mountain, boomed due to the proximity of large quantities of the natural elements needed for steel production: iron ore, limestone, and coal. By 1900, this metropolis, nicknamed “The Magic City,” was one of the fastest growing in the country.

In 1903, to showcase Alabama’s iron industry, the city’s Commercial Club decided to build the largest iron sculpture in the world for exhibition at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. They contracted with Italian-born sculptor Giuseppe Moretti who worked on the Statue of Liberty’s base, among other prominent projects. Workers at the Birmingham Steel and Iron Company labored for four months of sixty-hour weeks to produce the 29 pieces for the statue. Art shows, concerts, and baseball game fundraisers, along with donations ranging from $1 to $500 and coming from as far away as Paris, helped cover the $20,000 cost. Newspapers in New York and Chicago reported on the statue. Two thousand, bronze, 12” replicas sold for $2.00 each as souvenirs in St. Louis and Birmingham. 

Trains carried the giant pieces to St. Louis and by May 25th, 1904, Vulcan stood in the Alabama exhibit in the Palace of Mines Metallurgy. In seven months 20,000 visitors signed the guest book at the Alabama exhibit.
Vulcan, with his spear point almost touching the exhibition hall’s roof, was a must-see, even with competition from the newly-invented automobile and a genuine pygmy tribe. For his triumph, Vulcan was awarded the Grand Prize by an international panel of jurors with Moretti and James R. McWane, owner of Birmingham Steel and Iron, also receiving prizes. The city of San Francisco offered to purchase the iron god, but the Commercial Club donated the statue to the city of Birmingham, specifying he be erected in the downtown’s Capital Park, which was surrounded by the homes of many leading citizens.

After Vulcan’s triumph at the Fair, he returned to Birmingham … to rust. His arm broke in transit and had to be recast. He lay in pieces on Red Mountain for a year and a half. Ladies who lived around Capital Park didn’t want him in their neighborhood because of his bare butt. Many felt he was ugly due to a disproportionately large head, an intentional decision by the sculpture to enhance the god’s rugged appearance and to give a proportioned appearance when viewed from below. Finally in the fall of 1906, the Alabama State Fair Grounds Association agreed to take him, temporarily. In the rush to assemble him for the upcoming state fair, his left hand was incorrectly attached so that he could not hold his hammer. A timber propped up his arm, which was soon used to hold signs advertising everything from Heinz 57 pickles to ice cream cones to a bottle of Coca-Cola. His right arm was backwards and, therefore, unable to hold his spear, which lay at his feet as his temporary stay at the fairgrounds stretched to 30 years. In the 1930’s, he was clad in Liberty overalls to promote the local company. Then someone got the bright idea to paint him. The fiery, Roman god suffered the indignity of his skin being covered with creamy paint and his face adorned with black eyebrows and rosy cheeks.

This final insult prompted the Kiwanis Club to propose a move to Red Mountain. With the cooperation of numerous agencies, many months of work, and a $40,000 grant from President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, by May 1937, Vulcan stood on the mountain’s crest, surrounded by a  4 ½ acre park built over an abandoned, iron ore mine. His body was cleaned and covered with aluminum paint. His hollow body was filled from the legs to the chest with concrete to stabilize him. Vulcan was soon the number one tourist attraction in Birmingham. U.S. Highway 31, which ran from Mobile, Alabama to Mackinaw City, Michigan, passed by the entrance to Vulcan Park, and many tourists on their way to Gulf Coast beaches stopped to climb the pedestal’s 159 steps and gaze on the city to the north and the growing suburbs to the south. Citizens took pride in their iron god, and the names of many businesses soon incorporated the name “Vulcan.”

In 1946, Vulcan’s spear was wrapped with a metal cone to create a lantern containing green and red neon tubes. The lantern burned green unless there was a traffic fatality in the city, in which case, the red light shone for 24 hours. (In the 1970s and ’80s, whenever I spotted Vulcan, while traveling Birmingham’s roads, I remember checking to see if the light was red or green.)
By the 1950’s, Vulcan was joined on the crest of Red Mountain by radio towers, soon to be followed by television stations. This was also a period in which many family’s enjoyed visiting the park on Sunday afternoons. My mother recalls Easter outings to the park after church with her family in their Sunday best and Easter baskets filled with dyed eggs.

By 1959, Vulcan was showing his age due to constant exposure to the elements. Over the next decade, much work was done to renovate the park, but not all was for the good. Large areas of the natural grounds were paved with concrete. Vulcan’s pedestal was enlarged to accommodate an elevator, but the result over-whelmed the statue. Much of the pedestal’s original stone was covered. A metal-roofed building, constructed at the base, obscured the view of Vulcan from the ground. In the 1960s and ’70s, a new interstate and a new U.S. highway resulted in many travelers by-passing the park. Still, the statue could be seen from all over the city and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

During my growing-up years, the park continued to be a place for school field trips, and every Fourth of July, fireworks were set-off from the top of the mountain. All over the city, folks found a spot from where they could see Vulcan who marked the spot where the fireworks would light up the sky, and my family was always among them.
I recall a crusade in the 1980s to cover Vulcan’s bare bottom. A jeans manufacturer offered to clad him as a publicity stunt. T-shirts were sold with a view of his rear and the slogan “Moon over Homewood,” that being the suburb with the full view of Vulcan’s backside. But the iron fellow needed something other than pants.

Over time, the concrete poured in his legs for stability caused cracking. An engineering study confirmed fears that the great god was on the verge of toppling from the mountain. A task force recommended a complete and proper renovation. In 1999, Vulcan was disassembled and sat in pieces on the ground as funds were raised. Two years later, the pieces were sent to an iron and steel company for repair using Moretti’s original plan. A new spear point was cast and a new hammer. Vulcan was painted his original gray color and reassembled on the renovated pedestal in 2003. The park was restored to appear as it did in 1938. By 2004, everything was ready for visitors again. Today, a new visitor’s center educates people about Vulcan, about the history of the area’s coal mining and steel industry, and about the city, itself. On the statue’s 100th birthday, water from the nearby Cahaba River was used to christen Vulcan, just as had been done on his opening day at the World’s Fair. Vulcan is now one of the few large structures from the Fair still in existence. He remains the world’s largest cast iron sculpture and is the second largest statue in the nation, after the Statue of Liberty.
Today, I live away from Birmingham, but I have two of the 1904, 24” replicas that I found on eBay, gracing shelves in my bookcase. In the summer of 2013, my family returned to my hometown to visit our cousins. My children, born on the coastal plains, marveled at the mountain views as I showed them around my city. And, of course, I had to show them Vulcan, up close. We walked the path from the parking lot to the visitor center and gazed out at downtown Birmingham and down at the entrance to the abandoned mine. We toured the museum, which swept us through a century and a half of history. And my son climbed all 159 steps of Vulcan’s pedestal to the observation deck for the ultimate view of the city and was rewarded with a Certificate of Completion upon his descent. As we left Birmingham, we stood on the crest of a nearby mountain and looked across the valley for a parting view of our iron friend lifting his arm in benediction from my mountain-top home.

May your tea be sweet and your cotton high,
Leigh Ann Thornton

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Brief Encounters

I recently finished reading Trains and Lovers by Alexander McCall Smith. The book is the story of four strangers who sit together on a train ride from Edinburgh to London. Over the course of a four-hour journey, they share stories, about themselves or family members, involving love and trains. The stories are personal, intimate, revealing. Then the train arrives at the station, and they go their separate ways. It’s a small book and quite engaging. After I finished reading it, I thought of my own encounters.

We have them every day. You find yourself with a stranger or a group of strangers. You stand in line with them at the grocery store. You ride in an elevator with them. Your sit with them in the waiting room of the doctor’s office. You trudge along with them in a line for the must-do ride at an amusement park, like you’re part of the Bataan death march. Sometimes, for that brief time, camaraderie ensues. You complain to each other about how long you’re having to wait. You discuss the weather. One of you compliments another about an item of clothing or a piece of jewelry. You ask a question. You make a joke. And for a brief moment, you are connected to that person. Then, you pay for your purchase and exit the store. The elevator doors open. You’re called back to the examining room. You reach the head of the line and board the ride. You’ll never see that person again, or if you do, you probably won’t remember that you have before. But perhaps the encounter lives on in your memories. I’ll share with you three encounters of mine: one that is vivid, full of sensory memories; one worthy of a sitcom in all its shocking, horrifying, funny, and gross details; and one that, to me, is profound, especially with the passing of years.

A vivid encounter. Mexico. My honeymoon. We rose at dawn and boarded a tour bus at our resort hotel in Cancun. Leaving the town behind, we traveled for two hours along a paved, two-lane highway which eventually became a dirt road. Every now and then, we passed a shack constructed from assorted, found materials. But every dwelling, no matter how primitive, was connected to lines, electrical or phone or both, snaking down from big lines that paralleled the roadway in a scene worthy of National Geographic. The bus carried us to Chichen Itza, a Mayan ruin deep in the jungle of the Yucatan peninsula. The site was occupied as early as 750 A.D. We followed our guide, on-foot, along a dirt path to the site. On both sides of the path, vendors hawked their wares, arranged on blankets spread on the ground. Their little children clustered around us, hands outstretched, hopeful for anything we might give them. “Don’t give them money,” a man in our group cautioned. “They have plenty; they’re just dressed poor for show.” I seriously doubt that, I thought. I noticed he was dressed in expensive travel gear – just for show, I suppose. “I always carry Chiclets to give them,” one woman declared. “That’s what they most want,” she added, assuredly, pressing the little sticks of gum into their little hands.

Entering the grounds, I was struck by the total lack of formality in running the site. Actually, there was no one running the site at all; no security to keep anyone from removing or defacing artifacts; no barricades to keep people from climbing on any of the ruins. No ticket booth. No signs. Some groups were led by guides as they wandered in clusters from ruin to ruin, but many people explored on their own. We stayed with our group only briefly before drifting off to inspect the site at our own pace, knowing what time we needed to return to our bus.

We had just left the Gran Juego de Pelota, a grassy field where the Mayans played ball games, when rain of the sudden, tropical-downpour variety burst from the heavens. We dashed for the first shelter we could find, a small, stone building with three open arches leading into a small room.
The space quickly filled with people who had been nearby. Moments passed as we all stood, catching our breaths. Everyone faced forward, looking out at the rain, a solid, glassy curtain hung in front of the arches. Then people began to talk. The stingy man was there with his wife, a sour-faced woman who complained that her hairdo was wet. Welcome to the club, I thought as I touched the hairspray that had turned to gooey glue in my hair. The couple continued taking turns complaining to each other in nasally accents about the lack of covered walkways and the absence of a restaurant at the site. A man who had been conversing in German with his wife, paused and listened to Stingy and Sour, and then shook his head. We locked eyes for a moment, and I cringed, knowing what he was thinking, as the couple continued to give Americans a bad name. Chiclet woman and her elderly mother were also there. They discussed what they wanted to buy from the vendors on the path, and I talked with them about the quality of the blankets and baskets on display. A jolly Australian family with their cute Crocodile-Hunter-accents speculated on the rules of a Mayan ball game. I joined the conversation as the topic digressed into a comparison of American football with Australian rules football before detouring into an analysis of rugby.

Out of the corner of my eye, I spied one couple standing in the corner, apart from the rest of us. Apparently they were honeymooners like me. They proceeded to rub on each other’s wet hair, clothes, and skin with their shiny-wedding-ringed hands. Then they progressed to kissing. I tried to avert my eyes, but when the woman let out an audible moan, everyone turned to look. The couple seemed to have forgotten that anyone else was nearby as they attempted to devour each other’s faces and swallow each other’s tongues. The Australian mother moved to stand between her children and the only-suitable-for-cable show.  But before the demonstration could turn pornographic, the rain ended as abruptly as if God had flipped a switch.

We exited the structure, with our wet clothes clinging to our bodies, each of us encircled with a cloud of rising steam like a visible aura. We climbed to the top of the Kukulcan temple pyramid, bending over to hold onto a chain to assist our ascent up the narrow steps. Apparently, handicap accessibility or even safety were not concerns for whoever oversaw the site. We climbed with the Australian family, laughing about our absurd posture as we went. Reaching the top, we looked out over the lush jungle and spied other vine-covered ruins in the distance. I felt like Indiana Jones, discovering a ruin full of mystery, danger, and perhaps treasure. “Surely they know these other ruins are there,” I said, half to myself. Stingy Man appeared at my side and said something about money, or rather the lack of it, to excavate. I nodded at him and smiled and was surprised to find the smile returned. Walking back to our bus, I passed Chiclet woman and her mother purchasing blankets and baskets. I waved to them, and they waved back. The German couple was on our bus, and we parted with them upon reaching the lobby of our hotel. I never saw the honeymoon couple again. Perhaps they wandered off into the jungle to ravage each other and are still there. I’ve never seen any of the others again either. I wonder where else they have traveled and what else have they seen?

A sitcom encounter. The Happiest Place on Earth (that would, of course, be Disney World.) We boarded a shuttle bus, or Disney Transport to be precise. The time was after lunch but still early enough in the day  for a lot more fun. Happy families wearing an assortment of Mickey Mouse ears, Goofy t-shirts, Tinkerbell wings, and Cinderella tiaras sat, talking about their next adventure. They exited at various stops until we and one other family, facing us across the aisle, were the only ones on board. The family consisted of a Daddy, a Mama, and three assorted children. 

Then it happened. My five-year-old son had a nose bleed. I knew I had a partially-used package of tissues. Frantically fishing through the contents of my purse, I found the package. Ripping the plastic fully open, I saw that three tissues remained. Jerking out two, I stuffed one in each of his nostrils before the blood could drip on his clothes, or worse, on me. As I was craning my neck to look ahead and see how much further to our stop, where a restroom with paper towels might be found, my son decided to pull the tissues out of his nostrils. I looked back, just in time to see it happen. Time slowed, the way it does in movies when something horrible is about to happen. All sound ceased. A zoom into a close-up of his squinched face. The realization of what was about to happen. Nooooooo! I don’t think I screamed it out loud, just moaned the word in my brain. The sneeze was spectacular. His whole body flew forward with the force of it. The blood sprayed forth as if unleashed by a special effects crew from a horror movie.

I turned my head to follow the trajectory and looked into stunned faces. Bodies frozen in place. The Daddy sat with his legs apart, hands on his knees. The Mama held her hands crossed in her lap with one arm through the handle of her very-new-looking, light-colored straw, tote bag. The three assorted children were a jumble of gangly arms in t-shirts and legs in shorts on the seat next to their Mama. They were all dressed in light-weight, cotton clothing, which also just happened to be … you guessed it, white. The blood was spattered from the tops of their heads to the tips of their toes, and on Mama's purse, too. And did I mention that they were a black family? The thick, bright-red goo glistened almost prettily, like rubies, against their chocolate skin. I grabbed the blood-soaked tissues clutched in my son’s hands and stuffed them back in his nostrils while simultaneously shouting “I’m so sorry!” at them, loud enough to be heard over the road noise. Like survivors in a disaster movie, they began to move; to turn their heads to assess the damage to each other and to themselves. Do I offer them my last remaining tissue for all five of them to share? Do I empty my wallet of my remaining cash, all $2.38 of it, and give that to them for cleaning costs? Before I could even think further, the bus’s pneumatic breaks huffed and squealed. The doors opened. Mama pushed Daddy off his seat while hurling a dagger at me from her eyes. She jerked the assorted children by the arms, and they exited the bus, falling all over one another, as my son’s face squinched for another sneeze. I’ll always remember them. Do they remember us? (I suspect they do.)

A profound encounter. Paris. A moveable feast, as Hemingway said. A feast of sights, sounds, smells; food, art, architecture, history; all those grand experiences and little moments that make Paris, well … Paris. And in Paris I had an encounter with the past, with the present, and with the future. Souls who have passed from this earth, ones present in a moment, and ones yet to come. I was there with a tour group, my fellow French students from my high school. You know those kinds of trips: four countries in seven days. We were on the Île de la Cité, an island in the middle of the Seine, having toured the Cathedral of Notre-Dame and then the Conciergerie, a medieval prison where Marie Antoinette was held until her beheading. On our way to the Metro station to return to the Left Bank, we stopped at the corner of Quai de l'Horloge and Pont au Change.

L’horloge is the French word for clock and that is what is set into the Palais de Justice building on the corner of this intersection. The clock is the oldest-surviving, public clock in Paris, dating back to 1535.  The Pont au Change is a bridge (“pont” meaning bridge in French). The “Change” part of the name comes from its historical function. Louis VII decreed, in 1141, that money-changers could only operate their businesses in shops built on the bridge. Many bridges have occupied this site, going back to the 9th century when a wooden bridge was built to replace a nearby one destroyed in a Viking siege of the city. This current bridge was completed in 1860 during Napoleon III’s reign when Baron Haussmann cleaned house, or literally cleared houses and buildings, to create the Paris we know. The Pont au Change is built from stone and decorated with medallions bearing an “N” for the Emperor of the Second Empire. Victor Hugo mentioned this bridge in Les Miserables.
Twilight view of the Seine river and the Pont au Change bearing Napoleon III’s medallions. The old clock can be seen set in the alcove of the tower at the left of the photograph. The Conciergerie is the section of the Palais de Justice (Palace of Justice) complex containing the three round towers at the center of the photograph.

I placed my hand on the stone balustrade and looked at the clock while our guide explained its history and the history of the bridge. I looked down at the Seine flowing under the bridge, coursing through the city for a part of its 482 mile journey from northwest of Dijon in northeastern France to the English Channel at Le Havre. The color of the water changed rapidly like a mood ring. The day was overcast with occasional showers leaving everything glistening and ethereal. I watched the black water turn pearly-gray as clouds scuttled overhead. Then, in the next moment, a peep of sun turned the water green, like the deep color of a forest beneath a dense canopy of leaves.

I could still hear our guide speaking, but my mind drifted. How many people have stood on this exact spot in the past: peasants, paupers, priests, prostitutes, princes?  I felt the smooth stone beneath my palms, my fingertips. How many people have touched this stone? Looked at that clock?  I studied the other students gathered with me; there with me in that one specific moment in time. Do they get this? Does my teacher appreciate this? Or even our guide? I stood there only for a moment. And then we moved on. How many people have been there in the days since, encountering the souls of the past while standing among the souls of the present? How many are yet to come to that place, should the bridge continue to stand in the years, decades, perhaps centuries, or even millennia to come? But for one moment I was there. And I encountered all who had been and who were there. Perhaps the bridge will remember me to those who come…

Encounters. Three of my most memorable ones. Encounters are, by definition, brief, but sometimes they lead to more. Every friendship, every love, begins with a first encounter. Whether brief, or temporary, or the beginning of everything wonderful, or all things sad, these moments connect us to the humanity around us in all its flawed and fabulous complexity and gift us with memories, an encounter’s best souvenir.

May your tea be sweet and your cotton high,
Leigh Ann Thornton