Page 1

Good Times, Riches & Sons of Bitches

I’ve Seen More Than I Can Recall*

A Birmingham Memoir by Tom Cosby



GOOD TIMES, RICHES AND SONS OF BITCHES

I’ve Seen More Than I Can Recall * A Birmingham Memoir By Tom Cosby

1


To my wife, Gail, who is such a straight shooter that when she told me I really should write up these stories, shoot, I figured I would. And to my grand-nephew Andrew Thomas Penuel who is not now and never will be a SOB but is already a pretty cool guy.

*from the Jimmy Buffett song: “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes,� the nationwide hit in 1977. (Note: the images on the cover includes the tight rope walker, Jay Cochrane, whom the author brought to downtown Birmingham in 1989 as well as a collection of various promotional buttons reflecting some of the activities he was involved with during his career.) Published 2020

2


Acknowledgements to My Posse

L

et’s get this straight. Much (but not all) of this collection of rusty old memories is set in Birmingham, my hometown. Note that I didn’t say “set in Birmingham, Alabama.” Such a qualifier would imply that I imagined you wondering if, instead of our bustling city of more than 1.1 million, I actually meant Birmingham, Michigan, a bedroom community of 19,000. (I.E., a sleepy suburb of Detroit about the size of Trussville.) Or, that I worried that you might read these stories and think them all based in jolly olde England. But neither you nor I are idiots, so we know what I mean when I say “Birmingham”: it’s that place with a zillion barbeque joints, college football talked about 12 months a year and churches on seemingly every other street corner. Oh yeah, and plenty of sons of bitches anywhere you care to look. And just to further set the record straight, the term SOB is most often used here as a complimentary reference; a warm term of endearment. But not always. So you get to decide. Anyway, this book wouldn’t have been possible without the many crazy Birmingham sumbitches that it has been my pleasure to know and now write about. Needless to say, I couldn’t have possibly mentioned all of them in this book without this reading like the book of Leviticus, but I would like to especially acknowledge the following noteworthy SOBs: Don Newton was my first boss in the Chamber of Commerce world, hiring me (then a social worker, of all things) to be his fundraiser. Don’s steadfast example of 3


not suffering fools gently proved to be the lodestar on which I would lean throughout my career. Not that Don was always or even mostly right about things. But he sure had an opinion and he would cut to the bottom line in a New York minute. (That’s why we referred to him behind his back as “frequently wrong but never in doubt.”) And then Don up and hired my remarkable friend-to-be Stewart Dansby on the sole basis that there was this crazy SOB living in Detroit who was purchasing 40 gift subscriptions each year to Birmingham magazine. So why not hire this otherwise unqualified kid as Birmingham’s PR director at the Chamber -- where he’d have to put up with Tom Cosby? As best I could tell, there were no brakes on Stewart when it came to promoting Birmingham and therefore he was exactly my kind of guy. He quickly became my Birmingham booster soul mate extraordinaire. He was the instigator who took the flame that I had always carried for Birmingham and poured gasoline on it. Maybe I had a somewhat similar effect on him. No idea was too bizarre or outré not to be launched, just as long as we thought it might promote Birmingham – and hopefully to the detriment of Atlanta, Georgia, our cocksure, condescending neighbor city to the east. (Yes, I am referring to the Atlanta that’s in Georgia – and not one of the other nineteen Atlanta’s in North America.)

I don’t think it’s possible to have much impact on this world unless you’re pretty good at something. It became my great good fortune, early on, to fall into the orbit of Howard Benson, the creative fundraising genius from, oddly enough, Atlanta (Georgia). Don Newton was not exactly the nurturing type and so I started at the Chamber knowing nothing about fundraising and setting out totally on my 4


own. Howard showed me the ropes, teaching me how to blend proven best sales practices, borrowed liberally from the insurance industry, and apply them to the Chamber world. Adding, of course, a lot of hard work – but with an ever-present sense of good humor. Learning how to raise money for the Chamber brought with it a deeply felt realization that the Chamber better be able to show prospective donors some “skins on the wall;” i.e., results that made our city measurably better. Surprisingly, I got pretty good at raising money and identifying important city-building priorities. And as long as I could raise the money that Don needed, he would cut me some slack to work on Stewart’s and my incessant city promotional schemes. And, boy, did we have some schemes. I would be remiss not to recognize another longtime friend and supreme consigliere, the extraordinary Alan Martin. Alan worked for Alabama Power and had the most amazing ability to look several moves down the proverbial chessboard and map out our schemes so they were predestined to succeed. Always willing to tackle any project, large or small, (as long as it was for the good of Birmingham) Alan proved invaluable time and time again. Without the generous resources corralled by Alan and provided by Alabama Power, I dare say lots of the successes we enjoyed would not have happened. All work and no play would make Jack a dull fundraiser and another SOB by the name of George Jenkins provided Gail and me with plenty of adventure on our typically atypical vacations. “Where’s your spirit of adventure?” would be his challenge as we would warily eye a narrow trail leading up an impossibly steep Swiss mountain pass. Or nervously gauge a gathering storm just as we shouldered backpacks for a three-day trek deep into the remote heart of a Smoky Mountain wilderness. His indefatigable sense of humor in wilderness situations was infectious and pushed us to attempt challenges we would ordinarily have shied away from. A sincere thank you to my friends and relatives who read much of this drivel prior to publication and offered me many helpful comments. Among them, I certainly want to thank Sharon Helm McConathy, Barry Copeland, Trinket Shaw, Stewart Dansby, Brant Beene and Steve Coleman. Lastly, I must recognize my long-suffering and patient wife of 40+ years, Gail. No one on the planet Earth has ever had to endure more talk about the city of Birmingham than she. Her no-BS temperament, plus her vast amount of expertise in advertising and graphic design, took many of the crazy ideas we came up with and polished and packaged them to the point where normal people could, just maybe, believe that they might actually happen. And, surprisingly, as you will see in this book, many of them did.

5


“Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” —President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the Nicaraguan dictator “I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the laws for generals.” —President Truman on the firing of General MacArthur “My father always told me that all businessmen were sons of bitches.” —President John F. Kennedy (“A Thousand Days,” by Arthur Schlesinger Jr.) “Pack up all your dishes.
Make note of all good wishes.
 Say goodbye to the landlord for me.
That son of a bitch has always bored me.” —Pop Singer Guy Clark, LA Freeway “My mother never saw the irony in calling me a son of a bitch.” —Academy Award Winning Actor Jack Nicholson “You call yourself a salesman, you son of a bitch? You certainly don’t pal. ‘Cause the good news is you’re fired.” —Alec Baldwin, Glengarry Glen Ross “If I hadn’t personally known so many sonofabitches, I couldn’t possibly have written this book.” —Retiree Tom Cosby

6


Table of Contents “And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts” As You Like It, William Shakespeare

Preface.......................................................................................................................9 Act I: How I Came To Be Scene 1.....................My Claim To Fame (1862).....................................................11 Scene 2 ...................One Ornery SOB (1945)........................................................17 Scene 3.....................My Sainted Mama (1947)................................................... ..24 Scene 4.....................The Wife of My Life (1974)...................................................28 Act II: Getting Started Scene 1.....................Lights, Cameras, Action! (1962)............................................38 Scene 2....................The Panama City Blues (1963)...............................................42 Scene 3....................Choices & Consequences (1963)...........................................54 Scene 4....................The Million Dollar Ticket (1963)...........................................59 Scene 5.....................I Got The Music In Me (1963)..............................................64 Act III: Lost and Found Scene 1.....................The Reluctant Sailor (1970)..................................................76 Scene 2....................Gohan, the Worst Tennis Pro in History (1971)................... 81 Scene 3....................War Freak (1971)....................................................................88 Scene 4....................Life Through Rose Colored Glasses (1973)...........................92 Scene 5....................Gimme Three Steps (1975)....................................................96 Act IV: One Crazy Way to Make a Living Scene 1....................Sales Training from One Old School SOB (1977)................101 Scene 2....................My Mentor, the Swami (1979-1990).....................................106 Scene 3....................My So-Called Life as Chamber Fundraiser (1977-2012).......110 Scene 3a....The President’s Committee (1977).......................................111 Scene 3b....The Blitzkrieg Era (1981)......................................................113 Scene 3c....When Lee (Not Sherman) Burned Atlanta (1982)...............118 Scene 3d....Damn, But APCO Made Me Look Good (1984)................127 Scene 3e....Tell That SOB To Wear The Shirt We Gave Him (1986)...130 7


Scene 3f ........Halley’s Comet & Other Star Crossed Ideas (1986).....................137 Scene 3g.........Nation’s Largest Chamber-Sponsored Trade Show (1987)............141 Scene 3h........Winds of Change (2002-2012).......................................................144 Act V: Chamber Projects & Some Crazy SOBs Scene 1...........Now These Guys Were Some Funny SOBs (1980s)......................148 Scene 2...........World’s Greatest Photographer Was One Cool SOB (1982).......155 Scene 3...........Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1985)............................................159 Scene 4...........Hit It (You SOB) (1985)................................................................163 Scene 5...........The HUB Club (1988-2000).........................................................173 Scene 6...........“You’re Gonna Love It Here!” (1992)...........................................180 Scene 7...........The Largest Taxicab Fleet in the History of Alabama (1996).......187 Scene 8............One Helluva Highway (1996-2000)..............................................191 Scene 9...........Pagan Worship (Gasp) in Birmingham (1999).............................198 Scene 10.........The Magic City Rocks (2002).......................................................206 Act VI: Like A Rolling Stone Scene 1...........Hav-A-Havana (1957).....................................................................213 Scene 2...........Not All SOBs Are Male. Or even human. (1978)........................218 Scene 3...........Back When a Case of Beer Meant Something (1978)..................227 Scene 4...........Hot Tea, You SOB? (1984)............................................................235 Scene 5...........Can’t Drive To Tuscaloosa On 50 Gallons of Gas (1989)...........240 Scene 6...........Thank God for Tanzania (1989)...................................................245 Scene 7...........A Japonica Path Through Time (1992)........................................257 Scene 8...........Bells & Smells (1992)...................................................................262 Scene 9...........Are There Any Christians? (1994)................................................275 Scene 10 ........No Problem Atoll (1994)..............................................................280 Scene 11.........The 900 Mile Hike (1978-2005)...................................................287 Scene 12.........Burning Daylight (1999)..............................................................300 Scene 13.........Takkakaw Means “It Is Magnificent” (2005)...............................306 Act VII: Ebb Tide Scene 1...........Safe At Home (1957-2018)............................................................311 Scene 2..........Less Is More (2013)........................................................................318 Scene 3..........The Single Most Desperate Act in Fundraising History (2014)....324 Scene 4...........Those Dirty SOBs in Tuscaloosa (2015)..................................... 332 Scene 5...........Birmingham-to-Birmingham (2016).............................................339 Scene 6...........Unfinished Business (2019).........................................................344 Scene 7...........If It Suddenly Ended Tomorrow (2020).......................................357

8


Preface “If it suddenly ended tomorrow,
I could somehow adjust to the fall,
 Good times and riches and son of a bitches, I’ve seen more than I can recall.” —Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, Jimmy Buffett

I

f it suddenly ended tomorrow, I’d want all these remarkable SOBs described herein to be remembered. For the most part, these folks that I cared to write about shared one common denominator: they all made me laugh. And, oh man, did I enjoy a good laugh. Either with ‘em or at ‘em. But laugh we did. It might be important for the reader to know that although I was raised in rather humble circumstances, my mama imprinted on me a burning desire to be aspirational and rise above my origins and get ahead in this world. Maybe that’s why I was so willing to put up with these SOBs. And to observe them so intently for so many years. I saw getting along with them as a necessary stepping stone to get where I wanted to go. Perhaps like most memoirs, this is an ad hoc collection of humorous, absurd, ridiculous stories – plus some that are also tragic and sad. And maybe even a couple that are important for our city’s historical record. Nonetheless, they are all true stories about often strange situations and the many characters I’ve dealt with or observed closely throughout my life. These SOBs include bank presidents, CEOs, tight rope walkers, rock stars, politicians, high society posers and salesmen of all stripes; I’ve met ‘em all from my unique platform promoting this great city called Birmingham. In sum, I have known: Good times. Yep, this baby boomer had far more than his share. And this book will tell you about the funniest, the most amusing, ironic and ridiculous times we had. Riches. Well, it depends on how you define “riches.” And I choose to measure riches by the friends I have. Who somehow mostly turned out to be… Sons of Bitches. Yes, this book is all about you sons of bitches, and you know who you are. But this isn’t your typical SOB story. I’d like to think that I was born with a fairly good sense of humor with the ability to sniff out patently ridiculous, absurd and ironic situations, but you can be the judge of that. As mentioned, many of these stories are set in Birmingham, but not all. Let’s get started, shall we? 9


Act I How I Came to Be These first four scenes are a bit atypical from the rest of the book, but I thought it would be important to start this memoir by telling you about “my people,” as we say Down South. After all, these people shaped the SOB who became Tom Cosby as much as anything else. So let’s blame them, shall we?

10


My Claim to Fame Act 1/Scene 1, Antietam National Battlefield, Maryland, 1862 “He went to fight wars For his country and his king Of his honor and his glory The people would sing Oooh, what a lucky man he was” Lucky Man, Emerson Lake & Palmer

Burnside Bridge, Antietam National Battlefield

uring the heat of the Civil War battle of Antietam, Colonel Rutherford B. D Hayes of the 23rd Ohio was remembered for raising his sword defiantly and shouting “Give ‘em hell! Give the sons of bitches hell!” My great grandfather, being a courier for the 23rd Ohio, possibly heard the order from this future president of the United States, but I am getting a little ahead of this story. (Then again, this is a book about sons of bitches, so I wanted to go ahead and make the SOB connection.) When I returned home to Birmingham from overseas duty with the U. S. Navy 11


in 1972, I found myself working for the Alabama Republican Party. (I’ll tell you why in a later chapter.) One weekend, while visiting my parents’ home, I was rummaging through an old desk and came upon a faded chit, or receipt. Puzzled, I asked mama what this was about. She said, “Oh, that’s the portrait of your maternal great grandfather, Colonel James H. Goddard. My mother had drawn it in charcoal and my father lent it to the West Virginia Department of Archives & History when she fell ill.” Examining the chit, it clearly said that the portrait was indeed a loan and could be reclaimed at any time after September 1952. “Can I have it if I can get it back?” I asked. “Be my guest,” was essentially her reply. She had little interest or time for historical matters.

The author’s great-grandfather James H. Goddard who served with Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley. 12


I already knew the family lore about Mr. Goddard being a courier in the Civil War’s 23rd Ohio Regiment and that he had participated in the famous battle of Antietam. Being a courier had always sounded like a highly desirable duty to me; dashing gallantly back and forth on horseback, carrying messages to officers mostly, and usually safely behind the front lines. Certainly, behind the front lines would be the kind of duty I would have aspired to! As I dug around, other interesting facts would dribble out about Mr. Goddard and the 23rd Ohio from the dim mists of history. Key among them was that not only had future President Hayes been a member of his regiment, but amazingly enough, another future president, William McKinley, had been a supply sergeant for the 23rd. Needless to say, this is the only regiment in US military history to have had the distinction of two future presidents in its ranks. Since both were Yankee soldiers, of course, they were Abraham Lincoln Republicans (as I’m sure Mr. Goddard was), so perhaps it was fitting that I would find myself working for the Republican Party at the time. As I mulled all this over, it struck me that a courier, even a 22-year old like my great grandfather, would be the most likely person in any regiment to know each of the other men in his regiment. With Civil War regiments typically having only about 800 men, it certainly seems likely that my great grandfather would have known both future presidents. How incredibly helpful would those connections have been to Mr. Goddard’s successful dry goods business that he later established in Charleston, WV, after the war? Back in 1972, to initiate a claim on a matter like this, it would be customary to write a letter to the Department of Archives & History, requesting the portrait and enclosing a copy of the chit. Which is what I promptly did. I received a polite letter in response a couple of weeks later telling me that the portrait had likely been put in storage; however, they weren’t quite sure where -- but they would look into it and let me know the outcome of their search. Weeks went by and I didn’t hear anything. I wrote again and still didn’t hear anything. Back then, long-distance calls weren’t just made on a whim, they were considered quite a luxury, but they did connote special importance. If anyone ever told you that you had a “long-distance” call, you would drop whatever you were doing and take it. So I went ahead and called the woman and put her on the spot. She told me she was sad to report that it would be quite unlikely that the portrait would ever be found as their storehouse of loaned materials was just too vast, too understaffed and too poorly cataloged to find this “needle in a haystack.” I asked her to please keep looking but only got a vague response. At that time, our Congressman from Birmingham was John Buchanan. Due to my job, I was at a random Alabama Republican Party event one evening and had a chance to tell Congressman Buchanan my dilemma. To my delight, he said “Why, my best friend in Washington is Congressman John Slack from Charleston, WV. 13


I’ll call him first thing in the morning and see if he can help us out.” No SOB he. The very next day, I got a personal long-distance call from the director of the West Virginia Archives! She gave me the welcomed news that, surprise, they’d finally located the portrait! A week later, a Yellow Freight truck rolled up in front of my house in Birmingham with the portrait carefully packaged and the shipping fee prepaid. Yep, lobbying works. And this handsome portrait, done by my grandmother Mabel Goddard Lowe, has now hung in its beautiful frame proudly in my living room for de23rd Ohio Monument at Antietam. cades. Fast forward some thirty years. One September, my godson, William Harris (a recent West Point graduate), was getting married in Washington, DC, so Gail and I flew up to attend. Since I had always wanted to see the famous Antietam battlefield, I talked a reluctant Gail into driving out there before the wedding.

14


Burnside Bridge Antietam Battlefield.

I knew that the 23rd Ohio had a monument on the battlefield. At the Visitor’s Center, I approached a park ranger to ask if she could tell us where to find it. “Sure can. But would you like me to do you one better?” I had no idea what she was talking about but of course, said yes. She turned and marched off officiously in her official grey-and-green US Park Service uniform. Gail rolled her eyes with that look that said: “Oh, Lord, here we go again.” Ten minutes later, the park ranger emerged from the basement archives smiling and carrying a dozen photocopied topographical maps in her hands. She spread them out on a table for me. Each map showed exactly where on the battlefield the 23rd Ohio had been hour by hour throughout that fateful day of September 17, 1862. My limited knowledge of the battle was that historians considered the battle essentially a draw but that the peak of fighting had occurred on Burnside’s Bridge. “I think you’ll find this most interesting – your ancestor’s regiment was the first to successfully cross Burnside’s bridge at the very peak of the battle.” Looking at the topo map, it showed that the 23rd had crossed the bridge at 1 pm. I glanced at my watch. It was now 12:45 pm. It was also September 15, plenty close enough to the battle’s anniversary date of September 17 for us to be able to experience the exact angle of sunlight just as my great-grandfather would have experienced it some 145 years before. Hairs rose on the back of my neck. The park ranger told us that the monument was also near the bridge and pointed us in the right direction. I thanked her profusely and we screeched off, despite it being just a short drive away. Once there, we quickly hiked down the steep em15


bankment where the Confederate infantry had dug in. We walked briskly across the bridge to the far side and turned around. It was exactly 1 p.m. I squinted back across the bridge, in the exact direction the 23rd would’ve had to charge. A relentless September sun angled fiercely down, right into our eyes, like a powerful spotlight. Just like it had on that fateful day. The glare was simply horrific. Though vastly outnumbered, Confederate General A. P. Hill’s men on the far side not only had the advantage of elevation but now I understood what was possibly their biggest advantage: that merciless sun right at their backs. And with their dug in rifle pits still visible today on the steep cliff-like bank, you could see how their defensive position was practically impregnable. It didn’t take much imagination to know that any man of the 23rd Ohio marching across that bridge on that day knew he was volunteering to be mown down. It was a suicide mission. Only when the Confederates ran out of ammunition would they ever win the day. But oh, what courage! The sense of history became so real that I gulped in awe. Antietam Creek still appears to be about 5 feet deep; shallow enough to wade across, but the slow going would’ve been even more of a suicide mission. Confederate sharpshooters would’ve picked them off one by one. So there wasn’t a way to attack the Rebels on this part of the battlefield but to cross the bridge, no matter how many lives it cost. Which they finally did, at 1 pm. Mr. Goddard survived the battle which is known to this day as the “bloodiest day in American military history.” After the war, he became a prosperous Charleston, WV, dry goods merchant, no doubt trading at least somewhat on his governmental connections. As an early member of the historic Kanawha Presbyterian Church in Charleston, I doubt seriously that he was any kind of a SOB but a The author’s mama at Goddard’s grave. tough one. He passed away in 1911 at the age of 72 and is buried in Charleston’s Springhill Cemetery. Although I’m a lifelong Southerner, I’m proud that my great grandfather fought for the Union side and against slavery – and had a role to play in that famous regiment on that fateful day. Knowing a little bit of his story helped imbue me with a sense of history that I’ve carried throughout my life. 16


One Ornery SOB Act 1/Scene 2, Washington, DC, 1945 “Every generation Blames the one before And all of their frustrations Come beating on your door… So we open up a quarrel Between the present and the past We only sacrifice the future It’s the bitterness that lasts” The Living Years, Mike & the Mechanics

R.O. Cosby and Mary Lesta Lowe, Washington, D.C., 1945

F

or the most part, you will find this book to be about funny SOBs, not ornery SOBs. But any book on SOBs I have known would not be complete, not to mention honest, if I didn’t say something at the onset about my dad. First and foremost, it should be acknowledged that R. O. Cosby was a faithful, church-going, honest, sober, hard-working provider for his family. Although he never made much money, he was never out of work -- and 100% of his salary went to support our family. But Good Lord, he was one ornery, cantankerous SOB if there ever was one. But on the other hand, he was a consistent Birmingham booster and would 17


always jump at the chance to promote Birmingham whenever talking to an out-oftowner. Undoubtedly, that rubbed off on me. Daddy had grown up in Birmingham but met mama, née Mary Lesta Lowe, in Washington, DC. They met towards the end of WWII while he was serving as a USMC guard at the US Embassy and she was working in fingerprinting for the FBI. Right before he was discharged, he talked my mama into marrying him and pulling up stakes and moving lock, stock and barrel to Birmingham. Duties and rigid discipline, Marine Corps style, would be his calling card for the rest of his life. Along with his generally angry, impatient outlook on life. Before and after the war, he worked in sales in Birmingham in the downtown Pizitz Department Store, always on the 6th floor. He worked in what was called “major appliances,” selling televisions, refrigerators, air conditioners and washing machines – all on commission. As downtown retail fought harder and harder to stay relevant in an ever-changing marketplace, management would keep the store open later and later. Being on commission meant daddy had to remain standing on the floor whenever the store was open, but realistically chasing the same amount of sales. And that reality only made him madder and madder. By the end of his life, including his very last day alive, he had logged an incredible 48 years of employment at the old Pizitz downtown department store. (Which is now, of course, the very upscale “Pizitz Apartments” and Food Hall.) But daddy working there so long was really amazing since he hated it so much. To work off his frustrations, at home he set up and enforced an infinity of family rules that were simply Pizitz Department Store, 6th floor, 1951. impossible to follow. This resulted in us kids inevitably breaking the rules, which resulted in him getting and staying furious. What kind of rules? Well, you couldn’t ever sit on your bed. That was a huge rule. And, of course, we all had a list of yard work duties that had to be worked on every Saturday and every day in the summer before we got paying jobs. He would inspect them when he got home and was rarely pleased with what he saw. And rules about sitting at rigid attention in church. But a lot of rules had to do with the dinner table. As an example, one of his rules was that we had to eat cornbread with every 18


dinner. Daddy felt strongly that to not do so would impugn the honor of the South and would imply that we were secretly in league with despicable Yankees. This was not a joke; it was a deadly serious matter to him. And so you would eat a piece of cornbread at every supper, like it or not. Brother Bobby once incited a major brouhaha by stupidly (but correctly) mentioning that mama put sugar in the cornbread mix. Daddy ranted and raved about that forever; the very idea, sugar and cornbread. Never mind that mama backed Bobby up, admitting she’d always put sugar in the cornbread. Daddy just bellowed louder and louder on the subject until everyone just shut up. One of his most important rules was for all us kids to always hold a piece of bread in our left hand and hold the fork in our right hand, and then take a bite of bread with each bite of food, making everything come out together at the end of the meal. You get the idea. An elbow left propped on the table would get sharply speared by the tines of his fork. And you had to eat a healthy portion of every item on the table, and it was supremely irrelevant whether you liked it or not. And you had to take successive bites of your food in a clockwise direction around your plate. Fried liver with a texture like shoe leather and boiled bland cabbage stand out in my memory as two typical dishes that I had to choke down. But may the Lord have mercy on your soul if you thought you could be excused from the table before completely cleaning your plate. (Fortunately, I developed a special relationship with our dogs, first Wags and later Comet, who would let me surreptitiously slip them liver and other gag-worthy items 1960 Chevrolet Biscayne, a true “land yacht.” under the table.) To welcome the swingin’ sixties, our family car became a massive 1960 Chevrolet Biscayne, a true “land yacht.” Although it would prove to be indestructible (with a back seat capable of practically stretching out on, hmmm…), this was Chevy’s most affordable model, so daddy bought it. Not only did it lack such luxuries as air conditioning, power steering and electric windows, but it didn’t even have an AM radio. Once I was “grounded” for not washing the car on Saturday, which was one of my weekly duties. But the problem was that I had indeed washed it; in fact, just a couple of hours before daddy got home. He simply refused to believe that the rough, sandpaper-like texture of the painted surface was possible if I had just washed it. Unfortunately, that was an indication of just how bad Birmingham’s air pollution was back then, particularly in industrialized North Birmingham. (If my siblings and I all don’t die of lung cancer, it will be a bloody miracle.) After I turned 16, daddy issued a new fatwa that my brother and I couldn’t put more than 20 miles on this family car any night we used it on a date. Well, we 19


lived in Inglenook, and for some reason (probably mama) we aspired to date girls in Mountain Brook, so that just wasn’t going to be possible. Despite being un-mechanically inclined, I figured out a way to disengage the speedometer cable up under the steering column which in turn drove the mileage odometer on the dashboard. I would drive for the approved 8-10 miles and then unscrew the cable. With mileage no longer being registered, I was off to the races. And with gas being 29 cents a gallon then, I could drive for 100 miles or more on each date for a buck or so – which I did. When I returned home after everyone was asleep, I would re-engage the cable. This all worked well for a couple of months – until it didn’t. One Sunday morning the entire family was piled into the Chevrolet going to Sunday School and church. Suddenly, the speedometer started buzzing and the speed indicator needle started swinging wildly from side to side. I was sitting in the middle on the back seat and just covered my eyes. Daddy started screaming “Good lord, Mary Lesta, what in the world is wrong with the speedometer?” I didn’t say a word and fortunately for me, daddy didn’t suspect me as the culprit. I did feel bad that I cost him money to get it repaired, as broke as we were. Daddy had smoked in my early years but we nagged him to quit so much that he finally did. But he wasn’t happy about it. Of course, being the rebellious youth that I was, all my friends and I started smoking once we turned 16. When I would take the family car out, we always smoked as we drove around. I was so ignorant that I thought if we just lowered the windows on the way home, it would clear all the cigarette smell out of the car. For some reason, daddy never said anything about that, but now I know for certain that he could smell it. One Sunday morning as we drove to church, I sat in the back seat, nursing yet another hangover. As I squinted out the front windshield, I noted to my horror that I had left a pack of Winston’s on the top of the dashboard. Daddy spotted it at about the same time. He pulled up to a stop light and calmly palmed the softpack, squeezed it completely tight like a used wad of paper, lowered his window, held it out his window with his arm parallel to the ground -- and then dropped it The Pizitz building. dramatically on the pavement. He didn’t say a word – which was very out of character for him. I wouldn’t make that mistake again. Home air conditioning was a luxury that we Cosby’s simply could not afford – although Daddy sold them at Pizitz. My earliest childhood memories are of sum20


mers spent in our steaming hot, 1950s era house, with low ceilings but without even so much as an attic fan. We had one floor fan that mama and daddy would put at the head of the stairs which they pointed vainly down the stairwell. (I don’t think they quite grasped that heat would rise, so this was a losing battle.) One of the best ways to beat the heat in those days was to cut an ice-cold watermelon out in the backyard, under a shade tree. Which we did almost every summer Sunday afternoon. One hot mid-August Sunday, mama started slow cooking a pot roast for our lunch before we left for church. (Perhaps this was part of a scientific experiment to see just how much hotter we could possibly make our home?) We left in the family Chevrolet at our usual time at 8:30 am to go to Sunday School and then church. My 95-year old Granddaddy Lowe was living with us then but stayed home as he never cared to go to First Methodist with us. (Perhaps it was because he was Presbyterian.) By this stage in his long life, he was suffering from dementia. Today, for some reason, he decided to “help” mama out by turning up the heat underneath the pressure cooker. By the time we got home around 12:30 pm, the temperature outside was already in the high 90s with matching humidity. When we walked into the house, it looked like a bomb had gone off. The pressure cooker had exploded! The lid had been launched like a Saturn 5 missile straight up. It blew a circular hole 18” in diameter in the sheetrocked ceiling directly above the stove. But that wasn’t the biggest problem: the explosion had spewed roast beef, onions, potatoes, gravy and carrots all over the walls, ceiling and floors of the entire downstairs! The heat from the exploded pressure cooker along with the added humidity from the steam released from the vessel turned our already overheated house into a sauna. And with it being 95 degrees or so outside, there was no escape to be had. Mother exploded and chewed out granddaddy but the poor, befuddled SOB clearly couldn’t comprehend what had happened. Bottom line, it was miserably hot during Birmingham’s endless summers. And that didn’t help with anyone’s politeness in our family. One of the maddest I ever remember my father getting was when a prospective customer, after hearing his Pizitz-approved sales pitch on the latest model of Westinghouse air conditioner, asked him “Mr. Cosby, what air conditioner do you have in your home?” To which daddy confessed that we didn’t have air conditioning. Then the guy laughed and said, “I knew you didn’t because I know where you live and I can see all your windows open!” That infuriated daddy. Probably that the guy tried to catch him in a lie, and probably also, in some indirect way, he had challenged his status as a provider who couldn’t even buy his family an air conditioner. After years of suffering through Alabama summers without air conditioning, I can truthfully say I only had one burning ambition as a kid. It was not to discover a cure for cancer or even be a major league baseball player. I dreamed, starry-eyed, 21


of having a job making enough money to afford air conditioning. But in the meanwhile, I would spend as many of my summer days reading in the mercifully air-conditioned downtown Birmingham Public Library as I possibly could. Despite the financial limitations and ornery disposition, daddy did his best to provide us with occasional pleasant surprises. Once, for my 8th birthday, he took me to the Lyric Theatre to see “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” What made this stand out in my memory was that the theatre management had two of those ancient US Navy Mark V deep sea diving suits set up in the lobby, complete with the metal helmets with Marketing device inside the Lyric Theatre, 1955. the glass viewing ports. As you entered the theatre, you walked between the suits and, if you peeked in the glass viewing ports, you could see goldfish swimming around. I was always a sucker for creative marketing from my earliest days. Chief among Daddy’s complaints about his job at Pizitz was having to stand on his feet all day. He hated it so much, it motivated him to send Bobby and me to college, so we wouldn’t have to follow in his footsteps, no pun intended. Which was no small financial sacrifice, as even in those days of low tuition, I don’t think he ever made over $12,000 in any one year. I did sincerely appreciate it, but he held his pledge to send us to college over our heads like the proverbial Sword of Damocles. For whatever reason, I had always been the most lukewarm of all the Cosbys about going to church. As soon as I started coming home from college, I made it clear that I just didn’t want to go any longer. Daddy had the perfect answer for me, delivered at approximately 120 decibels: “That’s great that you don’t want to go to church,” he bellowed. “You know what? I don’t want to pay for your college expenses either. So here’s what we’ll do. You don’t go to church and I won’t pay your tuition. Do we have a deal?” He meant it so, of course, I kept going to church. Point made. Late in life, he finally semi-retired from Pizitz and split his time between Birmingham and “piddling,” as he put it, on his 20-acre farm near Wilsonville, down in then-rural Shelby County. His brother, my Uncle Dan, had given a 20 acre plot of farmland to him as daddy had coveted it for so long. He was not lazy and worked incredibly hard building a small farmhouse, a 22


barn and raising a large garden each year. On the day I visited him and took this picture, I offhandedly asked him what he imagined becoming of this property five years after he passed away. To my surprise, he stopped and looked me right in the eyes with a puzzled expression. He had obviously never given that even a fleeting thought. But maybe that’s the way to live – just stay in the moment. For such an ornery SOB, he sure loved to go to First United Methodist Church where he was a loyal member from the time he was a young man until the very end. He relished his role there as a highly visible, officious usher in the balcony. Maybe that’s partly why he was so continually obsessed over our attendance. Therefore, I suppose it was entirely fitting that he died of a heart attack in the First Methodist courtyard, on his way to church. He had driven in from his farm the night before, got up and worked a full day at Pizitz. He then walked the 3 ½ blocks up 19th Street from Pizitz to First Methodist to attend Wednesday night fellowship when he collapsed and died in 1979. He was just 75 years old, ancient to me then, but way too young to me now. RIP. And bless his heart, as we say way down South.

R.O. Cosby at 75 at his farm. 23


My Sainted Mama Act 1/Scene 3, Birmingham, 1947 “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me Speaking words of wisdom, let it be And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me Speaking words of wisdom, let it be” Let It Be, The Beatles

Mary Lesta Lowe Cosby.

n the far end of the kindness spectrum from the “ornery SOB” described in the O previous chapter stood my mama, Mary Lesta Lowe Cosby. She was a proud West Virginian and a rock of kindness, compassion and an abiding hope for a better future for her kids. But don’t think for a minute that this somehow meant she was some acquiescent, milquetoast personality. Despite her kindly (and later grandmotherly) appearance, she had a temper and when her Irish was up she’d get into yelling matches with daddy on just about any subject, but most frequently about us children. They argued daily and once she even threw a full sugar bowl at him when she got mad at him at the dinner table. Another time, she even chipped a bone in her finger when she tried to slug him in the face! (He bobbed and she hit a pipe on the basement wall instead.) To daddy’s credit, he never raised a hand against her. Yet had this been a different era, when 24


women could more easily find employment, I’m certain they would have divorced. Like the woman of Proverbs 31, my mama never wasted any time. She rose before daylight, usually by 5 am. Whether it was cooking, cleaning, canning, shelling, planting, gardening, lesson planning for church or volunteering, she squeezed every drop out of every day. She was a seamstress without peer and not only did she sew most of our clothes when we were kids, but she did free alterations for neighbors just to help out. She made all of my sister’s clothes (including bathing suits and later even made her own wedding gown!) and was willing to tackle anything I’d want, such as a madras sports coat. However, by the time I was in high school, I became so brand conscious that I got a job so I could buy Gant shirts and other items as it embarrassed me to wear homemade clothes. Despite raising four children and managing the household on extremely tight finances, she found time to be actively involved in any number of civic activities. Among her many community involvements, she was president of the Inglenook Elementary School PTA, a leader in Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts of America, a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and president of the Ramsay High School PTA. She would tackle any project of any size with an energy level that would astonish people half her age. Once she came over to Gail’s and my first home across from Highland golf course where I was worried about some crumbling brick within our fireplace and whether that constituted a fire hazard. Despite her being well into her 70s, she left and purchased special fireplace bricks and fireplace mortar (I didn’t even know there were such things.) She proceeded to show me how to remove and replace brick, mix and apGail and Mary Lesta Cosby at First Church

25


ply the mortar -- despite the cramped chimney opening. She had a lightweight, electric chain saw and wouldn’t hesitate to use it to top trees all around her home. I went to her house once to find her on the roof cleaning gutters. She always kept a large garden and bought a roto-tiller, which she used like a midwestern farmer. But most defining of all, she was a committed Christian who believed you should go to your church every time the doors were open. And you’d better not think you could ever have a meal in her presence without asking a blessing, no matter where you were! As such, she was president of Women’s Society of Christian Service/United Methodist Women, president of Church Women United and chairman of Circle 16/WSCS at First United Methodist Church. At First Church, she was a 5th grade Sunday School teacher for generations of children, was largely responsible for us Cosby’s being honored as First Family of the Year, a member of the Fifty Year Club (an honor for members of 50 years duration or longer) and a longtime member of the Administrative Board. She played an active role in many First Church projects, from the Mother-Daughter luncheon to assisting the First Church Library to playing a pivotal role in having First Church’s After School Care program established. But if you asked her what her pride and joy was, she would always talk of us kids. She put all her faith and trust and effort into the four of us, and nothing made her prouder than seeing us step into our roles as adults. She was a fierce stickler about her children’s use of good grammar and would not allow any verbal shortcuts or inaccuracies. She demanded good grades and attention to studies. She read to all of us from the time we were born. She intuitively understood each of us and always knew how and when to give us comfort. She could discern our

Mary Lesta Cosby, lifelong hiker, backpacker and wildflower enthusiast. 26


deepest concerns and always found the right words – her own or those of scripture – to calm us down. Except for her last few years, she lived a life of exemplary, robust health. When she was 70+, she hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back up in one day, passing hikers half her age with ease, much to their astonishment and consternation. (Note: I used to think this was a much bigger deal before I turned 70 myself!) A lifelong scouting enthusiast, she enjoyed hiking and backpacking and went backpacking with us up until age 72. She was also a wildflower expert and helped set Gail and me on the path of a lifelong appreciation of the variety and delicate beauty of such wildflower favorites of hers as Fire Pink, Ladyslippers and Columbine. Although the daily mealtime fare might leave something to be desired, she organized memorable family feasts for holidays and Sunday luncheons throughout the year. (Her lemon meringue pies were my absolute favorite.) She hated unfairness almost as much as poor manners and poor grammar–for which there was never an adequate excuse. Her American Dream had nothing to do with her acquiring wealth; it was only about equipping her children with what we needed to rise above our surroundings. More than most in her generation, she believed in equality and could not understand or tolerate bigotry. This was regrettably a source of great conflict with Daddy. She was, perhaps, naive in that regard, because her formative years in West Virginia nurtured those ideals in a way different from many white Alabamians of her generation. But at times it caused problems. She simply did not understand the intense segregation of the Deep South. When she rode the train to Birmingham from Washington, DC to meet Daddy’s friends and family, she made a faux pas at her introductory dinner party that daddy never forgot. Or forgave her for. She was asked if there were black people riding on the train car with her and when she answered yes, they all gasped. She asked with a laugh, “What’s the matter, did you think the black was going to rub off on me?” Daddy’s friends were taken aback; it was a matter of serious concern to them and no joking matter. Back in the 1950s and continuing throughout her life, she was deeply committed to helping the less fortunate and particularly black people. She advocated for better schools for African Americans and helped many of them repeatedly, essentially adopting an elderly black woman whose children had moved to California – so much so that the children of Miss Lucy remain devoted to Mama’s memory to this day. Though her health caused her discomfort near her end at age 89, she greeted the world every day with a beatific smile, a kind word, a willingness to help, infectious energy and an eagerness to please. That’s what I’ll always remember about her.

27


The Wife of My Life Act 1/Scene 4, Ski Lodge Apartments, Birmingham, 1974 “Laughing and a running hey, hey Skipping and a jumping In the misty morning fog with Our hearts a thumpin’ and you My brown-eyed girl You, my brown-eyed girl” Brown Eyed Girl, Van Morrison

Gail and the author, 1977, St. John’s Chapel, First United Methodist.

B

irmingham’s Ski Lodge Apartments looked exactly like it sounded. Cheaply built and mass-produced, the 250 or so identical faux chalet apartment units were nothing if not pretentious. The result of some developer’s fever dream of a ski resort improbably set in Birmingham, the complex sprawled over a few low hills with absurd street names like “Aspen Way” or “Steamboat Avenue.” Although it was technically in Homewood, it was located in an area that was, to put it charitably, not cool. Nor anything remotely resembling a ski resort. The individual apartments had all the ambiance of a temporary FEMA trailer, with cheap hollow core doors, shag carpeting and paper-thin walls. While the complex might have a few freshly minted college grads living here and there, it was primarily populated with traveling sales reps; the kind of louche guys who wore 28


loud plaid sports coats, drank Miller Lite by the half case, played The Eagles loudly on their stereos and had NASCAR stickers plastered on their cars. Here and there were pairs of secretaries sharing one-bedroom apartments, hanging out at the pool on the weekends, trying hard to look sexy. But Ski Lodge was an upgrade for Gail Thrasher as she had been living downtown in the Eva Comer Home. That place was a boarding house run by the Methodist Church for low income working women of all ages and stages of life, in my mind barely one step up from a homeless shelter. So Gail was de- An early date with Gail at a blast furnace! lighted to have now moved up to Ski Lodge where she lived with a college sorority sister named Mary Ellen Coon. And this was where we met on a blind date in January 1975. I knew all about Ski Lodge and was therefore extremely dubious that there could be anyone living within this gulag that I would ever want to meet. But the couple who were trying to fix me up wouldn’t take no for an answer, so here is where I found myself. With plenty of misgivings, I negotiated the confusing maze of apartments, finally found the right address, sighed and reluctantly rang the doorbell. She opened the door and smiled warmly as she warily checked me out. She would later tell me that, as a 22-year-old, her first impression was that I looked way too old for her. After all, being 4 ½ years older was a pretty big age gap at that stage. On the other hand, I was immediately very favorably impressed. As mentioned, my expectations were rock bottom. But, man, this girl was really pretty. What was she doing living here? We went for a drink at Ireland’s, a popular place back then in what is now Brookwood Village. Amazingly, we talked easily about a wide range of subjects of interest to us both; Europe, Austin High School Homequeening history, single-lens reflex photography and Queen, 1969.

29


post-impressionistic art. So, this girl was both pretty AND has a wide range of interests? Hmmm… There is a lot here, I thought. As we started dating, I learned that she was the type who never boasted about anything. But as time passed and I got to know her friends, it came out that she had been homecoming queen at Austin High School in her hometown of Decatur. In her typical self-deprecating way, she tried to explain it away that her senior year had just been a particularly bad year for attractive girls at her high school. (Not true!) She was quite accomplished as a student and earned a full academic scholarship to MSCW, later MissisGail’s interpretation of the author, 1975. sippi University for Women. At her college, she had been everything; class president, sorority president (they called them social clubs there), Honor Society, yearbook editor, you name it. She was a prize-winning artist and did just stunningly beautiful artwork. Needless to say, she had certainly exceeded by a zillion miles anything I’d ever done at the University of Alabama. As we dated, we continued to find that we shared many mutual interests. She liked to hike, she liked to spend time in the woods, she liked sports – and she knew sports. She wasn’t anybody’s ditzy arm candy, going to a sporting event just to see and be seen. She was into the game. And unlike any other girl I’d ever dated, she let me turn up my rock ‘n roll music as loudly as I wanted, whenever the mood struck. Plus, she loved to travel. So we definitely hit it off and started spending a lot of time together. She even did a caricature of me, depicting my various interests back then. But at her young age, she still had plenty of wild oats to sow and trying to keep up with her just about exhausted me, even though I was also in my twenties. (I had partied hard in high school and college and was frankly ready to move on to other things.) She loved nothing more than going out drinking and dancing and she was game to dance all night if I was. Which I wasn’t. We continued dating throughout 1975 and by November I asked her if she wanted to go to an Alabama-LSU ballgame (despite her being a lifelong Auburn fan.) She agreed, and after a long workday, one Friday night we drove down to New 30


Orleans. This was before the interstate was built and it took at least 7 ½ hours to get there. We checked into our motel about 1 am and turned in. At 7:00 the next morning we were up bright and early, too excited about experiencing New Orleans to sleep late (not that I ever could.) After café au lait and beignets at Café du Monde, we went shopping on Royal Street and then hung around the Quarter all afternoon, taking in various music venues and having a few beers. Late that afternoon we got back in the car and drove in bumper-to-bumper traffic to Baton Rouge. There, we watched a typically crazy-exciting night game at famous Tiger Stadium, which Alabama won Gail in New Orleans, 1975. 23-10, en route to another national championship. Then it was back into heavy traffic for the slow return drive to New Orleans that night, arriving back in the Crescent City about 1 am. As we pulled into the motel parking lot, she looked at me incredulously and asked: “You’re not really going to bed now, are you?” Since I was beyond exhausted and could hardly hold my eyes open, I assured her that I most definitely was. It wasn’t until the next morning that I became fully aware of the extent of the raging fury that my going to bed had caused. Gail refused to speak one single word to me for the entire 7 ½ hour drive home, silently fuming the entire way. Back at her apartment, she grabbed her bag and, through clenched teeth, managed to say “Goodbye” before slamming the car door shut with authority. The finality of her departure told me it was all over. Had it not been for the effective “shuttle diplomacy” of Gail’s roommate, Mary Ellen Coon, I doubt we’d have ever gotten back together. Mary Ellen worked at the United Way with me and for some reason wanted to see us stay together. She kept me hopeful and updated on Gail and presumably did the same with her. After a long six months following the New Orleans debacle, I hesitantly picked up the phone and asked her out again. Gail was initially extremely dubious of get31


ting back together with such a boring guy, but she relented. Maybe she realized that having a boyfriend to party with wasn’t her top criteria in life after all. So, with a better understanding of my partying limitations, things worked out and eventually, everything fell into place. We dated through the end of 1976 and got to know each other’s friends and families. Despite that (and I did have trouble reconciling myself to her mother who was more hillbilly country than anyone I’d ever been around – and she had concerns about my family as well), we made plans to get married. And on February 13, 1977, we tied the knot in St. John’s Chapel at First United Methodist, a little more than two years after we first met. One of the many things I admired about Gail was that she was always so practical on money matters. This evidenced itself on our wedding day, as she had the good sense not to go broke putting on some extravaganza that she and her family couldn’t afford. She told her bridesmaids to pull out their favorite bridesmaid dress from a previous wedding and wear it –and not waste their money buying a new dress just so they could be color coordinated. She even borrowed a wedding gown from a neighbor in Decatur. Despite being a 23-year old, she figured she wouldn’t need it again so she surely wasn’t going to buy a new dress that she’d be obligated to store for the rest of her life. For the early part of our married life, whenever Gail and I would have a deep philosophical discussion, she would point out, without a hint of irony, “Your generation looks at the problem this way. My generation looks at the issue this way.”

Gail’s Central Bank teammates. 32


Finally, after clarifying that 4 ½ years did not a generation make, she gradually stopped saying that as we got older! Looking back on my dating years, I realize that girls who were overtly inept athletically somehow annoyed me. Maybe it was because I was such a marginal athlete myself, I just couldn’t bear to be around another loser. Or maybe it was because I was such a sports junkie that I just couldn’t imagine a long-term relationship with a woman who would ask stupid, inappropriate questions at games. And if she couldn’t play some kind of ball, I figured she’d probably be clueless. Back then, there was something to the saying “throw like a girl.” It seemed to me that most girls did throw awkwardly, like a British guy trying to throw a baseball for the first time. I thought it was just an annoying way for girls to get attention, and so for some reason, I had no patience with it as some guys did. But man, the first time I saw Gail throw a baseball, I couldn’t believe it. I’d never seen a girl throw a ball as fast, maybe faster than me. And further. Her dad had been a major high school football and basketball star at Decatur High and her mom had been all-county in girls’ basketball. Plus her brother had been all-state in football in Alabama in the 1970s which was roughly akin to being an Olympic gold medal decathlete in terms of general awe to wanna-be’s like me. Suffice it to say that Gail came from a very athletic family. The cruel reality was that Gail had been born a few years too soon. Title IX, the federal law outlawing discrimination based on sex in education programs, didn’t

Gail, front row, kneeling far left. 33


come out until 1972. Unfortunately, Gail graduated from high school in 1970. So girls’ sports in her time in high school was practically non-existent. But she always had the passion to play and looked for opportunities wherever she could find them. Following her graduation from Mississippi State College for Women (the “W”) in 1974, she went to work for Central Bank (which became Compass which later became BBVA Compass, and which is now BBVA.) At the time, she was hired as the in-house ad agency’s art director, which made her only the second woman at the bank to be hired in a non-secretarial position. It was a lonely time to be a female professional and she had to pretend she didn’t know how to type just to keep guys from giving her documents to type all day long. Shortly after we married, the young women at Central formed a softball team and started lining up games every week during the spring and summer. Soon enough, everyone on the team saw that Gail could not only hit better than most of them, but she had a cannon for a right arm. So they put her in center field. As newly marrieds, I went to see Gail’s team play nearly every week. They would often play at Green Springs Park after work where I would sit in the stands with the other husbands and boyfriends, frequently reading that week’s edition of Time Magazine to pass the time. The Central Bank girls team won its share of games and, as the season wore on, found itself up against better and better teams. This particular night, Gail’s team faced off against a formidable opponent, all African-American, all very, shall we say, large women. They could all play ball and it was apparent that each of them could knock the ball out of sight. However, as large as they were, it was also clear that most of them couldn’t run that fast. As they took the field, the coach motioned for Gail to play deep center field, deeper than she’d played all season. Gail jogged out to her position and settled in. Ball cap visor pulled down to just above the eyes, glove insouciantly folded on her left hip, she was relaxed but ready to spring into action. The word that would describe her best was coiled. She looked every inch the image of a confident athlete. The first black girl smoothly swatted the first pitch over the left-field fence. Not a great start. Down 1-0. The next girl got up and hesitated her swing, then pushed a solid line drive over the first basemen’s head. Central’s worst player was in right and she did her best Madama Butterfly impersonation in her attempt to run the ball down, letting it roll all the way to the fence. By the time she caught up with it and threw a soft parabola back to the second baseman on the relay, the second batter was rounding third and she and all her teammates were whooping it up. The guys in the stands eyed each other warily. This game could get out of hand quickly. I looked out to center field and I could see the steam coming out of Gail’s ears. She was pissed. Next girl up was their power hitter. The biggest one of them all. All her teammates were standing, chanting, clapping. She ripped a line drive to deep left-center 34


and started up the first base line with the delay of a locomotive gathering momentum, but one pulling a heavy load. Gail was off with the crack of the bat. She chased the ball down and backhanded the ball in left-center on a short hop. Planting her right foot firmly, she pivoted and threw a rocket, not to her second baseman, but to the first baseman. The guys sitting around me all gasped. She had sized up the batter and figured she could throw her out at first! Regrettably, this scenario had never remotely occurred to Central’s ditzy first baseman. The woman had turned her back to Gail and stood there, hands limply dangling at her sides, watching the large woman lumber toward her down the baseline. Thwack!!! On the one hop, Gail’s clothesline throw hit the first baseman squarely between the shoulders. It just about knocked her down. Had she only turned around to catch it, the overweight batter would’ve been thrown out by six steps. Hurt and angry, she threw down her glove and glared at Gail. Not realizing that she’d made the mistake because of her daydreaming. All the husbands and boyfriends in the stands doubled over with laughter, guffawing. Few had seen a throw like that from a guy, much less a girl. And in a women’s softball league! The Central Bank coach lowered his face into his hands, disbelieving. Out in the field, Gail just stood there, silently steaming. What a bunch of losers on my team, she was undoubtedly thinking. Needless to say, Central Bank’s team didn’t win the game and won no trophy that year. But, hell yeah, Gail was a jock and years ahead of her time. “You and I have memories Longer than the road that stretches out ahead” Two of Us, The Beatles As I write this, 42 years into our marriage, full of memories, it occurs to me that one of Gail’s defining characteristics is her utter fearlessness. I have never seen her boo-hoo ONCE in all these years. And I’ve only spotted a very few tears on her cheeks 2-3 times during particularly heart-tugging movies and once, briefly when her daddy died. Tell me another woman who can say that! Looking back, it has been great having the same partner to age with through all the decades spent together. Certainly, we have just about squeezed every drop out of every single day. We’ve hiked all over and enjoyed tremendous adventures together, 35


Gail trailside, Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

especially in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park but also in most of the best National Parks in the USA. We’ve traveled the world together; Europe, South America, Africa, Canada, Central America, New Zealand/Australia, all over the Caribbean and taken multiple trips to Hawaii and Alaska. The only small regret I’ve ever had was that Gail adamantly never wanted children. (She was totally committed to her career in advertising, her artwork and her music and travel interests.) But even that worked out well as I ended up with 6 nieces and 1 nephew, 4 godchildren and eleven grandnieces/nephews. Including one namesake, Andrew Thomas Penuel, to whom this book is partially dedicated. I have to say, I’m pretty crazy about all of them. So who says blind dates don’t work out? I’ll always be glad that I called on that pretty girl in that tacky Ski Lodge apartment complex on a chilly night so many years ago.

36


Act II Getting Started

37


Lights, Camera, Action! Act 2/Scene 1, Moundville, Alabama, 1962 “Stopped into a church I passed along the way Well, I got down on my knees And I pretend to pray” California Dreamin’, the Mamas and the Papas

First United Methodist Church, Birmingham. .

Growing up at First Methodist Church in downtown Birmingham, each summer

there would be a series of revival sermons; at least a week straight of powerful, pulpit pounding sermons delivered every night to a packed house. And of course, we Cosby’s were ever-present and never missed a night. Our family pew was in the balcony, at the end closest to the choir on the right, on the very front pew. Therefore, we were on continuous display any time services were held, day or night, year-round for the entire congregation to observe. And, I suppose in the minds of our parents, to admire for our faithful presence. But that rapt outward attention came at a price. Because only the Lord would have mercy on our souls if daddy ever caught us fidgeting, talking or, God forbid, falling asleep during a church service. 38


I was expected to not only stay alert during the service but be able to answer questions about key points made in the sermon in the car on the drive home. Even as a kid, the question of my personal belief and conversion experience was put to me by my parents. I guess it was understandable since they loved me and wanted me to be saved, but it was a pretty heavy-duty metaphysical thought for a little kid to have to answer. One night as we drove home from a revival service in our family’s powder blue 1953 Chevrolet, mama and daddy asked me if I had accepted in my heart the call from Jesus. As an eight-year-old, this is essentially what I remember telling them: “Although I have not seen a Cosby family car, 1950s. miracle (and honestly don’t want to see one as it sounds pretty doggone scary), I of course believe in Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and savior. After all, if it is true and I wasn’t a believer, then I would definitely go to Hell. And I sure don’t want that. But on the other hand, if it is not true but I still believed in it, there is no penalty for that. So, sure, this is a very easy decision to make. I believe.” I remember mama and daddy having a somewhat horrified reaction and saying that was just not the way to look at it. Maybe so, but this philosophy has served me pretty well my whole life. (Many years later in college, I learned that this was formally known as Pascal’s Wager and that it had first been posited in the 1600s as a precursor to groundbreaking ideas in probability theory. Needless to say, French Philosopher Blaise Pascal was never and has never been preached from the First Methodist pulpit.) A few years later, as a normal (i.e., hormonally overcharged) teenager, spending a lot of time at church functions increasingly wouldn’t have been my first choice. But going to church every time the doors were open was still what we Cosbys did, especially before I got my driver’s license and could start controlling a bit of my own destiny. When I was fifteen, our church’s Methodist Youth Fellowship joined all other MYFs in the northern half of Alabama by convening for a very special, very unique Easter sunrise service. Where would this service be held? Why, atop the pre-Columbian Native American ceremonial mounds in Moundville, of course. Located south of Tuscaloosa, Moundville was a Native American political and religious center built almost 1,000 years earlier and left unoccupied for the past 500 years. At one time, it was thought to have been the largest community in North America with some 35,000 residents. It features scores of massive mounds, the tallest one almost six stories high, all built during the Mississippian era. 39


Moundville, Alabama.

Today, you have to ask yourself. What type of warped theological mind would come up with the bizarre idea of holding a Christian Easter sunrise service in such a decidedly non-Christian locale? Was it because we just didn’t have a Buddhist monastery or Hindu temple readily available? Who knows? Regardless, this was where, as we would soon discover, the North Alabama Methodist Conference had the brainstorm to set up fourteen stations of the Cross for the pre-dawn Easter celebration, termed The Road to Calvary. Each famous scene -- for example, Jesus and the moneychangers, Pontius Pilate washing his hands, etc. --would be reenacted and spotlighted atop a different Native American ceremonial mound. This pageant had been written by an otherwise obscure Methodist minister by the name of Robert L. Haygood and was enacted on the mounds for 50 years. (Perhaps a weird Alabama version of the Bavarian Oberammergau Passion Play?) Nonetheless, it was at least a two-hour drive to Moundville. Since sunrise would begin around 6 am, that meant we had to leave Birmingham really early. Our parents dutifully drove us downtown to catch the church bus at First United Methodist at the decidedly ungodly hour of 3 am. Me? I did what any 15-year old boy would do if given half a chance. I got my girlfriend, Kay, to sit with me in the back of the darkened bus so we could “make out” for the duration of the bus ride. Maybe the others slept. We didn’t know and sure didn’t care. 40


Upon arriving at the Indian mounds, we parked in an enormous parking lot along with buses from probably 50 other churches. In the inky pre-dawn darkness, all us kids were herded together and assembled in the middle of a huge field. There had to be at least 1,000 of us as the program began. Out of the darkness, the booming voice of the Almighty was heard via loudspeakers. Then one of the tops of the massive mounds would be brightly illuminated with floodlights so you could see the display depicting that particular station of the cross. For each scene, there would be a ten-minute sermonette delivered over the loudspeaker. After a couple of scenes, you could tell that this was going to go on for quite a while. I turned to Kay and she looked really cute. So I said, “See that large mound way over there?” Pointing to the far side of the field, there was a massive mound, safely away from the crowd. Holding her hand, we eased away from the throng and walked to the big mound. We climbed up a very steep side, hand over hand, and got on top. Of the mound. (Shame on you.) The stars were out, we were all alone and so we resumed our intimate interlude in the darkness. I knew I always looked my dashing best in a pitch-black situation. Suddenly, there was a big “boompf” and we were instantly blinded. Like some massive flashbulb had gone off but wouldn’t stop. Like we were staring into the sun. We were totally and utterly exposed to midday-like illumination. Then the voice of God began speaking anew, but loudly now, almost deafening us. OH NO!!! As our eyes adjusted, to our astonishment, there was another massive Easter display atop this huge mound, too. How could we have missed this? Both of us jumped up and, to our horror, there were now at least a thousand curious faces gazing up at us. Humiliated, we ran pell-mell down the steep backside of the mound, luckily not falling. Trying our best to look inconspicuous, we slunk around the outside edge of the crowd and melted back into it. “Who were those kids atop the mound?” someone asked. “I don’t know,” I shrugged, fully expecting to hear the cock crow. Embarrassed with our behavior, we mutually decided to “break up” then and there. We rode home in separate seats, she in the front of the bus, as far away from me as she could get. Who could blame her for not wanting to associate with such a lapsed soul? I felt bad. Kay probably felt worse. As BB King would sing, “the thrill was gone.” Many years later, Kay called me out of the blue from California, coincidentally on Easter weekend. It was so great to hear from her after all these years. She was happily married and a retired airline stewardess. We talked for quite a while, enjoying catching up. Right before we hung up, I had to ask. “Kay, do you realize this is Easter weekend?” She immediately responded with a wink in her voice, “Why do you think I called you, big boy?! 41


I Got The Panama City Blues Act 2/Scene 2 The Hangout, Panama City Beach, 1963 “I miss you oh my darlin’ Sure as the skies are blue. I’m sitting right here in this pure white sand I got the Panama City Blues.” Panama City Blues, Larry and the Loafers

ercifully, the upstairs screen door banged shut as daddy hurried off to work. For M once, he’d left without giving my brother and me more yard work to do. That was a surprise. I breathed a sigh of relief. It was going to be another hot one in our non-air conditioned home in Inglenook, the proverbial “Baltic Avenue” of Birmingham. Mama was in the backyard hanging out clothes. Mockingbirds were singing loudly back and forth. The gathering humidity was already so pervasive that it cast a whitish haze everywhere. Here in midsummer, between the heat and the drought, most of mama’s flowers had already died or at least wilted, except for the invasive mimosa trees. These trees laughed at the heat and were covered with crazy pink puffball blooms. Historic winds of social change were blowing throughout America and particularly here in Alabama in 1963, but to us it was just the beginning of another hot, boring day, deep in the sultry South. Barefooted, older brother Bobby sat with me at the dining room table, leisurely eating breakfast now that daddy had left. The cool linoleum tiles felt good under my feet. I padded over to the radio, changed the station from WCRT, the “queasy” listening station that daddy preferred, to WSGN by twirling the dial down to 42


AM610. And, of course, I cranked the volume way up, which would’ve given daddy a conniption fit if he were still here. “Let’s go surfin’ now, everybody’s learning how, c’mon and safari with me,” sang the Beach Boys. “Jungle music,” would’ve been the kindest thing our daddy would’ve said about any of our new-fangled rock ‘n roll. “I can’t believe the summer’s almost over and we haven’t been to the beach yet,” I whined. “Everybody but us gets to go to PC (Panama City, FL) and meet girls.” Emerald green water, palm trees and, of course, girls in bikinis vividly filled our imaginations. My brother and I finished our Rice Krispies, mulling over the same thought. Bobby centered the cardboard stopper onto the top of the glass milk bottle, popped it into place, returned it to the refrigerator and sat back down. I fiddled with making a little aluminum foil canoe out of the milk bottle’s foil cap. Bored, we were just killing time. This was ridiculous. We’ve got to go to the beach, we both thought. Somehow. Some way. Bobby decisively laid down his spoon. “Let’s go.” He didn’t have to say where. But how could we possibly go to the beach? We had no car and hardly any money. The only thing going for us was that with daddy gone, we could talk mama into anything. “You call Greyhound and see how much a roundtrip fare is to Panama City and when the very next bus leaves,” Bobby ordered. “I’ll check both our desks to see how much money we have.” I flipped through the thick, dog-eared Birmingham phone book to the business section in the back to find the number. On the third ring, a sleepy sounding female voice answered. “When is your next bus to Panama City and what does it cost?” I asked. “Florida?” she queried. “No, Central America,” I shot back. “Don’t get smart with me, kid,” she retorted. “Let’s see. Our only bus today is 10:15 this morning and the ticket is $11.75 roundtrip from Birmingham.” The kitchen clock read 9:30 am. Bobby ran back into the dining room with some crumpled bills mixed in with a double handful of change. “Looks like we’ve got a total of $38.” Where on earth had he gotten that much money, I wondered? Turned out, Bobby had gathered his stash of silver certificate dollar bills, tip money from his milkman route and robbed all the coins out of my pirate bank. So we were set; money for bus tickets plus $14.50 leftover. Not that much, even by 1963 standards, but it would have to do. We had to sell mama on this in a hurry. While she hung clothes on the line, we begged, pleaded and wheedled. We pointed out that we had done our chores all summer long and besides, we hadn’t missed a single day of church, or MYF or even Wednesday night fellowship. We told her we had the money; plus, we even had “reservations” on the bus. 43


Mother paused and put her hands on her hips, measuring the situation. “You boys are only 15 and 17 years old. You can’t just go off galavanting by yourself.” (She loved that word. It almost sounded French.) “No problem,” Bobby answered, trying to sound confident. “We’ve got plenty of friends at the beach right now with their parents. We’ll take our Boy Scout sleeping bags and sleep on their porches.” We talked rapidly and urgently and won her grudging agreement. As we always did. Now we had maybe 5 minutes before the next #22 Tarrant bus would stop down the hill on Vanderbilt Road. Which should put us at the Greyhound bus station right when our Panama City bus was scheduled to pull out. That is IF we made good time and didn’t get stopped by one of East Thomas’ interminable freight trains. And presuming we ran the last two blocks. Furiously, we flew around the house, digging through our chest of drawers for bathing suits. Next came toothbrushes, underwear and a comb. (Yes, we both had hair back then!) Dropping our gear into our canvas Boy Scout backpacks with our sleeping bags, we were ready. We yelled goodbye to mama and jogged the three blocks downhill to the carline. Perspiring freely in the rapidly warming August morning sun, we looked way down the pike, straining to see our bus come into sight. “Where, oh where, is that bus?” I moaned. If it didn’t come now and we meant RIGHT now, we’d never make it to the Greyhound station on time. Nothing but cars appeared in the shimmering heat waves as far down Vanderbilt Road as we could see. Necessity being the “brother” of invention, Bobby brazenly walked up to a car stopped at the traffic light next to the bus stop. He tapped brazenly on the window frame. “Mind if we hitch a ride downtown with you, Mister?” he asked. The driver listened disinterestedly to our tale of urgency. Finally, with a line of cars honking behind him, without saying a word, he begrudgingly jabbed his thumb toward the back seat. We yanked the back door open and piled in the back seat of his dusty ’53 Dodge. The driver never said anything to us during the 20-minute drive downtown. As soon as he came to a full stop at the first traffic light on 20th Street, we thanked him, grabbed our bags and jumped out running. Panting and puffing, we burst into the air-conditioned Greyhound lobby and dashed up to the ticket counter. “Two roundtrip tickets to Panama City,” we both shouted in unison. A woman with a beehive hairdo drawled, “y’all too late, hon. Today’s bus is leaving now, gate 4.” With that, we both dashed madly out to the departure area. Sure enough, there was our silver, grey and blue bus backing out. “Wait, please wait,” we both wailed at the top of our lungs. We rushed to the side of the bus and pounded furiously on its sides as it slowly backed out. Pausing 44


“Riding the Dog.” .

to see what all the racket was about, the driver stopped. With a long hiss, he opened the pneumatic door. Yes! “Gimme your tickets, boys” he growled. We told him we didn’t have time to buy a ticket but couldn’t we please just buy them at the next station? Clearly irritated, he motioned us on board and said: “go to the back and take a seat.” Delighted, we walked hurriedly down the aisle before he changed his mind. Dropping our packs, we sank into our seats and drank in the cool deliciousness of the air conditioning, quite a treat in 1963. Ahh, PC, here we come! Five minutes later, Bobby popped my bubble of euphoria. “I didn’t remember to pick up the money, did you?” Oh, no. Our carefully scavenged $38 was right where we’d left it. Back home on the dining room table. And the miles between where we were and our money were accumulating rapidly. We decided to “fess up” to the driver right then and there. As the bus lurched and bumped down US 31 South, we both carefully made our way up the aisle to the driver. “Can’t y’all see the sign that says no talking to the operator of this vehicle?” he barked. I blurted out that we’d accidentally left all our money at home but that we really didn’t try to trick him. “Don’t worry, bub, nobody tricks me. I’m gonna stop this bus at the next light and put you both out.” Bobby quickly intervened. “Where’s our next scheduled stop?” “Clanton.” Thinking quickly, Bobby asked, “If they let us borrow their phone, could we 45


call home collect and then get the money wired ahead to the Greyhound station in Panama City?” We then started telling him we absolutely had to get to Panama City and couldn’t he puh-leeze help us out? Seeing it was probably easier to agree with us than to keep being pleaded with, the driver somehow relented. An hour south of Birmingham, we rolled into the sleepy backwater town of Clanton. Our driver promptly escorted us into the tiny windowless office where he made sure we called collect to Victor 1-3003. One ring, two rings, three. Mama didn’t answer. Sister Marty either. Great. “I knew I shoulda put you boys out before we even left Jefferson County,” he muttered. “Let’s call McQuaid,” I suggested. Besides being one of my best friends, Don McQuaid was a notoriously late sleeper. No way he would be up and gone at just 10:30 on a lazy summer morning. Besides, he’d just gotten his driver’s license a month earlier so he could go get our money and take it downtown to the Western Union office. And even if mama had left, our house was never locked. Nobody’s house was in 1963. With the bus driver and the station manager both impatiently waiting, I called McQuaid. Collect. “Are you kidding?” an incredulous McQuaid answered the operator when she asked if he’d accept a collect call from me. “Please, Don, have a heart. This is an emergency,” I urged, talking over the operator. Something you were not supposed to do. Don reluctantly agreed to go by the house, get the money, drive it downtown and wire it to the Greyhound station in Panama City. (Only later would he realize that he’d get stuck with paying the wire fee, which he has not forgotten to this day!) Satisfied, the driver herded us and our fellow passengers back onto the bus. Panama City, here we come! Six hours after leaving Birmingham, we pulled into the Panama City bus station. Good ole McQuaid had come through. We got our money, paid off our tickets and pocketed the remaining $14.50. Outside, we could already smell the tang of the salty air. A palm tree stood right beside the road. We were getting excited now! After getting pointed in the right direction, we grabbed our backpacks and started hiking and hitchhiking towards the beach some ten miles away. After hiking with our thumbs out for at least an hour, a shiny red convertible Pontiac GTO rumbled over to pick us up. A high school dropout type with greased back hair, sideburns and tattoos sat behind the wheel wearing nothing but a bathing suit. “Where to?” Shouting to make ourselves heard over the din of his engine and the blare of his radio, we screamed in unison “the beach!” He leaned over, unlocked the door and 46


Where the kids gathered in Panama City, Florida.

motioned for us to hop in. With a roar that only a land yacht of a car with an engine with 8 cylinders and 389 fuel-injected cubic inches with dual exhaust can make, we scratched off. “Bird, bird, bird. Bird is the word” was the song blaring over his radio. What a way to make our entrance! On this beautiful day, the emerald green gulf beckoned off to our left, sparkling brilliantly. The smell of salt air only intensified, filling our senses. The incredibly white beaches were dotted with hundreds of people. Quite possibly some of them were girls our age. Our hearts were pounding. “Let us off at the Hangout,” Bobby asked urgently. As the door slammed behind us, we trudged across the blistering hot asphalt to an inviting building. Inside, kids our age were everywhere playing pinball on at least 50 brightly lit machines. Suntan oil aroma wafted through the air as guys and bikini-clad girls dropped dimes into the whirring, dinging pinball machines. Rows of the colorful machines filled the building, mostly covered with images of surfer boys and sexy surfer girls. We had never even seen a single pinball machine before and we were mesmerized with the sounds and colors of a room full of them. This was it. P. C. We had finally made the scene. Bobby jolted me out of my momentary reverie. He tartly reminded me that we were here to go to the famous Hangout to meet girls, not play pinball. As we elbowed our way through the throng of teenagers, we caught an initial glimpse of the Hangout pavilion. Simultaneously, we could hear it too. A high pitched, crazy staccato laugh was followed by the carefully measured tones of the words “Wipe Out.” The Surfari’s #5 hit that week began pounding out from a huge Rockola on the end of the Hangout dance floor nearest us. By now, it was late afternoon and several couples were on the concrete floor, dancing in their bathing suits, rocking and bopping and sliding on the sand that had blown onto the cool concrete floor. Scores more young people either stood or were seated at the benches that lined the dance floor perimeter. The open-air pavil47


ion allowed refreshing sea breezes to flow through so not only was it well oxygenated, it was very comfortable. Nirvana; perfection. This was it. The pick-up mecca of the entire Deep South. If not America. Or maybe the galaxy. Dreams die hard, but it didn’t take long for me to calculate the odds of meeting a girl. “There’s got to be 5 guys here for every girl,” I lamented to Bobby. We both stood silently, studying the competition and checking out every girl on the dance floor and surrounding benches. As the sun was about to set over the Gulf, Bobby declared, “We need to find someplace to stash our backpacks, because we’ll be sleeping on the beach tonight.” We walked out to the sidewalk overlooking the beach. He surveyed it and then announced, “This looks like a perfect place to unroll our bags and sleep tonight.” “Not unless you have $50 to pay the Panama City Police Department” a voice from seemingly underneath the sidewalk growled. Startled, we jumped down onto the feathery white sand and peered into a small, cave-like opening underneath the sidewalk. “Who said that?” we asked peering into the opening. We watched in amazement as a deeply tanned face appeared underneath a shock of unkempt, straw-like hair. His name was Murphy and he gave us invaluable advice. “Unless you have a plan to stay hidden from the cops, they will fine you or throw you in jail if they catch you sleeping on a public beach.” With only $14.50 to our name, we weren’t going to pay for a room and stay very long at the beach. But this guy had figured out a way to beat the system. “Can we check out your home?” His den was amazing. There, only a few steps away from The Hangout was a hollowed-out sand cave, supported by the sidewalk above and with pieces of plywood holding back the sand walls on the sides. From the bits of candles and clothes that were strewn around, it appeared he had lived there for quite some time. He had ingeniously camouflaged his entrance behind a stack of beach chairs. We were impressed. Here was a guy not much older than us who had figured out how to live off almost nothing at the beach. He let us use his lair to temporarily store our bags and gave us advice on how and when to use the beach showers and restrooms without getting caught and ticketed for vagrancy. “Yeah, we’re going to Surf City where it’s two to one,” the refrain went over and over. The ultimate beach music from Jan & Dean now pounded relentlessly from the nearby Rockola at the Hangout. Without question, it was a perfect beach song, with the sound of waves crashing a few feet away. The only problem was, the ratio here was definitely not two to one. “Gotta go meet my girlfriend” he announced. “She works at the doughnut shop. If you see a redhead in there, tell her you met me and she’ll give you a free doughnut.” After an evening of hanging out at the Hangout, our eyelids started getting 48


heavy around midnight. It had been a long day. Stressful too. Where were we going to sleep? We retrieved our bags from Murphy’s cave and wandered through the now practically deserted arcade. The entire area that had been so crowded that afternoon was now weirdly quiet. A couple of old, stooped-shouldered maintenance men slowly swept up cigarette butts and picked up beer cans. The lights were being turned off one by one. Across Highway 98 about a block from the arcade was a darkened stretch of roadway. A large eighteen-wheeler tractor-trailer rig was parked on the shoulder in the darkest stretch. “You know, if we unrolled our sleeping bags underneath that truck, nobody could see us,” Bobby observed. With that, we crawled underneath the big rig and tried to get some sleep. Despite the intermittent roar of cars and trucks speeding down Highway 98 all night long, and despite the sand in our bag, teeth, hair and eyes, and mosquitoes, we did sleep some. But that didn’t matter, we were teenagers and hadn’t come to the beach to sleep at all. And we wouldn’t have except that there was nothing else to do that time of night. Besides, we could sleep on the beach in the daytime if we had to. Right at daybreak, the slam of the cab door and the quick ignition of the truck’s big diesel engine awoke us with a start. Good thing. We rolled out from underneath the truck just before the guy put it in gear. Bobby had the presence of mind to grab our packs. We looked at each other and whooped, “We’re at the beach!” After a quick trip to a public restroom that had fortunately been left unlocked, we remembered that we hadn’t eaten supper last night. Except for a sandwich that we’d shared on the bus that mama had dropped in our bag at the last minute. “Let’s go find that doughnut shop,” I suggested. With that, we walked off in the early morning mist in what we hoped was the right direction. By the time we found Mo’s Doughnut Hole, we were really hungry. “I feel like I could eat $14.50 worth of doughnuts right now!” I said. Unfortunately, the glass door was locked and we could see by the clock inside that it was only 5:40 am. With a couple of deep sighs, we took a seat on the step and waited for it to open. A cook finally arrived and went in, locking the door carefully behind him. After what seemed like an eternity, a young redheaded woman in a waitress uniform walked up, smoking her first cigarette of the day. She unlocked the door and turned on the lights. “Y’all want to come in?” she asked as she turned the sign around to read “Open.” “Murphy told us you sometimes had free samples,” Bobby said hopefully. Seeing her eyes narrow, I added, “We’re low on cash and thought you might have some day-old doughnuts you needed to get rid of.” 49


With a glance over her shoulder, she muttered something and then bent behind the counter. “Here, take these” she whispered and furtively handed us a bag half full of still-warm doughnuts. “Now, get out of here!” Off we hurried with our treasure. It turned out that we’d make do with that bag of doughnuts for our food all day long. That Thursday turned into one of those spectacular cloudless summer days that are made for picture postcards. Girls were out in force on the beach, tanning themselves ferociously, all of us happily and blissfully unaware of future sunspots, basal cells and melanomas. Instinctively, we knew the true success and measure of our Florida vacation rested on our ability to succeed with girls, so we felt compelled to meet them. Somehow. Up and down the beach we’d troll, looking for two unattached girls about our age that we might have a chance with. Bobby had more nerve than me to try and strike up a conversation but we weren’t getting anywhere. I unrolled my Boy Scout sleeping bag and took a long nap while Bobby prowled the beaches some more. “Hey, wake up!” Bobby shook me awake. It was nearing late afternoon and I could hear the jukebox in the Hangout pounding out the hit song that summer by Larry and the Loafers: “I’m standin’ here by the dance floor I’ve got on my white tennis shoes. But I’ve got no one to dance with I got the Panama City Blues.” So true, I thought. The ratio here still seemed stuck at probably 5:1, guys to girls. Oh well, maybe our luck would change. With sundown, the crowds picked up considerably at the Hangout. Bobby got a couple of girls to dance with him. I bided my time, waiting for a perfect opportunity, fairly disgusted with my typical lack of boldness. Depending on the song, that summer the dancers were doing the twist, the monkey, the jerk, the bird, the slop, the mashed potato, maybe even some shag. But this year, the big crowd drawer was the dog, or (gasp) more specifically, the “dirty dog.” As Rufus Thomas’ hit of the same name played, the dog was taking place on 3 or 4 places on the dance floor. All of a sudden, horrifying screams rang out over the din of the music. People started running in all directions. “Knife fight. Happens here,” a guy nearby observed. “Some guy does the dirty dog too close to somebody’s girl and he gets cut.” Great, I thought. If by some miracle a girl dances with me, some maniac with a knife might come after me. I retreated further against the railing surrounding the 50


dance floor. In between dances, I found Bobby and pulled him aside. “We’ve got to do better than sleeping under a truck tonight,” I said. “Let’s see if we can find a motel for $14 and just go home tomorrow.” “No way,” he countered. “We’ll meet some girls tonight who’ll let us sleep on their porch, I promise.” Sure enough, by 11:00 pm, he’d found two sisters who were up for a walk on the beach. Judging from their appearance, there was a reason they were unescorted. As we walked on the beach, I was amazed at the difference that moonlight could make on a young girl’s face. If it hadn’t been for the industrial quantity of Jungle Gardenia perfume she was wearing, I might have even tried to kiss her. We walked the girls back to their rental cottage at midnight. “Mind if we sleep on your porch?” Bobby cheerfully asked. Surprised, but not offended, they said they didn’t care if their dad didn’t. They stepped inside to wake him. I think I’m beginning to like these girls after all, I thought. A shirtless, pot-bellied, bleary-eyed man stumbled to the door. “You wanna what?” he asked incredulously. Bobby explained our plight convincingly. Finally, the big man mumbled something that sounded like “as long as you’re gone when I get up, I guess I don’t care.” With that, he latched the door to his living room and then slammed the door bolt tight. He and his daughters were now safely sealed off. And lo and behold, there were two inflatable beach floats on the porch. While Bobby inflated them, I scampered back to the Hangout where we’d stashed our bags. Thrilled to have a safe, mosquito-free place to sleep we fell instantly into a deep, dreamless sleep. Once again, the next day dawned cloudless and magnificent. After a languorous and relatively uneventful day at the beach, we both realized that this was it. Tonight would probably have to be our last night. We agreed to take the midday Greyhound back home tomorrow. At dusk, we decided to take the unprecedented step of renting a motel room. Sort of. “You look like you need a meal,” Bobby said. His concern was driven by what mama might do if either one of us appeared emaciated after our beach trip. “I don’t know why you’d say that. I’ve had at least 3 doughnuts in the last 48 hours,” I reminded him. “Tell you what. If we can get a motel room for less than $14.50, we’ll buy supper with whatever’s left over.” Up the strip we walked, until we got even with the Barney Gray Motel. “No way we could afford that. It’s right on the beach,” Bobby observed. Directly across Highway 98 was a seedy-looking, squatty, concrete block motel that had the unmistakable imprimatur of cheapness written all over it. “We need a room for $5 a night,” Bobby stated flatly to the grizzled looking 51


character tending the night desk. He sat, transfixed, staring at a tiny black and white television set. Without even looking up, the man exhaled a cloud of cigarette smoke, stubbed out his cigarette and derisively laughed. “Our cheapest room is $17. Take it or leave it.” Bobby pointed at the clock on the wall. “Look, it’s already 7:00 pm,” he countered. “You’re not going to be sold out tonight. You know that. Give us your worst room and we’ll pay you $5 cash money.” “Seeing it wasn’t going well, I dramatically whined in my little brother voice “We’re not going to have to sleep under that truck again tonight, are we?” “What do you think this is, the YMCA?” the man growled. “This ain’t the Hilton either,“ Bobby shot back. I interceded. “Do you have, maybe, a storage room where we could unroll our sleeping bags after midnight and sleep? We don’t even need a bed.” With a sigh of disgust, the man stuck his hand out and said, “Ok, gimme $5.” Mumbling to himself, he grabbed a room key off a hook on the wall and stomped out the door. Clearly, we were to follow. Bobby turned and gave me a wink. We were in! The man unlocked the door and handed Bobby the key. He turned and said, “You boys are out of here by 9 am.” And left abruptly without another word. I flipped on the overhead naked light bulb and marveled at the two neatly made up bunk beds next to an unpainted cinder block wall. Best of all, the room had a noisy, but efficient window air conditioning unit. We didn’t even have such luxury at home. “Oh man, have we got it made!” I exulted. “Let’s go to the Hangout!” “First things first,” Bobby stated. After 2 ½ days at the beach, it was time for a real shower and then go out for supper. We had almost $10 left over! Funny thing. By this time, neither one of us was particularly hungry. We casually walked down the strip considering different restaurants. We settled on an ordinary-looking place near the Old Dutch that advertised “home cooking.” I ordered the Blue Plate Special mainly because it looked like something Mama would approve of. Four or five bites later, I pushed it away, unable to eat anything else. Bobby made sure nothing ended up being wasted. “Our vacation’s nearly over and we still haven’t met any girls worth talking about,” I grumbled as we walked out of the restaurant. “Well, tonight’s the night, I can feel it in my bones,” Bobby grinned. By the time we arrived at the Hangout, the place was packed to the gills and jumping. By now, we were sporting pretty decent beach tans. Somehow, that made us feel like we had a status that the newly arrived just didn’t. We nodded to the sand cave guy and the doughnut shop girl, feeling like regulars now. They were in a zone, dancing a frenetic jerk to “One Fine Day” by The 52


Chiffons. We slouched against one of the Rockolas, taking in the now-familiar scene. Such a pretty girl. My eyes locked onto hers across the dance floor. Without saying a word to Bobby, I felt propelled to her side of the Hangout, my feet hardly touching the floor. I grabbed her hand and gently pulled her onto the dance floor before remembering to ask her if she wanted to dance. (Or, if her boyfriend had a knife!) As we danced one song after another, I began to learn bits and pieces about her. Her name was Amanda and she was from York, Alabama, a little town of about 3,000 in West Alabama. She was exactly my age and was there with her sister two years older than her. With that, I rushed over to find Bobby and soon the four of us were dancing side by side. They were the best-looking girls we’d met by far. The night passed all too swiftly. During a slow dance to the music of “So Much in Love” by the Tymes, she whispered in my ear that she’d have to be leaving soon. Not only that but she was going home tomorrow too. How could that possibly be, I wondered? Both of us had been at the Hangout for the last three nights but we hadn’t met till now. Cruel fate. Our obligatory barefoot walk on the moonlit beach was probably as romantic as 15-year-olds got in 1963. We swapped addresses, she gave me her picture and we said our wistful goodbyes. Bobby and I returned by ourselves to the Hangout where a thinned-out crowd was now slow dancing to “Hello, Stranger” by Barbara Lewis. Filled with teenage angst, Bobby and I walked morosely back to our motel room, turned out the light and tried to go to sleep. Thoughts of Amanda flitted in and out of my dreams. Back on the bus the next day, we pulled out of the Greyhound bus station right on time and headed north on Florida State Highway 79. I watched as the roadside palms became fewer and further in between. Soon there was nothing but slash pines and scruffy oaks with a palmetto here and there. In my head, I could hear Larry and the Loafers singing “I got the Panama City Blue-ooze.” I sank deeper in my seat, thinking of the Hangout and mostly Amanda. The emerald green of the Gulf of Mexico was quickly becoming just a memory in the increasing distance behind us. I stuck my hand in my pocket to see if I had any money left over. All I could find was a pinch of sand. But a satisfied smile crept across my face. It had been a great adventure. We had pulled off our beach adventure, limited resources and all. I had shaken off the Panama City blues. While staring out the window, without realizing it, I had started humming that song out loud. Bobby joined in and we started singing it together: “Wah Ooh. Wah Ooh.”

53


Choices and Consequences Act 2/Scene 3: Dynamite Hill, 1963 “She was born in November 1963 the day Aldous Huxley died And her mama believed that everyone could be free So her mama got high high high and her daddy marched on Birmingham Singing mighty protest songs” Run, Baby, Run, Sheryl Crow

Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, the epicenter in 1963. .

I

am most definitely not at all proud of my participation in any part of the following story. But in this collection of narratives on sons of bitches, here’s where I played the role of the ugliest son of a bitch imaginable. This story deserves to be told; maybe as a lesson to other stupid teenage boys. Or maybe as an admission that I was capable of racist behavior. History teaches us that 1963 was the defining year of the civil rights movement. And that Birmingham, inarguably, was ground zero for this movement that ultimately would galvanize the nation and the world. In April of that year when I was 15 years old, Dr. Martin Luther King wrote his timeless “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” This was addressed to seven Birmingham ministers and one rabbi, including my minister at First Methodist Church, Bishop Paul Hardin, Jr. Our min54


ister had joined the seven other local clergymen in issuing a statement bemoaning Dr. King’s demonstrations and calling them “unwise and untimely.” Dr. King’s famous letter in response has rightfully achieved immortality worldwide. It’s considered perhaps the most perfectly crafted statement on the obligation of moral men, especially religious leaders, to support the rights of the oppressed. Unfortunately, I was such an ignorant, incurious son of a bitch, I had only the vaguest idea that any of this was happening. Then that May, Dr. King launched the Birmingham “Children’s Crusade” which became renown worldwide as a textbook case for civil disobedience. I had a work permit and I worked after school at Birmingham Book & Magazine and I can actually remember hundreds of kids marching up 19th Street one afternoon. Now that I think about it, they were probably marching to City Hall where they were likely arrested. But I was so self-absorbed, I don’t really remember thinking much about that and besides, I was being paid a whopping 75 cents an hour to repair damaged school books. Thus, four incredibly clueless fifteen-year-old white boys stumbled into this monumentally historic summer. Each of us, all close friends, had been brought up in the church and raised to respect black people but we had no earthly idea of what a powder keg situation was unfolding in our city. For what it’s worth, it went without saying that the “N” word was strictly forbidden within all four of our households. And just for the record, growing up in blue-collar Inglenook, the Cosby’s certainly couldn’t afford a black maid and I don’t think any of my three friends’ families could either. Looking back, one reason we were so dimly aware of the civil rights struggle was that we had been raised in a totally segregated society – television shows, churches, buses, little league teams, schools, stores, theatres, playgrounds and certainly neighborhoods were all rigidly race separated. As a young teenager, I didn’t think much about it; it just seemed to be the way it had always been. On every city bus, there were two wooden signs mounted on dual posts with a message clearly stating “Whites Sit Front of This Sign” and then on the back “Coloreds Sit Back of this Sign.” Each seat frame on the bus had a tubular chrome metal bar with two holes drilled in it to accommodate the posts. The bus driver, then always white, was presumably the only one authorized to move the sign, pulling it straight up and then placing it to accommodate his passengers, with the needs of the whites always considered first. As the civil rights movement gained momentum, I had seen black people defiantly sit in the white section of the bus, glaring, and daring anyone to say anything. But I still hadn’t thought much about it. We honestly didn’t know any more about the plight of black people in our city than, say, the plight of Africans in Tanzania. So we just had no real idea (or frankly interest) in what all the fuss was all about, if we thought about it at all, which we didn’t. But to be fair, the biggest reason we were so unaware was that in 1963, at least 55


99% of our focus was hormonally focused on girls. And all of us had been so rigidly disciplined our whole lives that we were itching to break out and do something, anything, bold. Hopefully with a girl, ideally without any parents around. In late June, just days after Alabama Governor George Wallace’s infamous “stand in the schoolhouse door” of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama and right on the heels of Medgar Evers’ assassination in Mississippi, one of our gang of four finally turned 16. With that, we felt we had won a modicum of freedom ourselves. We now had access to a car and with it, escape from parental oversight. And what a car it was: a brand-new 1963 Chevrolet Bel Aire, with an AM radio no less! We could not wait to head out on the town to taste freedom and adventure. As soon as we were out of earshot of the parents’ home on our driver’s 16th birthday, we cranked up the radio to full volume, singing along to “Roadrunner” by Bo Diddley or some such song. Around 7 pm, we headed downtown to the prime teenage hangout, Ed Salems, on 26th Street North. There, kids with a few bucks went inside to dine while those like us sat in or on our cars. Waiting on something, anything, to happen. Two Phillips High School upperclassmen whom my buddies barely knew (and I didn’t at all) swaggered over to our car. “What y’all doing tonight?” they asked. Since anyone older than us would’ve previously never deigned to speak to us without a car, we were surprised and somewhat flattered. Plus, the alpha male had a rep of being a tough guy. So we were quite taken and pleased with the recognition. “Oh, we don’t know. What’re you doing?” “Let’s go out egging,” he said in a challenging, I double-dogdare-you kind of way. We’d heard vaguely about this activity, but not much. I had it categorized it in my head as akin to the relatively harmless practice of “rolling” girls’ yards with toilet tissue. Nevertheless, we didn’t want to expose our ignorance on the subject. All we knew was it sounded somewhat dangerous and exciting. Therefore, sure; we were all in. “Head to the Farmer’s Market,” the alpha male ordered. He explained that we’d need eggs to go egging and we would steal the eggs there. Other than maybe take pears off somebody’s fruit tree, or sneak a Playboy magazine out of a drugstore, I don’t think any of the four of us had ever stolen anything before. He ordered us to engage the farmer in conversation while he deftly lifted a 56


couple of flats of egg crates off the back of his stand and slid them in our car. Off we went, frankly amazed and emboldened (stupidly) at how easily that had gone. All the windows were rolled down on this warm summer night as, of course, few cars were air-conditioned in 1963. From the brand-new Bel Aire, we started tossing eggs at various targets; cars, signs and people. “Quit that,” he snarled menacingly. “You don’t egg your own kind.” “We egg black people.” (Except he didn’t say black people.) Oh. He directed my friend to drive his parents’ brand-new Chevrolet to a black neighborhood that we would later learn was nicknamed Dynamite Hill. This was an area of extremely high tensions due to the multiple, recent Klan bombings of prominent black family homes. The area was located out near Birmingham-Southern College. It was, without question, the most shameful act of my life. Not to mention the most idiotic and dangerous. We drove leisurely around and through the black neighborhood, egging all pedestrians, even doubling back to round the same blocks more than once. It was a Saturday night and it never, ever entered our collective heads, empty though they were, that reprisals would come next. Finally, after exhausting our large supply of eggs, we exited the immediate neighborhood and pulled up at a stoplight at Graymont Avenue. With the car windows all lowered, we heard the drumming of feet upon the pavement. What on earth could that be? As we turned around, we saw a large group of angry black guys bearing down on our car. I was in the middle back seat and one of the black guys grabbed the guy to my right through the window. He was able to wrench his hand off his neck as he screamed “Hit it” to our driver. A large blam hit right above the back window and we screeched off, running the red light with reckless abandon. Looking back, we could tell at least two cars were chasing us. By now the possible full consequence of our actions had finally entered our heretofore unformed cerebral cortex. With blindingly acute clarity. We could now all too clearly imagine exactly what would happen to us if they could stop us and get us out of our car. If we were lucky, they would just beat the shit out of us. And we deserved it. We roared down 5th Avenue North, heading for what we perceived as the relative safety of downtown. The cars behind us kept pace in hot pursuit. I was too scared to look back. Just west of downtown our road was blocked by a train stopped dead on the railroad tracks across the road. Our 16-year-old driver swerved to his left, choosing a parallel set of train tracks as his getaway route, putting one tire in the middle and one on the outside of the left rail. We were flying so fast that we seemed to somewhat skim across the top of the crossties. Finally, we passed the end of the parked train and came to the next avenue. 57


Screeching tires and kicking a cloud of debris up into the air, we swerved back onto the street and entered downtown proper. The railroad track escape just might have saved us. We drove straight back to Ed Salem’s Drive-In and, to our immense relief, spotted a police car there. We parked right next to the cop car and one of our guys engaged them in conversation. All of us exhaled with relief. Talk about “white privilege.” Dumb as we were, we were smart enough to know that black guys would be highly unlikely to drive into this crowded, all-white parking lot. Much less with a Birmingham Police car there, knowing that Birmingham’s all-white police force of 1963 would not let them reap the revenge they richly deserved. Not tonight anyway. Still shaken, we couldn’t shed ourselves of the two jackasses who’d talked us into this soon enough. We left them at Salem’s and drove home in nervous silence, constantly looking over our shoulders to see if we were being followed. As we reflected on what had just transpired, we were not only horrified at how close we came to getting seriously hurt or even losing our lives but as we thought about what we’d done, we were each quietly ashamed of ourselves. Why on earth had we done this? We were the SOBs with egg on our faces. The next morning, the parents of the friend with the brand-new Bel Aire were given some cock ‘n bull story about how the huge dent appeared above the back window. The story had something to do with rocks being thrown in Ed Salem’s parking lot. His lame explanation got him grounded for a month. Barely three months later, I was in Sunday School class at First Methodist church when a huge blast interrupted the lesson. All the kids in my class rushed to the windows to see what had happened. In a matter of minutes, sirens filled the air. The nearby 16th Street Baptist Church had just been bombed by the Klan and four little girls in Sunday school had been brutally murdered. How much more are white people going to make black people suffer I wondered, fully ashamed of the entire subject, including my participation in the egging incident. What kind of Christian was I? Every act has a consequence, I had now belatedly learned. I had been given a pass either by the Almighty or by pure dumb luck. Either way, I always felt that I could do better than this and hopefully, I have. But what a stupid son of a bitch I was back then.

58


The Million Dollar Ticket Act 2/Scene 4: Legion Field, 1963 “There are places I’ll remember All my life, though some have changed Some forever, not for better Some have gone and some remain” In My Life, The Beatles

Legion Field, Birmingham. .

S

o there I was. It was a perfect day for football on the third Saturday in October 1963. Incapable of playing anything remotely recognizable on any musical instrument, I was dressed out in the resplendent crimson and white uniform of the University of Alabama Million Dollar Band at Legion Field, the football capital of the South. Never mind that I was just a high school student. Standing at attention in formation with all the other band members at Birmingham’s Legion Field, just outside the gate, I certainly felt the part. The snare drums began their syncopated rhythm and when the big bass drums hit the beat, I proudly marched into The Football Capital of the South. With kickoff minutes away, the Alabama fans (who made up the majority of the 73,000 in attendance) stood and cheered as one. Growing up, I had the most intense desire imaginable to see the almighty Alabama Crimson Tide football team play. All their games were broadcast on the radio each weekend and maybe once or twice a year live on television, which only 59


served to whet my appetite. But given my family’s humble circumstances, we not only didn’t have tickets and couldn’t afford tickets; we didn’t even know someone to try to wrangle a ticket from. Back then Alabama played all its big games in Birmingham. It just seemed impossible for a mere mortal like me to gain entrance to Legion Field when packed to the rafters on a big game day. Guys from similar economic circumstances but who had grown up on the west side had an advantage. Not only were they within walking distance of Legion Field but many of them had figured out how to get jobs selling programs or Cokes to get inside the field, which some of them would stop doing as soon as the game began. But over in Inglenook, my pals and I figured you had to be born into even that connection, so we stupidly didn’t have the guts to apply for those jobs. By 1963, love for the Alabama football team had grown to a fevered pitch statewide. Not only was the Tide coached by the already legendary Bear Bryant, but they were quarterbacked by future Hall of Famer Joe Namath. The daily newspapers (yes, we had them back then) were packed with information on the Crimson Tide. Unfortunately, back in April of this very year, the entire state (and particularly Birmingham) had earned massive amounts of well-deserved negative publicity for its incredible bungling of the entire Civil Rights matter. So we Alabamians clung to Crimson Tide football as our one saving grace with the desperation of a drowning man clutching a life preserver. The previous week, Alabama had been ranked #3 in the nation and had played Florida in Tuscaloosa. This October, I was finally turning sixteen years old and was a junior at Ramsay High School. Despite it being mid-October, I was still working my “summer” job downtown at Birmingham Book & Magazine Store. For the princely sum of 75 cents an hour, I would work after school from 3:30 pm until 6:00 pm on weekdays and then all-day Saturdays from 9 am-6 pm. My “professional” responsibilities mostly required repairing book bindings and hauling heavy boxes around the store at the beck and call of Mrs. Ruth Hawkins or her chain-smoking lieutenant, Miss Lena. That morning, out of nowhere, lightning struck. A customer offered me a free ticket to the game. Hallelujah, I had just won the lottery! Finally, after 16 years, I was going to my first Alabama football game! No question that I was going - nothing in the world would have held me back. Ruth Hawkins was a skinny, bird-like woman with box-dyed red hair. She was at least 60 years of age and notoriously prone to making snap judgments. All-day long, she would sit very erect on her elevated stool right behind the cash register, where she could survey her store. Her legs were always primly crossed at the knee, with her hands folded on the side of her right hip, maintaining perfect posture. I hesitantly walked up to her when there wasn’t a customer in line. “Mrs. Hawkins,” I said with voice quivering, “I need to take this afternoon off.” I quickly went on to point out that, except for time away at school, this would be my first off day 60


since I started back in June. “If you take off this afternoon, just consider yourself fired,” she decreed in her brittle soprano. With that, she swiveled her head away from me and thrust her chin towards the ceiling and picked up her cigarette from the ashtray. She daintily tapped off the ash with her forefinger and then took a deep drag. End of conversation. So be it. I went to Miss Lena and asked for my check. Tuscaloosa, here I come! Regrettably, by the time I finally hitched a ride to Tuscaloosa, I didn’t arrive at the stadium until right before halftime. As I took my seat, I began to get a little upset as it started sinking in that I’d just lost my job. To top it off, Alabama ended up getting upset too, by Florida, one of the Tide’s first losses at Denny Stadium in quite some time. Nonetheless, I was hooked on Alabama football and started hatching a plan then and there to go again the very next week. This would require sneaking into Legion Field to see Alabama take on the hated, but mighty Tennessee Volunteers. Obviously, I no longer needed to worry about the game conflicting with my job. When brother Bobby enrolled in Alabama that year, he joined the Million Dollar Band. He had always been in Ramsay’s marching band so it made perfect sense. I learned through him that each undergrad at UA back then received a book of tickets to all home games (Birmingham was considered a “home” game) as part of

University of Alabama Million Dollar Band, Legion Field.

paying your student activity fee. “Why don’t you let me use your student tickets when you march in with the band?” I asked. “Won’t work. You gotta have a student ID and you’ll never pass for me.” He was 61


right. Back then, Legion Field ticket takers took their jobs far more seriously than TSA security agents do at our nation’s airports post 9/11. “If they catch you using my ID, they’ll confiscate it and I won’t be able to get into anything the rest of the school year.” Rats, it was just too big of a risk. Since the big game was in Birmingham next weekend, Bobby came home. Ramsay was playing at Legion Field that Friday night and we went to the game together. I looked around the stadium, thinking, “what would I give to be here tomorrow afternoon for the Alabama-Tennessee game.” There had to be a way. I was still pondering this while using the men’s room at halftime. Suddenly, it came to me and I rushed back to our seats. “I’ve got it,” I proudly announced. “What if tomorrow, I wore your band uniform and you wore my clothes? You could use your student ID to get into the game, and I could just enter the stadium with the band.” Bobby knew exactly where the band would sit in Legion Field and fortunately, a men’s restroom was located right underneath that section. We identified the stall where the change of clothes would take place. Our plan was set! Following last week’s upset loss, Alabama dropped from the No. 3 position in the college football rankings down to the No. 9 spot in the polls. Tennessee was already a hated rival so the game had evolved into a must-win situation for the Tide. Gameday. It was time to implement our plan. As I formed up with the Million Dollar Band milling around outside Legion Field, I nodded to Alton Parker. He was our lifelong friend from First Methodist who, like Bobby, was a bonafide member of the band. He blanched when he recognized me. “Tommy, what are you doing in our band uniform?” I whispered urgently to him to keep his voice down. Thankfully, he picked up the cue, realizing something sneaky was going on. The famous Alabama drum line started their snappy, syncopated cadence as Colonel Butler and the lovely Miss Alabama began to lead the band into the stadium. No majorettes prancing out front for a classy program like Alabama back then. It was just the beautiful Miss Alabama in her crimson blazer and tasteful white wool skirt. Back in the back of the 62


formation, the beating of the snare drums and pounding of the bass drum made me feel like I was part of something really powerful. As the Million Dollar Band marched out from under the stands and into view within the stadium, the crowd roared. I concentrated furiously on staying in step with the others in my file. Not only did I have to mind my footwork, but those of us in the trumpet section carried our horns in our right hands and we moved our instrument up, then down and then to the left, in an “L” shaped motion, all with the beat of the drums. When we reached the aisle leading up to the band section, we paused, giving those ahead of us time to take their seats. Meanwhile, we marked time with high steps in place, still in time with the beat. The game was nearing closer and closer to kickoff. You could feel the energy pulsating in the stadium. It was about to explode. Finally, it was my turn to go up the steps to the band section. At the very last moment, I peeled off. I darted into the breezeway underneath the stadium and stepped quickly into the men’s restroom. Bobby was nervously standing there, dressed in my clothes. It seemed ridiculous to try to get both of us into a stall, so we shrugged and just stripped down and exchanged clothes in front of everybody. All the while trying hard in our sock feet not to step in puddles of you-know-what on the restroom floor. Men lined up all along the wall length urinal looked at us, baffled as to what was going on, but unquestioning as they just wanted to get through and get to their seats in time for kickoff. Bobby rushed out of the restroom, but he’d forgotten his cornet so I dashed out to give it to him. Was it worth it? Heck yeah – and what a game it was! Still smarting from their upset loss against Florida the previous week, Alabama poured it on from the beginning and shut out Tennessee 35–0. The Vols never had a chance. It was a game to remember with the legendary Joe Namath scoring a then remarkable four touchdowns. But here’s what I remember. Broadway Joe may have been the game’s victorious hero, but he didn’t enter the stadium any more dramatically than I did. The Alabama band had provided me with my “million-dollar” ticket!

63


I Got The Music In Me Act 2/Scene 5: Rumore’s Record Rack, 1963 You can’t judge an apple by looking at a tree, You can’t judge honey by looking at the bee, You can’t judge a daughter by looking at the mother, You can’t judge a book by looking at the cover. “You Can’t Judge a Book,” Bo Diddley

C ertainly, no one looking at me, a skinny, bespectacled, 15-year-old white boy

would ever judge me as a kid who loved the blues. But Bo Diddley detonated into my life over the radio and I could not wait for the day when I finally had enough money to buy one of his albums. This album was the first musical purchase I ever made. I had saved my nickels, dimes and quarters until I finally had $3 or so, waltzed into Rumore’s Record Rack downtown one afternoon after school and bought it. On the bus ride home, I protected the bag with the precious album in it like it was filled with diamond-encrusted Faberge eggs. Heart pounding with excitement, I slipped into our home thinking for some reason that no one was there. I eased the brand-new album out of the shopping

64


bag. A letter opener helped me slit the cellophane wrapper and I pulled the wax disc out of its cardboard sleeve and oh-so-gently removed it from its paper holder. Holding the wax disc carefully by its outside edges, making sure I didn’t fingerprint the precious grooves, I gingerly placed it, Side One up, on the turntable. I turned the indicator to phono, switched the stereo to the on position and eased the needle down onto the now spinning disc. And then I cranked it UP! Oh man! I loved the guitar riffs, I loved the legendary Bo Diddley beat, I loved Bo Diddley’s wailings and I just sat there, studying this album cover, reading the liner notes, letting the rhythms wash over me. This guy was undeniably cool and his brash, in-your-face attitude symbolized so much about our emerging rock ‘n roll generation. Unbeknownst to me, my dear mama was indeed home and had come upstairs and was now standing in the back of the living room. In between songs, she startled me by asking, “Tommy, what in the world are you listening to?” She didn’t ask this in an accusatorial way; she asked it more like an archaeologist might ask at an excavation site in Luxor. It was like her trowel had struck something unexpected; large, heavy and ancient beneath the desert sands. She was puzzled, curious and genuinely wanted to understand this loud cultural intrusion into our normally ordered musical world of symphonies, big band tunes and church hymns. Unfortunately, I sure wasn’t qualified to explain rock ‘n roll to her. But honestly, it was probably beyond her generation’s ability to comprehend what this music meant to me anyway. What probably confused mama the most was that she knew that not only did I not have a scintilla of musical ability, but I had never before shown any interest in any type of music. Ever. After all, Mrs. Bowles, our neighborhood piano teacher, had taken the unprecedented step of recommending to mama that I need not bother to come back after my initial piano assessment. Even though it cost her a customer. Musically, I was just considered hopeless. Mama also knew that I detested singing in the church youth choir and that I couldn’t stand daddy’s “queasy listening” television shows like Lawrence Welk. Why or how I came to love black blues music was as much a mystery to me as it was to her. But I just couldn’t help it. I loved it from the minute I first heard it and was totally hooked. I certainly wasn’t alone in this interest. On Saturday afternoons, my good friends Don McQuaid and Bill Waide and I would sit around McQuaid’s bedroom listening to various rock ‘n roll albums, mostly by black artists like Bo, Chuck Berry and John Lee Hooker. We had sets of drumsticks and would sit around like the nerds we were, singing along and pounding out the beats on anything. I’m sure we drove his parents crazy. As soon as my buddies turned 16 and could drive, we would immediately turn the dial far to the right to pick up the black radio stations and crank it up. (The Cosby car didn’t have the luxury of even an AM radio.) We’d listen to cool black 65


DJ legends like Shelley the Playboy and Tall Paul White introduce our favorite songs. WENN was probably our favorite radio station and I secretly coveted the bumper sticker seen around town that said: “Don’t Honk at Me; I’m Gone With the WENN.” Other black artists like Little Richard, Bobby “Blue” Bland, James Brown, Howlin’ Wolf and Ray Charles filled out the soundtrack for my emerging life. When I started dating, I only wanted to go to high school sorority and fraternity lead-outs and dances that featured black musicians. Unlike others my age, I had near-total disdain for white “bubblegum” pop music. That was what I called the antiseptic rock played by such dainty artists as Bobby Vee and Dion -- and then later groups that I particularly despised like the Cowsills. I couldn’t bring myself to dance with even a pretty girl to such poppy tunes. Truth be told, I considered black music to not only be rebellious but also slightly dangerous, edgy and more than a little bit badass. My buddy McQuaid and I loved James Brown so much that we once went on a double date to a concert of his at Rickwood Field in 1964 when we were 16. While there, we suddenly realized we were the only white kids in the entire stadium crowd of at least 10,000. Years later, I realized this was less than six months after the infamous church bombings in Birmingham. If ignorance is bliss, then total ignorance was totally blissful. The emergence of the Rolling Stones in 1965 only intensified my musical interests and made me rethink my allegiance to black-only groups. Without question, they were cool rockers and McQuaid and I both liked their covers of classic black blues standards. Fontaine McFerrin, my long-time high school girlfriend, and I went to Legion Field in May 1965, to hear the Rolling Stones at this epochal WVOK event. WVOK was the powerhouse local AM radio station, and they had billed the evening as the US vs. Britain; the Beach Boys vs. the Stones. It drew a huge crowd. This was the closest I ever came to observing “Beatlemania” as the Stones had an RV parked right An unforgettable concert. behind the stage as their Green Room. If any of the RV’s window curtains were even parted open an inch, shrieks from girls would completely drown out the poor artist trying to perform on stage. I felt so sorry for the other artists, particularly the country singers. The large crowd had clearly shown up only to hear the rockers. Admittedly, some liked the Beach Boys, but most of us only wanted to hear the Stones and so the chant went up “We want the Stones, we want the Stones.” You couldn’t help getting the feeling that a generational torch 66


was being passed. At last, the moment came, and the Stones slouched out onto the stage, unsmiling, rail-thin; lithe like cobras undulating to a flute of a snake charmer. Dressed in black leather with cigarettes dangling from their lower lips, they indicated cool disdain for both the audience and each other. They also radiated danger and anger, like prizefighters climbing into a ring. As the crowd was going wild, building up to a fever pitch, the Stones casually set up positions on far corners of the stage. They shrugged on their guitar straps, slung their guitars down low and plugged in their amplifier cords. They then ripped into a catalog of black blues covers with a ferocity and an attitude that I loved. Fontaine mostly endured my taste in music until Jimi Hendrix came out in the fall of 1968. I just went completely over the moon with his music which I felt fused the best of black blues with hard-edged white rock. She adamantly didn’t like this; no, she hated it, thought it was “drug music” and I always thought this at least contributed somewhat to our breakup. Woodstock came to the Deep South in 1969. “Well maybe it’s just the time of year/Or maybe it’s the time of man I don’t know who l am/But you know life is for learning We are stardust/We are golden And we’ve got to get ourselves/Back to the garden” Woodstock, Joni Mitchell All my life, the standing joke for anyone close to my age was that we all claimed to have been at Woodstock during the summer of 1969. I loved rock music and wished mightily that I actually could have been there. But I’d just graduated from Alabama that May, followed immediately by a stint in US Navy boot camp that sum67


mer. Then when the festival began in mid-August, I found myself back in Birmingham, working in a get-by retail job at Acton Stamp & Coin, trying to make ends meet, awaiting orders to active duty. (Having two years of active duty in the Navy hanging over my head made it The author loved his 1961 MGA Roadster.. impossible to find a career-type job where I could use my degree.) Needless to say, a trip to the “garden,” or even Max Yasgur’s farm, was way beyond my means at the time. But lo and behold! Despite there being no internet then, word trickled out through the hippie grapevine that something called the New Orleans Pop Festival was being planned for Labor Day weekend, 1969, a mere two weeks after Woodstock. Plus, I heard that several of the big-name bands that had played at Woodstock were going to be there, bands like Jefferson Airplane, Canned Heat, Santana and Janis Joplin. Needless to say, I wasn’t going to miss this festival in nearby Louisiana!. (Particularly with one-day tickets in advance only being $7 – just about the same price as Woodstock.) Recently, I had used up what little savings I had to get the engine in my 1961 MGA roadster rebuilt, so I had high hopes that my notoriously fickle sports car would be up to the trip. My roommate at the time, a good high school buddy named Richard Collier, was always up for an adventure. Earlier that year, we had taken his 1964 Malibu Supersport to Daytona and other than burning up an entire case of motor oil en route, we had ended up with a couple of girls sunbathing on his hood with us while parked on the beach. So, we’d had success on road trips before and were ready to take our chances again. Plus, this was Labor Day weekend, so we had the time and we could take my car instead of his. Most of the bands we wanted to hear were playing on Sunday night, September 1, 1969. So that Sunday morning, we threw a blanket and a couple of small bags into my car, filled the gas tank (it didn’t take much), lowered the MGA’s top and headed south out of Birmingham. Our festival destination was 400 miles away at the Louisiana International Speedway in Prairieville, located just below Baton Rouge, despite the festival’s name. As we motored through southern Mississippi 68


and then Louisiana, we could still see ample evidence of the massive destruction created by hurricane Camille earlier that summer. You gotta remember that in 1969, rock festivals were essentially a brand new concept. But fortunately for my buddy Richard and me, the organizer of the New Orleans Pop Festival had attended Woodstock and so avoided many of the logistical calamities that befell that festival. Plus, the crowd attending Sunday’s New Orleans Pop Festival had been accurately predicted at 25,000 so it was manageable – unlike Woodstock with its mob of 400,000+. Just south of Baton Rouge, we found the parking area at the Louisiana Speed-

Janis Joplin, 1969

way and entered the somewhat ramshackle facility. The performance stage was built in front of the back straightaway of the race track, opposite the grandstand, so we staked out some space for us on the infield, not too far from the stage. We spread out our blanket and secured it with a cooler of iced down Dixie beers. The stage itself was very wide, with separate light and sound systems. Later, we found out this allowed the next band to get set up while the current band wrapped up. This greatly reduced dead time between performances and kept the music going seamlessly. As was the case before the infamous concert at Altamont later that year, the promoter had arranged for several motorcycle clubs to handle internal security, but here they did a good job since we saw no fights and nobody got killed. Peace and love, baby! The evening’s concerts began on schedule but gradually fell further and further behind as the crowd kept calling out for encores. 69


Despite the peace & love vibe, you could tell there was a bit of unease among the hippies who’d gathered here. Not only were we in the Deep South, but undoubtedly, everyone here had just seen that year’s hugely popular movie, Easy Rider. (In this film, the hippies played by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda got killed in Louisiana.) But since I had just returned from boot camp, my hair was still so short that I didn’t need to be paranoid about any badass Cajuns suspecting me of my secret hippie leanings. The concerts began shortly after 6 pm, and we listened to all the big acts; The Youngbloods, Country Joe & the Fish, The Byrds, Iron Butterfly and Janis Joplin. It was a hippie’s dream and we sat there with the great music washing over us. In the middle of Janis Joplin’s set, Richard and I ambled up to the stage (the venue wasn’t packed tight around the stage like it is now) and called out to Janis. Richard asked her some inane question which she happily answered for us. Back at our blanket, I fell asleep for a while but woke up during Santana’s lengthy after midnight set. I liked their music but they jammed frenetically on “Soul Sacrifice,” reprising their Woodstock version with seemingly endless drum solos. After 45 minutes of this one song, I shook Collier awake and told him I just couldn’t take any more music. I had to go. It must have been 2 am by then, but Collier shrugged his shoulders and started gathering our stuff. We were all young and adaptable then, but really, what could he do? I had the keys and owned the car. So we folded up our blanket, grabbed the cooler and headed for the parking lot and retraced our long drive of just a few hours before. Since we were both 21 years old, we could handle missing some sleep. And so just about sunrise on Labor Day morning, we pulled into Birmingham, none the worse for wear. We’d been gone less than 24 hours, but we could now forever say that we had experienced one of the peaks of the fabled rock festivals of 1969. At the time of this writing, it had been almost 50 years to the day since this remarkable event occurred. Over 26 bands performed during the three days of the New Orleans Pop Festival, so it deserved its reputation as a major rock festival. I later learned that the venue, the Louisiana International Speedway, had just opened three years before the festival. It was said that the Alabama Gang (Donnie Allison, Red Farmer, et al) raced there frequently and that the track had been modeled after Birmingham International Raceway. But it closed for good in 1979 and now is completely gone and largely forgotten. Today, it’s the site of nondescript track housing serving sprawl from the greater Baton Rouge community. But for some of us old hippies, that one rock ‘n roll weekend trip “back to the garden” will never be forgotten! As noted elsewhere in this memoir, later on, Gail was the first girl I’d ever dated who let me turn “my” music up as high as I wanted. That impressed me. We once 70


went to a BB King concert at Fair Park with Stewart Dansby and his wife where, once again, we were one of the very few white people there. Some older black women kept poking us in the back during the concert and exclaiming “See dere! That’s what we call da blues! That’s what I’m talking about!” As if we didn’t know. The concert continued, with black concert goers passing pints of Hennessey up and

The first City Stages’ Board; the author, 2nd row, far-right

down the row. We joined in, took our swigs and had a great time. The New Orleans Pop Festival had whetted my appetite for music trips to Louisiana, so early in our marriage, Gail and I started taking annual treks on the train to the New Orleans Jazz Fest. Here I rediscovered how much I loved the Crescent City’s blues artists. I had heard several of them in Birmingham in high school and some in Tuscaloosa during college. The Jazz Fest featured classic Crescent City blues legends like Slim Harpo, Ernie K-doe, Frogman Henry and Irma Thomas. Of course, being an inveterate Birmingham booster, I kept wondering why we didn’t have anything remotely like this in the Magic City. And I wasn’t alone. While working at the Birmingham Chamber, fellow booster Stewart Dansby and I started having conversations with friends and associates that not only should Birmingham have such a festival, but that recently restored Sloss Furnaces would make an ideal venue. Unbeknownst to us, two young friends of ours, Kathie Tharpe, a colleague at the Convention Bureau, and Marsha Drennen of the Birmingham Music Club were already taking action. They convened a meeting of 20 or so rock music enthusiasts to seriously discuss launching a music festival for Birmingham. I was invited to participate and was only too eager to pitch in. Initially, a young couple by the name of Robert and Leslie Stewart emerged 71


as the nascent music festival’s leaders. Somehow things quickly soured and they departed amid a pivotal meeting in a dramatic huff. We all sat there blankly staring at each other, mouths agape, wondering what was next or even if there was going to be a next. Fortunately for Birmingham, George D. H. McMillan, Jr., stepped up and firmly took the reins. Without question, George was one of the more colorful SOBs to ever walk the streets of Birmingham. A former Lieutenant Governor who had just missed out on being Deacon John & the Blues Review, City Stages elected governor in 1982 after being smeared unjustifiably by the George Wallace crowd, he had all the leadership traits needed to get the huge festival off the ground. He had a wonderful old South accent, sort of a Sen. Foghorn Leghorn type, and a real command personality. Largely due to his leadership, the massive festival known as City Stages was born. The nonprofit Birmingham Cultural and Heritage Foundation was formed in the fall of 1988 and I proudly became a founding board member. Our stated mission was to highlight the musical culture of Birmingham, bring diverse backgrounds together and encourage economic development. In all this, we succeeded. Over $100,000 in corporate sponsorships were secured for the first festival with assistance from the City and Jefferson County. The first City Stages opened on the evening of Friday, June 16, 1989, with three stages sprinkled around downtown’s recently restored Linn Park. The festival featured not only my favorite blues genre but also jazz, Cajun, gospel and of course, rock ‘n roll. It was marketed to Birmingham that first year as a “Weekend of Memories for a Song” and with weekend passes being only $5, it truly was a sweetheart deal. An anticipated crowd of 10,000 grew to 38,000 that first weekend and it was clear that we had a hit on our hands. As an added amenity, local architecture firms and construction companies took the extra step of designing and building elaborate, lovely gateways into the festival area. It was a perfect showcase event for an emerging new Birmingham. 72


One of my jobs was communications and I had to police the very limited number of cellphones then available for festival staff, butting heads with everyone, many of them outsized characters such as John Montgomery. Then just a kid out of high school, John was already a force to be reckoned with and would later become an ally and Birmingham’s top advertising executive. But back then, he would make a

Blues artwork in the author’s home.

life-or-death case for him getting one of the coveted brick-sized cellphones. Putting on this festival was a massive task and George McMillan and Marsha Drennen both did magnificent jobs. George was notorious for holding 1 am board meetings following each day’s concerts but by any measure, the first three years were an unqualified success. In fact, my hero that had first introduced me to music appreciation, Bo Diddley, performed in 1990. Just as expected, he rocked the festival! After the third City Stages concluded in 1991, there was a major shakeup in the festival with key board members resigning. I also left the board at that time, not because of any issues, but due to an increasing workload at the Chamber. Although the festival continued for 18 more years, it experienced a slow, but inexorable decline as the newness gradually wore off. (And honestly, aging baby boomers like myself started looking at the festival as more of a physically exhausting experience than a rock-out kind of experience – plus, I never felt the generation immediately behind us had quite our level of fascination for live rock music performances.) It was also impeded by financial problems as the festival ever more urgently reached out for public and private funding. After drastic shortfalls in corporate 73


sales and day tickets in 2009, the festival ceased operations and filed for bankruptcy. Nonetheless, my interest in music continued unabated. Gail and I even started collecting artwork for our home featuring blues artists. Slowly but surely, music kept creeping into a bigger role in my life. In 2009, after Birmingham had surprisingly produced several coveted American Idol winners, I convinced the Chamber to salute Birmingham’s music with a special showcase at our annual meeting, including a performance by Ruben Studdard, our city’s first American Idol winner. We also produced a two-disc CD of the rock ‘n roll history of Birmingham, which is detailed in a later chapter. Later in my Chamber career, we started producing huge trade shows (also described later in this memoir) as a way to generate income for the Chamber. One of the niches I insisted on having at my trade shows was musical performances from a plethora of nationally known artists to add yet another reason to attend our event. Even quirky artists like Tiny Tim (of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” fame) added interest and helped build attendance. As I look back on “the music in me,” one of the things that my mama said to me about the music of my era always stuck with me. The word I would use to describe her opinion is precious. She once sighed and said, “Oh Tommy, I am just so sorry that you will grow old with no music to celebrate and remember as being special to your generation.” Of course, I find that “precious” because I can’t imagine any generation, hers included, having any better music than what we Baby Boomers enjoyed during our tiger years. The song track of my life may have been filled with the Beatles, the Stones, Jimi, Janis, Dylan, CSN&Y, Led Zeppelin and countless others, even Tiny Tim, but it all started with the hypnotic, bedrock beat of one man, Bo Diddley. As far as my musical tastes would go my entire life, rock ‘n roll music would definitely “Not Fade Away.”

74


Act III Lost and Found

75


The Reluctant Sailor Act 3/Scene 1: Tuscaloosa, Ala., 1969 “One generation got old/One generation got soul This generation got no destination to hold/Pick up the cry Hey now its time for you and me Got a revolution/Got to revolution Come on now we’re marching to the sea” Volunteers, Jefferson Airplane

The author back in the day.

“No one can possibly be satisfied, or happy, who feels that in some paramount affair he has failed to take up the challenge of his life. For a voice within him, which none else can hear but which he cannot choke, will constantly be murmuring ‘You lacked courage. You ran away.’ It is happier to be unhappy in the ordinary sense than to have to listen to the end of one’s life to that dreadful interior verdict.” English Novelist Arnold Bennett 76


k, Mr. Bennett, at least I didn’t run away. I joined the Navy, albeit reluctantly, O to do my small part for the war in Vietnam that I thought was totally absurd. (And I kept his quote with me in my wallet the entire time I was 12,000 miles away from home as a morale booster.) Believe me, I really didn’t want to go, but it beat moving to Canada and the Navy sure as heck beat going to Vietnam in the Army. But even if this had been an important war like WWII, I will admit upfront that I was never remotely cut out to be a military guy. As a kid, I had watched the war movies Guadalcanal Diary and Pork Chop Hill and I knew, I mean I really knew, that I had no business finding myself anywhere close to a combat situation. The ominous Tet Offensive happened during the spring semester of my junior year at college. The most sobering part of it for me was the realization that no matter what LBJ said, there was no light at the end of this tunnel. This war was only gathering momentum and piling up body counts. It didn’t require much prescience to realize it wasn’t about to end any time soon. So as I entered my senior year at Alabama in September 1968, the conclusion of the Vietnam War was depressingly further away than ever. Making matters even worse, that fateful year recorded the most casualties for a single day in the entire Vietnam War; a whopping 245. Then, in just the one month of May 1968, 2,415 casualties were recorded. Those kinds of numbers tended to even get the full, sweaty palmed attention of willfully ignorant young cannon fodder like myself. In January of 1969 our new president, Richard Nixon, and his war cabinet increasingly bore down on their reductio ad absurdum argument that we needed to stop communism in its tracks in Southeast Asia or else be prepared to fight them on the streets in California. The war hawks and saber rattlers couldn’t talk enough about falling dominoes. JFK had established the Peace Corps seven years earlier and it seemed an honorable option for someone like me who didn’t want to serve in the military. Its mission was to send young Americans to foreign nations to assist in development efforts. Maybe out of mercy, my long-term girlfriend, Fontaine McFerrin, had joined me in applying to the Peace Corp early in my senior year. But we had heard absolutely nothing from them throughout the fall and winter. And now, with graduation from the University of Alabama looming, my choices were not great – and narrowing. I could feel the hot breath of the draft board on my neck. If I waited to be drafted, I could envision ending up in Army infantry on jungle patrol in Vietnam which I sure didn’t want. Or I could join the National Guard. (But only if I had strings to pull, which I didn’t.) Or volunteer to join the military branch of my choice, which meant a four-year commitment but maybe a commission as an officer. Or go to Canada. Or join the Peace Corps which seemed more unlikely with each passing day. But those were the options for people like me. Watching a University of Alabama baseball game one spring afternoon, a guy sitting next to me whom I hardly knew said he was going to join the Naval Reserve 77


that afternoon. This choice was still available because it “only” required two years of active duty as an enlisted man. (The more desirable - and therefore impossible to get - normal reserve options then only required six months active duty.) Even though I’d had two years of ROTC and would graduate later that spring, I thought to myself, what the hell have I got to lose? So I got up from the game and went with him. We both enlisted in the U. S. Naval Reserve that afternoon on the spot for six years (two years active/four years reserve), which was a hybrid choice between the guard and joining outright. I could still end up in Vietnam, but at least not in the infantry. Two weeks after signing up, the response to Fontaine’s and my long-delayed application to the Peace Corps finally arrived at my apartment in Tuscaloosa. To my utter astonishment, they had accepted us. We were selected to teach English as a foreign language in Libya, of all places. Maybe not an ideal destination, but hey, lots better than Vietnam with a war going on. You ask, “Why did it take so long to get the answer?” Well, this was in the day before standardized state abbreviations and the address on my application had my address ending in “Tuscaloosa, Ala.” Some dimwit Peace Corps administrator had presumed “Ala” meant Alaska and had therefore forwarded our acceptance letter to a non-existent Tuscaloosa, Alaska. Well, that was just too bad. I was now sworn in as a swabbie. I called Fontaine at UAB where she was now going to school and gave her the news. I honestly couldn’t tell if she was relieved that this Peace Corps adventure hadn’t happened or pissed at me for joining the Navy. More likely, she was shocked speechless that this whole impossible dream of us going off into the Peace Corps had come so close to happening. Regardless, that option was now over. So, anchors aweigh my boys, I was off to join the Navy.

Naval Communications School, Pensacola, 1970. The author, front row, far left. 78


My college graduation ceremony that summer was held right in the middle of my boot camp training in Orlando. I knew the Navy would only laugh if I asked to go so I never got to do the college pomp and circumstance routine. But since I had a college degree, after boot camp, I was selected to be a C. T., or Communications Technician. This supposedly required a modicum of intelligence and also required me to get a top-secret, crypto clearance. I then went to a naval training school for six months at Corry Field in Pensacola, learning Morse Code and radio surveillance techniques, earning me “CTR” status. Even though most of my fellow CT trainees in my group of 20 were college-educated, there were a few guys who weren’t and typically more fully into the military shtick: lock, stock and barrel. But not me and my pals as the following story will illustrate. But to get the perspective, understand this: I was always putting on our group’s leader, First Class Petty Office Ainsworth, any way and any time I possibly could. (He’s the one in summer whites in the center of the photo on the left.) After they took the photo, a couple of days later, Ainsworth officiously handed each of us our very own copy; suitable, I supposed, for framing. I pretended to be so deeply touched and honored by it that I asked our leader to autograph it for me. So on the back of this photo, he sarcastically wrote, “Cosby, your (sic) a lying sack of shit. Walt “the Coach” Ainsworth.” All in good fun! But here’s the story. One breathlessly hot summer day, an admiral came to inspect the 1,000 or so Navy guys on our Pensacola base. It had been talked about for weeks, so it was a really big deal to our officers and petty officers. Most of the guys had polished their shoes for days, shining their brass belt buckles until they were mirror-like and getting their hair cut really close. “Lifers,” was what we disdainfully called our superiors; plus any of the rookies who bought into this bullshit. Meanwhile, me and my 3 roomies had our names printed on the card they’d provided to put into the cardholder on the door to our room. Across the top, we’d carefully lettered “Volunteers of Amerika,” not only as a nod to Jefferson Airplane, but added the “k” just to let the lifers know how Nazi-like we considered Navy life to be. The big day came and our company of 20 were mustered in formation on the blistering hot tarmac in the wilting summer sun along with all the other swabbies on the base. There we stood, for what seemed like hours. The admiral, resplendent in his summer whites, would pick a few companies out of the many units spread out all the way across the vast airfield. In those chosen units he would individually inspect each sailor. Surprisingly, our company was one of the ones picked and so we snapped–to at rigid attention. What we’d been taught in boot camp was that when you’re called to attention and were being inspected by a superior, you were supposed to keep your eyes straight ahead, fixed on some imaginary, far distant point. You were not to ever make actual eye contact. It suddenly occurred to me that, with this required eye focus, it was barely plausible that you could claim to be mistaken when you were 79


being personally addressed. The admiral turned down my row, every sailor at rigid attention, all eyes fixed straight ahead. The admiral did smart moves where he would pull his left foot back, then pivot on the ball of his front foot. He would officiously click both heels together as he squared up in front of each sailor. He would stare at you for a moment, looking you up and down as he officially inspected you. Typically, he wouldn’t say anything to any individual sailor, but just pivot and go to the next sailor. Three other officers trailed him with clipboards as he made his way through the ranks, verifying this matter of utmost military preparedness which supposedly affected our nation’s security. Soon enough, he pivoted directly in front of me and looked me carefully up and down. I could detect, out of the corner of my eye, his grimaced lips. They thinly compressed a look of total disgust at my appearance. To him, my shoes looked like they had been shined with the proverbial chocolate bar, my brass belt buckle was trending green and my haircut had grown out underneath my cap at the furthest limit of what was barely permissible without getting written up. With his body language all but screaming utter contempt, he barely managed to restrain himself from saying something. He quickly pivoted to the next sailor to my right. The guy standing next to me could’ve been the recruiting poster boy for the U. S. Navy. You could get cataracts from the sun’s reflection from the shine on his brass belt buckle. You could brush your teeth in the mirrors of his spit-shined shoes. His hair had been so closely clipped that he could’ve passed for Mr. Clean on the multi-purpose cleaning container. The admiral looked him over carefully and admiringly. He evenly said in a voice loud enough for everyone in my company to hear, “now sailor, YOU are squared away.” With my eyes still fixed straight ahead, I immediately and dramatically exclaimed, “Oh, thank you, sir!” as if he had addressed me – communicating an outpouring of joy that one would surely feel upon winning the male equivalent of the Miss America contest. My college graduation ceremony that I missed couldn’t have possibly topped this. My tone of voice communicated that I considered my life now fully complete; that I was henceforth and forevermore an unqualified success in the eyes of my fellow man. Oh, happy day! To which he immediately bellowed, loudly enough to hear halfway across the parade ground, “Not you, you fucking scrounge!” I didn’t blink. Of course, no one in my company dared react or say anything then, least of all me, as we all remained at rigid attention. The admiral continued his inspection, quickly moving on disgustedly to the next company. As soon as he was out of earshot, everyone knew exactly what I had done and I heard some suppressed chortles. Back in the barracks that evening, I got plenty of laughs, high fives and congratulations for getting away with putting on the admiral. What a son of a bitch. So, yeah, I was never cut out to be much of a military guy. 80


Gohan, the Worst Tennis Pro in History Act 3/Scene 3: Yokosuka, Japan, 1971 “Come on all of you big strong men Uncle Sam needs your help again he’s got himself in a terrible jam way down yonder in Viet Nam. So put down your books and pick up a gun we’re gonna have a whole lotta fun” “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag,” Country Joe & The Fish

hey weren’t kidding about two years of active duty. I received orders in August T 1970 to fly 12,000 miles to the woebegone island of Okinawa, Japan in the far Western Pacific to do my reluctant bit for America’s war in Vietnam. My first impression of “the Rock” was not great. As a matter of fact, it was downright awful. It didn’t help that the memorable, pungent odor from open sewers, called benjos, permeated the entire island. Then there was the unbelievably hot weather that would make Alabama summers feel mild by comparison. Mix in boring, tedious 81


duty and the exclusive company of men and you had the hallmarks of my life in Okinawa. It also didn’t help my attitude that the “Pentagon Papers” were released that very same summer I arrived on The Rock. This would, of course, demonstrate to the world that the Johnson Administration had systematically lied, not only to Congress but to the public on the very pretense of the war in Vietnam that led to the military buildup over here in the first place. This only confirmed my suspicions that my presence in the Far East was absurd, that there was no “teetering row of dominos” that would fall next if we didn’t stop communism dead in its tracks in the Far East. But enough political sour grapes. With my middle name being Rice, and the ubiquitous Japanese word for rice being “Gohan,” that soon became my Okinawan nickname. One year into my socalled “Naval career” in distant, remote, military-oriented Okinawa, Gohan desperately needed his reset button to be hit. As a Morse code intercept operator, we would sit mulishly at our Navy typewriters in front of a clunky R-390 radio, wearing headphones throughout an eight-hour shift. A gigantic five-story-tall, circularly disposed antenna array (or CDAA; also called a Wollenweber) fed our radios. It sat high atop the hill above our base and was normally locked in aggressively on China. Our job was to locate Chinese communists transmitting to each other, supposedly clandestinely, over a wide range of megahertz frequencies up and down the radio’s vast range and then type out their transmissions before they jumped to another frequency. So there we sat, throughout our shift. Translating interminable dots and dashes into keystrokes, captured on a primitive type of endlessly scrolling computer paper. We ended up with pages and pages of meaningless (to us) encrypted numbers organized in groups of four. These “intercepts” were sent, supposedly, to NSA, the National Security Agency in Washington. There, we were told, code breakers would analyze the copied transmissions for supposedly important national security “intel.” Typically, you would end up copying two Chinese transmitters chattering to each other nonstop. Some guys were good enough to copy three and even four transmitters talking to each other at the same time. Each of these Chinese guys talked over the other like a bunch of old ladies clamoring to be heard above a coffee klatch. The better code copiers were called “chicken foot ditty boppers” as they patted their foot in rhythm with the transmitters, faster and faster as the speed of the chatter increased. Our unit called ourselves “GAFFERS” and had a logo created and a patch made for our jackets. (Roughly translated, it meant “give a fuck,” which was an ironic tagline since we very much didn’t.) It evidently never occurred to our superiors that it might be good motivation for us code copiers to have some idea if what we copied day in and day out for months on end was ever vital or even mildly important. Or what was really at stake here. Hearing no feedback, we all deduced it was utterly 82


futile. The lifers, a most incurious bunch, told us that neither we nor they had the all-important, sacred Need To Know, and that was that. We quickly figured out that there was absolutely no incentive to push yourself copying code. Further, we realized that, for at least big chunks of the time, particularly on the dreaded overnight midshift, you could get away with just typing in the time at the required 15-minute interval with the vague descriptor “NIL HRD.” That way, we could dial our R-390 into the But actually, we did not GAF. Armed Forces Radio Network and kill hours listening to late-night deep cuts of Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix over our headsets. For all we knew or cared, the Chinese communists were announcing plans to invade California while we closed our eyes and concentrated on Jimi’s wah-wah peddle work on “Voodoo Chile.” We wouldn’t get caught unless the chief in charge sneaked up behind us and quickly plugged his portable squawkbox into our R-390 before we could change the frequency. But it wasn’t as if we didn’t put our radio skills to work. The handful of us Alabama fans at Torii Station was sick that we were going to miss the 1971 football season. And on September 10 Alabama would kick off the season against Southern Cal with an unusual Friday night game in Los Angeles. When Stars & Stripes (the military newspaper) reported that the game was being picked up by the Armed Forces Radio Network worldwide we knew we had a chance to listen. This was especially cool as we realized a 7 pm Friday kickoff in Los Angeles meant it would be 2 pm on Saturday on the Rock. (Which back then was when almost all college football games started.) We did our best to get the local AFRN to pick up the game but they declined. Therefore, we had to get creative. So we hatched a plan to utilize the gigantic CDAA to pick up the game from somewhere else. Fortunately for us, the CDAA was mostly empty on Saturdays as the officers and lifers would all be off for the weekend. So we BS’d our way into the building high atop the hill towering above Torii Station. After recruiting a radio direction expert to help us find the signal, we picked up the AFRN broadcast relay out of Guam. And just in the nick of time. As we locked onto the game broadcast, somewhere up around the 15 megahertz 83


The Wollenweber Circularly Disposed Antennae Array .

band, we heard the unmistakably familiar voice of the Alabama color man, Doug Layton, who was also a Birmingham radio DJ. “Good evening, Alabama sports fans. Tonight, we are coming to you live from Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.” Let me assure you, that was a thrill back then in the pre-internet, pre-cell phone days of 1971. And what a game it was. The year before, an integrated Southern Cal team had destroyed Alabama so this year, Bear Bryant had recruited his first two African American players, John Mitchell and Wilbur Jackson. Plus, he secretly installed Darrell Royal’s then avant-garde wishbone offense which let All American tailback Johnny Musso run wild. And so Alabama earned a hard-fought 17-10 upset victory. “We gotta get out of this place If it’s the last thing we ever do We gotta get out of this place ‘Cause girl, there’s a better life for me and you” Eric Burdon & The Animals; “We Gotta Get Outta This Place” Despite such moments of distraction, time weighed heavily on us all as we eyed the days remaining on our individual “sentence” on The Rock. The typical tour on Okinawa would be 18 months, or 547 days when you first arrived. The proverbial sentence from hell. Everyone knew at all times exactly how many days they had left on their orders before they could go home. To achieve “double-digit midget” status was each CT’s highest aspiration. This was why the song from Eric Burdon and The Animals “We Gotta Get Outta This Place” was the most popular song of all -- and on all the island’s jukeboxes. Despite 84


the lifers who tried vainly to keep it from being played. One day, a mimeographed notice innocuously appeared on the barracks bulletin board. “COMNAVFORJAPAN announces Far East tennis tournament in Tokyo for top six qualifiers from the all-island tennis team.” I stared at it, thinking it over. I had played tennis my whole life. Although I wasn’t that good, I thought I had pretty good form and knew the game. Plus, how many real tennis players were over here in Okinawa anyway? What the hell, I’m going for it, I thought. Anything to get off The Rock and get out of code copying. I filled out the paperwork and put my name on the list of would-be qualifiers. And started tuning up my game. Unfortunately, I was one of those would-be athletes whose game, on occasion, could rise to a surprisingly good level. But only when I didn’t think about it too much. So, paradoxically, the more I practiced and the more I concentrated on tennis, the worse I seemed to steadily get. Go figure. Sure enough, and fortunately for me, the lassitude of the typical sailor in Okinawa resulted in a small group who got around to trying out for the tennis team. Organizers put together several qualifying matches to determine the better players and I even won a few games but lost a lot more. So as the weeks rolled by to the deadline, I found myself steadily slipping down the team ladder. “Oh man,” I worried. “If anybody else tries out for this team, I’m not going to make the cut.” Mercifully, the deadline date finally came and I had barely hung on for the coveted bottom 6th spot on the 6-man “all-island” tennis team. Whew. I had just earned my pass to get off this cursed island and its crushing boredom. Finally, something to look forward to! Our departure date arrived and our team clambered aboard a venerable C-47 “Gooney Bird.” This lumbering prop plane was considered antique even in 1971, having been used extensively back during the days of the famous Berlin Airlift. We were seated on padded benches parallel to the fuselage. Red cargo netting provided the seatback. A grizzled Navy chief shouted out the safety protocol over the roar of the engines. “Listen up, you stupid sons of bitches,” he barked. “You got parachutes in the overhead if you should need them. Sit down, buckle up and shut up.” Or words to that effect. Our destination was the sprawling U. S. Naval base at Yokohama, just south of Tokyo. Our pilots helpfully pointed out Hiroshima and Nagasaki below us as we flew due north, hugging the coast of Japan. Compared to Okinawa, I immediately loved the main island of Japan. The architecture was developed, even attractive, not just typhoon-proof cinder block dwellings thrown up here and there. And the women were infinitely more attractive. Taller, and with curvaceous figures, not the short, squatty, square box build of the typical Okinawan woman. Plus, there were actually trees here, real deciduous trees with spreading canopies. Hello, old friends! 85


Naval personnel from all over the western Pacific had flown in to participate in the big tournament. With unusual organization for the Navy, I had my very first tennis match soon after arrival. Which I promptly lost, although I did play the guy a close match. But I didn’t care, I was in Japan and off The Rock! Most of the other guys on my team also lost, but not our squad’s captain, Wes Wolff. Our team’s #1 was an awesome “One and Done” in Tokyo player and he started plowing through the big field of competitors. Which I particularly appreciated, as the Navy wouldn’t issue orders to send our team back to Okinawa until all six of us were eliminated – or until someone on the team won the tournament. The month of June is typically monsoon season in Japan and, sure enough, a typhoon moved into the Tokyo region. Play in the tennis tournament was immediately suspended due to bad weather. For some reason, this particular weather pattern stalled over Tokyo and the tournament was delayed for an amazing three weeks of almost steady rain! But orders are orders, and the Navy wasn’t about to not complete the task of holding and completing this tournament. Despite the rain, I was determined to take advantage of all my free time and fully experience Japan. I figured out how to ride the famed “Bullet Train” and caught it for a fast, 284-mile ride all the way down to Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. There I toured in hushed reverence the world-famous moss gardens of Kokedera. Later, I took the train to its highest point on Mt. Fuji and went hiking there. Wes Wolff, our team’s one tennis star, had been in the Navy for years and had gone strictly “Asiatic,” as was said. This was not an uncommon condition for American servicemen in the Far East, some of whom so totally embraced the culture that they would completely submerge themselves in it. Wes had even married a Japanese woman and now spoke fluent Japanese. His wife was back in Okinawa, but he had in-laws living in Tokyo and took me with him to have dinner in their tiny apartment. He brought along an assortment of cooking spices from the Navy PX to give to them as a gift and spent time carefully translating it for his appreciative sister-in-law. To my astonishment, the wife patiently served her husband, Wes and me a delicious dinner of sukiyaki but wouldn’t join us. Wes admonished me to remain silent and not urge her to join us as it was their 86


custom, he said. Surprisingly to me, the attractive young wife didn’t seem irritated or put off by her subservient role at all. Finally, the rains subsided and the COMNAVFOR Japan tennis tournament resumed. Wes continued his domination of the field and won the entire tournament! I was happy for him but happier for me. Anything in Tokyo beat Okinawa. Meanwhile, the war in Vietnam had suddenly heated up. All available Naval aircraft were now being utilized to ferry Marines down south to Nam. Since our tennis team was hardly a priority, it took two more weeks until an aircraft was made available to get our little tennis team back to Okinawa. By the time a flight was arranged, amazingly, it had been almost two whole months since I left. During that time, I had played one lousy tennis match that I had, as noted, promptly lost. Most amazingly, while I was gone, my Okinawan COMSEC unit had been mobilized and deployed to the USS Enterprise. So now all my fellow GAFFERS were floating somewhere off the coast of Vietnam on an aircraft carrier. These poor slobs had been put essentially on a wartime footing, working 7 days a week on a 7 hours on/7 hours off rotation. With the dreaded “hot cot” sleeping arrangement, this was seriously awful duty. But not for me! Being a lowly E-3, my return to Okinawa was supremely irrelevant, and for sure unworthy of the logistical trouble and expense of flying CTRSN Cosby out to the Enterprise. So I was ignored and allowed to do my own thing. Which meant mostly snorkeling in Okinawa’s crystalline waters, playing golf on the base course, traveling around the island in Lazarus (Jake’s and my beat-up car) and, of course, hitting the courts for an occasional tennis game or two. This went on for another two months until my unit returned. I couldn’t believe my continuing good luck in getting out of this. So, my short, happy life as a tennis professional didn’t yield a single victory for me – but it got “Gohan” out of a whopping four months of Naval duties. Who says sports can’t open doors?

87


War Freak Act 3/Scene 3 Torii Station, Okinawa, Christmas Eve 1970-1971 “Well, look inside yourself, and if you don’t see what you want Maybe sometimes then ya don’t But, leave your mind alone and just get high Well, by and by, way after many years have gone And all the war freaks die off, leavin’ us alone” “Ain’t Wasting Time No More” Allman Brothers Band

The author, center, killing time in Okinawa with Navy buddies, Gillespie and Jacobs.

T

his is not a happy story, nor a funny one. Consider this my personal “jeremiad,” so you can read it as a cautionary. Cue up Stephen Barber’s Adagio for Strings to set the proper tone for this. By the time I arrived in Okinawa in 1970, there were still more than 300,000 American troops in Vietnam. Although this was a reduction from the peak of over 500,000 troops in 1968, there were still plenty of troops there to be supported, so “The Rock,” as we called Okinawa, was not about to be shut down any time soon. Its role as a major staging area for the war was just too important. We were stuck. So there we were as Christmas approached in 1970. Yes, we were safe and grateful we weren’t in Nam --- but we were unbelievably bored, homesick and lonely. And 88


more and more convinced our Morse code intercept work was utterly meaningless. The enlisted men’s barracks at Torii Station, Okinawa was a bleak, three-story concrete block structure, squatting on a bulldozed hillside, under a full, merciless sun. There was nothing remotely aesthetically pleasing about any aspect of the building or its surroundings. It would’ve fit right in at Stalingrad. Landscaping? Forget about it. “Ain’t no sense in going home Jodie’s got your girl and gone.” “Jodie’s Got Your Girl” Johnnie Taylor What constituted the barrack’s main entrance was a glass doorway with an empty foyer save for a bulletin board on the right-hand wall. Here, for some reason, all the sailors posted their “Dear John’s,” thumbtacked to the same corkboard. What you soon realized was, no matter what the promises were, by the time you’d been gone six months, your girlfriend/fiancée/whatever had decided to move on. It’s just human nature. If you read the letters, which I did, you saw they were all basically the same: “Dear (whoever), I know you want me to be happy (actually, we didn’t, we wanted our girlfriends to be as lonely and miserable as we were) and I certainly want you to be happy so that is why I’ve decided to give you your freedom back.” Great, that’s exactly not what we wanted. “Freedom” over here along with 80,000 mostly unhappy, all lonely GI guys was worthless. We were all stuck on this godforsaken rock competing, more or less, for the attentions of a few legendarily ugly Okinawan women. “Jodie’s Got My Girl and Gone” was one of the memes of the era. And so I became a member of the Dear John club the week before Christmas, 1970. The girl I was kinda/sorta engaged to that had planned to join the Peace Corps with me was now moving on. This was not particularly good timing as I prepared to spend my first Christmas alone from everyone, a lonely 12,000 miles away from home. On Christmas Eve, I took our car, Lazarus, out for a spin. (So named because this car had definitely been raised from the dead!) Two guys joined me, one from Minnesota and another guy who also happened to be from Nebraska like Jake, my roommate. As usual, we were bored and desperate for something to do. The guys bought a rather large joint from some Okinawan guy across the street from our base. Being only occasionally familiar with the mild impact of marijuana from my days in Tuscaloosa, I was utterly unprepared for drugs from the Far East. As they passed me the joint, I took a deep drag and felt something pop out of the joint and into my throat, like a small lozenge. Later, I would learn this was one of the infamous “Opium Sticks” which were marijuana joints laced with LSD or some such hallucinogen. 89


2001, A Space Oddysey..

We had earlier decided to go watch the new movie showing on base this week, “2001 A Space Odyssey.” By the time I got to the ticket window, the drug was making me feel increasingly strange and disconnected. Things began spinning out of control and I felt completely unmoored like I was lost in an Escher drawing. As soon as this admittedly strange, yet classic, science fiction movie began, I knew I just couldn’t stay. In my chemically altered mental state, it was just too eerie, too unnerving. So I fled. I stumbled out of the movie theatre and somehow made my way across the block and a half to my barracks and upstairs to my 3rd-floor room. Jake was working a different shift and on duty so I had it all alone. I tried to play some of my favorite music as a means of calming me down and maybe “normalizing” me. But that didn’t work and things got weirder and weirder as I was definitely on some sort of trip, descending into what surely felt like hell. Some people may like the idea of completely losing control, but not me. It was abjectly horrifying, a continuation of the momentary feeling you might have at the scariest moment of a horror film, but just going on and on without end. Horrified and scared out of my wits, I didn’t think I could continue. I stumbled into the barracks hallway and got some guy to call the hospital from the wall phone to get them to come to pick me up. By now I was mostly oblivious to my surroundings, but I’m sure I must’ve been a spectacle, having an ambulance pick me up at the barracks. This certainly didn’t happen in this barracks filled with guys with top-secret crypto clearances. Ever. At hospital admissions, they asked me if I was on drugs. Since I could lose my top-secret security clearance and job if I admitted it (and then be assigned to the fleet or Vietnam), I had enough rationality left to deny it. They fortunately gave me 90


something to calm down and I fell asleep, for how long I do not know. Since I denied drug use, I suppose they had no treatment alternative but to consider me a psychological case. And guys did crack up over here from time to time. The totally alien culture, being 12,000 miles from home and everything you knew with utterly no option to go home, well, it got to guys. And maybe it was my hyper-sensitivity, but once people treat you as if you have psychological problems, then you do. After all, I’d learned in my sociology classes that reality is socially defined. Indeed. After a period of a couple of weeks of observation, and following counseling sessions with an earnest young Navy doc, they released me to go back to the barracks. Again, maybe it was my paranoia, but I now perceived my fellow sailors as relating to me as if I was damaged psychological goods. (All but the two guys who had been smoking dope with me and Jake, my roommate; they all knew that drugs were the real reason I went to the hospital.) The Navy removed me from the more pressurized job of copying Chinese Morse code and assigned me to “COMSEC.” This was a much easier task, monitoring a few radio channels to assure Navy pilots didn’t break security protocol in their pilot-to-pilot communications. They frankly never did and everyone knew that. But the more I got treated with kid gloves, the more I started harboring doubts about my sanity. So maybe I was a little bit nuts. For sure, the vivid memory of the drug trip scared me to death and made me wonder if I would ever regain my innocence and precious peace of mind. I’d never even thought about peace of mind before and certainly never valued it – but that was now changed forever. At any rate, this was the point in my life that I first started having sleeping problems and general anxiety attacks from time to time. Maybe it wasn’t all attributable to the drug experience but it always seemed that way to me. War Freak was a term used in the 60s to describe the many hippies in our generation who opposed the Vietnam War or, in some cases, demonstrated against it. Almost all my college-educated Navy buddies and I opposed the war, so we all proudly considered, and even called ourselves, war freaks. But I never really felt like a freak until after this experience. I wrote down this story a full 46 years after the fact, on vacation in Washington state. Here, cannabis is now sold like any other consumer product and is fully regulated. As anti-drug as I’ve always been since Okinawa, I regard the fact that it is finally regulated as a smart move. Not that I’d ever try it again, regulated or not. But if anyone ever reads this cautionary tale, I would urge you to only purchase and use regulated drugs. You sure don’t want to experience what I did from street stuff, stupid son of a bitch that I am.

91


Life Through Rose Colored Glasses Act 3/Scene 4: a hotel lobby in Atlanta, GA, 1973 “Quand il me prend dans ses bras Il me parle tout bas Je vois la vie en rose” La Vie En Rose, Edith Piaf

The author, second row, far right, in 1972

rowing up in Birmingham’s blue-collar north side meant dealing with earsplitG ting Air National Guard jet noise (euphemistically referred to by conservative military types as the “sound of freedom”), a pervasive odor of industrial creosote and interminable waits for freight trains to quit blocking our roads. I was definitely raised far away from any “good times and riches.” (Although there was no shortage of sons of bitches.) However, my mama instilled in her kids a love of books and reading and saw that, along with decent grammar, as our ticket out. And she was right! When I came home from the Navy in 1972, I spent a couple of nights at home before I found an apartment. On my last day under my dad’s roof, he came into my childhood bedroom and looked at the bed I’d just made up and snarled, “When you get in the Marines, they’re going to put you on KP for a week when you make 92


up a bed that slovenly.” I had to remind him that I’d just been honorably discharged from the Navy and there was no way in the world I would ever be going into the Marines under any conditions so he need not worry! (It was beside the point, but I wanted to tell him that Filipinos did all the kitchen duty now, anyway.) I couldn’t leave home quickly enough and soon got a job working for the Alabama Republican Party as state campaign materials director for CREP, the Committee to Re-elect the President; the Richard Nixon re-election campaign. Contrary to the way things are seen now, to be a Republican in Alabama back then was to be viewed as an intellectual progressive, a William F. Buckley type, believe it or not. What my friends and I fervently believed was that Alabama desperately needed a viable two-party system as a means to honest government. But most importantly, we wanted to create a counterbalance to the negativism of then all-powerful Democratic Governor, George C. Wallace. In my humble position, I came into the orbit of an attractive young co-worker. She was from one of the most prominent families in Birmingham and was even nicer than she was pretty. Among her many positive attributes, she demonstrated the importance of listening. And I mean listening; really dialing in and actively hearing what you said. No matter if it was just the two of us alone - or if we were among 100 people chattering away at a cocktail party. If you were saying something to her, she gave you her full attention. Or sure pretended to. We dated a while but, as we say down South, I had clearly out-punted my coverage. The romantic relationship would not last. But there was that one last hurrah. Immediately following our time together at the Republican Party, it sadly became apparent that our dating relationship was petering out. But maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t completely dead. At least in my mind. Meanwhile, I was working for the U. S. Census Bureau while I attended grad school at UAB. Periodically, I would be called to go to Atlanta (Georgia) for update training on the latest twists for measuring the Consumer Price Index. To my astonishment, as I checked into my Atlanta hotel one afternoon, there she was. She was standing in the lobby, with her parents and another couple, all of whom were also checking in. I had met her elegant parents before and they were just stunningly good-looking people. Tall, thin, striking with lush heads of perfectly styled silver hair, both her parents had a real aura about them. They just looked like movie stars to me as did the elegant couple with them. Following introductions, to my further shock and surprise, they invited me to go to dinner with them later that evening. “Why, of course,” I said. My normal repast of a cheeseburger and fries at The Varsity Drive-In would just have to wait. Back in my room, with a couple of hours to kill, I pulled out a paperback novel, Casino Royale, one of the many Ian Fleming novels on James Bond that were popular at the time. In the chapter I happened to be reading, Bond was having 93


dinner with a beautiful woman in Paris. Fleming wrote that “La Vie En Rose,” supposedly some classic French piece of music, was being played in the background. I was only 23 and had never heard of the song before and certainly didn’t know the tune. But, for some reason, the song’s name stuck with me. “La Vie En Rose.” It had a nice ring to it. At 7 pm sharp, I met my dinner companions in the hotel lobby. We left together and drove to an elegant restaurant. As soon as we entered, the delicious aroma of what I would later learn was boeuf bourguignon greeted us. I could immediately tell by the snooty head waiter and the general décor that this was a very classy French restaurant. “Oh, do NOT screw this up,” I thought. Don’t try to pronounce anything; just point to something on the menu and nod when it came time to order. It might have been my working-class paranoia, but during the dinner conversation, I felt I was being oh-so-gently patronized. Don’t get me wrong, they were all extremely nice to me, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that they considered me some arriviste to be merely tolerated. Or maybe it was perhaps just a demonstration of their incredible politeness. Noblesse oblige. What the hell, I figured. It sure beats greasy hamburgers and onion rings at the Varsity. As we finished our meal, a strolling accordionist, replete with beret and horizontally striped shirt, started making his rounds throughout the restaurant. Spotting the elegant family, he walked over to our table. In his heavy French accent, he asked, “Voud eeny of you lovely people like to request a special mélodie for me to play por vous on zees accordion?” Caught off guard, they looked blankly at each other. Coming up with nothing, the patriarch turned to me and said offhandedly, “perhaps our young guest would like to request a song.” Two competing thoughts raced through my head. Did he really want to offer me a voice in the matter? Or did he just want to see me squirm? I certainly wouldn’t blame him for sending a message to a lowlife like me that I had no business aspiring to spend time with his beautiful daughter. What the hell I thought, I’m going for it. This is a French restaurant, right? So I asked, with wine glass in hand, and in as casual and in as world-weary a fashion as James Bond could muster on the Champs-Élysées, “Perhaps you would play ‘La Vie En Rose’ for us?” (Hoping against hope that I had pronounced the word 94


“vie” correctly and that it was, indeed, the name of that damn song and that it was something that could actually be performed on an accordion.) The accordionist stopped, stared, and his mouth flew open. Oh, hell, I thought, did I mis-remember? Have I offended him? But then he quickly placed his free hand over his mouth, inhaled through pursed lips, stared at me and then smiled. Then broadly. Then ear to ear. (Cue up the James Bond theme music: dah dah di Sean Connery was James Bond.. dah, di dah dah.) He exclaimed “Mai oui. Eet weel be my pleasure to perform it for you.” With what appeared to be genuine tears of joy suddenly glistening on his cheeks, he dramatically played “La Vie En Rose” on his accordion. He cast his eyes heavenward, dreamily caught up in the tune and its timeless evocation of Paris, swaying to the rhythm. Every diner in the restaurant turned their heads to our table. Then he sang, “Give your heart and soul to me, and life will always be, la vie en rose.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. The parents, their guests and even the daughter all warily threw what actually seemed like a semi-admiring glance my way. I nodded nonchalantly and gave a slight shrug of a shoulder. Communicating that, of course, among so many other worldly topics, I really knew my French cafe music. But privately relieved (yes!) I had pronounced it correctly and had pulled one completely out of my butt. Score one for the SOB from the wrong side of the tracks. And that was the last time I ever had dinner with this young lady. And, yes, I’ve been looking for another chance to request “La Vie En Rose” publicly ever since. Da da di da, di da da.

95


Gimme Three Steps Act 3/Scene 5: 11:30 pm, Forest Park, Birmingham, 1975 “I was scared and fearing for my life I was shaking like a leaf on a tree ‘Cause he was lean, mean Big and bad, Lord” Gimme Three Steps, Lynyrd Skynyrd

Danny and Lita Young were determined to fix the author up!

ack when I was in college, an average guy like me hardly stood a chance. After B all, during my undergrad days at the University of Alabama from 1965-1969, the ratio of guys to girls was about 2 to 1. Needless to say, that made it very competitive to get dates, as most girls could afford to be extremely choosy. So the odds weren’t that good for regular guys. And then during my Naval career on Okinawa, the odds were impossibly worse. On The Rock, there were 80,000 guys and maybe a handful of American girls. As much as my buddies and I hated that island, we always said that if we were female, we would’ve bought a one-way ticket to Okinawa in a New York minute. Now, a female counter-argument could be made that the “odds were goods but the goods were odd” but, gee whiz, talk about having the pick of the litter. Thank goodness, by my mid-20s, things had finally changed on my dating front 96


back home in Birmingham. And I mean changed significantly. Maybe it was because I now had a Master’s degree and a decent job. And maybe a few women began to begrudgingly concede I wasn’t the biggest loser in town, after all. Anyway, I had a good friend from high school named Danny Young that I kept running into here and there in Birmingham. For some reason, his lovely wife, Lita, decided to take me on as a “project.” She was just determined to fix me up. I didn’t think I needed the help, but what the heck. What have I got to lose? I figured. Lita arranged for me to call this woman and gave me her number. The plan was for me to call her up and ask her out for a get-acquainted drink. So I did. On the second ring, the woman answered the phone. I introduced myself and asked if she wanted to go out. “Rather than going out, why don’t you come over to my apartment tonight” my mystery date cooed. “I’ll fix you a drink and we can listen to records and talk and get to know each other.” Hmmm, I thought. This has real potential. Trying to sound blasé, I said “Ok. I’ll see you about 8 pm, ok? She agreed, gave me directions to her apartment and the date was set. We had a good time, particularly for a blind date. She was attractive and interesting to talk to. And friendly. So the time passed quickly. Suddenly, I remembered to look at my watch. It was 11 p.m. and I had a big day at work the next day. I got up to go. “You’ll call me again soon, won’t you?” she asked. Flattered, I assured her I would. I drove a little semi-sports car then, a tiny 1970 Capri two-seater. It was an English Ford and notoriously undependable. Tonight though, I jumped in the car and it cranked right up. Relieved, I started home. However, a big black car blocked the apartment parking lot exit. Not thinking a thing about it, I quickly u-turned, dropped the 4 speed into first gear and popped out the entrance. Not many cars were out on the four-lane Highway 31 and I zipped up the road. As I drove towards my home downtown, I noticed a black car pulling up alongside me with two guys looking at me. Being from Southside, Birmingham’s longstanding gay mecca, I didn’t think much about it. Probably just another couple of gay guys out cruising, I figured. Five miles later, I was on Clairmont Avenue and there were even fewer cars out on the streets. But still, that large black car was right behind me. “How coincidental,” I thought. I turned off Clairmont onto 42nd Street and 97


then into the alley behind my house. The same car was still in my rearview mirror. “What are the statistical odds of this?” I thought. Must be a nearby neighbor driving home the same route. I quickly wheeled into the garage behind my house and walked out into the alley to enter the backyard gate. The big black car accelerated up the alley and screeched to a stop. Two big guys jumped out, slamming their doors behind them ominously. They walked right up to me, cutting me off from my backyard. Startled, I was the proverbial deer in the headlights. What the hell?

The Forest Park garage where the author was accosted.

The biggest of the two grabbed me by the front of my shirt, picked me up completely off the ground and slammed me into the side of my garage. He was most definitely big and bad, lean and mean. Pinning me against the brick wall, he had elevated me high enough so that we were nose-to-nose. He angrily shouted, “Who have you been out with, you little son-of-a-bitch?” I have never been that good with names and given the situation, I totally blanked. Stammering, I said “Uhhh...I forgot.” “I’ll tell you who you’ve been out with, you little weasel,” he screamed. “You’ve been out with my wife!!!!” Sheer panic flooded over me. “Your wife? I swear I didn’t know she was married. Hey man, it was a blind date, you gotta believe me.” The guy drew back to punch me. For all I knew, he had a gun on him. Fortunately, his buddy interceded just in the nick of time. He pulled him off me and said disgustingly, “Don’t waste bloodying your knuckles on this loser. He’s not worth it.” As I dropped to the ground, the big guy stood over me glowering. He bent 98


down and with his finger pointed in my face and a voice dripping with rage, he said through clenched teeth, “If you ever go out with her again, I’ll kill you.” Gimme three steps was all I was thinking. But with that, they both got back in the black car and tore off down the alley, squealing tires and kicking up gravel. Dogs started barking all over the neighborhood. I stood there, shaking like a leaf on a tree. What the hell had just happened? With knees knocking, I walked, unsteadily, to my back door. Somehow, I got the key out of my pocket and into the lock and let myself in. I locked the door tight behind me. I spotted the piece of paper with the girl’s name and phone number on it. This had to end. Now. I called her and evidently woke her up. “Oh, hi Tom,” she purred. “Good to hear from you so soon.” “You didn’t tell me that you were married,” I screamed. A gasp. “Who told you that?” “Your husband just did. And he damn well could’ve killed me!” I was mad now. “Oh my God. That means he’s out of the hospital.” “The hospital? What hospital?” I wailed, dreading the answer. “Bryce Hospital.” Of course. Perfect. Alabama’s hospital for the insane. “Goodbye,” I said. “Does this mean you’re not going to call me again?” “This is the last time you will ever hear my voice,” I said as I slammed the receiver down. I called Lita the next day to tell her what happened. “Why didn’t you tell me she was married?” I demanded. “Well, I knew she’d been married, but I thought she was divorced.” I bit my tongue. Thanks, Lita, but I’ll manage my own dates going forward, I thought. Epilogue A month later Danny called me back saying, “Sorry about the other night, but we’ve really got the perfect person for you to go out with now.” “Not no, but hell no,” I responded. “I can get my own damn dates.” And hung up on him. I am not anyone’s charity case, I thought. Then Lita called me back the next day, apologizing profusely, but saying this time I simply had to go out with this girl. She was different and she and Danny were both convinced I just had to meet her. “Do I look like the most pitiful person in Birmingham?,” I asked. “Go pick on somebody else!” But Lita persisted and finally, I gave in. I met this girl named Gail Thrasher for a drink at Ireland’s, a popular place at the time in what is now Brookwood Village. No one followed me home and threatened to kill me. That was a good start. 99


Act IV One Crazy Way to Make a Living

100


Sales Training from One Old School SOB Act 4/Scene 1: the Chamber building on 6th Avenue North, Birmingham, 1977 “I’m going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come I’m going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come They got some crazy lil’ women there And I’m gonna get me one.” Kansas City, Wilbert Harrison, 1959

Don Newton, Chamber president.

hen I was 11 or 12 years old, this was a popular song on the airwaves. My dad W regularly disparaged pop music in the most strenuous terms imaginable, but when he heard this, his only comment was “I bet the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce really hates this song.” So I had to ask, “What’s a Chamber of Commerce?” When he told me, I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “I wonder how Birmingham’s crazy lil’ women compare to Kansas City’s?” Anyway, promoting a city always 101


seemed like an important thing to do so. But promoting my hometown posed a conundrum when I got home from the Navy in 1972. Birmingham’s well-publicized bungling of the Civil Rights era hung around our collective necks like a well-deserved albatross, particularly less than ten years after the debacle year of 1963. It seemed that absolutely no one believed much good could come out of Birmingham. (Kinda reminiscent of the question asked in John 1:46 “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”) In the early 70s, you would’ve been hard-pressed to find anyone with an optimistic answer. And by the time I had gotten my Master’s degree from UAB in 1974, various polls showed Birmingham at or near the bottom of the barrel on most quality of life rankings nationwide. Whether it was race relations, white flight, air pollution, decent restaurants, public education, backward thinking or poverty rates, or even quality of restaurants, we came in just about dead last on every national scorecard. (Except for Mississippi and, as we always said, “Thank God for Mississippi.”) I wanted to make a difference (and start getting a paycheck!), so my official business career began in 1974 with me working as a social worker at the United Way of Central Alabama. Even though I was proud of my work in co-founding the United Way Information & Referral Service and publishing the first Community Resources Directory, I soon realized that being a career social worker was just not in the cards for me. Call me judgmental, but helping people who, for the most part, had no intention of ever taking responsibility for their own lives was not going to appeal to me, long term. In 1977, my good friend, George Jenkins, was working as Membership Director (i.e., fundraiser) for the Birmingham Area Chamber of Commerce. He had gotten a better job offer but his boss, Don Newton, had somehow convinced him he couldn’t honorably resign until he found a proper replacement. George knew I had a thing for Birmingham plus I felt under-challenged at the United Way. So he told me about the job, then recommended me to Don, salesman extraordinaire and legendary ballbuster of all ballbusters. Don was president of the Chamber and a fearless salesman from the old school. Since I was obviously a poor simulacrum of a salesman, I don’t think I won the interview so much as Don was privately relieved that there was some sucker out there willing to take on this thankless job for his budgeted princely salary of $12,500 a year. Don made it crystal clear that I’d be responsible for raising a minimum of $50,000 a year in new membership dues. While that might not sound like much today, it essentially meant that I had to figure out a way to sell 400 small businesses 102


on the idea of paying $125 apiece to join the Chamber. Their big incentive was that they would earn some dubious “member benefits” as well as supposedly gain a voice in this supposedly powerful organization. My first day on the job, Don ushered me into my office, showed me the phone and then abruptly left me alone in my office to figure out what I was to do. (No computers and certainly no Google back in 1977, folks.) Sink or swim, baby. A slight feeling of panic rose in my throat. As I pondered what to do first, how to get started Newly minted Chamber fundraisand how on earth I would ever sell 400 memberships, er, 1977 a co-worker drifted quietly into my office and slowly sat down, uninvited. He introduced himself as, let’s say, Ted. I could immediately tell from his long, lanky blond hair and laid-back demeanor that this was one for-real hippie who undoubtedly smoked an industrial quantity of ganja. In hushed, measured tones, he leaned forward earnestly and asked, “Do you practice pyramid power?” This was intoned in his hypnotic, trance-like voice. What? Who IS this guy and what in the hell is he talking about, and what on earth does this possibly have to do with me selling 400 Chamber memberships? He immediately launched into the story of pyramids. As he talked, I noticed that Ted had a lazy eye, with one eye fixed on me and the other one wandering all over the place. Like the famous character actor Jack Elam of Gunsmoke and Rawhide fame. Was this guy deranged? Or just stoned? My focus shifted from his good eye to the other and back again. I wondered what on earth this SOB was supposedly doing for the Birmingham Area Chamber of Commerce. Or was this some Candid Camera hazing ritual that I was being deliberately subjected to? Not wanting to be rude to a co-worker, least of all on my first day on the job, I listened patiently, trapped behind my desk. Ted continued his unhurried, droning monologue about the supposed paranormal properties of the ancient Egyptian pyramids. How this power could be harnessed to preserve foods, incubate thought forms and even sharpen razor blades. Had I entered the twilight zone? Help me, Jesus. Finally, I shook off the hypnotic trance and stood up. “Ted, it’s been great meeting you, but I’ve got to get on with the business of selling these memberships.” As Ted stood to leave, he shook my hand and said, trancelike, “Pyramid power, man. It’s heavy. Look into it.” Why, yes, of course. Right after I sell 400 memberships. I got myself a mug of coffee to shake the cobwebs off. I started attacking my job and my new responsibilities. The rest of the day went without incident. Near the end of that first day, Don waltzed into my office at 4:55 pm. With arms 103


spread wide and a gracious smile, he grandiosely told me to “Go ahead and take the rest of the day off.” Gee, thanks. Mighty nice of you. The old Chamber office building on 6th Avenue North had been impressively designed in the Frank Lloyd Wright/Mies van der Rohe style with appropriate period furniture. My office was fully paneled in a beautiful blond wood; kind of a Scandinavian look. During my first week, I looked up from my work to find a salesman in my office examining the walls. He declared how my office’s extensive wood finishes urgently needed refinishing and that to delay this task would be a travesty. Not knowing what to say, I took him to Don’s office to introduce him. Don no sooner heard what the guy wanted than he excitedly pounded his desk, and said: “You are absolutely right, that is exactly what we need!” And then he grabbed him by the arm and marched him into my office. He pointed to a spot on the wall and said: “Now right here is where we will put the recognition plaque permanently honoring your company for donating the refinishing of all the walls in the Chamber of Commerce.” Taken aback, the salesman couldn’t get out of the office fast enough! Don knew how to turn the tables on someone in a sales deal faster than anyone. I would typically end up in Don’s office late in the afternoons. Once Ted was there with us, in transcendent, beatific hippie mode as Don machine-gunned orders at me and I frantically scribbled them down on my legal pad. Ted sat there, Buddha-like. Exasperated, Don stopped and abruptly turned to him. He point blank asked him, “Ted, do you use marijuana?” To which Ted paused, then responded calmly and hypnotically, with one yellowed eye straight ahead and the other somewhere out by the water fountain. “Do you mean recreationally?” Disgusted, Don told us both to just to get the hell out of his office. Clearly, it didn’t seem to me that Ted was cut out for a long career in the Chamber of Commerce world. I wasn’t wrong. One of the first tasks Don assigned me was calling all the Chamber members who were behind on their membership dues. There were always at least 100 overdue members at any point in time and, of course, my job was to convince them to pay up. Remember, I wasn’t given any sales training or even told if there were any benefits to belonging to the Chamber, but I plunged right in and started dialing. Sink or swim, baby. What I lacked in sales ability, I compensated for with dogged persistence. Finally, one exasperated business owner said, “Buddy, you are obnoxious and I don’t have time to listen to this. I’m calling your boss to file a formal complaint.” With that, he hung up on me. Worried that I might have crossed the line, I went upstairs and warned Don. Just as I finished telling him, his desk phone rang. “Sit down,” he ordered with a hopeful gleam in his eye. “Maybe this is him.” Listening intently with a wolfish smile, the guy was evidently going over my many failings. Don finally got his opening and stood up at his desk, clutching the 104


phone. He then shouted into the receiver “Oh he did, did he? WELL YOU CHEAP SON OF A BITCH, IF YOU’D PAID YOUR DUES WHEN YOU SHOULD HAVE, HE WOULDN’T HAVE CALLED YOU IN THE FIRST PLACE!!!” And then slammed the phone down onto the receiver, eyes twinkling. Turning to me, he picked up a memo off his desk and calmly said “Go ahead and take him off the membership list. You won’t hear from him again. Now get back to work.” And started studying the paper. Newton was the personification of aggressive behavior. And utterly fearless. And no, I never thought for a minute that Don believed in pyramid power.

105


My Mentor, the Swami Act 4/Scene 2: Amelia Island, FL, 1979 My Lord (Hare Krishna) My my my Lord (Hare Krishna) My sweet Lord (Krishna, Krishna) Oohh (Hare Hare) Now I really wanna see you (Hare Rama) I really wanna be with you (Hare Rama) I really wanna see you Lord But it takes so long, my Lord (Hallelujah) My Sweet Lord, George Harrison, 1970

Howard Benson, master salesman.

T

alk about the school of hard knocks. During my first year in sales at the Chamber, 1977, I got knocked down so many times I lost count. Selling a product like a Chamber membership was frankly a nearly impossible task. Getting an appointment was difficult and usually required a volunteer to leverage a company vendor to even get a business owner to see us. And then it would fall on me to pitch the guy (and they were almost always guys) on the “wonderfulness� of Chamber member106


ship as he sat there with his eyes rolling, furtively glancing at his watch, wondering when I’d shut the hell up. Even though I kept telling myself I was having fun, I knew there just had to be a better way. So instead of floundering around another year on my own, I decided I needed to go to the National Association of Membership Directors (NAMD) annual conference to learn how the pros did fundraising. NAMD was an organization of over 500 Chamber of Commerce fundraisers who gathered once a year to share their best sales tips and secrets. I finally convinced cheap old Don Newton to let me go and showed up at the Amelia Island, FL, conference with a legal pad in hand, eager and ready to learn. (Ten years later, I would become president of this organization.) The very first NAMD speech I ever heard was by Howard Benson. This brilliant, 5’6” sparkplug knew sales backwards and forwards. He could characterize what worked and what didn’t with effortless grace and delivered his messages with big dollops of hip, offhand, shoulder-shaking humor. I was hooked. He was quite possibly the coolest guy I’d ever heard and I wanted to be just like him. I took copious notes and committed to memory everything he said. “Hire the Chamber” was Howard’s mantra to us Chamber would-be sales leaders. Another mantra was “Working Together Works.” His classic come-on went something like this: “For just pennies a day, you can hire this hardworking organization to grow your marketplace, get introduced to influential CEOs and protect your business in the state legislature.” Oh yeah. He taught all us membership acolytes the classic “alternative choice close,” and I hung onto his advice like precious words of holy scripture. “Would you like your membership materials mailed to your street address --- or should we just send it to the post office box?” Oohh, how subtle, I thought. Benson was a legend in national Chamber circles. His fundraising company would take on anything. Once in the late 70s, he took on a gig of running a weeklong telemarketing campaign in Van Nuys, part of the sprawling Los Angeles metro. California was a notoriously difficult place to stoke interest in Chamber of Commerce membership campaigns– we had all heard many times that it was “hard to raise money in paradise.” It also didn’t help matters that, as a rule, Chamber people there were particularly laid back, seemingly like everyone on the West Coast. Sure enough, when Howard arrived in Van Nuys on a Sunday night, he quickly discov107


ered that the local Chamber guy had not bothered to recruit the requisite number of volunteers. Of course, volunteers were the sine qua non of any successful “smile and dial” telemarketing campaign. Early the next morning, ever resourceful Howard grabbed a copy of the Van Nuys Chamber membership directory and quickly scanned it. He discovered that the local International Society for Krishna Consciousness was a member. Yep, we’re talking about Hare Krishnas, those saffron-robed street vendors. Former Beatles star George Harrison had embraced Krishna Consciousness and recently had a worldwide #1 hit with “My Sweet Lord,” celebrating the Hare Krishnas. So, of course, the Hare Krishnas were a big deal in California. Suffice it to say that it was bizarre for Krishnas to be Chamber members, even in Van Nuys. Regardless, Howard figured that if these guys could sell books, incense and candles on street corners, he could also teach them to pitch “Working Together Works.” Howard got the local swami on the phone and convinced him to provide the Chamber with a telemarketing team. Suddenly, the Van Nuys telemarketing campaign was back in business! By the end of the week, the Hare Krishnas had proven themselves to be effective telemarketers. Although their shaven heads and saffron robes were disconcerting to the few conventional businesspeople participating, these guys showed up dependably and did their job. They even seemed to enjoy it – and why not? The room was air-conditioned, cheerfully set up, plus breakfast and lunch were served every day. Certainly, selling Chamber memberships over the phone posed no more of a challenge than selling copies of Behold the Godhead on California Chamber Telemarketers! street corners. The Hare Krishnas boldly followed the sales spiel, and unlike other volunteers, they were already well versed in rejection. Not one of them shrunk from asking for the order, using Howard’s proven techniques of politely countering objectives and then always coming back with an “alternative choice close.” Bottom line, recruiting these telemarketers saved the campaign and was a wonderful example of Howard’s never-say-die approach to fundraising. Plus, it was indicative of the extremes the better Chamber fundraisers would go to succeed at our jobs. No excuses; just results. I wanted to get Howard to help me with a telemarketing campaign in Birmingham, but Don Newton was such a chiseler, he made it tough. Essentially, he wanted 108


to know why he had to pay me if Howard was going to come run our campaign. Although Howard did this for other Membership Directors around the nation, Don’s point wasn’t altogether wrong. So I had to wheel and deal to get Howard to cut his fee and come to Birmingham just to do the sales training – and I would do all the rest. Which was a perfect deal for me since public speaking was my least favorite aspect of fundraising. Surprisingly enough, Howard agreed and so the guru came to Birmingham, 70’s salesman’s plaid suit and all. Early on, Howard and I developed a close friendship and we maintained it throughout my 35-year Chamber career. We started doing a lot of things together, even attending his fox hunts from time to time. When he came to Birmingham, to save on his per diem expenses for the always skeptical Don Newton, he usually stayed with Gail and me. Of course, Gail thought the world of Howard (everyone did) so that was an added bonus. Very helpfully for me, I was exposed to Howard’s personal philosophy that there were two ways to look at everything: you could look at any challenge from either a philosophy of scarcity or a philosophy of abundance. He always chose abundance and gracefully shared sales tips and organizational tips with me throughout my career -- even if he wasn’t under contract with me. When I added Howard’s proven strategies and tactics to my innate sense of urgency and desperation, I can say we never missed a sales goal. Hare Krishna, Hare Rama.

Howard, Gail and the author at one of his “hunts” 109


My So-Called Life as Chamber Fundraiser Act 4/Scene 3: the Mean Streets of Birmingham, 1977-2012 “Money, get away Get a good job with good pay and you’re okay Money, it’s a gas Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash” Money, Pink Floyd

f all the things one could end up doing permanently for a living, selling ChamO ber memberships surely has to go down as one of the more curious. And as stated earlier, it was definitely challenging – as it had to be one of the toughest products in the world to get people to voluntarily buy. But I did this for 35 years! So I guess it was just the perfect profession for a stubborn son of a bitch like me. I was really blessed with some outstanding folks to work with; way too many to mention here. But I will admit to being particularly proud of hiring Suzan Smith Doidge, Kirk Mancer and Sharon Mason, all of whom went on to become presidents of their own successful Chambers of Commerce. Despite all the other city promotional things I got myself involved with at the Chamber, my real job was always raising money. Because without it, the entire Chamber would shut down. So I carried around with me a real sense of urgency and desperation that never went away. Maybe that’s how my dad felt about his sales job at Pizitz.

110


Act 4/Scene 3A: The President’s Committee, 1977 In my early Chamber years, I inherited the President’s Committee, a long-established vehicle of about 40 younger up-and-coming business people who sold memberships as the means to raise money. We succeeded (somewhat) at this by primarily getting business owners to perceive some value in joining this essentially abstract concept of a supposed (but not really) membership organization by paying dues that no one wanted to pay. The idea was that any business, no matter how small, could have a voice in the policy setting of the Chamber if they joined and became a member. But that was a fairly BS concept. For the most part, the big guys set the policies and that was never going to change. We also dangled some member-only “benefits” such as “incredible contacts” and broader exposure, but these were fairly nebulous and were never going to make or break any business. Fortunately, I had some good

friends helping me who were born with natural sales ability like Jim Black, Jeffrey Bayer, Linda Rudisell and Ken Jackson – any one of whom could sell ice cream to Eskimos and would do anything to help us raise the money we needed. 111


Neil Mabry was one of my favorite colleagues at NAMD, the annual national conference of the approximately 500 or more membership directors like me. He once made an exquisitely true point from the podium: “Whenever you get that call 2-3 times a year from someone at the front desk that someone has walked into your Chamber lobby and wants to join, tell me the truth; when you go out to meet them, are they not inevitably the biggest loser you’ve ever met?” We all laughed uproariously as it was so very true. Like me, Neil was a real SOB but a great deal maker from whom I learned a lot. We referred to him as the “Mad Chef” because he couldn’t tell you how he created the “dish,” but he always came up with innovative ways of reaching the goal. Such as selling all types of products such as sponsorships and in-kind donations and premium memberships – and not limiting his campaigns to just the basic membership as had been the custom to this point. Indeed, we found that selling hundreds of regular Chamber memberships was becoming almost impossible. Ted Levi, one of my top volunteers, captured this perfectly for me when he asked “Cosby, for next year’s membership campaign, can we sell rattlesnake eggs instead? We need a new challenge and it’s the only thing I can think of that people would want less than a Chamber membership.” Further complicating matters was that, for the most part, few if anyone else on the entire Chamber staff (which numbered over 40 for quite some time), saw themselves in the customer service business. So I felt like it fell on me to not only sell “the product,” but for the most part invent the product and deliver it as well – and then get the SOBs to renew the next year. Which meant coming up with networking events, business promotional events, directories, referrals, special services of newcomer reports, prospect lists and the like. My esteemed, long-time colleague Barry Copeland once plaintively asked me, “When is enough, enough?” for our members. Well, the answer was never, because it was always like pulling teeth to get anyone to renew their membership, much less join in the first place.

112


Act IV/Scene 3B: The Chamber Blitzkrieg Era Takes Hold (1981) Sooner than later after the beginning of my Chamber career, I began to realize that no matter how many benefits I dangled out there, that wasn’t going to get the job done. My co-conspirator Alan Martin helped me understand that the only way to raise the money we needed was to fully implement the old saw of “they can’t always see the light, but they can always feel the heat.” So we recruited hundreds of Chamber volunteers and trained them in the dark arts of leveraging their company’s accounts payable lists. And then, with their personal reputations at stake, I could get them to threaten their corporate partners, Don Corleone style. On the plus side, implementing fundraising campaigns allowed me to work with scores of CEOs over the years, a good number of whom were quite memorable SOBs. Once we sat waiting for 45 minutes in the lobby of an insurance company, awaiting a long-sought appointment with the top dog. He finally showed up and breezily announced, “So sorry I’m late. I was delayed in Montgomery where I had to fire our entire staff. Now, what can I do to help you?” Somehow, asking him for

The author, left, celebrating reaching a campaign goal with Sarah Relfe, Ollie Sandlin and others. 113


a team of Chamber volunteers seemed pitifully tame by comparison. The more I studied fundraising and improved my game, the more I tended towards the “blitzkrieg” approach. I liked the idea of recruiting a large, critical mass of volunteers, along with an amazing array of surprisingly good incentive prizes. For example, one campaign, we recruited 75 roundtrips on American Airlines to give away, including roundtrips for two to Paris. I would pair this effort with an onslaught of publicity along with CEO commitments. We originally called it the “corporate challenge” but it came to be known as the Total Resource Campaigns, and TRCs later became a standard Chamber fundraising modality coast to coast. My longtime friend Alan Martin at Alabama Power was invaluable in helping develop and implement this model, recruiting huge teams from Apco who would then leverage their purchasing clout to the nth degree. At the other end of the spectrum was my good friend Barry Copeland. He was the team captain of Bellsouth, soon ATT, and although absolutely the nicest guy in the world, he was opposed philosophically to the slightest thought of utilizing any leverage. He later left the telephone company and came to work for the Chamber/ BBA and for a while was my boss. We called him “St. Barry” for his kind and generous spirit. I loved the man to death but, to my way of thinking, there just wasn’t a sales bone in his body. Although he was dedicated to his team reaching its goal, it was always 100% tougher for them because of their uber-courteous process. I once sent him an email saying I was sad to say that one of our campaigns had been extended. He wrote back and told me that the definition of “sad” was him answering one of my incessant emails while on vacation at the beach! Once at one of my networking events, I had a great volunteer MC, Tony Giles, who could whip the 300-400 attendees into a fever pitch. Tony was a former DJ and now was an investment counselor but also worked Alabama football games as the voice of Bryant-Denny Stadium. He introduced himself proudly to our audience in his rich, baritone professional radio voice with, “Hello, my name is Tony Giles. By day, you know me as an investment counselor at Morgan Stanley but on Saturdays, you know me as the voice of Bryant-Denny Stadium. Now, I’m going to turn the podium over to Barry Copeland of the BBA.” Barry stepped to the podium and, quick as a wink, said in his best radio voice (he had also been a news anchor at a local TV station early in his career) “By day, you might know me as the Senior Vice President of the BBA. But on Tuesday and Thursday evenings during the spring, you also know me as the voice of the Homewood High School Lady Patriots Volleyball team!” It brought down the house! (Amazingly, Tony still speaks to Barry!) 114


Gail was an invaluable help throughout my fundraising career as so many lessons she learned in marketing at Central/Compass/BBVA bank were directly applicable to my world. She frequently made me look brilliant. She had worked for Harry Brock, the legendary SOB who built Central Bank into a statewide powerhouse and ultimately, what would become a worldwide bank. He was famous for saying, “If you can’t measure it, you’ve got no business doing it.” Therefore, when I would ask key CEOs if they would form a team to raise money in an upcoming campaign, they would sometimes say, “Tom, instead of taking a dollar goal, I’m going to do you one better: we’re going to raise all the money we possibly can.” Of course, I saw through this charade immediately for what it was: subterfuge from being held accountable. I would typically respond, using my best Howard Benson impersonation: “Oh, Mr. Smith. We couldn’t let you do that – we’re not responsible enough to spend all the money your team could raise for us. Let’s do this; let’s set your team goal at a reasonable $50,000 so we’ll know exactly what we can count on and we can always measure where we are and know exactly how far we’ve got to go. After all, as Harry Brock always says, ‘If you can’t measure it, we’ve got no business doing it.’“ And snap, the trap would bang shut. As mentioned, I realized the best way to hit my sales goals was to hold blitz campaigns, the bigger and bolder the better. The only way I’d get to the dollar goal

Wonderful Suzan Smith (later Doidge) helps launch the campaign. 115


on these Corporate Challenges was to break the overall goal up into individual corporate segments and get each of the top CEOs, who were typically on our board, to agree to raise their pro-rata share of the campaign goal. But to do that, I had to break through the clutter and make sure the CEOs, who normally wouldn’t give me the time of day, really knew about the campaign and made a commitment to their specific financial goal. This later became somewhat easier in subsequent years, but when we first started these types of campaigns, I realized I needed some attention-getting strategy to “hit the proverbial mule in the head with a 2x4.” Today, the following stratagem would be considered sexist and so I’m embarrassed to admit I did it, but this is what it took in 1981 to get these big campaigns going. I recruited a half-dozen of the best-looking young women in corporate Birmingham, dressed them in tuxedos and had them issue the formal challenge from

Sexist (blush) Marketing Concept, 1981.

my campaign chairman, Roy Gilbert, to each CEO in their personal office. We couldn’t get the CEOs to accept the challenge unless we met with them and they sure weren’t inclined to meet with me. However, I knew the good-looking women I recruited would indeed get an audience. And so these poor SOBs accepted the dropped “white glove” corporate challenge almost every time. I loved my longtime boss at the Chamber, Don Newton, but he was a bullshit artist and SOB without peer. He once told me that an AmSouth Bank (now 116


Regions) executive had fully accepted the responsibility of being my campaign chairman and just needed to be briefed on his responsibilities. I happily plunged into a week of intense preparedness and recruited my top volunteer, again my buddy Alan Martin, and took him and my wonderful assistant, Suzan Smith (whom everyone loved), to go with me to tell him the whole story. We had handouts, flip charts, invitations, brochures; the whole enchilada. As we excitedly told him the story and how we were going to raise over $2 million with his “exciting” (now that was a stretch) brand of leadership. As I talked, I noticed a red line creeping up his neck and then his face. When his face turned completely beet red, he stood up, gripped his desk with Would you buy a used car from this man? both hands and then screamed “I never agreed to chair any campaign. Get the hell out of my office this minute!” And then came out from behind his desk and literally pushed the three of us out of his office and slammed the door shut behind us. Back at the Chamber, when I confronted Don, he just har-har-har’d it and said he just really wanted to see how good of a salesman I was. So, yeah, Don was a real son of a bitch. But the bank exec later felt so badly about cussing me out and throwing us out that he reluctantly agreed to chair the campaign a week or so later after he calmed down. Whatever it takes was my motto.

117


When Lee (Not Sherman) Burned Atlanta Act IV/Scene 3C: South Central Bell Auditorium, downtown Birmingham, 1982 “Birmingham Birmingham The greatest city in Alabam’ You can travel ‘cross this entire land But there’s no place like Birmingham” “Birmingham,” Randy Newman

Burn Atlanta Team Leaders Charlie Nowlin, Jim Conway, Jeffrey Bayer and the author.

I

just don’t like Atlanta, Georgia. Never have; never will. It’s not just the impossibility of getting around that hopelessly gridlocked city. It’s something about their condescending, holier than thou attitude while they subject the rest of the South to their relentless self-promotion. And nowhere is this condescension demonstrated more clearly than in their relationship to Birmingham. “The City Too Busy To Hate” somehow always found time to disparage Birmingham at every opportunity. Sons of bitches. 118


During the 1980s, the big fundraising trend nationwide among Chamber of Commerce fundraisers was inter-city challenges. One Chamber would challenge another to a membership contest to see who could sell the most memberships in a month-long contest. I had heard about how Wichita had beaten Omaha with their clever “Omaha Ha Ha” campaign and both cities sold almost 100 memberships apiece, raising a lot of money in the process. Always looking for an angle, I knew that there was still plenty of latent Atlanta “payback” feelings in Birmingham. I figured if I could get Atlanta, this much larger city, to accept a challenge from us, we could leverage those feelings and sneak up and beat ‘em. Badly. Because it would mean something to us to take down high and mighty Atlanta, but the reverse wouldn’t mean much to them. Plus, this year we had a great volunteer chairman, Jimmy Lee, the fiercely independent local Buffalo Rock bottler and a real spit-in-your-eye kind of guy. At one of our Chamber board meetings, Jimmy showed up decked out in lime green pants, white bucks and wearing a plaid sport coat that was an outrageous mix of pinks, greens and blues. All the other CEOs were predictably dressed in standard corporate attire: identical dark blue suits, black wingtips, white shirts and silk rep ties. When the CEO from AmSouth Bank entered our board room, he spotted Jimmy, walked over to him and slowly sized him up, top to bottom. “Damn, I wish I was self-employed,” was all he said. Jimmy was never afraid to stand out and needed no encouragement to lead the fight to take down Atlanta (GA), the renowned Coca

The author all in for beating Atlanta (GA). 119


Cola city. Of course, this assumed they’d accept our challenge. So at our national convention, I slyly approached my Atlanta Chamber counterpart and soon to be former friend. I very casually asked him if they would do us a favor by accepting an intercity membership challenge from Birmingham. Atlanta had a standing membership committee of close to 100 people while ours had only 40, and was considered the gold standard nationwide when it came to membership campaigns. With a dismissive shrug, I said, “Of course, your committee is so much bigger than ours and your city is so much bigger, it really won’t be very fair. But we’d be honored if you’d just let us challenge you guys.” He bit. We agreed to have our challenge in two months; a campaign to last the month of October. Most of the Chamber people I had met were nice folks. So nice that few of them had the killer instinct that people like Jimmy Lee and I had. An instinct that I always considered critical in successful sales. Most of them believed in win-win. Not me and Jimmy. We were zero-sum guys. If you won, we lost. So I presumed that there were no real rules in this knife fight, other than we’d just agreed to have a onemonth membership contest. If he just assumed we would both just wait till then to begin, well, that was his fault. I was blessed with several young friends in corporate Birmingham who could really sell. Jim Conway, Jeffrey Bayer, Charlie Nowlin and Sarah Relfe were four of my key stars in 1982. They were primed and ready to help. The first thing I did when I got home from the national conference was to hire a half dozen homebound young moms with college degrees to develop a prospect database for me. I organized them to go through the entire Birmingham business telephone directory (such things existed in 1982) and call every non-member business. The phone books back then had the company name, address and phone number. For every business owner whose name they got + zipcode, I paid them 25 cents. If they worked hard, they could make $5/hour or more. Woo hoo! Within a week, I had a verified prospect database of over 4,000 prospects. I rushed the above “formal” invitation to the printers to allow me to individually send a personal note to each prospect. It was ostensibly sent from our chairman, Jimmy Lee, probably the most beloved member of the area’s business community. 120


Alabama Power’s Allen Farr “Smiling & Dialing”

In his invitation, he grandiosely asked them to accept his personal “nomination” of them as a Chamber member. And that their selection would be confirmed by phone during the second week in October. Meanwhile, we recruited 80 telemarketers and we organized them to have ten people dialing the prospects daily; each ten-member team worked an intense day, making 25 outgoing calls per hour and typically talking to ten decision-makers during that hour. Our goal was to sell one of the ten we talked to. It was relentless. The plan was coming together. I had outdoor billboards put up all over town and bumper stickers printed trumpeting “Beat Atlanta. Join the Chamber.” We 121


had all we needed for a hard-hitting, month-long telemarketing campaign. Atlanta never saw it coming. The night before the campaign was to start, our two campaign teams formally prepared to kick off the campaign over a speakerphone connecting the two teams in the different cities. Both teams were set to offer competitive jibes at one another and place friendly wagers. Sarah Relfe secured for me the South Central Bell (now AT&T) auditorium, I had seated my team of 80 telemarketers, plus the President’s Committee (my 40-person Chamber membership committee), plus my prize donors, my prospect researchers and various Chamber board members. So we had close to 200 people filling our meeting hall. To properly kick off the rally, Jimmy Lee charismatically marched down the aisle with a full Birmingham firefighter suit on, waving a fireman’s ax. He went to our podium, pounded it to get everyone’s attention and bellowed “Sherman burned Atlanta the last time. This time, Lee’s going to burn Atlanta!” The audience roared. Just as I expected, the contest didn’t mean that much to the Atlanta Chamber membership committee. Over the speakerphone, it sounded like maybe half of their membership committee was there, probably less than 50. And it was apparent early on that they hadn’t recruited additional troops. (Heh, heh, heh.) My secret weapon, though, was Birmingham’s superstar radio jock Tommy Charles. I had a love/hate relationship with this veteran broadcaster. I loved him for his acidic wit, but I hated him for the international “fame” he earned for Birmingham in 1964 when he organized Beatles album burnings after John Lennon was quoted as saying the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Regardless, he was primed and ready for my purposes; fully armed and dangerous. We had worked with Tommy for days, stoking his anti-Atlanta sentiment and prepping him with all sorts of barbs to throw Atlanta’s way. Not that he needed much preparation. Tommy had honed the art of the acerbic put down through years of talk radio. I knew, especially in the Atlanta Chamber’s condescending attitude towards Birmingham, that they would have no match for him. The Atlanta Chamber chairman came on the speakerphone first. He confidently introduced himself to our group with some Ivy League sounding name, like Farnsworth Ellington. He welcomed Birmingham to our first intercity challenge experience and patronizingly told us that Atlanta had been involved in at least a half dozen of these, winning every one. To make our challenge somewhat interesting, he suggested a wager. He suggested that the chairman of the losing Chamber team make a $500 check presentation in person to the board of the winning Chamber team following the campaign. “We’ll accept that wager,” quickly announced Tommy. “And to whom am I speaking?” asked Ellington over the speaker. “This is Tommy Charles and I’ll be speaking tonight for the Birmingham Chamber.” 122


Legendary Birmingham radio personality Tommy Charles, the author and Sarah Relfe.

Over the speakerphone, there was a pause and then we could hear the suppressed snickering of the Atlanta team in the background as they weighed the image that such a name portrayed. You could just see them elbowing each other. We’re dealing with a real hillbilly here, they surely thought. Ellington parried “Tommy Charles, you say? Are you sure your name isn’t Billy Bob?” His team all guffawed loudly. Unfortunately for him, this would be his best line of the night. In his commanding, professional voice, Charles evenly replied, “My name is Tommy Charles. But you can call me the undertaker because I’m going to bury your ass tonight.” “Oh, that will be the day that someone from Birmingham buries anyone from Atlanta.” Another wrong response. Tommy began, giving the guy no chance to have the floor. “Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?” he stated confidently. Without pausing, he launched into his polished, condescending, contemptuous style that he had perfected over 30 years of verbal combat on talk radio. “As we all know, Georgia was originally established as a penal colony. A perfect place for Great Britain to rid itself of all the thieves, criminals and perverts that England no longer had use for. We’ll be very interested to see if any of you in-bred criminals have the capability of selling even a single Chamber membership.” And he continued. Volley after volley. No subject was off-limits. He eviscerated 123


Keeping Score in the Telemarketing Command Center

Atlanta’s self-congratulating mythology of “The City Too Busy To Hate” by bringing up Lester Maddox. He humorously (to us at least) portrayed him as some type of prototypical Atlanta businessman and revisited the stories of him providing ax handles to run off black customers. He would stop periodically and ask if Ellington had anything to say. The Atlanta spokesman had nothing to offer but a few weak mumblings that he had no idea that this was to have been a competitive “roast.” Then Tommy would sarcastically pick up again on his full-court character assassination of Atlanta. Maybe this time he’d discuss Wayne Williams, the infamous child murderer from Atlanta. Then Atlanta’s notorious traffic congestion. He continued to pause periodically and cross-examine Ellington for any type of a comeback. When he didn’t respond, he sarcastically asked him if he’d even planned to be their representative that evening or if he was just the best spokesman they could come up with in Atlanta. Then he picked up on Billy Carter, President Jimmy Carter’s dimwit brother. As the attacks mounted, the Atlanta committee went totally, sullenly silent. To a person, they were speechless. They had not prepared for this; they were clearly on the ropes and had nothing to throw back at us. Our large Birmingham aggregation was hooting and clapping. Tommy Charles was on fire. This was a beat down of epic proportions. After twenty minutes of verbal punishment, Ellington couldn’t take anymore. He told us that they were signing off. Round One to Birmingham. The next morning at 8:30 our telemarketing campaign kicked off with a vengeance. Each morning, 10 telemarketers were trained, motivated and dialing 25 companies an hour, typically finding 10 people to talk to per hour. (This was 124


Jane Higdon, the author and Jim Conway telling Atlanta what they didn’t want to hear.

pre-caller ID and back when CEOs all had secretaries.) By then, all 4,000 of the prospects had personally received in the mail the formal-appearing “nomination” from Jimmy Lee to become a Chamber member. (As pictured earlier.) Birmingham was covered with outdoor billboards trumpeting “Beat Atlanta. Join the Chamber.” Bumper stickers were seen on plenty of cars around town. Each day of the campaign, I would lead the sales training; teaching the recruits how to use a “teletrack,” a blotter-sized sheet we had next to their phone. It had printed on it our “Join the Chamber” pitch, a list of our top member benefits, the key objections to joining and a suggested response to each. I would tell the trainees every day that “selling doesn’t begin until you encounter the first objection.” We recruited a plethora of prizes so you earned something for each of your first four sales. Then the top ten producers won “the right” to come back on the last Friday of the campaign to compete for the big gifts; airline trips, beach trips and TVs that I had earlier recruited from our members. Typically, after going through my sales presentation, I would put my telephone on a speaker box and I would dial up a random prospect and try to show my trainees how it was supposed to work. Once, I was talking to this guy and he interrupted me before I finished and asked: “How much does it cost to join?” I answered, “Sir, it is a real value at a one-time, annual tax-deductible investment of only two-fifty. And you can help Birmingham make a real statement about our economic development intentions.” He replied “$2.50? I thought it’d cost at least $10.” Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get him back to the $250 minimum! Nonetheless, by month’s end, my telemarketers had called all 4,000 prospects. In the end, 420 new members joined that month, rais125


ing over $100,000. It shattered the previous national intercity challenge record of $39,000. Depending on who and when you asked, Atlanta reported “official” figures of $52,681, or “right around $50,000” or “actually about $41,000.” No matter. No Chamber anywhere had signed up 400 new members in an Intercity Campaign before. As a result, their Chamber executive vice president had to come present the $500 check to Jimmy Lee and our board in Birmingham. By year-end, our Chamber raised $162,034 in net new member income, quite a feat in that day and age – and we were recognized as the top Chamber in the nation. Unfortunately, both my counterpart in Atlanta and his Chamber president were ultimately let go, probably as a result of our inter-city challenge. That was never my intent. So maybe I was the son of a bitch this time. But we got some delicious payback for all the snide comments Birmingham endured at the hands of Atlanta, GA, from the 1960s onward. As they say, payback’s a bitch. Maybe even a son of a bitch.

126


Damn, But Alabama Power Made Me Look Good Act IV/Scene 3D: Elmer Harris’ Office, 18th Floor, Alabama Power Headquarters, 1984 “We gonna rock down to Electric Avenue And then we’ll take it higher Oh we gonna rock down to Electric Avenue And then we’ll take it higher” Electric Avenue, Eddy Grant

1984 Corporate Challenge Campaign poster featured Alabama Power President Elmer Harris

I

cannot overemphasize that throughout my Chamber career, Alabama Power remained my best fundraising team, by far. This had developed through the untiring efforts of the aforementioned Alan Martin. Due to Alan’s leadership, my Alabama Power volunteers were the best. Their official pitch to their accounts payables would be an earnest statement that Apco (Alabama Power Company) liked to do business with corporate partners who shared their same “values.” Yeah, like joining the Chamber of Commerce! It was also rumored that some of them would kiddingly tease customers who were also friends about joining the Chamber and then wonder out loud if they’d ever thought how tough it would be to run their business without the power being turned on. I, of course (blush), was appalled by such talk. 127


Campaign Chairman Julian Banton of SouthTrust Urging the Apco Brain Trust Onward

Not only was Alan bottom-line brilliant, but he had the unique ability to convince his boss, Elmer Harris (then president of Alabama Power), to agree to do just about anything for the Chamber. Such as posing for the above ridiculous campaign poster that we distributed all over town. The 1984 Olympics, held that year in Los Angeles, was getting wall-to-wall media coverage. So we themed that year’s campaign on the Olympics, which Elmer had agreed to chair and called it the “Corporate Olympics.” We had somehow talked Elmer, despite his gangly, decidedly un-athletic appearance, to wear a tracksuit and let him be taken into the huge kickoff rally on a Cleopatra-style litter carried by six big guys. (What on earth did this have to do with fundraising? Beats me.) But Elmer was “all in” on the campaign and would not tolerate the idea that his team wouldn’t meet and surpass its own assigned corporate goal. Each week during the campaign, he would hold a meeting of all five of his top department heads at the Power Company (plus their lieutenants) and his meeting would go something like this: “Banks Ferris,” he would drawl in his sly country-boy accent, “we got us a goal on the Chamber campaign of $400,000, am ah raht?” Banks would affirm that to be correct. “And we got us four key departments, am I raht?” Yes sir, Banks would say. “So, if my math-a-matics (that was the way he drawled out everything) is ko-rect (correct), you and each of the other three department heads have a goal of $100,000 apiece for our little Chamber campaign, raht?” 128


Swallowing hard, Banks would answer in the affirmative. “Now, looking at my calendar, I see that we are now halfway through this campaign. So if I’m figuring this raht, you need to be able to tell me that your department has raised at least $50,000 by now, right?” And Banks would gulp and say, “we will get there by next week, boss.” To which Elmer would retort, “well, you gotta do better than that because next week, we’ll be 60% through the campaign.” And so it went from the velvet hammer. Try as I might, we just couldn’t pull off a Total Resource Campaign every year, even with Alabama Power’s participation. Requiring 400 or so campaign workers, it just consumed too much of our key corporate players’ manpower and was getting too close to the level of community commitment they each made to the sacrosanct United Way campaign each year. So every other year, we started putting on the Birmingham Business Fair as a means to raise money in the “off campaign” year, as described in Act IV/Scene 3G.

Alabama Power provided the Chamber with plenty of motivated sales volunteers.

129


Tell That SOB To Wear the Shirt We Gave Him Act IV/Scene 3E: The Roof of the Brown Marx Building, 1986 “I’m up on the tightwire flanked by life and the funeral pyre putting on a show for you to see” Tightrope, Leon Russell

Jay Cochrane, the “Prince of the Air” above Birmingham.

s my career continued at the Chamber of Commerce, I started wanting more A pay, so Don Newton ramped up the fundraising expectations correspondingly. It was never easy selling Chamber memberships. But regardless of how hard it was, I was now responsible for generating hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in new memberships for the Chamber. Find a way. 130


They say that “Necessity is the mother of invention,” so out of necessity, as indicated earlier, my buddy Alan Martin and I developed a concept called the Corporate Challenge. It came to be known (and emulated) by Chambers of Commerce nationwide as the Total Resource Campaign. I would recruit sales teams from the major employers to accept a specific fundraising goal, recruit an inordinate amount of incentive prizes and then give them comprehensive sales training. Necessity was a mother all right. Typically, a Total Resource Campaign would involve 30 or so corporate teams and around 500 or more volunteers. I would first get their CEOs (who invariably sat on the Chamber’s board of directors) cornered into agreeing to form a team, accept a specific cash goal for the campaign and assign the requisite number of volunteers to get the job done. What made it work was that these corporate “volunteers” were expected to leverage their accounts payables. So these volunteers needed to be relatively highly placed management folks who had a modicum of power within their business and the kahunas to use their leverage. This process was definitely not for the faint of heart. With so many people to motivate, it seemed important to me to launch the campaign with as much fanfare as possible and to me that meant a publicity stunt. To kick off the “Reaching New Heights” campaign in 1987, I decided to go after a tightrope walker. What the heck, there hadn’t been a tightrope walk in downtown Birmingham since the 1930s, so it would certainly get folks’ attention. Since this was before the advent of the internet, I accidentally came across a televised special featuring a Canadian tightrope walker by the name of Jay Cochrane. The self-styled “Prince of the Air” had walked the longest distance ever on a high wire, 2 ½ miles, and had recently completed living on a tightrope for 21 days in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I loved gimmicks and this guy certainly fit the bill. I tracked him down by phone at his home in Canada and told him what I wanted to do. He talked in a very bizarre Canadian accent with a chirpy, cocksure voice. He told me that his fee would be $7,000 and that he could arrange for the necessary insurance and city approvals. Which would all be no problem, he assured me. Don Newton, always tolerant of my big ideas, told me to go forward, but “you’ll have to get permission from two downtown building owners, including your campaign chairman, and you’ll never get it.” Saying something like that to me was like saying “sic ‘em” to a dog. I was on it. My campaign chairman was an uber-starched shirt, buttoned-down, conservative Mountain Brook banker. He grudgingly heard me out. He wasn’t at all happy about being campaign chairman, but he liked the idea of one day being Chamber president. (Everyone did; what a cool thing to add one day to your obituary.) I had done my best to make Don at least imply to corporate leaders that, if they wanted to be Chamber president, they needed to first successfully chair a Chamber fund131


raising campaign. But that also meant he was stuck with me. I told the banker that Jay and I had targeted a tightrope walk between his building (then called AmSouth Bank) and the ATT Building (then called South Central Bell.) He swallowed hard and said, “It’s all right with me. But you’ll have to get South Central Bell’s permission – and you’ll never get it.” With that additional gauntlet laid down, I quickly arranged a meeting with the suits at the telephone company and laid out the deal. No financial investment from them, a guaranteed safe walk and a windfall of publicity for them. How about it? They said yes! Who knew that staid phone company execs had a sense of adventure? Thrilled, I dashed the block-and-a-half to my chairman’s office at AmSouth. I excitedly told him the good news. A dark cloud swept across his face. He immediately started backstroking. He couldn’t believe South Central Bell had agreed to cooperate. “Uh, Tom, uh, I’ll have to bring this request to the attention of our executive committee and see what they say.” Crestfallen, I knew that meant no. Determined to not let this great promotional opportunity slip through my hands, I begged Don Newton to let Jay walk from the roof of the Chamber building at the corner of 1st Avenue North and Arrington Blvd to whatever nearby building I could talk into it. He hesitantly agreed. The Chamber building was only 14 stories tall, not nearly as dramatic as a 30-story walk from the Amsouth Building to South Central Bell building would’ve been. But tall enough to be more than breathtaking. So I targeted the Brown Marx building a half-block away as the connector. This building had recently been bought by some investment group in New York City. With effort, I tracked the guy down and got him on the phone. My pitch was the same as what I’d given South Central Bell. “I’ve got the promotional deal of a lifetime for you,” I opened. “Not one penny from you and I’m going to splash your office building on the front page of the paper for a week down here in Birmingham. I’ve got the insurance holding you harmless. All I need is for you to sign a piece of paper giving your approval.” As soon as the guy established that there was no trap door for him to be concerned about, he readily agreed. And even thanked me for thinking of them. Next, the City of Birmingham had to give their approval. After seeking (and receiving) the city’s approval at a Birmingham City Council meeting, a reporter afterward asked Stewart Dansby what would happen if the tightrope walker fell. To my horror, the next day I read in the paper what Stewart had facetiously said. “Well, at least people around the world will know that Birmingham has tall buildings!” Fortunately, there were no repercussions from that! One of the rock acts then popular was a band called Frankie Goes To Hollywood and they were famous for wearing T-shirts with oversized type on the front. I 132


seized on this as my template and had a sweatshirt produced that said “Join the Chamber” in lettering bold enough on both the front and back to be read from the Goodyear blimp. There was no way I was going to all this time, trouble and expense without assuring that we got some great publicity for the Chamber campaign in return. Finally, the week of the event arrived. We had recruited and trained over Inspiration for tightrope walker’s t-shirt. 500 volunteers. They had accepted the challenge of truly “reaching new heights” by accepting individual fundraising goals that totaled over two million dollars. We recruited lavish incentive prizes, including an incredible 75 roundtrips on American Airlines. Jay came to Birmingham a week before the event to work out all the details with all the officials who could’ve stopped the event. He either buffaloed or

Intensive promotions led up to the tightrope walk. 133


charmed every single one of them. How many times do you get pitched by a professional tightrope walker? One night over dinner, I asked him how on earth he managed his personal demons well enough to step out onto that wire. Jay genuinely looked puzzled and perplexed by my question. He asked, “how could I be worried? About what?” I answered, “about seeing yourself falling and squishing yourself on the street far below.” Jay gave me the most incredulous, pitying look like Local media ate up the idea of a tightrope walk. a concerned veterinarian might give a sick animal. “Tom, that is just not possible.” It struck me that his genius was not so much his practiced craft, which was considerable, but the fact that he exhibited 100% mind control over his own thoughts. The night before the official campaign launch and the big skywalk, Stewart Dansby, Doug Stockham and I were recruited to be stevedores to help Jay secure the tightrope. At two o’clock in the morning, we barricaded off 1st Avenue North between 20th Street and Richard Arrington Blvd. Jay had already dropped one of the 1” diameter steel cables from atop Commerce Center. Our job was to use a system of winches and pulleys that Jay provided to haul the extremely long, extremely heavy cable up to the top of the Brown-Marx Building. Hand over hand, we pulled on the cables until we finally got the wire somewhat taut. There Jay expertly secured the end of the cable and winched it down to the tightness of piano wire. As I stood at the edge of the Brown Marx building and peered down onto the cable and the dizzying abyss below, I felt sick. It was inconceivable to me that anyone could step out onto this cable wearing what looked like ballet slippers with nothing but a balance beam to hold onto. Buh BLAM! I was jolted out of my reverie as a car blasted through the wooden barricade on the street far below. A guy got out of the car, obviously drunk and cussing mad, wondering why in the hell this street had a barricade across it. Fortunately, he turned around and drove off. We finished our work and quickly removed the barricades. 134


After catching a few hours of sleep, I met Jay downtown in front of the Amsouth building (now Regions) on 20th Street where a white stretch limo awaited us. He looked like he’d slept like a baby. The bank campaign chairman hesitantly got into the limo with Jay and me. This very buttoned-down, Mountain Brook businessman was clearly still extremely dubious about associating himself and his bank with this circus act. The Phillips High School Marching Red Raider Band led us down 20th Street as Jay stood up through the moon roof opening, waving to the gathering crowds like a presidential candidate heading to a nomination convention. Just as Jay had predicted, there had been front-page stories on the (back then) daily Birmingham News for a solid week about the impending tightrope walk. Ditto for the local television stations. No one in Birmingham had ever seen, much less met someone quite like Jay. The publicity buildup had truly been unprecedented. I glanced behind the limo and felt like the proverbial pied piper. Literally, thousands of people were streaming out of their offices, following us down 20th Street, which had now turned into a pedestrian mall. Once we turned left onto 1st Avenue North, the limo driver couldn’t go any further. The crowds were just too dense. The limo driver stopped and Jay hopped out of the car. He clearly loved the business of being a showman and he was aglow with pleasure. With a bound, he dashed in through the Commerce Center front door and took the elevator to the top floor. Right as the walk was about to begin, my colleague, John Tate, called me on the walkie-talkie. Uh oh. “Tom, we have a little problem.” I gulped, “Spit it out, man.” “Jay doesn’t want to wear our shirt. He wants to wear his.” I had seen his shirt. It said, “Join the Chamber” on it with one-inch-high letters that maybe you could’ve read from six feet away. No way. I was livid. This was no time to renegotiate our agreement. “You tell that son of a bitch that if he doesn’t wear our sweatshirt, we’re not paying him one red cent.” A deathly pause. “John, have we been disconnected?” “Uh, Tom, Jay’s standing right here. I think he heard you loud and clear.” Thankfully, Jay wore our sweatshirt and he completed his daredevil walk, even stopping to kneel on the wire just to give the crowd (and especially me) an extra hair-raising moment. Whew. Immediately thereafter, we had our campaign kickoff party under a big tent we’d set up. I got Jay to place a wire between two stakes a foot or so off the ground. Jay had his balancing pole there and gave us all tips on how to walk the wire. The most any of us amateurs could walk without losing our balance was 2 or 3 steps. It was unbelievably tricky! Amazingly, Jay’s Birmingham tightrope walk not only commanded all Birmingham news outlets, but it got picked up by AP and Reuters wire service. His tightrope 135


walk story and accompanying photograph went world-wide. I heard from Chambers of Commerce in Europe, Australia and all over America wanting to know how we’d pulled it off. With Jay wearing our “Join The Chamber” sweatshirt, it was undoubtedly one of the most stellar Chamber of Commerce promotions ever. But best of all, at least for me, was that it kicked off our campaign in grand, memorable style and we raised our $2 million. And I got to remain employed another year.

136


Halley’s Comet and Other Star Crossed Ideas Act IV/Scene 3F: A Hotel Patio Overlooking the Magic City (1986) “We lived our little drama We kissed in a field of white And stars fell on Alabama Last night” Stars Fell on Alabama, Jimmy Buffett

The comet as seen in the skies above Birmingham.

alley’s Comet returns to our inner solar system about once every 75 years and H was poised to return in 1986. There was quite a bit of news build-up on the comet as this was the first time it could actually be observed by spacecraft. So it was a big deal. And since 1986 was a Total Resource Campaign year, it was obvious to me that my campaign needed a tie into this worldwide, celestial event. Typically, our campaigns would have 400 or so volunteers involved from the city’s top employers. To keep them motivated, each week we had lavish parties with live music, free booze, food and plenty of prizes. We thought, “why not a Halley’s Comet Party?” There was one hotel on the brow of Red Mountain and I sold them on the idea of them being our host for a gala outdoor party, overlooking the city, with a rockin’ band, the aforementioned booze and other amenities. The big idea was that the party would culminate with a fantastic fireworks display at its conclusion, including 137


“comet rockets” launched from the roof of the hotel that would simulate, of course, Halley’s Comet. Back then, radio vied to have top personalities on the air to deliver large “drive time” listening audiences. One local duo, Mark & Brian, later destined for national stardom, was the very definition of outrageous and had led I-95 radio to the top of the rating pile in 1986. As just one example of their attention-grabbing antics, they were famous for their live rooftop “shower cap” giveaway that they did during morning rush hour from the station’s roof on busy Highland Avenue. The “shower caps” were condoms that they distributed like doubloons from a Mardi Gras float to everyone walking and driving by. I had gotten to know them in my Chamber work and recruited them to be our official celebrity MC’s for the Halley’s Comet party program. They were young and hip and I knew my crowd would love them. Plus, we had another rooftop for them to work. The agreements all had to be worked out months in advance and everything was proceeding according to plan except for one small detail. Birmingham fell into a severe, summer-long drought. When the 4th of July came, the city Fire Department issued a stern prohibition against fireworks of any kind. The city was a tinderbox. I kept thinking that surely the drought would break any day and that our great party concept would still be pulled off to great acclaim. Unfortunately, the drought continued. It was too late to change the venue or the theme of the party. I told all my participants, especially Mark & Brian, that we would just have to have a good time absent the fireworks. A great crowd showed up and it was a beautiful night. The city sparkled below us in the valley, the food was plentiful and delicious, the booze flowed, the prizes were given out, the band was rocking; everything was going as planned. However. Mark & Bryan figured out a way to climb on the hotel roof where the fireworks had been stored. They somehow figured out how to set them off just as the party was ending. One after another, rockets streaked up into the night sky, arching gracefully and then (uh-oh) falling onto the hillside below. Right where the tinder-dry bushes, leaves and twigs lay, ready to be ignited. Explosions of strings of firecrackers and much louder noisemakers kept going off from atop the building. Everyone was cheering. Then we started smelling smoke. The entire hillside caught on fire. Thank God, the hotel management immediately called the Birmingham Fire Department. I was in shock. Soon a swarm of fire trucks, including a massive hook and ladder, roared into the parking area with sirens blaring. Multiple hoses appeared as if by magic and a score of firefighters poured a huge volume of water on the burning hillside. Fortunately, they were able to put the fire out, but smoke billowed throughout the venue and every last bit of party buzz was smothered along with the fire. All my volunteers quickly departed the smoke-choked scene. The only 138


The author and his chief co-conspirator Alan Martin, right, doing a Blues Brothers skit.

ones left besides me were the hotel management who were, needless to say, too furious to speak to me. Mark and Brian, the sons of bitches, left me alone to deal with it as they whooped it up on their way out. It took weeks of letters and calls and visits of groveling apologies to everyone to extricate myself from the situation. Fortunately, we didn’t get sued, we didn’t burn down the hotel or the city and no one got hurt. Just another ho hum night as the Chamber fundraiser. During the campaign, we continued with the weekly report parties and my buddy Alan Martin was always game to do anything to make it fun and make it work. Once we dressed up as Jake and Elwood of the Blues Brothers and, as the live band 139


dramatically played the “Peter Gunn” theme, we danced into the room with our expressionless Blues Brothers faces on like we thought we were the coolest guys in town. Then we performed a skit to showcase how not to sell a Chamber membership. (We were both advised not to give up our day jobs). SouthTrust Bank, which later merged with Wachovia and now Wells Fargo, also had some stellar salespeople that worked on our campaigns as well. Ollie Sandlin was a legendarily nice guy whom people just instantaneously loved. If he asked someone to join the Chamber, they just couldn’t turn this The author and Stewart Dansby MC’d the campaign sweetheart of a guy down. Years later, parties. Ollie’s daughter came to work for me as a young adult. She told me that when she was growing up, she honestly thought everyone’s color television came from Chamber membership contests! In addition to Alan Martin’s invaluable help in motivating the troops stood my friend Stewart Dansby. His involvement always assured that humor was never in short supply at Campaign parties. Meanwhile, as the Total Resource Campaign model evolved, we added other fundraising streams as we continued to realize that selling Chamber memberships was just the most difficult way to raise money possible. Event sponsorships became a big part of our income stream and Hank Collins, another supremely skilled SouthTrust sales guy, became expert at it. Once, Birmingham had a scare that the high-profile, prestigious Southeastern Conference might move their headquarters to Nashville. When they announced their decision to stay, I convinced the Chamber that we needed to do an event with them to prove we didn’t take them for Another co-conspirator, Stewart Dansby granted. That was begrudgingly approved, but I still had to find a way to not only pay for it but make money off of it. Hank convinced the Blue Cross exec at the time to host a massive party to honor the Southeastern Conference and their commissioner. Not only that, but he also got them to pay a $5,000 sponsorship fee for the right to do so. When the exec asked Hank how on earth did that work, he just casually deadpanned with an innocent smile, “It’s a money-making proposition.” (Yeah, for the Chamber!) With SouthTrust being a huge customer of Blue Cross, nothing else needed to be said. 140


The Nation’s Largest Chamber–Sponsored Trade Show Act IV/Scene 3G: Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center, 1987 “We going downtown in the middle of the night We laughing and I’m jokin’ and we feelin’ alright Oh I’m bad, I’m nationwide, Yes I’m bad, I’m nationwide” I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide, ZZ Top

The author and Kirk Mancer with a female volunteer at the BBF.

We set a goal of holding the largest Chamber sponsored trade show in the nation

and succeeded. Over the years, I had the benefit of incredible colleagues whose hard work made it succeed, particularly the aforementioned Suzan Smith Doidge, Kirk Mancer and Sharon Mason, all of whom went on to become highly successful presidents of various Chambers of Commerce. To achieve this goal, we sold over 400 corporate exhibits, filling up the massive North Exhibition Hall at the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Center. This event became a three-ring circus, with nationally known speakers during the day and well-known rock ‘n roll bands playing at the networking events each night and a plethora of prizes to be won by Fairgoers throughout. We typically netted $250,000 from this large undertaking, not too shabby back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Don Newton, the consummate hustler himself, would peg my entire salary increase for the year on the net we pocketed from the Business Fair. 141


Sharon Mason (center) at the Mini-Business Fair with Mini-Me Verne Troyer (left) and Mickey Abbott (right)..

At the urging of my steadfast consigliere, Alan Martin, I had hired an incredibly talented young MBA grad who helped me immensely. This SOB was an amazing character but regrettably a habitual liar on all things large and small, both on things that mattered and things that didn’t – kind of like Donald Trump at the time of this writing. As an example, he came in one morning with tears streaming down his cheeks and sobbingly told me that his wife had gone in for a routine checkup and they had discovered a large tumor in her breast and they’d had to operate that morning. Shocked, I told him to immediately go back to the hospital, for heaven’s sake. An hour later, his wife called, asking in as normal a voice as imaginable if her husband was in. I exclaimed “Thank God you sound alright! We are all so worried about you!” She asked what in the world I was talking about and when I told her, she hung up in a hurry. Soon enough we learned not to believe much of what this SOB said – but his creativity on work projects was unmatched and critical to my plans. At this particular year’s Business Fair, we had a lockup room at the Civic Center where we kept all the cash from the 20,000+ tickets sold during the three-day event. There was a significant amount of cash ticket purchases, probably around $100,000, and at the close of the Fair, we discovered on our final balance sheet that we were almost $10,000 short. Needless to say, I was horrified and immediately called the Police. They sent a detective who quizzed us about who had access to the room. After thinking about who was supposed to be in there, I of course had access, also the head of a small gift shop that the Chamber of Commerce ran back then and my long term, wonderful secretary, Lisa Swanger. The Lieutenant set up times for us to all come to the Police Department to take a lie detector test. I walked in full of confidence as they attached electrodes to various parts of my body. The guy told me to answer his questions either yes or no. The questions went something like (a) is your name Tom Cosby? (yes), (b) do you live in Birmingham? 142


(yes), (c) Did you take the money? Of course, my heart skipped a beat as I knew that was the moment of truth and I better not let my typically over the top emotions show me as anything but the innocent person I was. But evidently, my own weird, highly sensitive, always nervous personality resulted in my having a very strange heart skip reaction to the question. So yeah, my heart definitely skipped a beat at that question – but think about it: who but a complete idiot wouldn’t? For sure the guy studied it for a while before he said, “This is an unusual result but I know you didn’t take the money. You can go.” The other two ladies passed the lie detector test as well, undoubtedly with less drama. Only months later did it suddenly dawn on my ignorant brain that I should’ve told the cop that I couldn’t have been a suspect all along – after all, losing $10,000 only significantly reduced my commission for the entire year since it was based on the net. So why would I steal from myself? Belatedly, my suspicions turned to my assistant, but I knew he would have such a quicksilver, locked down excuse and would be so guileless about it that I knew it would take the CIA to crack him. He could never have been nailed and, besides, I was ready to move on and make sure he was never around any cash ever again. But he was one sneaky SOB, I’ll tell you what. 143


Winds of Change Act IV/Scene 3H: Financial Center, downtown Birmingham, 2000-2012 “Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen And keep your eyes wide the chance won’t come again And don’t speak too soon for the wheel’s still in spin And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’. For the loser now will be later to win” The Times They Are A-Changin’, Bob Dylan

Dave Adkisson, Chamber president 2000-2005.

F

ollowing Don Newton’s retirement, Dave Adkisson was recruited from Kentucky to become our new Chamber president. This Harvard-educated whirlwind was supremely talented and took a scholarly approach to Birmingham’s challenges, reading scores of books on Birmingham even before stepping into the job. (His first assignment to all his VPs was to read Carry Me Home, Diane McWhorter’s Pulitzer-winning history of Birmingham in the Civil Rights era.) Once on the job, he quickly re-organized the Chamber into a more effective community organization, particularly making connections with all the key elected leaders in the MSA. I admired him immensely, not only because of his energy and commitment to moving Birmingham ahead, but also because of his commitment to dues paying members. He insisted that they be allowed to have a voice in their Chamber. Dave and I worked on several projects together, including an effort to raise

144


a million dollars to implement a pro-Birmingham PR campaign culminated by “VulcanFest,” a new signature citywide festival he envisioned. We recruited several CEOs from our Chamber board to help us, including Jeffrey Bayer, a former membership campaign volunteer and highly successful real estate developer with whom I’d been friends since high school. Dave was a polished, courteous consensus builder and an elegant, sensitive, caring articulator. Once, Dave invited me into his office while he called our team members one by one over the speakerphone. My job was to cheerily chime in periodically and then follow-up with each of them as needed. During each conversation, Dave would artfully and delicately assess where each of them was on their individual goal, taking great pains not to come off as being pushy or critical. When he got Jeffrey on the line, he covered all the usual pleasantries and then politely hemmed and hawed over the task at hand for ten minutes or so. Just as Dave was about to hang up, I interrupted and said over the speakerphone, “Hey, Jeffrey, before you go, I’ve got a question.” Jeffrey, said, “sure, Tom, what?” I shot back, “I’d just like to know when you’re finally going to get off your ass and raise us some real money!” Dave turned beet red, threw his arms over his head and laid his head on his desk. My old pal, Jeffrey, just chuckled and asked us to be patient and that he’d come through. As soon as we hung up, Dave dramatically ordered me to never, ever talk like that to a board member again! I just smiled. Jeffrey was one of the few SOBs in the ‘Ham who was more full of shit than me. The more decades I spent fundraising, the more I gradually became defined in the community as some kind of relentless fundraising maniac. Once I accompanied a volunteer on a visit to the aforementioned Jeffrey Bayer. He had not told Bayer what the meeting was about nor that I would be joining them. The receptionist buzzed Jeffrey and he said for us to come on back down the hall to his office. As we started down the hall, Jeffrey came out of his office, spotted me and pointed accusingly at me. “Oh HELL NO. I’m not meeting with this guy. Now I know what this meeting’s about.” I didn’t take it personally, as a matter of fact, I thought it was rather funny. Very sadly, Dave returned to Kentucky, which was a big loss for our city. The Chamber started going through some major transitions and, unsurprisingly, I didn’t like many of them. I was the type of salesman that, if I believed in the product, I could sell it. But conversely, I couldn’t give it away if I didn’t. Plus, I increasingly felt a near total lack of support from the non-membership division Chamber staff. These guys just didn’t seem to have much urgency about any project they were supposedly working on. It seemed to me that everyone should want me to succeed in raising money for their salaries and therefore they should all be working with their hair on fire, seeking the kind of measurable results in their work that would help sales. But such was not the case. 145


By 2012, the winds of change were blowing hard through Birmingham. No matter how smart or hard or effectively I thought I was working, there was suddenly a new group of business leaders who bought completely into a narrative that the 125-year-old Chamber had never accomplished anything and therefore the proverbial village deserved to be burned to the ground. Of course, not one of these putative leaders had bothered to interview a single staff member, much less read the book on the Chamber that we’d recently published, A Powerful Presence, by Mark Kelly. Had they known about the seminal roles the Chamber played in moving the UA Medical School to Birmingham from Tuscaloosa (thereby birthing UAB), or the role in creating a new City government following the civil rights upheavals in the 60s or the critical roles we’d played in building I-22, or recruiting Olympic soccer here, creating Crimestoppers or even securing the nonstop flights we had in BHM, they might well have still wanted to change things, but at least it would’ve been an informed decision. The new leaders, secure in their echo chamber, collectively decided to no longer have the organization run as a traditional Chamber with individual dues payers being considered “members.” They decided to call all dues payers “investors” which meant they no longer had any voice in the organization’s direction and that it would be run entirely by an oligarchy of the most powerful businesses in town. Which of course absolutely killed our then predominately small business membership. By the time we had transitioned to the Birmingham Business Alliance in 2012, we were not a Chamber of Commerce anymore, just a “buffalo hunting” economic development squad, a new version of the old Metropolitan Development Board, funded and run by the big guys. Which would’ve been ok but we weren’t even very good at recruiting new businesses, in my opinion. I came to realize that, at heart, I was a civic booster-type Chamber of Commerce guy and that the new Chamber was just not for me. Even though I was making a very nice salary, and felt like I could’ve stayed on indefinitely, once I turned 65, I decided it was time for me to go. So I bid adieu to the Chamber after 35 years and moved on to the Lyric Theatre.

146


Act V Chamber Projects & Some Crazy SOBs

147


Now These Guys Were Some Funny SOBs Act V/Scene 1: All Around Downtown Birmingham, 1980s “You’re just hangin’ out in a local bar, And you’re wonderin’ who the hell you are Are you a bum or are you a star? Keep on smilin’ through the rain, laughin’ at the pain Rollin’ with the changes til the sun comes out again.” Keep on Smilin’, Wet Willie

Fred Sington, Mr. Birmingham

s of this writing, we have a president of the United States who, in my opinion, A rarely laughs (except derisively) and just isn’t funny. Which is a shame, as laughter can not only humanize leaders, but help make an important point painlessly and memorably – as well as galvanize people around a cause. Fortunately, I got to observe some truly great business leaders in Birmingham who really had the gift for making people laugh and winning them over. Here are seven guys who could rise to the level of hilarity! 148


Everyone loved “Coach” Fred Sington. The All American football legend from the University of Alabama led his team to victory in the Rose Bowl, became president of the student body and even played Major League Baseball for the Washington Senators. He became a beloved and celebrated Birmingham businessman and our city’s top sports celebrity— and nobody else came close. He had been president of the Chamber before my time, but I had the honor of being his staff guy for the Chamber’s Sports Development Committee in his later years. I stood in awe of this truly great man. One of his famous lines was “I’m a Birmingham man. If it’s good for Birmingham, I’m for it.” I would try my best to take his philosophy to heart. Among his many accomplishments, Fred founded the Hall of Fame Bowl and later, the All American Bowl, referred to everyone as “Coach” and was considered by all as the definitive “Mr. Birmingham.” Fred was a great speaker and had the gift of very dry, very droll humor. Two stories of my time with him stand out in my memory. Each year, Fred’s local bowl game officials would visit bowl eligible teams throughout the nation during football season. As the season drew near its end, as chairman of the bowl, Fred would call a very private and confidential meeting about who the two teams were that would be invited to that year’s bowl game. He was also chairman of the Chamber’s Sports Development Council meeting and our committee would be involved in various aspects of the game. As soon as he called our meeting to order, he deadpanned “Men, since you serve on this committee, I’m going to tell you very confidentially the names of the two teams playing in our bowl this year. I expect each of you to treat this information with utmost confidentiality. So tonight, when I leave this meeting on 1st Avenue North to walk back to my store, I do NOT want anyone coming up to me before I get to 5th Avenue North to tell me who’s playing in my game!” Later, as program chairman for the Sunrise Rotary Club, I got Fred’s commitment to speak to us during the third week in October. This week, of course, being the time honored week for the famous Alabama-Tennessee rivalry game. As a former Alabama All American, I knew Fred would have interesting stories to tell us about the storied rivalry. Following my introduction, Fred stepped up to the podium, solemnly raised his right hand and deadpanned: “Can I see a show of hands of how many of you guys remember the famous punting duel between Tennessee’s Beattie Feathers and Alabama’s Johnny Cain in 1932?” Of course, no one in the club had even been born then, so no hands went up! But he completely captured the entire club’s attention and went on to tell us the fascinating story of an amazing 40 punt duel in the rain that ended with Feathers scoring the winning touchdown for Tennessee. On a sad personal note, once the decision was made in 1990 to devote all our football resources on securing the initial SEC Football Championship game, 149


it somehow fell my lot to be the one to tell Coach Sington that the community would no longer continue its support of the bowl game he’d founded. Although I could tell the news hurt him deeply, he was far too much of a gentleman to raise his voice to me and very simply, kindly and graciously thanked me for telling him in a soft, sad voice.

Eddie Friend, Chamber President.

Birmingham uber lawyer Eddie Friend was president of the Chamber for not one, but two years. He was a young guy at the time, about my age, in his mid-thirties, and definitely had the gift as a remarkable platform speaker. He frequently used humor to break the ice in his remarks, such as “This reminds me of the sad country music song ‘my best friend ran off with my wife and I miss him so!‘” One of his favorite stories he told was about the time his law firm had been hired to bring a lawsuit against a friend of his. Knowing there was no way around it, he finally summoned his cour-

age to call and tell his friend. “Joe, he said, “I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news to share with you.” “Oh, please tell,” he replied. Eddie reluctantly said, “my firm, Sirote Permutt, has been hired to bring a lawsuit against your company.” Without hesitation, Joe let out a sigh of relief and said “Oh, thank God. For a moment there, I thought this was yet another charitable solicitation.”

When I first became the fundraiser at the Chamber of Commerce, Roy Gilbert was my volunteer chairman. He was a top executive at Birmingham Trust National Bank, soon to become SouthTrust, later to be swallowed up by Wells Fargo. His bank then went colloquially by the acronym BTNB which the local wags said stood for “Better Than No Bank.” Roy was an indefatigable Chamber cheerleader and speaker. He was very biblically grounded and often quoted Ecclesiastes, saying that investing in the Chamber was like “spreading bread on the water, that it will come back to you.” (I think it meant not to eat all your bread, but save some to catch fish to eat.) One of his favorite stories was that once the Mayor of Birmingham had commended him in front of the entire city council. And that the mayor had publicly said that he, Roy Gilbert, was a “model citizen.” 150


That evening, he went home and proudly told his wife. Later, his wife told him she had looked up the word “model” in the dictionary. She told him the definition of “model” was “a small example of the real thing!”

For ten years during my Chamber career, 1983-1993, Birmingham’s 6th district was served by a very capable Roy Gilbert and the author at campaign report party. congressman named Ben Erdreich. Mr. Erdreich happened to be Jewish which some people in our district did not know. Once, a delegation of Birminghamians went to Washington to, among other objectives, thank Congressman Erdreich for his help with some project. Swept up in the moment, the enthusiastic spokesman for the hometown delegation summed up his flowery accolades by concluding, “Ben, we all think you are just the finest example of a Christian businessman we’ve ever known.” Quick as a wink, Congressman Erdreich responded with a smile. “You just don’t know what that means to me! Congressman Ben Erdreich.

Homer Turner was an old school Alabama Power executive. He was one of those rare individuals who was just naturally funny. He couldn’t help it and that, plus his natural gift at public speaking, made him a universally beloved figure. He looked at everything and every task with a distinctive twinkle in his eye. As chairman of that year’s Chamber’s membership division, he would have the 151


duty of telling the other Chamber board members about the campaign and what we would need each of them to do. All of them would be asked to give money and the larger employers would also be expected to lend “volunteers” to Homer Turner, Alabama Power Company work on the Chamber membership drive. The month before, the Chamber board unanimously passed the Chamber’s program of work and corresponding annual budget without a single dissenting vote. Homer pointed out to them that we’d soon need to launch a fundraising campaign to make all these new programs happen. At the next month’s board meeting, he rose to address the full Chamber board. Everyone knew he would be talking to them about a fundraising campaign. He made a quick summary comment that brought the house down: “Ladies and gentlemen, as your Membership Division Vice President, it is necessary for me to remind you that the budget you unanimously passed last month must now have sufficient funding in order to be implemented. And to raise funds requires a fundraising campaign.” He paused for dramatic effect and first looked skyward, as if for divine inspiration on how to explain this difficult situation we had now found ourselves in. “Fundraising Homer Turner, Alabama Power Company. reminds me of the child birthing process. It is conceived in ecstasy yet delivered with great pain. It is now time for us to move into the painful part of our collective responsibility” he said with a smile. But the point was made.

Of all the SOBs I observed in my Chamber career, few could top the audaciousness of Artie Deutsch. Recruited from the New York City Police Department by then-Mayor Richard Arrington to be Birmingham’s new, get-tough Police Chief, the guy had a, shall we say, unique way of doing things. It just so happened that on one of his very first days on the job, the city was blanketed with a rare snowstorm. So the chief had to quickly learn that this was the equivalent of a national holiday down south in Birmingham. Everyone took off from work and many of our Forest Park neighbors pulled their sleds out of the attic, waxed the runners and headed to hilly Highland Golf Course. The golf course had tried for years to prevent this, but it had never really been enforced. Chief Deutsch 152


had just bought a house in the neighborhood and saw what was going on. So he stormed out onto the snowy golf course and arrested the first sledder he saw. It just so happened that the sledder was a paraplegic, but that didn’t stop Deutsch from booking the guy. According to breathless neighborhood gossip, he literally dragged him off the golf course. And so the Deutsch legend beChief Deutsch and Mayor gan. Arrington with mounted patrolman. More memorably to me, our downtown retail members once called a meeting at the Chamber with the Chief to discuss what they saw as an unacceptable level of crime in downtown Birmingham. As businessman after businessman got up to relate examples of how downtown was quickly turning into a desperate crime area, Deutsch had finally had enough. “You know what?” he thundered in his thick Bronx accent. “You people make me sick. You talk about this being a crime area. Let me tell you what a crime area is. A crime area is when two big Irish cops with loaded shotguns in their squad car’s back window will not drive 60 miles an hour down a neighborhood street. Now that’s a crime area. But you people are so pitiful you’re going to give up on your downtown just because you’ve got a couple of small-time hubcap thieves.” That shut ‘em up!

For years, the “Greg & Courtney” show was the top radio show in town, first on WKXX-FM (Kicks 106) in the early ’80s and then on WZRR-FM (Rock 99) in the early ’90s. Young, hip and totally irreverent, the pair kept Birmingham in stitches in their role as morning drive-time radio hosts. Courtney Haden, in particular, had a vast command of the English language, an enormous wit and great storytelling abilities, plus the ability to mimic all types of accents. In addition to their radio show, he and his partner, Greg Bass, owned and ran Boutwell Studios where they produced commercials for a wide range of clients. Inasmuch as I was always producing multi-image slide shows to announce a campaign or to help train volunteers, I would periodically ask them to produce an all-important soundtrack for the Chamber. Since we never had a budget at the Chamber for such luxuries, I would ask them to donate their services as their contribution to the work of the Chamber. Generous, community-minded souls that they were, they always agreed. One December, I found myself working late with Courtney at Boutwell as he put the finishing touches on yet another one of my soundtracks. We finally finished around 9 p.m. and as we wrapped up, I thanked Courtney effusively for helping me once again. As we stood by the receptionist’s desk, I asked him earnestly if there was 153


anything I could do for him in return. “Well, Tom, we are collecting money for Children’s Hospital this holiday, so if you wanted to drop a few bills into our collection box, that would be nice.” The box was gaily decorated for Christmas with a slot on top along with an accompanying hand-printed sign saying something like “Help Make A Child Happy this Christmas.” Impossible to miss, the box was sitting prominently on the desk right beside us. “Absolutely,” I responded and eagerly pulled out my wallet. To my total astonishment, there wasn’t even a single dollar bill in there. Nothing. Embarrassed, I stuck my hand into my pants pocket and discovered some loose change, less than 50 cents. I pulled it all out and dropped it into the box. The few coins clattered and tinkled metallicaly as they landed in the bottom of the box. I felt like the living personification of Ebenezer Scrooge. “Oh, thank you, sir,” Courtney immediately said, mimicking his best British accent, sounding for all the world like Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol. “Tiny Tim and all the lads shall be so happy this Christmas morn!” It was a perfectly played put-down and even though I was the butt of the joke, we both laughed uproariously. To this day, it never fails to bring a smile to my face whenever I think of him!

154

Courtney Haden and Gail at the Eddie Kendricks Memorial Dedication.

Courtney and Greg, beloved morning radio team.


World’s Greatest Photographer Was One Cool SOB Act V/Scene 2: 7th Floor, Commerce Center, 1982 Now I’m lookin’ at a flashback Sunday Zoom lens feelings just won’t disappear Close-up darkroom sweet-talk in my ear Her hot-spot love for me is strong This freeze-frame moment can’t be wrong Freeze Frame, J. Geils Band

Spider Martin hard at work.

J ames “Spider” Martin was the bravest, most fearless and utterly frank man I ever knew. Maybe all of five feet tall, this former Hueytown High School football fireball earned his nickname due to the way he darted back and forth on the grid155


Spider and the author with the Chamber team on a tour of Jim Walter #5 Mine.

iron, smashing into players almost twice his size. seven guys who could rise to the level of hilarity! I first came into his orbit at the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce where he was the longtime photographer for Birmingham Magazine. His photo lab was located right across the hall from my office. It was impossible not to notice the many attractive female models who were always coming and going. One day, as I was busily immersed in yet another “save the world” Chamber project, concentrating like fury, a chair scraped across the floor. I looked up to find a beautiful young woman suddenly sitting next to me. Pretty darn close to me. She brazenly put her hand on my knee. “Tell me what you’re working on,” she cooed. I hesitantly answered and told her. She asked another question or two and I could tell she was beginning to look confused. “But what is the name of the movie you’re casting for?” she asked. With that, I heard Spider cackle out in the hallway. “Honey, I’m sorry. He’s just the fundraiser for the Chamber of Commerce.” The young woman immediately huffed out of my office and I tried to refocus on my work. You don’t bill yourself as “the greatest photographer in the world” without be156


Spider, far left and the author, far right, with Buffalo Rock Soccer Club.

ing pretty darn good. Once, Gail hired him to take the annual report portrait of legendary Birmingham banker Harry Brock. She ushered the short-statured photographer into Brock’s private office and introduced the two. The 6’ 3”, powerful CEO immediately started booming out instructions. “Spider, I want you to shoot my left profile and I want to be posed over here by the window, with my right hand resting on these financial reports.” Spider stared at him unblinkingly. Then, answering him in his confident, deeply Southern Hueytown accent, he said “Harry.” (For the record, nobody called Mr. Brock “Harry,” possibly not even his wife.) “Harry, let’s make a deal. I won’t tell you how to run your bank and you won’t tell me how to take your pitcher.” (Pitcher being how Spider pronounced the word “picture.”) Brock immediately backed down and Spider went about his work.

In Spider’s role as Birmingham Magazine photographer, I got to go with him on several of his “shoots,” including this one deep into the Jim Walter #5 Mine. Naturally, he shot the magazine’s cover photo each month. One month, the editor had decided to do the cover feature on Khalil Mu157


hammed, the owner of the Golden Temple, the longstanding Birmingham health food restaurant. Khalil was a local guy who had adopted an exotic look for himself by dressing in flowing robes and always wearing a turban. For the cover shot, Spider decided to shoot him cross-legged, in the lotus position on the sidewalk in front of the door to his store. As Spider and his assistants readied Khalil for the shot, he asked, “You’re not going to make me look weird, are you?” Spider stepped back, put his hands on his hips. “Make you look weird?” he said, in his Hueytown accent. “Man, you are weird. You wear a turban around Birmingham every day.” End of discussion. I introduced Spider to the game of soccer. He took to it with a vengeance and got the local bottling company, Buffalo Rock, to be our sponsor. With what he lacked in foot skill, he more than made up for in speed and fearlessness. All around the league, it was said of Spider “he has no respect for his own body, so just imagine how he feels about yours.” The speedy fireplug of a guy would run into people all over the field and knock them down like so many bowling pins. My first introduction to guys from the Middle East came from playing soccer. Invariably, they were talented players but seemingly given (and I know you should never generalize) to volcanic outbursts of fury. Once, one of the Iranian players on the team we were playing picked up a brick and threw it at the referee after a questionable call. He coulda killed him. This same guy later picked a fight with Spider. Once again, Spider found himself looking up to a guy who was probably a foot taller than he. Spider very sincerely told the guy to “wait right here while I go to my car and get my pistol.” It was just the way he said it that the guy (and everyone else) knew Spider wasn’t kidding and that he was just crazy enough to do it. Needless to say, the Iranian backed down and quickly apologized. Unbelievably, Spider took his own life in his early 60s. A huge throng assembled at the Hueytown church for his funeral service. I sat next to Joe O’Donnell, then editor of Birmingham Magazine. At the close of the service, he said, “you know, I really thought that just before the service would end, that Spider would jump out from behind a curtain and shock us all one last time.” Sadly, he didn’t. Spider with Gail and author following 10K run. 158


Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte Act V/Scene 3: 7th Floor Telemarketing Room, Commerce Center, 1985 “Hush hush, sweet Charlotte Charlotte, don’t you cry Hush hush, sweet Charlotte He’ll love you till he dies” Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Patti Page

F

or years and years, the conventional wisdom in Birmingham was that if we ever wanted our town to establish itself as truly “big league,” then we needed to succeed at bringing a Major League Sports franchise to town. While we toyed with possible options in baseball and basketball, and later soccer, what our town really wanted was an NFL franchise. After all, Birmingham was at its heart a football hotbed and the NFL was the ultimate symbol of “big league.” In the 1980s, a blue-ribbon NFL task force was established by the Chamber of Commerce, led by the imminently respectable Houston Blount (and staffed by my friend George Jenkins.) This group of movers and shakers went aggressively after the NFL, traveling nationwide to make the case for an expansion franchise for Birmingham. Time after time, we would hear that the NFL was essentially a very private, very exclusive “owner’s club.” And before they would seriously consider Birmingham, a prospective local owner had to be identified. This person would have to be deep pocketed and someone they would be willing to consider allowing “membership” in their exclusive club. Alas, the only possible owner we had with the necessary millions (and the football ownership interest) was Richard Scrushy, who would be convicted of bribery, conspiracy, and mail fraud. Meanwhile, Birmingham was sought out by a succession of aspirant football 159


leagues. And, if you squinted hard enough (and, believe me, we surely did), you could convince yourself that these leagues maybe, just maybe, could be a possible stepping stone to the Holy Grail of the NFL. Each time one of these leagues would surface, all of us Chamber of Commerce types would consider that our town’s reputation was once again at stake so, hair on fire, we did everything we could to engender the robust fan support that was considered critical. Out of all the leagues that passed through Birmingham (including the World Football League, the World League of American Football, the Canadian Football League, the XFL and the Alliance of American Football), the one with probably the most promise as a bonafide stepping stone to the NFL was the USFL and its local team, the Birmingham Stallions. This impression was actually based on some sound evidence. Not only did the USFL boast 18 teams in major city markets (Chicago, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh), but it had deep pocketed CEOs in the front offices and a number of bonafide football stars like Doug Flutie, Hershell Walker and Greg Landry on the rosters. Here in Birmingham, our team owner was Marvin Warner, a local guy who had made it big in the financial world in Cincinnati, and he added established stars with big league appeal to the Birmingham roster such as Joe Cribbs and Cliff Stoudt. This led the Stallions to solid attendance numbers and our city increasingly thought that the Stallions just might be, finally, our ticket to the big leagues. The infamous Donald Trump even bought into the league and pushed a plan to move the league from a spring league to the fall – to compete head to head with the NFL and to presumably allow a number of the USFL franchises to get merged into the NFL. Which actually matched up with our aspirations perfectly. Unfortunately, during the Stallions’ third year, Mr. Warner suffered a devastating financial setback. The Securities and Exchange Commission shut down a Florida-based securities dealer that resulted in a run on his Cincinnati-based S&L. The crash that followed was considered one of the very first in the nationwide S&L crisis that was to unfold soon thereafter. Unfortunately, this particular S&L was 160


Marvin Warner’s source of the Stallions’ necessary line of credit. So all of a sudden, Warner was out and the Stallions’ near-term finances looked bleak. This sudden uncertainty of the Stallions’ financing led a Charlotte businessman, George Shinn, to announce an interest in buying the Stallions and moving them to his North Carolina city. It became clear that if the Stallions didn’t attract a huge crowd to Legion Field for the upcoming game against the Oakland Invaders, then the Birmingham team would move, probably the week following the game. So once again, it was “do-or-die” for good ole Birmingham. With our experience in balls-to-the-wall telemarketing campaigns, and our willingness to throw ourselves under any bus for the betterment of Birmingham, Alan Martin and I stepped up. We offered to put together an all-out, weeklong emergency telephone blitz to sell the necessary tickets and give assurance to the remaining Stallions investors that Birmingham would still support its team, Marvin Warner or no Marvin Warner. We came up with what we thought was a clever name for the campaign, Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, a popular movie from the 60s and the name of a top twenty hit in 1965. Alan and I recruited five ten-man corporate teams to call the entire 4,000 or so Chamber members in one week, asking them to each purchase a 25-ticket package. The package included a pregame party at the Hilton and bus tickets to the game. All in all, the campaign was a huge success and we sold 279 packages providing $73,234 in critically needed funding to the Stallions. This game on April 13, 1985, drew a crowd of 47,000 which would be the largest crowd of the year for the Stallions. The Stallions didn’t move to Charlotte and survived here in Birmingham, but it was ultimately all for naught as the entire league went out of business that summer. So Birmingham lost this pathway to the NFL. Adding more insult to injury, Charlotte and Jacksonville (FL) landed their own NFL expansion franchises eight years later. Regrettably, our NFL Task Force, ever in search of the single deep pocketed owner to showcase, alas, bore no fruit. And Birmingham continued in its NFL role of always being the bridesmaid but never the bride. To this day, what rankled us Birmingham boosters the most is that there is no way humanly possible that any city in the basketball-mad state of North Carolina, 161


much less Charlotte, could ever raise a candle to the level of Birmingham’s yearround obsession with football. So, embarrassingly enough, we ultimately had to admit that we lost out to Charlotte, of all places. But unlike the sappy lyrics of the “Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte” song, forgive us if we do not love Charlotte till the day we die.

162


Hit It (You SOB.) Act V/Scene 4: AmSouth Bank Executive Offices, 1985 “I’m gonna wait till the stars come out And see that twinkle in your eyes I’m gonna wait ‘till the midnight hour That’s when my love begins to shine” “In the Midnight Hour,” Wilson Pickett

s 1985 drew to a close, the Birmingham business community began making A feverish preparations for the All American Bowl game between Michigan State and Georgia Tech. At 38 years of age, I got dramatically thrown right into the middle of it. Without a doubt, it was a ridiculous moment. There Alan Martin and I stood, 163


in the most imposing corporate office in Birmingham, trying to carefully explain to two of the top banking executives in the state exactly who Wilson Pickett was. As in the “Wicked Pickett.” As in “Mustang Sally.” But I’m getting ahead of the story. And any story involving a Guinness Book of World Records attempt with 60,000 kazoos, 50 lost Boy Scouts, a triple Courvoisier and Coke and front-page Wall Street Journal coverage deserves to be told. It all began on a chilly early December afternoon. I received an intercom call from my boss, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, to drop everything and come up to his office immediately to meet with the top two execs at the largest bank in town. As I eased myself into a chair, the bank execs were already talking. “We need a little help from the Chamber. We’ve got two really good college teams in Michigan State and Georgia Tech coming to play in our All American Bowl on New Year’s Eve.” The lead guy paused, leaned forward in my direction, looked me squarely in the face and asked, “Couldn’t the Chamber come up with something to really help show off our city?” Assuming the question was directed at me, I stammered “What did you have in mind?” “Well, we’d leave that up to you. Maybe something at halftime to make the game a little more fun. Maybe something for the fans to do after the game. That’s all.” Having had no advance knowledge of this request, I lamely answered, “Well, give me a day or two and I’ll come up with some recommendations.” Rising from their chairs, the other guy solemnly ordered, “Just don’t wait too long. You’ve got less than 30 days to pull this off.” With that, they were gone. Back in my office, I dazedly looked at my already bulging to-do list. I had volunteered on several bowl games before, but mostly on attendance committees with friends like Steve Spencer and Jim Black. But this task was all on me. Suddenly, it dawned on me that I’d been given neither staff nor budget to solve this. Wonderful. Nonetheless, that very evening, I had an epiphany. I remembered reading in the paper not that long ago that Vanderbilt University had attempted to get in the Guinness Book of World Records. They planned to put together the “world’s largest kazoo orchestra” at one of their football games. Surely, whatever Vandy had been able to do at a football game, we could improve on here in Birmingham, then well known as the “Football Capital of the South.” It was time to go to work. I called the athletic director’s office at Vandy and found out that they only had 35,286 kazoo players in their Guinness attempt. Knowing that our bowl officials were planning on over 60,000 attending our All American Bowl, I somehow found and called a kazoo source (there was, of course, no internet then) and asked for a price on 60,000 imprinted kazoos that could be shipped to Birmingham no later than December 31. The guy on the other end of the line paused. “Say what?” I repeated my request. 164


Frankly, I was pleasantly surprised when he said he could do it for $10,000. Now all I needed was a corporate sponsor and I figured I would be relatively home free. Following some maniacal wheeling and dealing over a frantic two-day period, one of Birmingham’s leading adult beverage companies agreed to sponsor the kazoos. Next up, we needed to come up with something quick for these football fans to do after the game on New Year’s Eve. As we looked around for some type of name entertainment to build a party around on the biggest party night of the year, we quickly learned that anybody that you’d ever heard of was already either booked or too expensive. Stewart Dansby suggested “Otis Day & the Knights,” but they were already booked. “What do you think about Wilson Pickett?” the booking agency guy asked. Images of Animal House-type basement fraternity parties immediately sprang to mind. “I’ll take it!” I said impulsively. The next afternoon, my Alabama Power colleague Alan Martin and I found ourselves talking to those two top bankers in the largest bank in Alabama. “You wanted something fun for halftime and we got it: the world’s largest kazoo orchestra. You wanted something after the game and we got it: Wilson Pickett.” Judging from their blank expressions, we added, “You know, the guy who sings ‘I can’t wait till the midnight hour’ – and it’ll be New Year’s Eve.” Still, nothing but blank looks. The bank execs paused, frowning as we enthusiastically pitched the concept of 60,000 kazoo players and a big party with a name band playing for all ticket stub holders at the Civic Center immediately after the game. It wasn’t until the New Year’s Eve party was in full throw down mode three weeks later that we realized these two button-downed, pinstriped Mountain Brook bank execs, when they ok’d the $10,000 fee, thought we were talking about hiring Gary Puckett as in the Union Gap; the group on the left. A sedate, British pop band. Definitely not Wilson Pickett, as in the hard-rockin’, rafter shakin’, screamin’ sweet soul pleaser. (Can you say “horrified?”) But back to the story. So after only three days, we had a sponsor, 60,000 kazoos on the way and Wilson Pickett under contract. Things were looking up. Of course, there was a mountain of logistical details to take care of. We went ahead and also ordered 60,000 New Year’s Eve hats to give out at Legion Field to add to what we hoped would be a festive air. Contracts had to be signed, tickets had to be printed, and all the marketing and public relations stuff had to be done. Buses were arranged to transport the out of towners from Legion Field to the Civic Center and security, doormen and ticket takers all had to be lined up. Birmingham’s top radio team at the time, Mark & Brian (later of LA fame), were persuaded to introduce Wilson Pickett at midfield at halftime to direct the crowd in the three songs necessary to get in the Guinness 165


Book of World Records. We also recruited 50 Boy Scouts to help distribute the kazoos at Legion Field. The big day arrived. All was in readiness. Or so we thought. On the phone at the beginning of the day was the tense executive director of the All American Bowl. “You do know that the primary TV sponsor for the game is the other major brewery in America?” I responded, “That would be the one whose name is not on every one of those 60,000 kazoos.” He sighed. “You got that right. And if anything from your sponsor bleeds over onto the live broadcast, the bowl is out $500,000.” I gulped, not saying anything. “You will have a six-minute window after the bands complete their halftime show to do your kazoo promotion and not one second more.” “Not a problem,” I said, trying to sound confident. Stewart Dansby and I went together to the airport on New Year’s Eve to pick up Wilson Pickett at 3:00pm. His flight was delayed. An hour-and-a-half later, we

The author with Wilson Pickett and his girlfriend.

quite easily spotted him getting off the plane. Not that it was hard. Maybe it was the Gatsby-esque fur-collared overcoat. Or maybe it was the leggy Las Vegas-style showgirl clinging to his arm. Welcome to America’s Magic City,” Stewart courteously articulated in his best Mountain Brook.Club accent. Wilson gave a weary grunt of acknowledgment. 166


Whisking him into Delta’s Crown Room, we sat down with Wilson and his girlfriend to go over his halftime presentation in front of 60,000 kazoo-ers. Maybe Wilson just didn’t want to be bothered with details. Perhaps. But I got a distinct impression that he couldn’t read the very carefully timed script. Wilson was unconcerned about his band. Only that they were not to ride with him or stay in his hotel. “Drumsticks,” one of his band members muttered as we started to part company with the band members at the airport. “Yeah, gotta love ‘em,” I answered inanely. “Can’t go on without ‘em” he said. “What?” I croaked. The band didn’t have drumsticks. “It’s five minutes till six pm on a New Year’s Eve Saturday night and you tell me you’ve got no drumsticks?” Moments later, Stewart, Wilson, the girl and I were hurtling down I-20 in the direction of Nuncie’s Music Store. Frantically beating on the locked doors, we finally got the attention of a bored security guard and somehow talked him into taking $20 for a pair of drumsticks. Whew, I thought, crisis averted. “I’m sorry, but we’re not allowed to let anyone check in just yet,” the girl at the Redmont Hotel desk announced in a bored tone of voice. The Redmont had just concluded a full restoration and today was its first day to reopen. Evidently, the city fire inspector was not through checking all the fire alarms and prohibited any guests from checking in. “When can our guests checkin?” I asked. Just then, one of our trusted volunteers, Allen Farr of Alabama Power, came driving up in the long, black limousine for Wilson’s dramatic entrance into Legion Field. Thankfully, Wilson asked for a tour of the city so we left the three of them and rushed to the stadium. There were details to attend to and kickoff was now just an hour away. Earlier, before Stewart and I had left for the airport, we had asked John Tate, a fellow Chamber staffer, to take the hand trucks out to Legion Field in case the 50 Boy Scouts needed any assistance in distributing the kazoos to all eighteen gates. The kazoos would be distributed by ticket-takers who would urge fans to pick one up as they passed through the turn styles. If the fans didn’t get them then, there would be no way logistically possible to get them to the fans once they were in the stands. Gate 7, Legion Field, 6:15pm. A light, misting, cold December kind of rain was beginning to fall. No Boy Scouts. No John. Where was everyone? (Remember, there were no cellphones then.) Finally, a distraught and disheveled John rushed pell-mell into view. His tie was askew and his trench coat flapped in the breeze behind him as he jogged towards us, pushing an empty hand truck. “Cosby, there ain’t no Boy Scouts and there is a mountain of kazoos to be moved.” Quickly, he led us to the storage room where our 60,000 kazoos had been stored 167


upon arrival that very morning. (Yes, everything was down to the wire!) We were completely unprepared for what we saw. A large storage room was stacked with cardboard boxed kazoos to the ceiling, completely filled to the brim. And nobody was there to distribute them to the 18 gates at Legion Field but the three of us. (Later, we found out that because rain was forecast for the game, the Scoutmaster took it on himself to cancel the boys as he figured the “kazoo thing” was off.) Forty-five minutes to kickoff. While John frantically rushed out to another gate with his hand trucks loaded head high, Stewart and I commandeered an empty golf cart/first aid wagon, loaded it beyond capacity with boxed kazoos and took off on a Bobby Allison-style floorboarded circuit of the gates. I drove and Stewart stood in the back, frantically slinging off boxes of kazoos to startled ticket takers without even stopping. Finally, just as the first trickle of fans started arriving, we had emptied the entire storage room and there were multiple boxes of kazoos at every gate. For the first time in what seemed like hours, we drew a breath of relief. Fans filed in, picking up their kazoos, laughing and humming into the instruments. It was working! Well, sort of. To my utter horror and disbelief, many of the fans were blowing into their kazoo, like they thought it was a flute. Fortunately,

One of the 60,000 kazoos ordered for the All American Bowl halftime promotion and paid for by Birmingham’s Supreme Beverage.

others showed them how to hum into it. Quickly, the first half drew to a close. Allen Farr and his black limousine eased onto the track circling the field with Wilson, his woman friend and our chief corporate sponsor. 168


We checked and then rechecked last-minute details with Mark & Brian, while the TV guy kept reiterating to me loudly over the walkie talkie how absolutely tight the six-minute window was. The Guinness Book of World Records kazoo orchestra was going to have to happen with military precision. Showtime. “Three, two, one, OK go!” the producer shouted into my walkie talkie. Nothing. Where were Mark and Brian? Frantically, Stewart and I rushed around the mob of band members from Georgia Tech and Michigan State who were exiting the field. Finally, we spotted the two radio personalities, hidden behind the cloud of smoke from the fireworks show that had just ended. They were casually tossing a football back and forth behind the Georgia Tech bench. Screaming at them, I finally got their attention. They smiled nonchalantly and tossed the ball to me. And sauntered to the middle of the field where the microphone hooked up to the stadium PA stood. “Good evening Birmingham!” they shouted. The network man growled to me over the walkie talkie, “You’ve now wasted 60 seconds of your window.” Of course, Mark and Brian didn’t follow their carefully timed script. After what seemed like an eternity, they finally said: “Birmingham, let’s welcome the Wicked Pickett, who’s going to lead us in the three kazoo songs we need to perform together to qualify for the Guinness Book of World Records!” With that as a cue, Wilson and the beverage company executive strolled out to the midfield. The crowd roared its approval, anticipating excitement after a snooze of a first half. “You’re down to 180 seconds,” the network man barked over my walkie talkie. The large soul singer was bedecked in a black leather jumpsuit that was opened to his navel plus with enough costume jewelry to make Mr. T jealous. Accompanied by the short, pinstriped suited corporate exec made for a most unlikely looking couple. No matter. The exec had bought the kazoos and he wanted to be out there, 169


so I wanted him to be out there Wilson was definitely in full show-biz mode. He gestured magnificently to the crowd in the east stands, then the west, then both end zones. “Tell that SOB to hurry up,” the TV exec ordered. To help the spectators play as one, we had the three songs on tape to play over the PA system for the crowd to hum along on Wilson’s cue. We had tested it repeatedly the day before. Finally, the moment. Wilson asked the crowd to lift their kazoos to their lips. “Hit it!” he howled into the microphone. We awaited the playing of the first song. Nothing. “Hit… It...” he yelled more slowly. Like if he said it more slowly, it would help somehow. Again, nothing. “You better make sure something happens soon buddy, ‘cause you’re about to run out of time,” the TV exec snarled to me. Finally, the tape started and it was wondrous. Although the paper reported later that we only had 45,000 in attendance, the sound of all those kazoos playing “Stars and Stripes Forever” washed over me, filling me with a sense of near ecstasy. A reporter from the Detroit Free Press covering Michigan State turned to the Post-Herald writer next to him and said, “You guys really know how to have fun down South.” It was quickly time for the second song. Again, Wilson ordered “Hit it!” and the tape player responded, this time exactly on cue as 45,000 kazoo players hummed as one through a few bars of “Auld Lang Syne.” Reality struck. “That’s it. You’re out of time. We’re back to live broadcast. Tell those two SOBs to get the (blank) off the field” the TV exec ordered. I was stunned. Wilson and the corporate exec were still at midfield, talking into the microphone soundlessly as it had now been disconnected from the stadium PA system. The problem was that the third and final song was not only necessary to get us officially into the Guinness Book of World Records, but it was the sponsoring execs’ national beer 170


jingle and the major reason why his company had picked up the $10,000 sponsorship. Aargggh…. Jogging out to midfield as the football players began assuming their positions for the kickoff, I had to tap my sponsor and Wilson on the shoulders. “Uhhh, excuse me, gentlemen. We’ve run out of time and aren’t going to be able to play the third song.” Wilson said, “Ok, man, fine by me” and turned and started walking off the field. My sponsor stood there for a moment, glaring at me. I swear I could see smoke pouring out of his ears. The rest of the evening was relatively anti-climactic. Thousands of New Year’s Eve revelers showed up at Wilson’s party at the Civic Center. The balloon drop at midnight while Wilson and his band cranked out his big hit “In the Midnight Hour” was a smash. The shock on the two bank execs’ faces when they arrived in the middle of a smokin’ blues set and realized that this entertainer was definitely not in any way Gary Puckett and the Union Gap was priceless. The lead guitarist who demanded a “triple Courvoisier and Coke.” (Yes, they did have such a drink at the BJCC, even way back then, it cost Stewart $10.) The rental van that we lent Wilson’s band members that broke down at 2:00am and had to be replaced. What a night and what a New Year’s Eve. Epilogue #1 Three years later, The Wall Street Journal called me. They found my name from a USA Today article that had reported our Guinness Book of World Records attempt at the time it happened. They wanted to interview me for a story they were planning on some of the craziest Guinness Book attempts on record. My good pal Alan Martin cautioned me to get our kazoo sponsor’s approval before participating in the interview. For the first time since immediately after the event, I called the kazoo sponsor. “Hello,” I brightly said. “Do you remember me?” Without hesitation, he growled, “To my dying day.” He graciously gave his permission and the nationwide edition of The Wall Street Journal later ran a frontpage, headline story titled “How Many Kazoos Does It Take to Set a Guinness Record?” I had my moment of fame and was quoted throughout the story. Unfortunately, I was also connected with the words “ridiculous,” “ill-fated,” and “idiots.” 171


Churchillian quotations, they were not. And no, our kazoo orchestra never got into the Guinness Book of World Records. Epilogue #2 Twenty years later, Gail and I were invited to a wedding reception for one of her former bosses and his new bride. As we drove to the posh address on the invitation, I asked: “do we know whose home this is?” Gail didn’t know. We walked up the long driveway to the elegant Mountain Brook home. Just inside the door was a welcoming line of family members, including the bride and groom. To my horror, at the end of the receiving line stood the host who was also the kazoo sponsor from back in 1985. He shook my hand but clearly didn’t recognize me. He told me how glad he was that we were there and to make ourselves fully at home and to enjoy ourselves. Notwithstanding my many flaws, I am unable to not come clean in such situations. While he still was shaking my hand, I asked: “You don’t remember me, do you?” A vague look of “wait-a-damn-minute” slowly crept over his face. “I’m Tom Cosby with the Chamber of Commerce. We worked together on the All American Bowl kazoo project 20 years ago.” Squeezing my hand in a vice-like grip, he stared me straight in my eyes with an inscrutable poker face, neither smiling nor frowning. He spat out slowly and evenly through clenched teeth “You - son - of - a - bitch.” Was he still mad? Was he kidding? I didn’t want to press the matter at his home on this otherwise happy occasion. Unfortunately, he passed away a few months later without me ever finding out. So I guess he did remember me until his dying day. .

172


The “HUB” Club (“Hurry up, Birmingham!) Act V/Scene 5: Bogue’s Restaurant, Southside Birmingham, 1988-2000 “I wanna fly like an eagle To the sea Fly like an eagle Let my spirit carry me” “Fly Like An Eagle,” The Steve Miller Band

T

o understand how Birmingham fell so far behind its peer cities in air service, it’s worth remembering that Birmingham’s founding economy was established around manufacturing and mining. This was largely due to iron ore, coal and limestone all being available and in great quantities throughout the Birmingham mineral district. Surprisingly, this was one of the very few spots on the globe where such a raw materials bonanza occurred. But some of the men who ran the mines were, at least in my opinion, the absolute worst SOBs in this entire book. Embarrassingly, some Birmingham mine operators shamefully used convict labor to enhance the profitability of their mining operations for many years. As documented in the Pulitzer-prize winning book, Slavery By Another Name, county sheriffs would pick up African American men on 173


flimsy charges of loitering, jail them, charge them room and board – which they couldn’t pay in the largely cashless society of pre-WWII rural Alabama. So mine operators would pay off their “debt,” in return for keeping the prisoners in perpetual servitude, typically working them like slaves until the day they died. The convict laborers would be put in shackles, fed a thin gruel and worked 12-hour shifts deep in the mines. They were given a pickaxe and assigned a daily coal quota, which if they didn’t meet, they were horsewhipped at the end of the day. This practice was worse than slavery as the mine owners had utterly no financial stake in whether the convicts survived. If they died, the sheriff could simply provide a new supply. Even to this day, there are said to be untold hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unmarked graves of convict laborers in Pratt City. Unbelievably, this practice continued from Birmingham’s founding in 1871 until World War II. And though it was used elsewhere in the South, with Birmingham’s unique manufacturing-based economy, convict labor was used here more intensively than anywhere else. The reason it finally stopped then was because Nazi Germany’s public relations, in an effort to justify their treatment of the Jews, attempted to divert the world’s attention to the convict labor situation in the Deep South. Only then did FDR step in and finally end this unspeakably evil practice throughout the South, at last closing this sordid chapter in Birmingham. It was said that immediately after WWII, we possibly could’ve gotten Delta Airlines to hub here as Birmingham offered a more geographically desirable southeastern distribution point than Atlanta (Georgia.) However, the men (and they were all men) running our economy then were still mostly in the manufacturing sector with a restricted civic vision and cupidity that seemed limitless. They frankly looked at economic growth as a threat to maintaining their low wage workforce. As dispiriting as it is to a booster to admit it, no job growth meant they didn’t have to worry about losing employees -- or having to pay them more to keep them if new companies came in and tried to lure them away. On the other hand, for a city like Atlanta (Georgia), with an emphasis on a retail product like Coca-Cola, population growth meant a more profitable economy. Further complicating matters, two-thirds of the land in Jefferson County was then owned by just two companies: Alabama By-Products and Pittsburgh-based US Steel. Plus, home rule was denied Birmingham by the state legislature. Bottom line, we faced significant headwinds when it came to rallying the leadership around airline growth. Around this time, one of the more apocryphal quotes from a typical Birmingham manufacturer was a brusque dismissal of the importance of air service by trotting out the old trope “last time I checked, no one was shipping much iron on airplanes.” The fact that we provided pig iron for fashioning into steel in Pittsburgh at super low prices told US Steel that if we diversified our economy, the pricing might change. The same was true for car manufacturers in Detroit. Therefore, even the largest customers for our biggest companies didn’t support any emphasis on re174


cruiting airlines. So instead of offering airlines fuel tax abatements like other cities, we were of the narrow minded opinion that we would add surcharges should any airline dare to want to hub in Birmingham. Crazy. But Birmingham’s economy started diversifying despite itself and things gradually started changing. During my time in civic work, 1977 to present, it became increasingly apparent that one of the biggest headwinds facing Birmingham’s economic development was the relative dearth of non-stop air service to and from BHM. By now, it was widely understood that “corporate America lives in the air” and generally accepted as a primary reason we were losing corporate headquarters -- and why we were so unsuccessful in recruiting new ones. But inadequate airline service was just like the weather - everyone talked about it, but no one seemed to ever do anything about it. By the 1980s, to even the most myopic flat-earthers in our corporate leadership, it was abundantly clear that manufacturing was not coming back, at least not to the level it once held. The future was represented by jobs represented by healthcare, UAB, banking, insurance, real estate, construction – not to mention technology today --- and they all needed nonstop flights. But by then, Delta was too well established in ATL to consider changing and BHM suffered from being just too close to offer them a geographic advantage. Key colleagues Troy Haas, Alan Martin, Stewart Dansby and Edward Shelswell-White felt that another part of the air service problem was that Birmingham had lost its entrepreneurial zeal and had suffered for decades by not having aggressive enough deal makers at the Metropolitan Development Board (MDB) and the Chamber – now the Birmingham Business Alliance (BBA). It seemed clear to us that no one was aggressively making a deal to any airline to get them to hub here. Both the MDB and its successor, the BBA, made a habit of primarily celebrating modest local expansions of existing businesses or new companies blowing in under the proverbial doorstop as pitiable evidence of economic development. And most surprisingly to me, the board members who paid the freight for both organizations were either too polite to protest --- or too focused on their own company’s quarterly reports to demand a better explanation for lackluster job creation from their professional recruiters. (Of course, there were occasional exceptions, but these were few and far between.) Time after time, you would hear weak economic development results explained away to the Chamber board with a sigh, “Well, we just don’t have the necessary level of air service to keep/recruit such-and-such a company.” It appeared to be generally accepted that this was just a fact of life, as unchangeable and immutable as the rotation of the earth around the sun. Adding more intractability to the situation, it appeared that the Birmingham Airport Authority was either more than willing to accept the status quo and/or never had any real deal makers on their team, either. One airport authority official was 175


even heard to say, “Why would we even want international flights? That would just mean more headaches for everyone.” Meanwhile, Birmingham was at best just treading water, falling ever more behind our formerly peer cities in the Southeast. “Hurry Up Birmingham” was the name we gave the aforementioned group of over-caffeinated boosters when we started meeting for breakfast on Friday mornings at Bogue’s Restaurant in the 1980s. And we called ourselves the HUB Club because back then most of the major airlines were establishing hubs in cities all across America. And even if no one at the CEO level or Airport Authority thought it was remotely possible for BHM to land one for our city, as young bucks, we at least wanted to make sure the effort was made. Of course, throughout all of this time, my primary job was fundraising for the Chamber. In this capacity, I had discovered the incredible value of dangling free airline tickets to motivate my sales volunteers. Back then, all the airlines had station managers in Birmingham with some degree of authority, so I had gotten to know all of them. It became more and more apparent that there was little an airline wouldn’t do in return for better visibility with the corporate community, their bread-and-butter customers. Several airlines were in an expansion mode and, in 1987, Piedmont (later to be merged into USAir) had just named Winston-Salem as their newest mini-hub – and announced that they were considering establishing a second Southeastern minihub, perhaps in Nashville. When we asked about how we were going after this opportunity, we were poohed-poohed by, first, the MDB and, then, Don Newton. They both condescendingly told us that everything that could be done to make the case for BHM had been already been done and we need not concern ourselves with that. 176


“What? Over? Did you say ‘over’? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!” John Belushi (as Bluto), Animal House Young, testosterone-charged Turks that we were, we came up with several radical, in-your-face plans. One grandiose plan was to put up billboards in Winston-Salem pledging BHM’s support to Piedmont as their newest hub (presuming they chose us!), provide Piedmont with a list of Birmingham corporations pledged to have their people fly Piedmont exclusively, pay for a special fake edition of the Winston-Salem Journal “reporting” why Piedmont Airlines had chosen the Magic City (and distribute them to all Piedmont offices nationwide.) The final denouement was to organize a cavalcade of cars driving the then-new 55mph speed limit (that everyone despised and no one obeyed) two-abreast all the way from BHM to Winston-Salem, intentionally tying up traffic but demonstrating the futility of getting from BHM to INT. And then top it off with a rally in downtown Winston-Salem, replete with a sky-writing airplane billowing out “BHM Wants Piedmont!” Horrified that we might actually do this, Don Newton ordered me to shut this down. Later, we found out that a Birmingham coffee mug filled with peanuts had been sent to their VP of Scheduling. This was presented to us as proper evidence that “we had done all we could possibly do.” Needless to say, this only infuriated us. However, we were somewhat mollified to learn that the imminently respected BHM Airport Authority Chairman (and former Sonat exec) Hugh Morgan felt that airlines were already moving away from the hub-and-spoke model and moving to point-to-point service. With this in mind, and with the direct involvement and gifted leadership of Troy Haas and Stewart Dansby, the Aviation Committee of the Chamber shifted

Aviation Committee member Jim Townsend’s message went up throughout North Alabama.

177


gears and ceased the effort to get a hub. Instead, in the 1990s, we focused on securing more nonstop flights from our incumbent airlines. Over the years, our Aviation Committee implemented some very smart strategies. We got Jim Townsend, one of our top local ad agency Chamber members, to donate this billboard campaign. We worked with a Chamber member billboard company headquartered in Birmingham to put up these billboards statewide, but particularly around Huntsville, Anniston and Montgomery. We knew that in the final analysis, to get the nonstop service we wanted, we needed to increase the number of passengers using BHM – and didn’t want them to habituate themselves to using their local airport. The biggest deal we ever put together was the “Birmingham is Taking Off” campaign that we organized in 1998. This was a multifaceted approach where we organized a day-long site visit to Birmingham for CEOs and Schedule Planners for all of the nation’s major airlines and commuter airlines. Of course, we knew that most decisions on adding more flights were based on simple origination and destination data on passengers. But we were confident that if airline execs knew the exciting story of Birmingham’s renaissance, that they might add additional flights, particularly if they were facing a coin toss situation, say deciding whether to add a new nonstop in Birmingham or in Oklahoma City. Our biggest coup was getting Sen. Richard Shelby to come and be our keynote speaker. At the time, he was chair of the immensely powerful Senate Committee on Appropriations and held great sway over items of concern for the airlines The author with fellow Aviation Committee members Edward Shelswell-White and such as the Wright Amendment. (This Stewart Dansby at Bogue’s. had limited Southwest’s ability to expand out of Love Field in Dallas and wasn’t repealed until 2006.) The airlines took the bait and their executives all came to Birmingham en masse. At a huge luncheon at The Club, we worked insanely hard to put on an airtight, convincing presentation on BHM’s case for more air service. We put UAB’s story front and center as well as Mercedes’ then very-new story of how they came 178


into our area. Stewart Dansby got his friend Ola Kaellenius, then Mercedes’ young up-and-coming star (and, as of this writing, just recently named CEO of Daimler AG, Mercedes’ parent company!), to speak before the group at The Club atop Red Mountain. With an impressive backdrop of the city behind him, Kaellenius spoke very powerfully on Birmingham’s behalf – as did several other leading CEOs for our major corporations, the mayor and a couple of key state officials. We provided all airline execs with a compelling package of information on BHM, including a dramatic video, courtesy of Tinsley Van Durand. We toured them all around the city, developed great relationships and drove home our case with them. We also gave them a private tour of the Mercedes auto assembly plant – the first one to be built outside Germany since the early 1900s. As a result, we ended up securing several new nonstops for BHM, including NYC, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Our Aviation Committee kept the pressure on, making individual calls on all our incumbent airlines, taking trips to their headquarters cities. We made ever more cases for new air service – and did our part by promoting the new nonstops to our Chamber members; constantly reminding them that, now that we had these nonstops, it was up to them to “use it or lose it.” Throughout all of this, the Birmingham Airport Authority signaled their tremendous disgust with this as they wanted us to stop meddling in what they saw as their business. Their airport director would even come to our Aviation Committee meetings, pull his chair away from the conference table, turn it around and sit with his back to us. I could never understand this mentality, as I thought they should look at us as Tom Sawyer getting his picket fence painted for free. After 120 plus years, a group of local business leaders decided to end the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce and replace it with the Birmingham Business Alliance (BBA) in 2009. This was supposedly an umbrella organization combining the efforts of the Chamber, the MDB and Region 2020. That was the dream but the reality was that it was merely a continuation of the buffalo hunting MDB and the dissolution of the Chamber. Among many other unfortunate impacts, this decision resulted in the permanent shuttering of the Aviation Committee. In my opinion, it is a shame that the BBA no longer has a formal advocacy group such as an Aviation Committee to work directly with the Birmingham Airport Authority to help put more flights into our city’s beautiful, $200 million improved terminal.

179


You’re Gonna Love It Here! Act V/Scene 6: The Sandestin Hilton (1992) “Nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide Got nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide It’s not love, I’m a running from It’s the heartbreak I know will come ‘Cause I know you’re no good for me, but you’ve become a part of me” Nowhere To Run, Martha & the Vandellas

F

or better or for worse, Birmingham proudly referred to itself as the “Football Capital of the South” for many years. I say “for worse” because some people frankly considered such a slogan as damning our city with exceedingly faint praise. But others were fiercely proud of it and, for sure, it certainly wasn’t an unfounded claim. After all, Birmingham had hosted the first Alabama-Auburn game way back in 1893. And we had been the home of the Iron Bowl since its re-inception in 1948 when it started its steady ascendancy into the most intensive intercollegiate football rivalry in the nation. Additionally, Legion Field had hosted most of the larger home games for both Alabama and Auburn for decades. And why not? Legion Field had been enlarged to seat 83,000 by 1991. At the time, it was the largest stadium in the state and one of the largest stadia in the South. Plus, Birmingham had the necessary airlines, restaurants, buses, hotels and interstate connections to support such a national

180


level game that neither Tuscaloosa nor Opelika could Alan Martin Welcomes Roy Kramer of the SEC. hope to offer. And ever since ESPN first started broadcasting college football nationwide in 1982, no city anywhere could boast the TV viewing audiences that Birmingham offered week in and week out. The yearround enthusiasm for college football in the Magic City was almost unimaginable. So “Football Capital of the South?” Hell, yeah! In 1987, the NCAA announced that it would allow any conference with 12 members to split into two divisions and stage a championship game. Soon enough,

An example of “Orchestrated Spontaneity.”

181


Miss Alabama Resha Riggins Welcomes Jim Simmons, head of the Birmingham Football Foundation..

the SEC added Arkansas and South Carolina and the SEC became eligible to begin holding its own championship game. To us Birmingham boosters, the only logical place to hold such a game was Birmingham. Of course, Atlanta (Georgia) had other ideas. Fortunately, we had the perfect booster who stepped forward to lead the charge

The SEC delegation was blown away. 182


for our side. He was strategically brilliant, he was uncannily creative and, best of all, he had practically unlimited corporate financial resources. Who was this superman? Once again, my longtime friend, colleague and co-conspirator, Alan Martin. Alan was perfect for this role. Only 42, he was brimming with all the energy of “A Man In Full” and had a steady list of winsome successes both for his employer, Alabama Power and the community at large. (Not the least of which were innumerable Chamber campaigns, where his leadership and support had always proven invaluable to me.) Of course, Alan first went through all the typical due diligence, providing the SEC with 110%+ of their long list of qualifying requirements. Alan pulled together corporate partnerships from major companies like South Central Bell who offered such leaders as Barry Copeland to help out. He systematically secured all the necessary contracts providing stadium availability, letters of support from would-be game sponsors, letters of support from city and county governments (for law enforcement and all the other necessary commitments) and concessions. Not only that, but he successfully lobbied for letters of support from SEC schools, their presidents and even their athletic directors. Faced with fiercely competitive proposals, the SEC decided to make site visits to each of the applicant host cities. Alan and I had earlier worked together before on projects of what we referred to euphemistically as “orchestrated spontaneity” and this project was no different. The illusion would be created that our city was spontaneously enthusiastic about the game and fully supportive. Alan’s theme for the all-important site visit was “You’re Gonna Love It Here!” Word was sent out to gather the community at the Alabama Power headquarters building to demonstrate our citizens’ support to the visiting SEC delegation. Placards and t-shirts were printed with Alan’s slogan by the thousands. Taking no chances on how many from the community might show up, Alan made sure every single one of the 5,000 Alabama Power employees (or at least those who wanted to keep their jobs!) were assembled outside their building. Each of them wore their sloganed t-shirts, and as the delegation drove up, they waved their placards and enthusiastically chanted “SEC, SEC, SEC.” American citizens celebrating VJ Day in Times Square in 1945 couldn’t have appeared any more enthusiastic. As the SEC commissioners and other dignitaries stepped out of their motorcade in front of the Alabama Power headquarters building, Miss Alabama and her court greeted them. (Resha Riggins was Miss Alabama and happened to be a good friend of Gail’s and mine who had gone backpacking with us several times!) They were there to personally escort the dignitaries to a lavish reception preceding the presentation in the Alabama Power Auditorium. “You’re Gonna Love It Here” was emblazoned on everything that didn’t move, from cupcakes on the dessert table to hand towels in the restrooms. Anybody that was anybody in the Magic City was there to pledge their undying support. Of 183


course, the presentation brimmed with every luminary in town. The mayor was there beaming proudly, the county commission president and all the key titans of Birmingham business – plus sports world legends with Birmingham ties such as Bart Starr, the famed Green Bay Packers’ quarterback. “You’re gonna love it here” was stated over and over. SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer spoke to the assembled multitudes and was visibly taken with the unabashed enthusiasm. Again, this was 1991 and at the time, this “full-court press” came across as very fresh, new and unprecedentedly creative and aggressive. The SEC loved it and privately told us that the Atlanta (GA) reception had not been nearly as nice or as well thought out. We felt like they were already leaning our way. Of course, Atlanta (GA) was not going to go away meekly. When it came to economic development, they were the pros in the South – and they sure weren’t going to buckle under to Birmingham, a city four times smaller and one they had proudly compared themselves to ever since our bungling of the Civil Rights era. So the Georgians fought back with more money and of course dangled the use of their domed stadium for a game that would be, after all, played in notoriously bad December weather. The final decision finally came down to the 1992 Spring Meeting of the SEC in Destin, Florida. Each May, the SEC presidents, chancellors and their athletic directors would meet to cover important business. This May, they met primarily to review the SEC Championship game host proposals and then vote on which venue they preferred. The majority would rule. Many competitors would have simply awaited the outcome, realize they had taken their best shot and hope for the best. Not Alan Martin. He knew that now was the time to double down. This was where Birmingham’s traditional role as the “Avis,” the perennial #2 in any competition, came to our advantage. To win anything, we knew we had to counterpunch hard and outwork everybody else. Stealthily, Alan made a plan to get the attention of the 12 universities’ decision-makers. He knew that the all-important vote would be taken the first thing on the morning of the last day of the Spring Meeting. He also knew that the Atlanta folks had a small suite where they hoped to entertain a good number of the voters. Alan quietly rented the biggest ballroom in the host hotel, decorated it to the nth degree with “You’re Gonna Love It Here” paraphernalia: balloons, banners and lavish hors d’oeuvres and bars surrounding the room. He hired practically the en184


tire wait staff of the Sandestin Hilton, recruited lovely hostesses from Alabama and Auburn to be there (to pull for their home state venue), and the hostesses, the wait staff and all our reps proudly wore their “You’re Gonna Love It Here” buttons. And then, in his final coup de grace, he hired the nationally known band of Martha and the Vandellas to play through the night. The entire event had the intended effect of saying “Birmingham knows how to put on events, this thing has already been decided; Birmingham has won this thing – let’s celebrate!” They were the perfect band for the SEC guys and when they rocked through their 60’s classic hits of “Dancin’ in the Street” and “Heat Wave,” every single official left the Atlanta reception to see what in the hell was happening in the main ballroom. And then when Martha sang her biggest hit “Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide” the Birmingham delegation proudly sang along and everyone knew that Birmingham had nailed Atlanta (GA) and would win the vote in the morning. And so, much to Atlanta’s (GA) chagrin and eternal disbelief -- and due to the indefatigable work of Alan Martin -- the inaugural game came to Birmingham. Later that fall, Alabama did its part, finishing the season undefeated. With interest in the Tide at a fever pitch, the game attracted a sold-out crowd of 83,091 fans to Legion Field. Alas, the second year of the SEC championship did not go as well for the Magic City. But this was through no fault of the Birmingham committee. The problem was that while Florida won the eastern division, they had lost two games and were therefore out of the national championship hunt. Similarly, Alabama had lost two games (and tied one) and were also out of the national championship hunt. Auburn should have been in the game as western division champs after an 11-0 undefeated season. But due to NCAA violations, they weren’t allowed to play in the SEC championship and were ineligible for a bowl. Had Auburn been allowed, their fanatical (and long denied) fan base would have undoubtedly filled Legion Field to well beyond capacity. Bottom line, with two teams playing who were clearly out of the hunt for the national championship, the 1993 SEC championship game just didn’t matter. Every serious football fan knew it so the enthusiasm for both teams and the championship game was way off. Attendance at Legion Field on a wet, dreary, cold day predictably dropped from a sold-out 83,000 the year before to a still very respectable 76,000 for the battle of the also-rans. (Note: this is still larger than the 71,000 capacity for the current venue for the game, Mercedes Benz Stadium.) 185


Nonetheless, Roy Kramer (the Southeastern Conference commissioner) wasn’t happy and asked Birmingham to fork over additional money to compensate for the missing 7,000 fans. With all that Birmingham had already put into the game, that just wasn’t going to happen. As chairman of the game, Alan had to draw the line. Enough was enough. So of course, Atlanta (GA) stepped in, offered the money plus dangled the allure of the covered stadium to Kramer. The deal was quickly done and the sons of bitches took the game away from us. (And people wonder why people like this author so dislikes the so-called “city too busy to hate.”) As of this writing, the SEC championship game has now gone on for over 25 years. But not one single game in Atlanta has ever drawn as many fans attending as either of the first two SEC championships held in Birmingham. While you might argue other pros and cons of moving the game, having larger crowds is just not one of them. So one thing is for sure, numerically speaking, more fans found out they loved it here than they ever have in Georgia.

Many years later, (l-r) Barry Copeland, Alan Martin and I gathered for a drink in 2018 to show off our SEC championship watches and reminisce about this game. 186


The Largest Taxicab Fleet in the History of Alabama Act V/Scene 7: Legion Field, Birmingham, 1996 “Who’s gonna tell you when It’s too late? Who’s gonna tell you things aren’t so great? You can’t go on thinking nothing’s wrong But now who’s gonna drive you home tonight? Drive, The Cars

Jitney Fleet chairman Mike Goddard (second from left) and the author (second from right) before the bubble burst.

T

he news that Atlanta (Georgia) had been awarded the 1996 Summer Olympic games on September 18, 1990, was one of those things that greatly conflicted true Birmingham boosters. On the one hand, it was undeniably cool that the Olympics would be held just 150 miles from the Magic City, but once again, it was Atlanta. Hosting the Olympics would just provide more fuel for their insufferable arrogance. But then, in 1992, to our shock and amazement, the Atlanta Committee for the Organization of the Games (ACOG) announced that a number of the official Olympic soccer matches would be hosted by other cities, should they provide evidence of sufficient organizational ability, sponsorship potential, and provision of an appropriate venue. That certainly got our attention despite our wariness of dealing with Atlanta in anything. (See the preceding chapter “You’re Gonna Love It Here.”) Making a bid for an international sporting event that would put us on the world 187


stage was definitely in our Chamber’s wheelhouse. (Folks, that’s why Birmingham once had a Chamber of Commerce.) Our Sports Development Council, led by the bright and energetic Kristi Gilmore, helped pull together the Birmingham bid package. They journeyed to Atlanta, made a convincing case and, presto, Birmingham was awarded 11 Olympic soccer matches (along with the other cities of Washington, DC, Orlando, Miami and Athens, Georgia.) So just like that, we were an official Olympics site! The first thing we did was to form the “Gold Medal Committee.” Under the leadership of, once again, the indefatigable Alan Martin, we set a date for a fundraising luncheon at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center, invited all of our state’s former Olympic medalists to be present, and marketed it aggressively to the membership of the Birmingham Area Chamber of Commerce. The luncheon netted $150,000, which would be critically necessary seed money to jumpstart the Birmingham office equivalent of ACOG. The Chamber provided the office space for the Birmingham committee, hired the initial staff, recruited volunteers and, by 1994, plans were being furiously made. This was our chance, we all thought, to make a positive statement on the new Birmingham to the world. Personally, I was determined that our Chamber would play a major role in the Birmingham Olympics. So I went to the guy in charge of Birmingham’s Olympic games office and asked: “What is the biggest problem you face that you are most concerned about Birmingham solving?” He put the question to ACOG and they collectively decreed that their gravest concern about Birmingham was the paucity of public transportation. (Remember, this was 20+ years before Uber and Lyft made their appearance.) ACOG’s thinking was that thousands of crazed soccer fans from Argentina, Ita188


ly and England were poised to descend en masse upon Birmingham. They presumed that these fans would charter 747s and start landing in droves at BHM and then overwhelming our ground transportation system. (What few in America realized in 1996 was that Olympic soccer was restricted to each team just having two players over 23 – the rest would be, in essence, the junior varsity. So very few real soccer fans were going to travel internationally just to see kids play. Not when you had the World Cup coming up in two years.) Nevertheless, with this as our assignment, we threw ourselves into the project with a hair-on-fire mentality as we did on all our projects. We discovered that the City of Birmingham had a long-unused ordinance that allowed for the licensing of citizens to use their cars as “jitneys,� a primitive form of taxicabs. The verbally gifted Mike Goddard was hired to spearhead the effort as a special project loosely under my aegis at the Chamber. A massive PR campaign with public service announcements, media appearances and even a parade was launched to recruit drivers. Ultimately, over 125 jitney

Downtown Jitney parade built awareness city-wide.

drivers were recruited for the upcoming games which represented the largest taxi cab fleet in the history of Alabama. Each driver was charged $150 for their license, which provided us a budget (further underwritten by corporate donors) for the staff to manage it. Among other duties, this meant coming up with an appropriate standard for establishing 189


fares, training the drivers, collecting their completed applications and license fees, trouble-shooting all problems, keeping it legal, setting up a 24/7 dispatching operation, providing licensed jitneys with ID and flags for their car and coming up with a system in this pre-internet day to have jitneys geographically dispersed where we thought they’d be most in demand. Fortunately, by 1996 our drivers had cell phones so it was supposedly going to be easy for us to dispatch them to a fare. Regrettably, Mike was so enthusiastic about the program that he would start each of the many training sessions by gushing, “How much money do you want to make during the Olympics? $1000? $10,000? More? Well, it’s just going to depend on how hard you’re willing to work!” Expectations were sky high and it almost sounded too good to be true. Alas, it wasn’t. At the very first game, Argentina played the USA in front of a sold-out Legion Field crowd of 83,000. This was the largest crowd to ever witness a soccer game in the USA at that time. The problem was, there were very few, if any, Argentines in the massive crowd, nor many other out of state fans. The residents of Birmingham and Alabama had faithfully turned out en masse to support the Olympics. But each of them drove themselves to the game and very few needed a jitney. On the bright side, women’s soccer was first introduced as an Olympic sport in Birmingham. Our crowds for women’s soccer were massive and Birmingham held the attendance record for women’s soccer for many years following the 1996 Olympics. (It didn’t hurt that the US women went on to win gold in 1996 nor that Selma’s Mia Hamm was its star.) But by Birmingham’s third Olympic soccer game, every jitney driver felt like he or she had been fleeced. There were very few customers to speak of. Making matters worse, the existing cab drivers, all 125 of them, were ticked off too. What little business they had was being split in half with the hungry jitney drivers. Poor Mike Goddard was in full damage control mode, trying to keep from being killed. A week after the summer Olympics of 1996 concluded, Gail and I took a taxi to the airport. While we were in the back seat, I casually asked the driver, “Did you make any money during Birmingham’s Olympics?” With his eyes fixed on the road ahead, he snarled “Not a damn dime. Some stupid SOB set up a temporary cab service and ruined it for everybody.” Oh. Gail patted my knee. To this day, old friends will teasingly ask me how the jitneys are doing. Put this one down on the “No good deed goes unpunished” file. All because I pushed ACOG to tell us what Olympic soccer problem needed solving the most. Thank you, Atlanta, Georgia….working with you always turns out so well. Sons of bitches.

190


One Helluva Highway Act V/Scene 8: The Mott Home, Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, 1996 “I’m on the highway to hell No stop signs, speed limit Nobody’s gonna slow me down Like a wheel, gonna spin it Nobody’s gonna mess me around” Highway to Hell, AC/DC

L-R Corridor X boosters: Barry Copeland (the retired volunteer chair of the Governmental Affairs Division of the Birmingham Chamber), Mary Alice Kenley (the Chamber’s retired chief lobbyist), Linda Lewis (head of the Jasper Chamber) and me (the retired VP, Governmental Affairs Division of the Birmingham Chamber) gather at the official opening in 2016.

I

n June 2016, twenty years after we initiated a decade-long, balls-to-the-wall effort through the Chamber to win funding for Corridor X, the newly named I-22 finally opened. My longtime friend and colleague, Barry Copeland, asked me to write a column on how it came about for a local publication and I agreed. But I asked him to review the copy below, edit it and let us submit it as a jointly written column. Barry agreed but sent me this email: “To save me some time, please avoid words like imbecilic, draconian, Cro-Magnon-like, lead-footed, vacuous and brain dead!” Blush! My reputation for not suffering SOBs gently must have been better established than I thought. Anyway, I used that column as the basis for this recap of all 191


the crazy shit we went through to make I-22 become a reality. Hidden among all the recent great news affecting Birmingham’s amazing rebirth around 2016 was the story of the opening of I-22, or Corridor X. That’s a shame, because no single success in our recent past may prove to have the long-term favorable impact on the ‘Ham as much as the opening of I-22 on June 20, 2016. After all, since back in the days of Rome and the Appian Way, roads have always played a critically important factor to the growth and prosperity of cities. Simply put, commerce depends on roadways as a key element to transport workers, deliver our food supplies, our raw materials and ship our products. Once I-22 opened, providing us with an interstate to Memphis, Birmingham joined the elite ranks of top Southern cities with what’s considered a near-perfect interstate overlay. Counting Birmingham, only three cities in the South are now favored with six interstate spokes emanating from their city center. Joining us in this exclusive club are Atlanta (GA) and Nashville. And here’s the key: no one has more than six spokes; not even Memphis, the much-ballyhooed “Distri-Center of the New South.” (They have five, the posers!) This bodes extremely well for future business growth and the long-term commercial vitality of the Magic City. By the late 1990s, work on Corridor X that had been so bravely begun by the late Congressman Tom Bevill had essentially ground to a halt following his retirement in 1995. Meanwhile, Huntsville was flexing its collective political muscle and was making a big play for Corridor X to be re-routed away from Birmingham altogether, passing near their city, with all the dangers and increasing fatalities on Highway 78 apparently to be brushed aside. A desperate letter arrived at the offices of the old Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce from the late Adamsville mayor, Leland Adams. Adamsville straddled the highly dangerous Highway 78 and the mayor pleaded “without your Chamber getting hot on this subject and providing the necessary leadership…we will continue to wander in the Corridor X (I-22) wilderness.” He made a compelling case that old Highway 78 was carrying interstate levels of traffic between Memphis and Birmingham and that the road had become, indeed, a deathtrap. Colorful Joe Fuller, a local insurance executive, was then serving as chair of the Chamber’s Transportation Committee. He put it in vivid perspective early on. The re-routing of Corridor X through Huntsville would essentially put a large portion of the new road within the state of Tennessee, not Alabama. “What is this?” Joe demanded to know at a legislative committee meeting in Montgomery that was favorably considering the re-routing pushed by Huntsville interests. “A meeting of the Tennessee legislature?” He made his point and it was game on. Shortly thereafter, an organizational meeting was convened at a packed Harbert Center in January 1997. The Chamber quickly formed the Corridor X Task Force. Our key partners from the very beginning included Mayor Adams, Mayor Don 192


Goetz of Jasper, Congressmen Robert Aderholt and Spencer Bachus, Walker College, Linda Lewis and the Walker County Chamber of Commerce, Baptist Hospital Walker County, the Birmingham Regional Planning Commission, key Chamber members such as Alabama Power and Drummond Coal as well as interested citizens. The work was arduous but we attacked it over the following months and then years. One of our strategies was the concept of “orchestrated spontaneity” that we employed at all large Chamber meetings. Here is how it worked: We would have one of our congressmen attend and speak to our “Eggs & Issues” Chamber breakfast crowd; typically either Senator Richard Shelby or Congressman Spencer Bachus. We’d promote the heck out of it so it wasn’t unusual to have 400 or more business people attend. The elected official would give a twenty-minute update on Washington – within which they might mention Corridor X but oftentimes wouldn’t. Then we would have Q&A from the audience. Instead of allowing oftentimes long-winded questions from audience members that were actually statements, we’d established a procedure of asking interested business people to write their questions out on a 3X5 index card that we’d provide on each table. I’d gather them up and provide them to the meeting moderator who would read the questions out loud both to the audience and to the Congressman and then he’d respond. Here’s where I would become such a sneaky SOB. In my right coat pocket, I had 20 or more questions, every last one of them on some aspect of Corridor X, all written by different people on the Chamber staff with different pens so it wouldn’t look like one person wrote them all. (Blush.) I would walk through the tables, officiously making a big show of collecting all the questions from the audience and then put them in my left pocket and pull the switcheroo before heading to the moderator. What utterly amazed me was, despite all the ways and the many times we had already communicated with our membership about using these meetings as a platform to emphasize the criticality of this $1 billion highway, it evidently didn’t take. Mind you, we’d made the point repeatedly that Corridor X was our Chamber’s #1 legislative priority and defined for them the incredible impact it would have on the metro economy. Despite this, little or none of this had registered with our members. Almost all the written questions from these putative business leaders would be about totally random, non-Birmingham matters. Questions such as the possibility of war in the Sudan, the status of the Alaskan wilderness bill or whether Bill Clinton would be impeached over the Monica Lewinsky affair. It astonished me that these supposedly smart business people didn’t grasp that this breakfast wasn’t intended to be a civics class forum on national and world affairs – it was one of our organization’s carefully calibrated opening salvos at elevating the importance of their organization’s top priority, Corridor X, with our hugely influential representatives in Washington and their staffs. And we would 193


never make the necessary impact if we peppered the Congressmen with a half dozen scattershot, unrelated “asks.” So, I would provide the moderator (frequently my friend Barry Copeland) with all the questions from my right coat pocket. “How many Federal dollars can you earmark for Corridor X in the upcoming Federal Budget hearings?” Or, “to get this road built within the next ten years, are you willing to request that all Appalachian Development Highway System dollars be spent on Corridor X this year?” Or, “can you personally speak to the Director of the Federal Highway Administration about the current dangers of traveling on Highway 78 and the need to quickly build Corridor X in order to save lives?” What we were able to communicate was the illusion that the Birmingham business community was absolutely focused on this highway and that we were of one mind and one voice when it came to the congressman’s top priority. It worked! Once, while Barry was serving as podium moderator for Sen. Shelby, he had already asked the senator 3 or 4 questions on Corridor X, when the senator said

Birmingham’s first lobbying delegation on behalf of Corridor X.

he had time for just one more question. Barry was aware of what I was doing and quickly rifled through the remaining index cards of unanswered questions. Finding nothing but additional questions about Corridor X, he plaintively asked: “Senator, at the risk of ripping the dead leg off the horse and beating you over the head with it, is there any more money available this year from the Federal Highway Trust Fund 194


that could possibly be applied to Corridor X?” But it wasn’t always just staged questions; authentic endorsements did happen now and then. Once, when Sen. Shelby was speaking to our members at a breakfast meeting, the aforementioned Mayor Leland Adams of Adamsville got up and spoke passionately in support of the needed funding for Corridor X due to the dangers of Highway 78. Sen Shelby was clearly touched and responded, “Mayor, this is terrible. I’ve got to come travel this roadway myself.” To which Mayor Adams immediately responded with his hand over his heart, “Senator, we love you too much for you to travel on this highway. Please do not do that.” So the stage was carefully set with our Congressional delegation to create the illusion that Corridor X was a big deal to the Birmingham area business community. With the expert lobbying guidance of Chamber Governmental Affairs Director Mary Alice Kenley, multiple trips to Washington were organized. Our trips began with a dozen stalwarts going to our nation’s capital with a single message: fund Corridor X! With each subsequent relentless trip, our ranks grew rapidly and, soon enough, we saw Federal funding dramatically ramped up for Corridor X. As we planned our Corridor X lobbying trip for 2000, I had the bright idea that we would see if my good friend Stewart Dansby (and former Chamber employee) would ask his famous uncle, Stewart Mott, for the use of his home and gardens for our opening night reception. Stewart and his uncle were direct descendants of THE Charles Stewart Mott who had been one of the founders of General Motors and the guy responsible for axles used by every GM car and truck. At one time, Mr. Mott was the largest shareholder of the largest automaker in the world. Suffice it to say the Mott home in Washington was not only impressive but being located on Maryland Avenue adjacent to the US Supreme Court, it was in a prime location. Stewart pitched the idea to his uncle who gave us the green light. I sprang into action and got the prominent Birmingham law firm of Balch and Bingham to sponsor the reception. Caterers, florists, a podium and a speaker system and a live combo were all lined up; I had my VIPs all recruited, prepped and scripted on what to say. Stewart’s uncle had been carefully briefed and was supposedly ready to make sure the logistics were carried out. Everything was in readiness for our group of 100 or so of Birmingham’s most powerful and influential business people to show up and mix and mingle with an equal number of Washington elite. Or so I thought. On the day of the event, two young attorneys from Balch, Alan Rogers and Stan Blanton, decided on their own to fly up on an earlier flight, getting there a couple of hours before our charter landed. They just wanted to see if they could be of any assistance with the setup of the event they were sponsoring. Good thing. When they got there, the house was in a total shambles, with trash and marijuana joints lying around everywhere. Stewart’s uncle was nowhere to be found and the caretakers didn’t seem to care. The highly polished brass sign over the doorway read “Headquarters, American 195


Civil Liberties Union.” Metaphorically, for our Chamber of Commerce crowd, it couldn’t have been much worse had it said “International Headquarters for the Communist Party.” (How many of my Chamber members had been sued by these guys in the past?) For the entire afternoon, Alan and Stan worked liked whirling dervishes, cleaning and straightening up, hiding the joints and helping organize the catering and all the other vendors. Naturally, our chartered flight got delayed. I finally arrived right before the reception was scheduled to start – along with the first wave of guests for the cocktail party. Both young lawyers tried to stand inconspicuously off to the side, sweatsoaked and filthy. And not exactly amused about their firm’s prestigious sponsorship of this supposedly “swanky” venue. But the show must go on, so we led the crowd through the house and into the garden. And what a great crowd we had: our entire Congressional delegation, most of their chiefs of staff and legislative assistants, all our member companies’ lobbyists and, of course, our large Birmingham delegation that had flown up on the chartered flight. Barry Copeland, our top volunteer in charge of Governmental Affairs that year, again took the podium, this time in the garden. “As all of you know, we are now standing in the garden of the headquarters of the American Civil Liberties Union. Next year, we hope to build upon this noteworthy success, we intend to bring this group back together again to meet at the headquarters of The Black Panther Party.” His off-the-cuff comment drew gales of laughter from the crowd, effectively diffusing the situation. Despite our bumpy start on that particular year’s Washington Fly In, our Congressional delegation responded very favorably to our requests. Especially Senator Richard Shelby with his influential funding role on the Senate Appropriations and Transportation Committees. Additionally, Sen. Jeff Sessions helped immensely by assuring Corridor X’s inclusion in the Surface Transportation Efficiency Program/STEP 21. And from the beginning to the bitter end, all our Congressional delegation helped out, especially Congressmen Bob Aderholt and Spencer Bachus, who figured out savvy workarounds to essentially earmark significant monies for Corridor Sticker that our team wore on our lobbying trips X. to the state capitol. 196


Ahh, but 20% of the highway funding had to be “matched” by Alabama. Therefore, we next turned our attention to the State of Alabama where Mary Alice adroitly recruited as our floor leaders Representatives Charles Davidson, John Amari, Jack Biddle, Ken Guin and Tony Petelos to help us in the statehouse. Multiple visits to Alabama Governor Fob James (and later, Gov. Don Siegelman) paid off when the Birmingham Chamber was repeatedly assured that “the state would find the money to match all federal funds for Corridor X.” If this sounds easy, it wasn’t, as there was (and always is) an infinity of competing voices for scarce state transportation matching dollars. But years of lobbying and an uncountable number of trips to Washington and Montgomery, plus Mary Alice Kenley’s dogged persistence, finally paid off. To paraphrase an old country song, Huntsville got the shaft and we got the gold mine. Over $1 billion was ultimately provided for this interstate connection to be built to Memphis. Now Birmingham’s business outlook is infinitely better assured than before. And Birminghamians can be every bit as proud of this development as all the other good things currently happening in Birmingham.

Huntsville Times admits defeat.

197


Pagan Worship (Gasp) in Birmingham Act V/Scene 9: Vulcan Park, Birmingham, 1999 “I am iron man Has he lost his mind? Can he see or is he blind? Can he walk at all Or if he moves will he fall?” Iron Man, Black Sabbath

Vulcan Park and Museum, (M. Lewis Kennedy Photography)

ccording to Roman mythology, Vulcan, the pagan god of fire and forge, was A born extremely ugly. So ugly that his mother, Juno, tried to throw him off a cliff. She failed and Vulcan went on to become a famous blacksmith and ultimately married Venus, the most desirable woman in mythology. Here in Birmingham in 1904, city boosters seized on Vulcan as our city’s symbol to represent our prowess in ironmaking. It was truly a work of colossal ambition and was quickly pronounced the largest cast-iron statue in the world. Vulcan fully symbolized Birmingham’s leadership in ironmaking, as befitted the foundry iron capital of the world. Following Vulcan’s boffo performance in the 1904 St. Louis 198


World’s Fair, and despite San Francisco’s attempt to place him as a continental “bookend” to Miss Liberty on the Marin headlands, he was returned to Birmingham. However, like Juno, we metaphorically pushed him off a cliff of sorts, leaving him abandoned, in pieces, next to a railroad track. But thanks to the Birmingham Kiwanis Club and WPA money in the 1930s, he was put on a pedestal atop Red Mountain, overlooking his city that had been founded on iron. Alas, Vulcan’s troubles were far from over. To find a cheap way to stabilize the statue in its extremely wind-prone position atop his ridgetop pedestal, a quick fix was devised of filling the hollow iron statue with concrete. Sadly, iron and concrete expand and contract at different rates in extreme weather. So over the years, this wreaked havoc on the statue’s integrity. In March 1999, there came a very sobering piece of breaking local news. The City of Birmingham’s contractor who worked on Vulcan, Mark Davis, reported widening fissures in the statue’s iron skin. This was big news as Vulcan was well established culturally as our city’s iconic statue and official symbol. The Birmingham News reported the possibility of an arm falling off --- or worse. The city took immediate action by closing the park. But that was it. Vulcan’s future was now in total limbo. Being fully aware of the historic role of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce (technically, the Commerce Club, its interim name at the time) in helping create Vulcan as our city’s entrant in the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, it seemed imperative to me that the Chamber would take the lead in solving this problem. After much excuse-making and foot-dragging, it was reluctantly agreed that the Chamber would convene a community meeting on Vulcan. This was done on the first day of my Birmingham Business Fair in March 1999, then the largest trade show organized by any Chamber in the nation. Which was a bit selfishly motivated on my part, as we’d sold some 400 booths in this trade show and I desperately wanted more business people to visit, no matter what their motivation. This meeting was led by that year’s Chamber Chairman, Gary Youngblood of Alabama Gas Corporation. After all the typical pontificating and posturing heard at such a meeting, four working groups were hastily established addressing such issues as budget, marketing, timetable and leadership. Regrettably, this was ineffectively set up for results. Don Newton, the Chamber president, was nearing retirement, and adamantly did not want to be saddled with what he accurately saw as a huge project. The volunteer leadership of the Chamber also wanted to keep this at arm’s length, and clearly let it be known that it did not want to take ownership of the project. Chairman Youngblood repeatedly said that the Chamber was only to play the interim role of convener until the project could be handed off. To someone; please, Lord, anyone. These working groups were not Chamber committees, meaning they didn’t 199


have the structure of working under the aegis of the Chamber, within the normal channel of recommending consensus positions to the Board of Directors, operating under parliamentary procedure, being assigned staff support, a place to meet and at least some semblance of funding behind them. Nope, these four woebegone, directionless working groups were left strictly on their own. I volunteered to work with the Marketing Committee, and as far as I knew, it was the only working group that ever met. It was clear from our first meeting that there was no consensus on what our task was to be. Was the purpose of the group to start putting on events that would raise money for Vulcan? Or was it to establish a community-wide marketing plan to help convince citizens to give money? Or was it to start cranking out advertising concepts that someone else would pay to place in the media? Or maybe start putting together an organizational plan identifying how the anticipated $12 million could be raised? Despite this lack of consensus and no one vested with the authority to make a decision, a series of meetings of the Marketing Committee were held where there was much discussion on strategy and tactics. The aforementioned Mark Davis got frustrated with the lack of progress so he started implementing fundraising efforts such as “neck hangers” on soft drink liters that advertised t-shirt sales with proceeds going to Vulcan. On the last day of March, the Marketing Committee met for breakfast at The Mill in Five Points South at 7 am. This was one of the most difficult meetings yet as I struggled to communicate to the group why asking BellSouth, for example, for a $10,000 sponsorship of a barbeque cookoff for Vulcan could effectively take them out of the running for a $250,000 gift once the real fundraising began. Greg Hodges made it clear that he thought it was infinitely more important that the entire public be involved with this rather than a handful of rich donors giving the entire $12 million. I vehemently disagreed, making it clear that I thought raising the money the quickest and easiest way possible should always be our top objective. Throughout the spring of 1999, at every possible opportunity, I kept telling Chamber President Don Newton that the Vulcan campaign was the greatest opportunity of a lifetime for the current Chamber to “write its name in history” and carry on with the tradition that our predecessors had started almost 100 years ago. Unmoved, Don kept vehemently lecturing me over and over that there could be no campaign until and unless leadership materialized and unless a plan was developed that could be supported by the entire community. Don either felt we couldn’t make either of these happen --- or he didn’t want us to make these two matters happen—or perhaps he just thought this was something best left to divine intervention. Regardless, it left me very confused and frustrated as I thought nonaction was entirely illogical and the antithesis of what our Chamber should be doing. 200


At each subsequent Chamber board meeting, the message was being boldly repeated by both Don and key Chamber leaders that our role was not to do, but only to convene the parties that would restore Vulcan. It seemed we were weirdly proud of our “bold” position of non-action. Finally, in late April, a meeting was convened of all four working groups established during the Business Fair. But instead of requesting a full report from each group, as our Marketing Working Group was prepared to do, Don Newton

The first board of directors of Vulcan Park Foundation.

impulsively invited Patrick Denny of a private restaurant group to give a 45 minute presentation (of the one-hour meeting!) on how their group would like to put a restaurant at Vulcan! By the time Denny’s group finished, Victor Hanson III had to leave, without anyone saying a word about the critical matter of campaign leadership. Aarghh. I believe I was the first one to promote Victor Hanson III as the ideal chairman because of the shared history that The Chamber had with Rufus Rhodes, the former publisher of The Birmingham News, in co-founding the original casting of the statue in 1904. Even though I felt like I was being kept at arm’s length from the Search Committee, I kept after Victor at every opportunity, urging him to step forward. Finally, he met with Gary Youngblood and told him that although he would be willing to chair the campaign, he “obviously couldn’t as the publisher of The Birmingham News because then all the other media in town would turn their back on the campaign – and that would doom the effort to failure.” His theory was then accepted immediately as incontrovertible truth by the Chamber leadership. 201


At the close of another one of our Marketing Group meetings, we bemoaned the lack of leadership stepping forward. Out of the blue, Maria Farricielli, the PR person for NBC 13, came up to me afterward and said that her general manager, Gary Stokes, would be interested in chairing the campaign. Bingo! That was the breakthrough we were looking for! I immediately said to her that it would be perfect if Gary and Victor could co-chair the campaign: one black, one white, and both representing the top two media outlets in the state; one print, the other electronic. And both in their early 40s. I excitedly rushed this message to Don Newton but, to my shock and disappointment, he took it in a very neutral, dismissive way. He again pointed out that there was still no buy-in on what was to happen with the project. His response was basically --- “so what; without a plan, how can you raise money for this even if you have leadership?” Two or three weeks slipped by and I happened to fall into a conversation with Gary Youngblood on a 20th Street sidewalk. He seemed to be genuinely concerned that there was still no leadership for the project. I asked him point-blank if he knew about Gary Stokes’ offer to co-chair the project. He hadn’t heard about it at all. (Thanks, Don.) There was a meeting of the Chamber’s Board of Directors at Birmingham-Southern College on April 27. Victor served on the board but almost always left early so I posted myself at the exit. When Victor tried to leave I walked him to his car and asked him if Stokes’ offer to co-chair would not assuage his worries about other media boycotting the Vulcan campaign. He indicated some softening of his position. I then pressed harder and boldly told him that he was at an age (43) where he needed to do something big for the community. And that this would be something he’d be remembered for the rest of his life – plus, it was pre-ordained to succeed. I left convinced he’d say yes and told Don Newton so. Shortly after this, I provided a detailed memo to Victor and Gary Stokes outlining what I thought would be their specific duties as co-chairs of the Vulcan campaign. On May 7, a meeting of the Vulcan marketing group was held at the Chamber. Marjorie White, the head of the Birmingham Historical Society (BHS) and Rick Sprague, an architect and a BHS board member, were invited to present their vision of what needed to be done on-site for Vulcan. Hands down, Marjorie was unquestionably the expert authority on the subject and the statue’s leading advocate. Over the years, she had written a great deal of educational materials about Vulcan and had made its ultimate restoration a priority focus of the BHS. Our Marketing Group heard her plan, liked it and voted unanimously to endorse it. The group then offered to condense and spiff up her plan in a “corporate-friendly” format. Marjorie recommended that Steve Yoder present “The Plan” to Victor and Gary 202


Stokes. Steve was a member of her BHS Executive Committee and worked with Charles Mayer at AmSouth (Regions Bank forerunner) and the putative head of the Vulcan Budget Group. This would prove to be a decisive step. Local advertising execs Greg Hodges, Keith Burton and John Montgomery worked well together to put Marjorie’s plan into a “corporately digestible format.” They donated their services to produce a very slick notebook and also developed slides to complement Steve Yoder’s talking points. On May 19, Steve took what was now being officially called “The Plan” and presented it at AmSouth’s Conference Room to Victor and Gary Stokes. They both accepted it as the official plan of what should and would be done at Vulcan and confirmed their commitment to co-chair the fundraising campaign. So, Don Newton, we finally had leadership and a plan. What could stop us now? Later that month, to help move the timetable along, I requested RFP’s from five top capital fundraising firms from around the country. On May 28, I talked with Alane Larimer at length and came away convinced that her local capital fundraising firm of Larimer and Waldrop would be the ideal choice. Alane convinced me that we would also need an Executive Director in addition to their services. I dialed up the heat on Stewart Dansby, urging him to take this position. I felt that Stewart’s public relations skills and acceptance to all parties: the Chamber, the City and the BHS, made him the ideal candidate. Meanwhile, Steve Yoder kept providing an invaluable service by working tirelessly with Marjorie and her Executive Committee in developing the necessary legal documents to authorize what was now being referred to as the Vulcan Park Foundation (VPF). This would be the entity that would raise the money, let the contracts for the restoration process and set up the operation of the future site. Marjorie had already engaged Maynard Cooper on behalf of the BHS to address the creation of the legal entity. Unfortunately, by this time, it had become apparent that the deal could still fall apart as the BHS was suspected by the City of having designs on the future operations of the park that would be at odds with their view. Sam Frazier of Spain Gillon drafted the document creating the Vulcan Park Foundation as the legal fundraisers and implementers of “The Plan” and met with all necessary officials. A big part of the legal document was getting the city to as203


sume all the risks necessary in getting the statue down and to maintain its current level of support for Vulcan operations. Meanwhile, the Vulcan Park board was finally established. During June, I met often with Bobbi Brandenberg of the Birmingham News and Maria Farricielli of NBC13 --- the two P. R. people for their respective companies --- to brief them on their bosses’ commitment. I also suggested specific ways for them to support their bosses’ efforts and to help keep Victor and Gary motivated and unwavering. On June 10, I set Steve, Victor and Gary up to meet with the Chamber’s Executive Committee. They sold them on “The Plan” and shared with them the legal documents. This was done and won their unanimous approval. As a final step, Steve made a presentation of “The Plan” to the Birmingham Park and Recreation Board which also endorsed it. Throughout the summer, several meetings took place with Victor and Gary Stokes to further define what needed to be done. And by September, Larimer & Waldrop officially began their work on the job. On September 22, thanks to Greg Hodges’ donation of his considerable expertise and his staff’s time, a professional and hugely well-attended media launch was held, introducing the campaign co-chairs, the fundraising consultants and the timetable for dismantling Vulcan. And then, on October 1, my longtime friend and Birmingham booster soulmate, Stewart Dansby, officially began as the first Executive Director of the Vulcan Park Foundation. Later that month, after considerable wasted time spent wrangling over which free Chamber space they would take, the Vulcan Park Foundation moved into the 13th Floor offices of Commerce Center. Phillip McWane made an incredible pledge to get the campaign going, pledging a $1 million matching gift. Wow. Stewart Dansby and the author at Vulcan. So, as we moved into November 1999, everything finally ap204


peared to be falling into place. We had leadership (Steve Yoder was named the chairman of the VPF and Victor Hanson and Gary Stokes were named official co-chairs of the campaign), we had a plan, we had approval from the city, the Chamber, the Park & Recreation Board and the Birmingham Historical Society. We also had an executive director, an office to carry out business (at the Chamber), extensive publicity and a $1 million matching pledge to get us started. Meanwhile, a citywide PR campaign to support the effort was launched, and I found myself on some radio talk shows defending the effort. Once I got attacked by callers claiming we were supporting paganism, and having a Roman god atop Red Mountain was the root cause of all Birmingham’s problems over the past. I was only too happy to brush that accusation aside. While it was true he was one of Roman mythology’s polytheistic “gods,” he was only a vehicle for symbolizing our founding iron industry and for sure there had never been a time when anyone had been found “worshiping” Vulcan. Good grief. Without question, there would be many more peaks and valleys all along the way, but this effort that consumed so much of 1999 resulted in the massive, critically important civic project getting launched correctly. Ultimately, an amazing $15 million was raised as a result of the Vulcan Park Foundation. Philip Morris magnificently managed the aesthetic details of the emerging Visitor’s Center and uniquely qualified experts at Robinson Iron were employed to assure that the city’s symbol was put back together again, fully restored and showcased more beautifully than ever before.

Key Vulcan Leaders (L-R) Gary Stokes, Victor Hanson, Gov. Don Siegelman, Steve Yoder and Stewart Dansby. 205


The Magic City Rocks! Act V/Scene 10: Coast-to-Coast, 2002 “We built this city, we built this city on rock an’ roll Built this city, we built this city on rock an’ roll Someone’s always playing corporation games Who cares they’re always changing corporation names We just want to dance here, someone stole the stage They call us irresponsible, write us off the page” We Built This City, Starship

Taylor Hicks, one of Birmingham’s American Idol winners.

I

n 2002, ABC network television enthralled the nation with a compelling, brand new television show, American Idol. It pioneered the music-competition genre and quickly became the most widely watched show on prime-time television. It started with more than 10,000 people all across the country auditioning for the chance to be “the” American Idol. Unsurprisingly, people everywhere tuned in coast-to-coast to root for their hometown music talent. Soon after the series launched, the Magic City surged to the head of the pack in remarkable fashion. Soulful Ruben Studdard won American Idol outright in its second year. The third year, Diana DeGarmo, a woman born in Birmingham, took

206


runner up. Then the next year Bo Bice, a hard rocker from Birmingham, also came in second. Incredibly, in the fifth year, Birmingham’s Taylor Hicks won it all, plus lucrative Vegas and recording contracts. What the heck was going on? By now, the show was a full-fledged cultural phenomenon with over 100,000 singers auditioning each year. So how did a city of just 1.1 million have four winners in a row out of a nationwide population of more than 325 million potential vocalists? Statistically, it made no sense at all. Not only to Birminghamians, but to network heads who were wondering out loud if there was something in the water down here. But perhaps it was just inevitable. While New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville got all the buzz as Southern music Meccas and, then, Austin and Athens – Birmingham kept quietly churning out world-class musicians, decade after decade, year after year. But no one stopped to notice until American Idol. On further reflection, it shouldn’t have been surprising that all these vocalists came from Birmingham. After all, the Magic City was always considered “a city of churches.” Hardly anyone, black or white, got to grow up here without being exposed early on to a church choir. So if you had a scintilla of talent, you would be recognized and elevated in music very early in your life. And then the plethora of high school marching bands with their roles in football games got an emphasis here in the “Football Capital Ruben Studdard another Idol winners. of the South” rarely seen in other areas of the country. Plus, Birmingham was regarded as a sort of “cultural oasis” in the deep South for classical music, stimulated, no doubt, by decades-long support for the Alabama Symphony Orchestra and the Birmingham Civic Opera. Many think that Birmingham’s rise to musical greatness started in the 1930’s with Fess Whatley at Birmingham Industrial High School. This legendary instructor influenced generations of young African Americans such as Erskine Hawkins to make a career out of music. Known nationally as the “20th Century Gabriel,” Erskine Hawkins was the author and performer of the #1 national hit, “Tuxedo Junction.” (Historical side note: Birmingham founding industrialist, Erskine Ram207


say, was a life-long bachelor and a personal friend of Andrew Carnegie. He offered the mothers of Birmingham $100 if they would name their sons after him. Erskine Hawkins’ mom pocketed the $100 and young Hawkins went on to eclipse Erskine Ramsay in nationwide fame!) By the middle of the previous century, Bessemer’s Madison Nite Spot had established itself as perhaps the blues joint to define all blues joints with frequent visits from such R&B luminaries as BB King, Bobby “Blue” Bland and many others. The Pickwick Club on the Southside was a musical hotbed throughout the WWII era. And then Hollywood Country Club, Cascade Plunge, Brother’s Music Hall, Five Points Music Hall, Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre and Gip’s Place all followed in succession. Our city further burnished its national musical recognition throughout the 70s and 80s as a great “shed town,” drawing huge crowds to outdoor concerts by such groups as the Rolling Stones and U2 – and polished its reputation as a successful big-city musical venue at the BJCC. City Stages helped set the benchmark for downtown music festivals nationwide and top quality acts visited WorkPlay and Bottletree regularly --- as Zydeco and The Nick kept rockin’ thru the decades. As a matter of fact, our city is so musically inclined and considered such a representative cross-section of America that it is one of only four designated “music maker” markets in the nation, a place where record labels can quietly and accurately test the popularity of new acts. The bottom line is that Birmingham has always had a strong music scene, certainly more under-promoted when compared to Memphis and Nashville, but vibrant nonetheless.

The Temptations, Nationwide Motown Stars of the 60s and 70s were from Birmingham. 208


And so future international music stars kept being born and nurtured here. Odetta was born here in 1930. Named “Queen of American Folk Music,” she established a worldwide reputation as a performer, a Broadway actress and a frequent collaborator with Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. Birmingham’s Dorothy Love Coates’ gospel-style is credited with directly influencing the Motown sound that swept the nation in the 60s. Her musicality influenced Holland-Dozier-Holland to base the Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love” on Coates’ “(You Can’t Hurry God) He’s Right on Time”, also influenced Wilson Pickett, who used her version of the classic theme “99 and a Half Won’t Do” and even Little East Lake’s Emmy Lou Harris. Richard, who copied Coates’ stentorian vocal leads. And speaking of The Supremes, Diana Ross spent her childhood years in Bessemer, before becoming part of the best charting girl group in American history. Named “Female Entertainer of the Century” by Billboard magazine, she went on to record hit duets with Lionel Richie of the Commodores, a group formed at (no surprise here) Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute. Tammy Wynette was a hairdresser in Birmingham until she was discovered on the Country Boy Eddie Show on WBRC TV in 1965. She went on to dominate the country charts with an incredible seventeen number one hits, eventually becoming known as the “First Lady of Country Music.” Three of the four Temptations were born here, including Eddie Kendricks, their immortal lead singer who earned everlasting fame for such standards as “The Way You Do the Things You Do.” Personally, I will never forget U2’s superstar, Bono, singing an a cappella version of “My Girl” to a packed, hushed crowd of 70,000+ at Legion Field as a memorial tribute to the late singer. Eddie Levert of the O’Jays was born in Bessemer and sang lead on the classic, million-selling hits by the Philly soul group. Sun Ra, despite his claim of being from Saturn (!), was actually born here and gained renown as an innovative jazz-composing synthesizer player and inspiration for George Clinton of P-Funk. Sun Ra even 209


put out an album titled The Magic City in 1966. Baker Knight composed “Lonesome Town” and “I Got A Feeling” for Ricky Nelson in the late 1950s, both songs rising to the top of the Billboard Charts. His songs were recorded by the music industry titans of his era, including Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Mickey Gilley. Interestingly, the only song Paul McCartney performed at the memorial service following the death of Linda McCartney was Baker Knight’s Lonesome Town. Emmy Lou Harris grew up in Birmingham’s East Lake and won an incredible 14 Grammys, multiple Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the Year awards and was awarded VH1’s 100 Most Influential Women in Rock and Roll award. But she will always be remembered here in the Magic City for her haunting ballad, “From Boulder to Birmingham.” Chuck Leavell, famed keyboardist for the Allman Brothers and the Rolling Stones, is another native son and records with Randall Bramlett under the name Sea Level. Of all the quirky, can-you-believe-this Birmingham musician stories, none top that of hometown boy Wayne Perkins. By the close of the 60s, Perkins had achieved widespread “guitar god” status and was considered Nashville’s top rock session guitarist. UK’s Island Records flew him to London in 1971 to provide a strategic rock edge to the music of a rising young Caribbean artist by the name of Bob Marley. The record producers felt Marley’s music had to morph from a calypso style to more of a rock style before gaining worldwide interest. And so Wayne Perkins was brought in to perform on Marley’s first albums, helping give birth to the worldwide phenomenon of reggae music, quite an achievement for a Caucasian from The two CD rockumentary that the author co-produced with Brant Beene and Charley Brown in 2006. Birmingham. 210


But his story doesn’t end there. Perhaps even more astonishing, when the Rolling Stones lost guitarist Brian Jones in 1969, they replaced him with Mick Taylor, who soon had to be replaced himself. Once again, Perkins was flown back to the UK to audition, this time for Mick Taylor’s spot, putting him in direct competition with Robbie Wood. Keith Richards, in his biography Life, wrote (page 371) that he considered Perkins to be the better guitarist, but in the final analysis, Mick Jagger didn’t want the Stones to lose their British cachet and so chose Wood instead. But isn’t it surreal that for the most famous rock band in the world, we came that close to having two of the top five front men for the Rolling Stones from Birmingham? Hugh Martin was born here and gained fame as a Broadway composer, penning such classics as “Skip to My Lou” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” considered the most popular and beloved Christmas carol of all time. Magic Citian Cleve Eaton grew to fame as the bassist for the Ramsey Lewis Trio and still performs locally. Bobby Horton has earned national acclaim for his long-time musical collaboration with documentarian Ken Burns. And so the list goes on and on. To help recognize and give these great artists their due, my friends Brant Beene and the late, great Charley Brown helped me produced a two-CD set of rock music that was either produced in Birmingham or by Birmingham musicians. We titled it “The Magic City Rocks” and it surprised a lot of people that, in the aggregate, Birmingham had produced so much excellent music. Mr. J. L. Lowe, the late founder of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, had always told me that Birmingham was a national wellspring of musical talent, in many ways outstripping Memphis, Nashville and New Orleans. He had personally known many of the band members of the major groups of the Big Band era (Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, et al) and attested that, by far, more of their backing band members were African-Americans from Birmingham than anywhere else. Dumb asses that we were, we had just never chosen to promote our music or musicians like other cities did. Yet when you looked at the aggregate of nationally known musicians with deep ties to Birmingham in my era, we stand up well: Diana Ross, the Temptations, Emmy Lou Harris, Odetta, Taylor Hicks and St. Paul & the Broken Bones among many others. And Birmingham keeps on rockin’. Today, there are over twenty venues in town that regularly feature original local, regional and national musical acts. So, yeah, there can be no argument. This Magic City was truly built on rock. Long live rock ‘n roll.

211


Act VI When We Played as Hard as We Worked Ok, so far we’ve learned about how this Tom Cosby SOB came to be and what he worked on for much of his career. These next few chapters take a quick detour from the more serious work of city building and focuses on some decidedly offbeat travel. Although there aren’t that many SOBs involved in these travel tales, there were plenty of unusual, and the author hopes, entertaining escapades that happened. Once again, believe it or not, all that follows is true. “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” T. S. Eliot

212


Hav-a-Havana Act VI/Scene 1: Havana Harbor, 1957 “So hoist up the John B’s sail See how the main sail sets Call for the Captain ashore Let me go home, let me go home I want to go home, yeah yeah Well I feel so broke up I want to go home” Sloop John B, The Beach Boys

Morro Castle guards the entrance to Havana Harbor.

T

he City of Havana, a giant ocean-going ferry, eased into the harbor, nudged carefully along by a pair of powerful tug boats. Morro Castle glided by portside as palm trees along the shoreline nodded welcomingly in the warm, tropical breezes. As we drew within sight of the pier, scores of young boys swam out to greet us. They smiled and waved gaily, bobbing effortlessly in the prop wash like a superpod of dolphins. Tourists knowledgeable about what to do leaned out across the gunwales and happily tossed quarters, dimes and nickels over the side down to the boys below. The boy nearest each coin’s tiny splash would wait a few moments to make the retrieval sporting, then swim over and execute a perfect surface dive. Moments later, each kid would inevitably come up with the coin in his hand, wave it over his head and then pop it into his mouth, ready to make another dive. Bienvenido a Habana! As a ten-year-old, my family trip to Havana, Cuba in 1957 would set the bar for every subsequent vacation I would take for the rest of my life. 213


When daddy cranked up our four-year-old blue and white Chevy and set our course for South Florida, Havana wasn’t even in our plans; all we knew was to be prepared for a long road trip. After all, President Dwight D. Eisenhower had only signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act the year before, so this trip took place exclusively on two-lane roads, long before any interstates existed. We motored slowly through dusty small towns on narrow roads, soaking in the sleepy, Southern pace of life just outside our windshield. Typically, we’d stop only to refill the tank. Friendly gas station attendants would ask if daddy wanted premium or regular and then top off the tank, wash the wind- The author at the time of his Cuban shield and check water and oil levels. Richly detailed vacation. road maps were free for the taking at gas stations and we’d pick up one and study our progress intently as we continued traveling. Once we were finally within sight of the Atlantic, we turned south on scenic Highway A1A, following the coastline all the way down to Key West. As we passed through increasingly subtropical scenery in southern Florida, we started noting highway signs advertising travel to Cuba. It was tantalizingly close, only ninety miles south of Key West. The idea sounded intriguing to my parents and once we were in Key West, they found a travel agent willing to sell us a package tour. And what a deal it was! For only $200 our entire family of five secured roundtrip boat transportation from Key West to Havana, five nights in the famous Packard Hotel, all meals in either the hotel or in local restaurants, limousine service and admissions to sites around the island. Even in 1957, it sounded like quite a deal, and it was. Heck, it was cheaper than staying in Key West! Needless to say, we Cosbys knew a deal when we saw it so we jumped on it. The large, double-decked ferry carried a full complement of passengers and cars for the several-hour voyage. We cast off and immediately started rolling through large, dizzying mid-ocean swells. Soon enough, we started feeling queasy from our seats on the lower deck. Making things worse, there was lots of cigarette smoke down there so we went topside to get fresh air and to be able to look out and steady ourselves. Topside, there were rows of lounge chairs set out for sun worshipers. But since the tropical sun was really pounding down, Mama made sure we stayed primarily in the shade. Later, as we disembarked in Havana, I saw some fair-skinned American women being assisted in getting off the ship. They had gotten sickeningly sunburned after falling asleep sunbathing on the lounge chairs. Huge blisters covered their shoulders and backs and they looked mortified. 214


Our private car whisked us to the Packard Hotel (these days called the Hotel Iberostar Grand Packard) on the Paseo Prado, one of the most prestigious streets in the heart of Old Havana. Although this venerable hotel was considered by many to be the best hotel in the city, there was no air conditioning back then. When you got warm, you just opened the door to your private balcony and let the tropical breezes cool you off. Which wasn’t a problem for us, as we were deep south denizens who lived without air conditioning anyway. Our room was on the third floor and the balcony offered splendid views out across the old city. Of course, all five members of our family stayed in the same room. We began each day with breakfast downstairs in the Packard’s dining room, cheerfully served by a Cuban waitress who didn’t speak a word of English. It was fun learning to ask for food in her language, using strange words (at least for us) such as jugo de naranja and huevos. Before we would leave for our daily explorations, a young boy would come to our room and ask for all the shoes we weren’t wearing that day. While we were gone, he would dutifully shine or clean every one of them for us and have them carefully lined up in our closet upon our return. Out front, our long, black limousine picked us up promptly after breakfast. It looked very presidential and made us feel like royalty. “First blow/first go” was the rule of the road in Havana as the city’s many street intersections had no traffic lights. So we quickly came to expect a lot of loud and vigorous honking and fist-shaking whenever we approached one. Then it was a matter of our driver aggres-

sively forcing his vehicle through it all without having a wreck. On Saturday night we ended up in an elegant restaurant where we were served giant, thick ham steaks topped with a big pineapple, smothered with some sort of sweet sauce. It was distinctive, smoky and delicious, but very rich. It was way too much for a kid to eat, but I couldn’t stop until I had eaten it all. I would pay for this gluttony soon enough. 215


Of course, on Sunday mornings, it went without saying that we Cosbys never missed church. No matter what; no matter where. But from the moment I awakened this Sunday, I knew something was wrong with me. I told mama and daddy I was feeling nauseated, but they brushed it off. Missing church any Sunday was just unthinkable to us, even a service that would be conducted entirely in Spanish. The service that our parents chose to attend was held in a beautiful, huge cathedral. It was packed with worshipers, perhaps as many as a thousand. All five of us were seated in the middle of a long pew, smack in the center of the sanctuary. During the service, my head suddenly started spinning. Then I broke out in a cold sweat as extreme nausea suddenly overcame me. To the horror of everyone, I violently threw up in the pew, creating untold havoc and causing the entire church service -- pulpit, choir and all -- to come to a complete halt. Not only my family but everyone around me scattered like a live grenade had been rolled between the pews. I was terribly embarrassed but too sick to do anything about it. As mama led me into a small room in the narthex to lie down, we passed a sadeyed, stoop-shouldered man coming into the sanctuary with a mop and bucket to clean up my mess. Mama stayed with me in the room, putting cool compresses on my head. Meanwhile, the rest of the family remained in the service, no doubt enduring glares from the Cuban worshippers. The mere thought of eating ham would nauseate me for years to come. Later that evening, I finally started feeling better and our family walked the famous promenade on the Paseo del Prado out in front of our hotel. This was a centuries-old Spanish tradition that allowed eligible daughters to shyly flirt with boys under the watchful eyes of their parents walking along behind them. Hundreds of Habaneros were out this Sunday, walking slowly in the tropical twilight. As tightly controlled as the parents were with their teenaged daughters, it puzzled me seeing younger children playing games on the sidewalks completely unchaperoned late into the night. Naturally, we took in all the typical tourist destinations. Our tour package included visiting pineapple farms and the Palm-olive Soap plantation where we learned how soap was made from palm trees. Brown, sweaty, shirtless men stood at the bottom of adjacent palm trees and hooked two loops of rope to the tree and raced each other to the top in mere seconds. We went swimming at Playa Bacuranao and easily made friends with Cuban kids our age. We even tasted the strong Cuban coffee from street vendors in this endlessly exotic city. The five-day trip sped by. On our last night in Havana, daddy took our family to the Tropicana, the beautiful and world-famous open-air Caribbean night club. He had visited this gorgeous club during his single days many times during his twenties, undoubtedly because of prohibition back in the states until 1933. The lush courtyard was filled with tropical palms, banana trees, ferns and epiphytes. Not only were they placed attractively all over the grounds, but they were staggered up and around the high stage opening, 216


creating a jungle ambiance. It was lavish without comparison and even featured colorful parrots flitting around. We were seated in an elegant booth with a great view of the outdoor stage. Throughout dinner, we were entertained with a spectacular vaudeville-type show. A full Latin orchestra accompanied the show with enthusiastic conga drummers, flamenco guitarists, a large horn section and great vocalists. Shockingly, the vaudeville show ended with a full-fledged burlesque show! To this day, the fact that my two straight-laced Methodist parents introduced their kids to this forbidden fruit remains one of the mysteries of my life. (Not that I needed any encouragement to appreciate this, even as a ten-year-old!) Elegant showgirls in lavish, feathery Vegas-style outfits suddenly appeared all over the stage and throughout the audience, some even strutted right by our table on towering high heels. I stopped eating and stared, open-mouthed at the spectacle. As the music swelled to a crescendo, the most beautiful girl of them all pranced from one end of the stage to the other, with male dancers on each side of the stage pulling off more and more of her costume until she was completely disrobed. Whether mama and daddy were horrified that their children were exposed to this I do not know; I was visually locked in and I’m sure my eyes were as big as saucers! All great things must come to an end and the next morning we sadly re-boarded our ferry for the voyage back to Key West. As we cast off from the dock, young boys appeared in the water again, diving for coins as the curtain slowly lowered on our all-too-brief time in this tropical paradise. A couple of years after we got home, mama showed us a Life magazine with Fidel Castro on the cover. Inside, a photo depicted Fidel triumphantly striding down a street in Havana, smiling, with a huge cigar in his mouth. She asked us if we recognized where the picture was taken. Sure enough, he was walking down the Paseo Prado, right in front of the Packard Hotel! Mama explained to us that Batista, the dictator of Cuba, had been overthrown in a military coup by Castro. Adding even more of a forbidden fruit flavor to the memories of this trip, the island was made off-limits to American tourists for over 50 years. Needless to say, we were forever grateful that we got to make this memorable journey to this exotic island just in the nick of time.

217


Not All SOBs Are Male. Or Human. Act VI/Scene 2: Otter Creek Backcountry Campsite, GSMNP, 1978 “Now he walks in quiet solitude the forest and the streams Seeking grace in every step he takes His sight has turned inside himself to try and understand The serenity of a clear blue mountain lake” Rocky Mountain High, John Denver

The author the day before this adventure unfolded.

This was originally published as a feature article in Birmingham Magazine in April, 1979. uring the first 25 years of our marriage, Gail and I spent a great deal of our D free time hiking and backpacking, most often in the Great Smokies. Ultimately, we became the only Alabamians to qualify for the 900 Miler Club, the exclusive international hiking club of those who’ve hiked every mile of every trail within the Great Smokies National Park (as described in a later chapter.) But of all the hikes we ever did in the Smokies, this one was the most memorable, for reasons you’ll understand shortly. The hike to our campsite at Otter Creek that mid-October day had been a long, tiring one. Climbing steadily upwards through stands of virgin poplar and hemlock for six hours with 30-pound backpacks had just about sapped our energy. We gladly made camp immediately upon arrival at the designated campsite at five that afternoon. 218


Since the campsite was on a trail spur just a couple of miles from the renowned Appalachian Trail, both of us were surprised to find it deserted – even though we were at least seven miles from the nearest Ranger station or park entrance. Instructions on how to hang food out of the reach of bears were posted at the campsite. Tucked between the message and the clear plastic shield was a suspiciously freshly folded piece of paper. Gail pulled it out and read it to me. “Please be careful of aggressive bears. On the night of October 18 (the night before) our equipment was thoroughly ransacked and destroyed – and all our food was taken. I suggest you be very careful in hanging your food. Sweet dreams.” With that, we looked at each other and knew instinctively what the other was thinking. The Sierra Club manual, which says there is little chance of meeting a Smokies bear after October 15, was wrong. We were in their habitat and they were definitely around. As soon as it got dark, the bears would be out foraging for our food. In the Smokies, hikers carrying 30-pound packs do well to cover two miles an

We camped out a total of three nights on this backpacking trip.

hour. With one hour of daylight left, there would be no seven-mile-hike out – not over that terrain and not in the semi-state of exhaustion we were in. We resigned ourselves to pitching camp and spending the night. 219


“Before it gets too late, we better figure out a way to hang our packs and food,” Gail said. I quickly agreed, not wanting to lose our food and have a couple of hundred dollars worth of backpacks reduced to bear-clawed ribbons. Fortunately, Gail spied the steel cable stretched tightly between two red oaks about 15 yards from our tent. Sizing up the cable as about 30 feet off the ground, I figured that my 50 feet of nylon cord would be just enough to hang our packs and food. For those not familiar with the 1970s technique of hanging food away from bears, it’s a very simple counterbalance Gail and the author backpacking, 1978. maneuver. You unload your backpack of non-edibles until the backpacks weigh approximately the same amount as your food sack. You tie one end of your cord around your food sack, weight the other end with a stone and throw the stone over the cable. After retrieving the cord, you pull it until the food sack is raised to the cable. Then you tie on the packs on your end of the cord – as high as you can – and get a tree limb and push the packs up until they’re at least 10 feet or so off the ground and counterbalanced with the food sack. But before the food could be hung, we had to eat – and eat soon – because it was already five-thirty and there was less than an hour of daylight left. The only good thing about freeze-dried food of this era was it could keep you alive and it didn’t weigh much. Both are important to backpackers. But it tasted terrible. I was on my third spoonful of the oatmealy paste when Gail uttered a low, “Uh oh. Look over there.” Over her left shoulder, a 300-pound or so mother bear and her two cubs were walking deliberately, noiselessly towards us. Based on what I knew on the subject of bears, I felt it was important to establish our territory and communicate confidence and lack of fear to the animals. That can sometimes be difficult when your only weapon is a Swiss Army Knife. A sharp shout and a well-aimed rock temporarily halted their advance and caused the mother to give us a sullen glance. After a brief pause, she and her two cubs lumbered off our narrow camping plateau. The three bears then took up post on the hillside in plain view of our tent and waited. “Watch for me while I hang our packs and food,” I murmured urgently to Gail. Hurriedly stuffing all our edibles and unfinished supper into the food sack, I walked quickly over to the steel cable. 220


“They’re coming back,” Gail calmly stated. “Well, throw some rocks at ‘em until I get this food hung,” I suggested. Fumbling with the knots and cord, I finally got the food sack suspended just underneath the cable. With an assist from Gail, the two of us stumbled around until we were able to get the packs and the food sack counterbalanced. We nervously walked the ten yards back to the tent. Both of us sat down and looked for the bears. There they were, making their way quietly through the hillside foliage, their obvious objective our food. The mother bear walked directly under the suspended packs. Throwing us a sideways glance and a sneer, she stood on her hind legs and pawed the air. Her reach was amazing. She just barely missed being able to touch the packs. Failing that, she climbed up first one and then the other of the two trees that held up the opposite ends of the cable. No matter how far she stretched out from either tree, she couldn’t quite reach the packs. She reached so far out from one tree that she fell to the ground. She couldn’t reach our packs or food. We relaxed. “I’m going to take a picture of this. Our friends back home won’t believe it,” I said. Reaching inside our tent, I pulled out my camera and took a few steps toward the bear who still sat underneath our suspended packs. Although she was mostly behind a tree, I aimed, focused and shot. The mother bear was already annoyed at the prospect of having to go without our supper. As soon as the camera clicked, the bear made an angry, five-yard lunge in my direction, making an ominous, loud hissing noise. I realized I’d made a mistake. Wanting to establish my space and lack of fear, I stamped my foot and shouted. This was also a mistake. The bear charged again, this time with teeth bared. It pulled up five yards away from me. “I think we’d better retreat back to our tent,” I said, determined to sound confident to Gail. We retreated five yards or so slowly back to our tent. Unfortunately, our giving ground only served to embolden the mother bear. Alternately hissing and snapping her teeth, she made another five-yard lunge straight toward us and our tent site. She pulled up again a few yards from us. We were amazed at her charges – and obvious strength. “Tom, we can’t let her run us out of our tent site. We’ve got to stay in our tent to survive the night.” Gail was right. Hypothermia, or rapid cooling of the central body core, occurs most often when (1) temperatures were between 30 and 50 degrees and damp (it was about 40 degrees, dropping and damp) (2) the person is tired and hungry (although we had no appetite, we qualified) and (3) the person is frightened (we were getting that way fast.) If we left the tent site to the bears, we’d have to come back soon and reclaim it. 221


But with the bear coiled to spring again, we gave up the tent site and retreated again. We stopped at the bottom of a slight ravine, next to a stream, within sight of our tent. The huge black bear walked up to our tent site and then impudently entered it. Awestruck, we watched as the tent walls bulged to the bursting point. The bear managed to somehow turn itself around inside our two-man tent and came out carrying one of our water bottles in her mouth. It dropped the bottle and looked straight at us. My heart skipped a beat and my stomach felt like it dropped to my toes – it charged us again. Making ominous sounds and advancing steadily towards us, we both became very frightened. “Let’s climb the hill on the other side of the stream,” I said. “Maybe it thinks we’ve dropped some food down here.” Gail agreed. Having to use our hands to help climb the steep hill, we climbed upward about 40 yards until we came to the trail that wound back around the ravine to the campsite. From the trail, we could look down upon the stream, campsite and food pack. I figured we’d make our next decision there. As soon as we reached the trail, we turned around and looked. “Did the bear turn around at the stream?” Gail asked urgently. In the darkening twilight, I thought so. Hoped so, anyway. But no. There she was. She was stalking us now. Huge, black, menacing. The bear was making her way up the hill toward the spot where we were standing. Several thoughts were racing through my mind at once: the bear was following us and probably wanted to eat us. But now that we were established as prey, we started making certain base-level decisions in milliseconds in a part of my mind that would normally take 10 minutes to choose a beer brand in the grocery store. Of course, we were much smaller and slower than the bear. My Swiss Army knife was no match for her claws. And almost every part of both of us was edible. Both of us experienced the most intense concentration. “Where do we go now?” Gail asked. I didn’t know. There was no place to run, no place to hide. A mature bear can run 35 miles an hour and can climb trees faster than a lumberjack. With maybe fifteen minutes of twilight left now, there was certainly no option of walking out now, if there had been any an hour earlier. Our decision was made. We could only hope that she thought we had food on us, so we took off all our clothes, down to our underwear, and piled them in the middle of the trail and backed away ten yards. Here we would make our stand and offer no resistance to the bear. We would talk soothingly to her, but if she attacked, we would curl up together on the ground and try to keep our internal organs away from her. Meanwhile, the bear advanced. We waited, shivering, while she deliberately pawed through our clothes. “Mama bear, we don’t have any food,” we pleaded. The bear closed the gap to a few feet and stared at us. After what seemed to be an interminable pause, she 222


turned and went back down the hill and crossed the stream. We watched as she re-entered our tent. In a few seconds, she exited our tent and ambled back to the red oaks where her cubs sat waiting. She turned, sat and gazed back at us across the ravine. By this time, it was almost dark. We hurriedly put our clothes back on. Now, even in sweaters and light jackets, we were beginning to feel the deepening cold.

The bear chased us off our tent site and entered our tent twice.

“Let’s go back to the tent site and build a fire,” Gail suggested. I agreed. As the bears watched us intently, we made our way back to the tent. Although we had piled up enough wood for a good fire, we knew of course that it would be very damp. That’s almost always the case at 5,000 feet altitude because the high Smokies are a temperate rain forest. We had prepared for this by packing in some Sterno, a flammable fuel. “Guess where the Sterno is,” Gail stated rather than asked. I groaned, realizing it was still in our backpacks, now dangling directly over the heads of the three bears. Without the Sterno, there would be no fire. By now it was pitch dark and cold. We had no choice left. “We’ve got to get back in the tent,” I said. Knowing that the mother bear had been in our tent twice already took away any slight feeling of sanctuary that its nylon walls might otherwise have provided. One swipe of its paw would rip the lightweight walls in half. Gail and I got in our sleeping bags, went over our “play dead” scenario and then 223


prayed a heartfelt prayer. No sooner had we finished than we heard her. The sound of her hissing scared me to the depth of my soul. I heard her paws drumming the ground as she made a direct charge on our tent. She slid on all fours up to the tent door, stuck her head practically inside, hissing and snapping her teeth. I rolled on my side, held Gail in my arms, and waited. The bear, I’m sure, could taste our fear. Panicky thoughts raced through my head. What would I do if the bear started mauling me, mauling Gail? Would I fight it? I mean, what could I do? Hit the bear with my fist, my flashlight? Both actions seemed absurdly pathetic and totally useless. An image of Gail being broken and hurt wouldn’t leave my mind. What would I do then, try to carry her out of the woods or run for help and leave her alone or just sit there and try to comfort her? I didn’t know. Suddenly, quietness. The hissing stopped. There was no sound of her around the tent. Had she gone? In the backcountry wilderness, you can sometimes sense the presence of a large predator before hearing any sound. But there is no sound more ominous than the sound of something very heavy and unhurriedly snapping a stick, particularly right outside your tent in the middle of the night. Primordial alarm bells go off throughout your nervous system that had been buried for millennia somewhere deep within your DNA ancestry. With nerves on edge, I quietly and carefully rolled to my other side and faced the tent wall. There, silhouetted perfectly by starlight upon the nylon wall was the

224


The author the morning after a sleepless night, relieved the ordeal was over.

shadow of the huge mother bear. Her nose was pressed against the edge of the tent floor, now maybe six inches from my face. My heart sank as I rolled back to my other side and faced Gail again. Even in the black darkness of the tent, I could tell that her eyes were wide open, just as mine were. Neither of us would sleep much that night. Thank God, the bear never did come back inside our tent. During the terribly long night, the bears foraged around the tent until at least two in the morning. Even though we didn’t hear her again after that, field mice saw to it that we would sleep only for brief, fitful stretches. For the first and only time in our 30 years of backpacking, field mice at this campsite this night seemed to enjoy running up and down our tent’s rain fly. In our strung-out state, the sudden scurrying noise of mice on our tent walls would make us think that the bear was crashing through time after time. At first light at seven in the morning, we cautiously threw back the tent door flaps, halfway expecting to see the mother bear facing us dead-on. Fortunately, our twelve-hour stint inside the tent was over and the bears were gone. Though suffering from a not insignificant degree of nervous and physical exhaustion, Gail and I happily packed up and began the seven-mile hike back to civilization. For a brief while, we two city folks had felt like we had lived on the “cutting edge” of life. Years later, something of the experience with this bear remains inside me, a gift left behind from that long evening of terror. Maybe it’s a better knowledge of my 225


animal self; that there is a frightened, but instinctive and clear-eyed creature that’s somewhere lurking in my DNA. So the experience did bring with it a reassuring sense that both Gail and I were a functioning part of the natural world. And though we now realized better than before how easily we could both become targeted prey, we felt that, if we played our cards right, we could have a chance to survive. Particularly now that, in addition to our Swiss Army knife, we started packing a .357 magnum pistol with hollow-point bullets on our solo backpacks in bear country!

226


Back When a Case of Beer Meant Something Act VI/Scene 3: Grand Cayman Island, 1978 “Can’t you feel ‘em circlin’, honey Can’t you feel ‘em swimmin’ around You got fins to the left, fins to the right And you’re the only bait in town” Fins, Jimmy Buffett

Typical Grand Cayman home, 1978.

ith an almost imperceptible twitch, the sleek, muscular shark arched steeply W away from us, displaying his huge white underbelly. Just like that, he disappeared quickly into the dim curtain of water in the far distance. Both of us breathed a sigh of relief through our snorkels. But what on earth were we paddling around on the edge of an underwater abyss in the first place? And how many more of these monsters were silently swimming around us? 227


Back in 1978, Grand Cayman Island was the real deal. Vast swaths of the pancake-flat island lay undisturbed and undeveloped; it was authentically Caribbean. The way we found it was the way it had always been. Few, if any, tourists were to be spotted in its gin-clear waters. Small, gaily painted frame homes could be found here and there, nestled underneath Royal Poincianas with unscreened opened windows and barefoot children playing in hard-packed dirt yards. Discarded conch shells, bleaching in the sun, was about all the litter to be spotted. A quiet, sleepy pace infected the entire island and we felt like we had Grand Cayman all to ourselves. Which we basically did.

Gail had the condo swimming pool all to herself.

To stimulate their somnolent economy, the government tried all sorts of promotions to get American tourists to take notice in this era. As broke as Gail and I were in our first year of marriage, we saw a magazine ad pitching a full week on Grand Cayman for only $500 including airfare and seven nights of lodging. Without hesitation, we signed up. Never mind that it would be mid-August and broiling hot. We figured we couldn’t afford to pass this deal up – heck, this would be cheaper than going to Gulf Shores! At deserted, but grandly named, Owen Roberts International Airport, we caught a beat-up island cab. It dropped us off in front of a sprawling, brand new, but very vacant-appearing condo. The large white building stood all by itself on glisteningly white Seven Mile Beach. As we stood sweating in the tropical sun, a stray dog sniffed our baggage sitting in the dirt. We soon figured out that we were the 228


only customers in the entire complex. After twenty minutes or so, a woman ambled up and unhurriedly handed us a key to our one-bedroom unit for the next week. (We would quickly learn about “island time.”) The unit was nice enough; spacious and overlooking the ocean with not only a bedroom but a sparsely decorated living room and small kitchen as well. Having spent our $500, we were now basically broke. So we bought a case of “Greenies” (Heineken, the official island beer), a large box of Bisquick and a jar of molasses. The Bisquick and the molasses would make do for at least two meals a day and, to stay hydrated, it seemed right to drink the beer all day long! We quickly fell into a daily routine of snorkeling and hiking up and down the beach, followed by a cooling dip in the condo’s deserted swimming pool. There was no television on the island then (TV broadcasts wouldn’t begin on Grand Cayman for 13 more years!) and the only entertainment in our condo was a small radio that picked up one crackly AM station. Typically, when we’d turn the radio on, there would be very strange Afro Caribbean rhythms interspersed with high pitched, cackling laughter. Except at 6:30 pm every night, just as dark- No one but us on Seven Mile Beach. ness fell, a British mystery radio show called “On The Beach” came on the air for thirty minutes. We quickly figured out that if we wanted entertainment, we’d need to tune in each night to get the nightly episode. Which we did without fail. We interspersed the swimming and snorkeling with long walks on the deserted beach. As the week wore on, we rented mopeds and even a jeep for something to do. But not for long as there wasn’t much point in going anywhere so time weighed heavily on our hands. But we were young and very much in love so we didn’t mind. Still, by the fourth day, we were realizing that this was going to be one heckuva long week. Our cleaning lady could tell we were frankly bored. She asked us in her lilting Caribbean accent “have you thought about going snorkeling with Mr. Solomon Ebank? He has a boat.” Of course, we didn’t know him but by now, we were up for anything so we readily agreed. The next morning Solomon’s grandson drove the older man up to our condo. Solomon looked like a dead ringer for the late comedian Redd Fox. He appeared 229


Solomon Ebank and his favorite beverage.

to be at least 60-something or maybe even early 70s. Deep creases furrowed his face that was punctuated with a straggly white beard. But he wore a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “Hey, mon, bring me a case of beer and I’ll take you out on a daylong adventure in my boat tomorrow that you won’t forget.” We shook hands, he smiled and said: “Morgan Harbour, 10am.” As his car backed out, Solomon stuck his head out the window and called out “Hey, mon, Miller High Life be best,” and they were gone. Surprised that he would prefer what we considered “Nascar beer” over Heineken, the deal was struck. The next day dawned clear and hot. We met Solomon and his grandson at Morgan Harbour, the local shipyard and handed him the case of beer. He smiled, motioned us onboard and we cast off. As the sun beat down, he piloted his small 25-foot wooden skiff out onto North Sound. Despite the sputtering of the ancient Johnson Seahorse outboard motor, we seemed to make good progress. By the time we reached the famous Cayman North Wall, Solomon was already on his 3rd or maybe 4th beer. We sure hoped we didn’t face something dramatic as it was clear he wouldn’t stop till he drank every one of the 24 beers! He killed the motor and coasted up to the edge of the North Wall and tossed his anchor overboard. The lighter blue color of the shallow sound changed dramatically to deep, cobalt blue. You could tell that we were right on the edge of an abyss. “Wanna see some sharks, mon?” he asked, again with that twinkle in his eyes. Why 230


not, we thought. We pulled on our masks, snorkels and fins and jumped in. The underwater visibility here was excellent, at least 100 feet, maybe more. The North Wall was (and continues to be) famous worldwide as one of the most dramatic scuba dive sites anywhere. We could see why, even while snorkeling just below the surface. The cliff face was like a hallucinogenic, vertical underwater jungle. Beautifully colored corals clung to the cliff face and clouds of tropical fish darted back and forth. Plenty of sea fans and gorgonian corals rhythmically swayed in the current. Photogenic clusters of yellow tube sponges seemed to be decoratively placed here and there on the cliff face. We treaded water easily with our fins, swiveling our heads in circles as we scanned for sharks. With the current, we had to constantly maneuver to keep ourselves somewhat stationary over the edge of the underwater cliff and close to the boat. A wolfpack of sinister, expressionless barracuda was stacked nearby, hanging motionless in the water, like submarine torpedoes primed and ready to launch. Solomon tapped Gail, then me, on the shoulder. He pointed out to sea. Gail saw it first.. A large shark was finning its way effortlessly towards us through the huge aquarium, moving slowly and deliberately through the water, with all the confidence that comes from sitting atop the food chain. The animal made powerful circles that drew it ever nearer. Just like with bears in the wilderness, seeing an alpha predator in its habitat sharpened all our senses. He gradually drew closer and we tensed for our encounter. At the very last moment, he swerved up and away from us. Wow, now that was cool, I thought. We relaxed. But then he swerved back around in just a few moments, approaching more aggressively this time, again making loops ever closer to us, with casual flicks of his powerful tail. Ok, enough is enough. I decided then and there to get out. The boat was bobbing just overhead so I gestured to Gail for us both to get out. But Solomon grabbed her arm and motioned for her to remain motionless right beside him, indicating he would protect her. Since he made no effort to grab me, I grabbed a rope and pulled myself up the boat’s ladder. I had seen all the shark I wanted to see. Gail clung tightly to Solomon. If the shark were to bite one of them, he’d have to bite both of them. Above, from the safety of the boat, I could see the large, black shadow approach them menacingly through the turquoise-hued water. My heart was pounding on deck and I could only imagine what Gail’s was doing. The shark continued making tighter circles around them, getting really close this time. Solomon slowly pulled up his spear gun and held it in front of them. In a very savvy move, he backed Gail and himself up against the hull of the boat, thereby reducing the angles from which the shark could approach them. Ultimately, the shark must have satisfied its curiosity or determined that they 231


The author harvesting another lobster.

offered little to feed upon and swam away, this time for good. In retrospect, Solomon had wisely insisted on them both staying calm and maintaining their position in as calm a manner as possible. He pointed out later that most sharks were just curious and would leave on their own accord. He was very proud of having given us, and particularly Gail, an opportunity to see one of nature’s most magnificent predators in the wild. Counting on restrained behavior from apex predators is never anything I’m willing to bank on. But it was an adventure and a memorable experience; especially so for Gail. But now it was time to go fishing. We motored back into the Sound where Solomon would put his spear gun to good use. Fish were abundant and for our upcoming meal, he shot triggerfish, yellowtail snapper, grouper and a local delicacy called fry jack. Our next anchorage was his favorite lobster hole. Here, he enlisted me to help him catch lobsters. A large cluster of knobby brain coral sat on the sandy bottom with a small, cave-like opening on opposite sides. Apparently, there was a void of sorts underneath the coral. Solomon knew that by sticking his spear gun into the hole on his side, it would chase lobster out the other side. Then I would catch the lobster by his antennae as it scrambled out. We easily caught several nice sized lobsters this way. The waters of North Sound in 1978 seemed to just teem with sea life. Our 232


Solomon prepared our feast en route to Cayman Kai.

boat pulled up at another one of Solomon’s favorite fishing spots and the grandson dropped the anchor. While standing on deck, Solomon would go through his routine of stiffly pulling on his flippers and then slipped his mask and snorkel into place on his face. With spear gun in hand, he’d flip backward over the gunwales, surprisingly spry for a man his age. He’d be gone for a while and then emerge with another string of fresh fish tied to his side. Meanwhile, Gail and I sat on the open deck, trying to cover up as much as possible from the blistering Caribbean sun. After a couple of hours, Solomon had harvested more than enough fish for a huge feast. By now, we had both snorkeled quite a bit and we were getting ready to dine. Solomon got his grandson to pilot the boat to a picnic spot he knew about on the far side of the Sound. He laid the fish out on the transom and began methodically cleaning them. While the Johnson droned and the boat sputtered slowly across the vast sound, he used his razor-sharp knife to expertly filet the fish. The entrails were thrown over the side, helping feed and sustain the local fish population, we supposed. Solomon and his grandson beached our boat on deserted Cayman Kai. Back then it was a remote, practically abandoned side of North Sound. While we watched, he started preparing a grand feast for the four of us. The boy retrieved a couple of fresh conch from the grassy bottom of the Sound. Solomon deftly cracked the shell between its second and third knuckles using a hammer and 233


a screwdriver. He stuck his filet knife into the hole the screwdriver made, disconnected the animal’s “foot” and then yanked the conch out. He “cooked” it sashimi-like for us in lime juice and coconut water and presented it to us as a ceviche hors d’oeuvre. Despite it being quite chewy, it was delicious. After he finished grilling the fresh fish and steaming the lobsters, we had a grand late afSolomon putting finishing touches on our lunch. ternoon feast at the abandoned picnic pavilion. Topped off with a few beers (and more than a few for Solomon!) it was a most memorable and delicious meal. Regrettably, our long day on the water was now drawing to a close. However, we still had a long boat ride home. We pulled beach towels around us and silently gazed at the gathering tropical sunset as our ancient craft puttered and sputtered back across the vast sound. Just as the sudden tropical night descended, the grandson tied our wooden vessel securely into its slip in Morgan Harbour. As we disembarked, Solomon took a long pull from the last of the 24 Miller High Lifes. Which seemed to have had no effect on him whatsoever. Solomon had fully delivered on his promise – we would never forget this Caymanian adventure. Even if it did “cost” us a case of Miller High Life. Thank you, mon! Solomon’s grandson, an able first mate.

234


Hot Tea, You SOB? Act VI/Scene 4: The Cotswolds, Great Britain, 1984 “Eleanor Rigby, died in the church And was buried along with her name Nobody came Father McKenzie, wiping the dirt From his hands as he walks from the grave No one was saved� Eleanor Rigby, The Beatles

Gail meets a philosophical British chap.

ur bike tires sang sweetly on the wet, smooth pavement as we flew downhill O into the little English hamlet. Despite our rain suits, we shivered as our fenderless rear tires kept slinging icy water up onto our backs. It was a chilly, drizzly morning in late September, and Gail and I were in the middle of a two-week bicycle tour of the Cotswolds. On this bike tour, we would typically have a 35-50 mile or so daily ride. This particular day was unusually blustery and windy, seemingly always with a headwind and steady precipitation. 235


The cemetery at Shipton-under-Wychwood.

We had already enjoyed several memorable encounters with some real Brits out in the English countryside. For example, a couple of days earlier, we had come upon the gentleman on the previous page. He had left his bicycle leaning up against a tree and was unhurriedly sipping his afternoon tea on this ancient footbridge. As we pedaled up to him, we paused and asked if he were concerned about the black thunderheads building on the horizon. He looked up and studied the sky carefully for a moment. Then, in his precise, posh English, as if he were Sherlock Holmes explaining an obvious deduction to a befuddled Watson, he replied “actually, not at all. It appears that the cumulonimbus is indeed building steadily but slowly and traveling in a northwesterly direction at what I would estimate to be 10 miles an hour. My home, you see, lies in a westerly direction and is only five miles away. While considering that I will be bicycling at my normal speed of approximately 15 miles an hour, by my calculation, I still have ten minutes left to enjoy my tea. At which time, I shall mount my bicycle and proceed, arriving home at least five minutes before the rain begins.” Before we said goodbye, this gentleman observed “it is said that you Americans live to work, while we British work to live. Would you agree?” From what we’ve seen, we definitely agreed. This particular Tuesday morning, we’d gotten separated from our group and pedaled alone into a sleepy-looking hamlet. The name of this little town that time had apparently forgotten was Shipton-under-Wychwood. More or less a typical Cotswold village, it featured the requisite Norman-era, abandoned ancient church. 236


The rain slacked up a bit and we parked our bikes inside the stone enclosure surrounding the church grounds. We reverently strolled through the deserted church graveyard and contemplated the ancient slate headstones, many leaning at precarious angles. The Beatle’s tune “Eleanor Rigby” vividly came to mind. A chiseled inscription by the poet Adam Lindsay Gordon on a mossy headstone caught our eye: “Life is mostly froth and bubble, Two things stand like stone. Kindness in another’s troubles. Courage in your own.” Stiff upper lip. That’s what I admire most about these Brits, I thought. Looking around, the village had a handful of attractive straw-roofed cottages and a hotel with a pub by the name of The Shaven Crown across the road. At 10:30am, we certainly didn’t want a beer, but really craved a place to get out of the weather and have something to warm us up. The thought of a steaming mug of hot tea sounded absolutely wonderful to us both. With high hopes, we pushed our bikes across the road and leaned them against the walls of The Shaven Crown. We hesitantly, then firmly pulled hard on the iron rung on the heavy oaken pub door. We had no idea whether or not they would be open this early in the day. With some effort, the door creaked open and we stepped inside. Quietness. The kind of silence so loud that it makes your ears ring. Our eyes

The author takes a break in the Cotswolds. 237


tried to adjust to the gloom of the darkened interior. Except for a ponderous, solemn tick-tock of an antique Grandfather clock against a wall, there was not a single sound. Quiet as a tomb. Certainly no jukebox or piped in Muzak here. Was anyone here? If so, there wasn’t much, if any, conversation going on. Slowly, our eyes adjusted. We made out that there were heavy chairs lined up against the paneled walls of The Shaven Crown. Men were seated in perhaps half of them. They wore woolen jackets with elbow patches, typically with one hand cradling their morning pint. Most often, their other arm rested on an artfully carved cane. Each one of them was gazing directly at us, observing Gail and me intently. Without a doubt, they could tell we were Americans. From a mile away. They seemed to be thinking that perhaps we would offer them some needed entertainment for the morning. At the far end of the hall-like pub, there was a polished wooden bar with a bartender behind it. Gail and I tried to quietly walk down the center of the room to the bar. Given the utter silence of the pub, our dripping wet rain suits and running shoes made relatively loud sloshing sounds as we squished our way past the staring men. We had everyone’s full attention, that was for sure. The grandfather clock ticked and tocked loudly. There was no bar menu to be seen. There was simply no way to find out about tea other than to ask. The bartender looked up at us from polishing his pint glasses. He quickly sized us up with a twinkle in his eyes. “And what might I do for you chaps?” he mischievously asked in his thick English accent, leaning forward with both hands pressed onto the bar top. One eyebrow was raised and a slow, sly smile stole around a corner of his mouth. It was immediately clear that everyone in this

All we wanted was a cup of hot tea. 238


pub anxiously awaited every syllable to be uttered in the exchange to come. No way around it. Hesitantly, because we really had no idea if an English pub would serve tea – certainly no self-respecting pub back home would – we formed our question. I asked, in as low a voice as possible, “do you serve hot tea?” After all, we were from Alabama, the home of iced tea. Most places back home, even if they served tea, wouldn’t serve hot tea. But we were cold. We only wanted hot tea. The bartender spread both hands far apart on the bar, palms down. He restated our request like a practiced barrister preparing to go for the kill before a jury. “Do. We. Serve. Hot. Tay (tea)?” he repeated, slowly measuring the words, making sure that everyone knew the question. Then, to allow everyone to fully relish the moment, in his distinctively Cockney flavored accent he again asked, more clearly and more loudly this time “Tay, you say?” Letting the moment continue to build, he looked around the pub yet again, making absolutely certain he was still holding everyone’s full attention. Finally, he cross-examined us with a clarifying “Hot tay, it is?” (Without pronouncing the “h” and with an increasing air of indignant British incredulity as if how on earth could there be any other kind?) We knew the trap was ready to snap shut. He slammed both hands palms down loudly onto the bar and shouted “How bloody extraordinary! It just so happens that we DO!!! Har, har, har!!” Everyone in the bar guffawed long and loud, led by the bartender. Elbowing each other with their elbow patches. Raising pints to one another. We had clearly made their bloody day. Stupid Yanks obviously must know nothing at all. Blushing, we hastily slurped down our hot teas, paid up and slunk back out the front door. The patrons at The Shaven Crown, or their descendants, may still be talking about the visit of the two ignorant Colonials to this very day.

239


You Can’t Get To Tuscaloosa on 50 Gallons of Gas Act VI/Scene 5: University Boulevard, Tuscaloosa, 1989 “Go, roll to victory, Hit your stride, You’re Dixie’s football pride, Crimson Tide!” Yea, Alabama

UA Class of ’69 makes a statement in ‘89.

F

rankly, I’d always felt like a little shortchanged by the University of Alabama. I graduated in 1969 in the proscribed four years with an invaluable (in the fullest sense of the word “valueless”) degree in Sociology. But thanks to Uncle Sam, I had to go to U. S. Navy boot camp in Orlando instead of my class graduation. Plus, I wasn’t able to afford a fraternity so I’d not had the advantage of a network of guys that I’d gone through my four years of college with. Furthermore, I’d even screwed up and irresponsibly managed to be out of town for my class photo for our yearbook, the Corolla. So I didn’t have much of a connection to my class of 1969 at the Capstone at all. And I came to regret that. I’d read descriptions of elaborate homecoming celebrations at various colleges, and nobody seemed to do them with more style than the Ivy Leagues. One of my favorite writers was Michael Crichton and he’d written movingly about going back 240


to his alma mater, Harvard, each fall for homecoming. Not only would they have a gathering place for each year’s class in Harvard Yard, but there would be special seating at a college-wide convocation, with signage for each year’s class and with the oldest classes seated nearest the front. He memorably described this as a slow-motion train, with your class moving inexorably toward the front as the years marched on and the earlier classes died off. In the late 80s, I was still attending Alabama games in Tuscaloosa and had been to many homecomings. To my astonishment, there was never anything designated on the massive quadrangle (signage, seating, tents, etc.) for specific classes to gather. The Million Dollar Band might perform briefly on the quad before the game and of course, there was the bonfire on Friday night and the homecoming parade – but nothing for specific classes. Just random groups of people throwing a frisbee or football around the largely empty quadrangle. As my twentieth reunion loomed, I called the Office of Alumni Affairs in the late summer of 1989. I asked them if they knew of any place that members of the Class of ‘69 would be assembled before the game. I explained that this would allow people like me an opportunity to see folks I hadn’t seen in 20 years. The woman I talked to seemed genuinely puzzled by the idea but had clearly never given this situation a moment’s thought before. She thought for a moment and then asked: “Why wouldn’t you just go to your fraternity house?” When I told her I hadn’t been in a fraternity, and even if I had been, I’d like to see other people than just those in my fraternity, I could feel her shrug. Clearly, this was my problem. But not that much of a problem – after all, I’m a Chamber of Commerce guy, so I’m used to coming up with my own solutions. If I had to come up with my personal Class of ’69 celebration, so be it. I started by making a list of about twenty good friends who had been at Alabama with me and talked them into attending this year’s homecoming game. The big “bait” was that we would have our own float in the homecoming parade. I quickly got everyone lined up for the weekend of October 14 and secured their agreement to split the costs with me for the various expenses. I filed for a parade permit, filled out the paperwork and got us legitimately entered into the official homecoming parade. Of course, we’d need a vehicle for the parade so I visited a local RV dealership in Birmingham and rented a massive 1985 Sport Cross Country RV mobile home along with a full tank of gas. I prevailed on Gail’s and my dear late friend at Central Sign, Terrell Cantley, to hand letter probably twenty signs to cover the exterior of the mobile home. Most of the signs were decidedly of a smart ass bent since we wanted to make somewhat of an “Animal House” statement for our class. I recruited the verbally gifted, uber-sarcastic Mike Goddard to be our mike man atop the RV and we rigged up a sound system to regale the parade route with rockin’ oldies. (Think “Gimme Some Lovin’” by the Spencer Davis Group.) 241


Our float in the 1989 UA Homecoming Parade.

Meanwhile, I took the then-novel step of renting a tent from a Tuscaloosa tent vendor to set up on the quadrangle saluting the Class of 1969. I asked him to place it near The Mound and also ordered a sign urging random classmates coming by to stop and sign in. I paid a young cousin of ours, Julie Wallace, then an undergrad at UA, to go buy Dreamland barbeque and beer and have it set up for us immediately after the parade and before the game. This thing was shaping up! Everyone assembled at Gail’s and my house early on the morning of the big game. We all piled in the RV and took off for Tuscaloosa. There was no problem getting all 20 people inside the commodious RV. Unquestionably, this was one lighthearted group traveling to Tuscaloosa. Riotous laughter filled the vehicle. I was driving and had never driven an RV before (nor since, as a matter of fact!), so I had to concentrate. But everyone else was rocking out inside the RV, enjoying multiple Bloody Mary’s. We made it to Tuscaloosa right on schedule and drove to the parade assembly point in downtown Tuscaloosa. I had provided everyone with tape, balloons and banners with which to decorate the RV. Everyone scampered outside and in no time at all, the RV was transformed and festooned with messages. What a fun statement we made for the Class of ‘69! The parade marshal put us into the front third of the parade. Everyone but me (the designated driver) clambered atop the RV with another cocktail as we headed up Greensboro Avenue, in the direction of the main campus straddling University Boulevard. Everyone but Bill Harris (our Republican friend who perhaps was taking his PR image a tad too seriously), appeared to be enjoying the moment. Right before we entered the official parade route, the RV started coughing and 242


suddenly shuddered to a stop. What the hell? Horrified, I looked at the gas gauge. We were completely out of fuel. That huge 50-gallon tank had been completely emptied with the 60-mile trip down from Birmingham! What kind of mileage did this thing get? One mile a gallon? Who knew? With everyone laughing uproariously, we fortunately noted there was a gas station right alongside the RV where we’d shuddered to a stop. I got all the guys out and with a mighty heave they pushed the RV close enough to the gas station to get the gas hose to connect and I filled it up. Even so, this

Fill ‘er up! Below, best seat in the house for the UA Homecoming Parade.

243


took a while. Back in business, our official place in the parade had long since passed so I just bulled my way back into the procession, this time right behind the float with the Corolla beauties. All the girls were seated on elaborately draped chairs, in formal gowns and gloves, giving their best homecoming queen sideways hand wave to the crowd along with their plastic smiles. (Yes, this felt strangely like the parade scene from Animal House!) For a short while, our party minded their manners and sat atop our RV, waving politely to the crowd. They soon grew tired of that and with Gail’s encouragement, Goddard cranked up the sound system and started a monologue making fun of homecoming queens. By now, the Bloody Mary’s had taken the intended effect and most of our group, led by my enthusiastic wife, began dancing frenziedly atop the RV. The huge throngs of people on either side of our RV seemed infinitely more focused on determining what in the hell was going on with our float than with the homecoming queen and her court. What a time we had! We parked by the quadrangle, disembarked and hung out until kickoff at our tent, drinking beer and eating barbeque. Crowds of envious alums streamed by our tent; lots of them congratulating us on our float. Doubtful that there’d been another one quite like this before! This day that started out rather inauspiciously ended well. Alabama beat Southwestern Louisiana (supposedly a pushover team) 24-17 in a surprisingly close-fought game. And we made it back to Birmingham without running out of gas again! It’s hard to imagine now, but in 1989, there were no other tents on the quadrangle but our one little tent. So in a small way, I wonder if we had anything to do with starting the massive over-the-top productions seen today with generators, color TVs and elaborate catering that is the norm now. I’d like to think that we did. For sure, we showed everyone how to have a good time. Roll Tide, baby!

.

First-ever alumni tent on the quad during homecoming. 244


Thank God for Tanzania Act VI/Scene 6: The Loita Hills, Kenya, 1989 “Joseph’s face was black as night The pale yellow moon shone in his eyes His path was marked By the stars in the Southern Hemisphere And he walked his days Under African skies” Under African Skies, Paul Simon

Gail and the author in Kenya.

s a lifelong Alabamian, I never knew a time when poor ole Mississippi didn’t A serve as our state’s convenient “whipping boy.” You say The New York Times just reported that Alabama’s public schools were ranked 49th in the nation? No problem. Mississippi would have our back; you could always count on them to be 50th. Or a Newsweek magazine cover story on obesity in America reporting that Alabama’s statewide population was grossly obese? Nolo contendre; that’s us. But once again, thank God, there was good ole Mississippi right behind us. You could always depend on those SOBs to make Alabamians appear relatively smart, wealthy or svelte by comparison. The reality was that our Mississippi neighbors were almost always in last place on every quality of life index. But at least we weren’t last. So while we sighed, rolled 245


our eyes and regretted the terrible state of this or that survey that depicted us as deep in the redneck backwater of America, we could always point the finger at them. Privately, we would exhale and offer this heartfelt prayer, “Thank God for Mississippi.” And mean it. We finally got the full perspective on this saying when we traveled to Africa. Gail had always wanted to go to the Dark Continent. This interest had undoubtedly been intensified by multiple viewings of her favorite movie, Out of Africa. Gorgeously filmed with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford in the lead roles, it painted a spectacular image of Kenya. On the other hand, I kinda wanted to go, but not really. It seemed way too alien to me and just too far away. And besides, living in a 75% African-American city like Birmingham day in and day out made me feel like I got a lot of Africa every day for very little effort or expense. But when Gail finally presented the option to me of going with her or being left at home twiddling my thumbs for three weeks, I went ahead and signed up. We booked our trip with Mountain Travel/Sobek, the famous adventure company. The trip we chose was their Kenya Safari hiking expedition as we wanted more than the proverbial “windshield” tourist experience. In mid-August, 1989, our adventure began in earnest when we pushed back from Heathrow Airport at 7:30 pm for our business class overnight flight to the other side of the world. Arriving at dawn, our first glimpse of Kenyans was four guys in shirt sleeves outside the mid-plane exit ramp. They were smiling and stamping their feet, making clouds of smoke as they chatted in the chilly dawn on the tarmac. Who knew Africa would be this chilly? Clive Ward, our trip leader, picked us up and we were glad he had his heater on in his well-traveled, banged up and dusty Land Rover. Clive looked every inch the classic African Safari Guide; tall, lean and angular. And of course attired in the requisite bush hat, khaki jacket and shorts. In his very posh British accent, he apologized for his casual dress, explaining he had “been out in the bush too long.” With steely resolve and his foot on the gas, he drove us quickly to the Nairobi Safari Club, our hotel in downtown Nairobi. Before we would take off for the bush ourselves, we had time to explore Nairobi. We visited the National Museum of Kenya and, while interesting, the contrast to the British Museum that we’d just visited the day before in London was startling. Muddy, stained floors, and handprints along the walls and all over the glass display cases gave a feeling of neglect. Even old newspapers served a second life as wallpaper here and there. The “choocha” was unquestionably Third World; the Wanaume (men’s room) had flushing toilets but the Wanawake (women’s room) only had tile floors with a hole that few had ever hit. And there was no toilet paper nor any evidence there had ever been any toilet paper. The few payphones we spotted always had at least five Kenyans queued up. (Of course, this was long before cellphones took over the world.) 246


Our group met for introductions that night at Tuskers, the bar at the Safari Club. This was the kind of place “Great White Hunters” would gather to recount their hunting stories of daring-do. Over drinks, Clive outlined our next two weeks for us. He told us of the supreme cross-cultural experiences we were about to have; that we’d sit out rainstorms in mud-and-dung-walled manyattas while our Kenyan hosts offered us tea; about Daniel, the “medicine man” whom we’d meet who would read our fortunes and other exotic activities. We were instructed to purchase Paladrine, the anti-malarial drug that is effective on the Kenyan strain, take it immediately and be prepared to leave first thing in the morning. We wedged ourselves into the lead Toyota Land Cruiser and headed northward through the suburb of Thika and out into the real Africa. Third world scenes began engulfing us with lots of primitive appearing clusters of tiny stores and hotels. Scads

Our first elephant spotting.

of pleasant, friendly appearing people walked alongside the road in the mud, mostly barefoot. Bougainvillea and eucalyptus trees spread everywhere, framing vast vistas in most directions. After experiencing our first (of several) flat tires, we left paved roads as we drove on through Muranga and Karatina. By late morning, our land cruisers pulled up to the remote gates of the Aberdare National Park. Although the first animal we spotted in the wild was only a blue monkey, it was surprisingly thrilling to see an animal in its natural habitat as opposed to a zoo. 247


Our first stop was our camp, a tidy clearing with eight large Eureka tents set up in a semicircle along with a large dining hall tent, fire ring and shower and toilet tents. It was surprisingly chilly here at 6,500 feet and our guides fed us a delicious beef vegetable soup for lunch that hit the spot. On our first real game drive, we spotted warthogs, water buffalo, and a family of large, beautiful Colobus monkeys who put on an acrobatic show for us, jumping and swinging from tree to tree. Then, ta-da, we spotted our first elephant, half-hidden in forest foliage. Perhaps we’d seen larger elephants in the zoo, but spotting it in the wild made for an entirely different experience. Appearing massively large, it was caked in red mud. We could see abundant evidence of where it had been rubbing against trees in the surrounding forest. As we drove deeper into the Aberderes, the roads, if you want to call them that, were nothing more than passageways hacked through the bush. Typically, the road was hilly, with rain-slicked mud patches with occasional holes the size of tank traps to negotiate. All our land cruisers had electric winches on the front bumper to pull each other out of trouble. Our expert Kenyan drivers attacked the roads with a ferocious vengeance, sawing the front wheels from side to side to gain traction on the steep ups. They referred to our tires as “mud-lugs” as they were intentionally completely bald – no

Dusk falls on our Samburu tent camp.

tread on any of them. It was explained to us that treads would only allow the sticky African red mud to adhere to the tires, making them even more unmanageable. Back at our camp, we sipped a couple of unchilled pombes (beer) around the 248


campfire as Hassan, our African chef, and his assistants cooked dinner. They served us a fish that, at the time, we’d never heard of: Tilapia. Of course, today you can find farm-raised Tilapia in any supermarket in America, but it seemed very exotic to us then. Plus, this tilapia was definitely not farm raised and was smoky and delicious! Our guides ate their ugali apart from us, a corn meal-like mush that looked like our Southern grits. When we would stop for gas, our vehicle would be surrounded immediately by a crowd of eager young men trying to sell us fistfuls of bracelets and Somali daggers. And the closer we got to Somali, the more beautiful the African women became. These guys spoke passable English and I was frankly impressed with their very persuasive sales techniques. “Oh, your wife is so beautiful. This bracelet would look so lovely on her wrist.” Samburu National Reserve is renown as the setting for many books and films such as “Born Free” and “Out of Africa.” Here, we spotted more of the legendary African animals. Reticulated giraffe moved in their angular, disjointed way, browsing leaves from treetops, eating steadily. We watched in amazement as the giraffe used their tongue to shred leaves off the stems, much like a child might pull the miniature fronds off a mimosa tree leaf stem back home. Oryx, gerenuk, weaver birds, dikdik’s, Grevey’s zebra and common zebra came into and out of our view. It was all very dreamy and Eden-like, but make no mistake: it was definitely hot here. The sun set with surprising suddenness at 6:30 pm. The evening campfire here only served the purpose of providing light, as no additional warmth was needed. Clive pointed out the legendary Southern Cross, lingering near the southwestern horizon. author and Bullet in Samburu National Two armed guards accompanied us The Reserve. on our walking safari the next morning, “Bullet” and Abdullah. They carried what appeared to be ancient WWI-era .303 single-shot carbines. Neither guard elicited much feeling of confidence in us, regardless of whether fate would have us facing aggressive animals or bandits. Our hike would begin somewhere north of remote Archer’s Post. To get to the trailhead, we drove around aimlessly until it became abundantly clear that neither Bullet nor Abdullah had any real idea where we were or where we were going. We finally parked our land cruisers within the Shaba National Reserve and started our hike. However, to hike legally, we needed to cross the wide, shallow Ewaso Ngiro 249


River. Despite numerous warnings we’d received about water-born tropical diseases, we all took our boots and socks off and waded across the shallow, sluggish, dungchoked river. On the far side, Bullet led us on a hike up a small mountain where we met two Samburu warriors or “Morena.” They had built themselves a primitive shelter and were experiencing part of their “age-set” ritual. The Samburu see life as a succession of completing age set requirements so you can earn everyone’s respect ultimately as a wizened elder. Finally, it was time to return to our land cruisers, but first, we had to re-cross the shallow river. Unfortunately, this time I stumbled on the rocky, slippery bottom and fell halfway into the river. Worse, I cut the bottom of my left foot. On the far bank, I tried to swish off the dung and mud from my feet in the muddy river water.

Wading Across the Ewaso Ngiro River.

I eyed the small, open wound with concern. But we had to go, so I pulled my socks back on and laced up my boots and put it out of my mind. The next morning I awoke with a sour stomach and did not feel well. We broke camp and I begged a seat up front with Clive in the hopes that my tender stomach would be jarred less there. As we bounced into tiny Archer’s Post, the day was warming up rapidly. Clive stopped to let me buy a Coke. The one store in the village was simply pitiful. Inside, there were a few Cokes forlornly standing unrefrigerated on a shelf. Judging from the layer of dust on them, 250


I guessed they’d been sitting out a long time. I bought one of the warm beverages but then learned the proprietress wouldn’t let me take it with me. Clive told me the Coke bottle was worth ten times what the drink cost. (Shades of the movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy!”) But I was in no position to be picky, so I tried to drink it quickly, as everyone in the Land Cruiser was having to sit in the heat, waiting on me. The Coke did little good in settling my stomach. We bounced along, taking in sweeping vistas of what could have been Monument Valley had it not been for the Samburu people in their predominantly red garb walking alongside the road. Clive detoured us through Wamba, an untouristed, authentic feeling Samburu town. Now, this was Africa. The local economy appeared to be primarily based on cattle – it seemed most men tended cattle for a living and then sold them to a butcher for revenue.

Where Land Rovers rule the road.

George Adamson of Born Free fame had been murdered near here the day before. This was very sobering news as we all, Clive included, sincerely doubted the local law enforcement’s ability to protect us in the event of trouble. As we pondered this, a group of “Home Guards,” (young boys with carbines) sternly tried to flag us down, demanding a ride. We sped on. Lake Baringo was suffocatingly hot. Much hotter than even Alabama on a breathless 4th of July. To get to our lodging, our entourage had to take an open boat ride in a large, wooden dugout type vessel out to Island Camp. Although the air movement helped some, the sun beat down with an unrelenting fury throughout 251


the thirty-minute voyage. I was really getting sick now and felt completely miserable. The permanent tented camp, sited on its private island, was an idyllic vision of African perfection. And this was despite the heat hovering around 90 degrees with no breeze whatsoever. The famous Leakey family ran the camp and they all had a distinctive “star power” aura about them, and they moved about like movie stars. It was interesting to observe these white Kenyans speaking both Swahili and English so fluently. Had I not been sick as a dog, I’m sure I would’ve considered this to be “glamping,” even though that term wouldn’t be invented for 20 more years. Our canvas-walled tent was tastefully furnished with a rug and two comfortable cot beds. I skipped lunch and just laid in my bunk the rest of the day, too ill to move. My spirits rose considerably when Gail brought me two bottles of spa water – no glass of wine or ice-cold beer ever looked or tasted better. After drinking smoky, presumably boiled, sediment-filled water for the past several days, this tasted like the nectar of the gods! During the night, I didn’t get any better. My sighing and moaning kept Gail awake. By 3:30 am, my temperature spiked, my head was splitting and I ached all over.

Down and Out at the Leakey’s Island Camp.

Just before dawn, as I laid in my cot, I thought I heard the most beautiful melody. Was I dreaming? Hallucinating? I forced myself to get up and stand outside on our tent’s little stone patio. As I gazed down onto the lake in the dim, gauzy dawn, a small convoy of single man papyrus boats was passing slowly below our island camp. The melody that I was hearing was from the fishermen hypnotically singing softly in unison as they hand paddled their tiny vessels out into the milky waters of Lake Baringo. Their singing 252


Part of the Lake Baringo fishing fleet.

kept them in rhythm so the individual boats could convoy together. Despite my illness, it was a timeless, magical; even precious, moment. My illness fell into a pattern. About every twelve hours, my fever would spike along with waves of pain and intense feelings of illness. At Sarova Lion Hill Lodge overlooking Lake Nakura and its millions of pink flamingos, I tried to eat something for the first time in days but only felt worse. When my fever hit 103 degrees, I announced to Gail that something had to be done. I had to have some relief. By now it was obvious that the ampicillin I was taking was doing no good whatsoever. At this point, I was ready to charter a plane to Nairobi and take the first plane home, expense be damned. Clive offered the services of Massessi and Innocent (a bilingual worker at the lodge) to drive me into the nearby town of Nakura and take me to the hospital. Of course, I readily agreed. Poor Gail gave up a game drive to accompany me as we bounced over the tortuous park road back to the front gate and then into town. After stopping for directions, we finally came upon the Nakuru War Memorial Hospital. Time looked like it had stood still here since 1963, the year Kenya achieved independence from the Crown. While it appeared efficient and clean, you could tell at a glance that it was totally antiquated and not remotely as advanced as U. S. hospitals. A brass plaque on the wall honored a Lord Rathermore for contributing to the “new� annex in 1932. There were framed prints of English noblemen in 18th-century attire on the wall. All the magazines in the waiting room were dated 1962 or earlier. As Gail filled out the entry form, she noticed it also hadn’t changed since 1963 253


either; i.e., “state Christian name here.” We were shortly ushered into an examination room. The sheet on the table, while clean, had been darned and repaired by hand repeatedly. A doctor of Indian descent, Dr. Bradford, attended me. He wanted to know what medication I had been taking. When Gail produced our bag of various meds, he asked to examine them. He looked at them with great interest as one who had heard of such medicines but perhaps never seen them himself. He ordered my temperature to be taken but when the nurse couldn’t immediately produce a thermometer, Gail offered ours. Pridefully, Dr. Bradford insisted on using theirs, so we waited until perhaps the hospital’s only thermometer could be located. He asked me for a synopsis of my situation, leaning forward and listening intently. Then he thoroughly questioned me. No doctor ever did a more effective way of asking, in what seemed to me a classically Socratic deductive way, such a logically linked series of simple, yes-no questions. Even in my state, it was fascinating to follow him as he drilled down, clearly eliminating other possible diagnoses and identifying and isolating my problem. Dr. Bradford diagnosed me as having a bacterial infection and prescribed Bactrim and a liquid diet for 2 or 3 days. I suspected this had all been caused by the cut on my foot but I suppose it could’ve been from drinking contaminated water. The only thing the doctor felt left up in the air was whether I was allergic to Bactrim, a sulfa drug, but necessary to solve my problem. Time would tell. I gulped one down. During that night, I woke up sweating and feverish again, feeling like death. For the first time in my life, I realized that at some point, you really would prefer to just go ahead and die than to continue suffering. Now I faced an agonizing dilemma. The next morning, we were leaving to embark on a six-day campout in the most remote area yet, Kenya’s Loita Hills. Should I leave and go back to Nairobi where I could be assured of getting additional medical care? But then Gail would feel duty-bound to join me. Or, do I put my faith in the Bactrim and go on, despite the remoteness of the area? As I pondered this, I had about five minutes to decide as the Land Cruisers were loaded and everyone was ready to go. Clive made it a little easier by telling me if I was still sick in the Loita Hills, he’d release a driver for a grueling 16-hour roundtrip over horrible roads to Nairobi. I decided to press on, although one of the drivers made it abundantly clear that he didn’t relish the idea of a side trip to Nairobi. Certainly, I didn’t blame him. Typically, my temperature would hold around 99 degrees and I would just feel bad – then between 1 and 3 pm and 1 and 3 am, it would skyrocket to 103 degrees and I would seriously think I might die. Today, we stopped for lunch around 1:30 pm and I had my now customary slice of bread. But hold on – could it possibly be that I didn’t feel that bad? So far, so good, I thought. The remote Loita Hills was a beautiful place, the prettiest area we’d seen yet. 254


Rolling hills and open savannahs with vistas and Wyoming-like skies extended for miles. Plus, it was completely un-touristed, except for us! Our Land Cruisers bounced, banged and bumped into our tented campsite at 5:45 pm. An entire entourage of Masai tribesmen was there to greet us and baby, if you wanted a remote, Third World experience, it didn’t get more real than this. Glad to finally get out of the vehicle, I gathered all that wasn’t in my big duffle bag, draped the camera and binoculars around my deck and had both hands full of other items. I felt ungainly and nerdy as I stooped to step out of the vehicle. Suddenly, I found myself standing right in front of what seemed like a 7 foot tall Masai tribesman. He wore a Roman-like tunic over his shoulders, was daubed with red ochre here and there and displayed large, doughnut-sized earlobes that were looped up and over his ears. He and I stood stock still, both taking the full measure of each other incredulously. The amazed look on both our faces had to be the same as if we were both observing extraterrestrials in the Star Wars bar. I could tell I looked every bit as strange to him as he did to me. He obligingly agreed to pose for me with Gail. That night, my fever popped back up between 1 and 3 am but I was too bushed to check it. However, I didn’t think it was quite as bad and somehow, I just didn’t feel hopeless over it anymore. The next morning, I awoke with an odd sensation: my head wasn’t aching for the first time in recent memory. Finally, I was on the road to recovery! Now, I could finally start re-enjoying our African safari. After hiking in the Loita Hills, we made another grueling eight-hour drive, this time down into the famous Eden of the Masai Mara. Not only were we rewarded with daily game drives, but we were Gail and the tall Masai tribesman. able to observe the incredible wildebeest migration, in all its timeless, majestic glory. Observing Africa’s animal kingdom, you came away with the unmistakable realization: in everyone’s life span, there is a period when you are the predator and then there is the inevitable period when you become the prey. Carpe diem. Meanwhile, the “roads” leading into and out of this remote area became nearly impassible. Even our Kenyan drivers couldn’t figure out how to solve some of them. I told Gail that Steven Spielberg, in his most creative cinematic moment, could not have envisioned a road this impossible. 255


Masissi overheard me and turned and said “Oohh, you should see the roads in Tanzania. They are so bad, it is impossible to imagine.” I laughed and turned to Gail and she could read my mind; i.e., “See! They do ‘thank God for Mississippi’ over here too!” I nodded to Masissi and just said: “Well, thank God for Tanzania!” I think he got it. Our adventure to Kenya had been a success, despite my illness which caused me to lose 13 pounds. Otherwise, we loved practically everything about it, particularly the gentleness and kindness of the Kenyan people we got to know. At the remote Olkiombo Airstrip adjacent to the Masai Mara, we climbed aboard a vintage C-47. This was the famous “Gooney Bird” of Berlin Airlift fame from way back in 1948. Instead of fighting the impossible roads any longer, we would enjoy a quick flight back to Nairobi. Soon, we lumbered down the dusty runway and lifted off, flying low over herds of migrating wildebeest dotting the plains below. I turned to Gail and asked her what Julius, one of our Kenyan guides, had just said to her as we said goodbye. He had looked deeply into her eyes and softly said “Maisha Morefu.” May we be blessed with a long life.

A vintage C-47 flew us from the Masai Mana to Nairobi.

256


A Japonica Path Through Time Act VI/Scene 7: The Alabama Black Belt, 1992 “Like my father before me I will work the land And like my brother above me Who took a rebel stand He was just 18, proud and brave But a Yankee laid him in his grave” The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, The Band

Kitty Long of Pitt’s Folly.

iving in modern Birmingham allows you to ignore the reality that we are smack in the middle of a state that is predominantly rural and deeply Southern. We think of ourselves as typical Alabamians, but the truth is, we’re outliers. After all, Birmingham is an industrialized anomaly with little in common with rural Alabama and nothing in common with the antebellum South. Our friend George Jenkins had been born in Greensboro, down in Hale County, and talked us into visiting Alabama’s fabled Black Belt. We understood it was

L

257


Mrs. Christian & Her Friends in Greensboro, Al.

named thus either because of the color of the dirt, or the majority of the population there or both. So one fine day in 1992, off we went. The hot summer sun poured through the stained glass of the old Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Uniontown, scattering patches of reds and blues on the worn heart pine floor below. Looking up at the window, I was startled to see, not the image of Jesus Christ, or the Virgin Mary or any other traditional Christian icon. What I saw was the unrepentant battle flag of the Confederate States of America. Underneath the flag and frozen into the glass were the words “To the glory of God and the Blessed Memory of Leigh Richmond Pearson, Colonel, CSA, 1835-1864.” Perhaps there is another Episcopal Church somewhere in the American South that has a Confederate flag incorporated into its vintage stained-glass windows. Perhaps. But this made me realize that this was the undeniable true heart of the Deep South: the Black Belt. A place truly frozen in time. To say that the antebellum past of Alabama’s Hale and Wilcox counties is inescapable (even in 1992) is to state something as universally understood down here as the difference between carpetbaggers and scalawags. (Scalawags were the locals who cooperated politically during reconstruction; carpetbaggers being, of course, the Yankees who moved in after the war.) If your great grandfather was a scalawag, there are still people here who know and remember and may not speak to you to this day because of it.) On a late May weekend, four of us city people from Birmingham decided to drive down and take a first-hand look at this area. After all, for better or worse, it 258


defines much of what the South was and is today. Low expectations led me to anticipate nothing much more than another rural southern landscape; monocultures of pine plantations interspersed occasionally with junked cars and abandoned, kudzu choked fields. All suffocating under a thick blanket of humidity as another Deep South summer made its slow but inexorable approach. Immediately upon pulling into Greensboro, we realized that the Black Belt was a different part of Alabama. As expected, there was poverty with pitiable shacks that wouldn’t have been out of place in a 3rd world economy or, honestly, even parts of Birmingham. Plus, ubiquitous mobile homes and sterile, 60’s brick ranch homes sprinkled here and there. But then there were the stately, spacious antebellum homes, attesting to the rigid disparity of wealth here back when “cotton was king.” Dozens of them, here and there along the quiet, old-growth oak and elm lined streets. You halfway expected to see Atticus and Scout having a conversation in the swing on any of the generous, well-shaded porches. “My great grandfather’s brother finished those benches right before he left for the war,” Kitty Long softly told us after welcoming us into her home, Pitt’s Folly. “The” war? You immediately realize that this is not some affectation offered to Yankee tourists, she is not pretending to be quaint, and she is definitely NOT talking about Operation Desert Storm or Vietnam or World War I or II. THE war. As in The War of Northern Aggression, the War Between the States, the Civil War. Portraits of ancestors grace the wall of every room. Even in the bathroom where a handsome young man in the uniform of the 4th Alabama Canebreak Guards stares insolently into the camera. A Confederate cartridge belt lies casually on an oaken end table gathering dust. Next to it stands an antique blue China plate. On its face is a peaceful scene of an oak tree by a stream. Mrs. Long continues in her measured, somewhat mournful

259


Southern accent. “He died at the battle of Gaines Mill. His manservant was sent from this house to get his remains but returned only with this China plate and his cartridge belt.” The history and the memories of a distant time suddenly seem very near. Pitt’s Folly is the epitome of genteel Southern poverty and declining family fortune. Weeds, bushes and even small trees compete fiercely with the perennials in the hopelessly overgrown flowerbed out front. A galvanized washtub half filled with water from the leaky roof sits precariously on the crumbling second-floor veranda. Mrs. Long laughs wanly about her need to win the lottery. It doesn’t appear that this rambling antebellum home can survive many more decades of neglect. The mother of a member of our entourage had arranged for us to be the luncheon guests of a Mrs. Christian in Greensboro, the widow of the town’s former mayor. Joining our group of four was an equal number of her Greensboro friends. Halfway through our meal, our genial 89-year-old hostess frets that her servant’s bell quit working and her husband is no longer around to fix it. “Viola,” she calls to the kitchen. “Do please bring the desserts out to our guests.” Viola, neatly attired in a freshly starched uniform, serves us with quiet dignity. Homemade divinity (Mrs. Christian calls them “kisses”) and fudge are heaped onto a silver platter. It’s served with peach ice cream mixed in with fruitcake remains from last Christmas. Mrs. Christian gently urges her to lower the platter to just above the table level “so that our guests may see it.” As Viola brings dessert spoons out to the table, Mrs. Christian laughs about why they are already not out. “Eugene sometimes helps Viola and me with the cooking and he tells me that ‘it just ain’t fittin’ to have too much silver out on the table ahead of the food.” It’s not clear that Mrs. Christian agrees. She does allow that some Southern hostesses have been accused of “too much silver and too little vittles.” That is certainly not the case with this sumptuous luncheon. 260


Two framed documents arrested our attention immediately upon entering Glencairn antebellum home. The first was a proclamation personally signed by President Andrew Johnson in 1865 offering amnesty to John Ervin if he agreed not to trade slaves or contest any of his federalized property in Hale County. The second was a pen and ink drawing of five Confederate flags with a carefully calligraphed script next to the illustration: “Lord God of Hosts, Be With Us Yet. Lest we forget. Lest we forget.” Stacks of leather and clothbound books, the prized possessions of classically educated Ervin ancestors, gather dust in large bookcases in practically every room. These are not insignificant novels. Histories, biographies and the classics loom invitingly out of every bookshelf. Camden in Wilcox County is perhaps the most intriguing town of all in this short weekend visit to the Black Belt. Just like Greensboro and Uniontown, its streets are lined with old-growth oak, elm and pecan trees. Overall, it still appears relatively prosperous. Becky Tait Axon and her husband, Jim, escort us to several lovely antebellum homes including Countryside, Liberty Hall and the Marsh Tait Home. We spotted a framed land grant certificate personally signed by Thomas Jefferson yellowing in direct sunlight. We looked for the mark on an intricate hand-carved oaken dining table signifying where Revolutionary War hero Lafayette supposedly sat when he dined here with Tait ancestors. Slowly, the story came out how the Taits were one of only two families in the entire South to own more than 1,000 slaves at one time. (Right here in Wilcox County.) As Becky relates the sad, familiar story of the current demise of public education and race relations, something biblical about the sins of one generation being visited upon the next comes to mind. As we drove back to Birmingham, we talked about the home we visited with the remarkably pronounceable and romantic name of Japonica Path. A home so named because of a long pathway leading from the town to its front door. For many years, we learned that the path was densely lined on either side with mature plantings of Japonica, a large camellia. The japonicas were so large and so beautiful that, in some ways, perhaps the occupants were shielded from the changing world as they came and went. Now almost all the japonica have died. George Bernard Shaw’s quote comes to mind: “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” Our two-lane county road soon gives way to a larger state road, then the interstate. Quickly, we are jockeying for position on the busy highway. A scant two hours later, back in the hustle and bustle of the modern city of Birmingham, the Black Belt seems but a dream. And a world away.

261


Bells & Smells Act VI/Scene 8: Bernese Oberland, Switzerland, 1992 “You belong among the wildflowers You belong somewhere close to me Far away from your trouble and worry You belong somewhere you feel free” Wildflowers, Tom Petty

The author discusses the day’s hiking route with Gail.

I

n the summer of 1992, unemployment in the US rose scarily to 7.8%, a level not seen in almost ten years. This unpleasant situation would lead to President H. W. Bush’s defeat later that year to Bill Clinton. Fortunately, Gail and I managed to stay gainfully employed, so we could still afford to travel. Plus, we were in our early 40’s and not only healthy but probably in the best shape of our lives. We were more than ready for some Swiss high adventure with three of our good friends.

262


George Jenkins points out distant peaks to the author from Cabane Mt. Fort above Verbier.

Leading us was our very well-traveled friend George Jenkins, whom we dubbed “der Wanderfuhrer.” (A perfect name, given his Teutonic, dictatorial disposition when leading us on the trails.) George had spent three previous summers hiking in the Alps and had mapped out a challenging two-week itinerary for us. He knew the more spectacular hikes, which mountain huttes to stay in and how to navigate the necessary public transportation systems to get to the various trailheads. All of which was invaluable information. Also joining us on this challenging trek through the beautiful Bernese Oberland were good friends David Hezlep and Cynthia Lee. We called David “The Ambassador” due to his elegant style of speaking that came from his years in the jewelry business, catering to the needs of Birmingham’s upper crust. Plus, you could always count on David to pull surprises out of his mountain pack. No matter if we were miles away in the remote backcountry, he could pull out a pair of Gucci shoes and a Brooks Brothers sports coat for cocktail hour. On the other hand, Cynthia Lee was a hearty, free-spirited soul as befitted a hard-charging Phys Ed teacher at a private school in Nashville. She could handle any physical challenge George would throw at us. Our team assembled in Lenk, Switzerland. That first night, over a few bieres, we promptly dubbed ourselves “the Missing Lenks.” Cocky and full of confidence, we couldn’t wait to begin our trek. Our first reality check came early the very next morning. We’d hiked plenty of steep trails, but none like these. In America’s National Parks, steep trails were required to have switchbacks. 263


Our mountaineering team: George Jenkins, Cynthia Lee, David Hezlep, Gail and the author.

Not so over here. We’re talking moon shots straight up impossibly steep mountainsides, requiring hands and feet to negotiate. Our first-day ascent of the “Finette d’Arpette” would test our strength and agility immediately. Not only was the physical exertion demanding, but you realized a single misplaced footstep could result in

Climbing the gentle slopes of Switzerland. 264


serious injury. Oh well, we told ourselves, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Other reality checks came in quick succession. On one of our hikes in the Valais region, after hiking all day to the mountain village of Arolla, our rugged trail came to an abrupt end at the base of a towering cliff. The only way to get to our mountain hotel for the night was to climb a gosh-awful pair of high ladders that were bolted to the cliff face, heavy backpack and all. No option of hiking around the mountain existed, nor were there any OSHA regulations that might give help for the faint of heart here. Either hold on tight and climb up and over the Pas de Chevres or forget about food and a warm bed tonight. So, taking great care to focus straight ahead to the cliff and not look up nor certainly down, up and over the pass we went. (Yes, that is the author holding on for dear life!) We earned our dinner at the Hotel du Glacier that night. Throughout our Swiss vacation, we hiked amidst vast, spreading carpets of tiny, delicate wildflowers sprinkled along our route in the rugged mountains. Docile dairy cows were regular companions and we frequently stayed, not in hotels per se, but classic Swiss mountain huttes. There we slept (more or less) in large, open rooms on thin mattresses under Swiss Army blankets. Side by side with 20 or more snoring, smelly French and German hikers. But on the upside, unlike backpacks back home, staying in huttes allowed us to have deliciously cooked dinners like rostii each evening along with Swiss beer. And to finally fall asleep in the cool mountain air and then awaken to

Overnight bedding at a typical Swiss Mountain hutte. 265


the sound of tinkling cowbells in the morning was indeed heavenly. High in the remote alps where George took us, there were definitely no other Americans but us, and typically only French and German were spoken. After a week of tune-up hikes, we took a day off to give our feet a break before the really strenuous hiking began. We caught a spotless, perfectly punctual Swiss train to Locarno for a day of R&R down at beautiful Lake Maggiore in the northern Italian Alps. Late that evening, we were back in Switzerland, rested and ready for some serious mountaineering. In Kandersteg, we carefully packed our “hotel bags” with all our non-essentials and had them shipped via train to Lauterbrunnen. The plan was Yep, we hiked up, over and down this massive mountain. that we’d catch up with them in three days. All that each of us took was one backpack that weighed about 20 pounds. Today’s hiking objective was Blumisalphutte, the legendary climbers’ hut perched on the peak of an alp high above the charming mountain town of Kandersteg. As we began our long ascent, the air was very cool with heavy misting rain. To save a little bit of energy, we took a chair lift to Oechinensee, which helpfully cut out about 1,000 feet in climbing. As we climbed higher, the spectacular lake at Oechinensee gradually fell away below us. Occasionally, we could catch glimpses of it through the grey mist and scudding clouds. George and I took the lead, with Gail and Cynthia in the middle and David in the rear. The mist continued thickening, which I regretted on one hand as it impeded what surely would have been spectacular mountain vistas. But on the other hand, if I could have seen the sheer chasms dropping off on the starboard side of the trail, I would’ve been horrified. About a third of the way up, we paused at a trailside café, hoping for something to drink and a chance to warm up. Unfortunately, they refused to serve us, which we figured was because they could tell instantly we were Americans and therefore too complicated to deal with. So on we plodded. It grew colder and mistier and, adding to our miseries, the bottom dropped out. George and I pulled on our rain jackets and we “pressed on,” eating the first of two power bars en route. In 1992, power bars were the consistency and flavor 266


of caramelized sawdust and the cold temps had frozen them rock hard. So we had to stuff the power bars under our shirts, next to the warmth of our skin to soften them up enough to make them chewable. Enveloped in mist and fog, we followed the trail around a narrow col (the lowest point of the ridge) made of volcanic appearing rock. Even though the air was getting thin and breathing was becoming more difficult, we were too wet and cold to stop for long. When we did pause, we would stop only long enough until our heart stopped feeling like it was going to jump through our skin. Then we resumed climbing onward and upward. “Zut Alors! Mon Dieu! Nous somGail pausing to catch her breath as we climbed steadily mes arrives!!� George started yelling. upwards. Finally, a break in the mist. We spotted Blumisalphutte, still way high above us. A French couple some 300 feet below us started laughing at George’s pitiful French and even worse pronunciation. By now, the trail had turned to scree (small, loose stones) and we had to scramble on our hands and knees up the final remaining section of this now even more insanely steep trail. We finally arrived at the hut at 9,314 feet. This three hour and 20-minute travail had required a 3,795-foot climb, so it was definitely not for the faint of heart. We stepped into the hut and were immediately shunted into a small room where protocol called for you to take off your wet clothes and boots and change before entering the lodge. As I gratefully shrugged off my pack and lowered it to the floor, my eyeballs almost popped out of their sockets. Two beautiful young frauleins were in the process of completely disrobing. To my sincere regret, my glasses immediately and completely fogged over due to the signif267


icant temperature difference between the inside and the outside of the hut. Thus, the delectable scene vanished in an instant and I could not see a doggone thing. Of course, I was too blind to see without my glasses and by the time they defogged, the young women were dressed and gone. Damn it all. George reserved our bunks at 20 Swiss Francs each; a deal at $15 US. Dinner cost only $12 apiece and we were seated at a long table with several German and Swiss climbers, most of whom spoke no English at all. A German man and his son, however, spoke flawless English and fortunately translated for us (the dad was a minister and the son a med student at the University of Heidelberg.) We came to understand that their leader had climbed in Tibet, in South America and, of course, all over Europe. For some reason, all they wanted to talk about was our upcoming presidential elections. Questions abounded on candidates George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. It also came out that the minister prepared for his weekly sermons by reading the Greek version of the Bible. How many languages did they know? We felt seriously undereducated. By 9:30 pm, the hut master started turning out lights in the dining room so we headed to our sleeping quarters. We crawled up and onto our upper-level bunk that we shared with 12-14 people with a like number right beneath us. The thick Swiss Army blankets were very warm, which we appreciated. We slept well, despite being awakened by the mountain climbers at 3:30 am clomping around, banging crampons, filling a bag with an armful of pitons and jingling carabiners. Three hours later at daybreak, a piercingly bright shaft of sunlight found its way

The spectacular morning after the storm at Blumisalp Hutte. 268


through the one small window and hit me squarely in the face. At these altitudes, the sun seems somehow so much stronger. But the bad weather from yesterday had finally broken and we were greeted with astonishingly clear, 360-degree views of the mountaintops all around us. What a great day to be alive! We took our time with breakfast and drying our wet clothes in the warm sun. Our descent down the opposite side of Blumisalp from our ascent began shortly after 10am. Today’s destination was Ober Durrenberg, where George had promised us an experience that we would remember the rest of our lives. Regrettably, he was not kidding. “They dared beyond their strength, hazarded beyond their judgement and in extremities were of excellent hope.” Thucydides “Der Wanderfuhrer” was typically taciturn when it came to sharing information on our daily Swiss hikes. George believed in the military principle of operating on a Need-To-Know basis. He led and we could follow and if we didn’t like it, we could leave him and go on our own. It would do us no good, he figured, for us to know what we were setting out to do. So just shut up and hike. And hike we did. Using chains bolted into the cliff, we lowered ourselves, with heavy packs strapped on our backs, down the insanely steep topmost section of this trail. Finally, the angle of descent flattened ever so slightly and the chain ended. Carefully using our hiking poles, we planted our boots gingerly on the steep downhill trail. We had to concentrate hard in order not to boot ski off the mountain given the loose, gravelly scree footing. Down, down, down we went, over 3,000 feet of descent. With shaky knees, we finally made it back down to the tree line and stopped for a while at a small Swiss Alpine Club (SAC) hotel. We ordered beverages from a typically arrogant, aloof, French-speaking waiter. Realizing it was time to go, we achingly stood up, picked up our backpacks, shrugged on the pack straps that now dug sharply into our shoulders and continued our descent. Following the break, we now 269


quickly realized we were all dealing with increasingly sore legs and feet. To add to my misery, shin splints started killing me from the continuous steep hike downhill. Despite the pain, I tried to convince myself that it was ok that George dribbled out such limited trail information. Maybe he didn’t remember where we were going anyway. One thing’s for damn sure, if he had told us it was going to be this far, I doubt if we’d ever attempted this Swiss death march in the first place. To spare himself our complaints, George took off and left us. He changed trails beneath us at the foot of the mountain and then immediately began a brisk ascent up the far side of the vast valley. So, back on the ascent we went. At least I got

Gail and the author cresting another Alpine pass.

relief from my shin splints as we hiked steadily uphill once again. Surely our hutte couldn’t be that far away now, right? Wrong. By the time it was 3:30 pm, it was becoming obvious that we still had a long way to go. George had left us all far behind and was nowhere to be seen. This despite our ability to look far up the glaciated valley. We ascended at least another 2,000 feet from the SAC hotel, periodically stopping to convince The Ambassador to keep going. None of the four of us could understand why we hadn’t stopped to spend the night at the SAC hotel. That would’ve well represented a full day’s hike and then some. Or even why we had gotten such a relatively late start on a hike of such epic length. Seven grueling hours after beginning this hike, we arrived at our destination, 270


Ober Durrenberg. George was relaxing at a table out front, idly waving off flies and reading a paperback. This was not a village, this was not a hotel – it was just a working summer farmhouse all by itself in an isolated, high alpine meadow. The only way you knew it was a hutte and that they had vacancies was that it was flying a small red flag from the flagpole. Three of the men, apparently relatives, had just finished chopping and sawing wood and were now sweeping up the sawdust into burlap bags. (We had no idea why.) The farmhouse consisted of a smallish dining room that was off-limits to us except for dinner and breakfast and then only after the family had finished and departed. There was a smallish interior work area adjacent where they had been making butter and cheese. Next to that was a ground floor barn area where one shift of cows stayed during the day and a second shift at night. Here they fed the cows milk to augment their

Our room at the inn: Joseph and Mary had nothing on us!

grass diet. And then upstairs from this (the small door on the left) was the entrance to the bunkhouse where we were to sleep with the family tonight. We figured that the older couple must’ve been the owners and the others either children, nephews or grandchildren. Wanting to inspect our sleeping area, we crouched through the small door and crept into the sleeping loft. An incredibly strong smell of ammonia produced by the urinating cows below nearly overcame us. We were supposed to sleep in here? Not 271


only that, but all the cows wore cowbells and we could tell they would be moving around more or less constantly throughout the night with bells clanging. We quickly went back outside and contemplated our fate. Despite our reservations, we had to admit that it was a beautiful setting. A clear rushing stream ran right by the farmhouse. While we took it in, the farmhands attended to their duties in a time immemorial kind of way. We watched one of the younger guys milk the cows and he let Cynthia and me try our hand. Country girl that she was, Cynthia was a pro but it was my first time to try it. But being the breast man that I had always considered myself to be, I liked it, not that I was particularly good at it.

Peak bagging in the Swiss Alps.

We all decided to take a frigid dip in the stream to wash off the day’s sweat and trail dust. Gail and Cynthia went upstream for some privacy, only to look up and catch the two Swiss guys ogling them. So much for Europeans being supposedly blasÊ about nudity! At the farmhouse, we waited and waited. We were absolutely starving, having had nothing to eat all day but toast and jam for breakfast and a couple of power bars. Finally, around 8 pm, the family cleared out and the housefrau grudgingly bid us to come inside. Silently, she served us a soup of potatoes, leeks and carrots along with bread and fresh goat cheese. We ravenously devoured it like a pack of wolves. 272


Although I could’ve eaten a lot more, I had to admit to myself that I was curiously sated for the most part. Back outside, we sat around and watched the sun set as none of us (except for George) were in any hurry to get back into that malodorous loft. By 9:30 pm, it had gotten dark and was cold enough that we couldn’t put it off any longer, so we joined George in the pungent loft. All of us were so tired that we were punch drunk. With headlamps lit, we unrolled our Swiss army blankets atop the hay. We pulled the blanket around us as we settled down on the hay, trying to get comfortable. Large cracks in the rough-hewn planks on either side allowed us to gaze down onto the herd of cows milling around below. Their cowbells tinkled madly and David sarcastically commented that it certainly was not up to the standards of the St. Luke’s Bell Choir. Cynthia then called across the loft to the Ambassador and asked, “Is this as bad as you thought it would be?” David’s immediate, deadpan answer was “Oh yes, it is every bit as hideous as I’d expected.” We all cracked up! Despite the smells and the bells, we put in our earplugs and eye masks and “hit the hay” in the truest sense of the saying. Actually, it was more comfortable than we had thought. However, during the middle of the night, there was a huge commotion among the cows below. One of the men had to climb in between them to straighten them out. We learned that one of the beasts had gone to sleep across another’s neck, almost suffocating it. Finally, the morning dawned and we could hear the older couple outside calling

Gail cresting the arduous Sfeinnfurke Pass. 273


the goats. The cows beneath us grew even more restless. So we roused ourselves and, surprisingly, felt more refreshed than we expected. (Which is only to say we expected none at all.) The other family members in the loft were still sleeping so we tiptoed outside. We ruly noted that the pit toilet was actually not that smelly when compared to the loft! The family provided us coffee with raw milk which was served with a filter for the cream. They also gave us bread with homemade blackberry jam, goat cheese and butter and we ate everything they put out. By 8:30 am, we were preparing to leave when the rest of the family finally got up. By 9:00 am, we were straining up another pass, this time at Sfeinnfurke. Hand over fist, we pulled ourselves up a chain alongside another crazily steep trail that led us to the pass. At the top, George pointed out the breathtaking Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau peaks and wryly commented that it was just another “monotonously beautiful day in the Swiss Alps.” After another exhausting, all day long hike, we finally stumbled into Murren and checked into the Edelweiss Hotel. Our room had a gorgeous view of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau peaks across the incredibly deep, glacier-carved valley. And best of all, our room had a bathtub! Following a refreshing biere downstairs, we walked back into our room and could not believe the stench of our filthy clothes. So we stopped and filled the bathtub back up and washed, wrung out and hung our clothes. We hung them on an improvised clothesline that we’d brought with us and strung across our room. By now, it was raining cats and dogs, so we were delighted to find ourselves indoors. Our hotel provided a wonderful dinner in their downstairs restaurant. Along with a couple of gross bieres, of course. As much as I hate to admit it, George was right. We would remember this hike for the rest of our lives.

274


Are There Any Christians? Act VI/Scene 9: Te Anau, South Island, NZ, 1994 “When you see the Southern Cross for the first time You understand now why you came this way” “Southern Cross,” Crosby, Stills & Nash

The author and Gail standing at 8 Second Drop, Clinton Pass, NZ.

othing drives a stake deeper into the heart of old man winter any better than N taking a trip to the bottom half of the world in January. Take, for example, New Zealand. To leave Birmingham in teeth-chattering conditions only to wake up in a world where the outside temperature is an absolutely lovely 72 degrees with birds singing joyfully and flowers in full bloom is an unsurpassed pleasure. (Ok, it does rain a lot here!) But what really struck us was the sudden epiphany that summer had 275


a very distinctive smell, like that of rich, loamy dirt – while winter had no smell at all. When you think about it, if anything, winter smelled cold and metallic. Ah, but the sacrifice one makes to get to make such an escape. A four-hour flight to Los Angeles, then a 12hour marathon to Auckland. All in coach. And if that weren’t bad enough, Gail was suffering from a full-on flu outbreak: fever, chills, shakes, body ache and nausea. We looked into delaying our flight, but we would’ve missed four days of vacation, paid steep flight-change penalties, and forfeited a significant fee to Mt. Cook Tours. Had the flight attendants suspected how sick she was, Gail wouldn’t have even been allowed to board, but she gamely faked them off and gutted it out. How I didn’t catch it, I haven’t a clue. So here we were, way down under. Gail was flat on her back in the hotel room as it would take a couple of days for her to fully recover, even as a superfit 40-year-old. I had time to take in The author and Gail prepared for NZ South Island’s steady rain. and ponder New Zealand, and it wasn’t hard to like what I saw. Everything was spotlessly clean and seemed to work and the people came across as helpful, friendly and imminently trustworthy. Later that evening after we arrived, Gail finally felt that she should try to eat something for the first time in two days. Since she wanted to assure a nearby restroom, we chose our hotel’s dinner buffet which ended up being quite impressive. One of the offerings on the salad bar was a large platter of some red, shredded substance. I dished out a little on my plate and took a tentative bite but couldn’t guess what it was. I asked the waitress to identify it for me, and she replied, “Bet-rut.” Puzzled, I asked, “Bet-rut? What the heck is bet-rut?” After some back and forth, Gail finally figured out she was saying beetroot. Needless to say, you frequently had to pay close attention to the Kiwis’ pronunciation in order to understand. After a couple of delightful days in Auckland, we hopped a jet to the South 276


Gail and me with fellow American Lee Wilson.

Island, our destination the resort town of Queenstown. Set on a lake, it was surrounded by towering mountains that were perfectly named The Remarkables. With the largest lupines we’d ever seen growing everywhere and in every color of the rainbow, it was just breathtakingly beautiful. Gail fully recovered over the next several days that we spent hiking and exploring the Queenstown region. Each evening, it didn’t get dark until after 9:30 pm, but we forced ourselves to stay up late enough to see the famous Southern Cross that we’d earlier caught a glimpse of in Africa. When we spotted the distinctive constellation, I told Gail “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore!” For sure, we were a long way from home. Our real adventure began on New Year’s Eve. We had traveled down to New Zealand primarily to take on the legendary Milford Track, considered by many to be the #1 rated hiking trail in the world. To get to the remote trailhead, we took a small Mt. Cook Airlines prop plane on a short flight over the western alps to Te Anau. Here we gathered with our fellow trekkers, about 50 in all, for lunch and then an orientation briefing. It would take us six days to cover the route and there were lots that we needed to know. Even though our fellow travelers mostly appeared to be experienced hikers, everyone was keen to get the briefing. We were seated collectively on a small set of bleachers, like at a softball park back home. Our group was from all over the world: China, Japan, Europe and, of course, Australia and New Zealand. We were a little surprised to find out that there were even a total of eight Americans. It certainly helped that apparently everyone understood English. 277


Our trip leader was a charmingly pert young Kiwi from the South Island named Liz Payne. She was a veritable font of information and explained in her delightful accent what would be our protocol for the next week; the distances between huts, dining arrangements, sleeping arrangements and tips on the local flora and fauna. She also briefed us on the weather outlook, cautioning our group that we would encounter plenty of rain and then verified Gail catches her breath on the way up to Clinton Pass. that everyone had suitable rain gear and boots. We giggled to ourselves that the Japanese not only wore rain gear, but hiked with opened umbrellas above their heads. They were prepared! Finally, Liz finished her comprehensive briefing and then stopped. As she paused, she suddenly became very serious and stared hard at each of our fellow trekkers. “Before we depart, are there any Christians?� She carefully looked the large audience over, her eyes slowly and deliberately moving up and down each row. No one said a word. I glanced around, on either side of our row and then finally behind us. My mind raced, wondering why in the world she would be asking such a ques278


tion, particularly in front of what was surely a very diverse group, not only nationality-wise but certainly religion-wise as well. Was she going to administer last rites or something before we departed? Surely, I misunderstood. “Excuse me, but I’m not sure I understand -- what did you say?” Liz repeated herself, more slowly, enunciating even more carefully this time in her distinctive Kiwi accent. “Are - there - any - Christians?” “Well,” I said, nervously looking around at the crowd of 50 who were now curiously pondering me. “Ok. Sure. Yes.” “Yes, what?” she asked. My mind raced, wondering why in the world she would be asking such a question, particularly in front of what was surely a very diverse group, not only nationality-wise but certainly religion-wise as well. Was she going to administer last rites or something before we departed? Surely, I misunderstood. “Excuse me, but I’m not sure I understand -- what did you say?” Liz repeated herself, more slowly, enunciating even more carefully this time in her distinctive Kiwi accent. “Are - there - any - Christians?” “Well,” I said, nervously looking around at the crowd of 50 who were now curiously pondering me. “Ok. Sure. Yes.” “Yes, what?” she asked. I was completely confused. So I raised my palms in surrender. I would not ask again. An Australian lady seated next to me asked, “What do you think she said?” I said, “She’s asking if there are any Christians here, but I really can’t imagine why.” She burst out laughing and blurted out to Liz and the entire group “He thought you asked if there were any Christians here – he didn’t understand that you were asking if anyone had any queestions!!!!” (Queestions being the way Kiwis pronounce questions, I now understood.) While everyone had a good laugh at my expense, the Aussie turned back to me and asked with a twinkle in her eye “Well, are you?” I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Sure.” “Good on you!” she said with a chuckle. And playfully punched me on the shoulder.

279


No Problem Atoll Act VI/Scene 10: Moorea, French Polynesia, 1994 “Bali ha’i may call you, Any night, any day, In your heart you’ll hear it call you, come away, come away Bali ha’I will whisper, On the wind of the sea, here am I your special island come to me, come to me” Bai Ha’i, Perry

Gail snorkeling Moorea’s crystalline waters.

e were more than happy to ditch the tiny, un-airconditioned Fiat Uno, as it W was suffocatingly hot. After all, mid-January in Tahiti is the absolute peak of their mid-summer. We had sweated unmercifully in this no-frills Pacificar rental while circumnavigating the island. Tahiti was indeed beautiful: lush, intensely colorful and where else could you find ripe mangoes littering the ground seemingly almost everywhere you looked?

280


Gail relaxing on our fare’s porch in her South Seas pareu.

But there was only one road and we had come to learn that the smaller the island, the more urgent the traffic seemed. If we paused for even a moment on the narrow roadway, horns from other cars and motorcycles blared, urging us to pick up the pace. But today, we were leaving relatively fast-paced Tahiti for the sleepy, legendary island of Moorea. We tried to drop our car at the rental facility in Papeete, but the scheduled shuttle never came. “Just take the car to the airport and drop it off there,” yawned the bored clerk. “Someone will come to pick it up.” We pulled right into the open-air Air Moorea terminal and hopped out. A barefooted guy with no shirt told me to give him the keys so I tossed them to him. Maybe he was legit; maybe he wasn’t. But where would you take a stolen car on a small island in the middle of the Pacific, I thought. And nobody else wanted the keys, anyway. As we prepared to board the toy-like six-seater plane, we noted that our fellow passengers were all Tahitians. Their baggage was neatly lined up in a row next to the plane, their belongings stuffed into baskets woven from fresh palm fronds. Despite the flight from Tahiti to Moorea being just five minutes, I nervously eyed the tiny plane from my seat directly behind the pilot. This would be by far the smallest plane we’d ever flown in. Nevertheless, we effortlessly and gently lifted off the runway like a feather floating in the breeze. Soon, we were soaring high above the exotically named Sea of the Moon. Gazing down, we could see that the reefs were exquisitely beautiful through the gin-clear water. 281


On the other hand, landing moments later on Moorea was a completely different experience. A strong crosswind was blowing and hit our plane maybe 100 feet off the ground. It caused our pilot to turn the plane’s nose at a 45-degree angle to the right of the runway. The dipping, swaying and then sudden stomach-churning drops of the little plane made me feel that landing safely was more a matter of sheer chance than anything else. But soon enough, and with great relief, we stepped out safely onto terra firma. The cocky, obviously French pilot hopped out. Slimly handsome in his captain’s uniform, and with great drama, he nonchalantly lit a cigarette and casually flicked the match over his shoulder. He seemed to take great pains to appear completely nonplussed by the dramatic landing. With weak knees, we wobbled up to the rental car desk. We found Moorea to be prettier than Tahiti, with white or golden sand beaches as compared to Tahiti’s black sand beaches. Plus, the mountains appeared taller and more dramatic. And we immediately started hearing more Polynesian and less French spoken. We instantly liked it. Arthur Frommer was right; it certainly looked like the most beautiful island in the world. Seeking authenticity (and affordability) over air-conditioned comfort, we decided to stay at a locally run little place called Moorea Village. This was a small collection of Polynesian, thatched roof fares (bungalows) right by the ocean. The French manager showed us one and with a breeze stirring, it seemed comfortable enough. So we rented it at $90 a night. To cool off, we donned bathing suits and took one of the outrigger canoes provided by the property. We decided to paddle to a little islet halfway out in the lagoon. Unfortunately, the outrigger apparatus or the wind or both affected the outrigger in a very strange fashion. If you paddled on the right side, not only did you not go left, you went irreversibly hard right until you back-paddled on the left. We did ok on the paddle out to the island. But on the return, we somehow leaned away from the outrigger side and with amazing quickness, we flipped the entire canoe upside down in four feet of water, losing towels, snorkels and fins. We pulled the boat up on the shore, gathered our stuff, dumped out the water and got right back in. Splash! We completely flipped it again, this time in eight feet of water. I frantically retrieved all the gear off the bottom. Being mindful of the spectacle we were undoubtedly providing the sunbathers on shore, we got very carefully back in the canoe this time. We took great care to lean to the side of the outrigger which prevented us from tumping over once again. With our dignity only partly intact, we had gotten halfway across the lagoon when we realized we had lost the hotel room key. We paddled quickly back to the spots where we’d capsized, but since the key was chained to a large wooden peg it had floated off, washed away by the tide to God knows where. I informed the haughty, imperious French assistant manager of 282


this fact. She was tres unhappy and let us know it. AND charged us $10 for the key. Relaxing on our fare’s shaded porch, we drank a couple of Hinano beers. The sun sank spectacularly out beyond the lagoon, closing in on the horizon. It was peacefully quiet and all we could hear were the distant ocean rollers landing rhythmically on the outer reef edge in a never-ending series of muffled thuds. As the sun descended into its watery grave, a double-decked houseboat eased by, filled with Polynesians playing ukuleles and singing. It was an exquisitely beautiful and serenely peaceful scene. Moorea Village offered a modest restaurant and we had dinner there along with

Our stifling hot, bug-filled but charming fare in Moorea.

a few other guests. After the meal, an amazingly chatty Polynesian woman provided us with after-meal “entertainment.” She was from the Austral Islands, a remote, thinly populated island group south of Tahiti and east of the Cook Islands. For an hour-and-a-half, the woman demonstrated over 100 ways to wear a pareu. This is the ubiquitous, highly functional piece of clothing - a sarong actually - that so many Polynesian women wear in this very warm climate. She convinced us to spend $50 to hire her to take us on a daylong picnic the next day. I was reluctant as, once again, I figured we were hemorrhaging money, but Gail insisted. And thank goodness, as it proved to be the vacation experience of a lifetime! Back at our fare, we tried to sleep. But first I had to kill a huge spider on my pillow. We laid awake in our bed, sweating and swatting mosquitoes and gnats. For 283


some weird reason, our fare was built with screens on the windows, but then there was a six-inch unscreened opening between the top of the sheetrock wall and the ceiling. Therefore, any bug in the Polynesian animal kingdom that would fit was welcomed to fly into and out of our room with abandon! We moved the bed squarely under our desultory ceiling fan for a little relief as now there was not even a hint of a breeze. Outside, the cacophony of bird calls nesting high in the coconut palms

Gail on the outrigger that took us to the isolated, idyllic atoll.

above us made it sound like the jungles of deepest dark Africa. The next morning, the Austral Islands woman with the absolutely unpronounceable name arrived. She brought several of her children and a young, attractive French woman. We tossed our beach bag in her outrigger and took off, powered by a small outboard motor. Our vessel purred easily through amazingly clear, turquoise waters to the outer edges of the lagoon. Twenty minutes later, we reached a Robinson Crusoe-like, small offshore atoll and quickly disembarked. This islet was lushly covered with coconut palms and encircled with a beautiful white sand beach and of course, spectacular water. Paradise! While our leader started making plans with her assistants for our luncheon feast, we grabbed our masks and snorkels and waded into chest-deep water. We were glad we wore our Tevas as there were sharp broken pieces of coral on the otherwise soft, sandy bottom. Although the water here moved surprisingly swiftly, the myriad of impossibly colored tropical fish made the snorkeling experience sublime. Our guide grabbed her spear gun and joined us. She dove in the water, swiftly 284


dispatching several beautiful fish that she would soon cook for us. Periodically, we would clamber out of the water and rest under the shade of one of the coconut palms. Some of the younger children played their ukuleles and sang for us. To cool off, every now and then, we’d go back in the water but the children taught us to take bread scraps with us. All we had to do was hold a remnant between our pinched thumb and forefinger and we could get brightly colored clownfish and parrotfish to eat right out of our hands! Yes, we fully realized that this would be as close to Eden as we’d get in this life. Meanwhile, our guide lady kept working steadily. Now she was quickly and efficiently making baskets out of coconut palm fronds. It was amazing to observe her wielding her craft so effortlessly and yet so well. While she worked, she lamented the fact that so many Polynesians were now losing the skills that made the “old way” of life possible. She took a coconut husk, got the nut inside and whacked it in half with a machete. She then handed us our own personal “cup” of coconut water (not “milk,” which we learned is grated coconut with water) for both of us to drink from. As soon as we slurped it down, she picked up a couple of green coconuts and expertly notched the tops and refilled our homemade cups with more coconut water. We were thirsty and this tasted very pleasant and refreshing. Her lithe French female assistant was working toplessly - not that I would’ve noticed, of course (shame on you, dear reader, for even thinking I would!) The young woman would clamber up the coconut palms that mostly listed in a 45-degree angle and chop off coconuts and repeat it on the breadfruit trees. This same young woman took one of the recently made palm frond baskets and grated the concave half of the coconut shell with some type of sharpened, fixed blade. She quickly amassed a large basketful of freshly shredded coconut. This was mixed with water to make coconut milk which was then combined with seawater and chopped onions to make a marinade to “cook” the fresh, raw tuna which would be one of our main dishes. Lying in the shade watching this go on was like watching the best National Geographic documentary one could ever hope to see on television. By now, our guide’s campfire had produced coals into which she placed several cantaloupe-sized breadfruits to roast. As soon as the breadfruit had blackened all the way around, she inserted a flatware knife into heat-induced cracks around the ext exterior and pried the shells off. We would soon learn that the riper a breadfruit was, the more it tasted like a sweet potato. And the more green they were, the more they tasted like an Irish potato! Lunch was finally ready and we were starving. We were handed a couple of iced down Hinanos and queued up at a table laden with her handmade serving baskets that were filled with mouth-watering delights! The aforementioned tuna (sashimi) was simply out of this world. A copious amount of the best, not to mention, freshest grilled fresh red tuna and white tuna we’d ever tasted were set out. There was also 285


some type of stir fried-like oriental rice and, of course, the two types of breadfruit and even wine. What a repast! For dessert, our leader had her children peel pomelos, which grew wild on the atoll and were the size of a bowling ball. Pomelo is, of course, a gigantic type of grapefruit -- but unlike any grapefruit we’d ever tasted. Each section of the huge grapefruit detached easily and cleanly from its chamber, but was almost too large to get in your mouth in one bite. But the main thing was that it was otherworldly sweet. I just couldn’t stop eating them and supposed this must be what heroin addiction is like. I must’ve eaten at least one of these huge grapefruits by myself when all of a sudden, I heard that little voice. It quickly resulted in me making an emergency retreat to some distant bushes. Following lunch, we lounged around and snorkeled some while our guide and her helpers cleaned up. She told us she always took advantage of the “world’s first dishwasher” to clean up – she put all her pans into the lagoon and the tropical fish swam up and ate it completely clean! By mid-afternoon, it was time to say goodbye to paradise. We clambered back into the outrigger and we motored back to Moorea Village. To this day, we consider it perhaps the most perfect day of our life and surely the best meal we ever had, not to mention the best $50 we ever spent! So for us, it would always be remembered as “no problem atoll.”

Our Austral Island’s guide lady prepared a memorable feast for us! 286


The 900 Mile Hike Act VI/Scene 11: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 1978-2005 “She came to me, said she knew me Said she’d known me a long time And she spoke of being in love With every mountain she had climbed And she talked of trails she’d walked up Far above the timber line From that night on I knew I’d write a song With Carolina in the pines” Carolina in the Pines, Michael Martin Murphey

F

or 26 years, Gail and I maintained a torrid love affair with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And why not? After all, Townsend, Tennessee, the closest portal into the park from Birmingham, was only a 4 ½ hour drive from home, well within an easy weekend trip commute. Its many allures included incredible wildflower displays plus the largest, closest unspoiled remnant of true wilderness in the east. (As a matter of fact, over 90% of the old-growth forest left in the Eastern US is located within the Smokies!) And making it ridiculously affordable for us, throughout this time, I had a company car plus a company gas card so we could go whenever 287


we wanted at no transportation expense whatsoever. Before the regrettable wooly adelgid blight moved in, the park was heavily populated with gorgeous Canadian hemlocks, far and away my favorite tree. I felt if you squinted your eyes just right, these hemlocks, set decoratively here and there along the streams all throughout the mountains and valleys of the Smokies, made it feel like we’d somehow been Hemlock grove, Meigs Creek Trail, GSMNP, before the wooly adelgid blight. magically transported to Yosemite Valley. If that overstates it, well for sure it provided us with a strong reminder of what a Canadian zone forest felt and smelled like. With most of the Smokies’ formerly magnificent hemlocks dead or dying today, Gail and I consider ourselves extremely lucky to have done our hikes there while these trees were still magnificently healthy. And not only were the huge Canadian hemlocks aesthetically beautiful, but they also provided an essential service. Their long, graceful arms of feathery evergreen fronds drooped attractively over streams, shading and therefore cooling the water and helping the native brook trout thrive. We would gaze in wonder at the achingly clear mountain streams interspersed here and there with their shaded, deep trout pools. In the fall, we marveled how the forest would open up, offering great vistas, particularly from the various “balds” sprinkled along the Appalachian Trail that bisected the park. Canopies of red, rust and yellow painted the mountainsides in vivid hues after the first freeze. And In the spring, we loved the carpets of spring beauties in late April and other wildflowers that spread in all directions. And year ‘round, we listened attentively to catch the echo-y, jungle-y sounding calls of the Pileated Woodpecker, the delicate flute-like calls of the thrush and the haunting “zee zee zee zoo zah” of the tiny black-throated green warblers that flitted high above us in the canopy. 288


With 40% of the Smokies being old-growth forest, you could count on an extremely high canopy just about everywhere. This canopy was not only provided by hemlocks, but also by giant Poplars, Spruce and White Oaks --and even a few Douglas firs high on mountain tops. All of these massive trees provided dense shade which eliminated the annoying underbrush you typically had to deal with in Alabama. So the shade plus the elevation plus the fact that the Smokies were at least 250 miles north of Birmingham, made it at least 10 degrees cooler than back home -- which made a real difference when hot weather set in at home. So, yeah, we loved the Smokies and used the heck out of it. Our intrepid friends George Jenkins and Tom Carruthers were backpackers to the bone and had already been on many backpacks to the Smokies before we really got started. Of course, Gail and I had visited it frequently as children on family vacations. Soon enough, they convinced us to start joining them on backpacks to the Smokies and we were hooked. Although George had been to the Smokies the most, he tended to stick with the same hikes over and over. He loved to start at Cades Cove and do a loop hike up to Spence Field, spend the night in the shelter and then to Russell Field shelter and then hike back down. Sooner than later, both Gail and I wanted to experience other parts of the park and, as we did, we started recording our hikes on a Smokies hiking map. Out of the blue, a thought crossed our minds. Why not go ahead and hike all the trails in the

Our typical Smokies backpacking crew: the author, Gail, Tom & Brooke Carruthers and George Jenkins.

289


Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Then someone told us about the 900-Miler Club, the exclusive international hiking club for those hardy souls who’d hiked every inch of every trail within the park, all 900+ miles. When we realized that we’d be the first Alabamians to qualify for membership, we were hooked! (Truthfully, I should say I was all in – Gail maybe/kinda felt like she got coerced a bit into it!) As our many trips mounted, we fell into some patterns, season after season. No matter how many other weekends we went, we would definitely go the third weekend in October and the third weekend in April each year. We discovered those were the two primo backpacking weekends, weather-wise and scenery-wise, year in and year out. We developed quite a cadre of Birmingham friends who would go with us, and typically took at least four other folks with us. Not only George and Tom but his wife Brooke, David Hezlep, Melanie Parker, Jeff and Rebecca Cohn and Edmund Perry were regulars among many others. Typically, we would take a Friday off from work, pack up the night before and leave as early as we could the next morning. As we sought other trailheads, we had to drive to different towns other than Townsend on the far perimeters of the park. Some, like Cherokee and Waterville, took close to a 6-hour drive from Birming-

A Flat (i.e., rare) GSMNP Backcountry Campsite.

ham. So when you add that to the hour lost crossing into the Eastern Time Zone, it could mean that a 9 am departure meant a 4 pm arrival at a trailhead – which meant you had to really hustle to hike to get to the campsite to have time to pitch camp, gather firewood, hang food, etc., before dark. We normally would establish “base camp” next to a stream and stay put for two nights. George would teasingly refer to our large dome tent as our “double-wide!” 290


The stream was critically important as replenishing water bottles was, of course, a primary concern. Then, on Saturday morning, after a leisurely breakfast, we would pull out the daypacks and go for a 10-mile-or-so day hike, typically up to some scenic “payoff” vista like the Mount Cammerer lookout tower, Shuckstack or Gregory Bald. Here, we would have our picnic and then by the time we would hike back down to basecamp, it’d be cocktail hour. And, of course, no matter how far in the backcountry we’d be, we’d break out the wine, liquor and cigars and sit around the campfire, making fun of each other for an hour or two. Then, the next morning, after breakfast, we’d pack up, hike out and drive home. All kinds of shenanigans happened on these backpack outings. For example, our good friend Joe Bird once hiked into our backcountry campsite with not only a full, heavy pack, but a half-case of beer. He and George had such a good time drink-

Toting a fully loaded backpack on the trail

ing the beer that night that they forgot to hang their packs. Then, in the middle of the night, we were all awakened by this great clamor in front of their tent. When we pointed our flashlights towards their tent, a bear had one of their backpacks in his teeth, banging it from one side to the other. They ran the bear off, but the next morning, all they found was a trail of discarded food containers. The bear had found and eaten all the food that they brought – so we had to share with them for 291


the rest of the weekend! Out of necessity, we developed a backcountry ethic that made us (particularly George, Tom Carruthers and Edmund Perry) scoff at predicted bad weather. We resolved ourselves to the principle that the weather prediction just didn’t matter. (Not to mention that mountain weather predictions were mostly always wrong, anyway.) If we said we were going, we went, regardless. We all subscribed to the theory that “there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear.” Tom Carruthers particularly didn’t understand why the weather would ever have anything to do with our decision. He clearly considered bad weather as an asset with the added advantage of testing our gear.

Rebecca Cohn & Gail with their Andy Goldsworthy art installation.

In the backcountry, of course, we had to create our own fun. One of the things we loved doing in the fall was our versions of Scottish land artist Andy Goldsworthy’s nature installations. Here Rebecca Cohn and Gail display their handiwork of organizing and then placing colorful fall leaves carefully around a trail sign. We would leave such work and, assuming a gusty wind didn’t kick up, it would be there to astound the next hiker to happen by, perhaps the next day. We typically ended our Smokies backpacks by November as really bad weather started rolling in by then. But one mid-November, we decided to do a backpack to Walnut Bottoms, one of the most beautiful of all the remote GSMNP backcountry 292


campsites. Unfortunately, Carruthers had to work late that Friday so he and Brooke drove up after dark, arriving at the trailhead after 10 pm. While they were used to hiking in the dark, it was even challenging for them to take on this two-hour hike as freezing rain had set in with a vengeance. Fortunately, we had lit and hung a candle lantern outside our tent at the last moment before we went to bed. It was designed to not only burn a long time but to protect the candle from the wind and rain. The weather had turned so bad, we didn’t think they would still come - but without the light, Tom & Brooke would have had no idea if we were even at the campsite. (FYI, this was when cellphone use was still a novelty – and, besides, there was no cell coverage within the park.) True to form, trustworthy Tom & Brooke plodded in about midnight, spotted the light and quickly pitched their tent in what had now turned to sleet. The next morning, we awoke to an ugly, raw, windy day. Heavy rain kept falling mixed with freezing sleet. Brenda Falls had hiked in with us and, as we five huddled under a tarp, Brenda mentioned that her parents had friends who owned a chalet in the mountains nearby that was stocked with wine, wood and the most recent videos. Gail and Brooke were nodding vigorously while Tom stood there in stunned, disbelieving silence. “I can’t believe that you would even suggest such a thing,” he said when she finished. “We’re already here in the wilderness, we can’t leave now.” Brenda replied pointedly, “Tom Carruthers, I’m not in competition with you.” “No, you’re not,” he said without pausing. Then, in a phrase we would quote on every subsequent backpack, he memorably added, “You’re in competition with what’s going on inside your head.” With that, Brenda shook that head, packed up and sloshed out in the rain. Tom, Brooke, Gail and I went on a long day hike up Camel Back Trail to the AT, pausing at a ridgetop shelter there, named, of all things, Cosby Knob. Even at noon on this miserable day, one poor soul was huddled in the shelter, zipped completely up in his down bag but still shivering against the cold. Regardless, it was breathtakingly beautiful. Rime ice had very decoratively coated all the trees and bushes up here, creating a proverbial winter wonderland. Just another backpacking trip in the Smokies! One June, we went backpacking in the Elkmont area of the park with our young friends Ryan and Brannon Dawkins. We were unaware of it, but we had arrived right at the peak time to observe the syncopated fireflies. When dusk slips into darkness, the “light show” begins and the fireflies pool their efforts. Instead of scattershot blips of light in the summer sky, the fireflies—thousands of them—pulse together in an eerie, quiet harmony. It looked to us as if the trees were strung with Christmas lights: bright for three seconds, dark for six, and then bright again, over and over. It continued this way for hours. Back then, science didn’t believe this phenomenon even happened in the west293


ern hemisphere, only in Asia. Now, of course, they do, and the syncopated fireflies have become the Smokies’ largest backcountry tourist attraction, with as many as 12,000 people attending each year. We’ve heard that tourists now have to reserve parking spots in advance online and that when they release them in April, the spaces go in a matter of minutes! We’re so glad we got to see it all by ourselves. If you’ve already read the earlier chapter titled “All SOBs aren’t Male. Or Human,” you know we had plenty of bear encounters. But we also encountered rattlesnakes, boar, skunk, deer, ruffed grouse, wild turkeys and even elk. Needless to say, there are plenty of wild animals to encounter in the Smokies. Most of the time, a hike to any Smokies backcountry campsite usually meant you had it all to yourself. Although 99% of the people you’d meet were really interesting people, often from all over the US, there were always a few SOBs. (And since this is a book about SOBs, let me tell you about these guys.) On two occasions, we felt that we came close to a dangerous physical situation. Once in April 1997, we were hiking the difficult and remote Enloe Creek Trail.

Fall color at Gregory Bald

Deep in the park, we passed three horsemen who had dismounted and were harvesting ramps just off the trail. This is a garlic-like plant that is highly regarded by many in the mountain community. Tom Carruthers fearlessly called out to these tough looking guys, “Hey -- I 294


Gail Hiking Down from a Lookout to Basecamp.

thought you weren’t supposed to harvest any plants in the National Park.” The biggest of the guys snarled in a very menacing way, “We’re Native Americans. The government has no fucking right to tell us what we can or can’t do.” And then glared at us as if to say, “So….you gonna try to stop us?” We said nothing further and continued hiking on to the Enloe Creek campsite. This is surely one of the most beautiful backcountry campsites in the entire park and also one of the most isolated. Large, house-sized boulders were sprinkled attractively around the small campsite. Adjacent to the site, a six-foot waterfall dropped into a deep pool with a hue of an almost Caribbean turquoise. But something wasn’t right about those men on horseback and I had a funny feeling we were going to encounter them again. We pitched our tents hurriedly and I put my bear pistol (a 357-magnum loaded with hollow points) right inside the tent door where I could grab it in a hurry. Sure enough, we soon heard hoof beats drumming up the trail, getting louder and louder. The three large men, wearing campaign hats and long duster-like jackets, thundered aggressively into our camp. They reined up but didn’t dismount. They sat high atop their horses, eyeing us as the animals paced and pawed the ground. George and Carruthers walked up to them and greeted them in a friendly, disarming fashion, showing no fear. I moved over near our tent door and squatted down, keeping my eyes locked on them. The guys made small talk but I got the very distinct feeling they were sizing us up. Were they checking out Brooke and Gail? Were they thinking of robbing us? 295


Murdering us? Did they think my position apart from them and near the tent door might spell more trouble than they wanted? After a tense few minutes, they spurred their horses off. They didn’t come back that night, but none of us would rest very easy. We had another encounter with another real SOB, this time at the Double Springs shelter on the AT. In typical backpacker fashion, we all arrived at the shelter late in the afternoon and busied ourselves filtering water, spreading our sleeping bags out on one of the shelves inside the shelter, gathering firewood and preparing to make dinner. Typically, hikers chat with each other as most of us had been out on the trail a while and welcomed new company. As we chatted, it came out that we were from Birmingham. About that time, the national news was thoroughly covering Eric Rudolph, the far-right, anti-abortion, anti-gay terrorist. He was on the FBI’s National ten most wanted list and was suspected of hiding out in the North Carolina mountains as he had grown up in nearby Nantahala. For all we knew, he could be right here in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With a $1 million reward being offered, believe me, we talked about him a lot on the trail! Rudolf had gained his nationwide notoriety as the Olympic Park bomber in Atlanta where he had killed two people and injured 120 others in 1996. Most recently, he had blown up an abortion clinic in Birmingham, which had killed a security guard and seriously disfigured a nurse who worked there and kicked off another round of national publicity on this despicable character. As we were puttering around, one of the other hikers overheard that we were from Birmingham. He casually said, out of the blue, “Eric Rudolph is kind of a hero to me.” That pissed me off so I immediately popped off, “Well, you can be sure he’s no hero to the people of Birmingham for what he did to that security guard and poor nurse.” Shockingly, my response enraged the guy and he started cussing me and throwing things around. Clearly, he was about to slug me. I sure didn’t want to get in a fight in the back-country, particularly with someone as big and badass as this guy was. Fortunately for me, both Tom Carruthers and George Jenkins stepped up and separated us which was a very good thing for me. The guy eventually cooled down but I kept my distance from him in the shelter that night. The next morning, as we were filtering our water at the spring below the shelter, he told me, “I want to apologize for what I said to you last night. I’m hiking the Appalachian Trail under a court order. I’m doing this as part of my requirements to learn how to better handle my anger management problems.” Holy shit, I thought. “Uhh, cool. Hey, yeah, well, it was nice meeting you.” I couldn’t wait to get away from that SOB. Fortunately, we were hiking in different directions. 296


Rudolf was caught a couple of years later, in 2003, and was hiding in the mountains above Andrews, NC, just south of the park. I always wondered if that guy actually knew Rudolf. Over the years, we made uncountable journeys to the Smokies to continue our hiking quest. While we mostly backpacked, for some of the trails, we were able to stay in a motel and just day hike. So we would choose one of the surrounding towns circling the park where we could knock off a trail day-hiking. We probably spent more nights in Townsend, TN, than any other mountain town as it accessed so Filtering water in the Smokies. many trails on the northern side of the park. Although it certainly beat sleeping in a tent, Tennessee motels always seemed to be festooned with “Holly Hobbit/trailer park” décor. There was just nothing at all elegant about any aspect of it, plus there wasn’t a decent restaurant in the town. Bryson City was better, as early on it had some elegant, historic inns like The Frymont and Randolph House that maintained their vintage appeal from many years ago. But Cherokee was just an awful tourist trap, filled with rednecks who evidently came to see Cherokees dressed incongruously in Northern Plains & Southwestern Indian attire. Gatlinburg was an eye-roll too, although it did have a decent trout restaurant and, later, a much-appreciated brewpub. Fontana offered some old dam builders’ homes for rent and easy access to trails on the southwestern end of the park – and boat rides across the lake to remote trailheads. Newport, TN, was nothing but an archipelago of chain motels and chain restaurants. But as we got steadily older and creakier, we became less picky and came to appreciate any place that would offer a bed, a hot shower and a restaurant! After 26 years of hiking adventures in the Smokies, it finally came down to one last trail and we would then have completed them all, all 900+ miles of them. On Memorial Day weekend, 2005, we’d saved arguably the most beautiful stretch of trail for last: the Appalachian Trail between Newfound Gap and Davenport Gap. 297


The author and Gail celebrating the end of their 900-mile quest.

It would be a 32 ½-mile hike with three nights spent on the trail; the first night at the Peck’s Corner shelter, the second at Tricorner Knob shelter and, appropriately enough for our final night, the Cosby Knob shelter. We left our car at Mountain Mama’s, the hiker store near Davenport Gap, and paid a guy to drive us up to Newfound Gap. This being a mountaintop trail, it was a good thing that we’d planned this trip late in the spring, as it was very cool for most of our hike – just a few weeks earlier and it would’ve still been the dead of winter. It was also great that we got to see some of our favorite wildflowers in bloom, including the delicately beautiful rose twisted stalk, Clinton lilies, wild hydrangea, and Catesby and Painted Trillia. But most fortuitously for us, our final epic hike barely preceded the massive hemlock die-off triggered by the Wooly Adelgid infestation and the coming profusion of “ghost trees.” So we hiked through pristine, virgin forest, populated here and there with massive, graceful Eastern Hemlock trees. Up here there was also plenty of otherwise rare and spectacular Douglas fir and Red Spruce to admire, drinking in their refreshing Christmas tree-like scents as we hiked along. Needless to say, the mountain scenery that enveloped us was absolutely Eden-esque and simply superb. Another most fortunate development was that we were finishing this trek before physical limitations started kicking in. Our days of hiking 10+ miles with a 30-pound pack were numbered, so it was good that we were now wrapping up this quest. 298


Neither Gail nor I particularly liked the idea of sleeping in shelters, but by doing so, we eliminated the significant weight of our tent. (Plus, along the AT, they don’t want you sleeping outside a shelter unless it was filled.) Therefore, we considered shelter stays a necessity for this long and final stretch of trail. We brought a supply of Ambien so we could sleep through the cacophony of snores from our fellow shelter dwellers. Finally, on May 30, 2005, we finished the last nine-mile section down into Davenport Gap. At 1:08 PM EDT, we arrived, finally completing the quest! We arrived back home to find that our longtime hiking companions, George Jenkins and Tom & Brooke Carruthers, had left a bottle of champagne and congratulation cards on our front porch – much appreciated! To be officially certified for membership in the 900 Miler Club, we had to fill out some significant paperwork to prove that we had, indeed, hiked all the Smokies’ trails. After completing the paperwork, the laconic club secretary assured us that not only were we the first from Alabama to ever qualify but, with it taking us 26 years, we had surely set the record for taking the longest time to qualify! Five months later, on October 1, 2005, we invited all our friends who had ever gone on an overnight backpack with us in the Smokies to join us at the Hemlock Inn in Sylva, NC for a celebration dinner. Most everyone showed up and it was a fun and celebratory end to this long-term goal. Tom & Brooke presented us with this keepsake poster. Gail and I treasure it as it was signed by just about every one of our good friends who ever went on an overnight backpack with us to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Happy trails, indeed!

299


Burning Daylight (1999) Act VI/Scene 12: Arapahoe, Nebraska “You’ve got a friend in me, you’ve got a friend in me When the road looks rough ahead And you’re miles and miles from your nice warm bed You just remember what your old pal said Boy, you’ve got a friend in me Yeah, you’ve got a friend in me” You’ve Got a Friend In Me, Randy Newman

Fighting the ferocious headwind all the way across Nebraska.

T

he note had been hastily scrawled across the bottom of our Christmas card: “It’s a damn shame that you’ve let yourself get so out of shape that you couldn’t possibly keep up with me on the BRAN (Bicycle Ride Across Nebraska) next June. You would’ve enjoyed it. Sincerely, Jake.” That was all it took. I swallowed the bait hook, line and sinker. I was ready to show him that I was capable of keeping up with him or any other Cornhusker, for that matter! Wanting some company for my first trip to the upper midwest, I reached out to my dependable wingman, Stewart Dansby. Surprisingly enough, despite his perennially jammed social calendar, Stewart was enthusiastically all in. I called Jake and asked him to sign us both up for BRAN, which he did. So now the three of us

300


were all set to take on the annual weeklong Bicycle Ride Across Nebraska the following June. I was quite pleased that this came together as, honestly, both Stewart and Jake were two of my favorite SOBs on earth. I knew we would all get along and have a great time; it would be a veritable laugh-a-thon the entire week. However, since Stewart did not have a particularly stellar reputation for staying in shape, Jake Jacobs, Stewart Dansby and the Author at the BRAN. I figured I would need to push him a wee bit to get him readied for the physical challenge of biking across Nebraska. I wasn’t wrong. Stewart responded magnificently. But first, like Al Czervik, the memorable Rodney Dangerfield character in Caddyshack, Stewart bought up seemingly all the biking gear and gizmos available from every bike shop in Birmingham. He purchased a magnificent, top-of-the-line Marin bike with all the gloves, bags and gear and of course, the coolest helmet imaginable. Plus, he bought us corporate Mercedes Benz bike jerseys and University of Alabama bike jerseys as he was determined to make a positive PR impact for Alabama way up in Nebraska. As the date for the June 6 ride drew nearer, we ramped up our training schedule, gradually increasing our frequency and distances. Everything I’d ever seen Stewart do athletically, he just effortlessly excelled at, so it didn’t take him long to exceed my biking ability. This SOB was truly a naturally gifted athlete. The day arrived and Jake welcomed us warmly at the Omaha Airport. This was my first time to lay eyes on my old Navy roommate since Okinawa, way back in 1972, which was 27 years earlier. I frankly almost didn’t recognize him because I thought he looked far too young for a guy who was now, gulp, 52 years old, just like me. But it was indeed him and it was great to reconnect. We quickly put our bags and dismantled bikes into the back of his capacious van and took off on I-80, heading due west; destination, Arapahoe, Nebraska. Upon arrival, hundreds of tents providing shelter for the BRAN 1999 participants were already pitched on the lush high school football field set out on the lonely prairie. We rushed to get our tents up, despite fierce gusts of wind, and then turned to the reassembly of our bikes. By the time we entered the auditorium for 301


the evening’s initial briefing, we could tell there was a good spirit about this ride. Our fellow cyclists were both jovial and more than willing to put up with heat, wind, rain and sleeping in a tent. At 5:30 am the next morning, Jake tapped on our tent walls and softly said: “Time to get up guys, we’re burning daylight.” We would hear this Nebraskan farming expression, again and again, all week long. It was surprisingly chilly so we dressed warmly in a way we wouldn’t have believed the night before. As we emerged from our tents, we noticed that some of the tents had already been taken down and guys were loading them up. Here at 5:45 am, we figured we’d better eat breakfast so we sauntered over to the breakfast area, which was already thinning out. We noticed the wind was dead calm. A local celebrity of sorts named “The Pancake Man” was flipping pancakes high over the griddle and then slinging them to selected customers holding their plates at the ready. We caught and ate our pancakes and stepped outside for the mass group photo at 6:15 am. To our shock and surprise, now everyone else had their tents down and packed and were dressed in bike gear, sitting on their bikes, ready to ride. Needless to say, Stewart and I were nowhere near ready. Today would be the day that it would finally dawn on us that, instead of mountains, the bicycle challenge in Nebraska was the ferocious headwind. The BRAN route went from west to east and, once the morning calm dissipated, the wind would blow hard in our faces all day, every day. So obviously, the smart play was to get most of your bicycle road work in early. Who knew? Certainly not the only two entrants from Alabama! The way we planned our schedule was that every three days, one of us would take a shift driving the van while the other two rode. Jake took it this first day and was very patient as Stewart and I put on our bike clothes, including the special University of Alabama Bicycle Racing Team jerseys that screamed we weren’t from around here. (And also communicating that the UA bike team must be strangely very old and out of shape!) Finally, at 7:30 am, we officially began our ride. We puffed out our chests to show off our UA bike team jerseys, proudly proclaiming just who the hell we were to our audience. Which is to say exactly nobody, because by now, there wasn’t a single one of the 500 other BRAN riders within 25 miles of us, much less within sight. A few remaining members of the BRAN cleanup crew were gathering up garbage, but none of them bothered to glance at us, and who could blame them? But what a glorious day it was; not a cloud in the sky! Nonetheless... No sooner had we made the turn out of the high school parking lot onto the route than I heard a discouraging “Pfffftttt.” Dammit. A flat tire, already. So we two U of A bike team pretenders pulled over to the side of the road. Stewart let me use his cellphone to call the BRAN mechanics truck. Maybe I could’ve handled it, but I wasn’t interested in changing my tire and, besides, for $5, it was worth it to 302


have them handle it. Of course, the truck was driving far ahead with the main body of the peloton, so they had to backtrack all the way to the start. They weren’t too happy about coming to my rescue. But finally, the repair was made and Stewart and I belatedly began our trek – only to now experience the unbelievable Nebraska headwind. By 10:30 am, it was blowing hard, directly in our faces, with a fierce, unrelenting steadiness that had to be felt to be believed. It made you wonder if any of the Conestogas that crossed Nebraska in the 1840s had sails. If so, maybe they could’ve propelled themselves across the prairie without oxen – seriously! Regardless, what had started out as an easy lark of a bike ride, cruising across the flat landscape at 17-20 mph, had sudA flat tire on the prairie. denly turned into a leg-burning, chest heaving travail. Determined not to be disqualified on the first day of the race, we bore down, pedaling hard, taking turns drafting each other. Despite the wind, we made slow, painful but steady progress. Our destination for our first day was the tiny town of Eustis, Nebraska, population 375 – Yahoo! (as they would say on the old TV show Hee-Haw.) Finally, Eustis hove into sight. Despite feeling exhausted, and despite being far and away the absolute last two finishers on this, the first day of BRAN, 1999, we weren’t going to drop out of character. As we pedaled up to the campsite for the evening, we threw our hands up over our heads in mock triumph and cheered as if we’d won the Tour de France. (If any of the 500 bicyclers already there cared to note our entrance, they either didn’t show it or were just too polite not to ridicule the two losers from Alabama.) Our week peddling the BRAN was a sheer delight. Each night, a different host town provided copious amounts of food choices for very little expense, often with 303


an eastern European flavor, due to the many people of Czech and Polish descent throughout the state. One night we sampled “cream can dinner,” a Polish-American meal where they cooked potatoes, carrots, kraut, onions, celery, polish sausages and corn on the cob in antique metal milk cans heated by a propane heater. The next night we might have a “Runza,” a Czech sandwich of homemade bread, cabbage, onion and ground beef. Every day we’d get our sugar high from kolaches, delicious Czech doughnut pastries. And then maybe finish off the evening with the local cocktail, an 80 cent “Red Beer” which was a glass of Pabst Blue Ribbon with a shot of tomato juice. Ugh. But while in Rome… The Nebraskans we met were memorable in an endearing, plain-spoken, unaffected sort of way. At a stop in Sargent, I had a chance meeting with a clear-eyed, 83-year-old man who told me stories about the Nebraska dust bowl in the 1930s. He shared his worries about huge agri-business methodologies in use now, particularly the widespread use of center pivot irrigation systems that he felt was draining the life-supporting Oglala aquifer. He was very intelligent and spoke movingly about the future impact of all these modern-day herbicides and fertilizers on the public’s water supply. Here in the semi-arid Midwest, water is a top concern of thinking people.

Jake Jacobs, the author and Stewart Dansby ready to see Alabama play in the College World Series. 304


These Midwesterners also shared a wholesome humor that was readily apparent. As we approached Chambers, Nebraska, the landscape around us had become pancake flat and the road was an arrow-straight ribbon disappearing into the far horizon. To keep us bikers entertained, citizens from Chambers put up temporary signs along the road stating “Caution: Curves Ahead.” Or, “Beware of Falling Rocks.” A local pharmacy suggested that BRAN riders visit them to solve dysfunctional problems from riding on a bike seat too long. And then, with a population totaling all of 258, they had a sign stating “Chambers – Next Five Exits.” Funny stuff. Strangely enough, to our delight, we found out that the University of Alabama was playing in the College Baseball World Series in Omaha the day before BRAN ended. It wasn’t too far off our route, so of course, Stewart and I wanted to go. I called Sue Eledge, a colleague of mine who worked at the Omaha Chamber of Commerce. She scored us three tickets so a day later we took a side trip into Omaha. We got to watch a great baseball game with Alabama drubbing Oklahoma State 11-3. Alabama went on to qualify for the national semi-finals before being finally eliminated. One of my goals for 1999 was to have a good answer to the question “When was the last time you did something for the first time?” Well, BRAN was my answer for the final year of the 20th century. After experiencing this bicycle route of 482 miles with 500 fellow cyclists from 27 states, after being subjected to the generous hospitality of these deferential Midwesterners, after absorbing the broad vistas and the unexpected beauty of the prairie grass gently waving underneath its purple tassels, I could honestly say the entire experience was “BRANTASTIC” – even though it could be said that the boys from Alabama burned way too much daylight and arguably finished dead last!

305


Takkakaw Means “It Is Magnificent!” Act VI/Scene 13: Yoho National Park, Alberta, Canada, 2005 “Think I’ll go out to Alberta Weather’s good there in the fall… Four strong winds that blow lonely Seven seas that run high All those things that don’t change come what may” Four Strong Winds, Neil Young

Gail gets high in Yoho National Park.

L

ooking back on all our many adventures and hikes all over the world, I end this “act” of 13 travel stories with this. Gail and I loved the province of Alberta, particularly the Canadian Rockies around Banff, where we took three long hiking vacations over the years. On the tail end of our summer vacation here in 2005, we were greeted on the very last day of August to a crispy, chilly 28-degree morning. We stumbled around our cabin, putting the coffee on and getting a fire going in the 306


fireplace. Most of the morning was shot before we finally set out on this, our final hike of this trip. At the Visitor Center in Field, a young park ranger looked up from reading the mountaineering thriller “Touching the Void” and asked if she could help us. We sought her advice on best hikes in the area and she suggested the Iceline Trail in Yoho National Park. It sounded perfect and we fueled up at the Truffle Pig. A charming French girl with a killer accent brought us delicious egg salad sandwiches on homemade bread. To hike the Iceline, we had to park at the Takkakaw Falls parking lot and then walk a quarter-mile to the trailhead. A very cold rain started falling and we donned all our fleece and raingear. As seems typical of most hikes, we began by switched-backing steeply uphill. A steady rain like this typically dampens all noises, so to make sure we didn’t surprise any bears or other large carnivores along the trail, we found things to talk about – loudly. I recapped to Gail the essence of the book I’d been reading (David McCullough’s 1776). It must have worked – and really, who wouldn’t head the other direction if they had to listen to me recap an entire book!! We started pulling off layers of clothing as we continued uphill, warmed from the exertion. Far across the vast valley, the immense Takkakaw Falls was still visible and we could even faintly hear the distant roar from the nearly 1,000-foot tall, stunningly beautiful waterfall. Takkakaw in Cree means, “It is magnificent,” and it truly was. After climbing 1,300 feet, we entered the alpine zone and gained mountain views in all directions. Now we could even look down onto the glacier that fed Takkakaw atop the far side of the valley. As we hiked along, we drank in the superb views of perfect alpine lakes and admired beautiful wildflower-filled alpine meadows before periodically plunging into deep forests. Gail’s SI joint in her lower back had been troubling her, so instead of doing the entire loop, once our altimeter read 6,900 feet, we turned around. We never really minded out and back trails, as the vista in the opposite direction gave us, for the most part, a completely new perspective. We made good progress and retraced our long journey back down the mountain. Back on the valley floor, the weather had cleared beautifully. With Takkakaw Falls beckoning on the other side of the valley, I asked Gail if we couldn’t extend our hike a wee bit and follow the trail to the base of the falls. Since it would be a mostly flat hike, she agreed as she didn’t think it would aggravate her back. At the bridge leading to the trail that would take us to the falls, we noticed two large trucks parked, an oddity for such a remote place as this. Nonetheless, we pressed on down the trail, resolved to reach the base of the falls. The roar of the falls grew noticeably louder the closer we got. After hiking 30 minutes or so, at a turn in the trail, we caught our first unimpeded glimpse of the base of the falls. But we couldn’t comprehend what we were seeing. I pulled out my 307


Magnificent Canadian Rockies scenery.

binoculars and studied the scene as best I could but it was still far away. It appeared, amazingly enough, that there was a group of similarly dressed children playing on a huge boulder right at the very base of the falls. Surely that couldn’t be. Was I hallucinating? We continued to hike closer. After another thirty minutes or so, we rounded another bend in the trail. Now we could see the entire base of the huge waterfall and I could not believe my eyes. These were not children but actually gorgeous, scantily clad young women! They were writhing like sirens, as if trying to seduce Odysseus himself to untie his bonds from the mast. Then we saw camera crews with many people, clearly from India. They were filming a Bollywood movie here! With mouth agape, I stood transfixed, staring at the scene. Maybe a dozen or so attractive young women in some type of delicate, pink chiffon outfits were ca308


vorting, barefoot, on a huge boulder in front of the falls. As they filmed, the young women were singing, dancing very suggestively, swaying, gesturing – despite the fact that it was breezy, misty and downright cold. Gail was fairly disgusted and immediately ready to turn around. On the other hand, I was in no hurry whatsoever. I thought this was the ultimate reward and greatest payoff imaginable for a tough hike. The more I thought about it, this was the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for an old hiker who had endured way too many sweaty, rocky, steep trails and now had earned his sweet reward. Who’s to say that all the natural beauty in the wilderness has to be wildflowers and alpine lakes? “Takkakaw” indeed --- what a magnificent end to a memorable hiking vacation!

My eyes couldn’t believe what they saw: Bollywood stars at the foot of Takkakaw.

309


Act VII: Ebb Tide “When you only got hundred years to live Half time goes by Suddenly you’re wise Another blink of an eye Sixty-seven is gone The sun is getting high We’re moving on I’m ninety-nine for a moment Dying for just another moment” 100 Years, Five For Fighting

310


Safe at Home Act VII/Scene 1: Rickwood Field, America’s Oldest Ballpark, 1957-2018 “Well-a, beat the drum and hold the phone, The sun came out today. We’re born again, there’s new grass on the field. A-roundin’ third, and headed for home, It’s a brown-eyed handsome man” Centerfield, John Fogerty

s noted earlier in this memoir, my dad was ornery, mean and tough to be A around, but that didn’t mean he was always that way. For some reason, he tolerated my incessant begging to be taken out to Rickwood to see the Barons play. (Older brother Robert just didn’t care to go that much.) Daddy occasionally would agree to take me but finally gave up. “OK, Tommy, just ride the cotton-picking bus out there if you’re so doggone determined to see ‘em play.” That was the answer I was looking for. Despite being only ten years old, I was beyond thrilled with this decision. Of course, it meant going by myself but that didn’t bother me in the slightest. 311


To get to the game also meant hiking 3½ blocks down to Vanderbilt Road and waiting on the bus to take me downtown. There I would transfer at 3rd Avenue North and 20th Street to the #3 Pratt City. By the time I got off the second bus at 12th Street and 3rd Avenue West and walked up to the ticket window, a full hour would’ve passed, door to door. No problem at all. From my allowance, I would buy a general admission children’s ticket for 50 cents along with a ten–cent scorecard and be totally set. Thrilled, I would take my seat, usually on the third–base side, and get there early enough to watch batting practice and field warmups. It always amazed me to see the manager effortlessly hit long fungos to the outfielders, who would catch them and then toss the ball back toward the catcher. Their laser-like throws always had a little hop in them which I tried to emulate back home to no avail. Of course, it was always hot in Birmingham during baseball season, but seated high enough in the grandstand, there was usually a nice, comfortable breeze flowing through the park. Natural air conditioning, we called it. I learned to keep box score and loved to sink deeply into the timeless rhythms of the national pastime. As a kid back then, not only would nobody bother you; frankly, no adult would even deign to acknowledge you. Which was fine with me. I remember a lot of older, Italianate-looking men scattered around Rickwood’s grandstand which even back then was rarely crowded. These regulars smoked a lot of cigars and could be counted on to loudly contest each and every umpire decision of the night. Other than the 7th inning stretch, there was no “dizzy bat contest” or “kiss cam” between innings back then. Looking back, there weren’t even that many females out there. All that Rickwood offered was baseball and that was all that I wanted. (I will confess to one distraction: I would look enviously at the bat boys and wonder how on earth anyone could be so lucky as to have ever been chosen to be one of them. Lucky dogs.) Pulling for the Barons was my summer–long passion, especially when it came to beating our arch enemies, the hated, despised, always cocky Atlanta Crackers. Sitting in the left-field bleachers, when we played them and a fly ball was hit to the left fielder, everyone would shout “I got it, I got it” in a hopeful attempt to distract 312


the fielder. Weekday games were always played at night so I had to watch the time, especially if a game went into extra innings. This was because the last bus I could catch at 12th Street and 3rd Avenue West that would get me downtown in time to catch the last 22 Tarrant to Inglenook would be at 10 pm. So I dared not miss that bus –and I never did. Pretty responsible for a ten-year-old, if you ask me. Even after I grew up, Rickwood Field still held a special place in my heart. Early in my Chamber career, my friend and fellow SOB Stewart Dansby and I regularly presented what was called a “Trivial PurGetting ready for the annual Rickwood Classic suit” game to luncheon groups at various Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs around town. It tested everyone’s Birmingham IQ and worked pretty well. That is until the audience realized that the correct answer to practically every question was Birmingham. One of the questions we would ask was, “Where is America’s 2nd oldest ballpark located?” The answer was Birmingham, as Rickwood Field was second only in longevity to Chicago’s Comiskey Park. Then, to our total astonishment, in 1990, we heard that Chicago was tearing down Comiskey to build a new park. It hit us both immediately: Birmingham could now boast to being home to America’s Oldest Ballpark. What a gift! But Rickwood was in terrible shape in 1990, both structurally and aesthetically. After the Barons left in 1987, running the park had been left up to the Birmingham Park & Recreation Board and what limited work they had done on the park was in incredibly poor taste. So along with Coke Matthews and Terry Slaughter, in 1993, we three formed the Friends of Rickwood under the auspices of the Chamber of Commerce to save the nation’s oldest ballpark. One of the key ways we helped save the field each year was by holding the Rickwood Classic with the considerable help of the Birmingham Barons. This throwback game featured the Barons and their Southern League opponents, both dressed in period baseball attire. Undoubtedly, it was one of the most fun things I attended every year. It never failed that I would see folks at the park that I hadn’t seen in years; sometimes from way back in my childhood. One of the early strategies we employed to build support for the park was to 313


get the Jefferson County legislative delegation to hold its annual gathering at the nation’s oldest ballpark. Activities like this built invaluable awareness and resulted in some public monies being made available. Due largely to the indefatigable efforts of our executive directors, first Chris Fuller (who died, tragically, in an automobile accident) and then especially, David Brewer, we got the park back up to the standards required by professional baseball. Then we worked with the Birmingham Barons to hold the Rickwood Classic there each year, in the late spring or early summer. I never missed one of the Classics for 314


the first 25 years. One Saturday morning after the Rickwood Classic, I awoke thinking about my old Little League coach, Jake Walker. I had seen him at the Rickwood Classic the day before and he had appeared surprisingly frail. We’d had a few minutes to talk but not nearly long enough. “I really should call him,” I thought to myself. As a kid growing up in Inglenook in the 1950s I had early on discovered my place. The adults I knew were basically SOBs, and not in any funny kind of way. They were Great Santini–types, some were battle-hardened World War II vets and all were survivors of the Great Depression. These men usually had little humor and no patience for kids. If you got to address them at all, it was Mr. This or Mr. That.

Coke Matthews and the author en route to a speaking engagement. Below, Chamber president Neal Berte, the author and John Moser make plans at Rickwood.

315


Jake was different. From the very first day our team met him, we knew he was cut from a different piece of cloth. He had us call him by his first name, a real oddity back then. He was a gentle spirit and couldn’t help being kind to all his boys. He had a great, old-fashioned Southern accent and was quick to greet you with a “Hey, buddeee!” While all the other coaches were quick to lambaste their players for their fielding or batting errors–“Keep your eye on the ball, you idiot!”–Jake would console us, encourage us and actually show us what we did wrong. Although Jake worked long hours for the L&N Railroad, he made plenty of

Friends of Rickwood Board of Directors.

time to coach us and manage us in our games. And when we won, on occasion he’d take the whole team out to Rickwood, the ultimate treat for us. Back then, if you wore your Little League uniform and sat in the “Barons Bees” section (this was high in the grandstands, midway between first base and the right field foul pole underneath a large metal sign with a big bumblebee on it), then you would get admitted for free. Our whole team would bring their gloves but I don’t ever remember any one of us being so lucky as to get a ball. After the game was over, Jake would let all us boys pile back into his old beat-up station wagon and we’d ride home to Inglenook. The next day, we’d be back on some neighborhood ball field, maybe the weed–choked lot we called “Little Rickwood.” We organized our own day–long pickup games, trying our best to scratch, spit and play like Barons. 316


The very next day after my dream about Jake, I got a call from his son and my former teammate, Jimmy. Jake had passed away the day before, as peacefully as he had lived, full of years. My heart sank as the dream came back to me immediately. And I remembered how badly I’d wanted to thank him for his gentle, generous spirit. So, yeah, baseball and Rickwood Field really meant a lot to me. After volunteering my time on the park for 27 years, I finally resigned from the Rickwood Board of Directors in 2018. I’m proud of my role in all that we accomplished in saving and restoring the park. We essentially identified enough resources to keep the park open long enough that most people in Birmingham now value it as America’s oldest ballpark and hopefully will never allow it to face the wrecking ball. Yep, Rickwood will always be home plate for me.

The author’s Little League team with him standing and smiling next to our beloved coach, Jake Walker.

317


Less Is More Act VII/Scene 2: Veteran’s Day Parade Route, 2013 “Some folks are born made to wave the flag Ooh, they’re red, white and blue And when the band plays “Hail to the chief” Ooh, they point the cannon at you, Lord It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son, son” Fortunate Son, Creedence Clearwater Revival

T

hroughout my life, whenever November 11 rolled around, the Veterans Day parade was staged in downtown Birmingham, rain or shine, warm or freezing cold. Traditionally, it had been a massive patriotic spectacle, with literally thousands of servicemen and women marching along with tanks, jeeps and all sorts of military equipment clanking down the streets. I even marched in it myself as a member of the Navy Reserve for several years. Very few people knew that Birmingham, of all places, had founded this National Veterans Day holiday. This had happened thanks to the indefatigable work done by the late Raymond Weeks way back in 1947 and carried on by Bill Voigt after he 318


passed away. It was a good idea as, prior to 1947, Armistice Day had only celebrated veterans from “The Great War.” So as millions of veterans returned home after serving in World War II, Mr. Weeks urged that something be done to honor them. General (and later to be president) Dwight Eisenhower agreed and put the wheels in motion to create the new holiday that we still celebrate to this day. Weeks’ successor, Bill Voigt, and I had worked together at the Chamber of Commerce so I was aware that mounting a parade of this scale was no small task, as Bill worked on it pretty much year around. But after he passed away, I gradually grew less aware of the parade, despite still working downtown. Back in 2013, two of my lovely nieces, Ann Caroline and Faye Claire Thrasher (now Yohr and Cambron, respectively), were working for Big Communications. This was Birmingham’s top ad agency, run by an old friend, the talented John Montgomery. When my nieces told me that their agency was doing pro–bono work for Birmingham’s Veterans Day Parade, I considered it great news because their work was always so exemplary. Soon enough, cool posters started popping up around town, billboards too and then hip social media messages started buzzing on the parade. Widespread interest in the annual event was re-kindled. When my nieces told me they were selling Veterans Day t–shirts and other merchandise at the parade, I decided to leave work and visit them and check out the parade. They had set up a table on the sidewalk in front of First Methodist and, cute as they were, started doing a brisk business. As a veteran myself, I was curious

Nieces Faye Claire Cambron, Ann Caroline Yohr, and the author (plus Sipsey) at Veterans Day Parade. 319


to see what the parade was like now. But then the parade started and I was not impressed. Frankly, I was appalled. There was very little military presence involved in the parade. It was populated mostly by minor elected officials in convertibles, interspersed with radio station sound trucks blaring their music. Cub scouts wandered in disarray with their den mothers herding them loosely while talking distractedly on their cellphones. Countless “Little Miss Honey Boo-Boo” types were on display with their sashes, tiaras, miniature prom dresses and preening moms. This was a Veteran’s Day parade? As if all that wasn’t bad enough, a “float” then lumbered up the street with some VFW types and their children sitting on folding chairs on a flatbed truck. The homemade sign on the side embarrassingly read “Less We Not Forget,” a sloppy, illiterate attempt to recall Rudyard Kipling’s classic poem, “Recessional”: God of our fathers, known of old, Lord of our far-flung battle line, Beneath whose awful hand we hold Dominion over palm and pine— Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,

Veterans Day float concept provided by local MENSA rejects.

Lest we forget—lest we forget!’ I couldn’t stand it. Gail had always told me “nothing kills a bad product quicker than good advertising” and this experience was the perfect embodiment of that. If we were going to claim the mantle of the oldest Veterans Day Parade in the nation, I felt we either had to do better than the current parade–or kill it. One or the other. I resolved to meet with the leadership of the parade. A local guy by the name of Mark Ryan now led the parade. A wonderful man 320


in his mid-50s, he had stuck his neck out, way out, to take on this massive, and thankless, responsibility. He ran a small roofing company, lived in Gardendale and worked out of an office in Homewood. Mark had known Bill Voigt and, when Bill passed away, realized there was no one else to take the reins–and so if the parade was going to survive, he had to do it. The guy had bravely thrown himself into this, even suffering a massive heart attack the previous year while trying to organize the parade and run his small business at the same time. The more I thought about it, the more this pissed me off. With our city being the corporate headquarters of the state, didn’t the big guys care? We had operated Leadership Birmingham for over 30 years, supposedly nurturing leaders to advance our city. Through this leadership program, countless powerful CEOs had been made aware of important projects like the oldest Veterans Day Parade in America. Yet none of those SOBs stepped forward; they all turned away and left this huge project, with its nationwide reputation and important legacy, in the lap of one overwhelmed small businessman. Mark explained to me that, due to Federal budget sequestration, there was now no money to pay for active-duty troops to march in the parade any longer – and, besides, most of them were deployed overseas anyway. Even the Reserves and the National Guard couldn’t populate the parade any longer as these folks were only

The oldest Veterans Day parade in America. 321


The huge Veterans Day Parade winds through the streets of Birmingham.

available for 12 weekends a year–and that wasn’t nearly adequate for them to be properly trained on the complicated technological intricacies of modern warfare. So what was he to do? We talked about elements that could dramatically improve the quality of the parade, such as overflights and special drill teams and marching bands that could all add panache and recapture some of the parade’s original military flair. He agreed, and had plenty of ideas himself, but pointed out they all cost money he didn’t have. Fundraiser that I am, I asked him what Regions Bank and Alabama Power Company put into the parade each year. “Do you think they’d give?” he asked. “Not if you don’t ask them.” So I found myself in the role of volunteer fundraiser for the parade for five years. Bill Goodrich, my old Navy buddy from way back when, found it hilarious that me, of all people, would lift a finger–other than my middle one–to salute the military. (See earlier chapters on my military “career.”) And it was ridiculous; the one sailor who had driven so many military lifers absolutely crazy–now I’ve supposedly gone all red, white and blue? Well, chalk it up for Birmingham, if I thought it would be good for the Magic City, I would pitch in where I could. So over the next five years, I helped Mark Ryan develop a donor base among Birmingham’s larger employers. And now he has at least a bit of a budget to enable vintage airplane overflights during the parade, he has some money to induce marching bands to participate, also funding for vintage military equipment to be brought to the parade and even defer the cost of various cadet marching units from 322


Expert ad man John Montgomery and author at Veteran’s Day Parade.

places like Marion Institute to participate. Perhaps most importantly, I felt like I helped motivate Mark to establish a policy for determining who was, and who was not, allowed to march in the parade. We eliminated any corporate entity from having a presence unless they came in at least at the bronze sponsorship level of $2,500. We also applied that to beauty queens, local politicos and even nursing homes. As expected, there was much complaining but my view was that these same people wouldn’t think a thing about paying that much (or more) to get in front of the football crowds at Alabama or Auburn–and yet our parade offered them as many viewers (100,000+) as any football game. So heck yeah, they should pay. Meanwhile, my buddy John Montgomery continued to churn out great visuals for the parade and helped me with the “pitch piece” we took to the donor community. Alas, after five years, I had to resign as too many of these corporate donors kept confusing my requests for the Veterans Day Parade with my “real job” of raising money for Birmingham Landmarks. But I do feel good about helping stabilize the funding of the oldest Veterans Day parade in America. And “lest we forget,” the parade is today a lot better now than it was, even if that does make me look like the flag-waver I never was. 323


The Single Most Desperate Act in Fundraising History Act VII/Scene 3: The Historic Lyric Theatre, 2014 “When I was younger, so much younger than today I never needed anybody’s help in any way But now these days are gone I’m not so self-assured Now I find, I’ve changed my mind, I’ve opened up the doors Help me if you can, I’m feeling down And I do appreciate you being ‘round” Help, The Beatles

The author’s brief moment of notoriety.

“If all the year were playing holidays; to sport would be as tedious as to work.” William Shakespeare, King Henry IV, Part 1

T

he very idea of retiring to a typical post-work life of gardening and golf seemed worse to me than tedious. I couldn’t imagine sitting around some country club, with the same bunch of guys every day, asking, but not remotely caring, “How you 324


hitting ‘em today?” Even worse, the thought of being marooned at home, staring out the window, contemplating the meaning of life seemed more than just a little bit frightening to me. For better or for worse, I figured I was meant to work and chase goals and deadlines until the day I dropped. When I turned 65, I had completed 35 years of employment with the Birmingham Business Alliance/Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce. Although still brimming with energy, I really couldn’t stand what had happened to the old Chamber and no longer wanted to be a part of the BBA, despite a nice salary. The BBA was increasingly a one–dimensional economic development organization, focused on recruiting new industry but not showing measurable results even in that narrow endeavor. The traditional idea of it being a “bottom-up,” membership-driven organization comprised mostly of small businesses had been completely deserted. As the fundraiser, it became more and more difficult for me to make a convincing case for the value proposition of investing in the new organization. Not only were there increasingly fewer benefits but our CEO proudly subscribed to the philosophy of “shoot at everything that flies; count anything that falls.” Which meant we had little or nothing to do with the few successes that we touted. One of my old Chamber membership volunteers, Brant Beene, had recently become head of Birmingham Landmarks when the legendary Cecil Whitmire died. This was the 501c3 organization that owned and operated the Alabama Theatre– and had owned the deed to the abandoned Lyric Theatre since 1993. For the last 20 years, various plans and schemes had been floated to save the Lyric, but none of them had gained traction. He kept asking me to help him interview various fundraising consultants from around the country that they were considering hiring.

Killer campaign logo donated by Lawler Ballard Van Durand. 325


As we talked to these guys, it seemed more and more strange to me that anyone from Atlanta, Georgia–or Schenectady or wherever could expect much success in Birmingham when they didn’t even know the name of the heads of Alabama Power, Regions Bank or Protective Life. So it started dawning on both of us that maybe it was pre-ordained that I would be the one. “You know, Tom, the Lyric could be your personal trifecta–to add to Rickwood Field and Vulcan Park & Museum.” When Brant dangled that bait in front of me, I was hooked and he quickly reeled me in. Once I got into the project, I realized that the biggest challenge we faced was that Birmingham Landmarks didn’t have the necessary board members with “asking rights” to raise the kind of serious money that would be needed. After all, this board had been formed by local members of the American Theatre Organ Society back in 1987 to save the Mighty Wurlitzer, the grand house organ in the Alabama Theatre. Most of the board members were either organists or theatre geeks and few of them had any fundraising experience, much less “asking rights.” Or clout. So I set out to assemble a “campaign cabinet.” Once that was done, I was able to recruit my old pal Tinsley Van Durand and his able lieutenant, Derick Belden, to put the services of their top-notch ad agency behind the campaign. They quickly decided on the campaign theme of “Light Up the Lyric” and designed the previous page’s killer logo around this message. I had always been a big believer in sending prospects a three-dimensional “interrupter” piece to get their full attention. Brant and I talked about the fact that Groucho Marx had performed at the Lyric and so we came up with the idea of a box with a pair of Groucho Marx glasses and nose/mustache to send the prospects along with some funny Groucho jokes. I took the idea home to Gail and showed it to her–“What do you think?” I asked. Gail paused, thought a moment and then said, “You’ve got a killer logo and tag line. Use it.” (She was, of course, referring to “Light Up the Lyric.”) “Like sending them a light bulb?” I lamely asked. “Exactly.” Immediately, it all came together. We would send them a vintage theatre light bulb and ask the donors to visit the Lyric and install it. IE, help us really and truly “light up the Lyric.” Whether they donated or not. The idea took off like wildfire and Tinsley and Derick’s team created a fantastic interpretation and the campaign was off to the races. To start our campaign off with a bang, Matt Lusco, Regions Bank’s chief risk officer, made a breathtaking (and heroic) $800,000 initial pledge to help save the theatre. Brant and I whooped so loudly in the elevator leaving his office that everyone in the building heard it. Needless to say, we were now supercharged with adrenalin and enthusiasm. No stone was left unturned and it only took nine short months to raise the $7 million that we initially thought would be sufficient to restore the Lyric. Individual appointments with prominent citizens with the opportunity to give 326


were lined up and checked off, one by one. We also ended up making grant proposals to local foundations, something I’d never done before in my fundraising career. There were about a dozen key foundations capable of making six figure grants. Traditionally, fundraisers like me would write a grant proposal, submit it on the deadline and then hope and pray that when the foundation board met that they would choose to fund our grant. I realized this was a dog-eat-dog competition yet I was desperate for our proposals to be funded. But why would they choose to help save an old theatre when there were 50 other grant proposals in their stack that lit- Matt Lusco, Regions Bank, made erally meant life or death? the first major donation to put the I realized that each foundation’s decision would campaign on the path to success. come down to a vote of their board–and I would need a majority of them to vote for the Lyric. So I started working to identify each of the board members on all the foundation boards so I could start targeting them individually. Some were easy to find out; others required CIA-like tactics.

We delivered this box to each of our top 100+ prospects.

Just as one example, we’d made a formal request to the Robert R. Meyer Foundation. With the enthusiastic support of Judge Sharon Blackburn, I felt like we were close to having the majority of the votes. But one key person still in question was Elmer Harris, the former president of Alabama Power and one of my former Chamber campaign chairmen. I tried and tried to get Elmer to visit the Lyric or at least let me meet with him. But I couldn’t get him to respond, even though I had surreptitiously gotten his private cell number from my buddy Alan Martin. By the time the 2013 Thanksgiving weekend rolled around, we were $250,000 from our 327


goal, the exact amount we’d requested from them. If the Meyer Foundation said yes, we would hit our goal. The Saturday night after Thanksgiving, I was watching the Iron Bowl football game by myself. (With Gail being such an Auburn fan, it had proven to be better that way.) Alabama had gone into the game ranked #1 in the nation and was the two-time defending national champion. But Auburn had fought like the Tigers they were and tied the game. With the game poised to go into overtime, Alabama tried an ambitious 57-yard field goal with one second left in the game. It missed, but Auburn’s Chris Davis caught the ball in the end zone and miraculously ran it back the entire length of the field to win the game. As a Bama fan, I was crushed. Nevertheless, I remembered that Elmer Harris was a former Auburn trustee and as orange-and-blue as it came. So I picked up the phone, called him, got his voicemail and left him this voicemail: “Elmer, was that not an incredible game? Hey, when you think about it, we’re in the same situation at the Lyric that Auburn was in. We’ve got one second left on our campaign clock and we’re $250,000 away from the goal. Will you be our Chris Davis and take it to the house for us? We are counting on you!” That broke his silence and he called me back and said, “Cosby, that was a great game, wasn’t it?” “Oh yeah, Elmer, it was just great,” I said through gritted teeth. “Well, don’t worry, we’re going to support that Lyric request; it’s all good.” And so that’s how we got the $250,000 from the Meyer Foundation. War Damn Eagle. Regrettably, we kept having surprises and cost overruns on the Lyric and what we’d thought would be a $7 million restoration ultimately became an $11.8 million nut to crack. As the goal line kept being moved, I became more and more desperate and 328


figured I needed a title sponsor for the theatre. Ambitiously priced at $2.5 million, I had some interest, but no takers. One of my friends, and a solid Birmingham booster, was a descendant of one of Birmingham’s founding industrial families and was interested. Her grandfather had even owned the Lyric back in the 1930s. Furthermore, she told me that her mom had been a New York opera singer in her youth and therefore she would like to have the theatre named in her honor. Adding more fundraising allure, she had married a former bank CEO who had recently orchestrated the sale of his bank. Everyone knew he had made a fabulous amount of money on the transaction, rumored to be in the $400 million range. I started working him on the idea that if he facilitated the naming of the theatre for his mother in law, he would go down in history as the best son-in-law of all time. But we weren’t making any real progress and finally, the wife leveled with me. Her new husband had made such a large gift to The Campaign for UAB that it just wasn’t financially feasible. This campaign held monumental importance for UAB–and for Birmingham. It was their first billion-dollar campaign and the pressure for them to achieve this prestigious goal was palpable. A leading local female executive was involved with the performing arts curriculum at UAB. She knew about my search for a naming rights donor and had helpfully earlier sent a deep-pocketed prospective donor to visit the Lyric. This guy’s family was deeply involved in theatre and had been favorably impressed. But he was taking a new show to Broadway so he was not in a position to consider a multi-million dollar gift. Meanwhile, I had kept after this woman for a possible contribution herself, and when she finally visited the Lyric, she was immediately spellbound. “This is EXACTLY what UAB performing arts students need to be exposed to. This is a real, Broadway-style theatre that offers a bonafide theatrical experience. Whatever happens, we must figure out a way for UAB students to utilize the Lyric to practice their craft as a key part of their undergraduate experience.” A busy woman, she quickly left before we could discuss details. How this might happen was left completely unknown. All I knew was that she was a very important, highly respected woman with important ties to the ongoing billion-dollar Campaign for UAB. Then in the next week or so, a solution hit me out of the blue. Since the aforementioned bank CEO had already made a massive gift to the Campaign for UAB and since the UAB lady wanted to utilize the Lyric for UAB students (and she was well aware we were seeking naming rights), what about this? Why not see if the bank exec could ask UAB if he could repurpose his gift to fulfill the naming rights cost of the Lyric and, in return, the Lyric would pledge to let UAB use the facility as they saw fit? I thought PERFECT: the bank guy wins, UAB wins and the Lyric wins. I called and left the newlywed couple with voicemails, told them both about my 329


earlier conversations with the UAB lady and my recent epiphany. In full fundraising mode, I emailed, texted them and called again. I was on fire! But I heard nothing. A day or so later a cold, mean-as-hell voice came on my phone. “When are you available for a personal phone call?” It was the gatekeeper for my UAB contact. Determined not to let her get the best of me, I responded gaily, “Oh, just any old time.” My phone rang just a few minutes later. In a voice shaking with fury and barely controlled rage, it was the UAB lady. “Don’t you EVER use my name again without my permission. Do you understand me?” “Are you talking about the Lyric matter? “I asked, as innocently and air–headedly as possible. “Of course I am.” She continued icily, “That was the single most desperate act of fundraising I’ve ever heard of in my life.” Later, I put together the scenario that the bank guy had evidently passed along my email to the UAB president, and perhaps he had called my contact on the carpet. Changing the nature of a previously booked major pledge was quite clearly not to be allowed, not for any reason. Well, you never know till you ask. I had to suppress a smile. I couldn’t help feeling flattered. This lady had been around and my suggestion had obviously made a major impression on her and the entire massive UAB campaign apparatus. I tried to explain my plan, but she would hear none of it. Evidently, she had never told anyone else at UAB about her suggestion of students using the theatre

A Generation Ago, Everyone Thought Somebody Else Would Save Birmingham’s Terminal Station.

(“Somebody Else” Didn’t.)

This poster was one of the ways we made a compelling case for the historic preservation of the Lyric. 330


as a training facility. And to be fair, she may well have just been musing out loud. Whatever, she certainly resented the hell out of a UAB outsider like me suggesting to one of her top donors that the Lyric become part of UAB’s Campaign for Birmingham. And she had never intended to connect the Lyric’s naming rights matter with her students. Oh well. No Christmas card expected from her. They say in fundraising that you haven’t asked for enough money unless the knuckles under the prospect’s skin turns white. Although I never got any real money out of anyone associated with this stratagem, I felt really good that I had fully pushed the envelope. It’s called doing my job. We continued our fundraising efforts even though my campaign was clearly running out of gas and prospects. Late in the game, with encouragement from the incredibly helpful Fran Godchaux of Rev Birmingham, we got a huge boost from a long-time friend of mine, Beau Grenier of Bradley Inc. His law firm provided us with an invaluable in-kind gift. They provided their historic tax credit expert, Paul Compton, to give us invaluable consultation. His expertise cleared this complicated path for us and gave the necessary confidence to our chairman, Danny Evans, that historic tax credits were an acceptable risk to take. Without going into all the gory and brain-numbing details, close to $4 million was raised in historic tax credits, enough to hoist us to the $11.8 million final goal, and without having to prostitute the name of the Lyric Theatre. Hallelujah–you may be certain that this “desperate fundraiser” was now quite relieved and happy.

331


Those Dirty SOBs in Tuscaloosa Act VII/Scene 4: UAB, 2015 “On Friday we’ll be jacked up on the football game And I’ll be ready to fight We’re gonna smash ‘em now My girl will be working on her pom-poms now And she’ll be yelling tonight So be true to your school now” “Be True to Your School,” The Beach Boys

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident. Arthur Schopenhauer

J

ust the facts, ma’am. That was the time-honored catchphrase from Detective Joe Friday in the long-running television series, Dragnet. And that’s what I’m going to try to give you in this admittedly controversial story. Or at least what I consider the facts to be. Unless you live under a rock, you know that Alabama is home to one of the year in, year out top college football teams in the country. That team is located in Tuscaloosa, 60 miles southwest of my hometown. You might think that, outside of those who pull for Auburn, everyone else in the state considers Alabama’s football hege332


mony to be a wonderful thing. Admittedly, even I once did, but now I smelled a rat. I had sat down with a nice glass of Pinot Noir one coolish early December afternoon in my living room. After carefully considering its transparency and intensity, I inhaled its fine aroma. Just as I was about to savor my first sip, a text came through on my iPhone. Then one after another. My phone started blowing up. The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) football team had just been summarily killed and the campus was in an uproar. Those SOBs finally did it, I figured: the dirty rats on the UA Board of Trustees. The next day, ESPN, the TV sports network, broadcast Gameday from the campus of Baylor University. They gravely announced that newly appointed UAB President Ray Watts had killed the UAB football program, supposedly due to budgetary concerns. On a big video screen out in front of their stadium, they then cut to a detailed video report on this news story, not only in front of a nationwide viewing audience, but also in front of 20,000+ Texans standing in front of McLane Stadium that morning. In heartbreaking detail, the video showed how the news had been ham-handedly delivered to the team, the heartless words that had been used and the tears that had flowed. It was wrenching. Then, Don Hire, one of the major UAB donors, appeared on camera. He told of meeting with President Watts prior to the decision. He pleaded with him that if this was a money matter, he guaranteed that he and other boosters would assure the money necessary to make it right–but never even got a call back. They finished with video footage of UAB students angrily protesting the decision in Birmingham. When ESPN cut back to live coverage in Waco, the 20,000 Texans in the audience in front of the stadium were chanting “U-A-B, U-A-B” on national television over and over. They wouldn’t stop. It broke my heart. As a Birmingham booster, I instinctively knew that killing UAB football would not be good for my city. What I couldn’t fathom was why, other than the indefatigable Steve DeMedicis and a couple of others, so few of our city’s leaders didn’t realize this themselves. “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” Simon and Garfunkel, The Boxer In Steve’s and my opinion, the rather obvious dots had not been connected. First of all, whether we want to admit it or not, in the Deep South, having a football team is the sine qua non of the major college undergraduate student experience. Because without football, you couldn’t offer students the full panoply of what is generally understood to be the collegiate experience: homecoming weekends, parades, pep rallies, marching bands, bonfires, tailgates and homecoming queens. And without football, fewer young high school graduates would likely choose UAB and that would quickly matter economically to Birmingham when enrollment tailed off. But 333


the CEOs I talked to initially scoffed at the very notion of such a correlation. But unquestionably, Birmingham DID have a huge economic stake in this. A study by the Tuscaloosa campus’ own Hugh Culverhouse College of Commerce found that for every 1,000 students added to a university, when you add all the multiplier factors, there is an amazing $50 million economic impact per year. If losing football resulted in a leveling off of student enrollment, much less a drop in enrollment, it would have an immediate dampening effect on the city’s economy. This was when the stench of the rat became overpowering. It was common knowledge that Tuscaloosa’s campus had been overbuilt. What wasn’t clearly understood was that to service their substantial debt, the UA Board of Trustees needed as many students enrolled in Tuscaloosa as possible. Even with their emphasis on out of state students, it obviously didn’t help their business model for Tuscaloosa and UAB to compete for students, even on a small scale. Much less have UAB grow as rapidly, or perhaps even faster, than the mother campus. All the Trustees wanted from UAB was the considerable cash flow from the medical side of UAB. Nothing else. So the word came down from Tuscaloosa and their sycophants in Birmingham that it was ridiculous for UAB to have ever had a football team in the first place. After all, they reasoned, if UAB wanted a team, they could cheer for the almighty Crimson Tide. The trustees had recently engineered the exit of Dr. Carol Garrison, an aggressive president who had a vision of UAB becoming, metaphorically, “UCLA” to Tuscaloosa’s “Cal Berkeley.” To stop this movement dead in its tracks, they had replaced her with Dr. Ray Watts, a physician and lifelong medical researcher and paid him what was reportedly the 10th highest university president’s salary in the nation to, among other duties, step in and kill football. And now we understood what their strategy was. Kill UAB football and you can kill UAB’s robust enrollment growth. And that would put UAB on a non-competitive track to become a well-respected, sedate, research-oriented–but much smaller– version of itself. The word came down that Birmingham’s city leaders should want UAB to become much like Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. 334


The official response from those who spoke for Birmingham was slow in coming. Mostly because it’s just part of Southern culture to be very cautious and outwardly courteous at all costs. Our local leaders at first didn’t want to believe that the killing of UAB football could be part of any larger strategy, much less one that would prove ultimately harmful to Birmingham. An 18-page brochure was put together that gave a decidedly pro-Birmingham take on the UAB football brouhaha. We titled it “Saving UAB Football Is Not Just About Saving UAB football.” It disputed the Trustees’ premise that football was unaffordable, pointing out other studies that questioned their math and contradicted their conclusions. It also quoted the Culverhouse Study. To those CEOs who said they didn’t care one way or the other, a breakthrough question was posed by our savvy consultant, Tom DiFiore of NCDS: “Suppose we weren’t talking about football. Would you be indifferent if we were talking about a new company of 1,000 employees moving to Birmingham?” Now that resonated. Gradually, a persuasive case was made that if the decision was allowed to stand, it would surely result in a negative impact on the UAB student population growth which would then have a deleterious effect on Birmingham’s overall economy. We now had the business community’s attention. Then the UA Trustees and Dr. Watts went on the attack, gaslighting Birmingham’s entire corporate community. They made the rounds of the top civic clubs trying to make the anodyne case that UAB never needed to grow into major university status; it just needed to focus on medical care and medical research. Some local business people wanted to believe them and joined the attack on the “ridiculous” idea of correlating enrollment growth and UAB football. After all, who could be opposed to the idea of UAB’s well respected medical research status growing even more impressive? Which did make sense–except, who said UAB couldn’t have both? Why couldn’t UAB be a top medical research university AND have a robust undergraduate experience at the same time? It didn’t appear that Stanford or Vanderbilt or Louisville or Cincinnati had problems with that. The point was if we kept the full undergraduate student life experience intact, would it be so difficult to imagine UAB one day growing to 30,000 or more students? Nonetheless, the attacks continued. The idea that returning football could remotely correlate with student growth continued to be ridiculed. Not that it took much to stoke the gleeful schadenfreude directed at UAB football by hardcore Crimson Tide fans, especially those who lived in Birmingham. A phony narrative was established that UAB had taken 12 years to demonstrate proper support for football but failed. But slowly, we made progress pecking away at the conventional wisdom, reminding Birmingham business leaders of all the never–ending obstacles thrown at UAB by the UA Trustees in their thinly veiled attempt to make football success 335


so difficult. We asked them to remember the Trustees’ opposition, despite local pledges of funding, to the hiring of uber–successful football coach Jimbo Fisher, the opposition to the building of an on-campus stadium and the opposition to building a new practice facility. And was it really coincidence that Alabama had played half the teams in UAB’s conference – but with the conspicuous exception of UAB? Like the cavalry coming over the hill for the rescue, serious Birmingham leadership for the return of UAB football started emerging, especially the inspirational leadership of Hatton Smith and Craft O’Neal. As a result, the Trustees were forced to crack open the door ever so slightly. They indicated they might reconsider their decision–but only if the local business community raised $20 million to help defer the cost of major college football. When that number was quickly reached (thanks to the indefatigable leadership of not only Hatton and Craft and the aforemen-

Hatton Smith and Craft O’Neal Save UAB Football.

tioned Steve DeMedicis and Don Hire, but Tommy Brigham, Justin Craft and Mike Goodrich, Jr.), the Trustees raised the bar again and declared the final amount necessary for football’s return to be $42 million. Meanwhile, the growing controversy was accelerating a rekindling of Birmingham’s civic pride along with a never-before-seen fierce embrace of UAB. State Representative Jack Williams released secret documents from Sard Verbinnen, a top PR firm in New York City, that proved that the Board of Trustees had employed them 336


to strategically pursue this for months despite their public denials. Local columnists, particularly Kevin Scarbinsky, Kyle Whitmire and John Archibald, had a field day with this, excoriating the University of Alabama board of trustees as the authors of this decision and Ray Watts as their toady. “Fire Ray Watts” bumper stickers sprouted all over campus and soon around town. He was booed lustily wherever he showed up in public, which wasn’t often. The UAB Faculty Senate passed a vote of “No Confidence” on Ray Watts, then the UAB National Alumni Society passed a resolution asking Watts to resign. Both UAB undergraduate and graduate student groups voted “No Confidence” in Watts. Our civic pride had been surging before this debacle, but it seemed quadrupled since the dark day they killed UAB football. Unlike earlier generations of Birminghamians who years ago had let out of state corporations call the shots here (i.e., Pittsburgh), our citizens finally started letting the UA Board of Trustees know their outrage. To be sure, some of this was fueled by Auburn supporters, glad to take a potshot at UA any way they could. But more and more Birmingham business people began to finally see that killing football had the real potential to damage both UAB and our city’s economic future. In retrospect, the nascent city pride that had been building in Birmingham over the past five years was the one thing that the UA Trustees and their high–priced New York PR experts hadn’t counted on. I could well imagine them assuring each other that there would be a ripple of protest for a day or two from a “vocal minority” and then melt away. But boy, were they wrong. Thankfully, more and more citizens rallied around a Birmingham vision of a 337


UAB that included Division 1 football and robust undergraduate growth and full support for medical research. Soon, over $40 million was ultimately raised and the Trustees begrudgingly allowed football to return. A very positive future for UAB and Birmingham had now been assured. UAB football was back! Was it worth it? In September 2015, following the death of UAB football the previous December, UAB’s freshman class size shrunk by 10% from the previous year. At the time, the few local leaders who were made aware of this said it was just a random coincidence. Some said it was just a normal adjustment but either way, they toed the official line that it certainly did not correlate with football’s demise. Then, in September 2016, after football’s return was assured, the freshman class grew by an unprecedented 26%. By now, most folks conceded that football might have had something to do with it. Then in September 2017, it grew again, this time with student enrollment surpassing 20,000 for the first time ever and then, the next September, it jumped to 22,000! And mind you, this all happened in a national collegiate environment with enrollment shrinking at similar schools. Many leaders began now saying that why, of course, all this had been self–evident from the beginning. But not Dr. Ray Watts, the feckless president of UAB. He was quoted in the Alumni newsletter stating that the unprecedented growth was a result of good recruitment, better campus landscaping and improved signage. Meanwhile, word got out that he had privately sent word to the marketing department to NEVER attribute UAB’s enrollment surge to the return of football. So despite all the drama, Birmingham dodged a big bullet. Now I can sit and savor the aroma of a fine Pinot Noir anytime I want with an untroubled mind. And not worry about smelling the rats in Tuscaloosa. And those are just the facts, as Joe Friday would say.

338


Birmingham-To-Birmingham Act VII/Scene 5: Birmingham Airport (BHX), Birmingham, England, 2016 “Big ol’ jet airliner Don’t carry me too far away Oh, big ol’ jet airliner ‘Cause it’s here that I’ve got to stay Goodbye to all my friends at home Goodbye to people I’ve trusted I’ve got to go out and make my way I might get rich you know I might get busted” Jet Airliner, Steve Miller Band

T

his is a story about Richella and Ben, an attractive young Birmingham, England couple, who by chance came to fame and then to our city. By the summer of 2016, these “Brummies” (the nickname for English Birminghamians) had scrimped and saved enough money for a “trip of a lifetime” to Las Vegas. Naturally, the British couple had purchased the most inexpensive airfare they could find online. Then, with bags packed, they showed up at Birmingham (England) Airport, and with their friends gathered to see them off, they presented their tickets. To their huge embarrassment, they were told the tickets were from the Birmingham (Alabama) Airport and not valid there. Richella collapsed in tears and a news photographer captured her full disappointment. The story went online immediately and, initially, she and Ben were vilified for making an ill-advised decision. But then, she was so cute and so nice in the way she accepted responsibility for her misbegotten purchase that public opinion started swinging in her favor. Then the story started going fully viral. And that’s when snide comments started being posted about our Birmingham. The implications were that a vacation trip to the Birmingham on the other side 339


of the pond was downright laughable, and would be the worst trip imaginable. As the UK media saw it, ending up accidentally vacationing in Alabama was a real “knee-slapper” and so they piled it on. Well, what’s a Birmingham booster to do? If we played it right, this was an opportunity to create another round of social media, this time in favor of the Magic City. What if we could get Richella and Ben to visit our Birmingham and then use their Las Vegas tickets afterward? I knew we could rock their world if we could just get them here–and possibly use their experiences to help define the new Birmingham to the world. I asked the ever–generous Merrill Stewart if he’d be willing to fund their airfare if we could get them to come to our Birmingham, and he instantly agreed. After much effort, one of the British papers covering this story provided me with Richella’s cell number. She had been subjected to so much scrutiny (and harassment) following this heavily publicized event that she was wary of communicating with yet another stranger. We finally got in touch via text messaging and I explained who I was and how we wanted to help–and why. And that we Merrill Stewart, stalwart Birmingham booster. had a way for her to use the tickets she had purchased after all; that we would take care of getting her and her boyfriend to our Birmingham so she could. When we later actually talked in person, I promised her that, despite what she had been led to believe, that if we could get her for at least a couple of days in Birmingham, she’ll have infinitely more fun here than she would have in Vegas. She believed me. Meanwhile, the “damsel in distress” story just kept getting bigger and bigger in the UK. As Richella pondered our offer, Richard Branson, the famed Virgin Airlines billionaire, heard about the ticket mixup and personally offered the young couple complimentary roundtrip tickets from nearby Manchester to Las Vegas on his airline plus hotel rooms to boot. So now we changed our pitch–“OK, fly to Vegas but let us provide you with a nonstop roundtrip excursion to BHM from Vegas. It won’t cost you a dime and after you’ve spent some time here, you’ll forget all about Vegas!” we promised. She and Ben, her boyfriend, clearly had a sense of adventure and were game, but both had jobs that only allowed them to be gone a week. So, in the final analysis, they 340


could only spare two nights and one day in the Magic City. But they were willing and eager to come so I promised that we’d be ready. I recruited a team of influential people who were mostly Ben and Richella’s age to come up with the coolest things young people could do in our Birmingham–and then cram them all into the 36 hours that they would be here. Plus, I got my long term ad agency friend John Montgomery to give us his social media expert so we could spin our story as effectively and widely as possible. We went to work to put together an amazing itinerary for the young couple. We learned everything we could about the couple, not only their interests but details such as the fact that they were vegan. Of course, it meant pulling many strings with key decision-makers at Birmingham’s top attractions but everyone in town was fully, and immediately, on board. Gail and I hosted an organizational meeting at our home for all those who agreed to help with the visit. We convinced our mostly young, very diverse team that they needed to be prepared to have fun on their segment NO MATTER WHAT! We stressed that this show would go on regardless of weather or anything. We made the point that they would be counted on to keep their segment on the exact time schedule, and that they would have to be responsible for keeping the cell phone numbers of the ambassadors with the couple before them and after them–and make sure the handoffs went flawlessly and on time. Not that they needed much encouragement, but we also strongly urged them to use all social media platforms at their disposal to celebrate the fun that the four of them would have. And to repost,

Making plans for our British visitors!

341


retweet all the other ambassadors’ social media messages and photos. Richella and Ben promised to do their part when they got here as well so everyone would end up reposting all our local stories. We also challenged our Ambassadors to stay positive and celebrate all the good things they personally liked about Birmingham. And to not apologize for hot weather, or, God forbid, talk to them about Nick Saban or Gus Malzahn as they wouldn’t care a fig about SEC football. Soon, we had an agenda put together that was not only packed full but planned as tightly as an official presidential visit. As the date drew near, we couldn’t wait to show our city off! On a Tuesday night in mid-August, the British couple’s Southwest Airlines touched down at 6:45 pm and the plan was launched. Since I had the personal connection with Richella, I joined the local young couple their age assigned to greet them at our airport. Of course, there was a gaggle of local media people who all wanted to meet them and interview them. After introductions, the first couple extracted them from the throng and took them to their suite at the Redmont Hotel where they were greeted with a lavish gift basket, filled with Birmingham swag. After they freshened up, they were off to a vegan dinner and then a pub crawl in our trendy Avondale district. Wednesday was packed to the gills. Early that morning, another young couple took them on a Zyp commuter bike tour of downtown Birmingham, including the new Rotary Trail and the Birmingham Civil Rights District. Then it was off to the Barber Sports Park for a quick tour of the world’s largest motorcycle museum and then Ben and Richella threw out the first pitch at Regions Field. several hot laps in the famed “Porsche Driving Experience.” Following lunch at a vegan restaurant, they were next taken to Red Mountain Park where they rode segways to their zipline launch point. Back at their hotel, they were given a few minutes to shower and then they were 342


taken to a Barons game where they threw out the first pitch. And to top their day off, another young couple took them to one of our star restaurants for dinner and then to a show at Iron City featuring Jenny Lewis, a current rave on the pop circuit. The Brits threw themselves into everything, had a blast and even insisted on going out after the show, hitting more watering holes until the wee hours of the morning. It fell on me to pick them up the next morning at 5:30 am (!) to take them to the airport for their nonstop flight back to Vegas–which was necessary to give them time to catch their Virgin Airlines flight to Manchester. Richella had had a row with Ben who was still heavily intoxicated from the night before. Despite that, she thanked me as she departed and kindly told me that coming to our Birmingham was “the best mistake I ever made!” So…. was it worth all this effort from all these good people? Emphatically, yes! Our media team fully documented Richella and Ben’s good times in our Birmingham with social media platforms both here and in the UK, plus national UK print sources, BBC radio and the local Birmingham print media. We got some outstanding coverage in return and felt like we made our point that our Birmingham was indeed, well worthy of a visit. Another one of the positive upshots of all this was to help educate our own population that we have nothing to hang our heads about when it comes time to discuss the tourist appeal of the Magic City. As Gail said as it came to an end, this entire visit was all “so Tom Cosby.” Aw, pshaw!

Our young team planned every minute of the British couple’s 36-hour visit to Birmingham.

343


Unfinished Business

Of the “Perpetual Promise” of the Magic City Act VII/Scene 6: My Home Town, 2020 “Well it’s all right, even if you’re old and grey Well it’s all right, you still got something to say… Well it’s all right, everything’ll work out fine Well it’s all right, we’re going to the end of the line” “End of the Line,” The Traveling Wilburys

America’s Magic City.

S

o, what is one to think after reading this book about the author’s 40+ years spent chasing schemes and dreams boosting the Magic City? Are there any regrets? Before I answer, a quick look back; a little Birmingham history for context. Things have never, ever come easy for the Magic City. Way back in 1930, Birmingham was home to 100,000 industrial workers which pushed the city’s population to 260,000, just 10,000 behind Atlanta (Georgia.) But the Great Depression hit Birmingham particularly hard, leading FDR to declare Birmingham the “worst hit city in the country.” However, World War II pulled Birmingham back on its feet and we emerged from the war as the South’s largest metals manufacturer. Throughout the rest of the 1940s, the competition for Southern industrial supremacy was between us and 344


Houston. As we entered the 1950s, we were the third–largest city in the Southeast, only slightly behind Atlanta (GA) and New Orleans. But we just couldn’t live with prosperity. Soon afterwards, stagnation set in, enabled by absentee leadership in Pittsburgh which helped lead to years of racial strife and devastating PR. Such bigots as Police Chief Bull Connor idiotically defined us to the world as uniquely intolerant and backward. Meanwhile, the relentless PR spin machine of Atlanta (GA) claimed to all who would listen that they were “the city too busy to hate.” Plus, our economy wasn’t helped any by the fact that offshore manufacturing took the wind out of our manufacturing sector nor that we lacked the forward-looking leadership required to, for example, convince an airline to establish its hub here. But thank God for UAB and its visionary leaders who came to our city’s rescue. These folks created a truly world-class medical center, with vast scientific research and technology advances–as well as developing the burgeoning University College. As of this writing, UAB’s 22,000 enrollees and 18,750 employees is the engine that’s driving our metro economy. Then again, it was more than UAB. Following the absolute debacle of the 1960s, our city leaders finally recognized the need to diversify our economy away from manufacturing, and we slowly grew in such areas as banking, insurance, construction, professional services and utilities. So now our metro population is a semi–respectable 1.1 million. Which is, of course, dwarfed by Atlanta (Georgia’s) 6 million. Which pisses me off. Given the above, I will confess to looking back with some very real personal regrets. Regrets of projects that I didn’t tackle or that I could’ve lent a hand on or at least somehow played a catalytic role. Or projects that could’ve been adopted by the Chamber of Commerce, but fell through the cracks. Projects like the ones listed below could’ve made a big difference for Birmingham or the state of Alabama. Race and poverty were clearly the overwhelmingly biggest problems facing my city throughout my lifetime and I admit to not doing much, if anything, to directly address that. Policy wonks easily point to the obvious flaws in Alabama’s ridiculous state constitution and lack of home rule for Jefferson County and surely that could’ve been solved. Others point to the absurd “current use” system of land taxation, which allows huge timber companies to pay only a dollar an acre or so in taxes each year on massive landholdings—which results in underfunded schools and public services. So, yeah, there are regrets. But before lamenting specific opportunities that we lost out on, let us not forget that Birmingham has enjoyed plenty of remarkable victories along the way. Here are just some of them: Danner Kline’s brilliant Free the Hops movement helped create a Portland-like craft beer scene in Birmingham, Giles Perkins’ against-all-odds visioneering led to 345


the creation of the amazing Railroad Park in a previously hopeless area which won national recognition from the Urban Land Institute, Don Logan’s determination to bring the Barons back downtown led to Regions Field being named “Ballpark of the Decade” by Ballpark Digest, the creation of the Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve and Red Mountain Park added urban parks that earned well deserved national attention and accolades. And when you add in the restoration of downtown’s historic buildings, Birmingham’s metamorphosis has been and continues to be nothing short of amazing. (And lest we forget, the saving of these historic buildings was due in large part to the advocacy of REV Birmingham in establishing historic tax credits.) And talk about long shots; what was done to raise $44 million to save UAB football that resulted in a 6,000 increase in enrollment should never be forgotten either. It took time, but I finally came to the realization that it truly “takes a village” to make anything good happen. I’ll always be proud of my involvement in the “village” that led to the building of I-22, the recruitment of nonstop air service, the success of Olympic soccer in 1996, the preservation of Rickwood Field, the campaign to save Vulcan, the revitalization of the nation’s oldest Veterans Day Parade, the effort to restore the Lyric Theatre and the creation of the Birmingham Landmarks endowment to assure the long-time survival of the Alabama and Lyric Theatres. So while there are plenty of victories to celebrate, we still didn’t overcome all of our challenges. And the following details some of the missed opportunities that didn’t have to happen and therefore particularly gnaw at me and must be remembered. These are the major setbacks that I will personally carry with me to my grave:

Losing the Iron Bowl Don’t roll your eyes, but losing the Iron Bowl was a major step backward for Birmingham, both economically and symbolically. And what bothers me the most is that it didn’t need to happen. For five decades, 1948 through 1988, Legion Field hosted this intense Alabama-Auburn rivalry that captured the college football imagination of the nation. Birmingham was supposedly a neutral site, thus a “bowl” and thus the “Iron Bowl,” and the tickets were divided equally. Alabama won 32 of 47 meetings at Legion Field but when Alabama boosters put a Bear Bryant statue up outside Legion Field, that was the last straw for the Auburn nation. In hindsight, that should never have been allowed to happen. So during the 1980s, Auburn Coach Pat Dye and his fellow Auburn boosters increasingly pushed the idea of moving the game on alternate years to Auburn. Maybe then Alabama had more support in Birmingham than Auburn, but it was only because Alabama had been on such a recent winning streak under the legendary Bear Bryant. The truth was, Birmingham had always been fickle and would support whichever team was on top. I could well remember in 1957 when Auburn won its 346


first National Championship and beat Alabama 40-0, the complete opposite had been true. Aside from the fact that Birmingham had hosted the very first game between the two schools in 1893 and then nurtured and grew the game to the point that anyone would want the game, there were two local matters at stake with such a move. First, the “Iron Bowl” was so named only because Birmingham (the game’s host city which was referred to as the “iron city” due to its manufacturing origins) had been its home since the 1940s when the series resumed. The Iron Bowl offered something extremely unique in American college football. A stadium completely split in half with fervent supporters; half crimson and white and the other half orange and blue. The resultant nonstop wall of noise at the Iron Bowl was due to either one team or the other having the upper hand at all times. The game has unquestionably continued to grow since its move to the home campuses, with many memorable games, but it has never re-achieved its once truly unique environment it enjoyed at Legion Field–and few now can even remember that. Secondly, the game was estimated to mean $12 million or more annually to the Birmingham economy. This estimate was driven by not only the purchases of plane tickets, hotel rooms, restaurants, car rentals, cab fares, etcetera, but also the multiplier effect of these dollars being generated in our economy. I couldn’t imagine that Birmingham business owners wouldn’t fight to keep from losing the game. So I hatched a plan and talked Don Newton into getting the Birmingham Area Chamber of Commerce involved in the controversy. In the 1980s, Auburn was in the process of launching its largest-ever fundraisGail, right, Joellyn Beckham and another friend celebrate the Auburn ing campaign, the GeneraIron Bowl. tions Fund. Needless to say, with the state of Alabama’s wealth being concentrated in Birmingham, all our local major employers here were targeted and would be contacted and asked to give. And 347


nearly every one of those CEOs was on our Chamber’s board. I wrote a sample letter for these guys to mail to Dr. James Martin, Auburn’s president at the time. Essentially it stated how important the Iron Bowl was to Birmingham’s economy and further, that if Auburn reconsidered, and left the game in Birmingham, their company would then favorably consider the fundraising proposal that was shortly forthcoming. Bottom line, I later discovered to my horror that out of the 38 execs on the Birmingham Chamber board, that only two of the sons of bitches had sent the letter we requested to Dr. Martin. But a half dozen or so had taken the sample letter and mailed it verbatim to Dr. Martin, telling him the plan and assuring him that they didn’t support it. The rest did nothing at all. Without question, I had made a grievous miscalculation on the hometown pride that I thought our CEOs would have in keeping the game here. I’m not saying they had no hometown pride, but what became apparent was their allegiance to their alma mater far surpassed any loyalty to the city where they lived and ran their business. It still baffles me that our local corporate community’s loyalty to Birmingham’s big game would be so much less than the “Red River Showdown” between Texas and Oklahoma that’s played annually in Dallas. Or that no one in Birmingham’s leadership saw the Iron Bowl as an opportunity to out-point the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party”–the game between Georgia and Florida that’s played annually in Jacksonville, Florida. If those neutral-site games could be locked in, why not the Iron Bowl in Birmingham? Regardless, Auburn’s home game moved to Opelika in 1989 and Alabama’s home game moved to Tuscaloosa in 2000, thus forever killing the Iron Bowl. (Adding insult to injury, Gail and her Auburn friends were beside themselves with glee!) Don Newton told me that the embarrassment of this “weak attempt” to save the game was as close as he ever came to firing me. But what really galls me to this day was that, from the moment the controversy first emerged, I had the fullest intention of getting one of our Chamber member law firms to copyright the brand name, “the Iron Bowl” and put it under control of the City of Birmingham or even the Birmingham Area Chamber of Commerce. Why I didn’t follow through on this haunts me to this day. Because it’s not the Iron Bowl if it’s not played in Birmingham. Period.

Failing to Pass MAPS Despite the Iron Bowl setback, “The City of Perpetual Promise” continued to attempt to pull itself up by its bootstraps; perhaps never more visibly than the MAPS effort in 1998. MAPS stood for Metropolitan Area Projects Strategy and was led by Donald Hess, a smart, energetic and well thought of retailer. MAPS proposed a onecent sales tax earmarked to fund a slew of civic projects; among them a multipur348


Stewart Dansby and I proudly supported MAPS.

pose downtown stadium, restorations of Vulcan Park, the Birmingham Zoo and Rickwood Field, walking and biking trails throughout the county and even money for saving the Alabama and Lyric theatres. Hess assembled a war chest of over a million dollars to launch a media campaign with the theme “A Penny for Our Future.” Needless to say, I was 100% behind the campaign and pushed the Chamber to actively support it. In what would become a template for future political battles, both locally and nationally, conservative talk radio ended up shooting this down. Proving how much easier it always is to criticize anything rather than try to make something good happen, a real SOB then on the Birmingham City Council painted a false picture of “fat cats” seeking to line their pockets on the proposed domed stadium. (Which was a big component of the plan.) Overall, 57% of the voters (and a much higher percentage in the suburbs) rejected the MAPS proposition. This council member repeatedly promised the public that he would have a far better “Plan B” ready the day after the election. Twenty + years later, we’re still waiting on that. While it could be argued that almost everything MAPS proposed (except help 349


for mass transit) ended up happening, its defeat delayed critically needed progress in our city for 20 years or more. And during this time, our competitor cities widened the “livability” gap on us which led to serious repercussions on economic development. Adding insult to injury, the 1 cent sales tax ended up being passed anyway but earmarked for the bottomless pit of public school funding.

Bringing the Appalachian Trail to Alabama Another big dream that hasn’t quite officially failed but still hasn’t yet come to fruition is moving the gateway of the world-famous Appalachian Trail to Alabama from Springer Mountain, Georgia. While some Alabamians typically don’t think of their state as having worthy enough scenery, one thing we do have is the remarkable geographical oddity that we sit at the confluence of five physiographic zones. What’s important about that is that both plants and animals tend to mutate on the edges of such zones, so Alabama boasts a level of biodiversity unmatched by any other state. And then you add to that the story of Benton Mackaye, the man who, way back in 1925, first envisioned a hiking trail extending the full length of the American Appalachians. He envisioned it initially stretching from Georgia to New Hampshire, with an extension northward to Mt. Katahdin in Maine PINHOTI TRAIL Alabama Pinhoti Trail Association Alabama Map by The Conservation Fund and southward to Alabama. Maine wasted no time and # £ ¤ had the trail extended to Ka£ ¤ tahdin in 1937. But Alabama # § ¦ ¨ ¬ « being Alabama, as of this writ¬ « ¬ « ing (2020), it still hadn’t been ¬ « extended to Alabama. § ¦ ¨ I got involved in this effort back in the early 1980s £ ¤ § ¦ ¨ when a young attorney named ¬ « Mike Leonard first shared his ¬ « # ¬ « dream with Gail and me of connecting Alabama’s ridge¬ « # top Pinhoti Trail with the £ ¤ Appalachian Trail. Mike was # a hiker from North Carolina who had graduated at the top ¬ « Ü of his class in law school at # # UNC. £ ¤ Mike formed the Alabama Trails Association where I was !

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

Indian Mountain

!

!

!

Tennessee

!

278

!

!

278

!

!

Georgia

Alabama

!

!

!

!

!

A GI O R MA BA

!

!

100

!

!

!

!

!

!

9

!

!

!

Talladega Nat'l Forest

GE

!

!

9

Oakey

Dugger Mountain Mountain Wilderness !

77

A A L

Piedmont

59

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

Anniston

Mountain Longleaf NWR

Heflin

20

!

!

!

!

Oxford

!

78

!

!

!

20

!

!

!

Cheaha State Park

!

!

!

77

!

Cheaha Wilderness

100

!

!

!

!

Talladega

!

!

Odum Point

9

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

!

Talladega National Forest

!

Sherman Cliffs

!

77

Legend

!

!

!

Pinhoti Trail

!

Pinhoti Roadwalk

280

!

State of Alabama

!

Sylacauga

!

Federal Lands

Rebecca Mountain

Wilderness Area

!

!

!

!

TCF Owns

!

!

!

re

C

We o g

!

u fka

!

!

9

Date: 4/4/2018 0

!

!

!

!

Terrapin Hill

Data Sources: PADUS USA ( CBIv2), The Conservation Fund and ESRI Data & Maps

!

280

350

5 Miles

Map prepared by Roberta Moore

!

!

Flagg Mountain Trailhead

ek

!

!

!

!

!


one of his original minions. He worked tirelessly to secure support for the Pinhoti trail’s extension beyond the original section within the Talladega Forest and secured the Forest Service’s buy-in. Over the years, he raised money and purchased conservation land easements and slowly pieced together a largely mountaintop ridge trail extending to the putative end of the Appalachians at Flagg Mountain, just outside Sylacauga. (Flagg being the southernmost landmass that rises 1,000 feet or more above the prevailing terrain.) He even helped form the Georgia Pinhoti Trail that connected to the Benton Mackaye Trail in northern Georgia which ended at Springer Mountain, the current gateway to the Appalachian Trail. He was indefatigable. Back in 2008, Mike convinced me to raise the money to conceive, produce and logistically place this massive marker atop Cheaha at what I understood was to be our recommendation for the official gateway to the Appalachian Trail. (Raising the funds for this, plus getting the plaque designed, cast and bolted onto this boulder that had to be transported from a quarry via an industrial forklift to this remote site was no small task!) Only later did Mike independently decide the trail needed to be extended further south to Flagg Mountain – but this plaque ain’t going nowhere anytime soon, of that you can be assured! Alas, the wheels of progress on this effort turned (and continue to turn) agonizingly slowly and there emerged any number of headwinds stymying the progress of officially extending the Appalachian Trail to Alabama via the Pinhoti Trail, such as: 1. The Forest Service, who have their own ideas of what the Pinhoti Trail should look like, particularly the built environment; backcountry shelters, bridges and signage. 2. The Alabama Trails Commission, who, at my urging, initially endorsed the idea of setting a goal of bringing the AT to Alabama via the Pinhoti Trail–but later bought into Mike Leonard’s evolving theory that the mere potentiality of the AT’s condemnation authority would keep landowners from providing easements, so the whole idea ended up being back–burnered. 3. The Georgia Pinhoti Trail people, who want their trail to primarily be a 351


mountain biking trail which would be anathema to the Appalachian Trail Conference–and are not sure they want to facilitate Alabama moving the AT gateway anyway. 4. Various recalcitrant landholders who don’t want to cooperate with trail acquisition efforts, thereby leaving miles of highly undesirable “road walk.” 5. County commission members who don’t want to lose the property tax when trail acreage comes off the tax rolls–and can’t comprehend the value to their county

Thanks to Lee Sentell and the Alabama Department of Tourism, this full page ad ran in several national publications during 2008. 352


of being part of arguably the most famous hiking trail in the world. 6. And Mike himself whom I’ve finally come to realize doesn’t really care if the Pinhoti Trail (that he birthed) ever officially becomes part of an extended AT or not. Which I guess is understandable since he’s a North Carolinian with a passion for building trails in the Southeast. I would imagine he seeks to maintain friendships with the key directors on the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and all other stakeholders – and therefore would prefer to avoid controversy. Bottom line, he’s more than happy if the Pinhoti can be built as beautifully as possible and just be considered some type of “approach trail.” And he’s more than fed up with me and what he’s described as an Alabama booster approach. (Guilty as charged.) As a marketer and a salesman, I had envisioned and planned a grand scheme to convince the ATC of agreeing to move the gateway to Alabama. It involved placing a hardened kiosk at Flagg Mountain to dispense medallions for “Alabama True Hikers” to put on their backpacks to demonstrate to thru-hikers on the current AT, proving that they had begun their hike at the beginning of the American Appalachians in Coosa County, Alabama, not arbitrarily at Springer Mountain, Georgia. The more I pitched this idea, the more I found out that I was on my own with this as it was either ridiculed or stridently opposed. And here is the bloody shame: I think people in Alabama, deep down, somehow just don’t believe we deserve this designation. But I’m not dead yet and haven’t given up; who knows what may yet come of this?

Public Education Within Birmingham Of all the matters that have held Birmingham back from possibly becoming the greatest city in America, lack of quality public schools within the city limits are, in my opinion, our biggest single challenge. It is the one key thing that has driven generations of parents out of the city since the schools were first desegregated in 1963. The resultant white flight (and now, black middle-class flight) sprawled outward in all directions, but especially southward. This left many of the 80,000+ downtown workers with soul-sucking commutes, spawned an archipelago of ugly strip malls, big-box retailers and gas stations, and created endless tracts of uninspired, cheaply made identical suburban “mansionettes.” And it did this by emptying some of the city’s most historic and beautiful neighborhoods.

353


The shame of it all is that I think the majority of parents, both white and black, wouldn’t be opposed to their children going to a Birmingham Board of Education school – IF the academics were unassailable. But the academics were not and are not and, despite all the PR spin in the world, each year the number of failing schools within the city reproves the point. As surely as the swallows returning to Capistrano, once a decade, a completely new group of earnest, sincere leaders step forward who feel that they have finally figured out “the” solution to improve city schools. They invariably start by surveying residents, educators and students as if no one has ever thought to do this before.

They seem to be blissfully unaware of or uninterested in previous efforts to achieve the same results. And so they come up with a plan to improve the city’s schools and begin to implement it with more funding, more teacher workshops, supposedly better curricula, maybe establish a foundation to better fund the schools. And despite glowing reports of one–off successes here and there, overall, the city of Birmingham schools continue their inexorable decline. (And few, if any, of the over-the-mountain types start sending their grandchildren to Birmingham schools.) And so the sprawl continues. Despite their controversial reputation, I have come to the belief that charter schools are a good solution, particularly for Birmingham. As a matter of fact, I think they may be needed here more than any other city in the nation. I have great faith in the Mike and Gillian Goodrich Foundation and what they’re trying to achieve in starting charters here in Birmingham. I think it’s probably the one 354


thing that could get the middle class to move back into the city en masse. And even though I disagree with President Bonespurs on most of his initiatives, his support for charter schools could help us. But for the present, the charter school effort in Birmingham limps along, facing significant headwinds from professional educators and city politicians. Due to this, many of the white (and black) progressive leadership that is privately open to the idea of charter schools, is very reluctant to get publicly involved in this project. Meanwhile, city schools continue to fail, their enrollment continues to dwindle and suburban sprawl grows and grows. So dispiriting.

Pitiful Salesmanship on Economic Development And to wrap up my list of unfinished business, there is the matter of the lack of job growth in Birmingham vis a vis our peer cities in the Southeast. Conventional wisdom explains this all away simply because we have a lack of regionalism, which may be true in part. But I’m convinced the reason we have so many municipalities in our MSA is the school situation as explained above. Yet both poor public schools and a lack of regionalism are just headwinds and could be overcome if someone was properly and aggressively selling this city to outside companies. If I’ve learned nothing else in 40 years of fundraising (which is definitely sales), is that you’ve got to have a prospect list, you’ve got to have a way to get the prospect’s attention, you’ve got to have a story to tell and you’ve got to ask for the order. In my view, we’ve never had anyone willing to do the “blocking and tackling” necessary -- much less the necessary killer instinct -- to properly recruit jobs for our city. I found it jaw-dropping that pitiful economic development results could be regularly presented to the boards of directors of the Chamber and the Metropolitan Development Board (MDB) and now the Birmingham Business Alliance and accepted with a shrug of the collective shoulders. Year in and year out, the rationale would always be the same: we don’t have enough flat sites/our topography was too hilly and, of course, the lack of regionalism and the challenges with schools. What successes they reported were, likely as not, projects that were already organically happening on their own. First MDB and then the BBA proudly admitted to the philosophy of “shoot at anything that flies, count anything that lands.” It always amazed me that these smart, tough CEOs on the board of the MDB or later the BBA–apex predator types who would’ve fired their own company’s head of sales in a nanosecond for such tepid results–would meekly accept these reports for their city without a word of complaint. And it wasn’t like the economic development recruiters didn’t have the tools. Here’s just a couple of examples. Once the MDB was trying to recruit a major distribution center from California to Birmingham. They went to Gail’s ad agency at the time, SlaughterHanson, and asked for help. Gail had asked MDB what was their “USP,” or unique sales 355


proposition. It was that, unlike the cities we were competing against, we already had the square footage available and ready to move in immediately. Gail’s boss, Terry Slaughter, went to work and imaginatively had a pair of elegant, Italian leather wingtips created–but in a perfectly square configuration. They were presented in a specially made box with lettering on the lid proclaiming “Birmingham’s got the square feet you need!” When Gail presented this killer concept to MDB they demurred, saying it just wasn’t their style to go such a flamboyant route. Ultimately, they lost out on the deal. Gail was working with them another time, helping them chase “gazelles,” the so-called fastest-growing companies in the country. Her agency did the necessary list research and came up with a multi–touch direct mailer campaign, using a series of successive postcards to stoke interest in Birmingham. Soon after launching, the MDB asked her to discontinue the campaign as they had too many prospects to follow-up with. Huh? Why not find the resources to hire more help? So, we’ve got a great story, we’ve got incredible advertising talent to tell the story, we’re just lacking that person to aggressively pull the trigger. Harumph. So, despite all the great things that have happened in and around Birmingham during my lifetime, these are my chief regrets. And of course, dear reader, you’ve probably got a list yourself. Bottomline, there is still lots of unfinished business facing the perpetual promise of Birmingham so let’s get busy!

356


If It Suddenly Ended Tomorrow Act VII/Scene 7: Here, there and everywhere, 2020 “If they last long enough, old buildings, politicians and prostitutes all gain a measure of respectability in the end.” Mark Twain

S

o here I am at 72, finally semi-respectable and playing with “house money” now that I’ve surpassed my allotted biblical three score-and-ten. It is time to start contemplating that long ride off into the sunset. It also seems appropriate to stop and reflect upon it all and wonder if it was worth it. And I’m happy to report that I really think it was. I’ve heard some of my contemporaries wonder out loud if their life ever made a difference and I’m certainly hopeful mine did in some ways. As backpackers, Gail and I always abided by the ethos “leave your campsite better than you found it” so I would like to think I will leave my city a little better than I found it. I’ve gotten to witness a lot of history in my life. Clearly, the fact that I actually 357


heard (and felt) the infamous 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 from nearby First United Methodist Church–and then later personally observed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Children’s Crusade marches from my after-school job at Birmingham Book & Magazine is pretty amazing. It afforded me the opportunity to witness history being made of enormous, worldwide, earthshaking consequences. On a banal level, it’s also worth noting that observing the march of technology throughout my working career has been nothing short of amazing. Today, it feels absolutely quaint that I learned Morse Code while in the Navy, and although I still know it backwards and forwards, there is utterly no use for it in today’s digital world. And I can’t help but remember my time at the United Way in the early 1970s when there was one giant, clunky card file computer that all 50 agencies shared. (It occupied a space of a large conference room!) Not to mention the primitive everyday office equipment we then used like mimeograph machines, which were really from the Pleistocene era. Even more incredible, it is nearly impossible for me to believe that email wasn’t even part of the normal business culture until the mid 1990s, not to mention voicemail. I.E., half of my business career was over before email was even introduced! Hard to imagine. My former boss, Dave Adkisson, once observed that Gail and I routinely squeezed more out of every day than anyone he knew and I think that’s right. “Black care never sat on the shoulder of the horseman whose pace is fast enough,” Theodore Roosevelt once wrote, following the death of his mother and his first wife on the same day. And I took his philosophy to heart during my occasional moments of despair. As noted earlier in this book, I started out my adult life as a Republican, more so out of a desire to change George Wallace and his Democratic party’s hammerlock control of Alabama politics than for any other reason. But then again, as an up-from-thebootstraps type, I fervently believed in taking personal responsibility for your life and not waiting on the government to bail you out. So it wasn’t hard for me to start out admiring legendary Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt, William F. Buckley, Jr. and Nelson Rockefeller. But as my life’s work evolved while promoting our city over the decades, it gradually dawned on me that anything that I took pride in couldn’t happen without a true public-private partnership. This certainly included building I-22, recruiting new nonstop flights to our city and recruiting Olympic soccer here. And it even included my historic preservation projects like Rickwood Field, Vulcan, the Veteran’s Day Parade and the Lyric Theatre. None of these projects could have succeeded without an active public-private partnership because private dollars alone were never going to be enough to allow it to happen. And if you are skeptical of my assessment, keep in mind that the Internet, iPhone and clean energy were all funded at 358


crucial stages by public dollars. So later in life, I started diverging from some of my more doctrinaire Republican friends, particularly with the advent of Herr Trump. Many of my old GOP buddies were still holding tight to the hoary concept that the government’s only valid purpose was “to defend our shores, deliver our mail and stay the hell out of the rest of our life.” Honestly, I wouldn’t want to live in the type of city that such a rigid policy would create. But for anyone who has read this far in this book, I wouldn’t want you to think of my life as an unrelieved slog of one civic project after another. Because Gail and I played hard too and had some truly great and memorable times. Gail’s determination not to have children freed us to travel throughout our marriage, and not just after we retired. So it was a great blessing to be able to hike and bike in such exotic destinations as New Zealand, Nova Scotia, Chile, Kenya, Alaska and Switzerland at a time in our lives when we were in great shape and still young enough to tackle any physical challenge. Plus, somehow we repeatedly caught world renowned artists performing in their prime. For example, we lucked into seeing Lauren Bacall perform on stage in San Francisco in “Woman of the Year.” We watched Jimi Hendrix literally set his guitar on fire onstage in Tuscaloosa. We were captivated by the legendary Bob Marley and the Wailers at the New Orleans JazzFest way back in 1980. And then there was my very first day on the job at Birmingham Landmarks in 2013, when I heard an amazing guitar solo from my office. Curious, I walked into an otherwise empty Alabama Theatre to find Greg Allman sitting all alone onstage, playing blues riffs on his guitar. And, of course, we got to see Jimmy Buffett perform several times, including his lyric from “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” that give us the title of this book. Well, so what? Friends have asked, “What’s the purpose of all these random stories –who were you writing this book for, anyway?” Two thoughts; one, I primarily wanted a record made of how hard so many of us worked to move our city ahead. 359


Maybe they weren’t all brilliant strategies, and certainly Birmingham didn’t become a Nashville or a Charlotte as a result, but I want it remembered that a real effort was indeed made from 1977 onwards. Secondly, I have truly led a charmed life; I’ve traveled widely and well, and I’ve been blessed with a great wife, six nieces, one nephew and four godchildren–plus many friends with whom we have shared much joy and laughter. I don’t want to forget any of these stories or any of these SOBs, so at the very least I plan to have this book on my night table next to me in the Nursing Home as memories begin to fade. In closing, let me apologize to any of you dear readers whom I have provoked over the years with incessant promotional schemes, harebrained ideas and never ending requests for civic donations. (Oh, and by the way, if there’s anything in this book that you think I got wrong, please feel free to write your own damn book!) Despite being deservedly considered a horse’s ass (or more appropriately, Vulcan’s ass) plenty of times by plenty of people, I would like to at least be remembered as helping bring a sense of humor to many civic projects. “Life is too short not to have fun” was my calling card and we worked hard to make things fun. Especially with all you sons of bitches described in this little book. Thank you for being part of my life and for taking the time to read these memories. “With all of our running and all of our cunning, If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane.” “Changes in Latitude,” Jimmy Buffett

THE END

360


Good Times Index Adams, Mayor Leland 192, 195 Adamson, George 251 Aderholt, Congressman Robert 193, 196 Adkisson, Dave 144, 145, 358 Ainsworth, First Class PO Walt 79 Archibald, John 337 Axon, Becky Tait and Jim 261 Banton, Julian 128 Bachus, Congressman Spencer 193, 196 Bayer, Jeffrey 111, 118, 120, 145 Beene, Brant 5, 211, 325, 326 Belden, Derick 326 Benson, Howard 4, 106-109, 115 Berte, Neal 315 Bevill, Congressman Tom 192 Bice, Bo 206 Bird, Joe 291 Black, Jim 111, 164 Blackburn, Judge Sharon 327 Blanton, Stan 195, 196 Blount, Houston 159 Brandenberg, Bobbi 204 Brewer, David 314 Brigham, Tommy 336 Brock, Harry 115, 157 Brown, Charley 211 Brown, James 66 Bryant, Coach Paul “Bear” 346 Buchanan, Congressman John 13 Buckley, William F., Jr. 93 Buffett, Jimmy 359, 360 Burton, Keith 203 Cambron, Faye Claire 319 Cantley, Terrell 241 Carruthers, Tom & Brooke, 289, 293, 295, 296, 299 Charles, Tommy 122-124 Cochrane, Jay 130-136 Coleman, Steve 5 Collier, Richard 68, 70 Cohn, Jeff & Rebecca 290, 292 Compton, Paul 331 Connery, Sean 95 Connor, Police Chief Bull 345 Conway, Jim 118, 120

Copeland, Barry 5, 112, 114, 183, 191, 194, 196 Coon, Mary Ellen 29, 31 Collins, Hank 140 Coates, Dorothy Love 209 Cosby, Uncle Dan 22 Cosby, Gail Thrasher 2, 14, 15, 28-36, 70, 115, 158, 190, 218-225, 227-234, 235-239, 242, 244, 246-256, 262-274, 276, 280-285, 287-299, 306-309, 348, 359 Cosby, R. O./Bob 17-23, 27, 38, 39, 42, 110, 214-217, 311 Cosby, Robert/Bobby 19, 42-53, 61-63, 311 Cosby, Mary Lesta Lowe 12, 20, 24-27, 39, 42-44, 65, 214-217 Craft, Justin 336 Dansby, Stewart 4, 5, 71, 132, 134, 140, 165, 166, 167, 175, 178, 179, 195, 203, 204, 300305, 313 Davis, Chris 328 Davis, Mark 199 Dawkins, Ryan & Brannon 293 Deutsch, Police Chief Artie 152 DeGarmo, Diane 206 Demedicis, Steve 333,336 Diddley, Bo 64, 65, 73 Difiore, Tom 335 Doidge, Suzan Smith 110, 115, 116, 117, 141 Drennen, Marsha 71, 73 Dye, Coach Pat 346 Ebank, Solomon 229-234 Eledge, Sue 305 Erdreich, Congressman Ben 151 Falls, Brenda 293 Farr, Allen 121, 167, 169 Farricielli, Maria 202, 204 Ferris, Banks 128 Fisher, Jimbo 335 Frazier, Sam 203 Friend, Eddie 150 Fuller, Chris 314 Fuller, Joe 192 Garrison, Dr. Carol 334 Giles, Tony 114 Gilbert, Roy 116, 150, 151 361


Godchaux, Fran 331 Goetz, Mayor Don 193 Gilmore, Kristi 188 Goddard, James H. 12, 13, 16, Goddard, Mike 187-190, 241 Goodrich, Bill 322 Goodrich, Mike & Gillian 355 Goodrich, Mike Jr 336 Goldsworthy, Andy 292 Grenier, Beau 331 Grinney, Melanie Parker 290 Haas, Troy 175, 178 Haden, Courtney 153, 154 Hanson, Victor III 201, 202, 204 Harris, Elmer 127-129, 327, 328 Harris, Emmy Lou 210 Harris, Bill 242 Harris, William 14 Hardin, Dr. Paul 54 Hayes, Rutherford B. 11 Hawkins, Erskine 207 Hawkins, Ruth 60, 61 Heekin, Richella 339-343 Hess, Donald 349 Hezlep, David 263, 264, 266, 272-3, 290 Hicks, Taylor 206, 207 Hire, Don 333, 336 Hodges, Greg 203, 204 Jackson, Ken 111 Jacobs, Gary “Jake” 89, 91, 300-305 James, Gov. Fob 196 Jenkins, George 5, 102, 159, 257, 263, 266, 267, 269, 270, 289, 296 Joplin, Janis 69 Kaellenius, Ola 179 King, Dr. Martin Luther 54, 55, 358 Kelly, Mark 146 Kenley, Mary Alice 191, 195, 197 Kendricks, Eddie 209 Kennedy, President John F. 77 Kline, Danner 345 Knight, Baker 209 Kramer, Roy 181, 184, 186 Larimer, Alane 203, 204 Layton, Doug 84 Lee, Cynthia 263, 264, 266, 272, 273 Lee, Jimmy 119, 120-122, 126 Leonard, Mike 350-353 Levert, Eddie 209 362

Lewis, Linda 191, 193 Levi, Ted 112 Logan, Don 346 Long, Kitty 259, 260 Lowe, J. L. 211 Lowe, Thomas Frances 21 Lowe, Mabel Goddard 14 Lusco, Matt 326, 327 Mabry, Neil 112 Mackaye, Benton 350 Mancer, Kirk 110, 141 Mark & Brian Radio Team 137-139, 169 Martin, Alan 5, 113, 114, 117, 127-129, 131, 139, 142, 161, 165, 175, 181-186, 188, 327 Martin, Hugh 210 Martin, Dr. James 348 Martin, James “Spider” 155-158 Marx, Groucho 326 Mason, Sharon 110, 141, 142 Matthews, Coke 313-315 Mayer, Charles 203 McConathy, Sharon Helm 5 McMillan Jr., George D. H. 72, 73 McQuaid, Don 46, 65, 66 McWane, Phillip 204 McWhorter, Diane 144 Montgomery, John 73, 203, 323 Morgan, Hugh 177 Morris, Philip 204 Muhammed, Khalil 157, 158 Namath, Joe 60 Newton, Don 3, 101-105, 108, 109, 117, 131, 141, 176, 177, 199-203, 347, 348 Nixon, President Richard M. 77, 93 Nowlin, Charlie 118, 120 O’Donnell, Joe 158 O’Neal, Craft 336 Odetta, 208 Payne, Liz 279 Penuel, Andrew Thomas 2, 36 Perkins, Giles 345 Perkins, Wayne 210, 211 Perry, Edmund 292 Pickett, Wilson “Wicked” 163, 165-172 Puckett, Gary & the Union Gap 165, 171 Relfe, Sarah 113, 120 Riggins, Resha 182, 183 Rogers, Alan 195, 196 Ross, Diana 209


Rudisell, Linda 111 Rudolf, Eric 296, 297 Ryan, Mark 320-323 Sandlin, Ollie 113, 140 Scarbinsky, Kevin 337 Scrushy, Richard 159 Sentell, Lee 352 Sessions, Sen. Jeff 196 Shaw, Trinket 5 Shelby, Sen. Richard 178, 193, 194, 196 Shelswell-White, Edward 175 Shinn, George 161 Siegelman, Gov. Don 196 Simmons, Jim 182 Sington, “Coach” Fred 148-150 Slaughter, Terry 313, 314 Smith, Hatton 336 Souther, Fontaine McFerrin 66, 67,78 Spencer, Steve 164 Sprague, Rick 202 Starr, Bart 184 Stewart, Merrill 340 Stewart, Robert & Leslie 71 Studdard, Reuben 74, 206 Stockham, Doug 134 Stokes, Gary 202, 204, 205 Tate, John 135, 167, 168 Tharpe, Kathie 71 Townsend, Jim 178 Trump, Donald 160, 359 Turner, Homer 151, 152 VanDurand, Tinsley 179, 326 Voigt, Bill 318, 319 Wallace, Gov. George 56, 93, 358 Wallace, Julie 242 Waide, Bill 65 Walker, Jake 315-317 Ward, Clive 246, 250, 253 Warner, Marvin 160 Watts, President Ray 333, 334, 337 Weeks, Raymond 318, 319 Whatley, Fess 207 White, Marjorie 202, 203 Whitmire, Cecil 325 Whitmire, Kyle 337 Williams, Rep. Jack 336 Wilson, Lee 277 Wolff, Wes 86, 87 Wynette, Tammy 209

Yoder, Steve 203, 204 Yohr, Ann Caroline 319 Young, Danny & Lita 96, 99 Youngblood, Gary 199, 201, 202

363


“Although this memoir is admittedly quirky and doesn’t pretend to be a scholarly record, it should prove to be a juicy part of the city’s history. After all, it does depict much of the civic boosterism (and the thinking behind it) that attempted to move Birmingham forward throughout the past 40 years.” –Jim Baggett, Department Head, Archives & Manuscripts, Birmingham Public Library “I met Tom in my role of manager of public relations at the former Birmingham Area Chamber of Commerce. Regrettably, I’m all too aware of many of the crazy stories herein as I was involved in plenty of them (and still am to this day.) Hopefully this book will inspire new generations of Birminghamians to pick up the torch for our city in zany, creative ways in the years to come.”–Stewart Dansby, Philanthropist and Civic Leader “Having been involved in way too many for way too long of Cozmo’s oftentimes harebrained schemes, I can assure you that the stories in here are actually true. Whether that reflects poorly or well on either of us, I’ll leave it to the reader to decide. I will say that we worked our tails off and had a lot of laughs along the way!” –Alan Martin, President & CEO of Southern Company (retired) “Despite his somewhat curmudgeonly demeanor, Tom has seen through Birmingham’s flaws, recognizing and pushing us to achieve our greater potential. Thanks to his relentless efforts and the key role he played in galvanizing support for saving Vulcan, the symbol of our community’s potential will continue to inspire us for the generations to come. Behind any achievement is a colorful story, and Tom witnessed – and worse, remembers – all of them!” –Darlene Negrotto, President & CEO, Vulcan Park & Museum “Ok, Boomer. This is a fine piece of muckraking. But then again, every city needs a gadfly like Tom to promote itself, push the envelope and think outside the box. And maybe, just maybe, with the publication of this book, Tom will finally take a Xanax and give us all a much needed break. It’s about time.” –Joyce Spielberger Shevin, veteran Birmingham non-profit leader

“From the moment I picked up your book until I put it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend reading it.” –Groucho Marx