Tag Archives: Alabama

October Waning

Marigolds; Fall 2020

There are so many things happening right now. I am excited and anxious about the election, but friends in the Midwest are seeing major snows earlier than anticipated and wildfires, beyond biblical proportions, are ravaging the West. To the South, and nearer to me, Zeta percolates in the Gulf.

And then there’s COVID. I don’t really have the “fatigue”; I have just run out of things to say. As I said, I am excited and anxious about the election.

A day or two ago, I made my annual reservation for my December getaway in Point Clear on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay.

I asked my usual contact, “How’s it going down there?”

“I’ll let you know when Zeta has passed,” she responded.

My regular room choice is closed post-Sally, awaiting carpet replacement, but I managed to snag an almost identical room still available for the Christmas season.

My checkbook howls, but my spirit soars. December in Point Clear has become an annual rite of renewal.’


In the long list of things to ponder, a last look at the season now coming to a close has captured my wandering attention,

The indoor plants were moved indoors a few weeks ago and the outdoor annuals were committed back to the earth. A peace lily, that had been given up for lost in the summer, decided to sprout a week ago and I am trying to coax it along. Most of what was left, though, was left to fend for itself. I thought I had washed my hands of it all except for the raking and maintenance of the debris.

Over the past week, all of that was turned asunder.


I returned home to find a single gardenia in full bloom. My potted gardenia is temperamental in the best of times and never blooms beyond early summer, so I still ponder what inspired its late-October solitary flourish. Even so, the silky sexiness of a gardenia is hard to beat.

My Granddaddy Harbison’s heirloom rose, which has to be at least a half-century old and is now spread over gardens across the South, had a final burst of blossoms that are both spectacular and later than ever.

A couple of months ago, only the forget-me-nots had flowered from several packets of seeds sent to my mother with a charity solicitation in the Spring. When I got home a few days ago, the marigolds from that same set of packets had decided to take their turn. Those few blooms epitomize the shades of Autumn without the aid of the more predictable chrysanthemums.

It is truly time to cut back the purple hearts that thrive next to the front door. This late-October, however, they are far too exuberant to thwart just yet, and I will encourage them to bloom as long as they like.

We have frosts in our forecasts, so this might be the final homage to the warm weather culture for a while.

Please, whatever you do, VOTE on November 3. Every vote matters.

 

What Is Remembered | Look Away

I saw Joan Baez don a grey Confederate soldier’s cap, probably picked up at some local tourist stand, to sing Robbie Robertson and The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” at a pop-up concert in Mobile. It was April 1976 and the event was one of the two Mobile performances of Bob Dylan’s legendary “Rolling Thunder Revue.”

I skipped a final exam to be there.

The song is poor fictional Virginia farmer Virgil Caine’s lament about his plight at the end of the Civil War. The song, written by a Canadian musician, was not perceived as “racist” at the time. But I doubt that Baez could comfortably perform the song in a cheap Confederate soldier’s cap in 2020; I would have a difficult time applauding it now – with all of the baggage it has come to contain. Even so, it is an undeniably great song and Baez gave an indisputably great performance.

At a time when we are trying to become an anti-racist society, we are challenged to become more conscious of race than at any time in my existence. I learned early on that it is rude to label people based on their race and ethnicity or gender or religion or sexual orientation. Now it is demanded.

White Southerners have often been accused of “living in the past.” I’m afraid we’ve reached a time when the entire nation is living in the past and we’re too paralyzed to move forward.


I taught at an HBCU (Historically Black College / University) for the last eighteen years of my career before retiring in May. On occasion, a student would find out I was from Birmingham (mostly – my family moved around a lot) and ask me what part of town. I would answer that we lived in “Green Acres” during my elementary school years and those familiar with the city would jaw-drop and say, “Journey, you’re from the hood!”

Green Acres was not called “the hood” in the ‘60s when I lived there, but times and places change. If I wanted to really blow my students’ minds, I would mention that my dad graduated from Ensley High School.

During those years, Green Acres was an all-white school. It was almost a decade after Brown v. Board and Birmingham city schools were still in the process of integrating. The city had operated its schools on the principle of neighborhood accessibility and, while there were communities of color close to Green Acres, the nearest were in the county – not the city – school system. More diverse parts of the city – especially closer to the city center – were more quickly integrated, but the regrettable “white flight” to the suburbs was gaining steam.

In the interesting time in which we are living, I find myself looking back on my early years in the still much-segregated South. I may have been in the city that Martin Luther King, Jr. declared the “most segregated city in America” in 1963, but, even then, I found the claim somewhat dubious; it was what one might expect from an Atlantan.

I was never oblivious to the struggles going on in my city and around the country. George Wallace was our governor and Bull Connor was wielding his power in Birmingham and forging sores the city has not yet been fully able to erase.

I was in elementary school when the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed by Klansmen. That was the same year that Wallace was grandstanding in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama to symbolically block the entrance to Black students. It was the time of the Selma marches; the third effort made it beyond the Edmund Pettus Bridge and captured the imagination of the world when it reached the Alabama Capitol steps.

I was not “raised” by a Black woman, as some of my friends claim they were, but Black people were ubiquitous wherever I went in the city. Neighborhoods were still considered segregated, but if you walked through the opening in the shrubbery in my Grandparents’ Harbison Fairfield Highlands back yard, you were in a Black community. My grandfather and I would take his dogs for walks through that neighborhood where he seemed to be on a mutual first-name basis with all of the people we met.

My Grandparents’ Journey house was in the shadow of U.S. Steel’s Ensley Works. Their neighborhood was considered segregated, but directly across the street from them were blocks of houses entirely occupied by Black people. The idea of segregation on that street was more of a ludicrous technicality than a reality. Also, my Grandfather Journey was less “neighborly” than Granddaddy Harbison.

Kiddieland was a small amusement park in one corner of the old state fairgrounds in Five Points West. I remember one Saturday at Kiddieland, I got to the coveted first row of the modest  roller coaster. Mother and Dad were sitting the ride out so I had the seat to myself until the ride operator put an African American kid about my age in the seat next to me. I looked over and smiled and said “hey” before the ride took off. My seatmate remained silent until we were about to climb the first rise; then he looked over at me and said, “You soda cracker!” Ruined my ride.

On many days, when I was still pre-school age, Mother and Grandmother Harbison took me shopping. On one of those days, at Goldstein & Cohen, a department store in downtown Ensley, Mother was trying on dresses while I was waiting and hanging out in the women’s department. I got thirsty and took a drink from a water fountain. A sales clerk quickly moved in and scolded me; I had apparently drunk from the “wrong” fountain. My mother, hearing the kerfuffle, rushed out, still buttoning her dress, grabbed my arm, informed the sales clerk that she would decide when her child needed discipline, and took me out.


In those years, my father’s office was in downtown Birmingham, at 20 S. 20th Street. He worked for a national company that manufactured and sold printing equipment. As I quickly learned, everybody – on whichever extreme of the political spectrum – needed printing presses to get their messages out. Dad’s territory included churches and schools, department stores and groceries, political and activist organizations, newspapers, and government offices.

I remember one time driving in the car with Mother to Dad’s office. On a downtown street, we were met with a Civil Rights protest coming toward us from the next block. Mother muttered “March,deftly maneuvered the car down the next block, and we arrived at 20 S. 20th Street without delay.

In the summer months, when school was out, Mother and I would occasionally accompany Dad around central Alabama as he made his calls. I especially remember one trip when Mother was not along – either because she was pregnant with my brother or because she was home with the baby.

Dad’s calls took us to his usual clients – small town printers, newspapers, and churches, schools, colleges, etc. In Sumter County, he called on a print shop housed on a farm. It was a Black-run operation and Dad probably told me its name, but all I remember now is that he referred to it as some sort of “separatist organization.”

Years later, I learned that the earliest incarnations of the Black Panther Party were in Alabama in 1965 with Stokely Carmichael’s leadership of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. I still try to connect the possible dots between that and my Dad’s clients in Sumter County.

The main reason that summer day with my dad stands out is for his final sales call of the day. After leaving Sumter County in late afternoon, we went through Tuscaloosa on the way back to Birmingham. There, in early evening, Dad made one last business call on a business called Imperial Press in a tight two-story building on the main street of downtown Tuscaloosa.

As we pulled into the parking place, Dad said, “It’s called Imperial Press; it’s a front for the Klan.”

Not only was it a front, but we entered the place to be greeted by Bobby Shelton, the “Grand Wizard” (what a silly organization; what pathetic, silly titles and costumes).

I couldn’t wait to get away, but I sat patiently in Shelton’s office while my dad conducted his business, just as he had done at every organization we visited during the course of that day. I looked at framed signed photographs inscribed to their “friend Bobby” by prominent politicians of the time.

Dad was a salesman and all of these diverse characters were his clients. As we drove back to Birmingham, I expressed my pre-teen repugnance and embarrassment at meeting the Klan. Dad asked me how I felt about the Sumter County “separatists” (I still wish I could remember the name of the group) and I told him they seemed “nicer.” “Did they seem ‘nicer’,” he asked rhetorically, “because they were a different race and you didn’t feel embarrassed by them?”

My dad was no Atticus Finch, but he was a good man who often gave me perspectives that I have clung to for life.


In 1973, I was a freshman at Alabama when I watched Gov. Wallace crown Terry Points as the first African American Homecoming Queen at the University. Soon after, Sylvester Jones, my classmate at Birmingham’s Shades Valley High, was elected the first African American Vice President of Alabama’s SGA. In my senior year, Cleophus Thomas, a friend from the University’s Program Council, was elected UA’s first African American SGA President. (I had run against Cleo, a sorority girl, and an umbrella-pilfering frat boy on the platform of abolishing SGA, a principle I still believe in.)

In 1988, shortly after midnight on a June night, the 25th anniversary of Wallace’s Stand in the Schoolhouse Door, my friend Clay and I climbed to the balcony of Foster Auditorium to commemorate the anniversary. It’s odd that none of these events seemed to have happened in as quick succession as they did. It all felt like distant history from June 1963.


Decades later, in a classroom at the HBCU, a student asks me once again where I’m “from.”

“Birmingham,” I answer for the umpteenth time.

Her eyes squint and her mouth wrinkles into a sneer. “You’re not really from Birmingham.”

I start to respond, but realize that she has decided the only way to legitimately be from Birmingham is to be Black and from Birmingham.

A student who knows me leans to her and says, “His dad graduated from Ensley. He’s really from Birmingham.”

I decide to let the whole exchange hang there. But it still bothers me: I’m not sure I truly belong anywhere.


Diane McWhorter, a writer from the privileged Birmingham suburb of Mountain Brook, wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Carry Me Home, in 2001. Her journalistic research and documentation about the Birmingham campaign of the Civil Rights movement are impressive. McWhorter makes the mistake, however, of putting herself and her lily-white upbringing into the narrative by weaving in a shaggy dog story about her father’s conjectural involvement in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing (almost certainly a fictional conjecture).

McWhorter leveraged her book into a career of sorts, commenting on race relations in the South whenever someone wants her point of view. She presents herself in Carry Me Home as an ingenuous Mountain Brook girl, somehow oblivious to what’s going on just a few miles over the mountain from her house.

McWhorter is only a few years older than me.

When I read her book, I kept thinking, if you were growing up there and then, How could you not know?

Remembering Jesse Owens

Jesse Owens by Branko Medenica

Traveling up I-65 from Birmingham with a friend a few years ago, we passed a billboard for the Jesse Owens Park and Museum (www.jesseowensmemorialpark.com) in Oakville, an unincorporated community in Lawrence County, Alabama. My friend, who is from Ohio and was a college track athlete there, said, “What is a Jesse Owens museum doing in Alabama?”

“He was born here.” My friend didn’t know that; I guess a lot of people don’t.

James Cleveland Owens (1913-1980), who later became famous as “Jesse,” was born into a sharecropper family in Oakville. His reputation began to be made when the family relocated to Cleveland, Ohio, and Jesse became a high school track star before becoming a star college athlete at Ohio State. At a Big Ten meet in Michigan in 1935, Owens broke three world records and tied a fourth in a seventy-minute span.

The primary Owens legend was born from his participation in the 1936 Berlin “Nazi” Olympics where he put the lie to Hitler’s assertion of Aryan superiority by winning four gold medals and establishing an Olympic long-jump record that stood for over a quarter century. Ironically, the best visual documentation of Owens’s Olympic triumphs is seen in Olympia, German documentarian Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film about the 1936 Olympics.


The Oakville park is a bucolic place, with views of farms in the near distance, athletic fields, and places for picnics and reflection. The museum has an impressive timeline, film, and interactive displays with artifacts and details of the life of Owens.

A sand jump pit borders one of the walkways so that aspiring athletes might compare their skills to Owens’s 26 ft. 5 ¼ in. Olympic record.

Of most interest to me is the recreation of the Oakville sharecropper’s house where Owens was born and grew up prior to the family’s move to Cleveland. A narration of the house is available, spoken by Owens’s brother, Sylvester.

Jesse Owens was the youngest of ten children – all of whom shared a pallet in a small room next to the main room. The main room also held the bed where the parents slept. The back of the house is a long room with a sparsely-furnished kitchen on one side and a wooden table and chairs on the other.

An Owens statue, by Birmingham-based sculptor Branko Medenica (www.brankoart.com), stands between the house and the museum. It shows Owens symbolically breaking through the Olympic rings. The statue was unveiled on the day in June 1996 when the Olympic torch, carried by Owens’s grandson, passed through tiny Oakville on its way to the Atlanta Olympics.

Ascetic August 2020

Local tomatoes are prolific in this mid-summer early August as I gratefully accept all offers from friends and neighbors. There may be a glut of home-grown tomatoes right now; they will – like the summer – disappear soon enough, and much too soon for my tastes.

Not long ago, not having a fresh tomato on hand, and sort of craving tomatoes, I made the mistake of buying one on a whim at the grocery store. It has been years since I purchased a supermarket tomato and I was shocked anew at the lack of taste and the plastic consistency; I was reminded why I swore off supermarket tomatoes in the first place. After a couple of bites, I threw the pretender out and waited for a farmers’ market or a kind friend to come through. I never had much luck growing tomatoes on my own.

Fortunately, tomatoes have been coming from all directions in the past few weeks and I haven’t wasted a single one. Salads, tomato sandwiches, and sharp acidic sauces are the order of the day and, for many meals, a tomato sandwich or two suffice.

After the first frost, I may use good canned tomatoes – preferably Italian San Marzano, as needed, for recipes and sauces, but the authentic taste of a fresh locally grown summer tomato, still warm from the plant, is the epitome of summer southern comfort.

In the ascetic summer of 2020, simple home-based pleasures like fresh tomatoes take on added significance. I’m grateful for my retirement; this fraught fall semester of teaching would surely have done me in.


I recently read a piece about Ernie Pyle, the iconic World War II war correspondent who was a casualty of the war in Japan in 1945. In a dispatch during the war, he wrote: “Someday when peace has returned to this odd world, I want to come to London again and stand on a certain balcony on a moonlit night and look down upon the peaceful silver curve of the Thames with its dark bridges.”

Tonight, a full moon is just appearing through the trees over Green Mountain and I understand Pyle’s longing — a longing that is in most of us, I suspect. Pyle expresses the opportunity to return to something loved, something missed, something yearned for. The idea of “normal” is toppled, but we try to make amends.


In 1989, Norman Rene’s Longtime Companion, with a script by Craig Lucas, was the first theatrical film to address the AIDS crisis. In the final scene, three friends who have survived the initial onslaught of the virus – before it was quite understood – are walking along a lonely Fire Island beach. They are musing about what it will be like when a cure is found.

Willy, Campbell Scott’s character, says, “I just want to be there,” cuing a fantasy sequence in which hundreds jubilantly flock to and party on their beach. The three stalwarts are reunited with their old friends who have succumbed to the (then) mysterious virus. As abruptly as it began, the fantasy ends, and the three figures are left once again on the beach, alone.

Ronald Reagan’s denial of the AIDS outbreak during his presidency, in the early years of that particular pandemic, calls to mind the current self-serving denial of the Oval Office’s current occupant. I cannot change the world, so I will try to nurture myself with its bounty and trust the doctors to see us through. And I will vote come election day.

I just want to be there.

Pecan Peccadillo

I-65, exit 289; Alabama

In this overly contentious and troubling time, it’s refreshing to see people take to LinkedIn to quibble over the pronunciation of a simple word.

Stuckey’s, the iconic roadside chain of highway stops (www.stuckeys.com), was a constant in my family travels growing up, especially on trips to the Gulf coast. It was a true roadside attraction, offering pecan-based treats, fast food and sodas, souvenirs, gasoline, and convenient (and usually clean) restrooms.

While the chain is best known for its exceptional pecan products, I was always partial to the sweet “fruit slice” candies that could usually be found. The last time I was in a Stuckey’s store, I was amused that the souvenirs seemed to be from every state – not just the state I was in.

W.S. and Ethel Stuckey of Eastman, Georgia, founded the brand in the 1930s. Their first location was a way to sell the Stuckey pecan crop. Soon, Mrs. Stuckey began to add to the offerings with things like divinity and pralines and, most notably, her special creation – the pecan log roll.

W.S. and Ethel’s granddaughter, Stephanie Stuckey, is the new CEO of Stuckey’s. Ms. Stuckey has launched an effort to locate and reclaim old Stuckey locations and rejuvenate the brand. As part of that effort, she has posted memories and details of her project. She has captured many imaginations along the way.

Among my favorite posts is the one in which she tells how her grandfather would fuel up with coffee and start driving the highways. When he had to stop for a restroom break, he would decide that was a good spot for another Stuckey’s store.

Recently, Ms. Stuckey posted what appears to be a vintage Stuckey’s ad with beautiful shiny pecans and the caption “It’s ‘PEE-CAN’.”

Cue the floodgates. People began to post reactions and support their side of the pecan pronunciation debate – a conflict that will never go away in the South. A commentary from a North Carolina man declared fervently that “PEE-CAN is the correct pronunciation!” and went on to say that any Southerner ought to know that and that those of us who say it any other way sound like Thurston Howell III on “Gilligan’s Island.”

I try not to jump into any fray these days, but I had to respond: “My Alabama family says ‘puh-KAHN’ and none of us sound like Thurston Howell. Also, Georgian Jimmy Carter, the epitome of a native Southerner, says ‘puh-KAHN.’ I bet you put peanuts in Pepsi — a sacrilege! Peanuts must go in Coca-Cola.”

I was enjoying the entertaining thread and had to stoke the fire by making reference to the old tradition – presumably Southern – of emptying part of a sleeve of salty peanuts into a bottle of soda, specifically Coca-Cola. Theories abound that the tradition was a convenient fast snack for blue collar workers or workers in the field in the early 20th Century. I had never known, until I saw it on a cooking show, that some people – North Carolinians, in particular – traditionally used Pepsi Cola instead of Coke for that down-home snack which I used to enjoy as a child. I guess it might work with Pepsi instead of Coke, but I will stick to Coca-Cola.

Still, the crux of the responses to the Stuckey ad was the acceptable pronunciation of “pecan.” Southern Living magazine has listed six variations on the pronunciation:

pah-KAHN; puh-CAN; PEE-can; PEE-kahn; pee-KAHN; and pee-CAN

I will be gracious and say that none of those are wrong, although I grew up hearing that a “pee-can” was something one kept in the car for emergencies on long trips. Or alongside the slop jar under the bed.

Most Georgians I know say “pee-CAN.” The aforementioned President Carter is a notable exception. I can’t think of any Alabamians I know who say anything other than “puh-KAHN,” and that includes some farmers who harvest and sell the nut. Priester’s Pecans in Fort Deposit, my favorite Alabama purveyor of pecan products (www.priesters.com), endorses the “puh-KAHN” pronunciation.

Pre-Pandemic, when I taught Voice and Diction classes, I would use “pecan” as an example of one of those words that has a variety of acceptable pronunciations. It isn’t necessarily even a detail of geography; I think it just has to do with who raised you. Like individual tastes in barbecue and cornbread, it has more to do with what one is familiar with and what one grew up with, and questions of relative quality become superficial.

For the record, though: I don’t accept the notion of sugar in cornbread; my barbecue tastes lean toward pork with vinegar-based sauces; I am still opposed to white barbecue sauce; and the old “peanut and soda” routine only works with a Coca-Cola.

I’m grateful to Stephanie Stuckey for giving me a pleasant distraction in difficult times. I am fully behind her ongoing crusade to reclaim and refurbish former Stuckey’s. Since I discovered her posts, I have been on the lookout for abandoned or rebranded Stuckey’s locations. I captured two as I travelled north on I-65 in Alabama this afternoon.

I-65, exit 318; Alabama

Stuckey’s is authentic, real-deal Americana. Its resurgence is a welcome antidote to the manufactured fake nostalgia of places like Cracker Barrel. I want a pecan log roll with a side of sugary “fruit slices,” and I want them now!

Summer Solstice 2020

Near the start of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway says, “I had the familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.” This year, one hopes for more truth than usual in that statement as we count down a dismal year. As the sun begins its slow six-month drift south, perhaps some of the disease, divisiveness, and turmoil will ebb.

I would feel remiss if I did not acknowledge the Summer Solstice – the longest day of light of the year – and my annual re-reading of The Great Gatsby. I found time to attend to the plants in my yard as the frequent rains of Spring seem to once again be yielding to a Summer threat of drought. There was frequent enough rain through the last several months. I don’t think we’re in danger yet, but it hasn’t rained in several days and I was dripping sweat after only a half hour of yard work earlier.

I managed to make my second trip to Harrison Farms in Chilton County a few days ago and got peaches for myself, and for friends and family who have standing orders. Lynn, one of the Harrison sons, indicated that this might be an abbreviated peach season, but Mrs. Harrison said this week that their cantaloupes and watermelons aren’t ready yet and that gives me hope for a little longer season of opportunities to make the relaxing drive to Chilton County. The okra was coming in and I got a basket of perfect baby okra to bread and fry.


The peaches at the Harrisons’ acres of orchards near Maplesville are my summer touchstone, and were a sideways inspiration for “Professional Southerner.” In 2012, I spent every other Saturday of peach season traveling to Chilton County with a videographer to collect footage and interviews for a documentary about Chilton County peaches with a focus on Harrison Fruit Farm.

We collected several hours’ worth of video over a really pleasant summer. I remember an August afternoon when we set up in the parking lot of Fat Girls’ Barbecue in Billingsley and spent an hour shooting the setting sun over rolling hills of central Alabama. We spent one entire Saturday shooting the Peach Festival parade and related events in downtown Clanton. When we finally got into the editing process, the videographer’s husband decided she was spending too much time on the project for too little compensation and she abandoned me.

A filmmaker colleague at the university looked over the footage, decided that we needed to re-shoot a lot of things, and offered to help to finish the project. Before we could make that happen, my colleague got sick and died and I was never able to track down the missing footage. When I gathered my belongings from my office for retirement last month, I came across a mysterious external hard drive in the far reaches of my book shelf. Maybe … I will have to find time to check.

The film is still vivid in my head – I even got permission to use a Pat Metheny track I really like for underscoring. Whenever I make a peach run to Harrison Farms, I feel guilty that the family was so generous with their time – they all sat for interviews – and the documentary never happened.

But the experience inspired an essay that subsequently inspired me to start the “Professional Southerner” journal. That essay, “The Peach Highway and Jimmie’s Peach Stand,” continues to be one of the most popular posts of the journal over the years. The peach stand and I are about the same age and trips down there always lift my spirits, even during the uncertainty of Summer 2020.

A Joyful Noise

Sun Ra

“Calling Planet Earth – I am a different order of being …”

So says Sun Ra in Robert Mugge’s 1980 documentary, “Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise.” I was inspired to view the movie by Richard Brody’s recent spectacular review in the New Yorker, a review that is arguably as thoughtful and well-crafted as Mugge’s film itself.

Mugge’s hand-held cameras sometime follow Sun Ra around in random sequence; sometimes the musician walks ‘round and ‘round the camera. Occasionally, Sun Ra leaves the frame as the camera stops to ponder some detail in the room. In one memorable sequence, the camera is stationary, focused on a cityscape, as Sun Ra walks back and forth, in and out of the camera’s view, giving his thoughts on what is important to him as an artist of the universe.

He has a lot to say. “They say that history repeats itself,” he says, “but history is his story; it is not my story … Nature never repeats itself. Why should I repeat myself?”


Sun Ra was a son of Birmingham. Born Herman Poole (“Sonny”) Blount, he was a prodigious musician at an early age, playing Birmingham clubs. In the 1930s, he spent a year as a music education major at what is now Alabama A&M University.

Somewhere along the way – and the accounts vary – he had a transformative experience that convinced him that he had been transported to the planet Saturn and returned to planet Earth in a space ark to spread a new and forward-looking philosophy to the delusional Earthlings. He legally changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra, began to call his band the “Arkestra,” and the living myth was born. Sun Ra had the privilege of largely creating his own mythology while arguing for a “mythocracy opposed to your theocracy and democracy.”

He is critical of human inhabitants of Earth, arguing that “Man has failed – spiritually, educationally, mentally.” Standing in front of the White House, Sun Ra says that “you can’t have justice if you penalize people for doing wrong and don’t do anything for them if they’re doing right.”

Sun Ra’s philosophy often makes sense and shows an acute wisdom; occasionally, it might seem a little absurd. Either way, one should always watch his eyes. He seems conscious of exactly what he’s doing and saying and playing all the time, no matter how outrageous it may seem in the moment. It has been observed that sometimes Sun Ra felt that too many musicians take themselves too seriously; his music and philosophical observations seem to be both a response to his innate intelligence and a reaction to taking oneself too seriously.

In an early sequence of the film, vocalist June Tyson sings of Sun Ra as “the living myth, the living mystery.” Those words “myth” and “mystery” recur often throughout Mugge’s portrait of the man. Sun Ra is little known outside certain circles, but he retains a devoted following and immense respect among serious jazz aficionados. I was surprised when two novels I read recently featured cameo appearances by Sun Ra.

Mugge’s film does not deal with biography. It is most concerned with Sun Ra’s present, around 1980. Much of the film is shot in Philadelphia environs and clubs and in the communal rowhouse in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood where Sun Ra lived with much of his band – a band that taps into his musical vision and his taste for wild and outlandish garb and adornment that appear to be a fusion of the Space Age, Egyptian Africana, and psychedelics.

When I was first exposed to Sun Ra and his Arkestra’s music, sometime during my college years, I didn’t “get it.” Much of it sounded like untamed cacophony with minimal focus or forethought. Over time, the more I listened and got to know musicians with an interest in jazz, the more I appreciated Sun Ra.

“A Joyful Noise” lends credence to testimony of Sun Ra’s virtuosity. Saxophonist John Gilmore, a long-time member of the Arkestra, comments that he finds Sun Ra’s technique “… ahead of Bird and Monk” and later evokes Charles Mingus, too. Sun Ra’s knowledge of intervals and harmony, he says, are so “highly advanced” that he decided to “stop” and devote his career to the Arkestra. He stayed with Sun Ra from the 1950s. Gilmore led the group after Sun Ra’s death, and until his own death in the ‘90s.

Gilmore is one of many examples of the quality of musician Sun Ra sought and attracted. At one point in the film, Sun Ra states that he chooses musicians who believe in “arkestration, precision, and discipline.” In rehearsals captured by Mugge, Sun Ra is a diligent and precise task-master. His musicians – in rehearsal and performance – show both attention and awe. Sun Ra’s choreographic conducting in performance appears surreal and spontaneous while simultaneously controlled and conscious.

The concerts feel trance-like – in observation of both the musicians and the audience experiencing the music. In his lifetime, Sun Ra was called a “catalyst.” “A catalyst,” he says, “changes everything, but remains the same.”

I don’t always understand Sun Ra and his music, but I always enjoy the effort.

The title of Mugge’s film comes from a story Sun Ra tells in the documentary. When he and members of the Arkestra lived communally in the Philadelphia rowhouse, they would rehearse any time – day or night – that Sun Ra had the urge to create. Once, when the police came to the door in response to a complaint, they told Sun Ra that neighbors had complained about the “music.” He informed them that he wasn’t playing “music” – “I was making a joyful noise – that’s what the Bible said.”


Sun Ra had strokes in his final years and was brought back to Birmingham to be cared for by family members. He died in 1993. I was surprised to learn that he is buried at Elmwood, the 120-year-old Birmingham cemetery where my father is buried. Out of over 130,000 plots at Elmwood, I discovered that Sun Ra happens to be buried in the block just across the way from my father.

Occasionally, I spot license plates in Elmwood from far-flung places with people looking around for something in that vicinity. Occasionally, those people look like forward-thinking musician-types. If they’re looking for Sun Ra, I am happy to point out the place where his Earthly remains are resting.

Dispatch

Mural in West Homewood; signed by Marcus Fetch

A few weeks ago, before stay-at-home orders but when it was evident that this thing was not going to disappear quickly, I checked to see if a local restaurant that I go to regularly was still open. It was Tuesday and it is my habit to have dinner there on Tuesdays. My friend Christina was usually behind the bar on Tuesdays and there was a coterie that often showed up for dinner at the bar on Tuesday.

I checked in to see if Christina was there and, after telling her I might not show up, I thought long and hard about my decision to go out. I decided to drive over and check out the restaurant’s parking lot. It was almost empty so I parked near the entrance and walked in to be greeted by familiar staff and a room full of empty tables, judiciously spaced a suitable distance apart.

A couple of customers were sitting at the bar; Christina looked up in surprise as I walked in. I took a seat at the far end and kept my distance. Before long, the other Tuesday night crowd arrived – “to show support,” one said – and we dined at the bar in an otherwise empty restaurant. A few people phoned-in take-out orders and began to filter in and out.

One couple in the small gathering had recently seen Diana Ross in concert, someone else began to softly hum something, and, before long, we were all singing Diana Ross in the almost empty restaurant. Inevitably, “Stop! In the Name of Love” began, everybody knew the moves, and we sang full-throttle. The chef came out and suggested to Christina that we keep it down so as not to disturb the other customers. There were no other customers.

Nobody said so that night, but we all knew that this would be the last outing for a while. Two days later, Christina texted me: “Dine in is shut down.”


Pepper Place Market; Birmingham

Pepper Place, my favorite farmers market, located in downtown Birmingham, has converted itself to a Saturday morning drive-thru. I placed and paid for my order online, drove to the market site on Saturday morning, was directed to the stations of the farmers I had purchased from, popped the trunk open, my produce was deposited, and I drove away. The Pepper Place Saturday market has always been a great place to linger and people-watch; now it’s back to its basics – providing fresh, locally grown farm products to a grateful clientele in a safe and efficient manner.

On the way back from the market to my parents’ house, I swung by Five Points South. There was the usual component of walkers and runners and dogwalkers and the homeless, but store fronts were shut tight and the place, where I have spent so many enjoyable moments with friends, seemed desolate and somehow forsaken on a bright Saturday morning.

Brother Bryan; Five Points South; Birmingham

In Five Points South, across from Highlands Methodist and Frank Fleming’s “The Storyteller” fountain, “Brother Bryan” prays quietly in front of a bar and grill – in a location that has seen a multitude of restaurants and bars come and go. James Alexander Bryan (1863-1941), the long-time pastor of Birmingham’s Third Presbyterian Church, was noted for his selfless ministry to the poor, homeless, and destitute. A city park and mission still bear his name and the statue in his honor has been a fixture in the city as long as I can remember.

In good times, he is there almost hidden among the revelers and restaurant clientele; he’s there in bad times, too.


Leaving Five Points South, I was in Homewood, a Birmingham suburb just over the mountain from the city. Homewood’s main commercial district was quiet, but that community has a lot of kids on bikes, families in front yards and on porches, runners and joggers and dog-walkers almost anytime, and the current times are no exception. Traveling down Homewood’s Broadway, I found myself behind a gelato truck, its happy jingle blaring.

In my parents’ neighborhood, stuffed animals began to appear in windows, on porches, and in trees and shrubs – inspired by the world-wide trend of the “teddy bear hunt” to provide a distraction for children. My mother was the first on her street to put a stuffed animal in the window and I awoke one morning to the delighted shrieks of a neighborhood toddler on the sidewalk outside who had just made his spotting. Within a couple of days, most of the neighbors had stuffed animals hidden somewhere on their premises, too.


Over my alleged “spring break,” I began to catch murmurings that this remote teaching thing might last until the end of the year. The specter of teaching for nine more months in a way that is anathema to everything I believe about education – especially as a performance instructor – haunts me.


Arriving back at home on Sunday evening, I was pleased to see that the irises by my front door were bursting into bloom and the wild potted rose that I have been training over my back fence and gate was showing its first tentative blooms of the season. I sat in my yard and enjoyed the beauty of the season and the nearly full moon that was just beginning to show in the pale sky.

The next day, I submitted my letter of intent to retire. My retirement will go into effect on June 1.

It has been a horrible year so far. But pay attention to the nature around you. It has been a beautiful spring, hasn’t it?

Breathe

On the day before I leave for my annual December pilgrimage to Point Clear, I notice an online horoscope for my sign that reads

A strong craving for solitude tempts you to ask people to leave you alone today. Many animals hibernate for the sake of rest and revitalization; you’re not purposely pushing anyone away to hurt their feelings … Let everyone know you are not vanishing from their lives; you just need more sleep. This is one of those occasions when cuddling with your individuality rejuvenates the beast within…

I do not put much stock in astrology, but occasionally a horoscope – like a fortune cookie – will hit the nail on the head (not sure how I feel about rejuvenating “the beast within,” however).

I have made this December trip so many times that there is no longer pressure. I’ve thoroughly explored the landscape down here and don’t feel a need to venture forth too much if I don’t want to.

On this drive down, I am weary.

There is a time in that drive when I exit I-65 South onto AL 225 toward Spanish Fort. Taking that exit, I breathe. I open the car window to breathe in that air “below the salt line.” The air is brisk and chill and I savor its tonic.


By the time I drive through the gates of the Grand Hotel (www.grand1847.com), I am calm and relaxed. After checking in at the gate, driving onto the grounds, I hear the gate attendant say “Mr. Journey is here. He’s driving a gray Ford.”

Although I have heard the prompt, it pleases me when the valet opens my door with a warm “Welcome back, Mr. Journey.” I used to be a professional director and stage manager and I appreciate that attention to detail.

The low pre-winter sunset is intense on my balcony as I unpack and settle in for the all too brief pre-Christmas respite. The afternoon cannon firing at bayside occurs just as I open the balcony doors of my room in the spa building.

On a late afternoon stroll around the lagoon, with holiday lights beginning to flicker on, the squawking ducks, clamoring for food, distract me from the great blue heron standing like a statue just a few feet away. I have just enough time to snap a photo of the stately bird before he glides across the water, landing on the other side with a fish in tow which he quickly ingests.

This year, the lighting in the lagoon area has taken on a theme of arches, with Christmas trees sprinkled liberally along the walkways. In addition to archways scattered throughout the area, the natural arches created by the dipping branches of the ancient live oaks are dramatically accented along the way. The three fountains that dot the lagoon spray up like magnificent sparklers. The effect at dusk, with the golden lights illuminating the dripping Spanish moss and the silver lights on the fountains, is as magical as any magic I’m willing to believe in at this stage of life.


My annual Christmas present to myself – a warm stone massage with Claudia – is scheduled for my first morning at the Grand. I arrive at the spa early to relax in the calm of the quiet room and to catch up on news of my favorite attendants; Al Agee retired a couple of months ago after many decades at the Grand, and J.C., who was off that day, is still around. Michael, the attendant on duty, is a charming character and – like Al and J.C. – he has good stories to share.

I have described my massage with Claudia as “the shortest eighty minutes of my year.” On several occasions during the session, I hear myself expel a deep breath, often as bundles of nerves and tension begin to fade away.

Is it any wonder that I spend my year anticipating this annual respite?


With the Grand resort’s recent upgrades and renovation, the new Southern Roots restaurant is a most welcome addition, providing an inventive, locally-oriented menu featuring locally-sourced produce, seafood, meats, and desserts. The mixologists provide an inventive daily inspiration in the adjoining 1847 Bar. Everything is exceptional. I normally go out for dinner when I stay at the Grand but will be taking more meals on-site now.

Down the road in Fairhope, Dragonfly Foodbar continues to offer an inventive menu of tastes fueled by Asian and Mexican influences. I seat myself in a dining room at Dragonfly that is between two more crowded rooms and amuse myself with the interesting juxtaposition of music coming from each side. As one room plays classic rock, the other plays upbeat holiday tunes. This results in vivid aural contrasts: “It’s Raining Men” competes with “Carol of the Bells” followed by Elton John singing “Tiny Dancer” on my left with “Sleigh Ride” bouncing along to my right.

I tell the server that the random musical contrasts are pretty trippy. “Yeah,” she smiles, “I kinda love it.”

The trippy music trend continues later in the trip as I am sitting at 1847. Elvis Presley’s rendition of “Winter Wonderland” is playing in Southern Roots while, across the Grand Hall at the Bayside Grill, a live musician performs Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” And I would swear that I simultaneously hear The Supremes’ “The Happening” ghosting in from somewhere in the distance.

The Wash House (www.washhouserestaurant.com), a long-time favorite just down the road from the Grand, is bustling with holiday and birthday celebrations on the night I am there. I decide at the last minute to dine at the more quiet bar tucked away to the side of the main dining room. Seafood is always fresh and local at the Wash House.

The next night, at Camellia Café (www.camelliacafe.com), I start my meal with a half dozen Isle Dauphine oysters from west Mobile Bay near Dauphin Island. These tasty oysters are harvested not far from where my current favorite Murder Point bivalves originate near Bayou La Batre.


Interspersed among my dining experiences are drives around the bay, the search for interesting landscapes and architecture, and the opportunity to photograph favorite spots, both new and old. The dock at one of the city parks along Scenic 98 has long been a favorite. Later, I pull up to Harrison Farms on the main highway for bags of satsumas, to B&B Pecan Co. for local pecans, and to Punta Clara Candy Kitchen for preserves to include in the traditional New Year’s Day meal.

The Sacred Heart Chapel, just down the road from the Grand, is a small church from 1880 facing the bay. It’s closed in the winter, but its grounds provide a pleasant stroll. It’s a quiet spot that has seen its share of hurricanes and battering weather over almost a century and a half, with a porch that is a good spot to rest and take a breath.


The final full day is a special one – although rain persists throughout the day. Early, I go down to Bucky’s, the hotel’s stalwart lounge in the main building, and enjoy West Indies salad, a Mobile original – a chilled salad of crabmeat, chopped onions, oil and vinegar, and seasoning. Later, I return to Bucky’s to join friends Deborah, Jeana, and Emily for a generous and delicious serving of fried crab claws that takes us all back to memories of Grand visits in the past. Emily, who manages a Mexican restaurant near Mobile, introduces me to the Paloma.

On that final evening, I join the Brunson family at Allison and Richard Brunson’s home on the bay. As soon as the front door opens, the aromas of homemade gumbo have filled the house. It’s lovely to sit at table with my friends and their family. As the only one around the table who is not a Mobile native, I enjoy hearing the reminiscences of long-ago days of a Mobile childhood. After an exceptionally delicious slice of Allison’s pecan pie for dessert, I go back to the hotel to rest for my rainy drive back to Birmingham in the morning.

All of these moments go into my storehouse of Christmas memories.


After checking out of the hotel, I have one more errand before I hit the road: I stop at Market by the Bay (www.marketbythebay.com) on the way through Daphne and pick up a shrimp po’boy to go. Back in the car, I put the open-faced sandwich on the passenger seat beside me and pop succulent fried shrimp as I drive. The sandwich is gone by the time I get to I-65, take a breath, and merge onto the crowded highway.

Breathe. And savor the holidays.

Christmas Card – 2019

For a university professor, there comes a feeling of freedom that is hard to explain after a college commencement. The stress of weeks of advising, calculating grades, assessing final exams, and fielding last-minute (and often questionable) excuses, yields to a few hours of everybody dressing in medieval robes and going through an ancient ceremony of finality and (hopefully) new beginnings. Commencement. And only one more faculty meeting standing between me and the short holiday break ahead.


My Christmas cards went out a few minutes earlier than usual this year. As a rule, I don’t want the cards postmarked any earlier than December 1. This year, I waited until later on November 30 to mail the cards from the main post office in downtown Birmingham; after they were put in the box, I saw that the last Saturday pick-up was 8:00 p.m.

It was approximately 7:45 when I noticed that.

I began to get text and email acknowledgements of my cards’ receipt on December 1 and, indeed, the postmark was November 30. Nobody but I would notice or care about that little trivia.

That annual Christmas card – usually with a photograph of an older Alabama church building – has become a year-long project which I have written about in the past. As soon as the cards go out around December 1, I start searching for another image to feature next year. That decision is usually made some time in January; the next few months are spent revisiting the image and thinking about messages when I have some free time and need a break.

The message changes over the course of the year, depending on what’s happening in the world. Some variation of “Peace” has been a constant since 9/11/2001.

In the first few years of the project, I usually stuck with a basic “Merry Christmas” and “Peace on Earth” type message. This year, the “Merry Christmas” was accompanied by “Peace | 2020 | Hope.” That means something to me, whether recipients get it or not. I feel like 2020 may be a watershed year for our world, not unlike 1968 was in my youth, and I look forward to it with both excitement and trepidation.

My Christmas card combines my interests in photography, history, ecclesiastical architecture, and architecture and nature in general. It is always a way to touch base with those I don’t always hear from during the year. The card “restores my soul.” I have written in the past about how each card I address (over 200 this year) becomes a “brief meditation” on that recipient.

My church this year is a 2018 photograph of St. Francis at the Point, a pretty white Anglican church in the charming village of Point Clear on Mobile Bay. It is just down the way from the Grand Hotel where I try to spend a few days each December between commencement and Christmas. On occasion, if my Point Clear trip coincides with a Sunday morning, I will attend an Advent service at St. Francis. On a sunny December morning, with sunlight streaming through the abundant clear glass windows, it is a perfect place for reflection, hope, and meditation. The building is actually a 21st Century structure, dedicated in 2001, but it captures the essence of a style of church architecture that inspires me to grab the camera. The little St. Francis at the Point Chapel, originally built in 1898, sits near the newer building; it adorned my card a few years ago.

My Christmas card is an act of celebration of the holidays and the season to come. It is looking forward to a freshly-pressed year hanging on the line and just almost, almost within our reach – with all of the potential that image represents.

Commencement.

Chapel – St. Francis at the Point