Tag Archives: Alabama

Alabama Marble

Sylacauga marble

 

 

Back when I thought I should at least feign an interest in the writing of Ayn Rand, I heard architect Howard Roark (Gary Cooper) utter the following line of dialogue to Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal) in King Vidor’s overwrought film version of Rand’s The Fountainhead (1949):

“This is Alabama marble – very high grade, very hard to find.”

I watched The Fountainhead many years ago, and I suspect that quote was my first inkling of the quality of Alabama marble. It is usually referred to as “Sylacauga marble,” for the Talladega County town in which the vein of marble is focused. The seam is thirty-two miles long, 1.5 miles wide, 400 to 600 feet deep, runs from the Coosa River to near the town of Talladega and is the longest marble deposit in the world. 500 million years old and 98% calcium carbonate – Sylacauga marble is considered one of the purest and whitest in the world and is often compared to Italian Carrara.

Gantt’s Quarry

Edward Gantt was the first entrepreneur to develop marble quarries in the Sylacauga area in the 1830s. One of Gantt’s abandoned quarries is open for public view. At the Gantt’s Quarry Overlook, 10-ton blocks of marble line the viewing platform. White mining roads wind through the grey chasm and down to the greenish water filling the abandoned quarry floor.

Italian sculptor Giuseppi Moretti began to use Sylacauga marble while in Alabama designing Birmingham’s mammoth cast iron statue of Vulcan – Roman god of fire, metalwork, and the forge – for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Moretti and partners opened marble quarries around Sylacauga in the early 20th Century.

“Head of Christ” by Giuseppi Moretti

Moretti’s first art sculpture from Sylacauga marble was his Head of Christ, which was displayed in St. Louis in 1904 along with Vulcan. It is a sculpture for which Moretti claimed great pride and which travelled with him for the rest of his life. He expressed a wish that the Head of Christ would be displayed eternally in Alabama and it can be seen today at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery.

Sculptor Gutzon Borglum’s bust of Abraham Lincoln, on view in the U.S. Capitol, is carved from Sylacauga marble. Sylacauga marble is prominent in the architecture of the Lincoln Memorial, the United States Supreme Court Building, and other notable architecture and art throughout the United States.

More prosaic uses for marble include as a soil additive, as a whitening agent in paint and paper coating, and as an antacid (think Alka-Seltzer and Tums), among other things.

“Sylacauga Emerging” by Craigger Browne

Sylacauga marble is having a renaissance for artistic applications as evidenced in outdoor installations throughout downtown Sylacauga. Sylacauga Emerging by Alabama sculptor Craigger Browne is an impressive work in front of the Sylacauga Municipal Complex. It depicts a worker carving himself out of a block of marble. Nearby is Don Lawler’s Falling Star, commemorating the Hodges Meteorite, which crashed through a farmhouse roof outside Sylacauga in 1954, striking Ann Hodges, asleep on her couch.

If in the Sylacauga area, keep a watch for numerous examples of the pristine marble that is native to the region. Chances are, you’ve already seen it or used it in other places.

“Falling Star” by Don Lawler (foreground)

Minerva at Tuscaloosa

In December 2019, my alma mater, and the university my father proudly served until his retirement, dedicated a statue and installation on the Black Warrior River, which flows on the northern boundary of the campus. The University of Alabama gifted a statue of Minerva, Roman goddess of knowledge and wisdom, to the city of Tuscaloosa in honor of Tuscaloosa’s bicentennial. The 30-foot statue stands on the edge of the river in the park at Manderson Landing. Leading up to the mirrored pedestal on which Minerva lands in a silvery splash of water is a bronze outline of the river set in a concrete walk and punctuated with a timeline of significant moments in the city’s history. The history timeline is presented alongside the river’s circuitous path from Tuscaloosa to Demopolis.

Sculptor Caleb O’Connor created the Minerva statue and Craig Wedderspoon, who directs the sculpture program at the University, designed the timeline walk.


When I was a student at the University, Manderson Landing was a dirt parking lot on the side of the river. River Road (now Jack Warner Parkway) followed the path of the river from the community of Holt to downtown Tuscaloosa. During my time in Tuscaloosa, I was struck by how little the town interacted with its river. For a time, I lived at Rose Towers, which was the northernmost building on the campus and the nearest to the river. From my 11th floor window, I could see the river’s path all the way to downtown but, other than towboats and barges, human activity on the river was basically non-existent.

Rose Towers was imploded years ago and fresh new-ish student housing predominates on the north side of campus. The riverside has been developed from town to the campus with commercial interests, a farmers market, walking trails, and abundant park lands. Campus enrollment has doubled since my time there and the campus itself is packed with new roads, new campuses, new buildings, and never-ending construction.

Overall, the campus is more beautiful and maintained than it was in my time, but the various fraternity and sorority rows are even tackier and more obscene than they were “in my day.” My pride in the campus wilts a little when I have to pass through the overblown houses of the ostentatious panhellenic ghettoes. My disgust with that element of college life dates back to my pre-college days and it seems to grow more intense rather than mellow with time. (In the summer before my freshman year at the University, I received a recruitment letter from the Interfraternity Council; I corrected the grammar and spelling and sent it back. They never bothered me again, which was my intent.)


But I was in town this time to visit Minerva and the river. A visit was planned soon after the dedication, but the lost year of 2020 put a halt to the plan.

The goddess of wisdom adorns the seal of the University of Alabama. I must admit that, through my undergraduate and graduate school years, I was always led to understand that the goddess on the seal is Athena, the Greek original for Minerva. The origin stories and realm are the same, but in the years since I left Tuscaloosa, Athena has apparently been transmogrified into her Roman persona.

Works for me, I guess …but I have always preferred my Greek mythology to the Roman appropriation. Even so, I am proud of Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge and metalworking, who is the symbol for Birmingham. I know that his Greek predecessor is Hephaestus, but the name Vulcan seems to wield more power.

O’Connor’s Minerva is a stunning addition to Tuscaloosa’s riverscape. She is a modernized creation with flowing hair replacing the traditional helmet. Luminous raiment flows against her taut and powerful body. She appears to be landing in water after a flight and her right arm releases an owl into the firmament. The sculpture is not monochrome; a subdued and powerful mix of hues captures and plays with the light, giving the form an even more changeable and human presence. She is inspiring and spectacular.

Minerva’s mirrored and curving pedestal emerges from the rocks of the landing and provides added luminescence to the goddess who towers above the river to anchor the north side of the campus. Wedderspoon’s history-laden walkway provides historic context and a sense of place to a dramatic interlude in the local landscape.

For an alumnus of the University of Alabama, who has begun to feel a sense of distance from the place, the inspiring monument at Manderson Landing has reignited a sense of connection and community that I found on that campus all those years ago.

Cancelled

Based on years past, I should be a couple of hours away from my annual December getaway to Point Clear on Mobile Bay as I type this sentence. A couple of months ago, I optimistically booked a room at the Grand Hotel for December 13 through 18. I knew I might have to cancel, but I wanted to be ready just in case things had changed by now.

When I booked my room, the resort was still dealing with damage from Hurricane Sally in September. I have been exceptionally conscious and careful during the pandemic and was impressed with the safety protocols the resort has in place. My plan was to stay close to my room, reading and writing, to take regular walks around the grounds and community, and to have room service and takeout. It seemed to me to be a responsible way to get a break and finally to celebrate my retirement.

As the dates got closer and the news reports grew more grim, I realized that the responsible thing is to cancel for the time being. The world around us and people depending on us make it feel imperative to take a stand. And, as my friend Deborah says, now that I’m retired, I can go down any time I please … once the health crisis has passed, anyway.

It will be the first time I have missed the December escape since 2005 – the year of Hurricane Katrina and its extensive damage to Mobile and Baldwin Counties.


Even as I entered my cancellation, the music and memories of Baldwin County and Mobile Bay invaded my thoughts. I think about downtown Fairhope, the intersection of Section Street and Fairhope Avenue, and the light-bedecked trees along the sidewalks. The planters, hanging from the light posts, complement the plantings of poinsettias and pansies in the ground-level beds.

I think of the Camellia Café, Dragonfly, Panini Pete’s, the Wash House, and other places to grab a great meal. I think of Market by the Bay and its abundance of fresh catch seafood.

I think of drives to lonely overlooks across the bay, to Magnolia Springs, and to the search for bags of fresh local pecans and satsumas.

At the Grand, the gentle surf grazes the docks and, beyond the marina, the lights of Mobile, across the bay, glisten beyond the traffic of the causeway.

The Grand sunset, usually spectacular, will still be there when I return. And, upon that return, I think I will cherish the place more than ever.


For now, I slowly and surely prepare my house to sell and keep my eyes and ears open for possible places to move in Birmingham.

To stay grounded, I read as much as possible. After reading stacks of magazines, a few books, and news articles, I have found comfort and solace in reading a couple of very good cookbooks. Sean Brock’s second book, South: Essential Recipes and New Explorations, is as thoughtful and thorough a consideration of Southern foodways and contemporary thought on the subject as one might find. Kelly Fields’s chatty The Good Book of Southern Baking: A Revival of Biscuits, Cakes, and Cornbread is as inspiring as one might expect from the dedicated and well-travelled James Beard Award-winning pastry chef.

I feel grateful, as I read these books on food, to have spoken with and experienced meals prepared by both of these chefs. I first had Brock’s food at an unforgettable dinner at Alabama Chanin’s factory in Florence. I met and broke bread with Fields at two dinners at the same place. Her New Orleans bakery and restaurant, Willa Jean, is a singular New Orleans experience.

I am also, grudgingly perhaps, becoming more susceptible to the necessity of streaming video. I have even fallen prey to the New Age-y call of calm.com, and especially its hypnotic video series, “The World of Calm.” My most frequent stream, however, has been the Spike Lee-directed concert movie, David Byrne’s American Utopia, which is a most hopeful document of our country and its current situation. I have lost touch with how many times I’ve watched it already.

To satisfy my former habit to watch a movie in an honest-to-goodness cinema, I have been able to venture to Sidewalk Cinema + Film Center in the basement of the Pizitz building in downtown Birmingham. The not-for-profit indie theatre limits each screening to twelve patrons in well-spaced seats in a 100-seat theatre and I have enjoyed welcome escapes there to view films like On the Rocks and Mank. Each visit to Sidewalk Cinema makes me more anxious to move back home to Birmingham when the time is right.

Holiday season 2020 is a unique and memorable one. Perhaps it has made us a little more aware of the pleasures of the simple things. Be safe as we move into a promising new year.

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.