Tag Archives: Grover Journey

Ghosts of Birmingham

Ensley High School; July 2019

My father, Grover Journey, used to reminisce about when he and a group of boys from his Ensley neighborhood in west Birmingham would regularly ride their bicycles to the Woodlawn section of east Birmingham. He once told me, with a sly smile, that they’d ride over “to fight the Woodlawn boys.” I never knew if he was joking. Either way, I think of what an adventure those days would have been for a group of young boys in the early 1940s.

In my imagination, I see Dad, his three brothers, and some neighborhood boys barreling across the city on their bicycles, navigating the downtown Birmingham grid to 1st Avenue North, crossing the viaduct past Sloss Furnaces in its heyday. Their trek would have taken them past Avondale and onto the main drag of Woodlawn. Avondale and Woodlawn are having a sort of renaissance these days.

Ensley, 2016

I remain hopeful for the future of Ensley and its rusting forest of abandoned steel mills. My father’s boyhood home, in the shadow of the U.S. Steel smokestacks, is one of only two houses still standing on his particular block of Avenue D. Another house on that block was rental property owned by my great-grandfather McCarn; it was demolished just this summer.

Those mental images of the carefree days of my father as a youth give me comfort. It’s always interesting to contemplate the meanderings of the mind and to plot the streams of consciousness that haunt us through each day and the days beyond.

Those memories of Dad on his bike were triggered in a roundabout way when I happened to hear Patti Smith’s version of “Because the Night” from her Easter album over the sound system in a grocery store a few days ago. Although Easter was a stalwart of my late 1970s turntable, I had not heard it, or “Because the Night,” in years – maybe decades. To hear it in the aisles of a grocery store was …  odd.

According to rock lore, Bruce Springsteen, who originally wrote the song, wasn’t making it work for himself and passed it on to Patti Smith’s producer. Smith revised it and recorded it, resulting in her best-known and probably most-played hit. Springsteen now regularly plays it in concert with his original lyrics, and he and Smith share the song-writing credit for what is a great and enduring rock anthem.

I saw Patti Smith live in concert at Brothers Music Hall in Birmingham, a short-lived music venue located on Lakeshore Drive near the place where the Homewood neighborhood slides into the tiny kingdom of Mountain Brook. It was a memorable concert, made even more extraordinary by the fact that I was recovering from a head injury suffered in a bicycle accident the day before.

There was a suggestion that maybe I should pass up on the concert since I was still on medication, but it was Patti Smith and I would not be deterred.

Brothers was an intimate space, with tables set up for maybe 200-250 patrons. In its short existence I saw Elvis Costello, The Police – just on the cusp of super-stardom, and other acts there.

Long after the end of Patti Smith’s show, as audience members were lingering around at the bar, Smith walked out on stage with a push broom and began to sweep the stage. My friend George, a Tuscaloosa record shop owner, and I spotted her and went up on stage to see if we might engage her in conversation. She moved methodically across the stage with an enigmatic smile, occasionally glancing up at the two 20-somethings earnestly trying to get a response (I honestly don’t think that we were being obnoxious). Finally, I stopped in my tracks and said, “You have no intention of talking to us, do you?”

She stopped, too, sort of leaned for a moment against the broom handle, smiled, and shook her head no.

We left her alone, on the darkened stage, quietly finishing her unnecessary task. Just as quietly, she moved into the darkness of the backstage area and was gone.

The building where Brothers Music Hall was located started life as Hollywood Country Club in 1926. It was a grand building with bars and meeting rooms, ballrooms and dining rooms, and a huge pool. A planned golf course for the country club never materialized.

The building went through several incarnations before becoming the location for Brothers Music Hall from 1978 to 1981, where I frequented those concerts as a young adult.

My father remembered going to Hollywood Country Club to dance in the years before he met Mother. His experience with the place was at least three decades prior to mine, but I still felt a synchronicity in the shared experience of space.

The Hollywood Country Club building was demolished by fire in 1984. The site is occupied by a chain hotel.

Bush School; July 2019

“Because the Night” prompted my Hollywood Country Club memory of Dad. A drive past the ruins of his alma mater, Ensley High, which was demolished by fire almost exactly a year ago, and his elementary school, Bush School, now closed but just around the block from the high school, reminded me of those boyhood rides to Woodlawn.

Thus, this tangle of memories and a renewed exploration of Dad’s landscape began.

I’m reminded again of my favorite quote by the painter Willem de Kooning: “Then there is a time in life when you just take a walk,” he said. “And you walk in your own landscape.”

Ensley High School; July 2019

A Serenade, an Unexpected New Community: Birmingham V.A. Medical Center

DSCN0051  My father, Grover Journey, has always been reticent about his military service. He served stateside in the U.S. Army during the Korean era. His older brother, Richard, was killed in combat in Korea and his younger brothers, Paul and Huey, served in the Army around the same time as Dad, shortly after Richard’s death. Dad was serving when I was born in Fort Benning and he was in the reserves for several years until his honorable discharge.

But Dad never seemed to want to talk about his active years in the Army. I always wondered if it had something to do with the fact that Richard was deployed to Korea and Dad’s service was all domestic. Richard died before Dad married Mother a few years before I was born but his loss seemed to silently hover over Dad and his family. My paternal grandfather – Dad’s father, Tod – was an angry and bitter man and I often wondered if that was triggered by the loss of his oldest son in combat. Dad never seemed to want to discuss it; Richard still smiles in the small photo on his tombstone at Elmwood Cemetery.

In recent years, however, it seemed that Dad was a little more willing to acknowledge his Army service. When I accompanied my parents to their church for a patriotic service honoring the military, Dad stood proudly when the time came for Army veterans to be recognized. He stood again and, in a faltering voice, spoke Richard’s name when the time came to honor those who had died in battle in various American wars.

Dad’s recent long-term illness and hospitalization (107 days and counting) has created a need in my family to reach out for various sources of help and support to navigate the nightmare that is American healthcare. We have found support and encouragement from a number of sources but our need became more urgent recently when the Birmingham facility where Dad is currently being treated called in another facility five and a half hours from Birmingham to evaluate Dad. Mother was informed at short notice that if the decision was made to release Dad to the other facility and she refuses the move his Medicare coverage could be terminated. Mother’s health is declining and she has not been able to travel long distances without complications for years so moving my father so far has the potential to be devastating to her – to all of us.

Some of the advocates who have supported and advised us have suggested turning to the Veterans Administration for help. When others failed to get V.A.response and action on Dad’s behalf, Mother took on the task and, after a lengthy meeting with a V.A. representative in Tuscaloosa, Dad was enrolled in the system for the veteran’s benefits he earned; Mother was given an appointment with a V.A. social worker at the Birmingham Veterans Administration Medical Center

Mother and I went to the Birmingham meeting on Wednesday, February 3, and met a bemused and kind social worker who wasn’t sure what support V.A. could provide but took copious notes and assured us she would see what might be done to assist my Dad.  Her concern and sincerity were obvious; “She’s a nice lady,” Mother said as we walked down the hall after the appointment.

The Birmingham V.A. hospital is a large facility teeming with activity. Veterans of all ages and conditions are in the halls and offices and waiting rooms. The wait for elevators was ridiculously long and as Mother and I waited for an elevator to ground level we heard a harmonica down the hall playing “Anchors Aweigh.” Eventually, the source of the music, a veteran wearing a patriotic tee-shirt and Army cap, appeared around a corner of the elevator lobby, accompanying a Navy veteran in a wheelchair. They stopped to wait with us for an elevator and the man with the harmonica looked in our direction. “What branch did you serve in?” he asked.

“Her husband, my father, was in the Army,” I said.

“So was I,” he grinned and proceeded to serenade Mother with a rollicking version of “The Caissons Go Rolling Along.”

When he finished and Mother thanked him, he looked at an amputee in a wheelchair across the way, said “Hey, Jarhead!” and launched into “From the Halls of Montezuma.” “I hope that was okay,” he said. The Marine thanked him, saying “That sounded perfect to me.”

In fact, the harmonica player proceeded to play the song of every branch of the military before it was over (that’s how long it was taking for an elevator to arrive). Finally, after no elevator came, he looked at Mother and said, “Are you looking for an elevator that’s going down? Follow me.” He led a procession of several of us – walking, with canes, in wheelchairs – to another bank of elevators, chatting amiably the whole way.

At some point Mother mentioned that she is 81 and there was a chorus of disbelief from all of the veterans surrounding her. One called a buddy over and told him that “this lady is 81.” “No way are you 81,” said the buddy.

Mother has been quite sick recently and is exhausted by her regular vigils by my father’s hospital bed. Still, I thought I detected a slight hint of a spring in her step as she made her way out of the V.A., surrounded by admiring and complimentary vets.

I realized too that I had discovered a tight and supportive community that my father is a part of and that I never really experienced until yesterday, at a conference, trying to attend to Dad’s pressing health needs.

It gave me renewed hope and energy. It gave me a new perspective on those who serve.

(The photos at the beginning of the essay are, Left, my uncle, Richard Journey, and Right, my father, Grover Journey. They are teenagers and the photos were taken at their Grandmother and Grandfather Bodie’s farm in Mississippi.)

Food Memory: My Father’s Barbecue

IMG_1760  With Memorial Day weekend comes the traditional kick-off to cooking out and barbecue season. Although it’s always cook-out season in the South, it was a rougher than usual winter and it’s good to know that outdoor activities and barbecue are in full swing.

At some point in the ‘90s, when my job was frequently moving me around the country, I gave away my barbecue grill. Now, two decades later, I still haven’t replaced it.

That was not necessarily the plan. I gave the grill away so I wouldn’t have to move it anymore and I had every intention of replacing and upgrading it when I got settled in a new place. Now, even though I still think about purchasing a new grill (I’m attracted these days to the Big Green Egg) I am in no rush. My standard line is that I can find much better barbecue than I make so why would I want to take the time and trouble to grill my own?

I’m a pretty good cook, it’s true. But I know many people who grill and barbecue better than I. When it comes to barbecue, I prefer to be a connoisseur rather than a master. I once toyed with the idea of pursuing Kansas City BBQ Society judge certification but after exploring the rules I realized I prefer to consume barbecue as an amateur. Over the years, I have found some prize-winning barbecue to be lacking and the barbecue that breaks all of the rules is sometimes among the best.

In other words, I’m not that interested in measuring the smoke ring and analyzing if it “pulls” properly or “falls” off the bone; I’m not interested in quibbling over what’s authentic barbecue and what is just grilled meat. I’m interested in how it tastes and makes me feel.

As I write this, I am still in the afterglow of a quick stop at the original Dreamland location in Jerusalem Heights, Tuscaloosa. Driving away from that storied place, I realized that one of the things I love most about Dreamland is that slight glorious burn from the sauce that lingers in the front of the throat for a good hour or so after the meal is done.

I can give a long and ever-evolving litany of good barbecue joints around the country and I have been to quite a few. But some of the best and most fondly remembered barbecue of my life was cooked in the backyard by my father, Grover Journey.

Dad usually fired up the grill on Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day. He would start gathering his meat – pork ribs, sausage, and chicken – a couple of days in advance. He was picky about his meat choice. Mother would prepare traditional sides in the kitchen and I often made a huge green salad loaded with chopped vegetables.

My dad, who smoked cigarettes for about 50 years, has COPD – emphysema – now and as his breathing problems got worse he eventually stopped cooking at the barbecues. If the family is together for a warm weather holiday, my brother sometimes serves as pitmaster. Other times, we just buy meat and the sides at a local joint.

But when Dad was younger and healthy, he preferred to do the cooking himself. On the few occasions when I asked him to show me how he did it, he was never particularly forthcoming. I think he grilled his meat by instinct and it would have disturbed his mojo to divulge too much. I get that. I am much more comfortable handling my kitchen and my cooking alone; when I have “help,” things begin to go awry.

One thing I do know: Dad’s technique broke the rules. I read and watch what other pitmasters say and I realize that my father’s way didn’t conform with conventional ‘cue wisdom in many aspects.

Having said that, it always had a phenomenal taste so, in this case, rules be damned.

With the approach of Memorial Day, I recently decided to make another effort to pry loose any of my father’s grilling secrets. I chose to make it part of a recent dinner conversation.

“Dad, what did you use to marinate your meat before you’d barbecue?” I asked innocently.

“I didn’t marinate it,” he said.

“I thought I remembered some kind of pre-soak or marinade you used to do,” I responded.


Mother chimed in. “I remember you used to soak it in vinegar.”

He denied it. My mother and I both seem to recall that he would pre-soak the meat in apple cider vinegar but memory is a tricky thing.

This exchange sort of stopped my query cold.

Later that evening, I ventured forth and asked him a little bit more about his technique. I asked him what sauce he used because I remember that he would use store-bought sauce as a base. But in my memory (there’s tricky memory again) he used the bottled sauce as a base only and added his own ingredients to it.

Once again I hit a wall. He told me that he always used Kraft “Original” Barbecue Sauce.

“And what did you add to it?” I asked. I am sure I remember seeing cups of melted butter on the shelf next to the grill, among other things

“Nothing,” he said. “Just Kraft Original.”

“Oh… Okay.” I usually know better than to push on at these moments.

And since I didn’t pursue it, Dad volunteered a good bit of additional information. He said he liked to cook over low heat for several hours. This is the way I remember it, too. He would start early in the day (but did not pull the all-nighters that some pitmasters swear by). The stealthy aroma would waft over the neighborhood until the wait was almost too much to handle and it would seem like the time to sit down and eat would never come.

Dad would sit patiently in a lawn chair, armed with tongs and a spray bottle of water to hit the flames when they flared up. I think the water in the bottle may have been spiked with apple juice but I dared not bring it up in that recent Q and A.

Dad mentioned that he liked to mop some sauce on the meat at the beginning before he put it on the grill. This is one of those areas where many of the “experts” would disagree but I remember it as part of his technique and am a witness that, in my dad’s case, it worked splendidly.

He would continue to mop sauce on throughout the cooking process as he turned the meat over. And he liked to turn the meat a lot (I know, I know – breaking the rules but it worked).

As the various meats were finished, he would pile them on platters, wrap them in aluminum foil, and send them in the house to rest. Huge platters of pork ribs, chicken, and sausages would line the kitchen counter along with Mother’s sides. They always cooked several times more food than was needed for the meal. I counted on it; I liked to be able to carry barbecue leftovers home.

Once, my sister-in-law’s grandparents were visiting from California and joined us for Labor Day barbecue. Spotting the spread, Buster, the grandfather, exclaimed at all of the food. “Do you always eat like this?” he spurted.

“Every single day,” my dad playfully shot back in a dead-pan lie.

All of that sauce slathered on gave the meat a flavorful black char  — the bark. The meat was always moist all the way through and never tasted burned or overdone. Even those who considered themselves wizards at the grill were always impressed by my father’s barbecue.

He broke the rules and did it up right.

I’m pretty sure I’ll never get the low-down on the specifics of his technique.