Editor’s note: Time is slipping away. ‘Twas ever thus. The time to wrap up, or at least touch on, the adventures of December vanishes before me as a wintry constellation of March weather falls on central Pennsylvania. I’m holed up at the Lebo Compound in York Haven, or Etters, or Newberrytown, or whatever geographical designation you care to select, desperately trying to overcome my dilatory devils. I sit here, surrounded by 83,000 beer cans and 4,000 spring bulbs which hide underground, safe from the ravages of the inhospitable elements. It is quiet now. Without further ado, I return to the days of December, which grew short alongside our time for wandering.
Dec. 14, LaFollette, Tennessee – Friday afternoon. We just had breakfast at Mama’s, a down-homey, hopelessly hokey-looking tin shack emporium. A kitschy plastic hamburger and drink sit on the roof, beckoning the hungry.
Yet the Mama’s experience was entirely satisfying. It was nothing less than a gustatory success. We arrived in time for breakfast, but opted for the $4.99, one-topping pizza.
Good pizza. Remarkably good deal. What else to say?
Yesterday we woke up at an Interstate rest area outside Eutaw, Ala. At 11:15 the previous night, we’d been outside the Café Du Monde in Metairie, La. Becky had driven all the way from Baytown, on the eastern fringe of Houston, right through refinery nation and then bayou country. On the cusp of the Crescent City, with all its fabled majesty and savage heartbreak, we decided to chuck it all and head north.
I took over and drove through Mississippi and on into Alabama. First I thought I’d pursue some kind of Alabama football story, since it is religion, and the Tides are on the precipice of their third national title in four years. Then I saw the sign for Eutaw, and Old Crow Medicine’s “Big Time in the Jungle”got lodged in my head.
I wondered if Critter Fuqua, the songwriter, had based it on real-live relatives from around Eutaw.
Our first stop was the local Piggly Wiggly. I could discourse here on wealth inequality. I mean, who couldn’t after a depressing visit to one of the sad-sack grocery stores that spring up in poor neighborhoods across America. Affluent areas get the sprawling supermarkets with the aromatic bakeries and the fresh meat and surfeit of shiny produce, much of it grown organically. Poor people get shit.
Poor poor people. They got terrible grocery stores, and little money to spend in them. And nobody even throws the poor a bone when election time rolls around.
The politicians never tire of talking about the middle class, which now apparently includes my friends and neighborhoods making up to $400,000 per year. Middle class this, middle class that. That’s where the votes lie, somewhere out there between $35,000 and $400,000.
The poor people? Fuck them. Let ’em eat chitlins.
Passing over all that, we’ll move on to the Eutaw Public Library, where it took me a good half hour of fruitless searches before I finally came upon an interview where Critter Fuqua explained the Old Crow van had broken down in Eutaw, and they’d gone to a diner, where they happened upon a Vietnam vet who’d regaled them with the story that’s the basis for the song:
The Eutaw population is more than two-thirds black. It wasn’t always so. In 1870, a race riot erupted here, and I hoped to visit the Greene County Historical Society to find out more. All I could find about the Greene County Historical Society was a link to its Facebook page. Then I found myself locked out of my own little-used Facebook page.
I applied for readmission. Facebook gave me a photo quiz, asking me to identify a series of Max Wallingford’s Facebook friends. It was multiple choice. I shit you not.
I passed. With flying colors, if I do say so myself.
But there was no information on hours for the Greene County Historical Society. We drove to the antebellum house with a sign on the lawn indicating it might be the Greene County Historical Society. Becky ran up to the wraparound porch in search of a sign with hours. There was none. Chagrined, we headed out of town, north on 49 in the direction of Tuscaloosa.
We rolled right through Tuscaloosa and paid no heed to the Crimson Tide, and onto Bessemer, the heart of Alabama’s iron and coal country. We’d been through Bessemer not once, but twice before. I think we were attracted by the town’s history museum, because we’d seen a bit on Roadside America which listed”Hitler’s typewriter” among its featured exhibits. Both times we were here, the museum was closed. We worked out at the Bessemer Y, but didn’t get to see Der Fuhrer’s manual machine, which was manufactured by Grosser Markersdorf.
This was going to be the time. I might’ve struck out in Eutaw and lost interest in the Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer angle, but Hitler’s typewriter in a museum in an Alabama iron town had to be worth a few chortles.
It’s open! You walk in and ask about Hitler’s typewriter, and you get the feeling that curator Chris Eiland is a little tired of talking about the most famous artifact in the museum’s collection. But hey, you visit the museum’s Internet portal, and click on special collections, guess what pops up first?
Anyway, we didn’t spend much time communing with Hitler’s typewriter after all, I felt kinda sheepish. All I wanted was a cheap laugh. In any event, no one knows if Hitler’s fingers ever touched the keys of this typewriter. It was discovered in the Eagles Nest at the close of the war in Europe, and an American soldier confiscated it and brought it home.
Not that people aren’t going to make something big of it. Here’s a video from a local network affiliate which ponders whether, among other things, the orders to exterminate six million Jews might not have been typed out on this machine.
“Chris, it’s really amazing that such a HUGE piece of history from World War II is right here in Bessemer.”
A little over the top, but so what? What do you expect from the obligatory blonde anchor from Channel 42 in Bessemer?
The museum representative featured in the piece, William Eiland, is another story altogether. He’s also Chris Eiland’s dad, and he took us under his wing and spent more than an hour discussing the museum, the region and all it’s hidden glory.
He was so good, I asked him early on if he’d mind me getting some of his thoughts on audio tape. He didn’t. I recorded about an hour. He opened the door to the storage area to show us a battered street sign, his favorite Bessemer relic. He talked at length about the mines out on Red Mountain. He took a shine to Max, and took us all over to the annex to show the kid the model train set, which is set upon a model of old Bessemer.
He told us lots of great stuff, most of which I forget. Because I have it on tape. Or had. When we got home to Pennsylvania, I couldn’t find the tape recorder anywhere. Still can’t.
Maybe someday. Or maybe I’ll give William Eiland a call. I’m sure he’d be happy to chat.
He’s a great guy. A retired postman. Bessemer High School Class of 1966. First integrated class.
I asked him about that. He said it was no big deal.
“I never hated anybody,” he said.
And I believe him.
Bill Eiland also tipped us off about the trails at Red Mountain Park. Just to the east of here, local outdoors enthusiasts and history buffs have fashioned an elysian wonderland from the ruins of the iron mines that gave up the ore which once fueled the local economy. A warren of interlocking trails connect abandoned mines and show off the beautiful side of Alabama’s mining history. They’ve also embarked on an oral history project which preserves the memories of those who risked their lives in these mines.
We bid William adieu and hurried out to see if we could get in a late-afternoon hike at Red Mountain. I got us lost, but eventually we made our way.
We went for a refreshing walk, found our way to a couple abandoned mines, and paused for reflection. Walking in nature is always good for reflection.
In the afterglow, such as it is, of the 2012 election, it was constructive to consider this winsome landscape against the prevailing perception of Alabama, especially among unrepentant left-wingers like me. I have friends, and I’m thinking of you, Manugian, who are glib enough to dismiss Alabama with a smirk and a sentence fragment.
Sure, Alabama’s got Bull Connor and George Wallace and the soulless bastards who killed those four girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church. But Alabama’s much more than the sum of its tortured racial history.
It is also the people, who remain nameless to me, who envisioned and then worked to create this place. It is people like William Eiland, who volunteers out here when he’s not volunteering at the Hall of History.
Compared to my own sorry ass, who just wanders about and writes ephemeral crap about the things he encounters on the road to nowhere, these are people who have made productive, lasting contributions to this benighted land of ours.
And to Mr. Eiland and all the faceless others, I say thanks.
We hurried down the trail to get back to the behemoth before the black curtain of night descended on Red Mountain. Max favored us with a little Jackie Gleason bit.
“It’s a long hill, Alice,” he said. “It’s a long hill for a big man.”
Yeah, we indulge ourselves in celebrating our kid. Shoot us.
We got back to the behemoth, found our way to a little strip mall, where we opted for Subway. We got directions up the back road to Birmingham, and soon found ourselves on the thick of the evening traffic on the south rim of the city.
We fought our way through the man-made mess, made it out to I-65 and resumed our north and easterly trek toward Pennsylvania. We didn’t stop for another 300-plus miles, until we found ourselves outside Knoxville, Tenn.