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October 24th, 2003

  Sweet Home, Part 2


[Readers have been grumbling that I didn't render a full report of my trip to Alabama. I was in that state from September 25 to October 1, doing various kinds of business and catching the sights as best I could in between times. It was the first time I'd been to Alabama, and I was glad to make the acquaintance. Here are some notes from the trip — an Alabama Diary. There is too much for one posting, so I have split the diary into two parts. Part One was posted on October 22. This is Part Two.]

Roy's Rock.  I tried my best to get a look at Roy's Rock — the Ten Commandments monument installed by Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore in a public area of the state Supreme Court building. The Rock was removed by federal court order — an order Judge Moore himself declined to obey — and now languishes in a store-room somewhere in the building. Judge Moore himself is under suspension for having defied the federal order. There will be a hearing November 12 to decide whether he should be reinstated or not.

Well, as I said, I tried my best to get a look at the Rock, appealing personally to a Very Senior Person in the government of the state, but without success. The VSP was sympathetic, but the whole issue is just too radioactive for anyone to want to go unlocking doors so that a freelance journalist can satisfy his idle curiosity.

A couple of days later I addressed a group of lawyers, state and private, and took the opportunity to sound a few of them out on the issue. Nobody much was willing to stick up for Roy, which surprised me.

Why the lack of enthusiasm? I asked one. He: "It's not the religious issue. Most of us in this room think it's quite OK to have a public display of the Commandments. This 'separation of church and state' business has gone far beyond what the Founders intended. We were with Roy on that. Still, we are all lawyers, and we take the law very seriously. The people you see in this room have spent their lives serving the law. They respect the law; they revere the law. When Roy defied that federal court order — well, he put himself out of bounds. You don't defy a court order, no matter how much you might disagree with it."

Everybody likes to poke fun at lawyers, and there are certainly systemic problems in our legal system that need attending to. Still I found it a deeply impressive thing to see the seriousness with which these people take their duties.

Law, with all its weaknesses and occasional follies, is what stands, is all that stands, between civilization and barbarism. It never hurts to be reminded of that.

Whatever you think of Roy Moore, never forget the example of his near-namesake Thomas More:

Roper:  So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law!

More  Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper:  I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

More  (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? (He leaves him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man's laws, not God's — and if you cut them down — and you're just the man to do it — d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.

ACLU AlertThe Alabama Department of Archives and History has a very nice little museum in its building next to the state capitol. There are special exhibits on the state's military history from the Creek Wars to Vietnam, on the Civil Rights marches, on the Indians themselves, and, yep, one on Hank Williams.

One particular exhibit was something of a surprise, though. There in the 19th-Century Gallery on the third floor, all by itself in an impressive glass case, is the original, official Alabama State Bible. Quick! Someone call the ACLU!

In the shadow of poverty.  It is a stock joke among conservatives that if you go to the capital city of any state in the Union, stand on the steps of the state capitol, and look around you, the tallest building you will see nearby will be the headquarters of the state teachers' union.

Well, I did not actually check this for Alabama, but I did see a very tall, very grand-looking office building while driving around downtown Mungumruh with some friends. I told them the stock joke, and asked if that building belonged to the teachers' union. No, they told me, it is the headquarters of the Southern Poverty Law Center!

One of them had an acquaintance whose office was in the much smaller building next door, which belongs to the state justice department. That person liked to boast that he worked "in the shadow of poverty."

Roll Tide!  I saw my first-ever college football game on September 27 — University of Alabama vs. Arkansas. What a spectacle!

My experience of live sporting events is sadly limited — in the U.S., mainly to in-season baseball games. This was something on a different level. The color! The excitement! The little traditional rituals going on around the stadium — the fraternities in their blazers, the songs and chants, the cheerleaders and the bands!

Pure Americana, to the degree that this new-minted American felt like a bewildered intruder from some other place, like a Unitarian attending High Mass at St. Peter's. (I don't mean to imply that college football is a religion. As one Alabama friend replied when I suggested this comparison: "No, it's more important than that …")

My main anxiety was that I wouldn't be able to follow the game's progress, since I know absolutely nothing about "American football" (as I still think of it). That turned out not to be a problem at all. Patient friends helped out with explaining the action and I got into it right away.

The underlying principles — keeping (or getting) possession, winning ground by a combination of weight and guile, even the conversion kick — are the same as for rugger, a game I used to play back in England. There is more of an element of randomness in rugger, with the scrum and the line-out, when either side can steal possession; and the principle of interference seemed peculiar to me at first — as, of course, did the forward pass.

Football is more intellectual than rugger, too, with some of the plays almost balletic in their choreography. I soon got up my confidence, though, and was pretty sure I was on top of what was happening … till they went into extra time. Then things got complicated and I lost track.

Oh, well. I had a great day. Which is more than can be said for Alabama, who blew a 21-point lead. I felt sorry for the poor Alabama quarterback, who played the whole second half with a dislocated shoulder, and who I guess blames himself for the fiasco. He shouldn't. Even from my starting base of total ignorance, it didn't take me long to figure out which was the better team, and the better team won. Sorry, Tide fans. I adore your state, but your team needs work.

Alabamians mow their own lawns.  Alabama is pretty much the last place in the U.S. where you can't get a discussion going about illegal immigration. It doesn't seem to be an issue here at all. This is odd: It is a huge issue where I live, on Long Island, a thousand miles further from Mexico than Alabama is. Be interested to hear an explanation for this.

Great Alabamians.  If you were to ask a non-Alabamian to come up with the names of famous sons of this state, I imagine the first name you would hear — after Hank Williams, of course — would be George Wallace.

I expected to find that Wallace is nowadays an un-person in Alabama. This is not quite the case, but it is not quite not the case, either.

On the one hand, there is a huge portrait of him on display in the rotunda of the state capitol (and another of his wife, who also served as governor, fronting for George to evade the state constitution's ban on a sitting governor running for a second term). On the other hand, if there is any large thing in Alabama — an airport, a park, an expressway — named after George Wallace, who was four times governor of the state, I missed it.

Wallace is a fascinating study. He was a masterful politician of the opportunistic variety. He started out as a racial moderate.

As a judge he earned a reputation for treating blacks fairly. When attorney J.L. Chestnut, Jr. came before Judge Wallace representing a group of poor black farmers who had been fleeced by large processing companies, corporate attorneys from Birmingham insisted on referring to the black plaintiffs as "these people." Every time they used the phrase, Wallace's face grew redder until finally he interjected in an ice-cold voice: "Please refer to Mr. Hall's and Mr. Chestnut's clients as 'the plaintiff,' or don't refer to them at all." Judge Wallace awarded the plaintiffs more damages than they had requested.

                     — Alabama: The History of a Deep South State

Following his defeat by a segregationist in the 1962 governor's race, however, Wallace saw the light and embraced segregation. (Expressing his conversion with a remark which is, I think, well-known, but much too politically incorrect to repeat on a family website.)

Yet still, reading about the man, I feel that beneath all the opportunistic turns, there was a core of sincerity there somewhere — sincere populism. Wallace felt in his bones that the little man was for ever being oppressed and swindled by the rich and powerful, and he wanted to redress the balance.

I'm not going to try to make a fully-argued case for George Wallace right here, but it seems to me it wouldn't be hard to do so. An interesting man.

A different Drum.  As I mentioned in Part One, this is a very military state, an enthusiastic member of the Warrior South. One emblem of this is the U.S.S. Alabama military museum in Mobile.

You can walk all around inside this fine old WW2 battleship, even climb into the gun turrets. The submarine U.S.S. Drum is there in the park, too, and there is a terrific collection of planes, even a Redstone rocket.

What masterpieces they are, these great military machines! As you walk through the Alabama, the sheer complexity of the ship overwhelms you. It's like a small town, with a barber shop, a dentist, photograph studio, post office, …

Drum, though of course on a smaller scale, is just as impressive in its — sorry, her — own way. The complexity of the submarine's controls is astounding. How long did it take to train men to use all those switches and read all those dials? And these were young guys, many of them less than twenty years old.

It's a very humbling thing, to walk round a warship. If you haven't done it for a while, take the next opportunity.

(Though poor old Drum is rusting away at the stern. Can't the Pentagon allocate a few thousand dollars to fix her up? Sure, I hate taxes, but there are a few things I don't mind paying for.)

1965 and all that.  Alabama is famous for some events that took place here in the Civil Rights struggle of 40-50 years ago.

The Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, of which Martin Luther King was pastor from 1954 to 1960, is now a historic site, and the Edmund Pettus bridge, where the marchers from Selma were beaten back in 1965, looks just as it did in that famous photograph in Life magazine. (Which had sunk down into the sludge at the bottom of my mind, so that, coming to the bridge from the Montgomery side, I got a very creepy déjà vu feeling until the memory registered properly.)

With no disrespect meant to anyone at all, this is a zone of American history I am just not much interested in, so since my time was very limited, I left most of these sites for another visit.

I was naturally curious to know how blacks and whites are getting along in Alabama nowadays, though, so I made a point of asking people. The answer seems to be that, as in the rest of the country, they are increasingly going their separate ways.

Black Alabamians are naming their kids Deshawn and Shanice while whites are sticking with Taylor and Cody. We watch different TV programs, listen to different music, and go to different movies. There are now prosperous black suburbs with few whites in them, just as there have long been prosperous white suburbs with few blacks in them.

Inner-city schools in Montgomery and Birmingham are appalling, as are the statistics for crime, illegitimacy, and drug use. White flight from the problem-plagued cities is far advanced, although people hasten to tell you that plenty of middle-class blacks are fleeing too.

Separation, voluntary segregation, is the main theme, though. "Outside of work, we mix less now than we did 30 years ago," remarked an older white acquaintance glumly, echoing Mrs Gaston.

In other words, instead of having a very particular race problem all their own, Alabamians now have just the same race problem all the rest of America has. I guess that's progress, of a kind.

Say what?  I noted with interest that Selma has both a Jeff Davis Avenue and a Martin Luther King Street. They intersect, in fact.

My eyes popped when I saw this. I supposed that "Jeff Davis" referred to Jefferson Davis, first president of the Confederate States, who was sworn in just down the road in Mungumruh. What an address that would be! "Oh, I live right there on the corner of Jefferson Davis and Martin Luther King …"

On checking, however, I note that Jeff Davis is rather a common name in the South, so I guess this is one of the other ones. Disappointed.

High ceilings.  A thing you notice at once about older houses in Alabama is the extraordinarily high ceilings, not only in grand mansions, but also in poorer places like the Hank Williams home.

This is basic physics, from the age before universal air conditioning. Hot air rises, and hot air is a thing Alabama has plenty of in the summer months. (No, that is not a coded reference to the state legislature.) Interesting to see how cleverly people accommodated themselves and their structures to the simple demands of nature.

The bug line.  In Tom Wolfe's novel A Man in Full, which is set mostly in Georgia, Wolfe talks about "the bug line" — some line of latitude across that state, to the south of which you can't go outside in summer without being assaulted by swarms of insects. It was late September when I visited Alabama, but I was a bit worried that I might be south of the bug line, so I packed some repellant.

I needn't have bothered. The only place I was much troubled by live bugs was at the river bank in Horseshoe Bend, and they were only tiny midges. Down on the Gulf Coast, though, on the ground in a covered walkway at my motel, I saw a dead bug — left over from the summer, presumably — that was simply enormous. It was something of the dragonfly variety, but the size of a sparrow. Good grief!

If you plan on coming to Alabama, pick your season with care …

A day at the races.  Yes, I spent a day at the Talladega Speedway, watching a NASCAR race. I have written this up in full for the magazine; these are just some random additional notes.

The race I saw was won by Michael Waltrip, who describes himself as "just a redneck," but who struck me as a perfect American gentleman, with a stunningly gorgeous wife and two lovely girls.

Perhaps not much of a reader of political magazines, though. In the winner's circle after the race, I got in line for a photo shoot with him. When it was my turn, I shook hands with him and said: "Congratulations, Michael! I'm a writer, from National Review." He stared at me in complete bafflement, said: "Oh. That's … er … great," then turned to the cameras for the photograph.

I'm going to give Michael the benefit of the doubt here. I bet he is a keen reader of National Review, but was just numb with exhaustion. Imagine how he must have felt after completing a 500-mile race at high speed in sweltering heat.

(The temperature inside a racing stock car runs 100 to 120 degrees, and a NASCAR driver sweats off several pounds in the course of a race. To make matters worse, Michael is exceptionally tall — 6 ft. 5 in. — and the interior of a stock car is about as roomy as a space capsule.)

Then, instead of the cold beer followed by a long sleep that he was probably aching for, he'd had to perform in the winner's circle, doing umpteen interviews and having photographs taken wearing 200 different caps, each bearing the logo of some sponsor, and smiling till his face hurt. By the time it got down to individual photo shoots with obscure journalist types, I imagine the thought going through poor Michael's mind was: Make it stop, please make it stop …

God bless him, anyway. He drove a terrific race with great skill, intelligence and courage.

A family sport.  "It's a family sport," the NASCAR suits like to tell everyone, desperate as they are to shake of the image of some corn-liquor-swilling good ol' boy tearing around a dirt track in a '57 Chevrolet while other good ol' boys urge him on with rebel yells.

Well, in one way they are certainly correct: Among racing drivers and owners, the family connections are very strong. Michael Waltrip — he also won the 2001 Daytona at which Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed, by the way — is the much-younger brother of racing legend Darrell "Jaws" Waltrip, who drove for the legendary Junior Johnson in the early 1980s.

Junior was the subject of Tom Wolfe's 1965 essay "The Last American Hero," and of a Jeff Bridges movie based on it. (By way of appreciation, Junior gave Darrell Waltrip a mule, on the principle that, as he observed sagely: "Every man needs a good mule.")

In fact the NASCAR personnel database reads like the First Book of Chronicles, with drivers begetting drivers and owners in apparently endless succession.

Mike, Rusty and Kenny Wallace are all brothers. Their father, Russ Wallace, was a famous short-track driver in the Midwest. Larry Foyt is the son of A.J. Foyt, who won the Daytona 500 in 1972. In the race I watched, car number 88 was driven by Dale Jarrett, car 98 by his son, Jason. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is of course the son of Dale Earnhardt, Sr., whose father Ralph was also a race-car driver. Racing pioneer Lee Petty begat Richard "The King" Petty, a superstar of the 1960s and 1970s, who begat current driver Kyle Petty, whose oldest son Adam was killed in a practice race three years ago. It goes on and on.

Nepotism.  I don't think this is either a good thing or a bad thing, it's just the way the sport has developed. For the case that it's a good thing, or at any rate not a deplorable thing, see Adam Bellow's excellent book In Praise of Nepotism.

Pure nepotism, says Bellow, closes off your society to fresh talent: Why should I hire a stranger I don't trust, when I can hire second cousin Sam, whom I have known since childhood? Pure meritocracy, on the other hand, is a cold-hearted affair: Since I got to my high social position by my own talent and effort, why should I care about the ones who didn't make it, to whom I am obviously superior?

A healthy society (Bellow argues) strives to find some point of balance between the two principles, some suitable mix of the meritocratic and the nepotistic. A fascinating, thought-provoking book.