Friday, January 27, 2006

Alabamians invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs

For many years, the corpse of an Alabamian named Pete Ray was on display in a Havana morgue, the most bizarre trophy in Fidel Castro's collection.

Today, Ray's body rests in his hometown of Birmingham, in Forest Hills Cemetery overlooking the airport. An Alabama Air National Guard pilot, Ray was shot down by Cuban forces April 19, 1961, during the disastrous CIA-backed invasion of Cuba at la Bahia de Cochina -- the Bay of Pigs.

Ray was one of 60 Alabama guardsmen, both pilots and technicians, sent to Guatemala and Nicaragua by the CIA to train the Cuban exiles who were to carry out the invasion. Why Alabama? Because the Alabama Air Guard was the last military unit in the country still flying the obsolete B-26, which the Cuban Air Force also flew. Sending in B-26's to provide air support during the invasion was intended as a psychological tactic; the CIA wanted to make the Cubans think their own Air Force had turned against them.

The Alabamians were supposed to be strictly support personnel, staying behind at the base in Nicaragua while Cuban exiles piloted the planes. But the invasion bogged down, and the Cuban pilots exhausted themselves flying back and forth between base and battlefield. Eight Alabamians eventually volunteered to fly the planes themselves -- knowing that if they were killed or captured, the U.S. government would deny any knowledge of their existence.

Of the eight, only four survived. One who didn't was Pete Ray; his plane was shot down, and though he survived the crash, he was executed by Fidel Castro's troops.

Ray's body was kept on ice in Havana for 18 years, as Castro's prime evidence that U.S. troops were indeed involved in the botched invasion. Dignitaries were trooped in to admire Ray's body and make sport of it.

Not until 1977 did the CIA admit the Alabamians' involvement and award posthumous medals to the four dead men. Not until 1979 did Castro return Ray's body to the United States for burial.

Many of the Alabamians who were part of the Bay of Pigs invasion are still alive. They may be the state's least known, least honored and, in some circles, most controversial veterans.

Their story is well told by Warren Trest and Don Dodd in the winter 2005 issue of Alabama Heritage magazine -- to which everyone interested in Alabamiana should subscribe -- and in the book Wings of Denial: The Alabama Air National Guard's Covert Role at the Bay of Pigs (New South Books, 2001).

O Subway chicken, where art thou?

In summer 2005, just about every Alabama newspaper ran a story about a pet chicken in Clanton that successfully auditioned for a Subway TV commercial. Annabel, owned by a teenager named Amber Burns, would appear in the ad dressed as Napoleon to promote the chain's new chicken cordon bleu sandwich. Burns was paid $250 for Annabel's services.

The ads supposedly started running in some markets in 2005, presumably areas where Subway franchises actually had chicken cordon bleu on the menu. But I've never seen the ad, myself. Has it actually aired? Has anyone seen it? I need closure.

This epitaph is D.O.A.

Dozens of websites devoted to "humorous epitaphs" feature this purported "actual epitaph of Elizabeth Rich, Eufaula, Alabama":

Honey you don't know what you did for me,
Always playing the lottery.
The numbers you picked came in to play,
Two days after you passed away.
For this, a huge monument I do erect,
For now I get a yearly check.
How I wish you were alive,
For now we are worth 8.5.

Some websites include the purported winning numbers "36-33-01-24-17" as the first line of the epitaph. Some websites give the location as "Eufaula Historical Cemetery" (there's no such place). Some websites misspell "Eufaula" as "Eufala."

But no website provides any corroborating details of who "Elizabeth Rich" was, what her widower's name was, or when and where he supposedly won this $8.5 million jackpot. Presumably it would have been in the Georgia Lottery; Eufaula is on the Georgia line, and Alabama has no lottery. The Georgia Lottery opened for business in 1993, so this "actual epitaph" would have to have been written fairly recently. And if any Eufaula resident had won $8.5 million in the Georgia Lottery only days after his wife's death, then erected a "huge monument" to thank her in the form of a humorous poem, this odd set of circumstances certainly would have been widely covered by the press. In fact, no online news archive says anything about a posthumously lucky "Elizabeth Rich" or the jokey monument erected in her honor.

The endlessly repeated phrase "actual epitaph," the complete lack of verifiable information, the utter silence of online news archives, and the rather-too-pat coincidence of the surname "Rich" all lead me to classify this one as a made-up piece of Internet humor with a spurious name and location attached.

And it's not a good poem, either!

Thursday, January 26, 2006

They don't faint; they just seize up

Alan and Sharon Reeves of Mobile run R Fainting Farm, where they raise fainting goats, a.k.a. "myotonic goats," "wooden leg goats" and "stiff leg" goats.

These rare goats, native to the United States, don't really faint, but they do tend to painlessly fall over when excited, because of a muscle condition called myotonia congenita -- hence "myotonic goats."

How this muscle condition works is explained by Dr. D. Phillip Sponenberg at the website of the International Fainting Goat Association.

There are fewer than 10,000 fainting goats in the world, but Alabama has its share. The Fainting Goat Directory at -- yes, you can find everything online -- lists among breeders not only the Reeveses but also Douglas Helms of Louisville, Ala.

If you know of other fainting goat breeders in the state, let us know. Maybe one day they'll become so numerous they won't even count as a curiosity anymore.

A Solomonic solution in Eutaw

Tommy Stevenson's March 5, 2005, Tuscaloosa News article on Alabama's Confederate monuments includes this fine anecdote, which I reprint verbatim, as Stevenson wrote it:

Like most of the other Confederate monuments, the one in Eutaw was erected by the United Daughters of the Confederancy. But the young-looking, beardless stone soldier in the Mesopotamia Cemetery did not mount his pedestal until the late 1960s, said second generation Alabama Supreme Court Justice Bernard Harwood.

“My father [Robert B. Harwood Sr.] was from Eutaw and was on the Supreme Court when the UDC dedicated the monument,” Harwood said. “But when he got to the cemetery, there were a whole lot of the ladies all up in arms and saying there couldn’t be a ceremony and the statue had to come down.”

It seems the statue of a soldier holding his rifle at rest in front of him was facing south, rather than north, and some of the women were outraged that he was not looking in the direction of the enemy.

Harwood said his father, who was accompanied by another Supreme Court justice, quickly huddled with some of the cooler heads in attendance and reached a compromise.

“They said this was a statue of a soldier headed home, and that when he finally gets home, he will turn and face the north,” Harwood said. “My father said that seemed to satisfy everyone, and they went on with the dedication.”

Tonya Butler, we get a kick out of you

The leading scorer for the University of West Alabama football team in 2003 was a woman: place kicker Tonya Butler, the first woman in NCAA history to successfully kick a field goal.

Butler's career record at West Alabama: 48 of 53 extra-point attempts. Her all-male teammates twice elected her special teams captain.

Tommy Deas in The Tuscaloosa News reports today that Butler's jersey (No. 37) and cleats are on display for the next six months in the NCAA Hall of Champions in Indianapolis, as part of the NCAA's celebration of 25 years of women's championships.

Before coming to West Alabama, Butler was an All-State star of the football team at Class AAA Riverdale High School in Georgia. From there she got a two-year athletic scholarship to Middle Georgia Junior College in Cochran. Her hopes for a Division I scholarship didn't pan out, but when the Middle Georgia coach moved to West Alabama, he told his former place kicker: "Hey, you have eligibility left. Are you looking for a free master's?"

The Tuscaloosa News reports that Butler graduated from West Alabama in 2005 with her master's in psychology and counseling, but doesn't say what she's doing now. If anyone knows, please pass the info along.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Castles in the air

Palatial new suburban houses in upscale subdivisions have been nicknamed "McMansions." Some suburbanites do even better, and build McCastles.

An Aug. 20, 2005, article in the Montgomery Advertiser focuses on the 7,000-square-foot castle built by Richard and Anna Moxley in Autauga County, near Montgomery. It's loaded with faux-medieval trappings: fleurs-de-lis, suits of armor, turrets, stone archways, stuffed boar's heads, banquet tables. The Moxleys plan to add a moat and threaten to stock it with bass and bream. (Thanks to Julie Arrington for telling me about this.)

Near Fort Payne is Excalibur Castle, a four-turret edifice originally built by Jeff Cook of the country-music group Alabama.

Not all Alabama castles are private homes, though. Open to the public is Castle San Miguel in Hanceville, built by Catholic TV host Mother Angelica, founder of the Eternal Word Television Network. This castle houses the gift shop of the Our Lady of the Angels Monastery.

On land 15 miles southeast of Talladega, a group of investors hopes to build Tirion Castle, named for an Elvish city in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion. The plan -- in the works for more than 10 years -- is to run a bed-and-breakfast at the castle, plus rent it out to Renaissance fairs, weddings, Society for Creative Anachronism events, etc.

The oldest and best-known castle in Alabama, which I included in the book Alabama Curiosities, is Quinlan Castle in Birmingham, a 1920s apartment house that has been, alas, vacant and neglected for years.

Eastwood Texaco sues OPEC

Eastwood Texaco, at the intersection of Montclair Road and Oporto Madrid Boulevard in Birmingham, Ala., south of I-20 near Irondale, is no ordinary gas station. Its owners took OPEC to court.

Carl and Debbie Prewitt sued the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in April 2000, charging in federal court that OPEC indulges in illegal price-fixing. The name of the case: Prewitt Enterprises Inc. et al. v. OPEC.

Now, everyone agrees the international oil cartel does engage in price-fixing; OPEC happily admits that on its own website. Moreover, everyone agrees that OPEC price-fixing, if done in the United States, would be illegal under federal antitrust law. After all, Standard Oil, the behemoth founded by John D. Rockefeller, was dismantled by the federal government for just such infractions.

But does the United States have any jurisdiction over OPEC? Though the cartel’s actions have an incalculable impact on the American economy, OPEC is based not in the United States but in Austria -- so any price-fixing, like any other OPEC action, presumably takes place far from U.S. soil.

The Prewitts’ lawyer argued, with plenty of recent examples, that U.S. law enforcement extends all over the world, wherever criminals working against U.S. interests are to be found. In the 1990s, he pointed out, the U.S. Justice Department went after various international cartels, including a vitamin cartel, on behalf of wronged U.S. companies. Companies paid hundreds of millions of dollars in fines, and executives went to prison. The U.S. Justice Department ought to go after OPEC the same way, the Prewitts argued.

In rebuttal, OPEC argued that being served with court papers at its Austrian offices was illegal according to Austrian law. That’s true. Believe it or not, Austrian law specifically says no one can serve OPEC with papers without OPEC’s consent. Clearly, OPEC has good lobbyists in Vienna. But should Austrian law trump U.S. law in a U.S. courtroom?

The Prewitts enjoyed an early victory in April 2001, when U.S. District Judge Charles R. Weiner ordered OPEC to stop all price-fixing activities. That injunction quickly was thrown out, however, and the case began anew before another judge, who ultimately agreed with OPEC, ruling there was no possible way to serve OPEC with court papers. The Prewitts’ suit was thrown out in March 2003.

The Prewitts appealed twice but got nowhere, and the case ended in October 2004, when the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed it without comment.

There was very little news coverage of the case, but Timothy Noah’s “Chatterbox” column in Slate provided good, snarky commentary as the case dragged on, with links. Noah was on the Prewitts' side, but let's face it: What fun would OPEC's side be?

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Alabama's not-so-big Bigfoot

Bigfoot stories are as common in Alabama as they are in other rural states. Here's one example of many.

In fall 1960, several people reported seeing apelike creatures in the woods around Clanton, Ala., in the middle of the state between Birmingham and Montgomery. Most of the sightings were in the Walnut Creek area, where I-65 and U.S. 31 intersect south of town.

According to a July 8, 2004, article in The Clanton Advertiser, Clanton County Sheriff T.J. Lockhart made a concrete mold of some alleged footprints, "about the size of a person's foot but looking more like a hand." The sheriff's office kept the mold around for decades but eventually -- alas for science -- threw it away.

Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman believes the Clanton sightings were of Bigfoot's smaller Southeastern cousins, often called "swamp apes" or "skunk apes" or "monkey men" or "the little red men of the woods" or, most vividly, "boogers": chimpanzee-like creatures that have been fitfully spotted for 250 years but never (yet) proven to exist.

James M. Smith's Bigfoot Sightings of East Central Alabama details 14 sightings in only four counties: Chambers, Lee, Randolph and Tallapoosa. (To order Smith's book, send $10 to James M. Smith, P.O. Box 6, Wadley, Alabama, 36276-0006.)

Other books on the subject include Sasquatch: Alabama Bigfoot Sightings, again by James M. Smith, and UFO and Bigfoot Sightings in Alabama by Wyatt Cox, which is available on Amazon.

The website of the Alabama Bigfoot Seekers Research Group -- alas again for science -- seems to be defunct, but the Gulf Coast Bigfoot Research Organization has picked up the torch.

Friday, January 20, 2006

We begin with an epitaph

When I was signing books at the Riverfest celebration in Wetumpka, Ala., in 2005, a visitor asked me whether I had heard the famous epitaph from the cemetery in Auburn. I told her I hadn't, and she recited from memory:

As you are now
So once was I
As I am now
You soon will be
So prepare for death
And follow me.

To this, she went on to say, some wag once added graffiti:

I would be content
If I but knew
Which way you went.

I was delighted by this, of course, but some version of this epitaph (and, inevitably, some version of the graffiti) can be found in more Alabama cemeteries than Auburn's. This is one of the most common epitaphs in the English-speaking world, found in cemeteries far and wide.

A list of common variations can be found here.

One documented occurrence in southeast Alabama, though not in Auburn, is the epitaph of Lonie A. Glover (1869-1962) in the Jellico Community Cemetery in Houston County, across the road from Winslette Chapel Methodist Church.

Judith Fowler records Glover's epitaph here, at the invaluable site, where you can browse thousands of cemetery records from around the world.

I'd like to hear about any sightings of this famous epitaph in Alabama, with the specific cemetery information, in Auburn or elsewhere. Where do the lines originate, I wonder?