Thursday, February 23, 2006

Another view of the Bondsmobile

This front view of the Bondsmobile in Tuscaloosa shows the reversed "Ambulance"-style type that reads "Jail Busters" in a rear-view mirror.

That's clearly a vintage Cadillac logo above the grille, with the pearl-topped crown that Cadillac recently scrapped, alas. But judging from this obsessive Ghostbusters fan's website, the Bondsmobile is not the same make as the 1959 Miller Meteor driven in the movie by Venkman, Stantz, Spengler and Zeddmore. The Ectomobile had limo-style windows all the way down the side, whereas the Bondsmobile has a landau-style design, with no side windows in the back -- more typical of a hearse than an ambulance. The Ectomobile also had more pronounced, upswept tail fins.

The Bondsmobile

Jail Busters Bail Bonds on 15th Street in Tuscaloosa advertises itself with this vintage Cadillac ambulance, painted to suggest the Ectomobile in Ghostbusters. The Jail Busters logo replaces the startled spook in the famous "no-ghosts" logo with a sorrowful guy peering through the bars of a jail cell. On his left side is the number 24, on his right side the number 7, indicating that Jail Busters is always ready to take your call. "Who do ya' call ... When ya' take a fall? Our number's on the wall! We-Bust-U-Out."

Friday, February 10, 2006

The former Lloyd Noland Parkway

I never heard of the great Alabama doctor Lloyd Noland until I stumbled across a bit of trivia on the Internet Movie Database: Supposedly, the late actor Lloyd Nolan, who often played doctors (in the movie Peyton Place and the TV sitcom Julia, for example), bore a strong resemblance to an actual Alabama doctor named Lloyd Noland, causing confusion through the years.

So I went looking for information on Lloyd Noland and was initially disappointed to find that he really didn’t look much like Lloyd Nolan. Certainly his name frequently was misspelled as Nolan through the years, even in legal documents -- just as Nolan’s name frequently was misspelled Noland through the years, even in movie reference books.

But it wasn’t an entirely false lead, because it led me to a fascinating story and to an ongoing Alabama curiosity.

An iron and coal company brought Noland to Jefferson County in 1917. He had been chief surgeon of a 600-bed hospital in Panama, working under George Crawford Gorgas during the Panama Canal project, and upon arrival in Alabama he set to work ridding Birmingham of the same endemic diseases the public-health pioneers had been fighting in Panama: smallpox, typhoid, dysentery, malaria.

The persuasive Noland talked his employers into building a $750,000 hospital – a remarkable achievement, considering that sum was larger than the entire public-health budget of the state of Alabama. He also was a pioneer in establishing an anesthesiology program and a residency program for the training of young doctors.

For many years, Lloyd Noland Hospital in Fairfield, a southwest Birmingham suburb, was the leading hospital in Jefferson County; for decades, it served thousands of elderly and low-income people.

In the 1990s, the aging hospital was bought by HealthSouth and renamed HealthSouth Metro West. Lloyd Noland Parkway, the street leading to the hospital, was renamed Richard M. Scrushy Parkway, after HealthSouth’s flamboyant CEO.

Soon after, HealthSouth became mired in a colossal corporate scandal. Fifteen executives, including every finance chief in HealthSouth’s 20-year history, pleaded guilty in a $2.7 billion accounting fraud; Scrushy himself was controversially acquitted, though he’s still the target of lawsuits.

The old Lloyd Noland Hospital was closed.

Exit signs on I-20/59, near Miles College, still beckon travelers onto Richard M. Scrushy Parkway, while the name of the man who rid Birmingham of its Third World plagues less than a century ago is mostly forgotten.

Noland’s name survives, however, via the non-profit Noland Health Services, based in Fairfield, which operates long-term hospitals and retirement communities across the state. Its website,, still lists its address as Lloyd Noland Parkway.


An anonymous reader comments April 7, 2006:

"Having been an employee of Lloyd Noland Hospital for many years, I think it is important to also identify that the hospital was initially sold to Tenet (which owns Brookwood Medical Center [in Birmingham]) before the HealthSouth acquisition. ... The legacy that was Dr. Lloyd Noland continues to live on in the hearts and minds of those who knew him, worked with him, and followed his example. His vision of health care was a bright point of light in the vast desolation and a remarkable touchstone for the medical machine that continues to grow here in Birmingham and surrounding areas."

Well said, and thanks for the Tenet info.

Turned on, tuned in, kicked out

The late counterculture guru and LSD advocate Timothy Leary, famed for his 1960s motto “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” was an undergraduate in the 1940s at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

Leary was most familiar at the time with the traditional undergraduate drug, alcohol. By the time the Massachusetts native came to Tuscaloosa, he already had been kicked out of West Point for a liquor bust. But his interest in harder drugs seems to have come much later, after he left Alabama for good.

The head of the UA psychology department told Leary that he needed intelligent students, and this much impressed the young man. Leary later recalled: “This was the first time in my life that I had heard anyone imply intelligence was a desirable trait. Up to this moment being smart had always got me in trouble. Conformity was the virtue I was used to hearing about.”

Leary got into trouble on the Tuscaloosa campus not for alcohol but for another time-honored reason: spending the night with a girlfriend in her dormitory. (Which dorm, I wonder?)

He was kicked out of school again, an act with serious consequences in the middle of World War II. Leary lost his draft deferment and was sent to artillery training at Fort Eustis, Va.

But the Army needed psychologists as well as artillerymen, and the former head of the UA psychology department was now chief psychologist at an Army hospital in Pennsylvania. Leary was allowed to complete his UA degree in the Army in 1943 and transfer to his mentor’s hospital, which is where his medical career began.

Leary’s interest in hallucinogens apparently dates from 1957, after his wife’s suicide, when as a researcher at the Kaiser Foundation he read an article about them in Life magazine.

It’s interesting that the two most influential LSD researchers of the 20th century both spent years in Tuscaloosa: Leary as a UA undergrad in the 1940s and (as I wrote about in the book Alabama Curiosities) Humphry Osmond on staff at Bryce Hospital from 1971 to 1992. Could it be something in the water?

Klaatu lands in Dothan

The late British actor Michael Rennie is best remembered today as the dignified alien Klaatu in Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). As a result, the first words of The Rocky Horror Picture Show are: “Michael Rennie was ill / The day the Earth stood still …”

Without citing any source whatsoever, the Internet Movie Database tells an interesting Rennie anecdote set in, of all places, Dothan, Ala.

Rennie already had played small roles in a number of movies when he joined the Royal Air Force. With other RAF pilots he was sent to the United States for flight training and wound up at Napier Field in Dothan.

When his fellow pilots in Dothan asked him what he did for a living, he replied, truthfully enough, that he was a movie actor, and they all burst into disbelieving laughter.

A few nights later, they all went into town to take in a movie. It turned out to be Ships With Wings, a British war movie that starred John Clements, Leslie Banks … and, in a small role as Lt. Maxwell, none other than Michael Rennie, who presumably got the last laugh. (One wonders how Rennie steered his friends to that particular movie theater!)

This certainly could have happened, as thousands of military personnel, including once and future celebrities, trained in Alabama during the war, and Ships With Wings was released in the United States in 1942 by United Artists.

I’d like to see some independent confirmation of the tale, though, that isn’t just parroting the IMDB.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Ancient footprints are everywhere

In 1999, an Oneonta High School science teacher named Ashley Allen discovered a paleontological marvel in an abandoned surface coal mine near Jasper in Walker County: fossilized tracks marking the progress of a host of creatures as they walked, slithered, flopped and crawled through a tidal flat 310 million years ago.

Between 2000 and 2004, Steven C. Minkin and the other members of the Alabama Paleontological Society (or APS) painstakingly retrieved from the old Union Chapel Mine more than 2,000 specimens -- invaluable evidence of ancient fish, amphibians, shellfish, worms, insects (even insect larvae) and, yes, maybe reptiles, too. The specimens contain the earliest evidence, anywhere in the world, of group behavior in fish and amphibians.

The site of this treasure trove was at risk, interestingly enough, because of federal conservation law that requires abandoned mines to be restored to their natural state. In this case, that would have meant reburying the fossils and planting a forest over them. With the help of Congressman Bob Aderholt, the Geological Survey of Alabama and other groups, the APS managed to save the property, which was acquired by the state in 2004. It's now open only to scientists and school groups.

The Alabama Department of Conservation has designated it the "Steven C. Minkin Paleozoic Footprint Site," in honor of the amateur geologist who worked tirelessly to preserve it but died in an accident before the March 2005 dedication.

Photographs of the fossils abound at this online database compiled by Ronald J. "Ron" Buta. An illustrated book on the site is Pennsylvanian Footprints in the Black Warrior Basin of Alabama,, edited by Buta, Andrew K. Rindsberg and David C. Kopaska-Merkel. It's $49 (plus $4 shipping) from the Alabama Paleontological Society.

(Thanks to David Kopaska-Merkel and Andy Rindsberg for telling me about this.)

The Batman of Birmingham

Lou Anders writes:

"Do you know the story of the Batman of Birmingham? I remember him, but I don't remember his name, and I am fuzzy on the details.

"He was a guy who spent all he had on a souped-up car (a Corvette?) that was tricked out with all kinds of radios, police band receivers, CBs, etc. ... and covered in lights and fins. He wore a cape and a helmet (which looked nothing like Batman; the choice of name was strange) and would ride around helping motorists in distress.

"I met him once when I was like 12 years old. He wasn't very sophisticated, but he was a true hero.

"He died one day when his garage door closed while he was working under his car, and he was asphyxiated.

"He's the only real-life superhero I ever met, and I still think of him from time to time."

Thanks to Lou for this tantalizing recollection.

Thanks, too, to Phillip Jordan of the Birmingham Weekly, who tells me the Batman's car is on display at the entrance to the flea market held the first full weekend of each month at the Alabama State Fairgrounds in Birmingham. The hours are 3-9 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. I'll get over there at the next opportunity and take a photo for the blog. (If Lou's memory of the Batman's demise is correct, I guess this was also the poor guy's death car. Yikes!)

Phillip can tell me nothing more about the Batman himself, however. Does anyone else remember the Batman of Birmingham, and any details about him?

Bad vibrations

No recent Alabama law has excited more nationwide indignation (and comedy) than the 1998 act that outlawed the sale of dildos and vibrators.

Typical was the comment by the Libertarian Party of the United States, which announced in 1999, "This law is giving us bad vibrations."

Specifically, the law "makes it unlawful to produce, distribute or otherwise sell sexual devices that are marketed primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs." The offense is subject to a $10,000 fine and a year in prison.

Soon a group of women filed suit, but in February 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider the case of Williams v. Pryor, so the law stands. A few other states have similar laws.

The Alabama law, incidentally, was proposed by a Democrat and signed into law by a Republican. Yes, both were men.

Rachel Maines' 1999 book The Technology of Orgasm looks at the history of the vibrator, which was invented in the Victorian era by a (male) British physician. At the time, inducing orgasm was an accepted treatment for "female hysteria," and the vibrator was intended as a labor-saving "therapeutic device" for physicians: Automating the orgasm enabled the doctor to treat more patients in a given day. Soon, however, giant steam-powered vibrators were replaced by portable electric models, and patients no longer had to go to the doctor's office to use their therapeutic "massagers." (No, I'm not making this up. Maines provides some engineering diagrams here, along with a 1910 ad for the White Cross Electric Vibrator.)

In her Salon article on all this, Janelle Brown calls the vibrator "quite possibly the most potent symbol there is of women's sexual agency." She adds: "Of course, vibrators are still often wrapped in ambiguous terminology -- you can still find ads featuring women gingerly holding pink plastic vibrators to their cheeks, apparently marketing some kind of dubious facial relaxation."

Capitalizing on this ambiguity, the Hitachi Magic Wand is sold openly in Alabama -- as a muscle massager.

Te-lah-nay's wall

On his land along the old Natchez Trace in Lauderdale County, in the northwest corner of the state, Tom Hendrix has been building, for the past 15 years, an unmortared stone wall to honor his great-great-grandmother, Te-lah-nay, a Yuchi tribeswoman who survived the 19th-century genocide known as the "Trail of Tears."

At its highest points, the irregular wall is 4 feet high; at its widest points, it's 10 feet wide. It's 2.5 miles long and may be the largest monument to a woman in the United States. Hendrix told the Florence Times Daily in 2003 that the wall contained stones from every U.S. state and 126 stones from foreign lands.

After her family was killed by U.S. troops, Te-lah-nay selected stones from the riverbank and placed them around the burial mounds to honor her ancestors. And so Hendrix continues to place stones today, to honor the brave woman who walked home from Oklahoma, determined to live in her own land and not a reservation.

"She did not make an ordinary journey," Hendrix told the Times Daily. "I did not build an ordinary wall."

Hendrix's book about Te-lah-nay is titled If the Legends Fade.

The wall is near the intersection of the Natchez Trace Parkway and Lauderdale County Highway 8, just off Alabama Highway 20 near Threet's Crossroads.

(Thanks to Serena Blount and Stuart McGregor for telling me about this.)