Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The original fire ants

In my book Alabama Curiosities, I wrote:

Thirteen-year-old Edward O. Wilson of Mobile was one of those kids who happily spends hours watching living things. A childhood accident had cost him his sight in one eye, and he seemed determined to see as much as possible out of the remaining one. He was especially fascinated by ants, in particular the ants in the vacant lot next to his family's house on Charleston Street, near the docks on the western edge of Mobile Bay.

He didn't know it at the time, but young Wilson had made a breakthrough scientific discovery. That ant colony he studied and documented so carefully in 1942 turned out to be the first recorded colony of the red imported fire ants, Solenopsis invicta, in the United States.

I now read, however, in the April 1-7, 2006, issue of New Scientist, an excerpt from Wilson's new book Nature Revealed: Selected Writings, 1949-2006 (Johns Hopkins University Press). Wilson writes:

In 1942, while exploring the ants of my neighbourhood in Mobile, I discovered a nest of the invader near the port docks and subsequently reported. It was one of the first two observations of the species in the US.

What, I wonder, was the other early observation, and where?

Wilson also writes that at age 16, he decided to quit ants and settle on flies as his life's work, only to be frustrated by a World War II shortage of pins. "So I turned back to ants, which can be preserved and studied in local pharmacy prescription bottles filled with rubbing (isopropyl) alcohol."

Today, as New Scientist points out, Wilson "is the world's leading authority on ants."

The Irish struggle in Alabama

At the Alabama Bound book festival at the Birmingham Public Library this past weekend, I met Kieran Quinlan, a native of Ireland long resident in Birmingham, Ala., and author of the new book Strange Kin: Ireland and the American South. We got to talking about Charles Stewart Parnell, who considered settling in Alabama in the 1870s alongside his brother, a successful Alabama peach farmer, but opted to go home and lead the fight for Irish independence instead.

This much is recounted in my book Alabama Curiosities, but Kieran told me something I didn't know. Parnell seriously considered investing in the Birmingham, Ala., steel industry, and changed his plans only when the train on which he was a passenger derailed outside the city. The superstitious Parnell took this as an ill omen, and back to Ireland he went.

There's an alternate-history scenario for you: A train outside Birmingham, Ala., fails to derail, so Charles Stewart Parnell settles in the American South, and the history of three nations (Ireland, Great Britain, the United States) is potentially quite different.

Thanks, Kieran!

Monday, April 10, 2006

Happy retirement, Randy "Woody" Randall

After many years as a fixture in the front lobby, Randy “Woody” Randall, a plastic dummy in a night watchman’s uniform, has been “retired” from Randall-Reilly Publishing in Tuscaloosa.

According to CEO Mike Reilly, the dummy was brought to Tuscaloosa by his predecessor, the late Pettus Randall III, who encountered it at an American Rental Association trade show. An exhibitor had rigged the dummy with a microphone, so that as people walked past, the dummy seemed to greet them by name: “Hi, Pettus!”

Enthralled, Randall bought the dummy for $2,200, hoping to take it on the trade-show circuit as a Randall Publishing attraction. When that didn’t work out, Randall decided to dress the dummy in a night watchman’s uniform and set it in the window as a deterrent to burglars. “Hello, Woody,” Randall would tell the dummy each morning as he walked in.

In a celebrated incident one Halloween, Tim Cooper, then art director of Overdrive magazine, disguised himself as the dummy and sat frozen in the dummy’s position in the lobby until an unsuspecting Mike Reilly walked past, whereupon the “dummy” reached out and goosed him. Excitement ensued.

Randall Publishing honored the dummy’s retirement from the public eye with cake and coffee at its companywide meeting April 10. The first job applicant to sit in Woody’s chair in the lobby is in for a lot of strange looks.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Night Stalkers of Tuscaloosa

I love business names that inadvertently sound ominous, for example, the Journey's End motel in Greensboro, N.C. Another favorite is the Tuscaloosa, Ala., bar called Night Stalkers. I imagine the nightly conversations:

"Hi. I'm a stalker."

"Really? I'm a stalker, too."

"No kidding! Hey, maybe we could stalk each other sometime."

It also makes me think of the 1970s TV series The Night Stalker, with Darren McGavin as a reporter investigating the supernatural, but that's probably just me.

Night Stalkers is at 2237 Greensboro Ave.; the phone number is (205) 758-9277.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Magnolia River mail boat

Does anyone know whether the mail still runs by boat in Magnolia Springs?

For many years Magnolia Springs, Alabama, on U.S. 98 near the Gulf of Mexico, may have been the only town in the United States where the Postal Service delivered mail year-round by boat. Magnolia Springs writer Thomas Crosby Lakeman beautifully described the process in a 2002 posting at his website:

The postman is Huey, a lean and hardboned man who looks like he would not tolerate being called a "postal carrier" by anybody. His official vehicle is a speedboat that looks like it’s spent more time trawling for mullet than hauling Val-Pak coupons; its only mark of admiralty is a banged-up sign reading "U.S. Postal Service" on the starboard bow. In other words, do not hinder him: Huey’s boat is a federal vessel, just like the U.S.S. Nimitz.

Huey does know his work. Even though there’s a local ordinance against speeding on the Magnolia River, he clips that boat through the water like a bass fisherman scouting choice angling spots. He rarely requires more than a few seconds per dock: haul in, open mailbox, stuff, close, bring her about; all in one fluid movement. I wouldn’t call it graceful: A man with tanned forearms and a plug of Red Man in his back pocket is no more graceful than the guy who hauls the invisible wires in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. More likely Huey’s just in a hurry.

The original Black Panthers

The violent African-American nationalists of the 1960s and 1970s who called themselves the Black Panthers got their name from a group of non-violent Christian activists in Lowndes County, Alabama.

The county had seen a successful, if hard-won, voter registration drive in 1965-66, but many of the newly registered voters quickly became disenchanted with the established political parties in the county and decided to start their own party to promote civil rights, on the order of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Thus was born the Lowndes County Freedom Organization.

At the time, Alabama law required all registered political parties to have a logo that even illiterate voters could recognize. (There were many more illiterate Alabamians then.) The organizers of the new party decided to adopt the mascot of Clark College, a historically black Methodist school in Atlanta: a black panther.

The idea caught on, and other civil-rights groups nationwide began calling themselves Black Panthers, too. In Oakland, California, in 1966, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale decided to call their anti-capitalist militant group the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, to distinguish it from those Black Panthers who weren't armed. (See the Black Panther Party logo here.)

The Oakland group soon became so famous -- or, many would say, infamous -- that the less visible, peaceful Black Panthers, including Alabama's, were forgotten. Besides Brown and Seale, the ranks of the national Black Panthers included still controversial figures such as H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver and Angela Davis, but who can recite the names of Lowndes County's original Black Panthers? As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch recently told Don Noble in The Tuscaloosa News, "It was a party of sharecroppers, mostly women in print dresses, risking their lives to vote for the first time." (For much more info, see Branch's excellent new book, At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68.)

The Lowndes County Freedom Organization is long gone, but the athletic teams at Clark College, now Clark Atlanta University, are still the Panthers. One wonders whether any alumns ever think of Lowndes County -- or, for that matter, of Oakland -- while singing:

Hail, Roaring Panthers
We sing our praise to thee.
You are our heroes
And will forever be.
Honor and glory
You bring to old CC.
All hail to thee, O Mighty Panthers
On to victory!

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Walrus was ... Alan Wood?

First National Bank of Central Alabama is running ads that spoof the famous album photo of the Beatles walking single file across London's Abbey Road. Instead of four Beatles, we get four bank officers walking across the street.

  • In the lead, we get not John Lennon but Tracy Waldrop, assistant branch manager. Like John, she wears a white suit, but she's jauntily swinging her arms, whereas John, in a characteristic funk, has his hands in his pockets. Tracy's hair is shorter than John's, and she does not have a beard.

  • Second, we get not Ringo Starr but Bryan Robinson, assistant vice president. Like Ringo, he's wearing a black suit and black dress shoes.

  • Third, we get not Paul McCartney but Alan Wood, president. Like Paul, he's barefoot and wearing a black suit, but unlike Paul, he's not holding a cigarette. So far, we've heard no rumors that Alan is dead, maybe because the red-herring Volkswagen isn't visible.

  • Fourth, we get not George Harrison but Sam Parks, executive vice president. Like George, he's in denim and sneakers. He lacks a beard, but otherwise he's worthy of honor as the officer whose stride and arm position best match those of his corresponding Beatle.

    The headline on the ad in the Feb. 26 Tuscaloosa News is:


    Over me? Over which one, I wonder?

    I initially thought the four locals merely had been Photoshopped onto the actual Abbey Road photo, but on closer inspection I see many differences between the bank shot and the Beatles shot. The bank shot lacks not only the Volkswagen but many of the other cars; also in the bank shot, the lane striping down the middle of the street, leading to the horizon, is jagged, not straight.

    How disappointing to visit the bank's website and find no trace of this ad campaign anywhere! So you'll just have to take my word for it.
  • The tax radicals of Mobile Bay

    Today Fairhope, Alabama, is known for its shops and restaurants, its parks and pier, its beautiful shaded houses overlooking Mobile Bay. A century ago, however, Fairhope was known as an experiment in radical government.

    Fairhope was founded by transplanted Iowans in 1894 as “a model community or colony, free from all forms of private monopoly,” according to the original charter. The founders were disciples of reformer Henry George, a Philadelphia native who never lived in Alabama. Beginning in the 1870s, George told anyone who would listen, and many who wouldn’t, that land was the source of all monopoly privilege, and should be taxed accordingly.

    In fact, George argued that the land tax should be the only tax -- no income taxes, business taxes or sales taxes, just a single land tax, an annual rent paid by the land “owner” to the community for the privilege of using a plot of land for another year.

    (Henry George had a lot of wacky notions. For example, he was one of the first Americans to call for the secret ballot, having the audacity to argue that whom you voted for was no one else’s business. Because George pointed to how well the secret ballot worked in Australia, his critics derided the secret ballot as “kangaroo voting.” Resistance was such that the secret ballot didn’t become law in all states until 1950, more than 50 years after George’s death.)

    By creating the Fairhope Single Tax Corporation, the founders implemented George’s tax ideals as best they could. They felt they had a “fair hope” of success, hence the town’s name. They had no control, however, over all those other taxes that the county, state and federal governments still wanted someone to pay. The founders also couldn’t prevent outsiders from buying adjacent land and doing as they pleased with it.

    So the Fairhope experiment never caught on, as its founders had fairly hoped. In fact, Alabama thumbs its nose at Henry George by taxing just about everything except land. (Timberland, for example, accounts for 71 percent of Alabama’s real estate but less than 2 percent of its property tax revenue.)

    But the Fairhope Single Tax Corporation is still around, and it still owns 4,500 acres of land in and around Fairhope, issuing 99-year leases and occasionally donating tracts to the town for parks and such. The corporation’s office, which includes some historical exhibits, is at 336 Fairhope Ave., a few blocks west of U.S. 98, and is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Phone: (334) 928-8162.

    The origins of nutria

    Readers of the book Alabama Curiosities know about the annual Nutria Rodeo once held in Mobile County. In writing about that, I briefly covered the U.S. origins of these swamp-dwelling rodents:

    "Nutria do breed like rats, though. So you begin to see the problem caused by E.A. 'Mr. Ned' McIlhenny, heir to the Tabasco-sauce fortune, who imported the nutria to Louisiana from Argentina in 1938. He hoped to market their fur, but have you ever heard of a nutria-fur coat?

    "Mr. Ned planned to confine his nutria to Avery Island, Louisiana, but the 1941 hurricane spread them around a bit, and in their new quarters they happily set about doing that thing that nutria do so well. By the 1960s nutria had overrun the Gulf Coast and were literally devouring thousands of acres of marshland."

    Now I learn that I may have been a bit hard on Mr. Ned. In the April 3, 2006, Tuscaloosa News, photographer Michael E. Palmer has a fine photo of a nutria sunning itself in Moody Swamp and a short article that reads, in part:

    "The South abounds with tales that just won't go away, like the one about E.A. McIlhenny being solely responsible for introducing large swamp rats known as nutria into the South. ... The sad truth is that McIlhenny simply turned them loose of his own volition, but he did not import them himself. He acquired his nutria from a local who was also attempting to farm them. ... Genetic research on modern nutria suggests that McIlhenny can't be solely responsible for the rodents' introduction to U.S. soil."

    I am delighted to know this. Thanks, Michael!