“They wudn’t nobody in there what spoke English!”

AngryAlabamaMan“They wudn’t nobody in there what spoke English!” said the angry man. His female companion grunted assent. The man wore a crimson cap stitched with a white scripted Alabama “A,” the woman a similar t-shirt. I turned and watched as they stomped empty-handed to their car and drove away in a roar.

I had been walking into the K-Mart as they were storming out. This was at least a couple of decades ago, after Spanish-speaking immigrants had moved into—or “taken over,” according to some—several large, nearby apartment complexes.  And the Alabama-capped man’s outburst reflected a growing sentiment: these people don’t belong here with us.

Once inside, I saw and heard what had incensed the guy: the place was thick with Hispanic customers, families mostly. Spanish-chattering kids running about, as kids do in a big box store, begging parents to buy stuff. An announcement burst over the P.A.—a blue light special, described first in English, then in Spanish.

I had dropped in to buy a couple of cans of spray paint. In the hardware department, another customer, a short, stocky fellow of dark-complexion in a bright-white t-shirt, approached and asked me in broken English if a cheaper brand of paint worked as well as a more expensive one.

I summoned the phrase I had used more than any in college Spanish class, “No lo sé.” [I don’t know.] The man grinned widely. “But,” I added, “We can ask this guy,” pointing to the hardware clerk. I presented the question. The clerk asked if the paint would be used indoors or outdoors.  “Indoors,” said the customer, “for a bed uh…. a bed uh….” He spread his arms out. “Frame!” said the clerk and I at the same time.   “Si!” chuckled the customer.  [I’ve always loved charades!]  Yes, the cheaper paint would work just fine.

As I left the store, I thought again of the man and woman who had stormed out. Why did they have to leave? Why couldn’t they have found and purchased what they came for?  Was the sound of a different language, the sight of a “foreign” people, so despicable that they couldn’t think straight? And if so, why?

Suddenly I thought of that great American philosopher Elvis Presley. I imagined that the guy and his companion in the Alabama attire were at least a little bit fans of Elvis. (Most white folks in Bama attire are.)  One of philosopher Presley’s wisest quotes is this: “Don’t criticize what you don’t understand, son. You never walked in that man’s shoes.”

Thank God for Elvis, I thought.  And then, I have to confess, I said a little prayer—that the couple in the Bama get-up would stumble into a hornets nest of Grammar Nazis.


Lately I’ve been studying a book of basic physics. Don’t ask me why. I’m wading through Newton’s Laws of Motion.  The First Law—an object at rest tends to stay at rest and an object in motion tends to stay in motion in a straight line at a constant speed—is pretty easy to comprehend.

But the Second Law thickens the swamp.  It’s expressed tersely as an equation



The book says this means Force equals mass times acceleration. As I noodle on this, I get the impression that the more mass something has, the more force you need to get it moving. On the flipside, if something is already moving and it has enough mass it can cause something not moving to move.  And the greater the mass of the moving object, the faster the acceleration the smaller object when the big one hits it.  Make sense?

It does to me because it puts me in a memory from nearly half-a-century ago.

Mammaw, my paternal grandmother, has a two-handed white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel of a newly bought Oldsmobile Delta 88. I’m in the front passenger seat.  We’ve just shopped at the Western Supermarket in Five Points West.  I’m along to help her load and unload the groceries.

She has safely backed the car out of the parking space and, with great concentration, shifts from reverse to drive. Now we’re rolling at a speed of 5 mph—tops.

I notice, coming up on our right an abandoned empty shopping cart resting just off the curb in front of the store.  The new car is apparently wider than my grandmother thinks.



The Oldsmobile, moving at no more than 5 mph, hits the shopping cart, and I kid you not, that sucker is launched like a missile—way, way faster than 5 mph. It slams into a huge white refrigerated chest of ice bags and rebounds like a ping-pong ball.

I turn around in my seat in time to watch the cart skitter on its side into the middle of the pavement we just passed over.



She’s busy making the left turn to head back home. Not only did she never see the cart, she never knew she hit it! Several people are gathering round the wounded cart. They’re pointing to us in the get-away car. But the traffic light just ahead of us burns green.

“What did you want?” Mammaw asks me.

“Nothing,” I say, “just speed up.”  She does, and we glide through the intersection as the light turns red. I exhale. We’re home free.

So, back to Newton.  As I see it, the massively superior mass of the Delta 88 met an object at rest, a puny, wiry little cart and set it in motion. The cart then met another object of superior mass, the ice chest, which, being superior, remained inert, thus turning the cart’s motion on itself.  Voilà! Newton’s Second Law!

Thanks, Mammaw!






In October 1962 I was barely 8 years old and in Mrs. White’s 3rd-grade class at Birmingham’s Charles A. Brown Elementary School. Until this fateful moment, I had basked in the security that grown-ups knew best and would make sure nothing bad would ever happen to me.

But then…Soviet Premier Nakita Khrushchev planted nuclear missiles on an island a few miles from Florida and aimed them at Birmingham, at my school, AT ME!

Mrs. White told us there was nothing to worry about, fidgeting her fingers and pressing them down her skirt as she spoke.  We were led to the lunchroom to watch a film showing us how, by climbing under our desks, squatting with hand-covered head between our knees, we could easily survive a one megaton nuclear strike. (Why hadn’t the innocent people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki been told of this trick?)

We came back to the room and practiced what Mrs. White called “our drill,” each with our own desk—all very serious until Ted Flynn farted during his squat.

We learned that President Kennedy was saying every day, “Nakita Khrushchev, now you quit aiming these missiles at these children!” But the Soviet Premier would not listen. He was a bad man.

So a new drill was installed. This time we wouldn’t squat under our desks.  We would go home!  That morning Mrs. White called us one by one to the front and pinned to our garments a square piece of paper on which was written “10:00 a.m.”

Precisely at 10:00 an air-raid siren began its low moan and rose to piercing pitch. Students had been instructed to walk calmly home. Really? We—boys, especially—lived on a steady diet of World War 2 movies in which such a siren signaled exploding buildings, rivers of blood, dying gasps.

We ran, screaming like banshees. Pants and panties were pooped and peed in.

Miraculously I found my 1st-grade sister, grabbed her hand, and yanked her alongside me. We made for home like a pair of Olympic sprinters.

My mom scooped us into her arms, then wrote on each of our paper squares, “10:14 a.m.”  We’d done a mile in 14 minutes—not bad for an 8-year-old and a six-year-old.

A few days later, Mr. Kennedy finally persuaded Mr. Khrushchev to quit trying to kill me.  An few years later, I figured out that the “Go home” drill was designed to determine which of us would be sent home to die, and which would stay with Mrs. White to die.

And not long after that, I figured out that the grownups have no clue what they’re doing.


To Live and To Die by Change

My maternal grandfather, Kyle Hobson Durant, was born in rural Shelby County, Alabama, in September 1899.  At 18, he came to Birmingham to take a menial railroad-yard job held by his brother who was enlisting into World War I.

Though Kyle’s form

Kyle Hobson Durant

al education reached only 6th grade, his native intelligence and eagerness to learn produced a career that culminated in his serving as Superintendent of Car Services for Birmingham Southern Railroad, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel—essentially a vice-president-level job.

But that was not his biggest accomplishment, as far as I’m concerned.

What I most appreciate about Granddaddy is that he sought and embraced change. Not only did he choose to leave rural life and come to the city, he chose to adapt, to become not merely a country boy living in the city, but a fully-devoted city dweller.

Upon promotion from the rail-yard to an office in downtown Birmingham’s Brown-Marx building, he relished the change. He told me of the thrill of wearing pressed white shirt and tie, of climbing on to the #5 streetcar in Ensley, of paying his nickel fare, of reading the Birmingham Age-Herald as the #5 rocked and clattered up Third Avenue, of lunching in downtown restaurants, of the banter and camaraderie among the throngs of city folks. “Things I couldn’t have imagined as a little boy,” he said.

His two children—my mother, Sarah Jean, and uncle, Jack—would benefit from public educations superior to what they would have received in south Shelby County. Both would graduate college. Uncle Jack would attain a PhD in English literature.

Kyle’s story, however, would take an ironic turn.  Though change, and his embracing it, had taken him so far, change would turn on him and end his career. Computerization of the railroad industry blind-sided him.  At age 62 he was forced into retirement by, as he put it, “those goddamn yankees in Pittsburgh who think computers are the answer to everything!”

My grandfather had ridden change as far as he could, only to be booted from the train. But in doing so, he had radically altered the trajectory of our family—for the better, if you ask me.