Monthly Archives: August 2005

City Hall — Transit System Threatens Halt

Transit System Threatens Halt

August 25, 2005

The Birmingham Jefferson County Transit Authority (BJCTA) is warning that public transportation may shut down August 31 if the Metro Area Express (MAX) does not receive $2.8 million owed by the city of Birmingham. Of the money owed, $1.1 million is a fiscal year 2003 debt the city has not paid, while the other $1.7 million is for current services in 2005. The BJCTA’s 2006 fiscal year begins October 1, 2005. Phil Gary, chair of the MAX board of directors, said the agency was not aware of the financial crisis until the first week of August, after a recent audit.

At a Birmingham City Council transportation committee meeting on August 17, MAX representatives presented the information to the Council for the first time. Surprised Council members were concerned but said it was the responsibility of the Mayor’s office to execute payment for what the Council had already approved. “The money is there,” said Councilor Elias Hendricks, and transportation committee chair Carol Reynolds told MAX representatives that the issue would be taken to the Mayor. In addition to Reynolds and Hendricks, Councilor Valerie Abbott was also present. None of the three would offer an opinion about the failure of the Mayor’s office to make payments to the BJCTA.



“The Council has approved the FY2003 payments to the MAX agency, as well as the 2005 payments,” said Phil Gary. “We need the executive office to authorize the finance department to write a check so that we don’t have to stop services . . . It would be a tragedy not to be able to run paratransit [the transit services provided for those with medical needs and disabilities].”

Interim MAX Executive Director David Hill, a former MAX operations manager, said that the $1.9-million surplus MAX reportedly had did not really exist. The miscalculation occurred because lump-sum payments to the transit system had been made at irregular intervals, giving the appearance of more money in reserve than what existed. Citing past “creative accounting” practices, Hill added that there was no three-month reserve supply of money, as had been reported. He blamed the poor bookkeeping on the failure of the MAX board to add a financial expert to the staff. “We had no CPA or accounting professional at all on our staff to provide accurate financial reports,” explained Hill. MAX has since hired a CPA as the new comptroller.

At a specially called MAX board meeting (convened hours before the transportation committee meeting), board member Reginald Swanson demanded to know what authority Birmingham had to delay payments. Swanson demanded that the board take the matter to court as soon as possible. New board member Guin Robinson urged the board to let the city of Birmingham respond before taking legal action. Swanson argued that the transit system was only two weeks away from ceasing operations and said the litigation should proceed if the board got no satisfaction from the Council later that afternoon. Phil Gary was equally irate. “I think it’s appalling that the city will not remit to us [money owed] for services provided,” said Gary. MAX board member Johnnye Lassiter, who represents Bessemer, added, “I would hate to have to go to Bessemer and tell them the system will shut down because the Mayor of Birmingham is not paying his bills.”

In December 2004, the MAX board ended a two-month drama regarding the fate of former Executive Director Mark Stanley. As the director for two years, Stanley boosted ridership, increased routes, added night and weekend service, and increased revenues. But MAX chief Phil Gary criticized Stanley’s financial and staffing management and said Stanley deserved no credit for public transit improvements. After an initial vote last October to fire Stanley, the four dissenting board members refused to attend subsequent meetings to confirm the vote. This prevented a quorum in light of the absence of board member Reginald Swanson (who was in favor of firing Stanley) due to hospitalization. Eventually, a quorum showed, and Stanley was voted out five to four. The minority in support of Stanley then asked for Phil Gary’s resignation, which was voted down. Critics have blasted Gary for wanting Stanley out, saying that Gary—a former MAX general manager who was asked to resign at the board’s request in 1995—can micromanage the agency as he pleases. It should be noted that under Gary’s management, MAX lost money, cut routes, laid off drivers, and increased fares.

Birmingham currently provides $6 million of the $16 million MAX annual budget. The city appoints five of the nine MAX board members. Birmingham Mayor Bernard Kincaid, who was invited to the August 17 transportation committee meeting but was on vacation and did not attend, later said that MAX invoices from 2003 and 2005 had not been submitted. Phil Gary insists that the invoices were turned in. &


Strange Angel


Strange Angel

The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons

For the past two years, a pair of robot vehicles, each the size of a golf cart, have been exploring the surface of Mars. The robots were created by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, which was also responsible for the first spacecraft to orbit another planet (Mariner 2, around Mars in 1962) and the first to land on another planet (Viking 1, on Mars in 1976). In the late 1930s, an explosives genius named Jack Parsons co-founded JPL, which was sometimes referred to as the Jack Parsons Laboratory, with his gang of curious rocketeers known as the Suicide Squad.

Parsons’ legend is the most peculiar chapter in the history of space exploration, told with wide-eyed fascination by author George Pendle in Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons. Parsons’ revolutionary work with liquid propellants and sustained engine-powered rocket flight introduced America to the jet age. Without the Suicide Squad, Neil Armstrong would never have walked on the moon, nor would shuttle flights today ferry crew and supplies to the International Space Station. Despite his respected status as a true rocket pioneer, John (Jack) Parsons was beyond eccentric. As a genuine mad scientist and a dedicated follower of occult figure and sexual hedonist Aleister Crowley, he baffled the scientific community. Parsons however, did not view science and magic as contradictory: “It seems to me that if I had the genius to found the jet propulsion field in the United States, and found a million-dollar corporation [Parsons started Aerojet Corporation, which today employs 2,500] and a world-renowned research laboratory, then I should be able to apply this genius to the magical field.”

Parsons began playing with explosive black powder as a teen in the Southern California desert just before the Depression hit. Mixing chemicals to create explosives to launch crude bamboo rockets, he soon realized that in order to achieve the dream of reaching the moon, a sustained flight required liquid fuel-powered engines that could fire repeatedly. After high school, he supported his family with work as an explosives expert at the Hercules Powder Company in California. The family fortune disappeared after the 1929 stock market crash. Before then, a limousine took Parsons to school daily. He continued his desert rocket experiments and started informal discussion groups that included his Suicide Squad comrades and writers of science-fiction pulp stories obsessed with interplanetary travel. Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov often attended meetings.

Members of the American Communist Party also began showing up at meetings. Their inclusion in the book adds an element of intrigue to a story of good guys, bad guys, and those caught along the blurred line that separates the two. Though he declined to join the organization, Parsons’ loose affiliation with the Communists would come back to haunt him as World War II evolved into the Cold War. His security clearance to work on government projects was removed and reinstated several times. Meanwhile, Joe McCarthy would pick off several of Parson’s pals one by one.

Interestingly, Parsons had earlier been in regular communication with Wernher Von Braun, the German scientist who built the V-2 missile for the Nazis and who was later primarily responsible for designing the rockets that put Americans into orbit. Ironically, Von Braun never hesitated to share ideas with Parsons and his friends in the 1930s. The father of American rocketry, Robert Goddard, however, refused to help the young Suicide Squad when they visited his laboratory in Roswell, New Mexico. That Goddard lived in a desert city which would later become best known as the place where an alien was supposedly discovered adds an even weirder note to the curious story of Jack Parsons.

Strange Angel is more than weird tales, though. The book is not only a fascinating peek at the history of American rocket science, it also provides glimpses into the world of explosives that anyone fascinated by Fourth of July fireworks should appreciate:

Learning explosives from other workers, Parsons soon discovered such essentials as the difference between a high explosive and a low explosive. A high explosive such as nitroglycerine (the base constituent of dynamite, made by treating a natural by-product of the soap-making process, glycerine, with sulfuric and nitric acids) decomposes into gases in a few millionths of a second, about a thousand times faster than a low explosive such as black powder or gunpowder . . . Because of their rapid and violent detonation, high explosives are better suited for demolition work, while low explosives such as gunpowder are better used as a propellant, pushing projectiles out of gun barrels.>Three-quarters into the story, the most unexpected of antagonists appears in the life of Jack Parsons: L. Ron Hubbard, the mid-century science-fiction writer who stole Parsons’ girlfriend (who was also Parsons’ sister-in-law, a relationship he flaunted in front of his wife) and dashed off to Florida to start the religious cult known as Scientology. Descriptions of Hubbard’s charisma convey the image of an irresistible snake-oil salesman, and readers may subsequently understand how Hubbard would mesmerize Hollywood’s finest decades later.

Parsons does not meet with a happy ending. Having forsaken much of his dark-side infatuation as he approached 40, he met his fate in an ugly but predictable manner. Lying on the ground with half his face blown off and one arm missing amidst the rubble of an explosives accident, he died at age 38. The explosion was determined to be the result of the mad rocket scientist’s careless insistence on mixing explosives in a coffee tin rather than reliable chemical flasks. Regardless, his short but fascinating life had lived up to the original birth name his mother later changed to John: Marvel Whiteside Parsons. Decades later, JPL scientists named a crater on the dark side of the moon “Parsons Crater.” &

City Hall — Changing of the Guard

Changing of the Guard

By Ed Reynolds

Outgoing Birmingham City Councilor Elias Hendricks went down swinging November 15 as the Council delayed a resolution backed by Mayor Bernard Kincaid regarding the annual Fall Carnival and Spring Fling fairs held at the Fairgrounds. Hendricks lost a bitter runoff to former Council president and one-time interim mayor William Bell by less than 200 votes several weeks ago. With the possible exception of Joel Montgomery, Hendricks was the councilor most prone to butt heads with Mayor Kincaid. Touting the carnival issue as his “last official act as chairman of the Finance and Budget Committee,” the councilor seemed to relish one final staredown with the mayor’s office.

Mid America Shows, Inc., which manages the two carnivals held at the Fairgrounds each year, is seeking to merge with another midway provider, Mid America Shows Delaware, Inc. The resolution does not affect the terms of the contract with the city and only changes the name on the contract to that of the new vendor. Hendricks, who often complained about difficulties getting information on a timely basis from the Mayor’s office, claimed that requested information on the fairs’ financial status had not been delivered. The councilor said carnivals must be financially viable. “Doing things that you did in the past without any regard to what the financial burden of the subsidy puts on the general public is not the way to go,” said Hendricks.

“The Spring Fling comes closer to breaking even . . . It’s more costly to conduct the fall fair,” Terry Burney of the Mayor’s office told the Council. He agreed with councilors that the Fall Carnival was being subsidized, prompting Kincaid to grow agitated. “[The fair] wasn’t designed to be a big profit-making entity!” said Kincaid. “It provides services for our citizens.” The city’s current contract with Mid America runs through 2007. Carnivals at the state fairgrounds in Five Points West have been poorly attended for years, much to Councilor Carole Smitherman’s dismay. “There are always more police at the fair than people,” noted Smitherman. “So I want to make sure that we actually made some money before we go into another contract with an unknown principle.” Mayor Kincaid again got irritated, replying, “I think it’s a good thing having the police officers there. It allays the fears of people coming [to the fair].”


I went from Dreamland Barbecue to the dream job”The meeting ended with departing Council President Lee Loder lavishing praise upon each councilor. “It has been a wonder to serve with you,” Loder said to Councilor Montgomery. To Councilor Gwen Sykes: “You are to be commended for your work and your savvy style.” The pontification had only begun. For the next 45 minutes councilors saluted one another ad nauseam. Councilor Smitherman said she has been thrilled to sit next to Elias Hendricks on the council dais due to his gentlemanly manners, including pulling out her chair whenever she sat down. “If he had some mints, he’d offer me one,” Smitherman explained. “We just had a bond between us.” Departing Councilor Bert Miller, who has never wasted an opportunity to grandstand, embraced his last hurrah.

“I went from Dreamland [Barbecue, where he waited tables] to the dream job,” said Miller, who decided against seeking re-election after controversy arose regarding $25,000 he secured for a concert that never happened. Miller, who filed for bankruptcy approximately one year ago, readily admitted he was somewhat lazy on the job. “I can admit I didn’t read a lot of stuff,” said Miller.

“Didn’t care about all the meetings. But I did care about the people of Birmingham.” The councilor added that he will be writing a book called My Time at the Hall.The pre-inaugural party the night before the new City Council was sworn in was sparsely attended. Among the highlights were the ice sculpture molded after the official Birmingham city seal and the name of one of the evening’s scheduled performers: Epiphany Cherry. Birmingham-Southern Chancellor Dr. Neal Berte gave the featured speech, admonishing councilors to work in cooperation. Mayor Kincaid and his former nemesis, newly elected Councilor William Bell, embraced, eliciting a roar from those in attendance. The next morning, a woman snuck a cowbell into the Council chambers, which she rang with gusto as William Bell was sworn in. Half an hour later, the new City Council convened to elect a council president.

Carole Smitherman won unopposed [it was speculated that Bell would challenge her]. Freshman Councilor Miriam Witherspoon was elected president pro tem over Valerie Abbott, who voted for Witherspoon because she could “see the handwriting on the wall” as councilors’ votes sided with Witherspoon. Perhaps Abbott was atoning for her near-unpardonable sin four years ago when she and Joel Montgomery supported Gwen Sykes for Council president. Carole Smitherman immediately made a power grab: she combined the Finance and Budget, and Administration committees into one committee, then appointed herself to chair the new committee. Later that morning during the Council meeting, Smitherman pledged her loyalty to the Mayor, a pledge she’ll no doubt break in two years when she challenges Kincaid in the mayoral election as she did two years ago.

Dr. Lawson Has Left the Building

Dr. Lawson Has Left the Building

His office never had a computer, and his patients were treated in chairs placed in the upright position. After 52 years as a dentist on Southside, Dr. William Lawson retires.

July 14, 2005Fifteen years ago I made my initial visit to the dentist office of Dr. William Lawson. I recall the very first words he spoke to me (while he tugged at a root stubbornly lodged in my novocaine-numbed mouth), “You ever tried to pull a nail out of a 2 x 4 with a pair of pliers, and it just won’t come out?” After practicing dentistry on Birmingham’s Southside, Dr. Lawson has decided it’s time to put away the dental tools he deftly wielded, with deadpan humor, for 52 years.

Dr. Lawson sported a red clown nose when he greeted me on a recent morning as he cleaned out his office. He pointed to a painting of Robert E. Lee on one wall, one of several depictions of Confederate generals that adorn the waiting room. (One has a cut-out photograph of Lawson’s head superimposed alongside the officers.) “That’s not a good picture of Lee, too stylized,” he said. “Lee wasn’t a Joan of Arc character, and that’s how they’ve got him portrayed.”

Despite being on the ethics board of the American Dental Association for two decades and past president of the Alabama Dental Association, Dr. Lawson was an anachronism, a throwback to an era when relations between a dentist and his clients were closer. “A successful practice is knowing the people and having a successful relationship with the patient,” Lawson explained. He’s perhaps proudest of the third generation of patients that stayed with him as they entered adulthood. His office never had a computer, and he worked on patients in chairs in the upright position, as opposed to the modern procedure in which patients recline.

He reflected on changes in the dental world during his half-century of practice. “Back in the late ’50s, early ’60s, there was no dental insurance. A dentist competed with television payments,” he recalled. “People’s teeth are in much better condition now with insurance. There are fewer and fewer people over 65 wearing dentures.” The intimidating drills used to bore out cavities are now high-tech, air-turbo devices with diamond drill bits that whirl at 100,000 rpms as opposed to the earlier contraptions operated by pulley systems attached to a motor that peaked at 4,500 rpms. “Those old drills got hot pretty quick,” he laughed. The drill upgrade took away a favorite trick Lawson employed to distract children as he worked. The dentist would attach a piece of red cotton behind a piece of white cotton to the drill’s pulley cable. He instructed the kids to “watch the fox chase the rabbit,” as the cotton pieces chased each other along the cable.

Dr. Lawson also used other methods to put patients at ease. The walls of the examination rooms were lined with huge murals of soothing Caribbean beach scenes or mammoth photos of the earth taken by an astronaut during a moon landing. He and daughter Barbara, who worked for him for 25 years, recalled a routine the two developed when taking X-rays. Dr. Lawson would take the wooden block that held the film from a patient’s mouth and, without turning away from the patient, toss it over his shoulder to Barbara, who was standing in the hall to catch it.

Sometimes his entertainment was unintended. He used to perform magic tricks while working, pretending to pull coins from children’s ears, then doing the same trick with the tooth he’d just extracted before the child realized the tooth had been pulled. “One time this lady was in the dental chair—she knew about his magic tricks and stuff,” his daughter Becky remembered. “Dad felt a little weight in the sleeve of his lab coat, and the next thing you know, he’s pulling a bra from his sleeve that had gotten stuck inside his coat from static electricity when my mom had done laundry.” The woman in the exam chair grabbed her chest and said, ‘My you’re good!’”

A baby blue jay that Dr. Lawson found outside the office was adopted by the Lawson family. “Melvin” stayed at the dental office during the day. “We kept him in the lab,” laughed daughter Betty. “If little kids came in, Dad would bring Melvin in for the kids to see. Melvin was really attached to Dad. The door to the lab was occasionally left open, and Melvin would fly into the room where Dad was working on a patient, and Melvin would land on his hand just as he was about to stick it in a patient’s mouth.”

His children told of his wicked sense of humor. “He’d be working on us on weekends when it didn’t interfere with his making a living,” Lawson’s son, local radio personality Dollar Bill Lawson, remembered. “He’d put us in the chair and chant, ‘I’m gonna get me a bucket of blood, I’m gonna get me a bucket of blood.’” The younger Lawson also recalled the acrylic imitation pink gum with tiny red fake capillaries used with dentures. “My dad would fix everything with that pink plastic. He’d fix the refrigerator door, anything. Even fixed my glasses. I’d have to go to school with this fake pink, human gum-looking stuff holding my glasses together.”

Friends would bring fish they had caught to the office and ask the dentist to install human teeth, complete with gums. He once fitted a bass with tiger fangs, which was proudly displayed at the famous Ollie’s Bar-B-Q restaurant located on Greensprings Highway.

Dr. Lawson even worked on himself on one occasion. He was due to leave town for a convention when a filling came out the night before. His daughter Barbara held one mirror, while he held the other. Injecting himself with novocaine, he drilled on the tooth and installed a plastic filling. “It’s very difficult to do,” he admitted.

“I think he really just wanted to see if it was possible,” said Barbara. “He doesn’t really like dentists in his mouth, anyway.” &

The Sleeping Prophet

The Sleeping Prophet

Psychic healing, fortune telling, and attempting to mystically divine oil comprise the Edgar Cayce legend.


The Spanish moss in Selma’s Live Oak Cemetery droops above the tombstones with nightmarish splendor. For a kid, the cemetery’s dirt roads were a bicycle racetrack by daylight. At night, the cement angels, tombstones, and artificial flowers were the ideal backdrop for a seance.

Just one block away was my grandparents’ house, and the proximity was pretty eerie on those evenings when my grandmother would turn her attention from the National Enquirer and spread out a deck of Tarot cards to read fortunes. My grandmother even said she had seen her mother’s ghost roaming through the yard in the months immediately following her death. As for the Tarot, I always assumed it was only a game. Little did I know of my grandmother’s flirtation with mysticism decades earlier when she contacted psychic Edgar Cayce for one of her myriad of hypochondriatic ailments. Cayce convinced her, and many others, that he could divine oil.

Known as “the Sleeping Prophet,” Cayce was born in Hopkinsville, Kentucky in 1877. He maintained an astonishingly accurate rate of healing the sick, if the thousands who claimed to have been cured by him are to be believed. From 1901 to his death in 1945, Cayce gave more than 14,000 “psychic readings,” sessions where Cayce put himself under hypnosis to prescribe methods —ranging from change of diet to surgery—for a variety of physical impairments. Most of the readings are on record in Virginia Beach, Virginia.


Renowned American psychic Edgar Cayce healed thousands with his power to diagnose and heal illness while in a self-induced trance. Oddly, his mystic skills could never divine wealth.

Cayce developed a severe case of laryngitis at age 21, eventually turning to a traveling hypnotist for a cure. While in a trance state, Cayce began describing a cure for his own ailment, the laryngitis completely gone as he talked. Others began to seek out the mystic for treatment for respective maladies. Cayce eventually moved from healing pronouncements to interpreting religion and history. A devout Christian, Cayce was shocked to learn upon awakening that he had declared reincarnation to be the true nature of existence. In 1910, the New York Times featured a long article on Cayce’s unique abilities. He eventually dabbled with predicting the future, including the stock market crash of 1929. Other predictions have yet to come to pass, such as the resurfacing of the lost city of Atlantis and the destruction of New York and Los Angeles. He remains the subject of countless books and mystic literature.


Cayce moved to Selma, Alabama, in 1913 to open a photography studio. My grandmother’s sister Willie James Holston went to work for Cayce as a photograph retoucher several years later. She reportedly filled in as a stenographer on Cayce’s healing sessions from time to time. Years later, she and my grandmother told of acquaintances who had been cured by Cayce’s readings. Two years after Cayce moved to Selma, his son was blinded by an explosion of flashpowder. A local eye specialist, Dr. Eugene Callaway, who treated my family, was the first to examine the Cayce child. Doctors could do nothing for the boy, other than apply an ointment, so Cayce did a reading for his son. He suggested that tannic acid be included in the ointment, to which the doctor objected. But because Dr. Callaway believed the boy’s sight had been permanently impaired anyway, he relented. Two weeks later, the child regained his sight.

As Cayce’s psychic reputation grew, requests for readings increased. Although people were being helped, many were having a difficult time convincing doctors to cooperate with the treatments suggested by a psychic. Cayce decided to establish a hospital staffed with doctors, nurses, and therapists who would carry out the treatments he prescribed during readings.

To raise money for the hospital, Cayce formed a partnership with some wealthy Texans to drill for oil, which he would locate by placing himself in a trance state. Among the investors for the project was my grandmother. In 1921, Cayce wrote her a letter emblazoned with The Cayce Petroleum Company of Texas as the letterhead. Addressed to Mrs. E. H. Reynolds, it began: “At a meeting of the trustees of the Cayce Petroleum Company of Texas held on October 14, 1921 . . . it was also decided to sell some fifty thousand [stock] units at a reduced price, realizing the necessity of obtaining money quickly to take care of the production that we feel so certain of having.”

I stopped by Live Oak Cemetery recently. I stood over my Aunt Willie’s grave and thought about the afternoon that I was a pallbearer at her funeral. She had saved money her entire life to purchase a cherrywood casket, and on burial day my cousins and I marveled at its weight. Nearby lay my Aunt Elizabeth’s tombstone, with no death date. She’s still alive, but installed a six-foot slab anyway to preserve a spot in the family plot’s diminishing space. Then I stared at my grandmother’s tombstone and wondered how our family’s fortunes might have changed had Edgar Cayce made good on her investment. To this day I have no idea if Cayce healed my grandmother of her ailments, but he definitely never found her a drop of oil.

Cayce did eventually build a hospital in Virginia Beach in 1928. The Great Depression forced investors to pull out, closing the hospital’s doors in 1931. &