Monthly Archives: May 2006

Walking Tall

Walking Tall

Patrolmen on horseback bring a visible presence to their beats.

May 18, 2006 

The scent of hay and horse manure hovers around the stables near UAB every morning. A trio of cats dart back and forth, in and out of the stalls. The horses ignore them. Pistol, a “paint-colored” stallion assigned to Birmingham Police Mounted Patrol Officer Mike Binion, leans over to steal some tiny morsels of dry cat food from a bowl, his huge mouth rendering the pieces even tinier. Officer Binion has ridden Pistol for six years. “A lot of us come in here on our off day to clean them up. Even though they are owned by the city, they’re ours,” Binion says as he brushes his horse. “I love Pistol like he was my own child. I’ve gotten so close to Pistol that if anything happened to him, I would probably leave the unit.”

The Birmingham Police Department has had a mounted patrol unit for almost 30 years. All the horses are donated. The horses at the Mounted Unit are brought to the mounted patrol at age 8 or 10, and retire in their mid-twenties. One of the first horses in the unit was Booger Red, who retired in 2002 at age 35. “He was old when he got here. He retired a fossil,” laughs Binion. A 30-day trial period for each prospective patrol horse determines if they are adaptable to the streets. About half of the animals get the job.

Officer Kimball Karmondi and his horse, Mel. (Photo: Mark Gooch.) (click for larger version)

Much of the training involves making horses comfortable with various obstacles that are similar to those encountered on the streets. They play with six-foot diameter, multi-colored beach balls that condition the horses to accept constantly changing colors and moving objects. Horses can be “spooked” by anything: walking under a railroad trestle with a train going by overhead, gunfire, crossing bridges, the steam rising from a manhole in the street. “You have to know what a horse will do under such conditions,” says Binion of the loud noises that horses must endure without panicking. “Steam from a manhole could be Satan coming out of the ground to a horse . . . You’re training him each time you ride him. If he’s scared of a water puddle, you train him to avoid the puddle, but to still get used to the puddle.” Sergeant Glen White, another of the seven patrolmen in the Mounted Patrol, explains that horses see in two-dimensions rather than 3-D, as humans do. “They have no depth perception,” says White. “A manhole cover on the street appears as a hole from hell to be avoided.”

Binion and White have trained with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and have ridden Birmingham patrol horses in both the Clinton and Bush presidential inaugural parades. Binion’s patrol beat includes The Summit, and he doesn’t hesitate to direct traffic by taking his horse onto Highway 280. “None of those horses are scared of 280 traffic,” the officer notes with pride. “Pistol eats grass in the median while the cars go by.”

In 1998, police on horseback went onto Legion Field to break up a fight between two college bands at the city’s annual Battle of the Bands contest. Instruments were brandished as weapons but the horses took it all in stride. They’re very adaptable for crowd control, even when mace is sprayed. Oddly, horses are not affected by mace. “They can just blow it out like anything else,” laughs Binion. These carefully trained animals also have amazing discipline around children, who are prone to walk beneath the horses when members of the mounted patrol visit schools for educational purposes. “Pistol looks back at me, begging me to do something about the kids,” laughs Binion as he kisses the horse on the nose.

“Everybody has been thrown once or twice while on duty,” Binion admits. Binion was on a horse named Apache in 1998. Something scared Apache, forcing him to back up while on Second Avenue North in front of Massey’s Corral. A pickup truck struck the horse. The officer bounced off the truck’s roof and slammed head-first onto the pavement on his helmet. “A very, very horrifying experience,” remembers Binion. “Apache raised his head and looked back at me, then laid his head back down.” The horse died within minutes.


“It’s not like the limited visibility of being in a squad car. It’s a better view . . . and they can see you.” —Sergeant Glen White, Birmingham Police Mounted Patrol Officer

“High visibility” is Sgt. White’s description of patrolling on horseback. “On a street corner, we can look both ways and see for a couple blocks. It’s not like the limited visibility of being in a squad car. We can sit in a parking lot and see over all the cars. It’s a better view . . . and they can see you.” Horses are on patrol from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. each day. High visibility is good public relations, too. People notice horses, says White. “You won’t see people come up to you in a police car. But they’ll come up to you on a horse.” &

Noah&’s Ark in Orbit

Noah&’s Ark in Orbit

Chimpanzees and dogs were space travel’s first guinea pigs.

May 18, 2006
More than a decade before Soviet cosmonauts and American astronauts blasted into outer space aboard rockets, a squadron of chimpanzees, rhesus monkeys, mice, mongrel dogs, and French cats were sent into space to ensure that space travel was viable for humans. Their missions tested the effects of weightlessness on organisms, especially their behavior under the stress of blastoff and zero gravity. Leave it to the French to launch a feline. In 1963, French scientists sent a female named Felix into orbit on a Veronique AGI rocket. An abandoned street cat, Felix was one of 14 felines specially trained in centrifuges and compression chambers in preparation for space flight. Ten of the original 14 cats were eliminated from consideration due to their propensity for eating too much. Mercifully, the French arranged for Felix’s capsule to parachute onto land instead of in the ocean.

Nicknamed “Muttnick” by the U.S. Press, canine cosmonaut Laika survived 10 days in space. (click for larger version)

Animals began flying on spaceships immediately after World War II. Four monkeys, each named Albert (I, II, III, and IV, respectively), were launched aboard captured German V-2 rockets during American post-war tests. Each monkey’s parachute failed to open. Mice, on the other hand, often survived high-speed impacts on their return to Earth. In 1959, four black mice were launched on a Thor Agena A rocket that carried a spy satellite. The mice perished when the Agena upper stage fired downward instead of skyward, sending the vehicle into the Pacific Ocean. Official speculation was that the mice would have survived had their crash occurred on land. Adding to the mystery of possible spy sabotage, the dead mice were a backup crew that had been assigned to the mission after an earlier tragedy. The original rodent crew was found dead of chemical overdose after eating the krylon that had been sprayed on their cages to cover rough edges.

Space Hounds

In the early 1950s, the Russians strapped dogs, instead of monkeys, into rockets because dogs were assumed to be less fidgety in flight. Females were chosen due to the relative ease of controlling bodily waste. Soviet R-1 series rockets carried a total of nine dogs in hermetically sealed containers. Each was ejected from the spacecraft and parachuted to recovery at the end of the mission. Two dogs were onboard because more scientific evaluation allowed for more accurate test results. Dezik and Tsygan (“Gypsy”) were the first dogs launched in August 1951. Both were successfully retrieved. A month later, Dezik went back up, this time with a dog named Lisa. The pair did not survive. Smelaya (“Bold”) and Malyshka (“Little One”) were later scheduled for spaceflight, but the day before launch, Smelaya ran away. Two days later the dog wandered back to the launchpad and the test flight was successful.

Laika (“Barker”) was the first animal to orbit the earth. No plans had been made to bring Laika back alive from her ride on Sputnik 2 in 1957. She was a small, three-year-old, stray mongrel (mostly Siberian husky) rescued from the streets of Moscow. The U.S. press nicknamed her “Muttnik.” Flight controllers monitored Laika’s heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. It was determined that she barked repeatedly and ate her food during her 10 days alive on the flight before her oxygen ran out. Sputnik 2 eventually burned up in the outer atmosphere in April 1958. A statue honoring Laika and cosmonauts killed in flight was erected in 1997 at Star City outside Moscow. The dog can be seen peeping out from behind the cosmonauts.


(click for larger version)

A year before Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space on Vostok I in 1961, the dogs Strelka (“Little Arrow”) and Belka (“Squirrel”) rode a Vostok prototype spacecraft into orbit. The dogs were the first animals to return alive after orbiting Earth. Strelka gave birth after returning to earth. One of the puppies was presented to Caroline Kennedy as a gift by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The bodies of Strelka and Belka remain preserved at the Memorial Museum of Astronautics in Moscow. Belka is confined behind a glass case in the museum, while Strelka is part of a traveling exhibit that tours the world.

Among the last canines to ride in space were Veterok (“Breeze”) and Ugoyok (“Little Piece of Coal”) aboard Kosmos 110 in 1966. The purpose of the flight was to determine the prolonged effects of radiation during space travel. The dogs established a record for canines of 21 sustained days in space, a mark that humans finally surpassed in June 1974 with the Skylab 2 mission.

Space Apes

The United States sent monkeys into space instead of dogs to determine if the stress of space travel and weightlessness would affect basic motor skills or the ability to think clearly. In 1952, a pair of Philippine monkeys named Patricia and Mike were the first primates to survive spaceflight. Joining the monkeys were mice named Mildred and Albert. The monkeys were strapped into their seats but Mildred and Albert were allowed to float freely in zero-gravity. In 1959, Gordo, a squirrel monkey, flew 600 miles in a Jupiter rocket one year after the Soviets launched Laika. Gordo died on splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean when a flotation device failed. Nevertheless, Navy doctors determined from monitoring his respiration and heartbeat that humans could withstand a similar trip.

Sam and Miss Sam were a pair of rhesus monkeys named for the acronym for the U.S. Air Force School of Aviation Medicine. Housed in a cylindrical capsule, Sam was launched on December 4, 1959 in a Mercury spacecraft atop a Little Joe rocket. His mission was to specifically test the launch escape system. One minute into the flight at a speed of 3,685 miles-per-hour, the Mercury capsule aborted from the Little Joe launch vehicle. The spacecraft landed safely in the Atlantic Ocean, and Sam was recovered a few hours later. Miss Sam also tested the escape system a few weeks afterward. Upon being reunited, the two monkeys reportedly embraced.


Ham was the first chimpanzee to fly in space. (click for larger version)

Riding a Mercury Redstone rocket, Ham was the first chimpanzee in space. Born in the French Camaroons, West Africa, Ham came to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico in 1959. His flight was the precursor to Alan Shepard’s 1961 suborbital journey that made Shepard the first American in space. After leaving NASA, the chimp was placed on exhibit at the Washington Zoo in 1963 and later at the North Carolina Zoological Park where he lived alone until he died in 1980.

The best animal spaceflight story of all concerns the mission accomplished by a chimpanzee named Enos. His flight was a full dress rehearsal for the Mercury launch on February 20, 1962, which would make Lt. Colonel John Glenn the first American to orbit the Earth. Purchased from the Miami Rare Bird Farm in 1960, Enos completed more than 1,250 hours of training for his mission at the University of Kentucky and Holloman Air Force Base. His training regime was more intense than Ham’s because he would be exposed to weightlessness and high g-forces for longer periods of time. Three days before his November 1961 flight, Enos was chosen to fly on board a Mercury Atlas 5. The chimp was originally scheduled to complete three orbits but was brought back after the second because the spacecraft was not maintaining proper altitude. One of the stabilizing rockets on the Mercury capsule had malfunctioned, causing the ship to spin in circles as it orbited Earth.

Then another problem arose. Something went wrong with the wiring that controlled the shock and reward system. Enos had been trained through a reward-and-punishment, “electrical shock” system that included pulling designated levers as part of daily tasks. However, the system malfunctioned during the mission, and Enos received jolts of electricity when he should have received banana pellets. Scientists at mission control assumed that Enos would do whatever it took not to be shocked and therefore compromise the mission. Despite the 79 electrical shocks he received for doing his tasks correctly, the chimp performed his commands as he had been trained. After recovery from the Atlantic Ocean, Enos reportedly jumped for joy and ran around the deck of the aircraft carrier, gleefully shaking hands with his rescuers. &

First Lady of Stock Car Racing

First Lady of Stock Car Racing

Sixty years ago Louise Smith discovered a new way to chase the boys.

May 04, 2006On Memorial Day weekend, the greatest automobile race in the world, the Indianapolis 500, runs for the 90th time. Danica Patrick, who became the first woman to lead an Indy 500 during her inaugural Indy race in 2005, will again be the focus. Patrick finished fourth and was roundly praised for her fearless skills at “mixing it up with the boys.” But half a century ago, a racing pioneer named Louise Smith had already pushed her way into the racing man’s world by winning 38 races on small dirt tracks from Alabama to Canada.


Louise Smith died on April 15 at age 89 after a long bout with cancer. In 1999, she was the first woman inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega. Challenging men in the 1940s and ’50s was not easy for Smith. “It was hard on me,” she told the Associated Press in 1998. “Them men were not liking it to start with, and they wouldn’t give you an inch . . . If you won a race, you sometimes had to fight. I remember grabbing a tire iron one time to help Buck Baker.”

Louise was known for her Dale Earnhardt-style aggression and breathtaking crashes. One night her car became airborne coming out of the second turn during a race. It took more than half an hour to free her from the wreckage with an acetylene torch. At a Mobile speedway she crashed into driving star Fonty Flock and wound up sitting on top of her car in the middle of a lake. She had a reputation for taunting Greenville, South Carolina, police into high-speed runs staged for the thrill of the chase. She was uncatchable. She once drank a fifth of liquor before meeting with one of her early racing sponsors, backing into a telephone pole as she waved good-bye. “Louise was a pistol,” recalled racing historian Mike Bell, who knew Smith. “It was all a party in those days.”


Smith was fond of fast cars, hard liquor, and fights at the racetrack. (click for larger version)


Louise Smith and her husband, Noah, owned a junk yard in Greenville. Former dirt track racer J.B. Day was an orphan unofficially adopted by the Smiths. The couple allowed Day to sleep in a 1936 Cadillac in their salvage yard. “Yeah, I stayed there for seven or eight years,” said the 72-year-old Day in an interview a week after Smith’s death. “My mother died when I was real small. [Louise and her husband] were good to me. They were like my mother and daddy.” Day remembered Smith’s fearlessness. “She’d run with the men . . . Louise was a ball of fire in her day.”

Smith began racing in 1946 when NASCAR founder Bill France was promoting a race at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in Greenville. It was not only Louise Smith’s first time to compete, but also the first race she’d ever witnessed. “They were trying to think of what they could do to spice up the show,” explained Bell. “And somebody said, ‘Get Louise Smith to drive. She’s crazy; she’ll drive anything.’” She raced a 1939 Ford modified coupe and finished third. “In those days 300 or 400 fans was a big crowd, and Bill France thought I could put more people in the stands,” Louise Smith once recounted. “[Before the race] they told me if I saw a red flag to stop,” Smith recalled. “They didn’t say anything about a checkered flag.” All the drivers except Smith came in at the end of the race after the checkered flag had been thrown. “I’m out there just flyin’ around the track. Finally somebody remembered they told me not to stop until I saw the red flag.”

In 1947, Smith drove her husband’s brand-new Ford coupe to Daytona to watch the races held on the beach. She couldn’t resist joining the fray. NASCAR officials gave Louise the number 13. Superstitious, she attempted to swap it for another. Smith recalled the story years ago to an interviewer. “I went all down the line trying to trade that ‘13’ off,” said Smith. “[Other drivers] said, ‘Aw, Lou, just follow us through that north turn.’ So I followed them, but when I got to the north turn seven cars were piled up. I hit the back of one of them, went up in the air, cut a flip, and landed on my top. Some police officers turned the car back over, and I finished 13th.” She left the wrecked Ford at an Augusta, Georgia, repair shop on the way back home to South Carolina. “Her husband said, ‘Where’s the car, Louise?’ And she said, ‘That ol’ trap broke down in Augusta.’ Her husband showed her the newspaper. The wrecked car was on the front page.”


Smith poses inside her racecar after surviving another horrific crash. (click for larger version)


Bill France soon put Louise Smith on the modified touring circuit. She was paid up to $150 per race to pack grandstands from Alabama to Canada as a novel, but fearlessly competitive, barnstormer. Before meeting France, she had struggled financially. Smith once had to pawn her jewelry to bail out some fellow drivers who got into a fight—complete with flying chairs—at a restaurant after a race. “Money was nothing back then,” Louise Smith once reflected. “Sometimes it seemed like the more you drove, the less money you had. I remember one time Buck Baker and Lee Petty and I had to put our money together just to split a hot dog and a Coke.” She had no regrets: “Yeah, I won a lot, crashed a lot, and broke just about every bone in my body. But I gave it everything I had.” &