Monthly Archives: November 2006

Got a Light? . . .

Got a Light? . . .

An increasing number of local bars, restaurants, and venues are prohibiting smoking where it once was allowed.

November 16, 2006

As of August 1, 2006, all bars and restaurants that allow smoking in Jefferson County are required to post a decal at all main entrances. The sticker is a consumer warning that declares “toxic or poisonous items” are present. This past summer the Jefferson County Health Department announced that “failure by the management to post the consumer warning at all times will result in a one point deduction [on the health inspection report].” In addition, any restaurant, lounge, or convenience store that allows smoking, regardless of whether the decal is present, automatically has four points deducted from its health rating score.According to Wayne Studyvin, director of environmental health services for the Jefferson County Health Department, what prompted the local bureaucratic cracking of the whip on secondhand smoke was U.S. Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona’s June 2006 conclusion that secondhand smoke is a proven health hazard to which there is no risk-free level of exposure.

Because smoking rules and regulations differ from municipality to municipality, the county health department determined that a rule was needed to bring municipalities and unincorporated areas of the county into some uniform compliance. “To make it a level playing field, they would have to have that [consumer warning] sticker on their door,” explains Virginia Bozeman, tobacco prevention coordinator for Jefferson County. “We have a lot of unincorporated areas, so they have to operate under the county. So they would more or less have an advantage over those establishments that do operate under a government [with a smoking ordinance]. We have to do something that would make those unincorporated areas accountable for allowing smoking.”

Wes Humphryes, manager of Billy’s in English Village (which allows smoking after 4 p.m.), was not aware of the county’s sticker requirement. (One county health employee told me that all smoking establishments had been stickered as far as he was aware, and another said that some businesses may not have been stickered yet.) “Really?” Humphryes responded when told that four points would be deducted from Billy’s health rating for allowing smoking. Humphryes said that when four in the afternoon arrives, “we do more drinks than food, so it’s just more of a bar. [Smoking] hasn’t hurt our business.”

In addition to the Jefferson County ordinance, some businesses operate under stricter rules. In the spring of 2005, the Birmingham City Council passed an ordinance that made smoking indoors against the law everywhere but in bars (which the city defines as any establishment whose primary revenue comes from selling alcohol). T.C. Cannon, a former mayoral candidate and longtime owner of the TC bar in Lakeview, was outspoken against the ban at the time. “It will open a big can of worms,” said Cannon. “To restrict this to Birmingham is definitely a grave injustice to the business owners in this city.”

Eighteen months later, Cannon has not changed his mind. “Those four [deducted] points are pretty brutal in this business . . . But I am licensed and pay taxes and fees as a restaurant even though I don’t serve food, except packaged goods. And any infringement or any further controls over the hospitality industry—any restaurants or bars [is not good].” Cannon said doing business in Jefferson County is very difficult, especially “with City Hall, which I have always found to be anti-business.”

Jackson’s Bar and Bistro is a new restaurant in Homewood that has chosen to go non-smoking despite the fact that Homewood doesn’t require it to be smoke-free. Owner Tom Sheffer also owns restaurants in Nashville that allow smoking, but he says he prefers non-smoking. “We decided from the get-go we were going to be non-smoking in Birmingham . . . It’s the trend.” Regarding Jefferson County’s rule that forces bars and restaurants to post stickers warning of the dangers of secondhand smoke, Sheffer said that the decals are something he does not want posted in his business. Jackson’s does allow smoking on the patio. “My choice was based on coming into a city that is going non-smoking already,” says Sheffer. “To me, that is a pretty strong statement, if an area wants to go non-smoking. I’ll be honest, I do think it hurts late-night bar business a little to not have smoking . . . But we’re still getting a good bar business. People are willing to hop outside and smoke a cigarette and hop back in.”

Antonio Minnifield of Lakeview’s Amani Raha Martini Bar has lived in California and New York, where indoor smoking has been banned for several years. Minnifield said that he wanted to ban smoking from the time he opened his business, regardless of the city’s no smoking ordinance. Secondhand smoke can make a pristine martini bar filthy. “It’ll turn a white couch black,” said Minnifield. “California and New York have smoking bans, so I just wanted no smoking in here as well.” Minnifield added that he didn’t think Amani would be affected at all. “If New York and California can [ban smoking], then anybody can.”

Other restaurants that cater to a late-night clientele have also gone smoke-free. Belinda Hyatt, office manager of Southside’s Rojo, said that her customers prefer non-smoking by a slim margin. The change has not affected business. “We get a lot of smokers, it’s pretty much down the middle. The smokers will go to an establishment if it’s smoke-friendly or not.” Rojo does allow smoking on its patio, as do many non-smoking businesses.

Merrilee Challiss, co-owner of the Bottletree Café, a new restaurant and live music venue in Avondale, never gave their smoking policy a second thought. “For me it was very simple,” she says, “I told my partners when we started that it was a non-negotiable issue. The response from our customers has been very favorable. Plus, smoking customers can still use our patio.” Challiss points out that the biggest fans of the no-smoking rule have been the touring bands, often relieved not to be playing in another smoky bar.

The Comedy Club in Hoover had allowed smoking until this past August, when the health department stipulated the warning stickers and the automatic deduction of points on the health rating. Owner Bruce Ayers decided to prohibit smoking. “Well, the health department deal certainly had an effect . . . It played a factor to me because I think that rating is very important. And I think people look at that. If you have a 90 and all of a sudden it’s an 86, I think that’s a big difference.” Ayers added that complaints about smoking also played a role. “We were getting so many complaints from [non-smoking] customers. Eventually everybody is going to be non-smoking . . . I just wanted to be proactive. I just think it’s going to help our business.” When asked why the Comedy Club did not ban smoking sooner, Ayers explained, “It used to be that when we first opened, it was all smoking. Then we had a very small non-smoking section. And then, over the years, it went to where we were pretty much 80 percent non-smoking, and the smoking seats weren’t filling up. So it made business sense to me that the non-smoking thing seemed like the right thing to do. And I still think it is . . . It’s tough for smokers, I know it is. But I think this is the wave of the future . . . They’re doing it in New York, they’re doing it in California. Smoking is killing people. It’s almost like a no-brainer.”

Vestavia has outlawed smoking everywhere but bars. However, the recently closed Moonlight Music Cafe, a live music venue that catered to fans of acoustic music, was non-smoking from its inception several years ago. “That was a choice of my own,” said Keith Harrelson, owner of the bar. “We had a good crowd of people who chose not to smoke. Most bars and nightclubs attract people who do.”

T.C. Cannon admits that non-smokers and “secondhand smoke freaks” often complain about the smoke in his bar. He says that those who don’t like his smoking policy can go elsewhere. “The businessperson, particularly the independent, should be able to determine what type of business that he runs. And to try to legislate everything that is detrimental to our health—we’ll just legislate ourselves to death. And that’s a hell of a way to go, I guess.” Regarding secondhand smoke, T.C. added, “You want empirical data? I spent 45 years working at the old Upside Down Plaza and TC. I was raised in the back of a beer joint as a kid. If secondhand smoke were a problem, I’d have been dead a long time ago.” &

Boys and Their Toys

Boys and Their Toys

Birmingham’s model-rocket club.

November 16, 2006

>Gazing into a blue October sky, Ron Witherspoon couldn’t have been more pleased. “That’s what I’m talking about!” he shouted. “Did you see the flame on that thing? That’s bright enough to make the devil proud . . . Let’s go to the Moon!” Witherspoon is president of the Birmingham Rocket Boys club (BRB). Like another dozen or so local enthusiasts, there is nothing he’d rather do on a Saturday than launch model rockets. A chapter of the National Association of Rocketry (NAR), the BRB is comprised of local rocketeers from broad ends of the career spectrum, including a medical doctor, a postal worker, schoolteacher, and a retired local television station cameraman (who often attaches video cameras to rockets to record the onboard perspective). The group gathers once a month for launches at either the North Birmingham landfill or a cotton farm near Talladega.

On this particular day, Witherspoon’s ever-present enthusiasm was bolstered by the presence of novelist and former NASA engineer Homer Hickam, who is writing an article for Parade magazine that includes the BRB. Hickam’s best-seller Rocket Boys chronicled his boyhood fascination with backyard rocketry in West Virginia coal country, later serving as the inspiration for the film October Sky. As he autographed model rockets and copies of his books, Hickam told a reporter at the BRB gathering that although the rest of the United States probably found Russia’s launch of Sputnik “foreboding,” he and his childhood pals had been devouring so much science fiction that instead of being intimidated by the Soviets, they were excited. “We knew this would start a space race!”


Blake Driskill and his Patriot rocket. Photo by George Gassaway. (click for larger version)




In the 1960s, model rockets were only available through the mail or in hobby shops. By the 1970s, rockets could be found on the shelves of department stores. “One day I was in K-Mart, and suddenly: ‘Oh boy! Rockets!’” recalled BRB member George Gassaway, an award-winning model-rocket designer. “A few years before that I had thought, ‘what if I got a hundred bottle rockets and clustered them all together, and I could make one rocket that could fly!’”

BRB members are usually science geeks and craftsmen of sorts who lug around rockets, launch pads, pop-up awnings, and fishing tackle boxes filled with nylon string, X-acto blades, tape, glue, Vaseline, sandpaper, and plenty of extra rocket engines. During launching sessions, every 10 minutes there is an announcement via a small portable public address system: “On launch pad 3 we’ve got a red, white, and black Patriot with an H-165R motor blasting off at ‘5, 4, 3, 2, 1 . . .’” When the launch button is pushed, all eyes simultaneously look skyward amid cheers.

The propellant for these models includes aluminum perchlorate (APC), the same solid fuel used on the two booster rockets that launch the Space Shuttle. Amateur enthusiasts must be certified to use such fuel. APC-powered rockets often emit a loud pop at blastoff, followed by a brightly colored flame tail and impressive “whoosh” sound as the projectile climbs to more than half a mile. The more expensive rockets employ an altimeter to determine the height attained. Ready-to-fly models start at $15, and higher-powered rockets can cost anywhere from $100 to more than $1,000.

Model rockets are available in an impressively wide range of designs, including NASA’s Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecraft; a two-foot missile called a Skywriter painted to resemble a pencil; flying saucer–style contraptions made from cardboard boxes; and even a miniature blue Porta-John that emits a two-foot yellow flame and features an unraveling roll of toilet paper.

BRB member Tony Williams began competing on rocket teams with Gassaway in 1975, but he began his hobby more than a decade earlier. “One change has been the higher power. Model rockets were pretty limited in the ’60s, but in the early ’70s engines got stronger,” recalled Williams. “As far as the look of the rockets, there are a lot more variations now. The basic rocket is the pretty much the same, except there was a lot more [hands-on] modeling back then. There’s a lot of pre-fab stuff now. I think it was probably more fun back then.”

For Kim Mitchell, a self-professed “space junkie,” launching rockets that he’s built with his own hands is the continuation of not only his infatuation with outer space as a kid but also his earliest childhood memories. “I can remember Neil Armstrong walking on the moon when I was three years old. I was at my grandparents’ house and can even remember the little TV set they had,” he laughed. Mitchell, a broadcast engineer at FOX 6 in Birmingham, added that the satellite technology he was enamored with as a child is integral to his current job.

Blake Driskill, a computer science specialist with an in-depth background in math, got involved with the BRB a couple of years ago. “I’m what they call a ‘BAR’— ‘born again rocketeer.’ I did it a little as a kid but didn’t have a lot of direction,” explained Driskill. “Then I saw October Sky and read the book. So when I turned 35 or 40 I decided I needed a hobby before I went out and got in trouble.” Driskill has seen some rockets reach altitudes of 13,000 feet at competitions.

Model rockets can be used repeatedly simply by installing more propellant, unless the rocket has crashed because its parachute failed to deploy. Cynics often wonder where the excitement lies in watching something fly skyward for five seconds before disappearing—sometimes for good. But rocket enthusiasts feel that half the fun is trying to locate the rockets as they parachute down, and then accomplishing recovery—which is easier said than done when your rocket lands in a forest or field of unpicked cotton. It’s not unusual for rocket owners to search a field for half an hour.

“I was enjoying myself because there wasn’t any wind,” said Driskill of a recent launch day. “And you could just shoot ’em up and they would come straight down, and they would glide just a little.” One afternoon Driskill lost his rocket. A curious farmer had been observing the launches, sometimes joining in the search parties. After combing the area for an hour, with no success, Driskill gave up and continued launching the rest of his arsenal until late afternoon. “We were leaving the site, and here comes this same farmer walking out of the woods with my lost rocket in his hands. He said, ‘I love hunting these things down!’” &