Monthly Archives: February 2014

2012: A Mars Odyssey

By Ed Reynolds

Gambling with a daring landing method, NASA plans to explore Mars with the largest, most sophisticated surface-roaming robot ever created.

Shortly after midnight on August 6, 2012, NASA will attempt another in a long history of successful outer- space engineering marvels. An unmanned spacecraft with the unsexy name of Mars Science Laboratory will complete its 8-month, 352 million mile, mission from Earth to Mars by setting a one-ton rover named Curiosity on the planet.

This artist's concept shows the "sky crane” lowering NASA's Curiosity rover to the Martian surface.

This artist’s concept shows the “sky crane” lowering NASA’s Curiosity rover to the Martian surface.

NASA has placed robots on Mars in the past, most notably the rovers Spirit and Opportunity in 2003 (Opportunity continues to function). Because neither of those rovers is bigger than a golf cart, large airbags were used to cushion the landings. Curiosity—which is as big as an automobile—will require a feat never attempted by the space agency, the lowering of a Mars rover using a rocket-equipped crane. Continue reading

Vintage Techno Wizards

By Ed Reynolds

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 11.25.03 AMOn the corner of 18th Street North and Reverend Abraham Woods Jr. Blvd (aka Eighth Avenue North) in downtown Birmingham sits a white building loaded with antique radios and the various gadgets, technical manuals, and assorted spare parts necessary to keep the radios operating.

Overseen by a gang of electronics wizards, this shop is home to the Alabama Historical Radio Society (AHRS), which has an impressive collection of vintage radios including pre-World War II radios with immaculate wooden cabinets; futuristic-looking, colorful clock radios from the 1950s and ’60s; and an array of military and other short-wave equipment.

Established in 1989 by the late Don Kresge, a retired General Electric engineer, the society was organized for anyone interested in the vintage radio era, whether that involved simply listening to old broadcasts or the restoration of antique items by skilled hobbyists. Dave Cisco was one of the early AHRS members.

“I’ve been involved in radio since I was in fourth grade,” says Cisco, who, like many of the members, is a ham radio enthusiast. “[As a kid] I was starting to build some things. The neighbors would end up setting an old radio outside and I’d pick it up and start taking it apart to find out what was in it.” Continue reading

Jazz Practitioner

Jazz Practitioner

By Ed Reynolds

Dr. Frank “Doc” Adams, the last of the old guard of local jazz musicians who played with legends Duke Ellington, Sun Ra, and Erskine Hawkins, among others, has written a captivating memoir with writer Burgin Mathews entitled Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man, by the University of Alabama Press. Adams is a brilliant story-teller, recounting life as a professional musician and musical instructor in segregated Alabama beginning in the 1950s. One of the first inductees into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, the 83-year-old musician will perform a free concert with the Birmingham Heritage Band on October 25 at 7 p.m. at the Bama Theatre in Tuscaloosa.

Adams was trained at Industrial High School [now known as Parker High School] under the tutelage of John T. “Fess” Whatley, whose discipline and devotion to musical professionalism made an early impression. The young Adams turned down an invitation in the early 1950s to tour with AdamsCount Basie’s orchestra, instead remaining in Birmingham to teach music at Lincoln Elementary. Adams’ family [his brother Oscar was the first black attorney to join the Birmingham Bar Association, as well the first black Alabama Supreme Court Justice] was somewhat prominent. His father published a newspaper, the Birmingham Reporter, in the early 1900s, and also wrote a column for more than 20 years for the Birmingham News entitled “What Negroes Are Doing.”

Black & White chatted with Dr. Adams in his office at the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame on a recent October afternoon.

“I got a chance to [travel] around with my Dad. He was one of those dads that said, ‘Come on. Go with me, boy!’ And I’d go with him,” Adams recalled. “And I found out a lot of things about people. One was that people are more alike than they are different.”

Reflecting on the evolution of musical styles he’s played during his lifetime, Adams grabbed a sax next to his desk to demonstrate different variations on the melody “Tea for Two” during our interview. “The big bands were evolving. First, we had Dixieland,” he explained. “You had a trumpet, maybe a clarinet, maybe a bass and a guitar or mandolin or whatever you had. It was everybody for himself. The clarinet going one way, the bass going one way, the
trumpet going one way. That’s Dixieland. But when you start adding two or three saxophones, you had to have harmony. You had to read music. Everybody couldn’t play what
they wanted to play.”

As a young teen, Adams played sax with Alabama’s Sun Ra. “Sun Ra
was a known character in Birmingham. To some people he’d be frightening because nobody knew where he came from and nobody knew his parents,” said Adams, who
writes in his book that Sun Ra would warn Bull Connor’s henchmen that they would be “paralyzed” if they tried to harm him when the jazz maestro wore his colorful robes on
the street. “Sun Ra lived over by Terminal Station in a raggedy house. He was ‘flower power’ before ‘flower power.’ He was before Dr. King. He was defiant back in the 1930s when
nobody was thinking about civil rights. And he had this thing about where he was from—the Sun or the Moon. And his bands were terrific. He picked up people [to play] that were just unusual folk. They didn’t have the discipline [musically] . . . They never played a place like the Birmingham Country Club. They played little dives and stuff.”

Sun Ra asked Adams’ mother if her son could join his band. “One day he called my Mom, he wanted me to play in his Intergalactic Arkestra. My Mom just said, ‘OK.’ What it was about him was this mystique; He would look at you and say, ‘Well, do this.’ And you might say, ‘I can’t.’ And he would say, ‘You’ve already done it. It’s in your mind.’ Those weird things, you know? He would wear these clothes down on Fourth Avenue and everything. And people admired him for his band. He was just a weird guy. He could play Count Basie but he also had this other weird stuff he was playing. And he talked more than he would really practice.” &

Originally published in Black & White, Oct 18, 2012

Driving ‘Round the Clock

By Ed Reynolds

It’s a strange world between midnight and sunrise when you make a living driving a taxi cab.

The taxi industry’s unofficial slogan makes a whole lot of common sense: It’s cheaper to pay for a cab ride than it is to get a DUI. God bless taxi drivers— they really do make the roads safer after dark, a

notion reinforced for me after riding with Yellow Cab taxi driver Rod Walker all night on a recent weekend.

Walker started driving a cab in November 2010. His full-time job had become part time, so he decided to drive a taxi to make up the difference in income. “I didn’t know how it worked or if I could make any money driving a cab but I thought it would be fun, so I gave it a try. Still doing it,” the 52-year-old Walker said at one o’clock on a recent Saturday morning as I rode shotgun with him to the Lakeview district. Here Walker waits for mostly intoxicated customers in search of rides as they depart the bars. Continue reading

Lester’s Last Stand

By Ed Reynolds

At the 1970 Peach Bowl at Grant Field in Atlanta, the Selma High Lester MaddoxSchool Band waited to play the National Anthem. The stadium announcer shouted, “Ladies and gentlemen . . . Governor Lester Maddox!” It was an odd sight: the governor of Georgia in his trademark seersucker suit was sitting on the handlebars of a bicycle riding backwards around the entire football field as part of the pre-game ceremonies.

Thirty-two years later, at Roswell Street Baptist Church, hundreds of mourners stare at Maddox’s coffin, draped in an American flag and flanked by a bouquet of flowers with a Confederate battle flag centerpiece. Those in attendance are consoled by selections from Maddox’s 1971 album God, Family, and Country, a collection of hymns and ruminations on religion and patriotism by the former governor. A year earlier, Maddox had stipulated that the album be played at his memorial service, a predictable request from a man who never missed an opportunity to perform. Last summer, Maddox had been scheduled to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” during the city of Roswell’s Fourth of July celebration. Instead, the legendary segregationist whipped out his harmonica and blew a couple of verses of “Dixie.” Continue reading

The Eloquence of Eudora

By Ed Reynolds

The portrait of Eudora Welty beside her casket in the rotunda of Mississippi’s Old Eudora WeltyCapitol building offered quiet reassurement to the thousand or so mourners paying homage to the acclaimed writer. Welty’s inquisitive eyes—blue and round as the moon-—gazed thoughtfully at all who filed past her white-draped coffin on a rainy afternoon in Jackson. A modest but pretty arrangement of orange Montbretia from Welty’s garden offered an unpretentious symbol of her simple yet uncommon life. On the floor beside the coffin lay a single long-stem rose. High above, the walls of the rotunda balcony were adorned with samples of quilt patterns from 1850 to 1946, a fitting display that paralleled Welty’s embrace of everyday people in their attempts to extract meaning from mundane lives. Pattern names sounded not unlike metaphors from a Welty tale: “Drunkard’s Path,” “Russian Sunflowers,” and “Gentleman’s Bow Tie.” She was only the fourth person to lie in state at the Old Capitol.

Welty had written of the Old Capitol rotunda years before while reflecting on her passion for words and the sense of accomplishment derived from writing the perfect sentence: “I could see the achieved sentence finally standing there, as real, intact, and built to stay as the Mississippi State Capitol at the top of my street, where I could walk through it on my way to school and hear underfoot the echo of its marble floor and over me the bell of its rotunda.” Continue reading

Red Fire Ants on the Road to Hell

By Ed Reynolds

A researcher, entomologist, conservationist, and philosopher of sorts, 83 year-old Edward O. Wilson is regarded as the number one authority in myrmecology, the study of ants. Wilson encountered his first colony of red fire ants as a 13-year-old in an abandoned lot next to his family’s house in Mobile. He spent much of his life near the Gulf Coast where the region’s wildlife mesmerized him.

Though a secular humanist and skeptic, Wilson does not rule out the importance of potential Divine Influence as the mystery behind Creation. In his book The Social Conquest of Earth, he writes: “The creation myth is a Darwinian device for survival. Tribal conflict, where believers on the inside were pitted against infidels on the outside, was a principal driving force that shaped biological human nature. The truth of each myth lived in the heart, not in the rational mind.” He insists that belief in grandiose, unbelievable religious tales satisfy a “primal need.” Regarded as the “father of sociobiology” — a field of study in which social behavior is viewed as a product of evolution—Wilson has jousted with fellow genetic theorist Richard Dawkins (a staunch atheist) in a series of fascinating debates.Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 11.33.49 AM

Winner of the 2012 Alabama Humanities Award, Wilson will be the
keynote speaker at the Alabama Humanities Foundation Annual Awards Luncheon on September 10 at The Club. The topic of his address will be “On the Origin of the Human Condition.” Visit for further details.

Black & White: A friend claims that biodiversity is one of the last true gems of planet Earth.

Wilson: The surprising thing is that the two current political campaigns are scarcely ever even mentioning any of the environment. The world’s populations are beginning to go green. I think we’ve really come a long way since the early 1990s in terms of awareness. But even in the best part of it, it’s much slower than what people hoped for. Things like reducing the greenhouse gases and so on. Alabama is one of the richest states in biological diversity., and we are only beginning to explore what’s here. I belong to a group in Mobile who are exploring the possibility of a new national park in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta and the Red Hills of Florida. In the southern Appalachians, I think that there are about 14 known species of oaks. That’s a lot. In the Red Hills just north of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, the number of oak species found today is 24. The number of turtle species [both land and sea turtles] found along the south central Gulf Coast, including Alabama, is the largest in the world. Continue reading

The Sacred and the Profane

Voices Of The Urban Experience

by Edward Reynolds

    Who would have guessed that downtown Birmingham has a verbal pulse after sundown? It’s not an easy pulse to locate. But once it’s found, it’s a startling revelation.

    The beat thrives at the Carver Theater the third Sunday night of each month when a poet named Moon hosts spoken word celebrations. Urban spoken word wrestles for life in a town often indifferent to the most fundamental of creative arts. Sundays at the Carver Theater in the Civil Rights District are a rhyming confrontation with brutal honesty between artists and audience, and between the artists and themselves. Sometimes at the Carver the audience remains in the observation seats, jostled and soothed by the spontaneous flow of syllables. But on this particular Sunday evening, the audience joins performers onstage. Why, it’s almost a hootenanny!

     On the second Tuesday of each month, the pulse shifts a few blocks east to the Urban Echo, a dimly-lit club illuminated only by flickering candles and the flicking of cigarette lighters in bursts of approval for poets delivering their deepest emotions. The Urban Echo is located in the 1800 block of 3rd Avenue North in a building whose windows are emblazoned with “Jewel’s” in big pink letters. A block away, the Alabama Theater’s neon marquee advertises an upcoming B.B. King show. Continue reading


NightlifeBirmingham After Dark

A neon mist slowly settles  upon the city, anointing the night with delectable dreams of legendary tamales, cool jazz, chilled martinis, and rainbow brews as Birmingham quietly tucks the sight.  This community embraces a variety of cultures and lifestyles, warmly toasting the future. And the pulse of the bustle swirling beneath the glow of Vulcan’s mighty torch beats strongest on the Southside, sometimes pounding relentlessly, other times purring romantically.

Here we go. The fountain of mythical creatures spewing forth smack in the Center of Five Points South attracts quite a diverse collection of humanity: kids sporting Mohawks as they rocket through the air on skateboards, artists painting colorful canvases, street musicians hustling a buck. It’s quite a carnival atmosphere as we stroll down 11th Street towards Surin West, where we feast on scrumptious Thai noodles and a splendid squid salad before diving into a seafood soup that would be a delicious way to drown. Two doors down we stop into Breckenridge Brewery, the latest microbrewery to call Birmingham home. Inside the pub huge metallic fermentation tanks add a futuristic touch to a turn-of-the-century warehouse, the seductive hum of the brewing process adding a flourish to a wonderful drinking and dining experience. The city’s first brewpub, the Magic City Brewery, is up 21st Street at 5th Avenue South, not far away. Jazz Sax

Up 20th Street we stumble upon a little Mexican palace known as Mancha’s. The late Carl Mancha’s grandfather began hand-rolling his now legendary corn-husk tamales in 1929, selling them from a street cart. The cart eventually parked itself  inside the present locale, where Carl would later concoct the best Mexican sauces in town: the Wimp Sauce (though tasty, pour it in shame); the Nuclear Sauce (glowing green); and the flammable Agent Orange (menacing, fireball Habanero peppers). I’ve seen macho men accept the bartender’s challenge to wolf down one of Carl’s homegrown Habaneros for a paltry 20 bucks. Bear Bryant shares the walls with the heads of wild boar and elk.

A few blocks away we walk into the Nick, a dive so dark inside one expects to find Dracula pouring drinks in one of Birmingham’s prime spots for rock ‘n roll. The Nick has been knighted with a world-class reputation as one of the stops on the circuit for up and coming bands as well as musical combos with world-wide cult followings. Legends such as the Fleshtones, Johnny Winter, Alex Chilton, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore have performed on its tattered stage, and on any given night patrons have found themselves sitting next to luminaries as REM’s Peter Buck and U2’s Bono. Hidden around the corner from the Nick is one of the more fascinating places on God’s earth, the Garage Café. Nestled amongst the leftovers of an ancient, tiny antique mall, the Garage offers a courtyard covered in cascading wisteria, gargoyles, French iron gates, and marble baptismal fonts. A rather impressive cement counter is the interior center piece, creating an unusual spot to sit and drink. There is no truth to the rumor that Jimmy Hoffa is buried somewhere beneath the resting place for your gin and tonic. The 22nd Street Jazz Café is an intimate setting for jazz and blues. You might catch former Count Basie Orchestra bassist Cleve Eaton sitting in with the sweet, mind-numbing trumpet and silky voice of Robert Moore and his Wildcats.  More jazz can be found in the clubs along Second Avenue North at the French Quarters or Tee’s Place.

Cruising east on 7th Avenue we eventually find ourselves face to face with a new Birmingham phenomenon: the martini bar. At the Canteen, the price is an odd $6.42. Go figure. The Canteen offers more than 20 stylishly-enhanced martinis poured into tinkling glasses with long, slender stems. The interior décor is that of a plush living room: large, comfortable sofas illuminated by indirect lighting. A movie screen runs old films while the walls are plastered with black and white glossies of everyone from Frank Sinatra to Bette Davis. The fancy martinis reflect film star fixations, with one even dubbed The King Kong. — Ed Reynolds.

Originally published in Birmingham Magazine June 1997