This was Prague, in the Czech Republic —formerly Czechoslovakia — and in the days before our tour group saw the theatre production, I had been wandering around the countryside with my camera in a state of confusion. There were more historical markers per square mile than I'd ever seen before, but I kept thinking they had typographical errors in them.
Finally the truth hit me: the signs were correct. If a marker said that a certain war or uprising happened in the year 871, it didn't mean 1871.
There was so much history here it was palpable in the air, like a boulder against everyone's chests.
Which is how the play started: a pile of huge stones on an empty stage, backlighted blue by a moon. The top boulder starts to shift slightly, then others, and you realize that actors are crawling out of the pile from underneath, dressed in plain gray leotards and face masks. The moonlight changes gradually to a sunrise. When all the people have dug themselves out from the past, another ordinary day begins.
I'm reminded of this scene whenever I'm driving some out-of-town visitors around Birmingham or surrounding Alabama counties and describing the landmarks. “By the way,” I might say, “this motel on the left is where James Earl Ray spent the night before he drove to Memphis to kill Martin Luther King.”
Or, “This curve in the railroad? When I worked for the paper, I covered a really bad accident here. A man passed out drunk on the tracks, and a train cut him in half.”
I've discovered that these vignettes are not good conversation-starters, and am trying to find more cheerful travelogue material. But history is hard to shake.
Just yesterday, I was driving on I-59/20 and the female computer voice inside my GPS unit said, “Approaching...Rick Scrunchy Boulevard.” The actual sign over the freeway, however, read “Lloyd Noland Parkway.”
That discrepancy is — like most everything here below the Mason-Dixon — a long story.
Lloyd Noland, of course (not to be confused with Hollywood actor Lloyd Nolan, with no “d,” who played a doctor in the movie “Peyton Place”) is the medical pioneer who served as chief surgeon on the Panama Canal project under William Crawford Gorgas before he (Noland) was hired away in 1917 by a Fairfield, Ala., coal and iron company to build a hospital for their employees.
Dr. Noland was apparently, in addition to his medical skills, a very persuasive businessman because he got together an investment of $750,000 to build Lloyd Noland Hospital. The three-quarter mil was not just a huge passel of money in 1917, it was more than Alabama's entire health-care budget. I never met Dr. Noland, but I've interviewed many people who worked for him and he seems to be held in very high regard.
Where the Rick Scrunchy Boulevard part comes in is that in the 1990s the aging hospital was bought by a Selma, Ala., boy named Richard Scrushy whose giant HealthSouth Corporation earned and lost fortunes for many people before it became mired in a financial scandal that made headlines around the world.
I got to know Richard Scrushy pretty well when I did some freelance video production for his company back before everything hit the fan, when Lloyd Noland Parkway was being renamed Richard Scrushy Boulevard, and the ironic part of the GPS computer lady's mispronunciation is that one quick way for a stranger to get on Richard's bad side was to refer to him as “Rick” or “Dick,” or to pronounce his unusual last name “SCRUSH-ee” instead of the correct “SCREW-she.” Though Richard's employees assured me he could be (a vast understatement) “difficult,” he was one of a very few corporate clients I've had, over the years, who always paid my invoices exactly on time, and often sent me a hand-written note of appreciation when a particular project turned out especially well.
So now that Richard is out of federal prison and back home, I'm guessing that when he drives I-59/20 the GPS pronunciation of the Boulevard that's since been changed back to Lloyd Noland Parkway really grates on his nerves.
Whereas a stranger driving through town from, say, up North, would note the discrepancy and remark, “I guess I need to update the maps in my GPS unit,” before moving on to more pressing topics.
And just relating my Richard Scrushy connection, now, reminds me that my family has always had a tradition of telling long, involved tales of past crime, scandal, or atrocity, and then pausing at the end before declaring, “But, he/she was always very nice to me, so I've got no complaint.”
That kind of thing matters a lot, here in the South. Especially since our history keeps us so stoned.
Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His columns, books, photos, and radio features are available on his website, www.carrolldaleshort. com. His weekly radio program "Music from Home" airs each Sunday at 6 pm on Oldies 101.5 and is archived afterward on his website.