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Mon June 20, 2005
Everything you ever wanted to know about Alabama landmarks, people and other...curiosities.
By Don Noble
As the title suggests, this volume has entries not only on literal, physical places, where there is something to look at or to do, but also entries on where things happened.
These I found less interesting?the plaque in Huntsville, for example, marking the place where Tallulah Bankhead was born. Although that, too, might move a person to learn more about Tallulah.
Duncan divides his book into five sections, by geography: Coastal or Southwest, West, Southeast, East Central, and North, running across the entire state.
Since there are 271 pages of text, and the entries are mostly short, there are probably 250 pieces in this book?something for everyone.
Duncan provides addresses, phone numbers, opening times?everything that?s needed.
Let me begin with the entries on places one already knows about.
Duncan seems to have covered most of the famous museums and major sites: the boll weevil statue in Enterprise, the great Saturn V rocket in Huntsville, the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, the To Kill a Mockingbird courthouse in Monroeville; the coon dog cemetery in Mynot, the Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman, the Paul ?Bear? Bryant grave in Birmingham and museum in Tuscaloosa.
More interesting to an Alabamian will be the events, people, and places one did not already know about, or only dimly.
In Anniston there is a museum containing, probably, Hitler?s tea service, Napoleon?s toiletry kit, and an actual German WWII Enigma coding machine. In Bessemer, not to be outdone, is what is thought to be Hitler?s typewriter. In Aliceville, site of the German POW camp, is a whole museum of German stuff.
Oddly enough, fans of the Third Reich will find much to see in Alabama.
Duncan includes many entries on folk art.
The quilts of Gee?s Bend are discussed, of course, but so are the bales of hay art of Jim Bird in Forkland, and the mud and later house-paint art of Jimmy Sudduth, which sells for ?hundreds of dollars; the large ones thousands? at the Kentuck Festival of the Arts, as ?a hundred avid art collectors gather around, breathing heavily? to buy ?a vivid, childlike scrawl of a dog, a house, a school bus.?
(Sometimes Duncan?s feelings seep through.)
As one might guess, there are many religious sites, besides the Ave Maria Grotto. There?s the Cross Garden in Prattville, with its warning signs, and there?s the field near Sterrett where the Virgin Mary appears each year when the Yugoslav mystic Marija Lunetti is visiting.
The sign reads ?6:40 P. M. (normally) The Apparition of Our Lady (The Time of the Apparition May be Changed by Our Lady).?
Visitors are asked to refrain from chewing gum and smoking.
I was pleased to learn that the Irondale Caf? of Fried Green Tomatoes fame is not only still functioning but uses 70 pounds of tomatoes a day.
Also that the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas was named by Bugsy Siegel for his mistress, Onie (later Virginia) Hill of Lipscomb, Alabama, whose nickname, because of her long legs, was ?the Flamingo.?
The most-cited Alabamian in this book is Hank Williams, who has entries on Kowaliga Cabin, where he honeymooned and wrote ?Your Cheatin? Heart? and ?Kaw-Liga, a shrine in Almeria, a museum in Georgiana, and the grave and museum in Montgomery, which actually has ?the death car.?
Williams may be Alabama?s most famous actual person. Duncan cites Forrest Gump and Atticus Finch as our two most famous imaginary people.
This book is lots of fun. If you are not amused by one entry, move on to the next. And although it could have been composed of many neutral entries, Alabama Curiosities is held together by Duncan?s consistent, conversational tone, slightly facetious, always mildly amusing.
He tells us, for example, that Dothan used to be called Poplar Head, but its name was changed in 1885.
Duncan writes, ?Since the biblical Dothan is the place where Joseph?s brothers tore off his many-colored coat, threw him into a cistern, and sold him into slavery, the reasoning of the town leaders is unclear.?
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.