The Trussville Tribune All your news, now for Trussville, Clay and Pinson Wed, 25 Nov 2015 19:46:48 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Locals look forward to ‘Small Business Saturday’ Wed, 25 Nov 2015 19:46:48 +0000 From staff reports

TRUSSVILLE — While big-box retailers usually get most shoppers on Black Friday, local retailers want shoppers to remember that small, local businesses are also in town to assist you in your holiday needs.

AMEX_SBS_logo_RGB“Small Business Saturday” is a day to shop local stores and find those unique items you may not see in larger retail stores. By shopping local, buyers are not only putting money back into the community economy, but helping each business owner strive to do more as well.

Buying in large retailers or big-box stores is also more crowded, while local stores are more personal.

“You build a friendship, you build a relationship and you build trust,” Mary Robinson, owner of Nona Ruth’s said.

Additionally, if locals are not shopping at these small stores, they aren’t likely to be there when those certain unique items are needed.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘I love you store, I want you to be here,’ but if you don’t support them and give them your business, then they won’t last,” Susan White of Whoopsie Daisy Clothing said.

Credit card company American Express takes credit for the beginning of “Small Business Saturday”. The company claims the event began in 2010 to encourage people across the country to support local retailers.

According to the Small Business Saturday Consumer Insights Survey conducted in 2012, 73.9 million shoppers bought locally on the scheduled date, and the same study completed in 2014 said more than $14.3 billion was spent throughout the nation.


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Sam “Buster” Estock, Sr., 72, Trussville Wed, 25 Nov 2015 18:17:42 +0000 Estock SamuelSam “Buster” Estock, Sr., age 72 of Trussville, AL passed away on Tuesday, November 24, 2015. Sam grew up in East Lake, AL and was of the 1st graduating class of Banks High School. He was a long-time member of 1st Baptist Roebuck Plaza where he served as a deacon for several years. Sam was the proud business owner of Southern Wire Enterprise Inc. for 20 years. He leaves behind his loving wife of 54 years, Peggy Hill Estock; daughter, Melissa Estock Howell (Woody); son, Sam “Sambo” Estock, Jr.;  sister, Julia Ann Bowden (Bobby); brother, George Estock, Jr. (Frances); grandchildren, Rhett, Kayla-Jane and Haley Howell; a host of nieces, nephews and many friends. Family will receive friends Saturday, Nov. 28th from 4pm until 7pm at Jefferson Memorial in Trussville. The funeral for Sam will be held at 2pm on Sunday, Nov. 29th at Jefferson Memorial Chapel. Burial will immediately the chapel service at Jefferson Memorial Gardens East.

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Safety tips for this holiday weekend Wed, 25 Nov 2015 15:17:58 +0000 From staff reports

Safety TipsThe Jefferson County Health Department and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office have passed along several safety tips for holiday travellers, shoppers and cooks for this holiday season. The sheriff’s office released a detailed list on how to better prepare for the season with driving tips, along with shopping tips.

For Thanksgiving cooks, the health department produced a list of ways to keep guests and cooks from contaminating food, and keeping everyone healthy during the Thanksgiving holidays.

Listed below are several tips from professionals:


  • Avoid driving alone or at night.
  • Keep all car doors locked and windows closed while in or out of your car. Set your alarm or use an anti-theft device.
  • If you must shop at night, park in a well-lighted area.
  • Avoid parking next to vans, trucks with camper shells, or cars with tinted windows.
  • Park as close as you can to your destination and take notice of where you parked.
  • Never leave your car unoccupied with the motor running or with children inside.
  • Do not leave packages or valuables on the seat of your car. This creates a temptation for thieves. If you must leave something in the car, lock it in the trunk or put it out of sight.
  • Be sure to locate your keys prior to going to your car.
  • Keep a secure hold on your purse, handbag and parcels. Do not put them down or on top of the car in order to open the door.
  • When approaching or leaving your vehicle, be aware of your surroundings. Do not approach your car alone if there are suspicious people in the area.
  • Ask mall or store security for an escort before leaving your shopping location.

Automated Teller Machine (ATM):

  • If you must use an ATM, choose one that is located inside a police station, mall, or well-lighted location.
  • Withdraw only the amount of cash you need.
  • Protect your PIN by shielding the ATM keypad from anyone who is standing near you.
  • Do not throw your ATM receipt away at the ATM location.


  • Shop during daylight hours whenever possible. If you must shop at night, go with a friend or family member.
  • Do not carry a purse or wallet, if possible.
  • Always carry your Alabama Driver’s License or Identification Card along with necessary cash, checks and/or a credit card you expect to use.
  • Avoid carrying large amounts of cash.
  • Pay for purchases with a check or credit card when possible.
  • Keep cash in your front pocket.
  • Notify the credit card issuer immediately if your credit card is lost, stolen or misused.
  • Keep a record of all of your credit card numbers in a safe place at home.
  • Be extra careful if you do carry a wallet or purse. They are the prime targets of criminals in crowded shopping areas, transportation terminals, bus stops, on buses and other rapid transit.


  • If possible, leave small children at home with a trusted babysitter.
  • Teach your child to go to a store clerk and ask for help in case your child is separated from you.
  • Teach children their full name, address and telephone number to give to police officers or mall security.


  • Keep raw meats separate from other foods, especially fruit and vegetables in your shopping cart and grocery bags. Raw meats that are wrapped for display often leak.
  • Always wash hands before you begin to prepare food and after handling raw meats. Use warm water, soap and paper towels.
  • Keep your kitchen and utensils clean. Wash cutting boards, knives and countertops that come into contact with raw meat.
  • Don’t re-use wash cloths after wiping countertops, especially after cleaning up raw meat juice.
  • Thaw meat in the refrigerator as frozen meat is easy to undercook.


  • Refrigerate, reheat, or throw away perishable food after 2 hours at room temperature. Keep track.
  • Think small. Arrange and serve food on several small plates instead of one large one. Keep the rest of the food either hot or cold.
  • Keep hot foods hot – above 140 degrees F. Use warming trays or pots, if possible.
  • Keep cold foods cold – below 41 degrees F. Nest dishes in bowls of ice, if possible.
  • Don’t serve raw eggs mixed into drinks or food.
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Students collect coats, blankets for drive Wed, 25 Nov 2015 15:12:01 +0000 Submitted Photo

Joining the students and Mrs. Stovall is Trussville Rotary Daybreak Club President Eddie Seal. Submitted Photo


TRUSSVILLE — The Interact Club at Hewitt-Trussville Middle School recently conducted a ‘Cozy Coat Drive’ to benefit T.E.A.M. (Trussville Ecumenical Assistive Ministry). Mrs. Stovall’s class won the ‘friendly competition’ by collecting 45 coats and blankets from students in their home room. Trussville Daybreak Rotary sponsored the breakfast for the winners.


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Retailers preparing for Black Friday shoppers Wed, 25 Nov 2015 15:00:22 +0000 By Chris Yow

TRUSSVILLE — Black Friday shoppers can sometimes be hasty and even downright mean, but local retailers are hoping to curb those issues with the help of law enforcement and policies designed to create smaller lines near big-ticket items.

Black FridayThis year, Walmart stores will continue their 1-hour guarantee for several items as well as use wristbands to allow customers to reserve items and shop elsewhere. Walmart will have five items on the 1-hour guarantee and many others will have wristbands.

Walmart spokesman Kory Lunberg said their stores have plans in place to keep shoppers from rushing around their stores.

“Anyone in the store and in line between 6 and 7 p.m. on Thanksgiving, they are guaranteed to get (a 1-hour guarantee) item, so I think that helps give them some peace of mind,” he said.

“With some of the other big-ticket items, we have wristbands. We have the same number of wristbands as we do products in the store. It helps people know what they can get and they can shop elsewhere.”

Lunberg also said each of their stores has a safety plan specific to the store.

“Every store has a unique safety plan that is designed specifically for that store. How you get folks into the store, through the store and out of the store,” he said. “One thing that helps set Walmart apart from other retailers is we’re open 24 hours a day. So, customers can come into the store, get acclimated to the where they want to go with where the products are that they can line up for instead of lining up outside and opening the doors.”

Contrary to Walmart, Trussville’s Target location will be closed until 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, but will open and remain open until 11 p.m. on Friday night.

Trussville Store Manager Jeremy Walker said his team preps for this day well in advance.

“We plan about three months before the event for how we will train employees in a safe and endurable environment for everybody to shop. We put in the time to make sure we have all we need, whether it’s barricades or supplies and train our team members on their specific roles,” he said.

Once the day arrives, his team is properly trained, law enforcement is made aware of the rules and Walker then communicates with guests on how they are to proceed through the store.

“I will be here three hours before the store opens and I will talk with every person in line. I have a very specific conversation on our expectations,” Walker said. “I’ve covered expectations with law enforcement officers in the building, no pushing and no running, to make sure everybody in the line understands.”

Like Walmart, Target guests can also pre-plan by checking out the store layout. Although Target is closed beforehand, the store’s mobile app will allow guests to log in and see the store’s layout.

“The app is really helpful in guiding customers to where they want to shop,” Walker said.

A number of retailers in the area will have similar protocols for the event, and many local shops will also be open for shopping on Friday.


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Federal mandates silence three Alabama Power coal units Wed, 25 Nov 2015 14:28:07 +0000 By Michael Sznajderman, Alabama NewsCenter

It’s quiet inside the steel and brick building that houses Plant Gorgas Units 6-7 in Walker County. Except for the low buzz of a few light fixtures, the once-familiar roar of the turbines and the rumble of coal pulverizers have ceased – and won’t be heard again.

The same is true at Plant Barry in Mobile County, where Unit 3 has produced its last megawatt of power.

All three units served Alabama Power customers well for decades. As recently as early winter 2015, Gorgas 6 and 7 played an important role in meeting customer demand during frigid weather.

The closed unit at Gorgas was reliable, but lacked the environmental controls that coal-fired power plants must now have to meet the latest federal regulations. Photo via Alabama NewsCenter

The closed unit at Gorgas was reliable, but lacked the environmental controls that coal-fired power plants must now have to meet the latest federal regulations. Photo via Alabama NewsCenter

But increasing federal environmental regulations finally spelled the end for these units, which the company has now officially closed permanently.

“From a reliability standpoint, Gorgas 6 and 7 were top of the line,” said Billy McKay, an operations team leader at Gorgas. “They were really great units.”

McKay recently conducted a tour of Gorgas 6 and 7. The control room that once was occupied 24 hours a day is now empty. The cavernous space where the turbines remain is now serving as a temporary storage location for plant equipment and supplies.

Although the closed units at Gorgas and Barry were reliable, they lacked the full suite of environmental controls that coal-fired power plants must now have to meet the latest federal regulations. With the deadline looming to add costly technology or close the units, the company chose the latter.

“Frankly, as hard as it is, when considering options for these three units, closing them was the most cost-effective choice for our company and for our customers,” said Jim Heilbron, Alabama Power senior vice president and senior production officer. Closing the units also helped the company end a longstanding legal dispute with the federal government related to environmental regulations.


Meanwhile, the company is spending about $1 billion at other units around Alabama Power’s system to comply with the latest environmental regulations. This is on top of about $3 billion the company has spent over the past dozen years complying with previous environmental mandates.

The current, ongoing expenditures include adding additional controls at the three remaining coal units at Gorgas. Indeed, just a few hundred yards from now-silent Gorgas 6-7, the company is completing work on a new baghouse for Gorgas 8, 9 and 10, at a cost of about $375 million. The baghouse is designed to remove additional particulate matter as well as tiny amounts of mercury from the units’ emissions. Another baghouse, for Unit 5 at Plant Gaston in Shelby County, is also nearing completion.

At Plant Barry, the tightening regulations are also forcing the company to cease using coal at Units 1 and 2. Instead, the units will be available going forward, on a limited basis, using natural gas.


Natural gas also was the most cost-effective choice for meeting environmental regulations at Plant Gadsden. That plant ceased using coal earlier this year.

The company also is adding natural gas capabilities to four coal units at Plant Gaston, and to both coal units at Greene County; all six units are expected to stop using coal next year.

In all, the company is reducing the number of coal units from 23 to 10 because of federal environmental mandates.

“These regulations are forcing us to make costly changes in how we generate electricity for our customers,” said Matt Bowden, Alabama Power’s vice president of Environmental Affairs. “And there are more regulations coming.”

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‘Tis the Season: Charlie Brown tree decorated in Trussville Wed, 25 Nov 2015 14:00:10 +0000 By Chris Yow

TRUSSVILLE — The decorations may be a tad early, and there may be more than usual, but the “Charlie Brown” Christmas tree is decorated in Trussville for another holiday season.

The “Charlie Brown” Christmas tree, decorated annually in Trussville, has been decorated for the upcoming Christmas season. Photo by Chris Yow

The “Charlie Brown” Christmas tree, decorated annually in Trussville, has been decorated for the upcoming Christmas season. Photo by Chris Yow

The tree has been decorated for many, many years, although no one in the town can say exactly how long the tradition has been taking place. This year, a red bow is atop the tree with several ornamental red balls throughout. A photo frame of Charlie Brown even swings from the tree.

A sparsely-decorated pine tree pays homage to the Christmas tree from the cartoon “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in which the title character picks a small sapling tree from a tree farm of large, full trees. Charlie Brown then brings the tree to the set of a Christmas play, and is ridiculed for the small size of the tree.

When Charlie Brown takes the tree and returns home, he passes by Snoopy’s doghouse with a blue ribbon for first prize decorations. He takes an ornament and puts it on the tree, and the branch bends, prompting Charlie Brown to cry, “I’ve killed it!” He then runs away leaving the spaling behind. All the while, the other characters see the tree, and use decorations from the doghouse to continue decorating the tree, and take it to Charlie Brown.

When the news was posted on the Facebook group “What’s Happening in Trussville,” citizens were excited as the Christmas season is nearing.

“Such a wonderful tradition. Thanks to whoever does this act of kindness for our community,” citizen Elaine Cox posted in the comment section of the post.

Susan Anderson said, “I came around the corner (Sunday) morning and there it was! All the kudzu was gone and it was perfect!”
Passerby motorists can see the tree from the road, and it makes for a good break when traffic is heavy on Chalkville Road. The tree is located near Green Drive on the northbound side of Chalkville Road just past Woodland Acres.

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Hewitt-Trussville girls take Thanksgiving tourney championship Wed, 25 Nov 2015 01:54:37 +0000 By Erik Harris

TRUSSVILLE – The Hewitt-Trussville girls basketball team trailed Fort Payne at the conclusion of each of the first three quarters, but struck late to claim a 57-54 win in the championship game of the Bryant Bank Thanksgiving Classic on Tuesday night at Hewitt-Trussville High School.

Hewitt-Trussville hoisting the Bryant Bank Thanksgiving Classic hardware following their 57-54 win over Fort Payne on Tuesday night at home. Photo by Erik Harris

Hewitt-Trussville hoisting the Bryant Bank Thanksgiving Classic hardware following their 57-54 win over Fort Payne on Tuesday night at home. Photo by Erik Harris

It was free-throws that told the story late. The Huskies went to the line 11 times in the closing minutes of the contest, making 13 of their attempts to secure the first-place hardware.

“It wasn’t pretty, but we’ll take it,” said Hewitt-Trussville coach Tonya Hunter. “I’m just so excited that we get to practice. We get to go back to the drawing board and correct a lot of stuff.”

All of Hewitt-Trussville’s final ten points came from the charity stripe. Their last field goal came from Bailey Berry, who finished with seven points, with 5:20 remaining in the game.

Hunter’s girls had to overcome multiple Wildcat surges, and put the brakes on a red hot offense in the second frame. After allowing 18 Fort Payne points through the first eight minutes of play, Hewitt-Trussville held the visitors to only four second quarter points. The Wildcats took a 22-20 lead into the break.

They later constructed a 8-2 run to open the third quarter, but a defensive adjustment from Hunter sparked a momentum swing.

“I think they got four turnovers in a row and we scored off of it, so that was huge for us when we made the adjustment with the press,” said Hunter.

Four timely buckets from Gabby Hill, Cierra Taylor and Berry cut Fort Payne’s lead to one point late in the third. Guard London Coleman got the final frame started with a baseline triple that put the Huskies on top, 40-38.

Another Coleman lay-in followed by Berry’s bucket set the stage for the 13 freebees.

Coleman led the offensive charge with 18 points. Morgan Kirk added another 13 while Gabby Hill and Taylor dropped eight each.

Hewitt-Trussville finished the tournament 3-0 with wins over Pelham, Briarwood and Fort Payne.

On the guys side of the tournament, Clay-Chalkville took a 38-36 decision over Hewitt-Trussville on Tuesday night in the losers bracket. The Cougars also got a 42-38 win over Hueytown and a 57-52 loss to Oak Mountain to finish the tournament 2-1.

The Huskies finished with a 1-2 record after dominating Fayette County, 65-32, in the opener on Saturday.

Pinson Valley also finished the three-day tournament with a 1-2 record. The Indians put an end to their run with a 54-35 loss to Minor on Tuesday afternoon.

Erik Harris is the Sports Editor for the Trussville Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @jeharris2 or email him at

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Inside Cuba Part Two: A Faded Glory Wed, 25 Nov 2015 01:42:27 +0000 Young Cubans, on the square in the city of Matanzas.

Students at an arts school in Matanzas. Photo by Tom Gordon.

He was a big-shouldered, muscular Cuban guy. His name was Oswaldo, and we had just crossed paths inside the sprawling, warren-like San Jose Market in Havana. He wanted to talk because the Lou Reed likeness on my T-shirt had caught his eye and he knew a lot about American and British rock music.

He brought up the name of the band that helped launch Lou, the Velvet Underground. He showed me the Led Zeppelin tattoo on his forearm.  He listened, wide-eyed, when I told him I had seen Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix in concert, twice. He told me how much he loved “the Boss,” and I felt a little embarrassed to tell him I had seen Springsteen in concert four times.

Looking back, I wish I had left Oswaldo with more than just a few rock concert recollections. If I go to Cuba again, I’ll bring lots of rock and roll T-shirts. But maybe, just maybe, if the relations between our two countries continue to warm up, folks like Oswaldo will be able to get not just rock T-shirts, but even necessities that they now find in short supply.

I was in Cuba for a week in mid-October, following a summer in which the U.S. and this large,diverse island of 11.2 million people re-established diplomatic relations after 54 years of mutually shared estrangement. I was part of a group trip arranged through the University of Alabama Alumni Association and the World Affairs Council, an organization with chapters around the U.S. that promotes greater understanding of nations and the issues they face. There were 26 of us, and we traveled to Cuba under what is known as a People to People license. That U.S. license required us to have a full, education-focused itinerary.

And while we were not the first and we would not be the last group of foreigners to visit the various places we saw, I think we could not help but be fascinated. Among other things, we walked the streets of Old Havana and listened to a young architect describe the restoration effort now taking place there. We received tutoring on the food ration card that is issued to each Cuban,and we saw a performance of young dancers and musicians at an art school in the city of Matanzas. We also danced, learned about Latin dance etiquette and played a baseball-like game called Quimbumbia at a senior citizens center in the city of Santa Clara.

We ate a fabulous meal prepared at an organic farm in the breathtakingly beautiful Viñales Valley. We met with faculty members at the University of Havana and a diplomat at the U.S. Embassy, and we sat in on an intense round of drumming, chanting and dancing derived from the Santeria religion developed by Cubans of African descent. We also saw the wild and wacky ceramic sculptures and paintings with which an artist named Jose Rodriguez Fuster has transformed his home and surrounding habitations in the Havana neighborhood of Jaimanitas. And of course, we rode in Chevys, Fords, Dodges and other vintage cars from the 1940s and ‘50s that draw lots tourists to Cuba but also furnish transportation to everyday people who need it.

And whenever possible, we talked to people, asking them about their lives, what they thought of Americans, what they think might happen now that the U.S. and Cuba have allowed each other to open up embassies. We asked what might happen when Raul Castro, who took over the reins of the Cuban regime when his ailing older brother Fidel decided to step aside, steps down or dies.

Now, a one-week visit to any place does not make one an expert on it, and that is certainly the case with myself and Cuba. But I do feel I know a lot more about this island than I did before this trip, and I want to share some of the things I have learned and observed. Under the terms of our trip, we were required to keep a journal and to hold onto it for five years. What follows is based largely on notes I kept during the trip and afterward.

Again, what many of us wanted to know was what Cubans thought now that the U.S. and their country had opened embassies in each other’s capitals.

Warming up

“It’s the best thing that could have happened to us,” said Carlos Changuet, the manager of Carenas, a musical group that performed for us in Havana. “Thank you, Obama.”

“We are brothers and sisters now,” a Cuban woman told me.

“We have many things we can trade with each other,” said a taxi driver named Moises, who was behind the wheel of a red-and-white, short-lived Ford car called an Edsel.

Echoing some of his countrymen, Changuet told us the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election could possibly determine how much warmer or cooler the relationship would become.

“I hope it will be Hillary,” he said.

Nestor Mesa, a professor who accompanied our group on a walking tour through the University of Havana, told of people laughing, crying, shouting and of car horns honking when President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced on Dec. 17 that Cuba and the U.S. would be re-establishing diplomatic relations. I think Mesa might hear some more of that racket if the U.S. Congress decides to lift the trade embargo.

“We know that this is going to be a process (toward full relations) that is going to be long,” Mesa said.

But when that process is over, he was asked, will we see a McDonald’s and Starbucks on every corner?

“No, no, no, no, no,” Mesa replied. “It [meaning that] is not my country.”

Cuba may be an island, but its land mass of 42,426 square miles would take up more than 80 percent of Alabama. Cuba is nearly as large as Louisiana, and it is larger than Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Ohio and Indiana. It also could swallow up, altogether, the New England states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. 

Restaurants have proliferated in Havana in recent years. This one is in the Plaza de la Catedral in Old Havana. 

Restaurants have proliferated in Havana in recent years. This one is in the Plaza de la Catedral in Old Havana. Photo by Tom Gordon.

Ties that bind

Alabama has longstanding ties to Cuba. Mobile’s founder, Pierre le Moyne d’Iberville, is buried in Havana. Alabamians fought on the island during the Spanish-American War, two of the most famous being “Fighting Joe” Wheeler and Richmond Pearson Hobson.  Four Alabama Air National Guard members were killed during the ill-fated, poorly planned 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion to topple Fidel Castro’s regime. Currently, as part of the war on terror, an Alabama National Guard unit is now helping guard prisoners in the U.S. military facility at Guantanamo Bay along Cuba’s southeastern coast.

On the non-military side, Alabama used to do a lot of trading with Cuba — and Gov. Robert Bentley wants to see that trade revived. In the middle of our stay, he signed a letter with eight other governors asking that Congress lift the U.S. trade embargo. Mobile, through which a lot of goods would be shipped, and Havana are sister cities.

Since 2002, the University of Alabama has had an Alabama-Cuba Initiative, under which UA students have been spending a semester in Cuba since 2009, UA faculty have been doing research studies on the island and Cuban professionals in a variety of fields have spent time in Tuscaloosa with their UA counterparts. In February, UA opened a Center for Cuba Collaboration and Scholarship.

Auburn also has been moving on the Cuban front. In June, AU and Cuban educators signed a five-year agreement between Auburn’s College of Agriculture and the Agrarian University of Havana and the Cuban National Center for Animal and Plant Health. According to an Auburn news release, that agreement “paves the way for faculty and student exchange programs and collaborative research efforts between Auburn agriculture and the Cuban institutions.”

Also in June, UAB nephrologist David Pollock was in Cuba with other members of the American Physiological Society to sign a research collaboration agreement with the Cuban Society of Physiological Sciences.

More than a few times during our trip, my fellow group members and I were served a lot of chicken legs and thighs. For all we know, some of that chicken could have come from Alabama, and here’s why:

Because of the loosening of the trade embargo in 2000, Alabama has shipped a lot of poultry to Cuba. In 2014, according to Maria Mendez, director of Latin American Sales & Trade Development at the Alabama State Port Authority, about 100,000 tons of Alabama chicken parts were shipped to Cuba from Mobile, New Orleans and Pascagoula.  Last summer, when Cuba put an embargo on Alabama poultry because of concerns over avian flu, an Alabama delegation whose members included state Veterinarian Dr. Tony Frazier and Dan Connor, chairman of Auburn’s poultry science department, flew to Cuba to reassure officials there of the poultry’s safety, and shipments subsequently resumed.

Meanwhile, a north Alabama based-firm, CleBer LLC, is planning to build a factory in Cuba that will produce tractors for Cuban farmers.

Poor and vibrant

To say that Cuba is a poor, underdeveloped country is an understatement. You can read plenty of data about it, but you can see indications of it, as we did with our own eyes, and talk to folks about it.

While a major renovation and restoration effort is underway in the heart of the old city, Havana, like other Cuban cities we saw, is full of once-magnificent colonial-style buildings that made me think of the words “faded glory.” If we tend to think of cities as feminine, then I think much of Havana could be personified by an actress long past her prime, caked in makeup yet unable to hide the wrinkles and wear of the years, with eyeshade running in rivulets down her face. Havana has street lights, but they are only dim counterpoints to the night, as are the lights inside many homes and buildings. In the Cuban cities I saw, rust never sleeps, and I think the sunshine is especially welcome.

Now before you get the impression that Cuba is one big bleak house, you would notice if you visited that many Cuban homes and other buildings have a lot of color, one of the primary shades a cobalt blue that is apparently used a lot because it can withstand tropical weather. But not faring very well at all are the soulless, peeling and crumbling bloc apartment buildings that reflect the island’s long association with the former Soviet Union, structures like those that you can see all over the former Iron Curtain countries. (Not surprisingly, the Russian embassy, looming over the Havana landscape like a rough replica of an old German army hand grenade, may be the ugliest public building I have ever seen.) The only thing that offsets their baleful pallor are the lines of colorful clothes hanging over many balconies. In fact, if what I saw on the trip was any indication, today’s Cuba is a country of clotheslines.

Havana has its share of nightspots, and Mick Jagger was seen dancing in one the week before our group arrived. A lot of the joints feature music like that made famous by the Buena Vista Social Club CD and I took in that music at a couple of places and even danced. But one thing I noticed in these places was how few Cubans were at the tables.

On the Saturday night of our trip, some of us and our Cuban guide, Rigoberto Mir, headed to Café Taberna, a nightspot in Old Havana. There, we sipped mojitos and watched as a band, several of its members in their 70s, along with two vibrant, young, red-clad dancers, put on a swinging show. The audience seemed to be almost entirely European and many, including ourselves, were happy to get up and dance with the music. Toward the end of the show, a lot of us joined a conga line. As we made our way around the floor, I noticed the silhouettes of faces looking in the windows from outside and moving in time to the music. The faces belonged to Cubans, who I think would have been hard-pressed to pay the $25 cover charge.

That brings me to a man I met whose name is Alfredo. He is 65 and has five children and nine grandchildren. He also drives a taxi, a 1948 Plymouth Special, keeping it going with parts from a Lada, a Russian car still common in Cuba. The car’s interior was spotless, and Alfredo had put a leather cover on the steering wheel and installed a sound system far more modern than the car’s original AM radio. Also, according to Rigoberto who translated much of our conversation, Alfredo was also unlicensed. That way, he would make more money, and he needed it.

One of the recurring features of Cuba is a billboard or sign exhorting the glories of La Revolución and bearing quote-accompanied images of Fidel Castro and his rebel buddy Che Guevara. Alfredo is old enough to remember when Fidel, his younger brother Raul, Che and their forces toppled the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959. He said that during the fighting, some Batista soldiers killed a man in his rural community because the man was simply trying to sell a horse and they were sure he was trying to sell it to the rebels. He said the revolution changed things for the better. But, he said, those in charge needed to do more.

Alfredo said he drew a pension that, according to my calculations, amounted to about $10 a month. It would take half of that to buy some beef to supplement his family’s diet, he said, and it would not come close to buying a new pair of shoes.

“How can anybody live on that?” he said.

Alfredo had spent much of his working life on Cuba’s highways and byways, driving buses and trucks. We spent hours on those highways and byways as well, riding in something to which many Cubans in need of transport do not have access: an air-conditioned bus. Having driven more times than I can count in the interstate sprawl of Birmingham, I was struck by how little vehicle traffic was on the national highway that took us from Havana to cities like Matanzas and Santa Clara or the Viñales Valley.

Some of the sights that are still fresh in my memory are overpasses leading to nowhere, the crumbling concrete of abandoned agricultural schools, the lack of cattle in fields we passed, horse-drawn wagons using the national highway and leaving piles of poop to mark their passage, and clusters of hitchhiking Cubans standing along the shoulder of the highway, some of them holding aloft a wad of pesos to entice a passing vehicle to stop.

Not prepared

Tourism promotions say, “Come to Cuba before it changes.” Good idea, but don’t hurry. Those changes are going to take a while.

Take infrastructure, for example. Daniel De La Regata, a young architect sporting a Boston Red Sox ball cap who took us on a tour of the renovation work in which he is involved in Old Havana, put it this way:

“We are not prepared to deal with you.”

When our group first arrived in Havana, our lodging was in the Hotel Nacional, which overlooks the famous five-mile long seawall known as the Malecón and the harbor beyond. In Havana, the Nacional is to other hotels what the Alabama Theatre is to the other cinemas that serve our area – a venerable palace, a dowager amidst a group of young upstarts. The Nacional makes a lot of its long history and the VIPs of stage, screen, politics and crime who have stayed there. In 1946, American mobsters held a summit there and Frank Sinatra entertained them. In August, after the U.S. embassy formally opened its doors, Secretary of State John Kerry came by and held a press briefing with his Cuban counterpart. In the lobby, near the entrance to the bar, stands a statue of an Alabama native, the smooth-voiced crooner Nat King Cole. At the other end of the lobby, a short walk from a kiosk full of books on Fidel, Che and La Revolución, a uniformed attendant stands ready to push the “Up” button on the elevators and hold the doors open for passengers.

Renovations and repairs were taking place at the Nacional when we were there, and the roof was off-limits because of repairs needed there. We also were told that if we used any toilet tissue in the bathroom, we were to place it in a lidded basket. The reason? If guests were allowed to flush their toilet tissue — and the Nacional was packed with guests from all over when we were there — the volume would wreak havoc with the hotel sewage system.

If building inspectors were turned loose in Cuba, they would find enough code violations to last their lifetimes and those of their children. As some of our group reflected on what we saw and did while in Cuba, we shared a concern: If, in the relaxing of government controls, more people decide to open bed and breakfast places or rent parts of their homes to tourists, how long will it be before some of those structures — not to mention their fragile plumbing — break down under the stress that would come with those tourists, who are coming in ever-increasing numbers?

As we made our way to various destinations, particularly in cities and towns and rural areas outside Havana, we noticed that our bus was not the only one filling up one-lane farm roads, clogging narrow city streets or disgorging visitors to the sites on our itinerary. Other buses were preceding us or coming after us. One of the buses that followed ours to the site of a mural in the Viñales Valley had British passengers, and one of them told me how struck he was by the grim reality of Cuban lives.

“You and I don’t realize how good we have it,” he said.

“If you spend your money here, you are helping,” architect Daniel De La Regata said as he touted the restoration in Old Havana. Based on what the average family income is in Cuba — about $20 a month in 2014, according to — every dollar helps. But it is not just money that the Cubans need.

On the morning when our travel group was boarding our bus outside our hotel in Santa Clara, some of us met and took photos of two older ladies, probably in their 70s, who were sitting near the entrance to a building across the street. When they told one of our group that they were in need of soap, he gave them a bagful, and I chipped in one of the Lever soap bars that I had brought to leave as part of the gratuity we were advised to give the housekeepers who cleaned our hotel rooms. Then a man who had been standing nearby came up and made it clear he wanted some of that soap in the bag. The ladies would not budge, and a fracas ensued. It did not last but a few seconds, but there was shouting, grabbing, pushing and swinging. As our bus began to roll, I saw one of the ladies put the Lever bar inside her bra.

Street in the city of Santa Clara. To the right is a plaza dedicated to the Beatles. Photo by Tom Gordon.

Street in the city of Santa Clara. To the right is a plaza dedicated to the Beatles. Photo by Tom Gordon.

Robert Olin is the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Alabama, and since 2009, his college has sent about 75 undergraduate students to spend an academic semester in Cuba.  The students who complete that semester come back “transformed for the better,” Olin said. They have insights, they have friendships; some even have fallen in love. And while they usually fly to Cuba with one or two full suitcases, “they come back only with what they’re wearing on their backs because they leave their stuff with their friends,” Olin said.

The Alabama State Port Authority’s Cuban-born Maria Mendez, who recently attended a trade show in Havana, says going to her native land is always like going back in time, and yet time is not standing still. We saw lots of Cubans with cell phones, and some of those whom we met during our various scheduled programs told us they were more comfortable talking about Cuban politics and relations with the U.S. than they would have been some years back.

“I think I have the right to talk about anything,” Havana University’s Nestor Mesa told us.

As our trip unfolded, we got indications that that right may not apply to everyone. During a briefing at the U.S. embassy, the diplomat told us of some groundless mass arrests that had taken place not long before our arrival. And at the arts school in Matanzas, the talented students who performed for us appeared to be on a short leash in terms of what they could say. When we asked them the name of the ballet piece that they performed for us, they said it was a tribute to the heroes of La Revolución.

Even our helpful Cuban guide, Rigoberto Mir, shared a joke that suggested that the right to talk in his country did have its limits. The joke goes basically like this (an American and a Cuban are talking):

“You don’t have any rights to free speech,” the American says. “In my country, I can stand outside the White House and call Obama any darn thing I please and nobody will do anything to me.”

“I have free speech, too,” the Cuban says. “I can go to my government buildings and call Obama anything I please and nobody will do anything to me either.”

A friend recently told me he heard the same basic joke in Soviet Russia 30 years ago, with Ronald Reagan’s name substituted for that of Barack Obama.

So, what does the future hold? That’s something I could not predict with any certainty, but my stance might not be a lot different from most Cubans. The Cuban government doesn’t exactly telegraph its moves, and that means, as Rigoberto said, “We are a country of rumors. We don’t have a lot of information, so we like to speculate.”

On the charter flight from Havana to Miami, I met Javier Figueredo, a native Cuban who now lives in Tampa, who was visiting his native country for the first time in eight years. When I asked him his impressions, Freya, his Colombian-born girlfriend, translated his answers.

“The buildings are worse, the streets are really bad, but he noticed that there is more private business,” she said.

We noticed that too, in the forms of the private restaurants at which we dined, the rooms in apartments that had been turned into snack bars or mini-markets, and in the casas particulares, or private homes offering lodging to visitors.   

We also saw other things that suggest that many Cubans want alternatives to what they have at home, alternatives that beckon 90 miles to the north, across the Florida Straits. When our group visited the American embassy, for example, we saw something that we were told was not at all uncommon: a line, perhaps of two or three dozen people, outside the consular office. All of those folks, we were told, were hoping to obtain visas to the U.S.

A few days later, on the way back to Birmingham, I stood in a check-in line at Miami International Airport and struck up a conversation with a couple from Omaha, who were returning home from a fishing trip in the Keys.

When I told them I had just been in Cuba, they told me they had encountered some Cubans during their trip.

There were about a half dozen of them. They were in the ocean, in sight of the couple’s fishing boat, swimming toward the American shore.

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A Holiday Reading List Wed, 25 Nov 2015 01:42:11 +0000 I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity.

— Malcolm X

With Thanksgiving — and the abbreviated work week it brings for many of us — upon us, I’m going to do something I last did a couple of years ago in this space. Namely, I’m going to give myself a break from writing about the trials, tribulations and occasional triumphs of this place we call home and tell you instead about some of the best books I’ve read most recently. I hope you’ll try some or all of them for yourself — and, if you’re so inclined, let me know what you think.

The Book of Illusions, by Paul Auster. I first encountered Auster in the mid-1980s, when I read The New York Trilogy, three short novels — City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room — that are best, if inadequately, described as existentialist detective stories. Whether because reading them sequentially turned my then-young mind so thoroughly inside-out, or simply from inattention or neglect, I didn’t make my way back to Auster until earlier this year, when I picked up a used copy of The Book of Illusions on a whim (one result of which is that I’m now enthusiastically playing catch-up; I’ve since read one more of his novels, and have another nearing the top of the pile on my “to be read” table). 

The book’s ostensible protagonist — one effect of Auster’s style is to make almost everything seem ostensible — is a college professor whose wife and children have died in a plane crash. In the throes of grief and depression, the professor stumbles upon the silent film comedies of Hector Mann, a more obscure contemporary of Chaplin and Keaton who suddenly stopped making movies and was never heard from again. Becoming obsessed with Mann, the professor writes a book about his films, the publication of which opens the door to a dark and spiraling mystery. In a passage describing Mann’s penultimate film, the author could just as well be amplifying the overarching refrains of his own work:

It is a meditation on his own disappearance, and for all its ambiguity and furtive suggestiveness, for all the moral questions it asks and then refuses to answer, it is essentially a film about the anguish of selfhood.

The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams, by Ben Bradlee, Jr. The history of baseball is littered with great stories and colorful, compelling characters. I’m a lifelong fan, and for my money, the most captivatingly complicated figure the game has produced is Theodore Samuel Williams. Tempestuous, mercurial, unapologetically profane and sometimes openly hostile to fans and sportswriters — the latter of whom he referred to, with a mixture of humor and contempt, as “the knights of the keyboard” — Williams quietly visited sick children and raised and donated funds for their medical care; he was similarly generous to former ballplayers who had fallen on hard times.

Williams broke into the big leagues with the Boston Red Sox — for whom he would play his entire career — in 1939, a brash 20-year old who openly proclaimed his intention of becoming “the greatest hitter who ever lived.” Two seasons later, he compiled a batting average of .406, and remains the last player to eclipse the magical .400 mark. Across a career that ended in 1960, Williams hit .344, with 521 home runs and more than 1,800 runs batted in — numbers that would have been burnished much further had he not missed nearly five full seasons serving in the military during World War II and the Korean War. In the last at-bat of his storied career, he hit a home run, a feat instantly immortalized by the writer John Updike in an essay for The New Yorker, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.”

The characterization “a man’s man” has become unfashionable, but for both better and worse, there is no more apt description of Williams. Beyond his exploits on the diamond, he was a decorated fighter pilot — one of his comrades was future astronaut John Glenn, who called Williams was one of the best fliers he ever saw — and also achieved renown as one of the world’s top sport fishermen.

On the flip side, Williams had two failed marriages, as well as another complicated domestic relationship that lasted for 20 years. He also had highly fraught relationships with his three children, two of whom he joined near the end of his life (he died in 2002) in a highly publicized and controversial agreement — especially among friends, associates and other family members, who believed the increasingly ailing Williams was coerced — to have his head preserved cryonically, in hopes of being resuscitated at some future date. As with the rest of this sprawling and exhaustively researched volume on a towering American figure, author Bradlee handles the subject with aplomb. 

The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene. I’ve read a good deal of Greene over the years, but somehow got around only recently to the novel that is widely considered to be his masterpiece. Set in the Mexico of the 1930s, a time when that country’s government was intent on suppressing the Catholic Church, it is the story of an unnamed priest who, to the point at which the reader first encounters him, has managed to escape the crackdown.

As Greene relates immediately, the priest’s survival is not a matter of courage or guile, but in fact quite the opposite. He is craven and deeply flawed morally — in Greene’s coinage, a “whiskey priest.” As his tale moves toward an ending that only seems inevitable once it has arrived, the priest comes to the realization — or, perhaps more correctly, the revelation — that he is left with only one means of possible redemption. 

One of the hallmarks of Greene’s style is his ability to convey profound truths about the human condition in a way that is both deeply evocative of mood and setting and as matter-of-fact as a police procedural. In The Power and the Glory, he writes of the priest, knowing that the authorities are closing in on him, happening into a native settlement of a half-dozen mud huts; the inhabitants come out to look at him, “watching the rare spectacle of something worse off than themselves.” Later, he describes a rainstorm that “came perpendicularly down, with a sort of measured intensity, as if it were driving nails into a coffin lid.”

Atonement, by Ian McEwan. For a long time, I consciously resisted reading McEwan, despite — or, given my sometimes contrarian nature, perhaps because of — the insistence of numerous critics and friends that the Englishman may be the best writer of fiction currently living. Then, several months ago, one of those friends handed me a copy of Atonement, with the at least half-serious admonishment that if I didn’t read it posthaste, our friendship would be in jeopardy.

Afterward, all I could say was, “Thanks.” McEwan’s prose is beautiful without the slightest hint of showiness, exposing successive layers of meaning and nuance with the exactitude of a scalpel. The very title of the book is a twist that is not revealed until an ending that hits like a punch to the solar plexus, the coda to a spiraling tragedy that unfolds between a summer’s day in 1935 and the midst of the carnage of World War II — all the result of a precocious child’s misinterpretation of a single moment that is beyond any child’s understanding.

Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. This is the book I finished most recently, and I’ll say at the outset that it probably isn’t for everyone. I really didn’t think it was for me, either, as I’m not much for the details of military campaigns, which is largely what the book consists of, but when it comes recommended by Mark Twain, I have to figure it’s worth getting around to eventually.

Grant finished the book in 1885 as he was dying of cancer, and roughly three-quarters of it is spent recounting his experience of the Civil War. His prose style is straightforward and unpretentious, but amidst his accounts of strategy, troop movements, battles and military politics, Grant’s utter and unpretentious humanity shines through. “Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions,” he wrote. “We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.” Near the end of the book, he wrote of his reaction to the assassination of President Lincoln, whom he had been invited to accompany to Ford’s Theater on that tragic evening:

It would be impossible for me to describe the feeling that overcame me at the news of…the assassination of the President. I knew his goodness of heart, his generosity, his yielding disposition, his desire to have everybody happy, and above all his desire to see all the people of the United States enter again upon the full privileges of citizenship with equality among all. I knew also the feeling that Mr. Johnson had expressed in his speeches and conversation against the Southern people, and I feared that his course towards them would be such as to repel, and make them unwilling citizens; and if they became such they would remain so for a long while. I felt that reconstruction had been set back, no telling how far.

Angels at the Gate, by T.K. Thorne. Folks in Birmingham know this author best as Teresa Thorne, retired Birmingham Police captain and head of the downtown CAPS patrol program since its inception. She’s also an outstanding writer of both fiction and nonfiction, as this novel, published in the spring of 2015, demonstrates with authority.

Angels at the Gate is set at the time of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, as told in the Bible. Thorne relies on both biblical and historical accounts, underpinned by exhaustive research into each, as well as her considerable storytelling powers. The book’s hero is Adira, a girl of a nomadic tribe who has been raised by her widowed father as a boy. Approaching womanhood, and faced with her father’s murder and the loss of all she has known, Adira must make decisions about her future as her very life hangs in the balance.

Thorne handles her material, which culminates amid the conflagration in Sodom, with a hand that achieves a deft balance between storytelling and history, and between wrenching drama and gentle humor. Do yourself a favor — and support a local writer — by picking up a copy of this fine book.

With that, I’ll close with my best wishes for a wonderful and meaningful Thanksgiving for you and yours. Next week, back to the grind.

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