The Vulcan is in a good mood tonight. He stands watch over Birmingham. The largest cast-iron statue in the world.
He is suspended 124 feet above the world. His right arm is outstretched, holding a spear. He wears a blacksmith’s apron. Roman sandals. And his butt is showing.
My wife and I showed up at Vulcan Park and Museum a few minutes before sundown. I bought a few tickets from the ticket booth. The cashier was a girl in a Troy University sweatshirt.
“Y’all new in town?” she asked.
“Moved here five months ago,” said I.
She gave me the tickets.
“Well, it’s nice to have you to Birmingham.”
My wife and I ascended the stone staircase toward the enormous tower. Atop the tower stands the statue. The Vulcan was built in 1904 by an Italian sculptor Giussepe Moretti. It’s a work of high art.
Every day I drive on the freeway I see the Vulcan, perched high in the distance, standing above the earth. He reminds me that I live in Birmingham now. This town is my new home.
Which I keep forgetting. Namely, because I am a Florida man. I did my growing up two miles from the Gulf of Mexico, one mile from the Choctawhatchee Bay. My people ate raw oysters non-ironically. We had no basements. No fireplaces. Only sand spurs, yellow flies and doublewides.
But now I live here. A city of 210,000 with a metro area that brings it to roughly 1.2 million people. This town has it all. The Appalachians, museums, blues, jazz, soul, barbecue, unlimited breweries, and the unique transcendental torment that is Highway 280.
Before we ascended the tower, I showed the guard my ticket. He glanced at it and said, “New in town?”
I told him I was.
He tipped his hat. “It’s nice to have you in Birmingham.”
There are 159 steps leading to the top of the Vulcan tower. One hundred and fifty-nine arduous steps. Ten miles of steps. By the time you get to the top of the tower you cannot breathe, think, or speak, and your underpants are soggy with sweat.
I stepped onto the steel-grate catwalk, approximately 16 stories above Jefferson County. The view up here will make every sphincter in your body tighten.
There was a Latino family, speaking rapid-fire Spanish. The woman was holding her husband tightly. He spoke to me in a broken accent. “My wife, she is afraid of the heights,” he said.
“Aren’t we all,” I said.
“Ay, Dios,” said his wife.
We stood beneath the Vulcan’s enormous iron butt cheeks and looked at the city. My wife and I inched toward the railing to look at the world beneath us.
The sun was lowering. The sky was the color of Campbell’s tomato soup. The clouds were a genuine Picasso.
Children’s Hospital stood in the faroff, saving lives. We saw Regions Field, where a ballgame was underway. UAB Hospital was lit up like the Fourth of July. The Wells Fargo Towers. The AT&T tower. The Redmont Hotel. The interstate. Strings of traffic.
And as the sun winked out, all the lights of this town flickered on. Suddenly, the cityscape turned into a hive of fireflies in the blackness.
“There’s our house,” said my wife, pointing northeast.
I squinted. But I couldn’t see anything besides trees.
And it dawned on me. This is where I live now. My youth is officially behind me. It’s on to whatever comes next.
Standing beside me was a man and his little boy. They asked if I would take their picture. I said sure. The guy handed me his phone and I told them to smile. The boy was maybe 7 years old. He put his arm around his dad.
I took a bunch of pictures. I gave the phone back. As they walked away, I overheard the kid say to his dad, “This is our town now, isn’t it, Dad?”
Dad smiled. “That’s your town down there,” he said.
“The whole thing?”
“The entire city. This is our home.”
“I’m scared about the first day of school,” said the boy.
“Don’t be,” Dad said. “People are super nice here.”
“What if the kids don’t like me?”
“Who wouldn’t like you?”
“What if my teacher is mean?”
“She won’t be.”
The boy fell quiet. He gripped the guardrail with both hands. Then he said, “Do you think Mom can see us from heaven when we’re standing on this tower?”
The father held his son tightly.
“Yes, son. I do.”
I watched them leave. They descended 159 steps toward earth and I could see them on the ground below, like little gnats, walking toward the gift shop.
On our way to the parking lot, I passed the little boy and his father again. I smiled at them and spoke.
“It’s nice to have you in Birmingham,” I said.