In 1935, we never heard of the Great Depression. What we did know is that we had no money, so most of our entertainment was free. Also, our dad would not let us go to any big gatherings of people. We couldn’t go to public swimming pools, especially in the summertime. And one time the Lone Ranger came to town to make an appearance at the Alabama Theatre but we couldn’t go because my dad worried about polio.
I didn’t worry too much about that because I knew that since he was wearing a mask it could have been anybody, not necessarily the real Lone Ranger who lived out West on a white horse. They could have had ten phoney Lone Rangers in ten cities, for all we knew then. You didn’t see what was going on everywhere on the internet and TV. So I wasn’t too impressed. From all the ads on the radio and in the newspaper, you would think the Beatles were coming to town (though Beatlemania hadn’t been invented yet). But some children were afraid of a man behind a mask. Others truly believed. To me, it wasn’t worth risking contagion.
By the same token we did have a president who suffered from polio if you can imagine that. An elementary school class mate of mine at Elyton came down with polio. After Salk and Savin developed vaccines nobody got it anymore. Before then, kids who had it had to wear big iron braces on their legs and couldn’t get around much anymore.
My mother had an atomizer at the end of a long pole and she sprayed our throats all the time. When the maid came to work my mother would spray her throat too, because they thought it was like a cold virus that got in through your mouth. My mother’s contraption gave new meaning to “I wouldn’t touch you with a ten-foot pole.” My mother also told me to wash my hands all the time, and I did.
We got most of our free entertainment at the West End fairgrounds. Some children liked to climb on Vulcan’s feet before he was moved to the top of Red Mountain. The fairgrounds is also where we watched the Fourth of July fireworks. We could see them from our house without risking the crowds. We missed them for five long years when they stopped shooting them off during the war. But our favorite was watching the circus come to town.
Nowadays I imagine the circus unloads from giant semi-trucks near the BJCC. In those days it arrived on the train at the Ensley station and then lumbered down to the fairgrounds through the streets of Birmingham like Hannibal’s army with an advance guard of clowns. As I said, we could not go to the circus itself. But we would sit on the wall on Ensley Avenue and watch the elephants march into town.
We had to wear sandals because the pavement was so hot. But those elephants just came walking down the street with their big bare feet. I remember how huge they were, but they walked together in single file daintily holding on to each other’s tails with their trunks like they were holding hands.
It was so exciting to see a real live elephant close up. We had not seen them every day on TV. So all the neighborhood kids gathered, and they turned out to be quite a crowd of elephant watchers.
Our neighbor Bob Barnhart later became the first poultry pathologist. He studied the viruses found in the fluff of the baby chicks and started innoculating them against those diseases. The mortality of baby chicks plummeted and his academic paper, which he had to be talked into publishing, was printed in different languages all over the world, including China.
Funny how he got started with chickens. When I was a girl home from school with chicken pox my mother told me to go sit in the yard. I had one big chicken pock on my cheek. Bob came along and said you shouldn’t be sitting outside with chicken pox. He went and got a stick and knocked the chicken pock off my cheek. Then he said now you can sit out here.
He started his career as a vet in Cullman, but grew morose when country people brought him old dogs they couldn’t afford to cure and just wanted put down. He ended up with a collection of old hounds in his back yard he couldn’t bear to put to sleep, which drove him to go back to Auburn and specialize. The rest is chicken history.
Betty Zoe Barnhart would also sit with us on the rock retaining wall to watch the circus go by. She died when she was a teenager.
The Cross kids were always there to watch. I remember Frank Cross because he was the preacher’s son at Ensley Highlands Presbyterian Church, and we just thought he was a bookworm.
The kid who turned out to be the most famous in Birmingham was Sam Chalker. He grew up to be a big broadshouldered guy with a booming voice. He was a famous actor at the Town and Gown Theater. But he was so little when we used watch the elephants as kids, we called him Teeny.
It was surprising to see what became of the neighborhood kids who all lived within a block of each other in Birmingham. When Bob Barnhart told us about his work with poultry virus, I had to tell him he needed to publish the results. So the work that revolutionized the poultry industry around the world almost was never known.
But that knowledge, fortunately, was not hidden as long as the Dead Sea scrolls. I remember the news of that remarkable discovery, of the scrolls kept in jars in a cave for thousands of years, with books of the Old Testament in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and also a treasure map of hiding places where gold and silver from the Jerusalem temple was hid. The trove included an intact text of the book of the prophet Isaiah a thousand years older than any previously known. What scholars discovered was that there were very few differences between the texts . In the days before printing presses or pdfs, the scribes had copied them faithfully for centuries.
The jars reminded me of the statue of Vulcan that sat neglected at the fairgrounds for years. He was filled with concrete up to his chest to weight him down and keep him from tipping over. Kids used to climb up on his feet, but I always thought it was too dangerous. I was afraid of falling off.
Later the concrete inside the statue started to crack and pieces of the giant blacksmith actually fell off. But Vulcan had moved on from the West End and so did we. Frank Cross ended up on the team translating the Dead Sea scrolls, the most important archaeological and theological find of our time, religious texts kept by a Jewish sect opposed to a “wicked priest” who assumed control in Jerusalem around the time of the Roman conquest.
The writers fled to the remote desert to wait for the day of imminent judgment when their enemies would be vanquished and they, God’s elect, would attain final victory in accordance with the predictions of the prophets.
FDR died. The war ended. We grew out of what we later learned was the Great Depression. And now we have no end of entertainment. Kim Kardashian even gets married for our viewing pleasure. Who knew so much would come out of the days we sat on the wall and watched the elephants go by.