One of my first memories of my dad was at Lock 17. Judging by the number there must be many locks on the Black Warrior River, but this one seems special. It is many years since I have been there, but I can still see it as it was today.
It is adjacent to a dam in the river, flanked by large channels cut out of rock that seem to show the rich deposits of coal and iron ore that pervade north Alabama. And yet the river there is beautiful and serene, as if the most intrusive human interventions can never disrupt its harmony.
My dad was an engineer who loved the Black Warrior River, and it seemed fitting to enjoy these feats of man-made will rising up out of and surrounded by God’s creation. To me, Lock 17 will always be place where the most important people in my life intersected with nature.
In that first memory of my dad, I remember sitting in a swing together in a park-like setting near the lock when I was four or five years old. It may seem like a strange place for a swing but in those days there was no TV to watch. I remember the comfort my father gave me before the awe of the lock and dam and his love for the river.
When I was growing up we went there every chance we got. My dad invented mechanical devices for the U.S. Navy, cut out of metal by precision machines, but every weekend he could get away he immersed himself in the fluid world of fish and water. And we followed.
In those days the Black Warrior River was the place to go to get away from the city, enjoy the fresh air, and play in the water. We didn’t have the hydroelectric lakes all around the state. And we stayed in a modest cabin. There were no multimillion dollar lake homes. I know my dad would wonder who would want one with all the bother.
There was nothing in our cabin worth taking except my dad’s good whiskey. And after a few break-ins where that was stolen, my dad started filling his good bottles with cheap white lightning that was easy to find in the country. He always said he was afraid he may have hastened the end of many unlucky burglars.
The cabin on property my dad leased from Tennessee Coal & Iron was close enough to our home in Birmingham to go just for the day, but sometimes we would stay over. We swam in the river and my mother cleaned and cooked the fish my dad caught. We played bridge on the porch of the cabin, and I loved to watch the barges go by loaded with primordial coal from Alabama’s ancient marshes. There was lots of traffic on the river. At Lock 17, we could even watch the astonishing sight of shutting off and controlling the mighty rush of water to float the coal barges like paper boats and let them descend the river.
I loved watching them go by and, funny, thinking the big bottom pugnose barges heaped high with broken black stone were lovely.
I remember returning as an adult, but rarely, not frequently as we did growing up. I remember going with my dad and taking my own son Bobby to Lock 17. Nowadays it is fenced off and you can’t get near it. But in those days it just sat with its concrete shoulders open and inviting in the bend of the river.
Ann Rose writes about our city’s history for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com