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Birmingham's Vulcan: Heart of steel, glutes of iron
In praise of America's finest giant yoked statue
Our country is a vast and bold and beautiful land of opportunity and magnificence, but here’s the hard truth, my friends: we don’t have nearly enough big-assjacked statues guarding our cities. Yes, there’s the Statue of Liberty, but she’s 1. way the hell out in the middle of the harbor, 2. only about 15 stories tall, and 3. regularly destroyed by invading aliens/giant monsters.
You know what would be cool? If each of our major cities had its own gigantic looming statue like the old, lost Colossus of Rhodes in Greece. Now this is intimidating as hell:
(Put aside the fact that the statue didn’t stand astride the harbor, and was only about 100 feet tall. When in doubt, go with the legend.)
Or how about some Lord of the Rings don’t-even-try-it action, like this:
What if each city had its own gargantuan statues like that? Chicago could have, oh, Michael Jordan and Oprah. Atlanta could have Hank Aaron and Jimmy Carter, or maybe just OutKast. Philadelphia could have Rocky and a vomiting Eagles fan. The possibilities are endless.
So let us show some love for Birmingham, then, which actually does have an enormous looming statue decorating its skyline. His name is Vulcan, and folks, he is swole:
Vulcan stands atop Red Mountain in Birmingham, looking out over the skyline and the Alabama countryside beyond. In his right hand he grasps a lightning bolt. And his well-toned back end is a landmark for miles around.
There is, of course, a history here. Birmingham is one of the few — perhaps only — spots on earth with the precise and close-proximity combination of ingredients necessary to make iron: coal, iron ore and lime.The iron industry defined Birmingham in its early days, and civic visionaries decided on Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge, to define Birmingham.
Vulcan was built for St. Louis’s Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also known as the 1904 World’s Fair, the same event that gave us the public debuts of the automobile, the wireless telephone and the ice cream cone. Built to honor Birmingham’s legacy and (at that point) hopeful future in mining, Vulcan stood as the largest cast-iron man on the planet. He loomed over the fair … and then ended up in pieces in a Birmingham railyard when the city couldn’t pay the full freight bills.
So began a long, disgraceful, cringeworthy few decades in Vulcan’s history. The original spear got lost on the way back from St. Louis, so hucksters put everything from a giant ketchup bottle to a huge ice cream cone in his iron hand. Somebody thought it was a good idea to paint him in pink flesh tones. Somebody else had the brilliant idea to fill up his insides with concrete, which expanded and contracted at a different rate from the statue’s iron skin and damn near shattered the whole thing.
Vulcan made his way to his current home atop Red Mountain in the 1930s, and for awhile was a bit of a ghoulish monument to traffic safety: he held in his hands a torch that glowed green … unless there had been a fatality on Birmingham’s roads, when the torch would be lit red.
The well-toned glutes of Vulcan inspired a local DJ to pen a tune calling for the installation of a rotating platform so that the statue wouldn’t just be showing its backside to the Birmingham suburb of Homewood. The song’s title, naturally, was “Moon Over Homewood.”
The entire Red Mountain area, Vulcan included, got a full makeover in the early 2000s, and now it’s a must-visit roadside stop, up winding roads through quaint neighborhoods. Here are a couple mid-restoration shots:
You’d be mad too if somebody jammed iron handles into the side of your skull.
These days, Vulcan is an official mascot of the city of Birmingham, decorating t-shirts and posters and assorted souvenir merch all over the city. The religious leaders once scandalized by the statue’s bare buttocks have either shuffled off to the hereafter or found other, more updated targets.
Birmingham continues to wrestle with a legacy that’s way, way, waaaaay too complicated to touch on here; if you’re interested in the city, though, Diane McWhorter’s Pulitzer prize-winning “Carry Me Home” is a must-read. The city is finding its way through the 21st century as its heavy industry wanes and new generations half a century removed from the city’s worst days take charge. And as Birmingham grows, Vulcan stands watch, looking ready to throw down at the slightest provocation. As it should be in every city.
Books, Beer & BBQ: February 2023
We’re building the most kickass Southern books/beer/BBQ recommendation database in the known universe, one month at a time. Each of these is worth a detour off your travels. And hey, look at this: a handy Google map to follow as you go.
Books: Chamblin Bookmine, Jacksonville, Fla.
Here’s a recommendation if you should find your way to Chamblin Bookmine: don’t think you can pop in and out in 15 minutes. Fifteen hours might not be enough to cover this labyrinth. Built on the curve of a city block, its overstuffed shelves intersect at crazed, dwarf-mine angles. You can’t get out the same way you got in. You might well find yourself trapped in an enormous section dedicated to Armenian history or 18th-century knitting techniques or 1980s South Korean architecture or Mesopotamian religion, and that’s OK, because you’ll still find something fascinating, a book no one has laid hands on in decades. It’s glorious.
Beer: Pontoon Brewing, Sandy Springs, Ga.
The Great Brewery Boom of the 2010s brought us an entire ecosystem of outstanding beer and instant culture, breweries incongruously set up in industrial parks or office parks that envelop you in an entire worldview of chill music, hangout vibes, rough-hewn surroundings and damn good beer. Pontoon Brewing specializes in lighter, sweeter variants, sours and the like, the kind of beer that goes down easy on a hot day on the water. Get yourself some for the summer.
BBQ: ZZQ, Richmond, Va.
Behold the sandwich above. That’s ZZQ’s “Tres Hombres,” a combination of brisket, pork and sausage topped with pickled red onion, and it’s so damn glorious you might just propose marriage to it three bites in. It’s one of the many features of Richmond’s magnificent ZZQ, a Texas-style barbecue joint that’s so popular you probably ought to start lining up now for next weekend. Throw some jalapeno mac and cowboy beans in the mix, finish it off with the requisite banana pudding, and you’ll swear you were in the Lone Star State, just without as much openly exposed weaponry. Do. Not. Miss.
Got a suggestion of your own? I welcome — hell, I demand — your recommendations in any or all three categories. Let me know where to go right here, or tell the whole class in the comments below.
Music: Lucero, “Macon If We Make It”
The dual-guitar, 4/4, open-road rock song is a relic now, but like ancient ruins, it’ll still outlive all of us. And thank heaven for bands like Memphis’s Lucero, who still crank out new tunes in a classic vein. The band has a road-weary but defiant sound, the perfect soundtrack for the warming days ahead. Best enjoyed with a cold beer in dim lighting.
Keep up with all our recommendations on the ever-growing Flashlight & A Biscuit Spotify playlist right here:
Another month almost in the books! Have a fine week, friends, and we’ll catch you right back here next Saturday.
This is issue #94 of Flashlight & A Biscuit. Check out all the past issues right here. Feel free to email me with your thoughts, tips and advice. If you’re new around here, jump right to our most-read stories, or check out some of our recent hits:
Convict fish and Land Cats! (It makes sense when you read it.)
Moonshine! Murder! The thrilling conclusion of the three-part “Hellfire & White Lightning” series
Did Dolly Parton really write “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” on the same day?
Wienerman and the Great West Virginia Hot Dog Heist
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This is what’s known as “foreshadowing.”
Hence, the Iron Bowl. Roll Tide and War Eagle.