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Vulcan’s Torch

By James Miller Robinson

Vulcan’s monumental iron statue was unveiled at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904.  At fifty-five feet tall and weighing 120,000 pounds, it was the largest individual piece in the huge exhibit hall.  It had been built, formed and cast in iron by an ambitious Italian sculptor named Guiseppe Moretti who was hungry for international recognition.  The statue was commissioned by the city of Birmingham to symbolize the city’s homage to the steel industry which formed the basis of its economy for so many years, and to the thousands of Italian workers who had immigrated there around the turn of the century.  Birmingham became the only city in the South watched over by the stern bearded face of  a Roman God.

When you zoom over downtown Birmingham today on the elevated portions of Interstates 65, 20, or 59, you see a different skyline from the one I saw when I rode through there as a child in the 1950’s.  The pointed apex of the original brick building of University Hospital still juts up in the center of downtown’s south side, but now a huddle of annexes with cross-bridge corridors gather around it on all sides for several blocks.  The giant iron statue of Vulcan still reaches up into the sky with his torch from atop a modernized tower at the peak of Red Mountain overlooking the city.

I felt the panic of vertigo when I stepped out onto the wobbly narrow balcony around the 120 ft. tower just below Vulcan’s feet when I visited there with my parents and my brother when I was five or six years old.  There was no elevator then.  We had to climb the iron staircase up a dozen flights amid the echoes of our own footsteps against the stone blocks of the original tower.

In those early days of high powered V-8 engines there was a public campaign to reduce the number of fatal car accidents on the streets and highways in and around Birmingham.  When dark fell over the city, Vulcan’s torch was lit—green, if no one had been killed that day; red, if someone had.  It was my older brother Chippy who informed me of these things.  We checked whenever we passed close enough to see Vulcan and his torch at night.

On the east side of the city the rusty girders, pits, tanks and loading docks of the Sloss Iron Works and its open-hearth furnaces stand quiet and mostly idle like the still heart of what once pounded blood into the city’s economy twenty-four hours a day.  When we passed the open hearths at night on Highway 78 returning to our suburban home in Crestwood, Chippy would tell me they were grilling hundreds of hamburgers there when I asked what they did on those glowing orange and red coals.  Four years older, he liked to pull tricks on me, but in the end he would always tell me the truth.  I was more grateful than disappointed when he told me about Santa Clause the year I turned six.

Crestwood was one of many suburbs that mushroomed up outside the old limits of the city in the fifties.  We went to school and church in Woodlawn four or five miles from our suburb and about halfway to downtown.  There were several boys in our neighborhood.  Just about all our fathers had served in World War II.  We spent hours playing army in the woods that surrounded the neighborhood.  The only girl my age who lived on the street was Carol Tillery.  She and I sometimes played “house” in her back yard, playing the roles of mother and father to a family of dolls.  For this I received a little chiding from the members of my usual platoon, and from Chippy, but it seemed logical to imagine that one day Carol and I would follow the footsteps of our own parents, have sons and daughters of our own, and move into another house a little farther down the street on Crest Hill Road in the only neighborhood we had ever known.

Several of us on Crest Hill Road turned six the same year, so our mothers made arrangements to form a carpool in which they or our fathers would take turns driving us to and from Minnie Holman School in Woodlawn.  These arrangements were discussed as our mothers talked over coffee at our kitchen tables up and down the street while we kids played in the yards or at the edges of the woods.

Once, Steve and Dave Uritz came over to our house.  Their mother visited mine in the kitchen over coffee.  It was probably my idea to build a campfire on the wooded hillside just beyond the old railroad bed that ran along the edge of the woods not quite beyond sight from the kitchen window of our house.  It was late in the fall of the year and the ground was covered with a thick carpet of dry fallen leaves.  Our campfire spread wild into a hungry circle of yellow flames and gray-white smoke.  There had been some good-sized woods fires near our neighborhood and I knew the damage and the terror they could cause.  I noticed that same panicked feeling in my chest that I had felt the time I stepped out onto the rickety balcony a hundred feet above the ground at the Vulcan Tower.  Our mothers came running up the hillside carrying brooms and rakes.  They put out our little forest fire in a few frantic minutes.  Steve and Dave were identical twins.  I couldn’t tell them apart before the wreck even though I saw them every day as we rode to Minnie Holman School in Woodlawn and back in our carpool.  Now they chanted in one indistinguishable voice and pointed at me.  “It was his idea!  It was his idea!”

I must have been the first one to the car that day in the middle of May in 1959.  Carol’s mother was waiting for us in her dark gray 1954 Plymouth parked along a curb  below the school with dozens of other cars waiting for other kids.  I took off my dark-green army-surplus pack and shoved it in the front seat beside Mrs. Tillery, then crawled in and sat beside her.  The twins came next.  They raced each other the last fifty feet to the car, scrambled in the same side door of the back seat and slammed it shut behind them.  I don’t know which one it was who got there first.  Carol was the last one to get to the car that day.  I guess that’s why she ended up on the right side of the front seat.  I heaved my army pack with my books and papers from the seat and set it on my lap to make more room for Carol to my right.  If Carol had gotten to the car before me, she would have sat directly beside her mother in the place where I was sitting, and things might have turned out quite differently.

I don’t remember if it was raining when we first got in the car that day.  Maybe that’s why we all ran to scramble into the car as fast as we could, heaving our book satchels in all directions.  In any case, by the time we got out of the hilly residential streets of Woodlawn with its houses from the 1920’s snuggled side by side and got on Highway 78, thick ominous clouds had darkened the day.  Rain pounded down in droves.  There was a swirling blur of taillights in front of us and on-coming headlights behind us.

It must have been about 2:20 in the afternoon.  I couldn’t see out over my army pack and the high hard dashboard of the Plymouth.  The evening shift at the Sloss Iron Works started at 2:30.

Highway 78, or “The Old Atlanta Highway” as it is now called, had four lanes divided by a narrow grassy median.  I really don’t remember anything of the collision itself except that there was a crash, a jarring, a jerking, spinning, sliding, and trembling; then a second jolt and smash, both impacts accompanied by a thud of hard-struck metal, a shatter of glass and a shower of fragments across the shifting pavement along with the grind and pop of roadside gravel from underneath the floorboards.

Then there was stillness.  All I could hear were the sounds of other cars coming to a stop on both sides of the four-lane highway, car doors slamming shut, trotting footsteps approaching , anonymous shoe soles slapping the wet pavement, and the constant drone of drizzling rain.  One of the twins was the first to speak.  “All out.  We had a wreck.”  His voice was chipper and matter-of-fact.  There was no reply.  I crawled across the seat to my right and out the door.  When I put my feet on the roadside gravel I saw that my right shoe was missing.  When I tried to stand up my right foot collapsed beneath the weight of the rest of my body.  I hopped a few steps on my left foot.  My right foot dangled loose and limp below the knee.  I bent down and lifted it in the palm of my left hand.  It was a dead log wearing a dirty white sock.

“What’s the matter with my leg?”  I asked the anonymous crowd of on-lookers who had huddled around me, all with that speechless look of tragic sickness on their faces.  Even though it had never before approached me, I knew that this was the face of death looking down at me.  One gray-haired man stepped forward, bent down before me and broke the awkward silence.  “It’s broken, Honey.”  He called me “Honey.”

A feeling of panic came over me.  I asked in a fretting voice, “Broken?  Can you die with a broken leg?”

“No Honey,” he answered in a kind voice.  “You can’t die with a broken leg.”  He picked me up in his arms and set me in the back seat of the car where the twins had been riding.  They were both on their feet outside the car, another huddle of curious people surrounding them, offering handkerchiefs to hold to their bleeding faces, reaching with umbrellas above their heads.  The gray-haired man knelt beside me between the open back door of the car and the seat itself, and explained that we would wait there out of the rain until help came.  More cars were stopping all along the sides of the highway.  A continuous line of faces approached, ducked down to glance inside the car, then quickly looked away and walked off shaking heads.

There was a distinct sour smell inside the car.  It was the smell of shattered glass, motor oil, gasoline, and blood.  The windshield was crumpled and shattered like a wad of wax paper.  Shards and slivers of glass covered the seats, the floorboards and the dashboard.  Drops and splatters of blood covered the seat beside me.  The back of Mrs. Tillery’s head was leaning awkwardly to the rear on the back of the driver’s seat.  It rolled from side to side as she moaned, groaned and cried, repeating over and over, “No.  No.  No.  No.”

Sirens approached from the direction of downtown.  There was a lot of moving and maneuvering of huddles of people and parked cars to make way for the arriving ambulances and police cars.  Two young men were driving the ambulance I was to ride in.  “Just let him ride up here with us,” one of the drivers said, as though I were an afterthought to the more-serious cases.  So, I rode on the front seat of the station wagon ambulance between the driver and his assistant.  They wore no uniforms or white jackets, just ordinary sport shirts and slacks.

I could hear the scream and whir of the siren shouting out in urgency all the way to University Hospital on the south side of downtown.  For years afterward I was fascinated with the sound of the sirens of police cars, fire trucks, and especially ambulances.  When I sped down the street on my bicycle for the next several years, it was usually to the siren wail of my own voice.

We had already entered the labyrinth of busy downtown streets when the attendant to my right looked over his left shoulder into the rear of the vehicle and said to the driver, “One of ‘em’s fallin’ off the stretcher back there.”

“It don’t matter,” the driver answered, “They’re both dead.”  He sped on through the afternoon traffic and the rain with a fixed expression on his face.

At the emergency room a platoon of nurses and orderlies hurriedly wheeled a high narrow cot to the ambulance where I was laid on my back and secured with canvas straps.  Inside, as soon as a young doctor looked down at me, I informed him, “I’ve just got a broken leg.”  One of the attendants took a pair of scissors and cut a slit up the right leg of my blue jeans all the way from the ankle to the inseam at the crotch.  I wondered what Mother would say about the jeans.  I was always getting into trouble for grass stains, rips and tears.

They placed a two-foot board on each side of my leg and wrapped it from the ankle to the thigh with gauze.  I heard someone say they would have to operate to set the leg.  They left me lying there behind some curtained partitions and rushed off to someone else.  This was when I noticed the tiny shavings and slivers of glass all over me, in my eyebrows, on my shirt, and in my navel.  My face and hands were covered with scratches and small cuts as though I had run through the blackberry patch at the edge of the woods behind our house.

When something terrible happens, rumor usually travels faster than truth.   When it got to be about 3:00 and we still had not gotten home from school, my mother decided to drive toward the school following our usual route over Highway 78 to see if anything had happened.  Just as she was about to turn onto the highway from Crest Hill Road, she was stopped by Mr. Cornet, our neighbor from two houses up the street, who was driving home in the opposite direction.  When he recognized Mother, he flashed his lights for her to stop and rolled down his window to speak.  His intention must have been to save her the time and trouble of getting stuck in the traffic on the highway.  He called in a commanding voice from the opposite lane, “Don’t go up on the highway, Jane.  There’s been a terrible wreck with four children killed.”

Mother was eight months pregnant with my younger brother Murray and was, of course, frantic when she came running up beside my high bed on wheels in the corridor outside the operating room at University Hospital.  Desperate tears rolled down her cheeks even though she was laughing when she bent down, kissed me, and squeezed my hands.  “Don’t worry, Mother.  You can’t die with a broken leg.”

The next thing I remember, I was lying in a room on the fourth floor children’s ward of the hospital.  A hard white cast covered my right leg from the ankle to the hip.  It was dark outside.  I was sharing the room with Steve Uritz whose face was covered with zippers and bandages.  He had been sewn up with more than fifty stitches.  A glass partition separated our beds.  His brother Dave had gotten only a few scratches to his face and was sent home with their dad.

They must have allowed only one parent in the room at a time.  Daddy came in and talked to me for a while with great kindness and affection.  Then Mother came in.  She asked me which of them I would like to spend the night in the room with me because one parent could stay all night in the hospital room with a child, but only one.  I told her I preferred to have my father stay.  There was a good deal of talking and discussion both within my hearing and outside the room between Mother and Daddy, and with Mrs. Uritz.  As it turned out, neither Mother nor Daddy stayed.  Mrs. Uritz stayed.  Mother’s late stage of pregnancy must have been a factor in the decision.

Before she lay down on the lounge chair beyond the foot of our beds, Mrs. Uritz told me to just wave my hand and she would see it through the glass partition between the beds if I “needed anything during the night.”  I wasn’t to get out of bed for any reason.  She held up a glass bottle about the size and shape of a pint milk bottle to make sure I understood.

I dozed for no more than a few sporadic moments that night.  Sometime during the wee quiet hours I was overcome with need.  I tried to ignore it, but after holding it for an hour or two I couldn’t stand it any longer.  The I-V they had given me during the operation to set my leg must have filled me with liquid.  I reluctantly gave in and waved my hand where I thought Mrs. Uritz would see it through the glass partition from where she lay on a reclining armchair beside her own son.  I would have preferred a nurse.  A nurse would have been a total stranger and a professional at this kind of service.  Mrs. Uritz was a neighbor from the other end of my own street, the mother of my playmates and the driver of our carpool once or twice a week.  It was humiliating to have to ask her for such personal assistance.  I timidly waved a second time.  Nothing.  Then again, and a couple of minutes later.  Nothing, only the dark sterile room with faint lines of light radiating from the linoleum floor under the door to the hallway, and the distant murmur of talk among the late-shift employees far down the halls.  I lay there examining the bland walls and the ceiling.  There was a window with open Venetian blinds, its glass dotted with raindrops, facing Red Mountain to the south.  Vulcan stood there on his tower, his cast iron beard jutting from his chin, his blacksmith’s hammer in his left hand, his torch lit with blood-red light raised high above his head with his outstretched right arm as though signaling from the earth to heaven.  Finally, I knocked on the glass partition with my knuckles.  Mrs. Uritz came to my side and offered me the bottle.  Embarrassed, I acquiesced.  She poked me into the short neck of the bottle with the ice cold fingers of a complete stranger.

The next morning the sun was out when Mother, Daddy, and Chippy came into the room.  I had heard that they give kids a lot of Jell-O, ice cream, and juice in hospitals, so that’s what I requested for breakfast.  I got only a small cup of juice.  I could sense a strange expression on the faces of the members of my family.  It was something similar to the expressions on the faces of the anonymous bystanders who had huddled around me at the wreck.

Mother and Daddy left the room to sign some papers for my release at the nurses’ station down the hall.  Chippy stayed in the room.  He had picked up a morning newspaper in the main lobby.  He held up the front page for me to see.  There was a black and white picture of the Tillery’s Plymouth with portions of two other mangled cars showing on either side.  Above the picture were sprawled the large block letters of the headline:  “Three killed on highway 78.”  Chippy told me the basic facts of the accident as they were presented in the article.  Four steel workers were speeding on their way to work for the evening shift when the driver lost control in the rain and skipped across the median into the oncoming cars in the opposite lanes.  Two of the men had been killed.  Chippy went on, now reading aloud directly from the paper.  “Among the deceased are Frank Quarles, 42, and Ben Lowery, 37, both of Leeds; and Carol Tillery, age seven, of 1416 Crest Hill Road.”  I didn’t believe him at first.  I thought he might be kidding me.  But I also knew that he always told me the truth in the end, terrible as it might be.

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James Miller Robinson has had poems and short prose in Texas ReviewRio Grande ReviewSouthern Humanities ReviewGeorge Washington Review, and Kansas Quarterly.  He has two chapbooks of poetry—The Caterpillars at Saint Bernard (Mule on a Ferris Wheel Press, 2014) and Boca del Rio in the Afternoon (Finishing Line Press, 2015).  He works as an interpreter/translator registered with the Alabama Administrative Office of Courts.

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