As I sit here, now in the area of Chattanooga, TN, to write about my visit to Birmingham, I am just awe struck at the beautiful, majestic, mountainous, tree-filled view that I have here from my combo dining table/computer desk. It’s a wonderful reminder to just how fortunate I am to live this nomadic lifestyle. Yea, not all campgrounds afford this kind of view, but when I’m lucky enough to be somewhere that truly is like living out in the country, I certainly have to pause and appreciate it.
Birmingham, AL is your typical medium-sized city – filled with towering buildings, busy streets, and lots of people mulling around in their daily life’s adventures. But in addition to it being the most populous city in Alabama, it’s also a city rich in history and culture. Most notably is the role the city played in our nations civil rights movement. Non violent protests over segregation, many led by Dr. Martin Luther King, a former Birmingham pastor, were often met with tear gas, fire hoses, and attack dogs from the local police. A pivotal turning point in their fight was the tragic and deliberate bombing by white supremacists of the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing several young black girls and injuring many others. This, coupled with the noted police violence, led to national outrage and ultimately desegregation and the formation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Today, beautiful parks filled with architectural reminders of those horrid times and a historical walking tour of the the marches that led to the start of our nations recovery, fill the downtown Birmingham area.
One thing I learned while touring around town had to do with a man named Raymond Weeks. I had never heard of him before, but learned that he is known as the father of Veterans Day. So, a little history refresher is in order. Prior to 1954, Veterans Day was known as Armistice Day – after the signing of the armistice between the Allies of World War I and Germany. Celebrated each November 11th as the terms of the armistice took effect on the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. In November of 1919, President Wilson declared the first commemoration to recognize those armed forces personnel who were killed during the war. The day was officially named Armistice Day through Congressional resolution in 1926, and similarly became a national holiday 12 years later. If WWI had in fact been the war to end all wars, we might still be calling Nov 11th Armistice Day. But alas, only a few years after the holiday was declared, war broke out in Europe, and we all know what happened there. The first celebration using the term Veterans Day occurred in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1947. Raymond Weeks, a Birmingham native and a World War II veteran, organized “National Veterans Day,” which included a parade and other festivities, to honor “all veterans.” He persisted and continued to advocate with his campaign to honor all veterans in the many years to come. Then in 1954, Congress passed the bill that President Eisenhower signed proclaiming November 11 as Veterans Day. It was Raymond Weeks that was credited for this change. As the late/great Paul Harvey used to say, “now you know the rest of the story”.
Other Notable Attractions
There were certainly lots of other terrific places to check out in the greater Birmingham area. One in particular was the Barber Motorsports Park – home to the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum. This place is absolutely amazing! Its founder is George Barber, who in his early life was a car junkie and an avid car racer of Porches. He amassed 63 first-place wins in the 1960s, and later became a successful business executive. In the late 1980s he once again turned his passion to vehicles, but this time, sought off to create the best and largest collection of motorcycles. With his racing background, he was particularly focuses on sleek racing machines that to him were like art. So for the next 10 or so years, he collected, restored, and subsequently opened up his first public showcase of his collection in suburban Birmingham. In 1997, the Guggenheim museum in NY reached out to do a showcase of his collection as the “Art of the Motorcycle”. That showcase then became a traveling showcase to other cities in the US, as well as internationally. This then led to his wanting to create a living museum that would not only feature these motorcycles, but also be complete with a world class race track. His vision has turned into the 930-acre park, featuring a 2.3 mile, 16 turn race track, and a 250,000 sq foot, multi-level building featuring some 1,500 different motorcycles spanning over 100 years of production, representing 20 different countries. In 2014, they were recognized by the Guinness World Records as being the largest motorcycle museum in the world. What an amazing place!
Another cool place I visited was the Southern Museum of Flight. While the museum had your standard fare of military and commercial aircraft, what really stood out for me was the life-like diorama displays they had created. This included an expansive display featuring the history of the Tuskegee Airmen – the first black military aviators to serve in the US Army Air Corps. Trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Tuskegee Alabama, they flew more than 15,000 individual sorties in Europe and North Africa during World War II. There was a movie at the museum about the challenges these men faced trying to gain acceptance in the military. Truly a wonderful history lesson and reminder of where we once were.
Also on display was a diorama depicting the historical landing of a strange aircraft at Kimpo Air Base in South Korea in 1953. It would be Alabama native Sgt Tom Feltman that would first notice the Communist red star on the fuselage. Turned out to be a Soviet-built MiG-15 flown by a North Korean Air Force aviator who was defecting. What would soon unfold would be one of the most significant stories in aviation history. And for the pilot, No Kum Sok, he was granted political asylum, changed his name to Kenneth Rowe, graduated from the University of Delaware with multiple engineering degrees, worked for numerous aviation companies, got married, had three kids, and become a US citizen. He is now retired, enjoying life in Daytona Beach, FL.
Overall, the museum was nice, had a broad collection of planes, engines, and other misc stuff – even including a piece of the Berlin Wall. It is however located in a section of downtime Birmingham in what some might consider a bit of a seedy area. Also, there were several planes not on museum display that were actually located in a fenced area a couple blocks away. These include the iconic SR-71, and several fighter planes such as the F-4 and F-15 among others. Sadly, many of them were just out there sitting and in need of restoration. Likewise, the museum was kinda small, dated, and also in need of repair. Fortunately, a brand new facility is being built on 24 acres adjacent to the grounds of Barber Motorsports, and is slated to open sometime in 2020. If the new facility is anything like the Barber complex, it will be spectacular. Also, this new museum location will allow them to share the 75,000 to 100,000 visitors the Barber museum attracts each year.
Another thing I like to check out in an area that I’m visiting, is the lessor known, perhaps a bit more obscure touristy things to see. In that regard, Birmingham did not disappoint. One of the attractions was a gas station completely restored back to original from the 1950s era. It houses classic cars as well as a wide range of collectibles from the gas and oil industry, and a nice collection of Coca Cola memorabilia. I also got to visit the headquarters of the Greater Alabama Council, Boy Scouts of America, that included a beautiful park with several stone walls engraved with the names of all local council scouts who achieved Eagle Scout. Also adjacent was a 1956 replica of the Statue of Liberty, that once stood atop the Liberty National Life Insurance building in downtown Birmingham, but later relocated in 1989 to what is now Liberty Park in Vestavia Hills – a suburb of Birmingham. At 1/5 scale of the original NY statue, it is one of the larger replicas, and includes a gas-fired flame that burns endlessly in its torch. Lastly, I visited a place called the Temple of Sibyl. The dome-shaped gazebo was built on the 20-acre property owned by George Ward, who modeled it after the hilltop temple he had seen in Tivoli, Italy. After his death, his property changed ownership several times, and ultimately the temple was donated to the city of Birmingham, and was deconstructed, moved, and reassembled and is now maintained by the Vestavia Hills Garden Club.
Oak Mountain State Park
I didn’t have any friends or family in the Birmingham area, so my entire two-week stay was spent mostly relaxing and playing tourist. I was fortunate to have chosen a beautiful state park located in the hills of the Oak Mountains which had lots of hiking trails, lakes, and other wonderful amenities. In fact, this was the first RV site that I’ve had that included trees that were both of sufficient size and at appropriate distance that I could enjoy hanging a hammock from. Made for some really nice afternoon naps. We did lose power in the campground for a few hours one afternoon, but that gave me the wonderful opportunity to exercise my portable generator that I keep on hand – especially since I’d not used it in almost a year. Lastly, I really enjoy seeing kids being kids – as depicted here with this young boy riding his truck down the campground road. It is refreshing to see what I like to call “nature play” that encourages kids to get outside and create new adventures void of electronics, the Internet, and other similar distractions of today. I’m encouraged to see there is hope for our youth after all.
Final Thoughts – 1 Year Anniversary
Well having officially started my full-time RV nomad lifestyle on May 9th, 2018, I have just celebrated my 1st year anniversary. I certainly had expectations of what this lifestyle would be like – traveling the countryside, visiting with folks I’ve not seen in a long time, exploring parks, museums, and other touristy sights, and avoiding the bitter cold and snow of the north in the winter months. After my first full year as a full-time RVer, I can absolutely say without hesitation that all of my expectations have been exceeded. This life-long dream of mine has been fulfilled beyond my wildest expectations. As evidenced by the journal postings from the past year, I’ve seen lots of friends and family, visited many parks and museums, explored some wacky tourist areas, and have done it all in a suitable climate throughout the entire year. Wow – hard to believe I’m blessed to have this much fun. I’m thankful for my general health, for the innate sense of adventure, and the love of living a somewhat minimalist lifestyle that keeps me going on this crazy journey. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for me in my travels, but one thing for sure is I’m certain it will continue to be some of my best times. Till the next time, safe travels.