Birmingham, Alabama—the mighty Vulcan statue stands over the city. He is in good shape for a man his age, but he’s looking tired.
He’s been on the job for a long time. I am beneath the statue with my wife.
There is a group of high-schoolers visiting the statue. They are loud, and animated. They laugh every few seconds.
Old “Vulky” resides on a 124-foot pedestal, he is the 56-foot tall god of fire, the largest iron ore statue in the nation. He holds a spear outward in his powerful grasp, and he isn’t wearing any pants.
The moon rises above him tonight and illuminates all 4 of his cheeks.
He was designed for the 1904 World’s Fair, and I can only imagine what spectators must’ve thought when they first marveled at this artistic achievement of the industrial age.
I point upward and marvel aloud to my wife, “That guy has a butt of iron.”
The high-schoolers ask me to take their picture. I am handed three cellphones. The kids remind me with hand gestures how to hold a camera and actuate a flash.
They pose with arms around draped over each other, and they are grinning.
I point the camera and holler: “Say VULCAN BUTT!”
“VULCAN BUTT!” they shout, laughing.
Before the flash goes off, a boy kisses a girl who is beneath his arm. He kisses her forehead. He is young. She is young. Their noses are red from the cold, and they are bundled in jackets. Young love is beautiful.
And I am thinking about a time I had my young heart broken at this very statue, long ago. The female offender isn’t what this story is about. But you never forget heartbreak. It leaves a scar you can always touch.
I remember Young Me. The kid with red hair, who was no prize catch. He drove an ugly vehicle that had been retrofitted with a bumper made from a two-by-four and baling wire.
The young man worked dead end jobs. His dog, Lady, got dog hair all over his clothes. Girls don’t like ugly vehicles, baling wire, or dog hair.
“Aren’t those high-schoolers cute?” says my wife.
I hold my wife’s hand. We don’t say anything because we don’t have to. We’ve been married awhile, and this is one of the perks.
Besides, I’m thinking. I’m thinking about how we honeymooned in a beat-up vehicle, and she didn’t seem to care about the torn upholstery. Or the dog hair.
I’m thinking about the surprise birthday party I threw for her after one year of marriage. I cooked a batch of chili for ninety people at the soiree. My mother-in-law ate one bowl and announced, “This chili tastes like dirty underpants.”
And our relationship grew from there.
I’m remembering how many times my wife and I have visited monuments, or landmarks. And how many times I have handed my camera to complete strangers and said, “Will you take our picture?”
I’m remembering our arguments. Our triumphs. Our dreams that never came true. And how beautiful it is for two people to struggle against a sea of fools and, and if they’re lucky, live long enough to see their loved one’s hair turn white.
And of course, I am recalling that heartbroken redhead who once stood on these steps, beneath this statue. A young man who wondered if he mattered to anyone. He stared at Birmingham’s lights and thought he’d never recover.
But he did recover. One day, she crawled into his life and made him feel like he was important.
That’s what I’m thinking.
An old man wanders near us. He’s looking upward at the statue. I remove my camera and hand it to him. “Would you mind taking our picture, sir?” I ask.
“Sure,” he says.
Before the flash goes off I kiss her forehead.
I recall the day we sat in a UAB Hospital waiting room. I remember how we hugged each other because we were scared. And how I held her wedding ring in my hand when they wheeled her back. I’ll never forget how I cried when the doctor smiled and told us it was “benign.”
Life is short, another Thanksgiving is a few days away. I am grateful for my life, for home, and the beautiful woman who doesn’t mind dog hair on her clothes.
“Say ‘cheese,’” says the man with the camera.
My wife and I smile big and shout, “VULCAN BUTT!”