The Vulcan is in a good mood tonight. He stands watch over Birmingham. The largest cast-iron statue in the world.
He is suspended 124 feet above the world. His right arm is outstretched, holding a spear. He wears a blacksmith’s apron. Roman sandals. And his butt is showing.
My wife and I showed up at Vulcan Park and Museum a few minutes before sundown. I bought a few tickets from the ticket booth. The cashier was a girl in a Troy University sweatshirt.
“Y’all new in town?” she asked.
“Moved here five months ago,” said I.
She gave me the tickets.
“Well, it’s nice to have you to Birmingham.”
My wife and I ascended the stone staircase toward the enormous tower. Atop the tower stands the statue. The Vulcan was built in 1904 by an Italian sculptor Giussepe Moretti. It’s a work of high art.
Every day I drive on the freeway I see the Vulcan, perched high in the distance, standing above the earth. He reminds me that I live in Birmingham now. This town is my new home.
Which I keep forgetting. Namely, because I am a Florida man. I did my growing up two miles from the Gulf of Mexico, one mile from the Choctawhatchee Bay. My people ate raw oysters non-ironically. We had no basements. No fireplaces. Only sand spurs, yellow flies and doublewides.
But now I live here. A city of 210,000 with a metro area that brings it to roughly 1.2 million people. This town has it all. The Appalachians, museums, blues, jazz, soul, barbecue, unlimited breweries, and the unique transcendental torment that is Highway 280.
Before we ascended the tower, I showed the guard my ticket. He glanced at it and said, “New in town?”
I told him I was.
He tipped his hat. “It’s nice to have you in Birmingham.”
There are 159 steps leading to the top of the Vulcan tower. One hundred and fifty-nine arduous steps. Ten miles of steps. By the time you get to the top of the tower you cannot breathe, think, or speak, and your underpants are soggy with sweat.
I stepped onto the steel-grate catwalk, approximately 16 stories above Jefferson County. The view up here will make every sphincter in your body tighten.
There was a Latino family, speaking rapid-fire Spanish. The woman was holding her husband tightly. He spoke to me in a broken accent. “My wife, she is afraid of the heights,” he said.
“Aren’t we all,” I said.
“Ay, Dios,” said his wife.
We stood beneath the Vulcan’s enormous iron butt cheeks and looked at the city. My wife and I inched toward the railing to look at the world beneath us.
The sun was lowering. The sky was the color of Campbell’s tomato soup. The clouds were a genuine Picasso.
Children’s Hospital stood in the faroff, saving lives. We saw Regions Field, where a ballgame was underway. UAB Hospital was lit up like the Fourth of July. The Wells Fargo Towers. The AT&T tower. The Redmont Hotel. The interstate. Strings of traffic.
And as the sun winked out, all the lights of this town flickered on. Suddenly, the cityscape turned into a hive of fireflies in the blackness.
“There’s our house,” said my wife, pointing northeast.
I squinted. But I couldn’t see anything besides trees.
And it dawned on me. This is where I live now. My youth is officially behind me. It’s on to whatever comes next.
Standing beside me was a man and his little boy. They asked if I would take their picture. I said sure. The guy handed me his phone and I told them to smile. The boy was maybe 7 years old. He put his arm around his dad.
I took a bunch of pictures. I gave the phone back. As they walked away, I overheard the kid say to his dad, “This is our town now, isn’t it, Dad?”
Dad smiled. “That’s your town down there,” he said.
“The whole thing?”
“The entire city. This is our home.”
“I’m scared about the first day of school,” said the boy.
“Don’t be,” Dad said. “People are super nice here.”
“What if the kids don’t like me?”
“Who wouldn’t like you?”
“What if my teacher is mean?”
“She won’t be.”
The boy fell quiet. He gripped the guardrail with both hands. Then he said, “Do you think Mom can see us from heaven when we’re standing on this tower?”
The father held his son tightly.
“Yes, son. I do.”
I watched them leave. They descended 159 steps toward earth and I could see them on the ground below, like little gnats, walking toward the gift shop.
On our way to the parking lot, I passed the little boy and his father again. I smiled at them and spoke.
“It’s nice to have you in Birmingham,” I said.
Elizabeth Clark - August 9, 2022 6:57 am
Why am I’m crying again. Love your column
Daisy - August 10, 2022 12:34 am
Birmimgham is my home town, but I have lived in Atlanta for the past 36 years. Makes me long to move back and climb Vulcan again along with all the rest. Maybe I will!
Steve McCaleb. - August 9, 2022 6:57 am
Randy Newman said it best “ain’t no ham like Birmingham”. There’s a small town vibe to Birmingham that is very warm and welcoming. I hope it always remains so. And you’re right, the people are unfailingly Kind and friendly. That being said…you have to wonder why Goose Moretti didn’t cast a few more feet of iron and cover Vulcan’s big hiny. The view from behind that big rascal is not for the faint of heart. It is the biggest cast iron statue in the world. If you haven’t seen it, buy a copy of the movie “ Stay Hungry” filmed almost exclusively in downtown Birmingham. Arnold Schwarzenegger first movie, with Jeff Bridges, Sally Field, Scatman Crouthers, and the Ham’s native son R.G. Armstrong. It is hilarious. An overlooked classic. Vulcan even gets in on things.
Sandi. - August 9, 2022 7:00 am
I hope that little boy has a good first day at school, too.
Cm - August 9, 2022 9:57 am
It’s nice to have you here!
BettyK - August 9, 2022 10:41 am
It’s nice to have you in Birmingham, Sean! I hope the little boy has a wonderful school year, and that he and his dad are happy here!
Ann Thompson - August 9, 2022 10:45 am
Oliver Rhett Talbert - August 9, 2022 10:54 am
Home is where you make it – for yourself, and for the sake of others. We all need a place to call home. “I go to make a place for you,” He said. We’re all just borrowing temporary places along the Way, until we get to The Place He’s made for us.
Leigh Amiot - August 9, 2022 11:25 am
“My youth is officially behind me. It’s on to whatever comes next.”
It’s good to be somewhere magnificent, be it high in the sky or at the coast or a hiking trail, and take stock of our lives. Appropriate that a humorist would be at such a place in the presence of a large cast iron behind.
Prayed for the little motherless boy; this column took an unexpected turn.
Joe - August 9, 2022 2:59 pm
That’s just life as told by Sean.
Thames Robinson - August 9, 2022 11:39 am
Indeed it is.
Diana Hannah - August 9, 2022 11:40 am
If you are looking for a good story in Birmingham the cancer ward at UAB has two of the finest people God ever put on this earth fighting for a life. My sister and brother in law. He is ill and she hadn’t left his side. All while managing care for my father with dementia. It is a story how God and family work together.
1018le - August 9, 2022 12:20 pm
I’ve never been to Birmingham, Sean, but it is a nicer place because you are there…and because you share! God Bless You! 🙂
Kyle Sides - August 9, 2022 12:28 pm
It’s nice to have you here. For a guy from Hope Hull/Pintlala, Alabama it’s taken awhile for this place to grow on me. But it surely helps to have a gentleman like you up here.
Paul McCutchen - August 9, 2022 12:29 pm
I can forget the eyedrops this morning. I am headed to Birmingham this weekend from Atlanta. Got family coming in from Arkansas and Missouri and B’ham is a great central location.
Pamela H Thompson - August 9, 2022 12:44 pm
I grew up in Birmingham. I have been going to Vulcan since I was a toddler when there were CCC fishponds out front and famously commented on an orange and white goldfish, “That fishie has a bandaid!”. I recently took my granddaughter there to enjoy an Icee and see the full moon. I endured the horrible white marble facade for years. I am a card carrying patron of the Vulcan Foundation. I have climbed the steps many times, but you could have taken the elevator
Tawanah Fagan Bagwell - August 9, 2022 3:16 pm
I was thinking the same thing! In this heat, why not take the elevator?
Also, Sean, go to Mount Cheaha and write about the young men who worked in the Conservation Core during the Depression. They built so much there.
Trent - August 9, 2022 12:46 pm
Whoa! OK – you really got me hoss. Never saw it coming. Yours is truly a gift from the Lord Almighty. Know that and thank you. And may God Bless that child and his daddy.
Nancy - August 9, 2022 1:02 pm
Praying for all of the teachers. May God help them calm the anxious, empower the fearful, and recognize the needs of each individual child, whether in kindergarten or a senior. May He send an army of angels to monitor the halls and protect all who go through them.
BettyK - August 9, 2022 2:13 pm
Sean of the South: It’s nice to have you in Birmingham | The Trussville Tribune - August 9, 2022 1:07 pm
[…] By Sean Dietrich, Sean of the South […]
Anne Arthur - August 9, 2022 1:36 pm
It’s nice how you embrace your new home and its people.
Ruth Cranford Ash - August 9, 2022 1:44 pm
It’s nice to have you in Birmingham! I grew up here, moved away, and came back. And it’s nice to be here.
Carol - August 9, 2022 2:06 pm
Birmingham is on my travel bucket list…Til then, continue to enjoy your new hometown!
Te - August 9, 2022 2:12 pm
Isn’t life full of the most unexpected, gratifying moments!
Glenda Shealey - August 9, 2022 2:32 pm
On our vacation going from Denver to Atlanta we stopped for lunch in Birmingham. We found Dreamland BBQ. Excellent food, friendly, wonderful people. Well worth the time it takes to find it. I love your writing. Please continue telling me stories of the South that somehow remind me of my South Dakota roots. Good people are the same everywhere. God bless you.
David Britnell - August 9, 2022 2:37 pm
Made me well up again Sean! I hope you are loving your new city.
Joe - August 9, 2022 2:53 pm
Wonderful story. Enjoy your writing.
Jean McCrady - August 9, 2022 3:31 pm
Sean, this is why I never miss one of your stories. You have a gift for making a mountain out of any human moment. You see and hear things with eyes and ears that most people don’t even know they have, much less use.
sjhl7 - August 9, 2022 3:39 pm
One of the things I love about your writing Sean is that you make me see things I take for granted in a whole new light. Having lived all my 75 years in a suburb of Birmingham, I have seen Vulcan all my life both up close and at a distance. I love so many things about my hometown and that is definitely one of them! Thank you, Sean.
Mary Anne Weisiger - August 9, 2022 3:58 pm
Sean, sometimes your heart really shines through and I just want cry because of the kindness that comes through. Thank you.
Tina Swinson - August 9, 2022 4:13 pm
In 1946 a green/red torch light was added to Vulcan to help with traffic safety. The torch would turn from green to red if a traffic fatality had occured in the last 24 hours. I grew up in Gardendale just north of Birmingham. The first thing we would look for as we came over the hill on Hwy 31 would be Vulcan’s light. I remember my parents explaining why the light would change from green to red.
Jay skinner - August 9, 2022 4:54 pm
Thank you again and again. I read you everyday. Sometimes there are tears but alway a smile
T. K. Thorne - August 9, 2022 5:06 pm
It IS nice to have you in Birmingham, as well as my inbox. Thank you for sharing you words and insight.
pattymack43 - August 9, 2022 6:05 pm
Wish that I could visit Birmingham! It sounds like a lovely place to be!! Blessings and thank you! 🙂
Chris Spencer - August 9, 2022 6:25 pm
I pray that the little boy and his daddy have a wonderful new life in Birmingham, and you and Jamie too.
My love to you all. Roll Tide Roll!!!
Dot Coltrane - August 9, 2022 6:47 pm
So many of us are more than glad — we are thrilled — to have you and Jamie living in Birmingham. You make us laugh and cry in the same essay. Today’s account of your visit to the Vulcan did that. Thank you.❤️
Leslie Anne Tarabella - August 9, 2022 8:35 pm
Yeah, but the Gulf misses ya.
MAM - August 9, 2022 10:01 pm
Your loving kindness always shines through, Sean! You make every human interaction meaningful. Your wordsmithing brings us joy, whether through laughter or tears or both. Thank you!
Karen - August 9, 2022 10:43 pm
It is wonderful you are embracing your new city. I must say as a resident of Chesapeake, Virginia, I admire you and your wife could make that trip up to the Vulcan int this swampy weather. Just standing on my porch and you would think I had been doing hard labor. Best wishes to the little boy as he starts the new school year.
Camilla Reid - August 10, 2022 12:20 am
Sean, you reel me in every time with humor and then leave me in shreds at the end. Tears from laughter and then tears of poignancy.
Linda Moon - August 10, 2022 12:21 am
It’s nice to have you two in Birmingham, Jamie and Sean! Keep telling stories of you you guys in our town. And just to let you know, My Guy LOVES the movie, “Our Town”. You and Jamie might enjoy it. And we sure enjoy having y’all just up the road from us, in Birmingham… where I grew and he spent his career!
Chasity Davis Ritter - August 10, 2022 2:37 am
I had to google and image of your Vulcan. Felt the need to see those cheeks lol. Pretty cool statue Even better story about it.
Judy - August 13, 2022 8:49 pm
I am proud to have the Dietrich’s calling Birmingham home!!
Ok, so, since B’ham is now home for y’all, let me clue you in so you really sound like you’re from Birmingham. The statue is called Vulcan, just drop “the”. We visit Vulcan, not “the Vulcan.” He is one of those “people” who is always known by just one name like Elvis and Oprah and always referred to as such.
PLEASE, don’t be offended by my comment, it is SO nice to have you in Birmingham ‼️ We really are happy to have y’all here and that you now call our fair city home!