SELMA—I am watching the sun come up over the downtown skyline. I see the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the distance, arching over the mighty Alabama River.
They say that Selma is the Butterfly Capital of Alabama, I’m not sure why. Though I am told that if you see a black-and-yellow tiger swallowtail butterfly, it’s good luck.
I look for these butterflies, but I don’t find any. All I ever seem to see are various pigeons using my windshield for a public restroom.
Today, I am speaking in schools. This is not something I do very often. Mainly, because kids either like me or they don’t. There is no middle ground with children.
Besides, America’s youth could do a lot better than me, that’s for sure. I don’t have anything special to say. And even if I did have something profound to share, it wouldn’t matter because kids can only maintain focus on the adult monotone voice for 0.008 milliseconds before going slack-jawed and falling into paralyzing REM sleep.
The first place I speak is a school library. I’m not exactly a success, but luck smiles on me. These kids treat me like I’m the greatest guy they have ever met. They laugh at my jokes. They applaud often. I get many hugs.
One fifth-grader tells me he is interested in being my manager. He gives me his business card and tells me to keep in touch.
Between gigs, we drive across Selma’s historic downtown which has been here since the early 1800s. French Colonial architecture mixes with Antebellum homes to make one big enchilada of colors and shapes, topped with Spanish moss.
I see the historic Baptist church on Lauderdale Street. It’s not like any Baptist church I ever saw. It is made of stone, with gargoyles shooting from the eves. These gargoyles have big, dragon-like, ugly faces. The same kinds of facial expressions Baptists often wear when someone sneaks beer into a family reunion.
I take a tour of Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, which was erected in 1871 by a group of likeminded individuals who believed very strongly against being Baptist. The stained glass windows date back to the days when our great-great grandparents walked the earth.
I speak at another school. This time in the gymnasium. No air conditioner. No ventilation. I’m lucky again. Because even though I sweat through my shirt and almost lose consciousness from severe dehydration, the kids laugh at my jokes, applaud for me, and most students are kind enough to keep their snoring down.
Next, I have an interview with a reporter from the Selma Times-Journal newspaper about how I like it here. Unlucky for the reporter, he just had to sit through my performance.
“Do you speak at schools a lot?” the reporter asks.
He nods. After watching my presentation, he is evidently not surprised.
We have a brief conversation, he takes a few notes, we shake hands. Then my chaperone gives me a ride back to my room.
I meet some tourists on the way back to my room. Selma attracts tons of tourists because of its role in history. And there are piles of history all over this town.
The tourists are older ladies wearing sun visors. When they pass me on the sidewalk, I step aside and slightly lift my ball cap the way my mother showed me to do long ago.
“Ladies,” I say.
They exchange funny looks and giggle at me.
“Sorry,” says one woman. “We’re from California, we don’t see many men tip their hats.”
“Yeah,” says another. “Only see that in the movies these days.”
My mother will get a big kick out of this.
The women tell me they are in town to walk the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And they aren’t alone. In my short time here, I have met other tourists from places like Arizona, Oregon, and Virginia. They are all here to touch the iron guard rails, and to walk the same bridge Martin Luther King Jr. once walked.
Most of the bridge-walkers I see are wearing sneakers, carrying bottles of water, and happy. But I meet one woman who has wet eyes.
“This is my fourth time walking the bridge,” the tearful woman says. She says nothing else.
From a distance, I watch a few people walk the unassuming arch. A young man and woman, holding hands. A middle-aged woman, carrying a toddler. An elderly Hispanic couple. A few college kids.
I go to Historic Riverfront Park. I take in the view. There I meet a man who must be on his lunch break. He is eating a sandwich, watching the river. He has cotton-white hair, midnight skin, and wears jeans and a necktie. I ask him about the bridge.
“Oh, man,” he says with a mouthful. “They come from everywhere to walk that thing. Presidents, movie stars, regular people, all kinds. Even Oprah.”
We watch Alabama River roll forward in silence. And it’s hard not to enjoy the beautiful weather today. It’s even harder not to love this river.
Then it happens.
A butterfly lands beside me. Bright yellow and black. A tiger swallowtail. It flutters, then rests on my knee for a moment before taking to the air.
“Do you think a butterfly really means good luck?” I ask the man.
“Yes,” he says.