October 04, 2016

Three Days in Birmingham, 'Bama

So I decided to take my parents to Birmingham since my Mom's long been interested in EWTN.

And it started with a flop, for my parents at least. They could've gotten to China more quickly than from Cincinnati to Alabama.

My situation went well enough - everything on time. Waited in line at TSA check-in behind a young priest I've heard say Mass downtown several times. I didn't want to bother him by introducing myself, figuring he gets enough attention with the roman collar. Overheard him say later that he was traveling for a retreat.

Dad calls tells me the improbable news that his flight was delayed for hours due to mechanical difficulties and he would miss the connecting flight to Birmingham. They couldn't promise to get him to Alabama till 11:30pm.  Then the backup flight to Atlanta had problems. Bad news.

On my Delta flight I ended up sitting behind the young Dominican on the flight and overheard him have a long talk with the stranger seated next to him about God's love and Heaven and Hell. A priest is ever on duty, offering homilies even outside Mass.

I had Friday on my own now, so Uber'd to EWTN studios where a Franciscan gave the tour, starting with a half-hour documentary on the life of Mother Angelica. Then went to the small studio where they film about 90% of EWTN shows and I was shocked by how small it looked. Tall ceilings, for sure, to accommodate the galaxy of light fixtures and cameras but the place was tiny! Everything looks bigger on TV. It's sort of like the Wizard of Oz - you'd think you'd see this great big operation and here the filming is done in this plain space with facades and backdrops like movie sets.

Our group of about dozen went down a long hallway with many little rooms that do different tasks, like film editing or archives or Spanish language or subtitles. Then we went to a window that looked out over the giant satellite dishes that ping servers way up in the atmosphere. There is a whole huge garage that serves as a backup power supply in case of lightning strikes, and to further guard against them there are these small fuzzy-wires that deflect and "encourage" lightning to fall outside the property. This has the unfortunate side effect of making properties around EWTN more prone to lightning strikes.

I saw those seven huge satellite dishes and thought of the power they represented in terms of shooting a message or image all over the world, but later saw the exposed Eucharist in the Adoration chapel and it looked like a different kind of satellite dish, the Power behind the power.

The Franciscan guide seemed a bit underenthused about his task. I think he was stressed by the fact the main route to the studio was blocked by construction, which meant he had to lead two groups to the studio based on those who could walk and those who couldn't. He golf-cart'd some of the group who were too elderly to walk up the hill and around the construction. It was an impressive grade I must say, but then I live in flat Columbus where every grade is impressive.

Walked outside and felt amazement at how summery it felt. Nothing like going to Alabama in late September to experience the complete reversing of autumn. Saw a funny sign that said, "As A Penance Do Not Smoke on Monastery Property." Then Uber'd back to downtown Birm.

The driver was talkative if a bit Trumpian. He was an older gent who went from security guard to Uber driver yet had "three successful businesses" over his lifetime. Since he's driving a Uber in his advanced old age, I assume the same three businesses must've sadly became unsuccessful.  Back to the hotel by 5pm, I went in search of beer and food but ended up touring the Birmingham Public Library and its impressive reading room. Then walked by Linn Park and the statuary and fountain, to St. Paul's, an old Catholic church that was (naturally) closed tight, and then to the closest grocery which was named prosaically "Family Supermarket".

It's not too far from downtown but it felt dicey enough. The vibes were definitely rough neighborhood, but the search for beer that could be purchased cheaply overruled any thought of danger. There were a lot of guys loitering around a sign that said "No Loitering", I wanted to take a picture of them with the sign in the background but of course I'm not that stupid. I went in quickly, picked a six-pack (no fu-fu craft beer here, that's for sure, ha). Saw a paper plate doubling as a sign that said, "If You Get Caught Stealing, You'll Go to Jail".


Day two and surprisingly jam-packed it was. From seeing stone art created by Brother Joseph of a local monastery, to seeing the otherworldly EWTN church complete with inaccessible cloisters, to a ghost tour telling us that our hotel (and the rectory on the church grounds we're visiting tomorrow) is haunted. Never a dull moment.

I had planned on uber-ing to EWTN convent and church grounds but instead we called an audible given the outrageous price tag of $140 less $20 coupon. For that price we could rent a car and have plenty of flexibility with plans, and I was never more grateful for the fact later, when having a car meant the freedom to get off the road at 2pm and get a Snickers and coca cola. Because I was 'xtremely hungry by then. Man does not live on breakfast alone.

We trekked to Enterprise rental after breakfast at 10am. The front desk was staffed by a single soul, and every time the phone rang a little part of me died. Patience is a virtue, but on a vacation with the precious minutes tick-tick-ticking...

But then a crazy thing happened - it was our turn up and then an even crazier thing happened - she suddenly went up to the key rack and gave us keys to a car. Just like that. One minute we were waiting, the next we were checking out our new Jeep without all the paperwork that makes a car rental look a lot like getting a mortgage.

It was an ebulliently summer day in fall Birmingham and the roads were clear all the way up I-65 north to Hanceville. An easy ride if off the beaten track; you certainly don't run into the Shrine accidentally. We came to rolling hills with horses and white fences that led up to a magic kingdom: a large Spanish castle which contained a huge gift shop and conference room and then we explored the large colonnade and piazza leading to a magnificent church.

Everything in the 380 acres seemed top notch: clean and sparkling as Disney World. Immaculately maintained pavers and scenic grounds. Inside they even provide pull-overs and trousers for people who wore shorts or something sleeveless to the Shrine church. They take modest dress seriously here.
We spent some time in church while an unseen nun led a Rosary from behind the gild cloister. Then everyone sitting in front of us in church suddenly got up and walked left, sort of like how a flock of birds suddenly switch direction based on some unheard/unseen signal. Since it was four minutes till noon Mass, the smart money said that Mass would not be in the church but might be in some undisclosed location. I followed the crowd and the crowd was right - doors opened to allow us into the lower church (which is where Mother Angelica is buried in a mausoleum crypt). And where Mass shortly began.

It was a weekday Mass long in duration and the first Mass I'd ever been to where the priest skipped the Sign of Peace but the people did not - the mostly Mexican and African-American congregation shook hands while the Agnus Dei was prayed.

After, we walked over the church grounds and I looked for ways to get into the cloister because it was forbidden (joke). We saw a Nativity grotto where a woman with an empty holy water bottle asked where it might be found - a large holy water fixture was in the front to the right. Was it odd the holy water was up front? Or that the woman missed the very large fixture? Who could say. Mom didn't see it either.

The JP II Eucharistic Center wasn't open till 2, so we decided to skip that. So at 1:30 we headed off to a new adventure recommended by Aunt Joan, a "little Jerusalem" carved by monks. On that information alone we were able to find the location of what the 'net called Ave Maria Grotto, a roadside attraction actually featured as a certified Roadside Attraction. It was only 12 or so miles away so we went and I was surprisingly impressed by it. It had a sort of magical quality, this wonderland of miniature carvings of St. Peter's and Marian shrines and the Holy Land. The folk-ish art had a cumulative effect.

Next up I snuck in the Abbey church and walked boldly past the altar into one of the monk's carols, checking out their reading material (handsomely produced Latin hymnal books) and taking pictures. I saw a monk at a side altar in front of the Blessed Sacrament and tried to walk oh-so-slowly so as not to disturb him, something unlikely at best given the squeak of tennis shoes. Or maybe I was doing the godly thing and just exercising his patience so he'll have a higher place in Heaven.

Next we traveled back to towards the hotel after that stop for that lifesaving candy bar at a grocery bar that sold no beer. That's so not Ohio.

By 4pm we were back in the land of Birm and we had drinks on the hotel patio. Who does not love drinks on a patio in summer weather? Nobody ever born. We had dinner and then headed out on the Historic Ghost Walk.

The ghoulish guide was as eccentric as you'd expect a ghost-man would be, telling us he had two human skulls, a tooth from a local murder victim (a pendant around his neck), and a human heart in formaldehyde. This is the definition of oversharing. But I have to say he was extremely good at his job - very entertaining, talked loud enough, ooozed enthusiasm. Different from the Franciscan who showed us around the EWTN studio, although admittedly the material is a lot different. Hard to get too excited about how sound editing versus ghost-haunting.

He started talking about our very hotel and it seems the 4th and 6th floors are haunted, making us very glad we were on the 3rd and 5th. The hotel was previously the site of an 100-yr old apartment complex, with the obligatory history of mayhem.

(Surprisingly, the guide never said why Birmingham is called "The Magic City".)

We learned about the church we're going to Sunday, how the priest who married a young woman to a Catholic was shot and killed by a Methodist Ku Klux Klansmember and the killer got off the hook given how the Klan was large and in charge then. There's a movement locally to see the priest as a martyr for the faith given the circumstances.

We saw another old hotel nearby that is said to be haunted by Old Hank, Hank Williams Sr., who spent his last night alive in this hotel drinking himself to death (couch: "but what a way to go!").

The tour was great if a half-hour too long. In these days of short attention spans, he's really a throwback to an earlier age given the 130 minute talk/walk. Which actually was truncated from what was intended to be 150 minutes but for a Latino street festival.

Sunday, last day of vacation already. As always I think one more day would be nice, no matter the length of the trip.

8:30 it was at St. Paul's Cathedral. Gothic and suitably impressive, we headed back to the hotel for the end of the free breakfast period. Very nice hotel - great staff, ubiquitous and free 24-7 coffee, decent breakfasts.

Afterward we rolled via rental car to the EWTN studio chapel, the one that televises masses and did so the morning we were there.  We coulda been on TV.  We coulda been a contender! Wonder how early we would've had to have got there to have gotten a seat given how small the chapel is. But cameras were everywhere - at least 5, maybe more. And then we went to leave and - what! - we were locked in! But then I tried a different door and it was open, so we narrowly escaped being stranded in an empty church, missing our flights, and dying of thirst.

Next up was to return the rental car, so drove to Enterprise and Dad offered to wait with the car till they opened while Mom and I walked to the Museum of Art on another beautiful sunny day. We strolled for about 20 minutes or so when Dad texted cryptically: "Is mom in the room?". I said she was at the art museum with me but the text drove Mom crazy, wondering where Dad was and why he asked that question. So I ended up calling Dad after Mom's prompting and found out that he'd broken into Enterprise and the police had come! Or that he had walked into an open Enterprise at noon only they weren't there yet - they'd forgotten to lock up the night before. So Dad set off an alarm accidentally, which caused the police to come and look around the property before releasing him on his own recognizance. 

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