Back to School in Birmingham

Orpheus and Eurydice, Bham style   

By Max Rykov

It’s August once again! That magical time of year that children dream about all summer long—visions of notebooks and markers and Social Studies are ever so close to manifesting in their daily lives, soon to replace the enervating idleness of summer vacation.  Back to the soul-sustaining rigor and grind of formal education in our local schools. What joy!

Our local students have much to take in if they are to grow to become intelligent and educated adults one day. They must be exposed to the great cultural masterworks of human civilization, in order to move about societies, both local, and foreign, with sophistication and grace. They must appreciate all that has come before them, and display an understanding of the wisdom that is the foundation of our culture.

And much like the method that many teachers have employed over the years to put arithmetic into terms that, say, a young scholar-athlete who only comprehends the world in the context of football (e.g. if Alabama scores one touchdown, one extra point and 3 field goals, how many points does Alabama have? *answer revealed at the end of this column), I propose a method of pedagogy that retells folklore in Birmingham-centric terms, in order to capture the attention of the civically obsessed student in all of us. Take, for example, the famous Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. It’s a tale that’s been told and retold countless times in many different cultures, rife with meaning and metaphor—but how could a modern Birminghamian possibly relate to this tale?

What if instead of Orpheus and Eurydice, the protagonists of this myth were represented by two of Birmingham’s most iconic lovers: Vulcan and Electra?

Some context. In 1926, E.T. Leech, the editor of the Birmingham Post, wrote a love story about these two statues, under the pseudonym “Dr. B.U.L. Conner” (I have no clue if there is any connection at all with this pen name to the infamous Bull Connor, who had two stints as Birmingham’s Public Safety Commissioner for two terms: first from 1936–1954 and then from 1957–1963).

The Newly Retold Myth:

Once upon a time in Birmingham there lived a gigantic blacksmith named Vulcan. Besides his unparalleled height, he was also known for his mighty right shoulder. His stamina was legendary–he was able to hold up his right arm up indefinitely. At first, Vulcan found a simple spear to hold up, but when the residents of Birmingham saw the potential usefulness of his skill, he was gifted a beautiful torch to hold. The torch lit up the whole city with a brilliant green light, delighting the residents’ minds and healing their hearts of sorrows and troubles. 

Birminghamians came out in droves to see Vulcan and his enchanting green light. Lovers would be inspired by the sheer grandeur of the sight, and would be moved to show their affection for each other at his feet. For many years, Vulcan witnessed the embrace of others, but had to endure his own loneliness, never having seen a being who could capture his own heart.

Until the day Electra came to town. She was gilded and radiant, a Divinity of Light atop the Alabama Power Company building. 

Vulcan saw her from afar, and fell in love immediately. He flashed his emerald light to Electra, and she beamed, drawn into a swoon of ecstasy at the sight. They began a steady courtship; Vulcan would leave Red Mountain, and stomp downtown to visit Electra. He would leave a steady stream of potholes in his wake, a reminder to the residents of Birmingham of his immense love for Electra. 

This honeymoon phase didn’t please everyone though. The replica Statue of Liberty in Liberty Park desired Electra for herself, and plotted to seduce her! One day, when Vulcan and Electra were taking a calamitous stroll through the streets of Birmingham, the replica Statue of Liberty emerged from behind The Heaviest Corner on Earth, intending to kill Vulcan! When Vulcan noticed her, he grabbed Electra by the hand and they started running toward Ruffner Mountain. As they were running away, Electra was bitten by a snake and tragically died. 

Vulcan was devastated by the loss of his beloved. His torch shone red with sorrow, instead of the usual brilliant green. The people of Birmingham, accustomed to the comforting green light, convinced Vulcan to travel to the Underworld in Five Points South, and ask the Storyteller to return Electra to the realm of the living.  

Upon entering the Underworld, Vulcan enchanted the Storyteller, and broke his heart with the sorrowful red torchlight. The Storyteller agreed to allow Vulcan to bring Electra back to life, but with one stipulation–that he not look back at her while they were walking out of the Underworld.

Vulcan agreed to these terms, but as they were about to emerge from the Underworld, he became overcome with worry that Electra was no longer behind him, so he turned around. At that moment, Electra was whisked away to the Underworld forever, crushing the soul of our dear Vulcan.

It was then that Vulcan decided to throw away his torch entirely. Without the chance of seeing his beloved, he saw no point in bringing beauty into the world any longer. He picked up his spear of yore, and waited for death, or another renovation project to reunite with Electra. 

May you learn much this school year, young Birminghamians! 

 *Alabama has scored 16 points

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