April 27, 2015 — The state of Alabama is often characterized as being one of the Union’s more backward, but I had no clue how far back they were until I saw its largest city firsthand. We’re talking back-to-ancient-pagan-gods back.
A massive metal idol glowers down on Birmingham, like it’s just looking for an excuse to be angry with its citizens. Or indifferent. The two states of godhood. In this case, the ancient god is Vulcan, the Roman deity whose business cards list fire and metallurgy in raised gold print. His resume includes Jupiter’s thunderbolts, Achilles’ armor, and Prometheus’s chains. And he’s in the American South because, well, that’s where all the old gods went when we replaced them. Neptune’s in Richmond. Athena’s in Nashville.
In 1936, he was installed on a 126-foot-tall sandstone tower in a park named after him on Red Mountain, where most of his raw materials were mined. For decades, a green neon torch was placed over his spear that smoldered forge-fire red whenever there was a traffic fatality in the city.
Well, you know me and signature tall things. Of course we ascended him. After a quick circuit through the museum, we walked out to the adjacent elevator in its freestanding vertical shaft. We could’ve taken the stairs inside the tower, which we did on the way down just to do it, but I really suggest making at least one of the trips in the elevator, solely for the terrifying experience of crossing the chasm at the top between the shaft and the tower. It can’t be more than 15 feet long, but it’s across a flimsy-seeming metal grate. You can see through the holes all the way down the 126 feet to what, if the bridge collapsed, would be the cause of death listed on your death certificate: Fast concrete.