SWEET HOME ALABAMA | Sharon Henry
I’ve developed a thing for water towers; something whimsical about those lofty tanks have me scrambling for a camera every time. Water towers are soooo American, they punctuate the rolling landscape like beacons. So it’s a no brainer; we do a U-turn when a rusty, lanky specimen comes into view whilst cruising through the town of Rutledge, Alabama.
Killing two birds with one stone we pop into the Post Office to send a long overdue postcard. A teller’s window divides the interior. One corner of the room holds vintage post boxes complete with turn combination dials and eagle wings insignia.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
Post Master, Gregory K Holley, known as Kyle (his middle name), tells us the post boxes are still in use and have been in family names for generations. There are about 420 people living within Rutledge’s city limits and unsurprisingly, it’s a quiet town. He thinks perhaps at one stage it thrived on the cotton industry.
Kyle listens with interest of our travels and poses the ever present question; where is St Helena. Kyle himself has never travelled outside of the US but would like to visit Rome and the Vatican, “to see where the Pope lives,” and to try authentic Italian food.
The furthest Kyle’s travelled is California, as a young boy to stay with cousins. “It was a totally different world,” he laughs recalling being amazed by his cousin’s beer on tap, “available any time of the day.
“Even within the same country there were differences in our culture. We wanted grits for breakfast and they didn’t know what that was!”
Rutledge’s last census in 2010 counted a population of 467, which makes even St Helena Island seem large. A historic information board erected on the main road says Rutledge was a thriving town, but a railway built in 1888 by-passed the town and led to a loss in business and population.
Serving the small community is the water tower and we make a slow amble towards it, photographing the abandoned buildings and a disused Coca-Cola dispenser along the way. As tourists, we stick out like pimples on a supermodel’s nose, it’s clear we are ‘from out of town.’
Barking dogs heighten my sense of discomfort when I realise the ‘pretty’ house I’m snapping has a confederate flag on a pole out front. Darrin leads on and strikes up conversation with a lady who stepped out on her porch to see what the fuss was about. She refuses to have her picture taken (despite Darrin’s best persuasion) because she’s still wearing her nightgown. She is the owner of Suzy Q, one of the barking dogs who immediately takes a shine to Darrin. She had been the victim of a hit and run (the dog not the owner) and walks with a limp.
The water tower is dated OCT 63, it’s spindly limbs and thick body looks like a leftover from H G Well’s, ‘War of the Worlds.’ The reason America has water towers simply put is, the elevated tank level provides the necessary water pressure to the mains system on an otherwise flat landscape. They come in many shapes, sizes and age. I prefer the old types.
Blame the Wife
After a little while a man in a golf buggy approaches us, his name is Mickey, “spelt like Mickey Mouse.” Curiosity got the better of him and he says by way of introduction, “my wife would just kill me if I don’t find out what you guys are up to!”
Mickey is a retired 70 year old and spends his time in the garden growing organic vegetables. He used to work as an Information Processing manager, in the Alabama Revenue Department. This involved managing state data including vehicle tags and licenses. He was working there when they made the big technology switch; information cards (for state vehicles) that previously filled a corridor 100m long was transferred and to computer hard drives and the physical space compression that that involved. “The instant transformation in search abilities was staggering, it could be done in an instant,” he says snapping his fingers.
Mickey is fascinated about our travels and the chance that led us to obscure Rutledge. He’s lived in the town his whole life and his family before him. In fact the church neighbouring the water tower stands on land donated to the town by an uncle of his, “on the condition it was to be non-denominational, nobody was to be excluded.” Although today it’s a Methodist church.
Old Bangers Out Back
Reluctant to see us go Mickey suggests we photograph his cousin’s house, a typical example of a southern home and one of the oldest in town. His cousin is away working in northern Alabama.
Fronted by trees, the two storey, clapperboard home has a prerequisite porch together with a wicker rocking chair. Out back a weathered Chevrolet car and a Ford Explorer truck shelter under car ports.
Before it really is time to hit the road Mickey speeds off on his buggy and returns bearing two jars. One is dill (gherkin) spears and the other a pear relish, made by his wife Gerri from their garden produce. Dill can be eaten on its own we’re told and the relish is good on crackers. I am so touched by this wonderfully kind gesture a lump immediately forms in my throat. I’m not a lover of gherkins but can’t wait try these out.
Finally waving goodbye Mickey tells us, “It has made my day to meet you.” Likewise for us; meeting Mickey and visiting Rutledge has been very special.