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a different azimuth
the website of john neel

Wahoma - Birmingham Alabama

Before the highway came through the center of Birmingham, my family lived in a small two bedroom home at the end of 6th Avenue North. Our house was exactly like every third house on “The Block,” as we called it, until Mom and Dad added on a living room and dining room to the north end. I would have preferred another bath and a couple of bedrooms. Life in the house was crowded. One bathroom and five people made for a lot of knocking, waiting, and complaining. Three brothers in one bedroom allowed for no privacy, constant bickering, and a lifetime of good-natured enmity.

The house was so small it could be heated by a gas furnace located in the floor of the central hall. This contraption was constantly “going out” requiring Dad to relight it. When I think about this process now, and remember, too, the many times I leapt over it in bare feet going from the bedroom to living room, I cringe at the thought. More than once, little feet landed on the edge of the hot metal grate, which only made it more challenging; though ordered to by caring parents, we refused to walk around.

We cooled the house with a ceiling fan in the same hall and a window fan in my parent’s bedroom, aided by the large Mimosa trees that provided shade for the yard and the prevailing winds that swept through the wooded lot behind the houses on the east of The Block, called simply “The Woods.” On hot Alabama nights, roll-out windows and both front and back doors were left open. Screen doors shielded us from bugs were locked only by a hook latch.

Mitsy, our extremely vocal Eskimo Spitz, beautifully white after her bath but perpetually dirty, guarded the house from all intruders, anyone she didn’t know, squirrels, falling leaves, and thunderstorms. She could hear a storm coming hours before the first clap of thunder.  We had cats as well.  Dad took great pleasure in naming them.  Names like Oscar, Jinx, Mikki, Grendel, and Griselda came from his sense of humor and his love science and Beowulf, which he could quote, in Old English, by heart.

My dad was a brilliant man, schooled in electronics in the Army Signal Corps during World War II and educated, courtesy of the GI Bill, in Physics and Chemistry at Livingston University. He taught school for a while and supplemented his income with a small radio repair shop until Southern Railway offered him a job at twice his teachers salary. From Dad we boys got our love for science, the ability to do anything or at least the willingness to try, and an incredible work ethic. Dad wasn’t a religious man, he was a scientist. He was a Mason and Shriner, so there was a spiritual side to the man. He died after a valiant struggle with cancer in the early 90s while I was away in Turkey.

My mom was the girl next door, the pretty girl who stole the heart of the returning soldier. Raised in the household of what can be best described as a Country Couple, she learned to cook, sew, garden, farm, save, and scrimp. She was Methodist through-and-through and raised her boys in the church. She had a beautiful little soprano voice, and, until Alzheimer’s took it from her, could name every bird, every flower, and every tree at a distance. From Mom, we got our love of nature, music, and our different forms of spirituality. She, too, was intelligent and I often wonder what she would have become had she not invested her life in raising her boys.

My two brothers were brilliant, studious, disciplined, and talented…you know…Tools. Both graduated with honors from a prestigious Methodist college becoming phenomenal men, very successful in their chosen professions, the eldest choosing academia and the youngest medicine. They became fast friends in their 30s, bird hunting and traveling together, until a shooting accident took the youngest and, I like to say, the best of the three brothers.

I was the middle kid, the troublemaker, who came to the early conclusion that it was my job in life to fight and question every long standing tradition or preconceived notion in the family and the World. I adopted Auburn as my football team at age six, much to the chagrin of every other Neel in the world who all worship that other team. I fought trips to the barbershop with the passion of a Templar Knight until the parents gave up. The volume of my music became louder and my tastes defined by my rebellious side. My first album was The Byrds, Eight Miles High,the second was Surrealistic Pillow by Jefferson Airplane. Methodism, Christianity, and religion of all sorts I rejected out-right. I was a terrible student and spent untold weeks grounded for my bad grades.

My family ate together. We sat at our mom's table, graced by her amazing Southern Cooking, challenged by my dad's intellect. In Dad's house, we discussed everything and no argument, as long as it was backed up with information and well thought out, was discounted or disapproved. Dad mediated and Mom maintained control if the talk turned to argument. I always chose the opposite side of every argument, regardless of my true beliefs. It was fun poking the other two, and sometimes, even Dad.  I rarely won...if ever.

The Block was populated by the families of young men returning from war.  They never talked about the horrors they had seen, but happily talked of the good times and good friends during their service. Occasionally, an interesting tale would slip out that would hint at what they had experienced, like my dad’s tale of the V-1 "Buzz Bomb" landing in a tree near his radio hut at his airbase in southeastern England.

These young me came home to marry their high school girlfriends, educate themselves, start their first civilian jobs, buy their first house, and begin their families.

On The Block, everyone was the same age. The dads and moms were within one or two years of each other and so were their kids. Trying to remember all the names isn’t hard; I went to school with all of them from the first grade at Kennedy School through high school at Woodlawn. There were, by my count, twenty-one kids around my age.

It was the perfect 1950’s lifestyle. We knew each other. We socialized with the other families on the block all the time, especially the Southern Railroad folks. While our dads worked their jobs, our moms took care of the house and all that goes with that. When we kids weren’t at school, we lived outside in the most perfect place to play ever put on this earth.

The Block was a long rectangle of roads bounded by 68th Street North on the West, 68thPlace North on the East, 6th Avenue North at the top of the rectangle and 5th Terrace North at the bottom. The long side of the rectangle rose gently from the south to the north, cresting on a hill and then curving right to form 6th Avenue, which ran sharply downhill, called “The Hill.”

Because the only entrance to The Block was from the south on 68th Street, the only cars that came onto The Block were our parents and our parents' friends. Both 6th Avenue and 5thTerrace bottomed out at a small tributary of Village Creek, called simply “The Creek.” Our house was in “The Dead End” of 6th Avenue North about 50 yards from The Creek. I’m sure today it would be called a cul-de-sac, but maybe not. At the end of the street there was a large wooden barrier with red reflectors to keep the unwary driver from driving into The Creek. I remember at least one car ramming into the barrier when the emergency break was not applied.

The Creek, except on exceptionally dry summers, always had about a foot of running water. The banks were at least six to eight feet, straight down, and it was about fifteen to twenty feet wide at the top. There was only two natural crossing points on the Creek, “Rock Island,” about 150 yards north of my house and “The Path” going to the baseball park. At both places, the water was narrow enough for the adventurous to leap across to the other bank. Frogs, snakes, minnows, and crawdads were favorite playthings.

North of 6th Avenue, just behind my house, were “The Woods,” a very large tract of wooded property that still exists today. It was the perfect place to “play army” and this is where I learned to stalk, hunt, and move silently, skills that would come in handy later in life. The Woods had some pretty interesting spots. “Hangman’s Tree,” a large Oak, situated pretty much equidistant from any point outside the woods, had a cable extending half way to the ground from a large branch. Probably once a rope swing, in our minds it was where the Tom Dooley’s of earlier Birmingham times had swung. All trails led to Hangman’s Tree. There was “The Grave Yard,” a neglected cemetery just on the southern edge of the woods. Many a night we kids would circle up around a fire in the vicinity for ghost stories. We never set up in the actual cemetery; we had more respect than that. Now, the grave stones are all broken and scattered around on the ground.

At the far northern edge of The Woods, running about northeast, was Village Creek. We rarely strayed this far until our high school years, but when we did, it was always a day-long adventure of raft building or fishing. I don’t remember catching much, and I’m positive we never built a raft that would float, but there was fun to be had at Village Creek, especially when girls began to get interesting.

Most days, especially summer days, were spent in the streets. The Hill and 68th Place were the two places where every kid in the neighborhood converged. The Hill was the perfect place to race downhill on either bikes, the occasional poorly crafted go-cart, or, when the sidewalk surfing craze hit America, to nail our metal skates onto a two-by-four and throw caution to the wind. Biking on perfectly level 68th Place held it’s on dangers. It was benign enough when just riding along, but most times jousting tournaments, spear throwing competitions, dog fighting, and skiing on our homemade skate boards were the sports of the day. In those days there were no helmets, knee or elbow pads. I am not sure how we survived. Certainly, we were tough little kids.

As we approached our teen years “The Pool” became the big draw. Cascade Plunge, a members only swim club, was a short walking distance from our house. It was a gigantic pool, 75 feet by 150 feet, with “The Baby Pool” the size of most public pools. At the Shallow End was a stepped “Waterfall” that fed the pool with ice-cold stream water from Ruffner Mountain. At the “Deep End” were a high diving board, a low diving board, and “The Tower,” a four-stepped diving platform that had to be about a gazillion feet above the ground. It was probably only about twelve feet, but from the top…well, it looked like a gazillion. It took the very brave or the extremely foolhardy to dive from that height. I only managed to jump off of it a few times. On normal days we would be standing at the door when the gate opened at 10am and we would stay until the staff ran us off at 10pm.

I took my first swim lessons there when I was about seven or eight and continued to swim there until my family moved to Huffman after my sophomore year in high school.

Cascade was as much a social club as it was a place to swim. There were parties, Bar-b-cues, and dances in The Cloud Room. The west side had a large, covered bleacher area where, in our teens, we spent more time talking, flirting, and socializing than we did in the pool. The East side was for sunning and, for a few years, had its own AM radio station, WSGN, 610. I lived in that special time when, as my female friends blossomed into young women, swimming suit styles changed from the modest styles of the 50s to the more revealing styles of the late 60s. Cascade in the summer was a great place to be a boy.

During the school year, we lived Saturday to Saturday. We spent Saturday mornings watching cartoons on one of the two VHF stations, Channel 6, 13, and, later on, one UHF Station, channel 42. We watched the Benny Carl Show and Cousin Cliff Holman which gave way to Rocky and Bullwinkle, Sky King, and Sea Hunt, then to Where the Action Is, American Band Stand, The Unknown and The Outer Limits. Winter Saturday mornings were often spent at Rainbow Roller Rink where every young boy was a speed demon during Free Skates, tempered only by the staff bouncers who would make you go sit out a period if you got too wild. Couples Only were periods where a guy could skate with his girl without the threat of some pre-teen cutting their legs out from under them. The change of a period was announced by a loud buzzer and a change to the score board at the end of the rink. The sound track played during my years there seemed to never change. Every Saturday, it was the same songs over and over. I can’t hear Rhythm of the Rain by the Cascades without thinking of Rainbow.

With Spring and Summer came baseball at Wahoma Park, just across The Creek. We began playing ball at 6-years-old. Ball in the Cap league was simple, but there was no T-Ball. Dads were our coaches and umpires and mom's were our loyal fans. Losers were consoled and encouraged, winners went to get Ice Cream at The Spinning Wheel located just off the park on 1st Avenue north. My Favorite, even back then, as lime sherbet.

In my last years playing Ball, I became a pitcher, but I also loved second and third base. I had an arm that was accurate, fast, that threw a natural overhand curve. In those days, if you could throw, you threw every game. This, is, of course, why I have right shoulder problems now. I'm still accurate, but can't throw with any power or to any distance...and it hurts. I stopped playing when, sliding into second, I tore up my left ankle. I didn't miss it as a kid, but I do now. Baseball was the only sport at which I was any counting batting.  I could never hit.  Pitchers aren't supposed to hit, Right?

Those Wahoma days were magic. It was safe. We could roam and play anywhere our legs and bikes could take us. We learned life lessons there like being humble in victory and recovering from defeat. We took our bumps and scrapes with the burn of Bactine and Mercurochrome. We did our chores as a matter of course and became responsible adults. We were punished for doing wrong and accepted that our parents knew best. We learned to socialize, without drugs and alcohol, and learned to respect each other. We learned to dance and sing, ride bikes, swim, and appreciate nature.

How could I not appreciate the time and place where I made my finest friends, fought and lost my first fight, and kissed my first girl?