Birmingham ‘firsts’


Years ago, before he became a world-famous name-dropping sports talking head, Paul Finebaum wrote a column comparing Atlanta and Birmingham. Those two cities were once about the same size. Finebaum wrote about how Atlanta had run off and left Birmingham.
Heck, in my opinion, Birmingham won, although one must admit, for some of the wrong reasons — Bull Connor, police dogs, idiots attacking Nat King Cole on stage during a performance, and so on.
Atlanta developed into a huge octopus with tentacles reaching out in every direction, the kind of place I’ll drive two extra hours just to avoid.
But then, Birmingham does have some special memories for me, some “firsts.”
For instance, when I was a youngun’ , a tonsillectomy was a cure-all. If you had a broken leg or an ingrown toenail, hmmm, the doctor would say, better get those tonsils out. Thus it was, when I was six, the summer before I would start to school,I had to have that operation. Had to go to Birmingham to get it. We didn’t have a car, but Daddy had a friend, Mr. Lee Collins, who was going to be hauling a load of hogs to the market in Birmingham. We rode with him.
The “first” was that we stopped by Aunt Tennie’s. My cousin was out cutting the grass. Grass in the yard! And we heard a ting-a-ling bell, and it was a popcycle man, pushing his cart down the sidewalk’. All I could stand to eat was ice cream, so I pigged out.
We rode the train home, another “first.” Each car had a little water fountain at the end of the car, with little Dixie cups. Ice water. I must have made ten trips to that fountain between Birmingham and Sulligent. When I was twelve or thirteen, Cousin James and I hitch-hiked to Birmingham to go to the fair. While we were in downtown, we saw a Lane drugstore with a big poster that showed a banana split in full color.
I will if you will, huh? Huh? We went in and ordered one apiece. “Want nuts?” Of course. A “first.” Later we got another one.
In the spring, before I would be a senior that fall, we heard that the Tommy Dorsey orchestra would be in Birmingham.. Again, me and James and Paul Young and Jerry Randolph got to Birmingham some way and I got to see, close up, my first big band. Another “first.” It was everything I had expected and more. Being musicians ourselves in our little band, James and I especially enjoyed seeing some of our contemporaries at work.
Then, that fall, Uncle Kelley, the bachelor uncle that every kid should be lucky enough to have, said, “Hey, there’s a big football game in Birmingham this weekend. Why don’t we go?” So Kelley, Turner, Ross and I went … and saw Georgia whip Alabama by something like 454 to 12 (and I was an Alabama fan at the time). Forgive me, I knew not what I did … but I got to see the Harry James band that night and his singer, Marian Morgan.
Oh, one other Birmingham memory: when I was in school at API, I had a date with Elwanda Hankins, a hometown girl who was working in Birmingham. We went to the magnificent Alabama Theater to see “Detective Story.” Afterwards she directed me to a place that sold baskets of shrimp. I don’t know if she realized that this was a first for me. Anyway, that hooked me. She made a life-long addict of me.
Bob Sanders is a veteran local radio personality, columnist, author and raconteur of note. He can be reached at


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