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From Sea to Shining Sea

Selma and Louise

“They all have guns round here but none of them can shoot straight.”
14.3.12

In a car more suited to light grocery shopping or picking the kids up from soccer practice, our friends Conor Creighton and Kendall Waldman are travelling across the bottom half of the USA on a road trip from South Carolina to California. They’ll be trying to swerve the cliches to send us updates on all the cool stuff they come across. The series' name is From Sea to Shining Sea.

Alabama is one of the poorest states in the US. (Mississippi is rock bottom, but we’ll be coming to that soon enough.) Inside Alabama, Selma has the distinction of being its most violent township. As far as we could tell that isn't fair. We spent two days walking through the seediest looking alleyways we could find, cruising its meth ghettos and loitering with as much intent as we could muster, and the only mildly aggressive act we witnessed was an old, drunk black man hollering at us to buy bootleg Ludacris CDs. Our car can only play cassette tapes. Shame.

Annons

Having said that, a week or so before we docked, five people got bruised in a shoot-out. Only one of them died. As a bartender said to us: “They all have guns round here but none of them can shoot straight.” A silver lining, I guess.

There are many reasons why Selma has a violent reputation. First, there’s the poverty; as many as 70 percent of the town’s population live off welfare checks. Second, Alabama is one of the easiest places in the States to buy a gun – background checks aren’t much more accurate than an online doctor. And third, Selma is one of those towns where the amount of history means at least two generations will have to die before old grudges get forgotten. This is former slave country. Back in the South’s glory days, this town had so many cotton millionaires its wealth rivalled Boston. When the cotton dollars left, Selma made a living from the military. The airfield in town was the busiest US base during the Vietnam War, but then that closed, sucking $17million a year out of the local economy. It left a big, empty abandoned base and the poorest of the poor black families moved in to fill the gap.

Craig Air Force Base, we were told, is not somewhere you would go after dusk, nor is it the sort of place you’d visit without your gun. The local police, they said, don’t even go inside the airfield. So, naturally, we took a drive over one evening.

There was a softball game in progress. Families in the bleachers. The sun slipping behind the horizon. A postcard American setting. Funny, the people explaining the basics of softball to me were the same ones responsible for putting Selma on the wrong map and scaring any newcomers away. And then we ran into Menzo Driskell, the only other white face at the baseball game. Menzo runs the base and he was very concerned for our safety. Menzo is a seventh generation Selmite. He's polite, and seems good to the bone, but he does have a touch of the plantation master about him: if you crossed him, I imagine he could crack his whip harder than a lion tamer. “If you end up in any trouble in Alabama, just say my name,” he said, and we will.

Annons

Menzo took us on a tour of the worst part of the airbase. It could be a beautiful place to live. You’d grow up surrounded by pine trees, a lake and great fishing, but instead a big chunk of the homes are boarded up or burnt out. And the residents inside them are pretty into crack.

“The State Troopers do checks out on the highway and these boys drive by blowing smoke out their windows,” says Menzo. “The kernel of the problem,” Menzo explained, “is that the majority of the houses are occupied by single mothers.” They’re not the ones starting the fires and creating a nuisance, it’s the horny men who keep calling by.

Selma is probably very dangerous. Sadly for you, I guess, we couldn’t find it but we were at least treading what we'd been told were the right paths.

As we were leaving our hotel, the owner came out to point out the marks in the exterior wall. They were bullet holes from a drive-by shooting attempt. “Did anyone die?” “No, the shooter missed everything but the wall,” he said. If you ever end up in a shoot-out down South, pray to your God your shooter is cross-eyed or can’t aim. Round here, it seems that’s mostly the case.

Thanks to the St. James Inn for helping us in Selma.

Follow Conor on Twitter: @conorcreighton

Previously: From Sea to Shining Sea - Can I Get A Witness?