An Alaskan in Alabama (continued…)

November continued…
The map from the 1880s that I examined at the town library, beautifully illustrated, had the land marked out (with parts perhaps already built) for the huge mental hospital that would be laid out beyond the nascent university, some distance down the main street from downtown’s neat rows of buildings. That hospital, named after one of the first administrators, is spread along the side of the university. A history marker notes that it was inspired by a woman named Dorothea Dix. The tallest building has a vast white dome, which towers above mature trees that dot a sylvan landscape. An information marker notes that it was the first hospital to be designed to use nature to try to heal the mind, so there are the remains of trails, clusters of trees, picnic benches, and such. I wander around the grounds. First, I peer into the windows of a grand brick and white mansion, moldering slightly from the front, more perilously at the back. It was probably where the hospital’s top administrator lives, and there are still a few chandeliers and a sense of forgotten grandeur. I examine a huge building, more than three stories high, that seems a twin of the campus administration building. But unlike that building, bustling when school is session, this building is deserted. It almost looks as if some disaster occurred and everyone rushed out in a panic, all at once, for there are chairs knocked over and old medical equipment lying on the floor. I walk past the old outbuildings, where equipment was probably stored. They are crumpling in on themselves, their iron doors rusting. There’s a modern brick building at the edge of the huge property, with an outside area enclosed by a fence. A few people walk around the outside area, a few others chat; perhaps part of the facility is still active, but most of it seems long-closed. Walking along, finding my way to the outside of the perimeter fence, I’m stopped by a man who tells me I shouldn’t be here: apparently visitors are not allowed, at least not on a wandering in basis. Some days later, walked all the way down the main street, past university, and over a freeway, finding myself in neighborhoods or grand houses and large yards, their names—Highlands and Buena Vista—perhaps evocative of a particular attitude in regards to the rest of the town. Further on, there was nothing much: a long, smelly, noisy road stretching on to what looks like a littering of fast food franchises in the distance. Nearby, a giant building is under construction. I later learn it is the site for a new mental hospital. Much of the old hospital may be torn down; its fate is uncertain. The university, hungry for land, may gobble it up, tearing down the old buildings and the trees and paving the undulating green to accommodate more giant trucks and SUVs, more fraternities and sororities, another Chik-fil-a or Subway. I can’t help but feel it would be loss.

On another wander, I go by the side of a huge building, dedicated to biology, not far from the old mental hospital. Huddled near the side of the building and almost hidden behind a fence, there are three grave markers, the burials for three people who died in the 1840s. A history marker provides a few details. One of these people was a university student, who died of an unnamed ailment. The other two were slaves of university faculty members. One died of “bilious pneumonia,” and the other of whooping cough; the latter’s nickname was “Boysey”—he was 6 years old. The graves are incongruous amongst the giant red brick administrative buildings and fraternities and the busy transit hub nearby. Not far from both is the gracious two-story blue and white house where some of the first women admitted to the university lived in the early years of the 20th century. There are rumors that the university may demolish the building to make way for a dining hall, though there are a number already.

In my wandering I have learned a good deal, and yet so little. History is here/not here: appearing behind a fence, a wall, a roadway, concealed by time and by my lack of understanding of the ghosts who live here.


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