a group of workers search in rubble after a tornado swept through and leveled a church

Rescue workers search through the rubble of the Goshen United Methodist Church after a tornado destroyed the building and killed 20 people in March 1994.

They asked us to talk about stories we can’t let go of.

The first thing that popped into my head was … Shiiiiiit.

No really. That’s my answer.

I can’t let go of shit.

I guess I gotta go all the way back to 1984 to explain. I was coming off the worst few years of my life. 

I’d been arrested, taken to the Birmingham jail — a place they write the saddest songs about — for stealing a box of condoms from Big B drugs.

The cop told me I was lucky. If I’d taken a jumbo pack, I’d be staring at a felony. 


Edel Rodriguez

I didn’t feel lucky. For not needing the jumbo pack.

I tried to keep it all hush hush. But when I went to throw myself on the mercy of the court, I realized I’d seen the bailiff before. He was an usher at the church where my dad was the preacher. 

So pretty soon, I was known in all the Sunday School circles as the rubber robber. The condom con. I was a prophylactic prodigal.

My whole life was going to shit. I hurt my leg playing pickup basketball, ending my unrealistic sports dreams. I lost my job as “Incinerator Operator” at a hospital. 

I’d pretty much flunked out of one school and moved back in with my parents until I could get into another one, and I had no idea what to do with my life.

So I did what any of you would do in that position. I ran off to join the circus.

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You might say “No, you didn’t run away and join the circus! You just took a summer job at a theme park outside Orlando called Circus World.”

Tomato, potato.

It was a circus, with elephants and tigers and horses and clowns and trapeze artists under a big top, with a Wild West show called “The Great Western Stampede” that had an emcee on horseback who trotted around singing “Don’t Fence Me In.”

I had a bit part in that Wild West show. I was a bad guy with a black hat and a black mustache I had to paint on with mascara.

Twice a day I’d pop out in the middle of the show, say nasty things to the emcee, and get shot dead by his posse. I died twice a day and never shot anyone. I was a gunfighter who was bad at his job.

That was how I got to perform for Michael Jackson.

The park had a great roller coaster, and the owners wanted to name it The Thriller. One day, they shut the whole park down and let Michael and his entourage have the run of the place.

We watched as he walked in under this little yellow parasol, and this gaggle of kids followed him in. They were the only people in the stands.

The emcee sang his song and I said mean things. I pulled my gun, but not fast enough, and they shot me dead. 

I hit the ground. And as I lay dying, I watched Michael for his reaction.

And he got up and left. The little yellow parasol moved toward the exits. I don’t know if it was the gunfire or the acting, but everybody in the stands followed him out.

He beat it right out of there. It was bad.

It was a good thing my main job, the job I was hired to do, was as a stagehand in the circus show under the big top. 

As stagehands, we lurked around in the dark and changed props and stuff. But the most important part was scooping the poop. Circuses are full of shit. Elephants, tigers, dogs, ponies, me. 

I became something of an expert in excrement, a scat scholar.

Tiger poop is the worst. Elephant poop is almost pleasant, really. Earthy. Steamy. Like home.

When elephants are about to do the doo, they lift their tails high in the air. The head stagehand would yell, “Tail!” And off we’d go.

We’d run, shovels out, to scoop it away.

Sometimes, if everything went just right, we’d slide on our knees and catch it before it hit the ground.

And the crowd would go crazy. It made us feel like we were doing more than, you know, shoveling shit.

Sometimes it feels like I’ve been doing that stuff my whole life.

Chasing big scoops, catching shit, and shoveling it for applause.

Hell y’all. I write about Alabama politics. I’m still surrounded by clowns.

I guess can’t let go of that story because it’s fun. And literally full of shit. 

The truth is there’s other stuff that won’t let go of me.

Like the first time I went on a ride-along with cops, and they busted down doors and laughed at the lies they told to catch the “bad guys.”

Or the time I watched my state put a man with the mind of a sixth grader in an electric chair named Yella Mama. They hit him with 2,000 volts. Twice, because the first time didn’t kill him.

His dad stood next to me. I still hear his voice saying “They’re torturing him. They’re torturing him.” And from where I stood, they were.

I can’t let go of that.

Or the time the feds were convinced a guy named Robert Wayne O’Ferrell bombed a federal judge in Birmingham. We’d say now they Richard Jewelled him, tearing up his property for evidence that wasn’t there. 

What I remember most is standing on the street outside his house as his daughter got home from school.

She was just a little kid, and as she got off that yellow school bus and started across the yard, I yelled something like “You think he did it?” Which, as it happened, he did not. She looked at me with a horror I still see and ran crying into the house.

I can’t let go of that. I can’t disown it. It won’t let go of me.

I remember standing in the wreckage of a Methodist Church in Goshen, Alabama, on a Palm Sunday after a tornado swept through during an Easter cantata. It killed 20 people, including the pastor’s daughter. 

My dad was a Methodist preacher so everything in the rubble seemed familiar. Hymn books open to the songs he loved to sing. Notes written in a child’s hand on the back of church bulletins, like I used to do. A little shoe from a girl who was … just gone.

I can’t let go of what that preacher said a few days later when she came outside to talk to reporters.

Her name was Kelly Clem. She’d lost her daughter Hannah in a place they called a sanctuary. Her face was bruised and swollen, and people asked her if she blamed God, or thought this nightmare was God’s will.

Now I’m not a religious person. Then or now. I’ve seen things done in the name of the church that caused my soul to search in other directions. 

But I’ll never forget what Kelly said and did.

She paused for a second. She noticed the little Easter egg tree — just a branch hung with colorful eggs and stuck in the dirt — had been knocked over by the storm. She went over and replanted it, firmly.

Then she came to us and said something like this: We live in a natural world, and bad things happen. It is our job, our responsibility, our purpose, our essence, to look at those bad things and do whatever is in our power to turn them into something good.

I’ve seen a lot of shit. A lot of you have seen worse.

But that’s the shit I can’t let go of.

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