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Touring The USS Alabama, WWII's Lucky A

A flag was flapping off the bow of the sub and a boat-tailed grackle perched on the flagpole sang into the wind. The buildings of Mobile came in and out of view as fog began to form.
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I stood on the deck of the USS Alabama and scanned the water with my binoculars. Coots, grebe, brown pelican, gulls -- the usual suspects. I glanced to my right and saw "lead - dammit - lead" stenciled on the gray metal plates holding the anti-aircraft guns in place. Good advice for anyone trying to photograph a bird in flight or shoot an enemy plane from the sky.

On a miserably rainy day in November I decided to tour the World War II battleship that sits on the muddy bottom of Mobile Bay in Battleship Memorial Park. I'd never been on a battleship before and after buying a ticket I was handed a piece of paper outlining a self-guided tour. I walked up the gangplank, which was wide as a city street, and began poking through the ship.

Everything that could be painted was gray had been painted gray. Gray, gray, gray, which matched the low-slung scudding clouds. Because I am a birder I had binoculars slung around my neck in hopes of spotting something fun off the stern. As I stood on the main deck between the big guns, I watched a small fishing boat coming toward us surrounded by maybe a hundred huge brown pelicans looking like a swarm of angry bees.

I climbed down the handrailed ladder glorified ladder wandered along deserted hallways below decks, peering into rooms with bunks hanging from the ceiling, a mess hall with round metal stools bolted to the floor and all sorts of equipment storage facilities.

During the war, this ship roamed the Pacific for 37 months and never lost a single man to enemy fire. She earned her nickname, Lucky A.

I decided to climb up to the highest deck in search of a good photograph. The ladder headed up and up and up. The space got smaller and smaller and hotter and hotter the higher I climbed until I was stripping off all my outer layers and wiping the streams of sweat from my face with my sleeve.

I finally reached the bridge, a dingy little room with a steering wheel and several sets of dials. The captain had a tiny window to look through that was so scratched and cloudy that I couldn't see through to the gray beyond.

Down I climbed, clutching the handrails and praying with each step that my big feet wouldn't be the end of me. I didn't want to end up a statistic on the wall in the gift shop, an unlucky footnote to the Alabama's story.

I left the ship and wandered over to the USS Drum, a World War II submarine that had been hauled out onto land. The USS Drum had made 13 war patrols in the Pacific between 1941 and 1945 and is credited with sinking 15 battleships. I saw Das Boot and figured I could handle going through a submarine. I climbed onto the top of the sub and found the opening marked entrance. Then I turned and saw the hole marked exit. I then had a vision of cables and winches trying to haul me out of that tight space and decided to look for birds instead.

A flag was flapping off the bow of the sub and a boat-tailed grackle perched on the flagpole sang into the wind. The buildings of Mobile came in and out of view as fog began to form. A red-shouldered hawk yelled from a tree in the swamp down below and in response several egrets rose like white ghosts from the reeds and disappeared into the fog.