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Toothy terrors!

Water wolverines provide outstanding sport

Cliff “J. R.” Mundinger shows off a chain pickerel he caught on a spinnerbait. Photo by John N. Felsher

By John N. Felsher

Often called jackfish, southern pike, duckbill, and other names – including a few unfit to print – chain pickerel hit extremely hard and fight with speed and ferocity, but most Alabama anglers consider them a major nuisance.

Sometimes erroneously called pike, chain pickerel resemble northern pike, but seldom exceed 30 inches long or weigh more than three pounds. The Alabama state record weighed 6 pounds, 6 ounces and came from the Perdido River system in Baldwin County. A similar species, redfin pickerel, range across southern Alabama, but rarely weigh more than a pound. The state record redfin only weighed 13 ounces.

“Chain pickerel are native to Alabama, but not many people target them,” says Chris Greene, an Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division biologist. “Chain pickerel are found throughout the state. They look similar to northern pike, but a chain pickerel gets its name from the chain-like markings on its side.”

Chain pickerel range from southern Canada to Florida and west across the Mississippi Valley to Texas. Abundant in most Alabama river and reservoir systems, pickerel thrive best in large sluggish streams and oxbows with minimal current and thick vegetation. The rivers, lakes, bayous, creeks, sloughs and backwaters of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta near Mobile probably offer the best pickerel fishing in Alabama.

“Chain pickerel tend to go more in the backwaters, but anglers can find them in main channels and secondary creeks,” Greene says. “They generally prefer more clear water and tend to orient toward aquatic vegetation. Some better Alabama waters for catching chain pickerel include the Mobile-Tensaw River drainage, the Tennessee River, Warrior River and other places.”

While small in stature, chain pickerel more than compensate with swiftness and viciousness. These voracious killers love aquatic weeds, the thicker the better. In dense grass or lily pad patches, pickerel typically hover motionless, using their splendid splotchy green camouflage to hide as they wait to ambush enticing morsels that wander into range.

When they spot something irresistible, pickerel viciously flash out with incredible speed to sink their needle-like teeth into prey – or lures!

“I’ve always caught pickerel in the backwaters and up the creeks around weeds,” says Cliff Mundinger, an angler. “They love being around thick matted grass, lily pads, hydrilla and other vegetation. Pickerel are very exciting fish to catch. When they hit a bait, you know it. A 3-pound chain pickerel will put up a great fight, especially on light tackle.”

Highly aggressive, pickerel feed primarily upon fish, including threadfin shad, sunfish, shiners, minnows and other succulent morsels, but may attack anything. These opportunistic predators occasionally eat crawfish, lizards, snakes, amphibians and even mice or small birds that venture too close to the water. Sometimes, they grab dragonflies perched on grass stems or even leap from the water to snatch low-flying insects from the air.

Caught by accident

“A pickerel will hit just about anything a bass might hit,” Greene says. “A lot of anglers consider them trash, but they can be fun to catch. They are powerful fish and hard hitters.”

In Alabama, anglers mostly catch chain pickerel by accident when fishing for bass. Crappie anglers also frequently catch pickerel when fishing weedy waters with minnows, threadfin shad, shiners or other live bait. Almost any lure or live bait that might tempt a largemouth bass or crappie could provoke a vicious strike from a chain pickerel, including spinnerbaits, jerkbaits, spoons, crankbaits and similar lures. They occasionally hit topwater baits and relentlessly pursue weedless frogs buzzed across matted grass.

When hooked, they put up a spirited fight with lightning runs and powerful lunges. They frequently jump like largemouth bass. People intentionally fishing for these water wolves should use short steel leaders to prevent them from slicing through line with their razor teeth.

“My two favorite baits to catch jackfish are spinnerbaits and jerkbaits,” Mundinger says. “Jacks absolutely love a jerkbait because they are primarily fish feeders. I also like to catch them on topwater frogs run through the lily pads. In the middle of summer, anyone throwing a frog over grass in the backwaters will most likely catch a jack.”

Big pickerel make excellent eating, but smaller versions of these long, skinny fish don’t yield much meat. Most people release them because of their numerous small bones, but the white, flaky meat tastes delicious with a mild flavor and no oily taste.

Handle pickerel with care. Sometimes called snakefish, these agile toothy beasts often bend their bodies and shake violently looking for something to bite when grabbed. If they don’t bite a person, they might drive a hook into a finger. Also pay attention to the very sharp gill plates that can slice flesh. Use pliers to remove the hooks in order to avoid those teeth.

Although pickerel don’t receive much love or attention in Alabama, they can turn a humdrum day into an exciting excursion for any light-tackle enthusiast fishing in weedy waters.

John N. Felsher lives in Semmes, Ala. Contact him through Facebook.

Hurricane season

“Squalls out on the gulf stream

Big storm’s comin’ soon”

Jimmy Buffett

“Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season”

Some start as tropical waves off the coast of Africa.

Others just spring up from a depression down in the Caribbean.

They grow and grow and move until something makes them stop – usually land. This is their season. Here come the hurricanes.

Though many of you are far from the coast, you need to keep in mind that those storms can have an enormous, tragic impact inland.

Well, if you get one, I hope you can find someone to call, someone like “Doll Baby.”

Let me explain.

First, don’t let the name fool you. “Doll” (as friends call him) is much a man. Well over 6 feet tall, with bulk to go with it, he lives in South Alabama with his wife Wanda. Like so many folks down there, Doll has made his living in the woods, and as they say, “he ain’t afraid of work.”

Back in 1990 Doll and Wanda were driving through South Carolina’s Francis Marion National Forest, a few months after Hurricane Hugo. Trees were still scattered every-which-a-way. Trucks couldn’t get in to clean up without tearing up what was left. Seeing the mess, the Alabama couple stopped at the Ranger Station and told the attendant, in so many words, “what you need is mules.” And since Doll had some, a deal was struck.

So, he went back home, rounded up a crew, loaded up the mules — Linda and Lisa, Mutt and Jeff, Maude and Rock — and headed to Carolina where they snaked logs until the weather got too hot for man and beast. In the process, Doll and his mules became celebrities — newspapers wrote about them, students from a nearby college “studied” them, and a kindergarten class visited them. The local TV station sent out a cute young female reporter to interview Doll, who took time from his work to show her the ropes — a little too much time, Wanda said.

Personally, I figure he was just being nice.

Of course, folks down Doll’s way know about hurricanes. Living some 80 miles above Mobile, they count on getting the backwash from storms through the summer and into the fall.

September gales, old folks called them.

But at times they were more than gales.

Back in 1969, Category 5 Camille tore into the Mississippi Gulf Coast and its counterclockwise winds caused damage deep into Alabama.

As the storm approached, coastal folks, the smart ones, began heading north. The roads were jammed and motels full. So upcountry churches began setting up shelters and sending out the word to their members that if they had an extra bedroom the refugees sure could use it.

My folks had one, so for a few days they hosted a fine family from Baldwin County. Then it was over, and the guests headed home to survey the damage.

For years after that, as hurricane season approached, my parents got a package from those folks.  In it was a ham, and card asking them to reserve a room, just in case.

They always did.

Harvey H. (Hardy) Jackson is Professor Emeritus at Jacksonville State University and a regular contributor to Alabama Living.  He can be reached at hjackson@cableone.net.

Alabama Bookshelf

In this periodic feature, we highlight books that are either about Alabama people or events or written by Alabama authors. Summaries are not reviews or endorsements. We also occasionally highlight book-related events. Email submissions to bookshelf@alabamaliving.coop. Due to the volume of submissions, we are unable to feature all the books we receive.

Alabama’s Frontiers and the Rise of the Old South, by Daniel Dupre, Indiana University Press, $35 (history) Alabama endured warfare, slave trading, squatting, and speculating on its path to becoming America’s 22nd state. Dupre captures the riveting saga of the forgotten struggles and savagery in Alabama’s — and America’s — frontier days.

 

 

 

Medusa’s Lair: A Chic Spark Novel, by Kenneth L. Funderburk, Archway Publishing, $11.99 (crime novel) Chic Sparks is a clinical psychologist and part-time investigator who begins a reckless search for his missing friend, who is a notorious crime boss. Sparks’ actions put him in the middle of a deep criminal conspiracy, and he sets out to unveil the truth – and locate his friend. The author lives in Phenix City.

 

 

Wilson’s Raid, by Russell W. Blount Jr., Arcadia Publishing and The History Press, $21.99 (military history) In the closing months of the Civil War, Gen. James Wilson led a Union cavalry raid through Alabama and parts of Georgia. The author, an Alabama native, examines eyewitness accounts and diaries chronicling this defining moment in America’s bloodiest war.

 

 

The Tuskegee Airmen Chronology: A Detailed Timeline of the Red Tails and Other Black Pilots of World War II, by Daniel Haulman, NewSouth Books, $25.95 (military history) This chronology provides an overview of the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, embracing important events in the formation of the first military flying training for black pilots in U.S. history. Their performance proved that with opportunity and resources, black men could fly and fight every bit as well in combat as their white counterparts.

 

 

The Woman Left Behind, by Linda Howard, William Morrow, $26.99 (romantic suspense) Jina Modell is thrilled with an assignment to an elite paramilitary unit. Her team leader, Levi, doesn’t have much confidence in her, but her courage wins him over. When Jina’s position is attacked, Levi must bring back the woman he’s fallen for, dead or alive. The author lives in Gadsden.

 

 

At First Light, by Sandy Harris, Moonshine Cove Publishing, $13.99 (mystery, suspense) The sheriff’s office thinks high school senior John Bateman viciously murdered three friends while on a deer hunt. On the verge of being indicted for murder, evidence begins to surface that something strange happened in the woods that day. Could his unbelievable story be true? The author lives in Wetumpka.

Social Security: Facts you should know about enrolling in Medicare Parts A & B

Understanding Medicare isn’t as difficult as you might think. It’s a benefit most working Americans can count on. Here are some facts you might not know about the program.

Can I still get Medicare at 65?

Yes, you’re still eligible for Medicare starting at 65, no matter what year you were born.

If you or your spouse worked and paid Medicare taxes for at least 10 years, you’re eligible for Part A (hospital insurance) at age 65 for free. Part A helps pay for inpatient care in a hospital or skilled nursing facility following a hospital stay. It also pays for some home health care and hospice care.

You’re also eligible for Part B (medical insurance) if you choose to get it and pay a monthly premium. Part B helps pay for services from doctors and other health care providers, outpatient care, home health care, durable medical equipment, and some preventative services. If you are receiving Social Security benefits already, you will be automatically enrolled in Medicare Parts A and B at age 65. Because you must pay a premium for Part B, you can choose to turn it down. However, if you don’t enroll in Part B when you’re first eligible for it, and choose to enroll later, you may have to pay a late enrollment penalty for as long as you have Part B coverage.

If you’re not receiving Social Security benefits, you have a seven-month period (your Initial Enrollment Period) to sign up for Part B. Generally, your initial enrollment period begins three months before your 65th birthday, includes the month you turn age 65, and ends three months after your birth month.

If you are covered under an employer group health plan, you may have a special enrollment period for Part B.

If you are 65 or older and covered under a group health plan, either from your own or your spouse’s current employment, you may have a special enrollment period during which you can sign up for Medicare Part B. This means that you may delay enrolling in Part B without having to wait for a general enrollment period and without paying the lifetime penalty for late enrollment. If you think a special enrollment period may apply to you, read our Medicare publication at www.socialsecurity.gov/pubs/, and visit the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services at Medicare.gov.

To avoid a tax penalty, you should stop contributing to your Health Savings Account (HSA) at least six months before you apply for Medicare.

You can withdraw money from your HSA after you enroll in Medicare to help pay for medical expenses like deductibles, premiums, coinsurance, or copayments. If you’d like to continue contributing to your HSA, you shouldn’t apply for Medicare or Social Security benefits.

How much does Part B coverage cost?

You are responsible for the Part B premium each month. Most people will pay the standard premium amount, which is $134 in 2018 if you sign up for Part B when you’re first eligible. This amount can change every year.

Learn more at www.socialsecurity.gov/benefits/medicare.

Kylle’ McKinney, SSA Public Affairs Specialist, can be reached by email at kylle.mckinney@ssa.gov.

Pet Health: Vaccinations critically important for companion pets

“Vaccines are among the most successful and cost-effective health investments in history.” — Seth Berkley, CEO of the Vaccine Alliance

Many times when I go to work, there are one or two tiny puppies in the isolation room suffering from severe diarrhea and vomiting, looking miserable from the parvo virus. Some do not make it home. This does not need to happen! Timely vaccination could have prevented their sufferings.

Your veterinarian is the best person to address your situation, but here are some guidelines.

Proper protection should start with vaccinating the mother before she gets pregnant. A vaccinated mother will have an immunity that she transfers to her babies. In an ideal breeding situation, it is assumed that the puppies are protected for the first 8 to 9 weeks of their life. However, we see an inordinate number of puppies whose mothers were not vaccinated and do not fall under the “ideal” category. 

That’s why many veterinarians will recommend starting the first distemper/parvo vaccine as early as 6 weeks of age. Vaccines should be given every 2-4 weeks until the puppies are 16 weeks old. For high-risk situations, the last vaccine can be given at 19 to 20 weeks of age. So, if you start at 7 weeks, the sequence will be 7, 10, 13 and 19 weeks. If you adopt an unvaccinated older dog, you will need to give the initial vaccine and one booster three weeks later.

Now about rabies. Dog, cat and ferret owners are required by Alabama law to have their pet immunized for rabies when the animal reaches three months of age. The rabies vaccine must be given by a veterinarian, or a licensed vet tech in the presence of a veterinarian. Many communities hold annual low cost rabies vaccination clinics. I have seen rabies vaccines given in a town-sponsored event for as low as $5!

Frequently I get asked if the vaccine from the co-op is as good as ours. I don’t have an answer, as I have not come across a study comparing both. My recommendation is to go through your vet as they provide a lot more than just a “shot.”

I feel the puppy/kitty visits are THE most important vet visits of all! This is the time where early health issues are discussed and lifelong health habits are established. However, if getting to a vet is impossible for you, I have to suggest that you get your vaccines from a place that stores and handles their vaccines properly.

Last, but not least, here’s a little bit on cats. Cats also get a parvo-like disease called Feline Distemper or Panleukopenia. Vaccination should start as early as 6 weeks and be boosted every 3 weeks until they reach 16 weeks. Outdoor cats should also get Feline Leukemia vaccine.

Now, for the folks who are little leery of “over vaccination.” The issue of what constitutes “over vaccination” and related health problems is a highly contentious issue and best kept aside for a consultation with your vet.

Goutam Mukherjee, DVM, MS, Ph.D. (Dr. G) has been a veterinarian for more than 30 years. He works part time at Grant Animal Clinic and is a member of North Alabama Electric Cooperative.

Alabama Snapshots: Graduates

Erin Brock, Foley High School graduation 2012. SUBMITTED BY Brenda Brock, Summerdale.

Kynleigh Wood kindergarten graduation. SUBMITTED BY June Wood, Holly Pond.

Ian Adair, Tonya Anderson and Kenray Anderson.SUBMITTED BY Ya’den Anderson, Millbrook.

Buddy’s pre-school graduation. SUBMITTED BY Kennith and Elaine McIntyre, Jackson.

Ashley Hanks, Geneva County High School class of 2017. SUBMITTED BY Denise Hanks, Hartford.

First cousins Ieshia Miller and Skyler Twitty, graduating from Hanceville High School. SUBMITTED BY Carol Twitty, Cullman.

Anna Nelson, mathematics education teacher. SUBMITTED BY Faye Nelson, Andalusia.

Submit Your Images! June Theme: “Family Reunions” Deadline for July: May 31. Submit photos online: www.alabamaliving.coop/submit-photo/ or send color photos with a self-addressed stamped envelope to: Photos, Alabama Living, P.O. Box 244014 Montgomery, AL 36124. Rules: Alabama Living will pay $10 for photos that best match our theme of the month. Photos may also be published on our website at www.alabamaliving.coop and on our Facebook page. Alabama Living is not responsible for lost or damaged photos.

Church is legacy of Greek community and its namesake

Domed towers majestically flank the brick, limestone and marble cathedral-like Grecian worship center that is Daphne, Alabama’s Malbis Memorial Church. Located on Alabama Highway 181, the church was built on the request of area Grecian immigrant and leader Jason Malbis. It was dedicated Jan. 3, 1965.

By Emmett Burnett

Malbis Memorial Church is often discovered accidentally while driving somewhere else. Commanding Alabama Highway 181 in Daphne is a Greek cathedral-like fortress, flanked with brick stone towers, braced in Corinthian columns, centered under a domed roof.

Somewhere else is now here.

“Here,” is the centerpiece of the Malbis Plantation, cornerstone of Baldwin County’s small but industrious Greek community, and legacy of the community and church’s namesake, Jason Malbis.

On a trip to Athens, shortly before his death, the Grecian forefather instructed followers to build his church in Malbis. And oh boy, did they.

Formally the “Sacred Patriarchal and Stavropegial Monastery of the Presentation of Theotoko,” the church has surprised and delighted visitors since day one with good reason. It is spiritual, reverent and eye popping.

“First timers can’t believe what they are seeing,” notes Nafseka Malbis, caretaker, tour guide and descendant of founder Jason Malbis. “For me, there is no one favorite item. Everything is special.”

The interior is detailed with hand-rendered frescos – paintings that adorn virtually every space. Art depicts the life of Christ chronicled from the Testaments. More than 150 paintings tell stories, including Christ before the High Priest, the Sermon on the Mount, Moses receiving the 10 Commandments, religious heroes and other Bible scenes.

“It is like art comes to life and speaks to you,” adds George Kalasountas, frequent visitor and fan. “Many have told me upon leaving the sanctuary, they’ve never seen anything like it and they are correct.”

Kalasountas, who came from Greece in 1956 and today is vice president of the Malbis Memorial Foundation, adds, “We have many Greek Orthodox Churches, but this is the cream of the crop. It is simply beautiful.”

The fresco murals took three master artists flown in from Greece nine months to complete. The rotunda features a portrait of God, the Almighty surrounded by 12 murals of disciples and religious leaders. Artist Spyros Tzouvaras hand painted the portraits from scaffolding 75 feet above the floor. He lay on his back, applying paint and brush strokes to the ceiling, rendering the images. It took him three months.

Hand carved figures were brought from Greece and assembled in the church. The bishop’s throne, pulpit and other features are carved in white marble extracted from the same Grecian mines that supplied the Parthenon millenniums earlier.

On the outside above massive oak doors are mosaics created with thousands of tiles about one-inch square. Above the middle door is a portrait of Jesus. Above him are images of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; all are a composite of mosaic tiles. Each tiny piece was prepared in Italy, shipped to Malbis, and installed on site.

Rising 75 feet above the church floor, the dome interior of the church features the Pantocrator – A fresco of the Almighty and depictions of disciples, prophets and evangelists. The paintings were hand rendered to the ceiling by Grecian artists on scaffolding.

Outside, the left tower contains a bell system: 49 bell tone generators that at full volume can be heard six miles away. It is a call to worship, a reminder of Grecian heritage, and the legacy of an immigrant who dreamed of a new world in Baldwin County.

Jason Malbis was born Antonios Markopoulos in Doumena, Greece. But in his 40s, he moved to America for a new life. Joined by friend William Papageorge, the two searched Illinois, Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, and Mississippi before buying 120 acres in Baldwin County for $5 an acre.

Others followed and more land was added to become The Malbis Plantation, established in 1906. “We had a bakery, power plant, bank, timber company, hotel, and farms,” Kalasountas recalls. “It was a self-sufficient. We all had jobs to do. We all had a place in the community.”

But they did not have a church – yet.

‘It is my desire that you build a church’

In the early 1940s Jason Malbis visited Athens, Greece, but could not return due to World War II disruptions. He became sick and died in Athens, July 22, 1942, but not before sending a letter to beloved Grecians of Baldwin County: “It is my desire that you build a church.”

By 1960, the Greek settlement of about 60 – mostly farmers, tradesmen and working people – spearheaded a fundraising drive of $1 million. Adjusted for inflation, that is more than $7 million today.

Groundbreaking was held in 1960, and Malbis Memorial Church was dedicated on Jan. 3, 1965. If you were Greek you were there. And on that day everybody was Greek.

“People came from everywhere,” Kalasountas says. “The line to get in went around the building and people were in tears upon leaving.”

A New York Times October 1965 review noted, “The church is unique in the United States. A visitor’s first reaction upon entering the building is one of awe. It is like being inside a rainbow.”

Amazingly, this grand cathedral is financed mainly by love and donations. The Malbis church has never held a formal congregation but conducts regularly scheduled worship services. The building is also open to the public from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday.

Through the years, concerns were raised about next door Daphne – Baldwin County’s largest city – continuing to expand, and possibly encroaching on Malbis. “I think we are OK,” Kalasountas says. “Daphne is a good place, but we are doing just fine here in Malbis, too.”

Though Jason Malbis never saw the church that bears his name, his remains are interred in a crypt inside. But you can feel his spirit saying, “Build my church.” Outside, adjacent to the church, 100 Grecian graves answer, “Mission accomplished.”

The sanctuary, as seen from the balcony. The white marble of the Iconostasis at the front is made from hand-carved marble from the same Grecian quarries that supplied the ancient Parthenon.

Hospitals key to quality rural health care

The gleaming new Tanner Medical Center/East Alabama in Wedowee, 14 miles up the road from Roanoke, opened in November. Tanner Health System of Carrollton, Ga., was managing the old Wedowee Hospital and was willing to provide funds for equipping a new hospital, if county residents could provide construction funding. Eighty-six percent of the voters in Randolph County approved a tax to build a new hospital.

While rural hospitals face numerous financial challenges, hope is not lost. Many areas in Alabama are finding partnerships and tax revenue to maintain their level of health care

By M.J. Ellington

When people in rural Randolph County faced the prospect of life without a nearby hospital or else raising taxes, voters in Roanoke, Wedowee and surrounding areas approved a 1 percent sales tax increase in 2015. Two years later, people in the small East Alabama county celebrated the opening of shiny new Tanner Medical Center/East Alabama. Tanner Medical Services, a Georgia not-for-profit hospital management company, operates the facility.

Randolph’s vote came following the 2011 closing of Randolph County Hospital in Roanoke and the pending loss of nearby Wedowee Hospital, both due to financial problems and aging structures. The county is hardly alone with its hospital financial challenges.

Part of the reason rural Alabama hospitals face such challenges is because the state has not expanded Medicaid, said Dr. Marsha Raulerson, a semi-retired Brewton pediatrician and past president of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama. “People think Medicaid is a welfare program; it is so much more,” she says. “If people just knew, it affects all of us.”

Now 76, Raulerson said at age 39, she came “kicking and screaming” to Brewton with her nephrologist husband who was recruited out of the University of Florida to open the first dialysis program between Mobile and Dothan.

She had planned to spend the rest of her life teaching at the University of Florida’s medical school, but once she got used to life in a town of 5,400 people, she realized it provides a good quality of life and a great place for children to grow up. Having access to good health care nearby is an important factor, but Raulerson said this year, she is concerned.

“For the first time, our hospital is in the red,” Raulerson says. “There are so many people who are uninsured, who cannot pay. Insurance and Medicare have lower payments to rural hospitals. Expanded Medicaid would help with this.”

A ‘trifecta of challenges’

Dr. Don Williamson, Alabama Hospital Association executive director and former state health officer, said rural hospitals face a “trifecta of challenges” as they seek to shore up financially ailing hospitals. Those challenges include:

• Alabama’s decision not to expand Medicaid left a large number of people without health coverage to pay for needed care.

• Federal Medicare and payments to health providers are lower for small hospitals than the biggest hospitals, based on a federal formula that mandates larger reimbursements for the largest hospitals. The federal wage index that helps determine how much health providers get paid in every state lists Alabama at the bottom.

• Alabama is the only state in the country that does not pay any of the state’s matching share required to bring in federal revenue for Medicaid programs. Of every dollar spent on the program, the federal government pays 70 cents while Alabama’s share to bring in the federal funds is 30 cents. But unlike other states, Alabama’s share comes from a voluntary tax hospitals pay to tap the federal revenue.

Hospital Association figures show that 86 percent of rural hospitals are operating in the red as compared to 69 percent of all hospitals having a negative operating margin, says Rosemary Blackmon, vice president of communications. Hospitals with other sources of revenue, such as taxes or other services, may be able to shore up the bottom line.

“Right now, when a rural hospital is in trouble, a county tries to rally by raising taxes,” Williamson says. “What if that money went to Medicaid? We could bring in 10 times as much federal revenue. It probably would have been cheaper.”

The emergency department at Wedowee Hospital closed in November with the opening of the new Tanner Medical Center/East Alabama.

But rural counties like Randolph have done a remarkable job working to save rural hospitals, Williamson says. In recent years, several other small Alabama cities faced with losing their local hospital found partnerships and tax revenue to help pay for new facilities.

The impact of hospitals on the life of rural communities helps cities and counties keep them viable. Blackmon said the annual payroll of rural hospitals is $552 million, and 44 percent of total employment in rural counties can be attributed to health care.

Pell City in St. Clair County and Clanton in Chilton County established partnerships with St. Vincent’s Health Care to open new, smaller hospitals in their towns. Williamson said Haleyville in Winston County wants a local tax to help with operating costs at Lakeland Community Hospital.

Three other rural hospitals – John Paul Jones Hospital in Camden, Bryan W. Whitfield Memorial Hospital in Demopolis and J.V. Stabler Memorial Hospital in Greenville – became part of the UAB Health System in February. UAB’s financial and managerial expertise, hospital compliance training and clinical resources are part of the package.

In March, the state Legislature approved a bill to create a resource center housed at UAB to provide support for nonprofit, rural, public hospitals in the state that are facing economic pressures. It would assist these hospitals in areas including purchasing and supply chain, strategic planning, insurance and cost reporting, coding, recruitment and compliance.

While the bill passed, it has not been funded. The UAB Health System will work to determine interim funding prior to the 2019 legislative session to start providing support to eligible hospitals.

Hospitals that can backfill with taxes or other sources of revenue have more ways to supplement the income they get through Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance reimbursement.

Rural areas need new ideas

In rural areas, the population tends to be older, poorer and less likely to have insurance to pay for hospital and other health care costs. One wrinkle in the uninsured population is that Medicare, Medicaid and private health insurance companies negotiate the rates they will pay for a patient’s care. People without insurance coverage pay the highest rate because there is no company that is negotiating rates on their behalf. As a result, uninsured people in rural areas may not seek medical care until a problem is harder to deal with, and when they do, the cost for their care may be higher than what people with insurance pay.

Ready access to good health care becomes everyone’s problem when the local hospital and healthcare delivery system are at risk, a point at which rural communities should approach the issue with new ideas, says Dale Quinney, longtime executive director of the Alabama Rural Health Association.

Quinney says when the healthcare delivery system begins to fail, particularly if the future of the local hospital is uncertain, it’s time to get creative with solutions. “Without a hospital, the economic base fails,” he says.

He wants a greater role for allied health professionals, nurse practitioners and physicians assistants, and telehealth that enables doctors at remote locations to visit patients in rural areas using computer and electronic devices. He’d like to see more hospitals have a small number of inpatient beds and the ability to have alternate ways to generate operating revenue.

Quinney is excited about the possibilities of “telehealth carts” that help patients in rural areas consult with doctors in other cities using electronic and computer technology.

Michael Smith directs the telehealth cart program at the Alabama Department of Public Health. Smith said the department expects to have telehealth cart programs available at 60 county health department offices around the state this year.ν

M.J. Ellington is a Montgomery freelance journalist whose longtime health and state government reporting and editing career included the Montgomery Advertiser, The Decatur Daily, Florence Times-Daily and The Anniston Star. Contact her at ellingtonmj15@gmail.com.

The Randolph County Hospital in Roanoke closed in 2011, due to financial problems and an aging facility.

Medal of Honor winner saved by a tiger

Opelika native and retired U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie Adkins received the nation’s highest military award in 2014. Photo by John Oliver

By Miriam Davis

The tiger saved us,” says Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie Adkins (U.S. Army, Retired) matter-of-factly. “The North Vietnamese soldiers were more afraid of it than they were of us.”

Adkins, 84, is speaking of the aftermath of the Battle of A Shau when, in 1966, he and other survivors evaded the enemy after a team of 17 American Special Forces and about 400 of their South Vietnamese allies were attacked and overrun by a North Vietnamese division of 16,000 troops. In 2014, President Barack Obama awarded Adkins the Medal of Honor for his actions during that battle. Adkins and co-author (and Alabama Living gardening columnist) Katie Jackson tell his story in their forthcoming book, A Tiger Among Us.

“I was just doing my job,” insists Adkins. “It was my training. … When you’re picked out to be one of the elite, you try to live up to that.”

Adkins’ job was as a Special Forces intelligence sergeant. After being drafted into the Army in 1956, he found being a clerk-typist “not for me.” Special Forces was a challenge both physically and mentally.  But, says Adkins, “I had too much pride to quit.”

In 1965, then-Sergeant First Class Adkins was sent to the A Shau valley to advise South Vietnamese forces and to impede infiltration of the North Vietnamese into the south. The valley, which runs along Vietnam’s border with Cambodia and Laos, became part of the trail along which the North Vietnamese brought provisions and troops down into the south and as such was, as Adkins describes it in his book, “a hotbed of activity.”

“I can tell you that none of us were happy to be in that camp,” Adkins says in A Tiger Among Us. Sitting in that valley, “about thirty miles from another friendly camp …. [w]e were like fish in a barrel.”

Risking his life

Adkins’ team had been warned that an attack was imminent, and the Battle of A Shau began about 4 a.m. on March 9, 1966, with a deafening North Vietnamese artillery and mortar barrage. Adkins ran to take his position in a mortar pit from which he and his crew fired illumination and high-explosive rounds.

Wounded 18 times, Adkins repeatedly risked his life during the battle. He was blown out of his mortar pit three times by direct hits from enemy mortars and lost several entire mortar crews. But he continued manning his position until the mortar pit was finally destroyed by RPGs (rocket propelled grenades). Disregarding enemy mortar and sniper fire, Adkins also rescued American and Vietnamese wounded and transported them to safety, and then – again under direct fire –  loaded them onto evacuation helicopters. When a load of desperately needed supplies was inadvertently dropped into a mine field, Adkins rushed into the mine field to retrieve it.

After 38 hours of intense fighting – hungry, thirsty, and exhausted – the Americans were ordered to evacuate. In the chaos of the withdrawal, Adkins went back to rescue a badly wounded comrade. When they returned to the evacuation point, the helicopters had already gone.

Though Adkins was nominated for the Medal of Honor shortly after the battle, he didn’t receive it until nearly 50 years later. collection of bennie adkins

Which is where the tiger came in.

Adkins and a small group of survivors had no choice but to evade the North Vietnamese in the dense jungle until they could be rescued. On their second night, Adkins and his men could hear enemy soldiers searching for them. They also heard another sound – something big rustling in the undergrowth nearby. Then Adkins heard a low growl and saw eyes glowing in the dark – a tiger, drawn by the smell of blood covering the wounded survivors.  The war had given tigers a taste for humans.

The North Vietnamese heard the tiger, too, for they hastily pulled back, allowing Adkins and the other survivors to slip away. They were picked up by helicopter the next day.

Shortly after the battle, Adkins was nominated for the Medal of Honor. Nothing happened at the time. But in 2014, Adkins received a phone call from President Obama informing him that he was to be awarded the nation’s highest military honor.

“Super humbling,” is how Adkins describes it. “I’m very humbled to be one of the few living soldiers to wear this medal.”  He now speaks all over the county trying to inspire in people a love of country and the desire to be a good citizen.

“And an appreciation of the military,” adds Adkins’ co-author Katie Jackson. She points out that less than 1% of the population has served in the military and that “the general population doesn’t understand the military.”

Left, the cover of “A Tiger Among Us,” published by Da Capo Press this month and available at DaCapoPress.com. Below, Katie Lamar Jackson, who co-authored the book.

Adkins and Jackson, an adjunct instructor in Auburn’s School of Communication and Journalism, worked on the book for three years. This involved tracking down and interviewing the five other survivors of the battle. “All of them have a deep admiration and respect for Bennie,” says Jackson. “Even years later, they all say he’s amazing. … He was the one who really did things that were superhuman.”

Any money made from A Tiger Among Us will go to the Bennie Adkins Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides scholarships for Special Forces enlisted personnel transitioning from the service. “One of the reasons this is so important to Bennie,” says Jackson, “is because he knows what it’s like to move from the military to the civilian world, and it’s not easy.”

Last year the foundation awarded the first scholarships; 25 will be awarded this year.

All of this was made possible by the 400-pound Indochinese tiger that saved Bennie Adkins all those years ago.

“That tiger was my friend,” chuckles Adkins.

Ivey signs Alabama Broadband Accessibility Act

High-speed internet is no longer just a luxury for our rural areas. It is a necessity to help rural residents conduct business, to expand education opportunities, to create avenues for remote health care and to spur economic development.

During this legislative session, the Alabama Rural Electric Association (AREA), which publishes Alabama Living magazine, and its member cooperatives championed the bill known as SB149, or the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Act. The legislation will encourage private investment in broadband infrastructure in unserved rural areas.

In late March, Gov. Kay Ivey signed the bill into law.

“This common sense legislation will help us attract new broadband to areas that need it most, especially in rural Alabama,” Ivey said.

The bill, which is just a first step in a long process to bring internet to rural areas, was sponsored by Sen. Clay Scofield and Rep. Donnie Chesteen.

The act creates a grant program to be administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs. Individual grants may be awarded for up to 20 percent of the project costs to telecommunications companies, cable companies and electric cooperatives.

Alabama will be further helped by a pilot program, grants and loans from the federal government. Congress, through an effort led by Congressman Robert Aderholt, included in the omnibus spending bill a $600 million pilot program that will enable applicants to finance a project by combining loans and grants to provide broadband to eligible rural and tribal areas.

Ivey’s office estimates that more than 842,000 Alabamians are without access to a wired connection capable of 25 megabits per second download speeds. One million have access to only a single wired provider, and another 276,000 don’t have any wired internet providers available where they live.