BFP Volume 9

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Nerd's Fantasy

In 1954, a meteorite landed in Oak Grove, Alabama a few miles north of Sylacauga. It went through the roof of a house, bounced off a Philco radio, and hit 35-year-old Ann Elizabeth Hodges while she was napping on her sofa. It left a nasty bruise, but she was otherwise uninjured. It is the only documented object from space that is known to have struck a human being on earth. This was huge news in 1954. It was written up in a number of newspapers, and Mrs. Hodges was even on the popular TV show I've Got a Secret before she eventually shied away from the spotlight.

Billy Field is a filmmaker and screenwriter who teaches at the University of Alabama, and his students make films about Alabama history. One of those films is a mini-documentary called "Stars Fell on Alabama," and Billy himself is the subject. He was an eye witness to that fireball in the sky that later became known as the Hodges meteorite. Billy is an affable, jelly bean of a man with a trim white beard, and he has the kind of mellow southern voice one associates with lifelong story tellers. "I was five years old, but I'll never forget it. The sky was that deep blue that it gets in October or November, and I saw a rocket of smoke shoot across the sky. I thought at first it was an airplane. And then it exploded, and then there were two trails of smoke. My mother told me later that it had been a meteorite."

Billy lights up like a shooting star himself when he talks about the meteorite. Apparently, the Hodges were renting their house from a lady named Birdie Guy, and word started spreading that it was worth a lot of money, maybe $50,000. Birdie claimed the meteorite belonged to her, but Ann said it hit her, and that meant God had sent it to her. "By the time they resolved it," Billy says, "Ann's fifteen minutes of fame were over, and nobody was interested anymore, so the Hodges didn't get anything. They ended up donating it to the University of Alabama a couple of years later."

I say that's sad.

Billy is more than just an eye witness. He actually owns the story. He told me that he had bought the rights to the Hodges' story and written a screenplay. 20th Century Fox bought the screenplay several years ago, but the film has never been made. "This was a good while back," he says. "We had Sissy Spacek signed on to be the star. It was going to be called Stars Fell on Alabama. Sissy Spacek was perfect for the part. She was still a big enough star then to get a picture made. She'd done Coal Miner's Daughter and Crimes of the Heart. At that time, she was down here making a picture called The Long Walk Home. We were watching the dailies, and the producer suddenly say, 'we can't use Sissy Spacek for that role. She has a chicken neck.' So she was off the project. They never got another star for it, so the film never got made."

I say that's sadder than the story of Mrs. Hodges. Though what I'm thinking is that there's something strange about "owning" a story like this, a story that actually happened to someone. The buying and selling of personal stories is a peculiar business that I can't quite wrap my head around.

But hey, that's show biz. Billy has just about given up on making a major motion picture of this story, but he says he is considering writing a novelized version of the story or a play. He has in mind a musical.

Billy takes me to the natural history museum on campus. The meteorite sits in a glass display case in the corner of a large hall, next to the Philco radio it bounced off of just before it hit Mrs. Hodges. The rock is black with rough edges and about the size of a human head. If I came across such a rock in the middle of the woods, I'd think nothing of it.

The house in Oak Grove where the Hodges lived is no longer standing. There are two trailers on that site now, flanking the gravel driveway at sharp angles. A yellow dog lazes outside one of them, looking up with mild curiosity when I slowly drive by. Just past the intersection of Old 280 and Oden's Mill Road, there is a string of ragged shops: Comet Pawn Shop, Comet Insurance, Comet Baitshop, Comet Wings. Clearly, these businesses are still capitalizing on the ephemeral fame of Elizabeth Ann Hodges.

The teenager behind the register at Comet Baitshop has never heard of the meteorite, has no idea why all these businesses are named "Comet." I tell her the story briefly. "It all happened just a few hundred yards that way," I say, pointing down the road.

She says that's the first she'd ever heard of it. I buy a rubber alien out of the gumball machine and then leave.

Reflecting on this later, it occurs to me that stories can become so much a part of a place that they can't be separated from the place. They haunt the place like ghosts do—benevolent ghosts that are only visible if you are sensitive to them and know what to look for. What Billy Field and 20th Century Fox "own" is only one aspect of the story. Like the string of "Comet" stores down the road from the historical marker on Old 280, the story will find its way into places that such owners can never control.

-M. David Hornbuckle

December 2012

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