Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Batman of Birmingham

I met the real Batman once.

I'm not talking about any of the actors who have played him on the big screen. And I'm not talking about Adam West, although I was first in line more than once as a child when he made his annual appearance at the World of Wheels.

I'm talking about the real Batman. I'm talking about the Batman of Birmingham.

A bunch of us kids were horsing around in someone's front yard and he drove up in his Batmobile. Batman was an African-American. He didn't wear black or blue tights but instead a sort of jump-suit that was white with brown trim. He had a brown motorcycle helmet that said "Batman" on it. He did have the right shape cape, although it was brown. He was very friendly, not particularly educated, and kept insisting "I'm the real Batman" to us a little more than was necessary, though, admittedly, he looked a good deal more like Evil Knievel than the Darknight Detective. And even as a kid, I wondered why he had latched onto the name "Batman" and not picked something more original or at least more appropriate. I think it had to do with his car, and with the fact that Batman was the only superhero so strongly identified with his wheels.

The Birmingham Batman drove a suped-up corvette, white with brown trim just like his costume, and covered in reflective decals. It had funky flashy lights, fins, and a half dozen different types of radio aerials. There was no such thing as GPS back then, but the car had CBs and police-ban radios, and some sort of bulky telephone. I remember a rocket launcher too, but that's probably just the embellishment of my childhood imagination.

And this Batman really was a genuine, honest-to-god superhero. He didn't have Bruce Wayne's billions--I recall he worked in a garage or something and spent all he had on his car--but every free moment he had, he spent on the road assisting motorists in distress. If you needed a ride, if you had a flat tire, if you'd been in an accident, he would come to your aid. He was all about helping people, every free minute of every day. And that's what made him a true hero.

I don't know his name. I remember reading it when he died, but that was a long time ago, and I was too little then to remember it now. The details were in the local paper, and I've been unable to find anything else about him since, on the Internet or elsewhere. But he died of carbon monoxide poisoning. He was working under his Batmobile, of course, when his garage door slid closed. He asphyxiated without ever knowing what was wrong. I don't know his age, but he would have been in his twenties or thirties. Those whom the gods love die young. He's the only real life superhero I ever met, and I still think of him from time to time.

25 comments:

A.R.Yngve said...

A sad and moving story.
:-/

Funny, when you think about it, that there aren't more people (rich or poor) who dress up in a costume and try to be heroes.

OK, so the short answer is "It's hard and heroic enough to be a decent citizen in ordinary clothes."

But still. *sigh*...

M. Ramage said...

I was born and raised in Birmingham, AL. We spent summers at my Grandmother's house near East Lake Park. I can still remember her revelation of a "real" Batman. To say the least, I was elated with the realization of a hero in Birmingham, where I thought nothing ever happened. She told us the same stories of his rescues, and if I am not mistaken his car was on display at the Southern Museum of Flight.

Lou Anders said...

Confirmation that I am not delusional!
Seriously, though, do you think the car is still there? I would LOVE to see it again. I can't find anything online about this guy, and he really was a true hero.

Anonymous said...

The car is on display at the Alabama State Fairgrounds in Birmingham, Al. I saw it once at the southern Museum of Flight, but it seems like it was a Caddilac or Lincoln, not a Corvette. I wish someone would take photos and post on the web....

Lou Anders said...

I have only a childhood memory, so it could very well be a Caddy or something else, but I will totally go to the Fiargrounds and find it. I promise to photo and post if I do.

Chris said...

Last place I saw it was at the fairgrounds several years ago. It was not a corvette or cadillac. It had t-tops and quite a bit of body work. Sadly, by the time I saw it there it was rotting away in a glass case. I did see it at the southern museum of flight in 1990, though... It was really impressive. I was working at the time to pay for UAB tuition at a detail shop called "Slick Finish". The owner (Leonard Slick) told me that he was a machinist by day and did that by evening. He would help stranded motorists and never accepted any money in return. I also remember that he sadly died of carbon monoxide poisoning while working on the car in a closed environment. If you can find reruns of the early 80's show "Real People" - he and his car were featured on the show. Let's see... what other facts about the car:

It had a cell phone back when only the "elite" had such in the early 80's.

It contained a small color TV just under the ashtray (right over the driveshaft hump).

It was reported to have a small refrigerator.

In the back deck over the rear seats, it had an actual working turntable.

When I saw it in the Southern Museum of Flight I confirmed all of these things. It was actually a really cool car.

Also (of course) the tag read "BATMAN".

I also remember it having a police light in the middle of the t-tops, but it glowed yellow (probably to stay street legal).

Hope this helps.


Chris

Lou Anders said...

Absolutely. Thank you Chris.
Now we've got a name and confirmation that I'm not crazy. I don't remember the turntable, but I did remember the cellphone and was having trouble accounting for it.

Anonymous said...

I met Willie J. Perry aka Batman once. He was working at JF Day, a window company. He had a great sense of humor.

The car was a 1971 Ford Thunderbird as produced. The Birmingham News had an article when he passed away, but is is not online. There is a later article #30496949 available at al.com

Anonymous said...

Mr. Anders, my name is Lee M. Shook Jr. and I am actually currently working on a documentary film project about the Batman of Birmingham....aka Willie J. Perry. Concurrently, I am also trying to lead a grassroots effort to revitalize not only Willie's legacy here in town but also the state of his car, which has fallen into total disrepair. If you have any questions about Mr. Perry's life or car feel free to contact me at leeshook77@hotmail.com.

Thanks for posting your memory of him online, as he was truly a unique and singular figure here in the Magic City.

Nicki said...

To anyone who's interested, I was able to find a couple of articles about Mr. Perry in The Birmingham News' archives. I've posted them to the Strange Alabama's (new local e-zine, formerly known as 'Weird Alabama') Yahoo group.

Alan said...

I grew up in Birmingham just a couple of blocks away from the Fairgrounds and remember seeing Batman every now and again. When I first saw him my dad said, "There's Batman.", which struck me as odd because I didn't remember Batman being a black guy in a pimped out car. He told me that Batman stopped and helped people and when I asked him why he simply said, "He must feel like that's the right thing to do." Willie Perry proved to me when I was a kid that super heros WERE real.

Lou Anders said...

Yeah, as a kid two things struck me. One, that it was odd that he didn't pick an original name, since he didn't really try to emulate Batman's look, costume or car wise. And Two, that he was the real deal!

Anonymous said...

I recently relocated back to Birmingham, where I grew up. My mother dragged us out to the flea market (shudder) at the fairgrounds, where the actual Batmobile is interred permanently in a little glass anteroom at the front of the entrance to the convention center.

I camne across your blog when I Googled "Bat Man" and "Birmingham" to try to find some info on this guy, as I recall the same details most do - he helped people, and he died of CO poisoning.

However, it wasn't a Corvetted, as you recall. It is some other hooptie with all manner of flashes, gadgets and bumper stickers. Anyway, I happened to have my camera, adn you can see pics of it at the bottom of this page:

http://www.pbase.com/sigphotography/alabama

Ben

Lou Anders said...

Ben, I can't thank you enough for this!

Anonymous said...

Yes, I remember Bat Man very well.

In fact one night late when I was driving to my then job as night maintenaance in the DPSC of the Birmingham Social Security over on Twelfth North I broke down right about the fairgrounds on 3rd Avenue.

Along Came Batman in the Batmobile.

He gave me a jumo or some gas, I don't remember which and I got to work on time.

Thank you Batman.

The Batmobile stayed on display after Batman's death at the Fairgrounds for years.

Birmingam has a long history of individuals doing good when the leaders won't.

Talk to thr State A.S.A.P. boys.

Their program was modeled after Good Old Bsman's idea of helping folks.

Anonymous said...

I also recall that, before Willie died, the Birmingham City Council passed a resolution naming August the 2nd of every year as "Willie Perry Day." Now that he's gone, it seems the holiday has been forgotten. I met Willie on one occasion at the theatre in Hoover. Very nice man, and I was saddened by his death.

Lou Anders said...

I think I'll reinstate it, at least for my house. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Sorry to post so long after the original posting, but I thought you'd might like to know: the Batmobile is still in good shape. Until recently, it was in storage at the Birmingham Museum of Flight. Recently the town council voted to sell it back to Perry's family, for the princely sum of ten dollars, in recognition of Perry's contribution as a citizen of Birmingham. Yes, Virginia, there IS a Batman.

Birdybren said...

I remember Willie Perry well. I do believe he saved my life in the late 70's. I am a pharmacist and was closing the store late one Saturday night, a man ran up demanded that I unlock and reenter the store for needles. I am sure he would have robbed me also. I verbally fought with the guy and was about the throw my keys on the roof (only thing I could think of) when Willie came to the rescue! The Batmobile was all lit up with those crazy lights, the would-be robber got frightened and ran.

I left Birmingham in the early 80's and lost touch with alot going on there. Last night I told a pharmacist this story and decided to google Willie Perry -what a shock to see that he had died not long after and by CO poisoning. It deeply saddened me.

Willie, please know how much I appreciated your help that night. You were one-of-a-kind! A real hero to me and many others I'm sure. I know you are shining bright in Heaven!!!

Brenda G.

Lou Anders said...

Thanks for that remembrance!

molly said...

the Batman of Birmingham That is something new and African-American that is cool so he is strong and intelligent

matt said...

The car was a Thunderbird.

Lou Anders said...

Thanks!

xxmysticlettexx said...

It's crazy how things have changed in the past 10 years. No one rides around in their free time to assist those in need, selfishness rains supreme atleast here in Birmingham,AL it does. It's so sad, this used to be a beautiful place even the outer cities are now becoming affected. Hoover, Pelham, Mountain Brook...Homewood, West End, Ensley, and anywhere in on the North Side and West Sides of Bham are what they used to be when I was a kid, saddest part...I', only 22

sweet-home-lnd said...

You are lucky to know a real hero on your own. I suppose he was an impressive view. I'm sorry he died so early.
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