Gordo reports for duty at Sanders Aviation

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Since 2011, painted mules from the Walker County Arts Alliance's public art project have greeted hundreds of visitors who have driven through the area. Now one has been given the special assignment of welcoming travelers who drop in from the sky.

Gordo the mule was a Christmas gift to Sanders Aviation's Joey "Gordo" Sanders from his wife, Debbie Young Sanders.

Debbie Sanders solicited the help of Missy Miles, the artist behind several downtown murals as well as Gem, the Main Street Jasper mule, to create something special.

"I was thinking about something I could get Joey for Christmas because he goes out and gets things that he really wants," she said. "I had heard him mention that he liked the mules, and he thought about getting one for the airport. I thought, 'That would be a nice greeting for travelers who come into our airport, and it would be something that he would enjoy.'"

The two got to work on the project in August and were able to keep it a secret until Christmas.

Debbie Sanders selected 10 planes that have been important to her husband throughout his career in flight. Miles recreated them on Gordo, framing each one with rivets to accentuate the theme.

Of course, there is Big Red, the World War II-era T-6 trainer that has made multiple appearances in the Reno Air Races, as well as the F-4 Phantom that Sanders helped bring to Jasper after it was retired in 1993.

Two of the planes commemorate the 30 years that Sanders worked for FedEx.

There is also a hot air balloon that he bought because it was his dad's dream to go up in one and a plane that was owned by Debbie's father, Hoyt Young, and in which four of his grandchildren soloed.

Gordo also pays tribute to Joey Sanders' military service. 

His boots are from the Persian Gulf War.

He is wearing a flight suit and detachable helmet made out of a gourd. (Miles is a gourd artist as well as a muralist.)

His mane is painted like the American flag, and Miles added the insignia of a lieutenant colonel, Sanders' final rank in the Alabama Air National Guard.

When Joey Sanders looks at Gordo, he thinks of Walker County's proud mining history, which is the reason that the Arts Alliance selected mules for the public art project.

Both of Sanders' grandfathers worked in the mines. His paternal grandfather owned two mines near Dora. 

"The mule means something different to me because we're Walker County coal miners. I just took a different path. I get chills when I look at it and think about all the families that have grown up in coal," he said.

His father, Joseph Gordon Sanders Sr., told him stories about walkling the mules that were used in the mines back and forth from home. There's also a humorous story about a mule named Gus that encountered a train on a trestle bridge on one walk home.

Joey Sanders first heard those stories while sitting outside his family's service station.

One day, a fighter plane flew over, and a dream was vocalized.

"I said, 'Dad, that's what I want to do.' He didn't say, 'There's no way.' He said, 'I think you will,'" Sanders recalled.

In 2017, Sanders told a group of students interested in flight about how he held onto his own dream of sitting in the cockpit of an F-4 Phantom when his grandfather was encouraging him to take a job in a local coal mine. He had already been hired and was on his way to the mine when he turned around and headed to his favorite hangout, the airport.

Years later, the dream came full circle when Sanders was in one of four F-4 Phantoms that took part in a flyover of downtown Jasper for the Veterans Day parade.

"I looked down, and there he (his father) was at the service station looking up," Sanders said.