Columbiana, Alabama—a place with front porches bearing American flags. There are hanging ferns, historic homes, dog-walkers who wave.
The welcome-to-town sign reads: “Home of Governor Robert Bentley.”
“Hot aw-mighty,” remarks one old woman. “Hope folks don’t judge us by what’s on TV. It’s too bad about that mess with Governor Bentley.”
It sure is.
Because this place is more than a two-word byline in a shocking news story. This is heaven.
Reason number one: Davis Drug Company.
In the back of Davis’ there’s a flat-top grill. They serve cheeseburgers and tea that’s sweet enough to cause temporary blindness.
Bernard P. Fife sits at the counter.
Vinyl stools. Milkshakes. Pimento cheese. Coke in green-tinted bell glasses.
We’re eating lunch with Rachel. She teaches tenth-grade English. She has the personality of a cherub.
“Wouldn’t live anywhere else,” she says. “This is our bubble from the rest of the world.”
A bubble. Kids mind their manners in Columbiana. High-schoolers drive trucks, wear boots, and listen to Alan Jackson. Teenagers still know who Loretta Lynn is. There is low crime.
It’s a place where schoolteachers are like mothers. Principals are like chaplains. Where the librarian deserves his own book in the Bible.
Rachel says, “Always knew I wanted to teach at THIS school.”
I ask why.
“My tenth-grade teacher, Mrs. Owens, she was the best. I wanted to be like her.”
Mrs. Owens. During my short time in town, I’ve heard more about Mrs. Owens than I have about the aforementioned ex-politician.
I motion to include Mrs. Owens’ name on the town sign. Because she is local values, country wisdom, and good people.
“Mrs. Owens, was my favorite,” says Rachel.
I also meet Rachel’s husband Joe—from New Jersey. He’s a long way from home.
“I’m the only Yankee around for miles,” he says. “But this is home.”
He’s lived here for many years now. Joe has even picked up the hint of an accent.
When he first visited town, he took the grand tour, which doesn’t take five minutes—the city isn’t much bigger than a throw rug.
“Drove down one street,” Joe says. “Saw all these flags hanging from porches, the sun was out, and it just hit me. This is Americana. I needed to be here.”
Well, I toured the same streets earlier today. I saw the same sunlight poking through the same red and white nylon flags.
I shook hands with remarkable people:
A boy who nearly died in a car wreck—whose principal sat beside him in ICU. I met a woman who raises chickens and sells farm-eggs for four bucks per dozen. A woman who hugged my neck and called me “Sugar Face.” And Mrs. Owens.
I ask Joe if he ever misses New Jersey.
“Never,” he says.
And why would he. Because this is Beulah Land. Where bloodhounds sleep underneath dogtrot houses. Where the downtown is made of Confederate brick. It’s a lot more than drugstores with handmade French fries. And it’s more than headlines about former governors.
This is Shelby County.
This is where God lives.