Back in Reeltown

Three years ago. Reeltown, Alabama. There I am, at a vegetable stand. There’s an old man there. I don’t know how old the man running the vegetable stand is, but he’s old enough to have white hair and use words like “rye-chonder” when he points.

He and his wife sit in rocking chairs. There are flats of tomatoes, peppers, jars of honey.

“‘Ch’all dune?” comes the call from his wife—a sweet woman with a kind face.

I inspect the man’s last batch of summer tomatoes. They look good. And it’s hard to find good fare on the side of the road anymore.

Factories have taken over the world. Homegrown summer tomatoes are almost a myth.

There’s a clapboard house behind us. The roof is pure rust. The front porch is made of pure history.

“Grew up in that house,” he said. “My mama grew up in that house. Been farming this land since I’s a boy.”

His land nestles in the greenery of the foothills. He grew up using a mule to turn dirt fields. He burned up his childhood tending cotton, cane, and peanuts. But he doesn’t call himself a farmer.

“I’m a country preacher,” he goes on. “‘Fore that, we was missionaries.”

Missionaries. But not overseas. To Native Americans. Primitive tribes in the United States which still cooked over fires and lived without electricity. When they were younger, their missionary work was in Alaska.

“You take a Deep South boy like me,” he says. “Put me in a poverty stricken Eskimo tribe for ten years, that’s an education, boy.”

He’s not like many preachers. He has no doctrine to hammer, no book to thump. All he’s ever wanted to do is help people and to sell vegetables.

And he has a soft spot for Native Americans. He speaks about those he’s helped, with wet eyes. This man is made of Domino sugar.

“We just wanted people to know we loves’em,” he said. “Want my whole life to belong to people who just need to know someone loves’em.”

He’s shows me a wall of license plates. Rusted car tags represent the places his American missionary work has taken him. Arkansas, Missouri, Alaska, Texas, and a cluster of other tags. His whole life is on that wall.

“I’m so lucky” he says. “Got to know all sorts’a God’s children. Didn’t make no money in my life, we’re kinda poor. That’s sorta why we started selling vegetables, you see.”

I see.

His wife interrupts. “Maybe we didn’t make money, Wallace. But tell him about the email.”

He says they got an email from a Native American man. The man asked if they were the same kindhearted missionaries who used to bake cookies for his tribe’s Sunday school class in Alaska when he was a boy.

It made her eyes leak. His too.

That boy is middle-aged today. He’s got a healthy family, and he’s doing well. He just wanted to thank a few people who once showed him kindness.

“That one email,” she goes on. “Made our little lives seem worth it. Reckon life really is all about showing people you care about’em.”

Reckon so.

I hug their necks, and I drive away, eating tomatoes all the way across Alabama.

That was three summers ago. I made it back to Reeltown to see Mister Wallace last year.

The vegetable stand was closed down. He was in a wheelchair and didn’t have use of his limbs. ALS had taken its cruel toll on his body. Doctors said it wouldn’t be long. The whole town got together to see him off. They gathered in the little high school, they put on a big to-do in the gymnasium. I sang a song.

When I hugged his neck I cried a little. I didn’t mean to, but it’s hard to watch a good man get beat.

He whispered something in my ear.

“Don’t feel bad for me, Sean,” he said. “After I’m gone, I’ll be up yonder, with you know who.”

Last year, on Easter Sunday, a modest country preacher walked through abalone gates and shook You-Know-Who’s hand.

And they’re about to have some fine tomatoes in Beulah Land.

I still think about you every day, Mister Wallace.

38 comments

  1. Ronnie Pierson - May 7, 2020 7:58 am

    How fitting that Mr. Wallace was granted entrance to heaven on Easter Sunday. The people that knew him are better for that gift of his friendship. I know that he is truly missed.

    Reply
  2. Jim Boyle - May 7, 2020 9:36 am

    One of your best !

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  3. Sandy Brister - May 7, 2020 10:46 am

    Yes… I agree with Jim Boyle.. one of your best. Thank you…

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  4. Curtis Lee Zeitelhack - May 7, 2020 10:53 am

    My eyes are leaking now. Thank you, Sean, for reminding us about what is important in life.

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  5. Toni - May 7, 2020 10:54 am

    Thank you Sean for sharing the lives of this precious husband and wife. I think he will be truly happy in Beulah land.

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  6. Hazel c. King - May 7, 2020 10:54 am

    This gave me the real feels…Or maybe it was the “Reel” feels.

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  7. Betty F. - May 7, 2020 11:30 am

    You can repeat this one every year! Sniff…

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  8. Wanda Corbin - May 7, 2020 11:33 am

    Beautifully written story. Crying tears of joy!

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  9. Cathi Russell - May 7, 2020 11:44 am

    Ugly cry before 7am…he’s gonna fit right in there in Beulah Land. This is an every year repeat, please?

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  10. Laura Hale - May 7, 2020 11:56 am

    And that is what “reel” life is all about, or should be. Thank you for the beautiful reminder.

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  11. GaryD - May 7, 2020 11:57 am

    Sad that he’s gone, good that you got to know him even better that you told us about him. Thanks, Sean.

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  12. C.F. David - May 7, 2020 12:04 pm

    I see there are wildfires in the Panhandle, Sean. Are you and yours safe? I hope so.

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  13. Phil S. - May 7, 2020 12:28 pm

    Thank God for people like Mister and Mrs. Wallace – and for those like you who love them and tell their stories.

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  14. Terri - May 7, 2020 12:31 pm

    I thank God that a FB friend shared one of your columns a couple of years ago and I found you Sean. ❤️ Love you much.

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  15. Bobbie E - May 7, 2020 12:46 pm

    One of life’s blessings, meeting people like Wallace. That’s what’s important …not your bank account. Oh, that we all could leave this earth with the knowledge that we let people know as Wallace did that they are loved. So many out there that don’t know that..I went the better part of my life not knowing that. Let people know that…what a difference you’ll make in their lives just by scattering little acts of kindness. It costs nothing. But oh, the rewards you’ll receive!
    Praying for all in the area of the fires down your way. Stay safe. ❤️

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  16. Tom - May 7, 2020 12:53 pm

    I’ve heard it said, the best sermons are lived – not preached. Seems they lived a good one.

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  17. Connie Havard Ryland - May 7, 2020 12:56 pm

    Rest In Peace Mr. Wallace. He certainly earned his place. I woke up thinking of you and Jamie this morning with the fires in your part of the world. Hope all is well and y’all are safe.

    Reply
  18. Teresa Tindle - May 7, 2020 1:13 pm

    Sean, there are so many good people in this world. Maybe they are forgotten on earth. But you and I know they will get all their sweet rewards for just being themselves from you know who up yonder.

    Reply
  19. julie - May 7, 2020 1:33 pm

    I live right by here, at Lake Martin. I know where you are referring to I believe. , where the road curves and the cloth couple sit on rockers. I worked with senior home care. Driving those rural county roads, I would stop to talk to people. We wave at folks and you feel like you know each other after a few waves. I pulled in to a yard one day, after several waves, to introduce myself and talk to Mrs Hinkle. I continued doing that, every once and a while, for about a year, learning about the old farmhouse she was born in, the wild fox she fed on the big broad porch, the daffodils, fig trees and cows she loved. I would honk the car horn and wave whenever I saw her on that porch. She would smile and wave back, maybe she knew it was me, I think everyone got the same smile and wave anyway. Some days I would stop and sit with her for a few minutes. She didn’t really live at this big old white farmhouse. She just kept it for storing stuff now, she showed me inside the door once: sawhorse table with old dishes, crystal, books, and cans of cat food. She lived in a “little white house” somewhere else I didn’t know about. But every afternoon she would get in her old Chrysler and drive back to this homeplace to feed the cat. She said that cat just never was able to make the move to the new place so she came back to it and the cat. She would sit on that glider and enjoy the view everyday. But then I married and moved to Florida. A newly wed at 57! But that’s another story. When the new “we” retired back to Lake Martin, to the cabin he bought a dozen years ago, just hoping for someday, I looked for her on that porch. The answer was evident she was not coming there anymore. No flower pots on the porch, no old chrysler in the yard, and the front door was closed. Life gives you opportunities to meet people, take it when you see the door open, the casual wave. It doesn’t last long. Thanks for sharing your story about this couple. I wondered what happened since it looks permanently closed now.

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  20. Richda McNutt - May 7, 2020 1:41 pm

    No one makes me feel the way you do, Sean – no one.

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  21. Margaret Angell - May 7, 2020 1:44 pm

    Sean, I think this morning was the first time in my life that I’ve seen “rye-chonder” spelled out, although I have said it most of my life! I was born and raised in the mountains of western North Carolina and we talked the same as Mister Wallace. What a shame that the words we used have fallen by the wayside. Thank you, not just for the words you write, but how you write them. You are, indeed, a blessed man.

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  22. Amy - May 7, 2020 3:28 pm

    Well done thou good and faithful servant. ❤️

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  23. cronkitesue - May 7, 2020 3:29 pm

    You sure know how to turn on the tear faucets. Keep finding them stories about people loving people.

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  24. Ann - May 7, 2020 3:30 pm

    Such a sweet and peaceful message… I smiled throughout… blessings 🥰

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  25. cronkitesue - May 7, 2020 3:32 pm

    Get my book Louette’s Wake and see the words the way we still say them. Our language is a national treasure.

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  26. Gloria - May 7, 2020 4:03 pm

    One of your best, Sean! ❤️

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  27. Sue Murphy - May 7, 2020 4:13 pm

    Made my eyes leak.

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  28. Gayle Harris - May 7, 2020 4:17 pm

    We pass by this house on our way to & from the lake. The house is still there, but they have torn down the vegetable stand. Sad to see it go.

    Reply
  29. Linda Moon - May 7, 2020 4:40 pm

    I’ve known and loved a few “rye-chonder” old men from a real Alabama town. As they often do, Sean, your stories of LIFE remind me of people I’ve known and loved: a young lady who was a missionary to Native Americans, a relative who got beat by ALS, two Wallaces…one who already walked through those abalone gates and the other one who will eventually join with our Daddy there. I think I’ll go sit on my front porch today and think about your story and some of my history, too!

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  30. Bob BRENNER - May 7, 2020 5:07 pm

    As heartfelt as anything I can remember. You’re a good man Sean Dietrich ❤️

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  31. steve hoover - May 7, 2020 5:23 pm

    Just…so..wonderfull ( I know..it’s only got one “El” bit it don’t make sense ..so I’m in rebellion)

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  32. jstephenw - May 7, 2020 5:46 pm

    Damn Sean. I’m not crying. Just bad allergies. Thanks for painting such a wonderful picture. Ands thanks for honoring this wonderful man. In this time of virus crisis, thanks for reminding us to be human.

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  33. Andy Andrews - May 7, 2020 7:17 pm

    So good.

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  34. Deb Gouge - May 7, 2020 8:36 pm

    Yep, my eyes are leaking, also. I lost a former student (who became a principal in my system) to ALS earlier this year… I know both Josh and Mr. Wallace had an awesome Easter with you-know-who. Keep writing; your words are Domino sugar AND Rosebud salve. 🙂

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  35. Glenda Hinkle - May 8, 2020 1:15 am

    Tomatoes held my family together. They were the single most important food in our lives and my mom grew the best. Loved this.

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  36. turtlekid - May 8, 2020 12:01 pm

    You did a kindness when you returned to visit, not just to them, but to us as well. Loving your words.

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  37. Martha - May 8, 2020 8:47 pm

    My eyes are burning, hot tears.

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  38. Tammy S. - May 12, 2020 9:15 am

    Mister Wallace, and his wife, sound like the many pastors I grew up knowing. From my home church pastor at a tiny country church in West Tennessee to my own Daddy who became a pastor by the time I was 11. None of them ever had much money but they lived the richest lives, beloved by so many!! And loving all!! Especially “the least of these.” I celebrated my 52nd Birthday yesterday, the day after Mother’s Day. The older I get the more I lose, every year, so many of those great men & women who were such a good and godly influence on me. My Mamaw use to love the song “Beulah Land.” On Sundays when we would sing that song she would often startle me because she would start shoutin’ “Glory!” I just didn’t get it!! Heaven was gonna be a great place….SOMEDAY, but there was too many amazing things here!! I didn’t quite get her excitement. A few years ago, my husband & I had the honor and privilege of going to Israel where we sat in a boat on the river Jordan and Squire Parsons himself was on the boat with us and sang his song. I kept looking over my shoulders expecting to hear my Mamaw yelling “Glory” from heaven. I had goosebumps and tears the whole boat ride. And it wasn’t so much from Squire, although he was the sweetest man. Also, when I was a little kid, I loved family reunions. Like every year, I couldn’t wait for the day!! A couple or three times a year we would get together with my Moms family that we didn’t see as often. We lived on the farm close to my Dad’s family but had to drive a ways to see my Mom’s family. I loved family reunions for lots of reasons, but the three main ones were: 1. the food. Nobody cooked the way all my Aunts, and even a few of my Uncles, did. So much food! Loved all of it, except, as a kid, the greens. I’ve since grown up and one of my regrets is not trying those greens!! I know now they were the best!! I missed out, big time. 2. All the laughter!!! Kids running every where. All my cousins from my Moms 8 brothers and sisters, some older, some younger, but we all played together on those days. Halfway through the day all the cousins cheeks would be blood red from being pinched, numerous times, by all those Aunts telling us each how good it was to see us and how much they loved us. Love really does hurt sometimes. But I just remember nothing but laughter, all day long. Even from the adults. It was the biggest hug-fest, food eating, cheek-pinching, laughter filled day!! And 3. I didn’t know it at the time, wouldn’t have been able to put it into words, but just the simple fact that we were all together!! All 10,000 of us. Well, there were so many of us, and with all of us cousins running around here and yonder, it felt like 10,000! But we were ALL together!! It felt safe, it felt like home. I didn’t understand it, when I was 9, why my Mamaw, my Daddy’s Momma, would shout “Glory” when Beulah Land was sung at church, but at 52 now, I get it!! I so get it!!

    “Beulah Land, I’m longing for you
    And some day on thee I’ll stand.
    There my home shall be eternal.
    Beulah Land — Sweet Beulah Land“

    Sure look forward to meeting Mister Wallace, some day!! And ALL my other cousins too!! I know there will be laughter. And I so hope there will be greens.

    Reply

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