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.”
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.”
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.