Lil’ Towns

It’s late morning in Brewton, Alabama. Sunlight peeks over the trees. A distant train whistle whines. The scent of the nearby paper mill stinks up the air. My wife and I are driving through her little hometown, watching the brick storefronts and begonias go by. I am crazy about small towns.

But I don’t see a town today. You know what I see?

I see part of my adult life. I see the time Hurricane Ivan made landfall here. I see the summers I went fishing on Keego Pond with my father-in-law, when he squeezed fish bladders and made them pee on me.

I see one the first dates my wife and I had at Jalisco’s Mexican Restaurant, where I had one too many margaritas and started singing “People Will Say We’re In Love” from “Oklahoma!” right in the dining room. A few people applauded. I made five bucks in tips.

That’s what I see.

When you’re young, nobody tells you that you don’t marry a girl. Not really. You marry her family. You marry her community. You marry her circle of friends. You marry this young woman’s life.

When I married Jamie Martin, I inadvertently married a whole township. Back then I didn’t know it was possible to marry an incorporated Alabamian community, but there you are. And this little town turned out to be her gift to me.

I didn’t come from a stable home. I didn’t have a warm and fuzzy Hallmark Channel movie childhood. But my wife pretty much did, and she shared it with me as easily as someone splitting a pizza.

So when I visit this place, one of my favorite things to do is go to the grocery store, or the catfish joint, or a beer joint, and listen to people tell stories about my wife’s childhood.

I love imagining her in pigtails, without her front teeth, with skinned knees, and dirt on her face. I love knowing about the good times she had here. Maybe sometimes I even live vicariously through those happy recollections. I realize that makes me sound pathetic, but oh well.

I love the chipped sidewalks where she learned to ride a bike. The chapel where she learned to sing “Old Rugged Cross.” The brick school where she learned the Pythagorean theorem. The house on Belleville Avenue where we had our engagement party. The graveyard where her father’s remains rest.

And of course, the church where she would drag me to service during our feckless courtship.

One of the first things I loved about Jamie was how loud she sang in First Baptist. Jamie has always been the loudest voice in any sanctuary. And even though she can’t sing a lick, whenever the congregation started with “Victory in Jesus” Jamie would clap loudly and bob her hips like Shania Twain.

This was not decent behavior among Baptists. In fact, it was scandalous. Our people do not believe in clapping. Neither do we acknowledge the existence of Shania.

I knew I had to have her.

And I got her. I got a woman who not only gave me her family, she gifted me an entire zip code. This little town became an immediate piece of our lives together. I realize I’m romanticizing things pretty heavily here, but again, oh well.

To give you an example of just how exceptional Brewton people are, there was an EF-2 tornado in East Brewton last month. The storm decimated parts of town.

They found single wide trailers in the treetops. It ripped apart a school, homes, and entire neighborhoods.

One local woman said of the storm: “It happened so fast you didn’t have time to be scared… It was pulling us off the floor, just pulling us, you didn’t think it was going to stop.”

I heard another story about a lady who was sucked from her bedroom while sleeping. She awoke on an empty patch of dirt where her house used to be.

I heard about a gal who was in her living room watching TV. She got up to get a drink and wham. No sooner had she left her sofa than a tree fell through her roof and chopped her couch in half.

But here’s what I’m getting at: If you had visited this area after that horrific tornado, you wouldn’t have seen many people complaining and griping. Do you know what you saw?

You saw helpers. You saw volunteers with chainsaws, clearing damage, free of charge. You saw neighbors on front porches having cookouts, laughing, inviting the hungry kids in the neighborhood to join them.

You saw impromptu church services among the ruins. You saw families in lawn chairs, perched in leveled front yards, making the best of hell.

And although a veritable disaster had befallen Escambia County, somehow it didn’t feel like a disaster here. In some places it felt more like a tailgate party.

That’s the kind of stock my wife comes from. That’s the kind of woman who was just off-kilter enough to love me. That’s South Alabama. And anyway, that’s what I see when I come to Brewton.

41 comments

  1. Martha Black - July 17, 2021 6:59 am

    Sounds like “good people”. I love me some “good people”

    Reply
  2. Jaye Slaton - July 17, 2021 7:04 am

    Great article! My baby sister and brother-in-law are Breton people! I lived there for a few years myself. Wonderful people and a wonderful location. Just a few tornadoes and the occasional hurricane to make it exciting!

    Reply
  3. Claude McLaughlin - July 17, 2021 7:36 am

    Amen, brother

    Reply
  4. Clara Martin - July 17, 2021 7:53 am

    I wondered how long before you would write about the Brewton tornado since I know you have written about this little town many times. It was on our ATL news and I used to drive through there on my way to Pensacola many years ago. You are just as important to Brewton as it is to you-glad no one was seriously hurt and I know they will continue to pull together in their recovery

    Reply
  5. Debbie g - July 17, 2021 11:05 am

    You and Jamie were waiting for each other How blessed you both are love y’all !!

    Reply
  6. Brad Finch - July 17, 2021 11:22 am

    I went to UWF in the very early 80’s and Milton, Pace, Brewton, Opp and all the way to Mossy Head were our stomping grounds. My wife (now) and I spent many lazy days floating down the creeks and Blackwater River in inner tubes just loving life. I miss it terribly but thank you for the story. I have great memories of that region and period in our lives.

    Reply
  7. Brenda Jones Sanchez - July 17, 2021 11:32 am

    I grew up in East Brewton. What a wonderful place to call home. The neighborhood raised all of us in those days, mid 1940’s-early 1960’s. If I misbehaved down the street at a friend’s house her mother would switch me just as quickly as my own mother did. The entire small town had pretty much the same values in those days, so wrong was wrong and you knew the rules. Often I walked home, we walked everywhere since we could only afford one bike for three kids, and my mother would be standing in the yard with a peach tree switch because someone had observed me misbehaving and had called to tell my mother. We safely played outside until after dark and walked around the entire neighborhood in the pitch black night. My biggest fear was “mad” dogs and the panthers you could hear screaming in the near-by woods. I miss those days and East Brewton. Mainly I’m proud to be an Alabama gal!

    Reply
  8. Sylvia Boehmer - July 17, 2021 11:52 am

    I think I need to reduce my mainstream news viewing and increase my Sean Dietrich column viewing. You are a bright light in an increasingly dark tunnel. Thank you!

    Reply
  9. Jerilyn Blom - July 17, 2021 12:26 pm

    I know a few people who live in Brewton, and I agree. They are wonderful people!

    Reply
  10. David Balsley - July 17, 2021 12:30 pm

    You omitted a Hallmark of small town. The Volunteer Fire Company. I grew up in a small Borough just down river from Pittsburgh, Pa. I remember as a young man seeing an approaching Summer storm coming up the Ohio River valley. My Dad and I would automatically go to the Fire Station. Over the course of a few minutes, more of my fellow fire fighters would arrive. We would sit around and watch the storm and be ready to ” Serve and Protect.” I still remember the Oath I took as an Avalon Firefighter and especially our motto. ” For the good of the Borough.”

    Reply
  11. Virginia Mason - July 17, 2021 12:39 pm

    So many good people in small communities in the South. I grew up in one and can relate.

    Reply
  12. Steve Bonnell - July 17, 2021 1:09 pm

    Well written Sean. And how true you have depicted southern culture. But I’m not sure you should be spreading the word. The yanks might try to sweep in and change our way of life to that like is going on in Chicago or Detroit- No thank you! Let’s keep it the way we have it thank ya very much!

    Reply
  13. diane h. toney - July 17, 2021 1:12 pm

    Love this ! An invitation to visit Lavonia, Georgia is being sent. Approximately 2,000 inhabitants sitting on Lake Hartwell on the South Carolina line. Gumlog BBQ on week-ends and the Mennonites’ Main Street 211 proclaiming best desserts in the South ( and it’s true ). Check out my latest blog on happiness , wordsfromwoods.com.

    Reply
  14. Peggy Thompson - July 17, 2021 1:13 pm

    Great memories ♥️ this is the South & Alabama..
    Love living in Alabama.

    Reply
  15. CHARALEEN WRIGHT - July 17, 2021 1:21 pm

    Reply
  16. Ellouise Pennington - July 17, 2021 1:31 pm

    You’re so right. It is a charmed representative of true Southern Hospitality

    Reply
  17. Dan Wise - July 17, 2021 1:35 pm

    Love this post Sean..Grew-up in and around as we know it, ‘LA…Lower Alabama’. Lots of rural gas ‘fillen-stations’ with food stapes, and eight ounce CoColas and 10 ounce NeHi Peach and Grape sodas. …and old geezers playing checkers repurposing Co-Cola bottle caps near the coal heater in the back. Our Greatest Generation proudly on display!!!

    Reply
  18. Jan - July 17, 2021 1:35 pm

    Beautiful love story … both your lovely wife and the town she called home!

    Reply
  19. Bob E - July 17, 2021 1:37 pm

    Sean’s a lucky man…

    Reply
  20. billllly - July 17, 2021 1:47 pm

    I remember those Brewton boys in ’61 and ’62 knew how to play some football!

    Reply
  21. Bobby - July 17, 2021 1:57 pm

    Indicative of life in many of our small towns in “LA”, Lower Alabama.❤️

    Reply
  22. Paul McCutchen - July 17, 2021 2:06 pm

    I enjoy your stories. I sometimes like to see the world thru your eyes.

    Reply
  23. Brenda Leslie - July 17, 2021 2:39 pm

    That’s what I like about the South. Reminds me of Rockmart, GA!

    Reply
  24. Larry J Wall - July 17, 2021 3:54 pm

    Small town living is truly a blessing. I am a product of a small town in northeast Georgia, Winder(rhymes with binder), from the mid 40s. A great community, in the fullest sense of the word. Today, the little town is beginning to see a resurgence because it still has ‘community’ of people caring for people. At 75, I still feel that I was blessed to grow up and live in this wonderful Southern Camelot. And, a prior commentor, Diane Haley Toney, also had a brief time here to contribute to our community life as an educator. And a good one at that. Thanks, Diane.

    Reply
  25. Lana - July 17, 2021 4:02 pm

    Another great one! I live in Foley another small town or use to be. Sally hit us hard last year and it’s wonderful how all come together to help.

    Reply
  26. Paul Moore - July 17, 2021 4:03 pm

    I’ve been gone from Brewton 9 years and still miss it. I live in another great little community near Nashville but it’s not Brewton. I remember Jamie as a young girl running through my barber shop while I cut her brothers hair. And when she was older sharing a laugh at the Pickle Barrel sandwich shop where she worked. She always lit a place up. Good family. Good town

    Reply
  27. Suzanne Moore - July 17, 2021 4:25 pm

    As soon as I saw the news about Brewton, I thought about you and Jamie. I also thought about the buffet restaurant which you had written about just a week or two before that tornado happened. If you know of an address where we can send money to help the town, please let us know. I live in a tiny town, and I would like to do something to help Brewton. Love to you and Jamie…

    Reply
  28. Dana Qualls - July 17, 2021 4:41 pm

    Please don’t ever stop writing! Your articles make my day brighter and squeeze my heart with joy. Thank you for sharing your small town with us.

    Reply
  29. Kathy - July 17, 2021 4:54 pm

    Mr. Rogers always said, “Look for the helpers.” We remember we’re not alone.

    Reply
  30. Linda Moon - July 17, 2021 6:48 pm

    I “see” Brewton because I love Jamie Martin Dietrich and Mother Mary, so please tell Jamie that “Uma” said that. I married into a small North Alabama town family life, too…small town but a very big family!

    Reply
  31. Ann - July 17, 2021 7:21 pm

    THIS is what true love is about ❤️❤️

    Reply
  32. Sandra Preble - July 17, 2021 7:35 pm

    Is Brewton anywhere near Ozark? That’s where my Mother, youngest of 9 Wilkinson children, was born and where I spent many summers on the farm and cotton plantation, hand built house complete with outhouse and kerosene lamps. Loved my time there and thanks for the little town memories. I have a sweet cousin Annie Meryl who still lives there and will be 94 on July 25th. Sharp as a tack and loves to tell stories. Going to call her right now!

    Reply
  33. Peggy - July 17, 2021 10:29 pm

    you didn’t have time to be sacred…

    Reply
  34. Tim Smith - July 17, 2021 10:37 pm

    One local woman said of the storm: “It happened so fast you didn’t have time to be sacred… It was pulling us off the floor, just pulling us, you didn’t think it was going to stop.

    Did she not have time to be “scared” or did she not have time to pray? You’re such a good writer, sometimes I can’t tell when it’s a mistake and when it’s intentional.

    Reply
  35. Mona White - July 17, 2021 11:47 pm

    New subscriber. What a sweet love story. Thank you.

    Reply
  36. Peggy Slaton - July 18, 2021 2:38 am

    Love small towns!! Could go on and on, but the lastest example is simple. I dropped two bills in the drop box at the post office. As soon as I turned them loose I realized I hadn’t put the postage on them. I knew I wouldn’t get them back for weeks meaning the bills would be late getting to their destination. That meant late fees!!! Went in the post office hoping I would find a solution. Should have known I would, BECAUSE I live in a small
    town. The clerk said just pay for two stamps, and I will go out right now and put stamps on the bills for you. I LOVE small towns!!

    Reply
  37. Stacey Wallace - July 18, 2021 9:13 pm

    Sean, my voice broke as I was reading this piece to my husband. I, like your wife, am also from a small town in Alabama. Small town folks are the salt of the earth. Thanks for beautiful stories during the worst 16 months I have ever seen. I hope you keep writing until the Lord calls me home.

    Reply
  38. susan crews - July 19, 2021 9:29 am

    We too are blessed to live in such a small town in northeast Georgia called Winterville. It’s just six miles from the UGA arches but is another perfect example of small town America–one red light, Off the Vine produce on the corner, and Marigold Market on the weekends. It’s our little slice of heaven here on earth.

    Reply
  39. Kate - July 19, 2021 12:53 pm

    One day I am going to find a small town in Georgia or Alabama with a small church where the people still sing the old hymns and move and die there.

    Reply
  40. Jeanie - July 19, 2021 7:26 pm

    We’ve driven through Brewton so many times on the way to the beach. I’ll never think of it again as a delay in getting to our ‘destin’ation. I’ve noticed the Begonias and other little touches like that, but now I’ll pay more attention. And maybe even stop for an ice cream.

    Reply
  41. Suzi - July 25, 2021 7:17 pm

    I am blessed to call a small town home, thank you for reminding me if all my blessings.

    Reply

Leave a Comment