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.