My friend Mary, her husband and I wound our way through the wet country roads yesterday morning. Even in the rain, the rolling hills and old country barns were breathtaking. My thoughts alternated between the present and my childhood as we drove.
Instead of Sunday morning church, we’d opted to visit two very important people. The first house, that now familiar blue structure I’ve come to recognize and love, came into view. We piled out of the car and into Willie Shelton’s home. Each time I am in his presence, I learn something new. And I respect the World War II veteran all the more.
I marveled as he told of being sidelined on his way to church by a snake one Sunday long ago. Wanting to protect himself and his family from the reptile, he grabbed the snake by the tail and cracked it like a whip. The motion was so violent, its head came right off, bloodying his clean and pressed white Sunday-go-to-meetin’ shirt.
I was impressed that he would even pick up a snake, let alone beheading it with one crack of his wrist. I always learn something from Mr. Shelton through his stories and today was no exception. Knowing we’d see him in a few minutes for Sunday Thanksgiving family dinner, we cut our visit short and headed toward the second home.
Deep in the heart of Chewalla, Tennessee, we wheeled into the driveway of the brick structure. A half dozen cars were in the driveway and folks ran through the rain carrying all sorts of food. Moments later we rapped on the door and entered the private room of Jeff York.
I’d met Jeff on the Road to Freedom tour. Hard to imagine it was over two years ago. Jeff stood bent double leaning on pillows against his desk. It’s where he spends his days tapping away on his computer keyboard. He doesn’t stand taller than three feet, and yet his personality, his quick mind and his wisdom reach to the outer limits of humankind.
Jeff has lived his life riddled with pain. A rare disease has fused every single joint in his body. He has never touched the top of his head. The only joints that move are his fingers. But Jeff does not feel sorry for himself. He uses those joints to write. He’s a freelance journalist for many newspapers in the area. He interviews individuals by phone and writes articles about them. Jeff has an uncanny ability to see into the human condition and truly understands people.
His condition has worsened to the degree that he can no longer get out and do the things he loves like attend church and coach softball. Yet, if you want to get up to speed about the people of Chewalla, Guys, Ramer, Selmer and other surrounding towns in rural Tennessee, all you have to do is ask Jeff. He knows what’s happening with everyone. He’s also not bashful at all and will tell you exactly what he thinks without reservation.
A short visit concluded, we drove back down the country roads as I pondered both of these amazing men. One had left his family behind and gone off to fight a war. The other stayed home and is still fighting one. Both of these men stand among giants in rural Tennessee. Out of the rolling hills in this amazing part of America, brave men fought. One came home, farmed the land and built things out of wood. The other tells stories for the benefit of others using his hands, the only things on his body that will move.
I’m enriched, yet humbled by both of these men. I feel wealthy for knowing them and being blessed to spend time in the presence of giants. I’m also reminded of how small I am compared to these mighty men. I certainly have a benchmark to strive for.
My life is forever changed by being in the presence of giants. Men who with no accolades just quietly do what they were created to do, without reward, and to so many, without notice. Yet, they leave a permanent imprint on their world and keep the heartbeat of America beating strong. Thank you men of valor for being who you are!