Death of a Secondhand Lion

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Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most: that people are basically good. That honor, courage and virtue mean everything, that money and power mean nothing — that good always triumphs over evil. And I want you to remember this: that love — true love — never dies. I want you to remember that, Boy. Doesn’t matter if they’re true or not, you see. A man should believe in those things because those are the things worth believing in.

—   Robert Duvall in “Secondhand Lions”


Douglassville, Texas — Brad Teel lived on 90 acres deep in the woods of Northeast Texas. After pulling into the driveway, one first noticed the furrows — neatly plowed behind wire fences to keep deer out. Some rows were planted while others lay fallow depending on the time of year.

Brad’s brother, Harris, is my father-in-law. He owns 40 acres across the road, surrounded by forest. Harris mainly lives in town — except when it comes time to plant or pick crops, run trotlines, or just get away from city life — such as it is in Gilmer, Texas.

Brad always called my father-in-law “Boy,” because he was the youngest sibling, though he referred to him as Harris Kent in the third person. Harris reached 80 in October. Brad turned 86 last July. My wife and I nicknamed this pair the Secondhand Lions, after the two grouchy coots in the movie starring Robert Duvall and Michael Caine. The Teel brothers farmed, fussed and fished together for decades. They wore overalls every day. Both became widowers in recent years, first Brad and then Harris. Still they plowed ahead with an organic truck garden that reaped a bounteous harvest upon kith and kin, with plenty left over to sell down at the farmer’s market. Red potatoes and kale, turnip and mustard greens in the winter, spicy peppers nearly yearlong, purple-hull peas and tomatoes by late spring, sweet corn if enough rain fell.

Then there were the cantaloupes. Any similarity between a Teel-raised cantaloupe and one bought at a supermarket is coincidental. The former tastes like angels strumming harps and heavenly voices singing in perfect harmony. Once one has devoured a Teel-raised cantaloupe it is difficult to spend money on a store-bought version. The watermelons garnered even greater praise, though I have never developed a taste for the fruit. My wife can eat her weight, which isn’t much since she’s tiny, but still. That woman can flat put away some Teel-raised watermelon.

Brad had quadruple-bypass surgery last year. Except for his heart, the doctor said he had the body of a 50-year-old man. The surgery slowed him down — much to his considerable irritation — since Brad only had one speed, and that was full throttle. One of the last times we visited, Brad was resting in a chair outside his house. He had been hooking up a pair of cast-iron plows beneath an ancient tractor — normally not difficult but likely a challenge for an 85-year-old man recovering from major surgery. Brad was highly irritated because he had put the plows on backward and didn’t have the strength to start over. I finished the job under his direction and received a sack of peppers and some red potatoes in return, if memory serves. I got the best part of that bargain.

Stories abound. Here’s one from recent years. Harris and Brad were up on the roof of “Boy’s” trailer, making repairs. Brad somehow fell off the roof, taking the ladder with him, leaving Harris stuck on the roof. If you have watched “Secondhand Lions,” this real-life version is perhaps even crustier. Harris kept yelling down at Brad, “Hey, Brad, you all right?” over and over. After about five minutes — which Harris said felt like a week — Brad stirred and sat up. Harris commenced to yelling at him to put the damn ladder back up so he could get off the roof — and to be quick about it.

The two only last week were cutting down a pine tree that died from the drought. Brad drove the tractor while Harris ran the chain saw, both of them grumbling and grousing at each other the whole time, doubtless using colorful vocabulary. The tree got hung up in tree rows, so Brad tried to keep it off the power lines by pulling it with a chain from the tractor, while Harris used the chain saw. Finally they decided they best call the electric company — what is still called REA in the country — to finish the job.

We last saw Brad in early November. We pulled a trailer up to my father-in-law’s farm to bring back a load of firewood, and stopped to say hi to Brad. We borrowed his truck, a shiny Ford F-150, to take Harris’ boat down to the lake and run out the gas to set it up for winter. Before we left, Brad invited us to pick some peppers. I filled a paper grocery bag with Tabasco, jalapeño, banana and habanera peppers that kept my tongue burning past Christmas.

Brad’s son-in-law found him dead in his rocking chair earlier this week, a bushel of potatoes and a Buck knife at his side. He sat down to slice the seed potatoes for planting and passed away. He and Harris planned to plant red potatoes soon as the soil dried. Rain has returned to this part of Texas.

One of the Secondhand Lions is gone. The garden will get planted, with help from Brad’s grown children and Harris, of course. But it won’t be the same. It never is.

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  • Meredith


    Oh, I'm sorry to hear about that. I'm glad he was comfortable in his rocking chair in his last moments.

  • Denise


    Just absolutely beautifully written. So sorry for your loss.

    • admin


      A belated thank-you, Denise. Had to get a glitch fixed so I could actually see the comments. Hope you're doing well. Best, gb

  • Joe McCarthy


    Your description made me almost envision these two old guys doing their thing. I drew an analogy between their relationship and that of my brother and I. We too are up there in years. I remember seeing a grave stone near that of my parents years ago that carried an inscription something to the effect that "Here lies old Tom - , he spent his years well, working among us on Earth and has now begun his eternal work. He will be forever remembered as history has a way of repeating things."

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