Well, just take a gander at this moon. It's been making appearances every night since the dawn of man. And it comes out each evening just to tell you something...

If you ever park in a South Alabama field at night, you'll see things that take your breath away. The big waves of grass make it seem as though you're in the middle of creation.

And God, these stars.

If you happen to know a place like this, don't tell anyone where it is, or else they'll build a shopping mall on it.

Of course, at this hour, it's not about the field, really. It's about the moon.

I'm writing this while sitting in my truck. I've just spent the last three hours watching the moon. Ellie Mae, my coonhound is with me. We split a hamburger for supper on the tailgate—though not equally. She ate the beef, I ate the bread.

Rotten dog.

When she was done, she stared upward at the sky. She held her eyes on the moon like she could see Neil Armstrong. She stayed like that twenty minutes.

I've never seen a dog do that before.

You know, I'm lucky. Admittedly, I haven't seen much in my life, and I

haven't visited anywhere of merit. But I'm lucky just the same. And I'd be hard pressed to get any more satisfied than I am right now.

Yeah, I know, life is hard. And they say being happy is even harder. It's true. I've known heartache. So have you.

The world can be mean. Some days you wake up and someone's busts you in the teeth before it's even lunchtime. It's easy to get sad.

But don't stay that way. You can take my word for it: it will ruin you.

Besides, look at this field. Look at this moon. This world isn't all thorns. It's a nice place. We have hamburgers, Ford trucks, coonhounds, number-one pencils, Saturday-morning cartoons, and teenage romances.

I love to watch teenage lovebirds hold hands, something about it makes me believe in love.

I once saw a boy and girl in…

Truth told, I don't know why I'm telling you this. Maybe these pecans are getting to me.

I'm in a pecan orchard. The trees are blocking out the sun, and I'm in some kind of heaven. Pecan trees do that to me. I could spend an entire day here.

The year before my father died, we planted nearly one-acre's-worth of baby pecans.

I'll bet they're huge now.

It was late October, chilly weather. We dug holes all day. I wore a coonskin cap made from real raccoon. My father hand-made the thing when he was a young man. Folks from our pedigree often hunt coons with spotlights and longneck bottles on the weekends.

While planting each tree-row, he blasted music from his truck cab. I can't remember which songs were playing, all I remember was a twang.

While we worked, Don followed us around.

Don was a duck. He was pure white, and behaved cantankerously toward anyone but Daddy. The old bird hung around wherever Daddy went. Sometimes, you'd see them walking the fence posts, side by side.

“Don," he'd sometimes say. "Why don't you make yourself useful, dammit?”

Don would

just stand there, blinking.

“You freeloader,” he'd go on, "I'm gonna eat you if you don't start pulling your weight.”

But Daddy would've never done such a thing. He didn't want to admit that he loved that stupid bird. He did. Later that year, we found Don's white feathers scattered all over the yard, I saw Daddy cry.

After we'd finished planting the trees, we looked at the mini-orchard in the low sun. Daddy let me sip his beer. Don wandered back and forth, grunting.

The pecans sat in long rows, straight and neat. Like a little army.

"One day," said Daddy. "Maybe these things'll make a little money."

I was too tired to care whether they ever would. We'd worked so hard, I was half-delirious.

Daddy finally looked at me and said, “These trees'll outlive me. One day, they'll be huge. Hell, maybe I'll…

“My parents were in love,” my friend says. “I used to think everyone's parents were like that. But I know that's not how it goes .

They were married a long time. Sixty-seven years to be exact.

My friend's daddy had a voice like a tuba, and a drawl as thick as sorghum syrup. The man was as tall as a pine, and about as skinny, too.

When he met her, she was an eighteen-year-old, non-English-speaking Mexican. His daddy: just out of the Army—without any idea of what he wanted in life.

Fate happened on the day my friend's father saw some hoodlums harassing a Mexican girl and her two young sisters, outside a cafe in Atlanta. The men made horrible gestures toward the girls. My friend's father intervened and got his hindparts whooped. The fight broke his ribs, but he claimed the girl's brown eyes were worth it.

Theirs was an ill-conceived relationship. Not only did both families oppose the marriage. But neither of the lovebirds spoke the other's language. They were as different as it got.

So, they eloped.

Eventually, they learned how to speak to one another. It took years of practice. Whenever they'd visit her

family, his daddy tried his best to speak a fragmented Spanish.

According to my friend, his childhood home was a loving one—with good chicharrones.

In his mother's elderly years, she came down with headaches. Bad ones. My friend said the torment would linger for days. He said his daddy would lay beside her on the bed in a dark room. And, since small noises pained her, his father would just listen to her breathe, his ear against her chest.

“My parents were in love,” my friend says. “I used to think everyone's parents were like that. But I know that's not how it goes .

"When my mama got sick,it was like someone was killing Daddy from the inside out. That's when his Parkinson's got real bad.”

My friend's mother suffered so long that when she passed it was a blessing. But his father wasn't the same…

She's a lady of her time. And her generation regarded chicken and dumplings as more important than college degrees.

"My mind ain't what it used to be,” she said. "Wish you could'a seen me back then, I was smart."

She's ninety-four. Feisty as a pair of sandy underpants. Southern as ham hocks. Her hands look like prunes, she has a severely bad memory.

But she still remembers when we won the Great War. There aren't many like her left.

“My first son was born during a coastal blackout, in Mobile. Hospital was lit up by candlelight. That's war for you.”

She laughed.

“After the war, we felt like we'd triumphed over the Devil. That's when everyone started saying things like, 'I'm proud to be an American,' because we were the good guys.”

She may be forgetful, but she's a cheery little thing. More than anyone I've met in a while. And why wouldn't she be? She can vaguely remember the old world. A world which has disappeared—along with console radios, trumpet music, and hamsteaks.

In her fragmented memories, she still attends baking parties—when women sipped tea and cooked all day in farm kitchens.

"Sometimes," she said. "Four or

five of us still get together and bake bread and cookies... No. Wait. I don't do that anymore do I?"

She cursed herself.

"Sometimes I get confused."

Anyway, what she means is:

She misses those days. When her kids would play in the barn while she tended kitchen. When she and her husband wandered into town with pocketfuls of change, just to take in a double-feature.

Nowadays, it sounds more like an episode of The Andy Griffith Show. Back then, it was a Thursday.

“Everything was less complicated,” she explained. “That's why we were less ugly-acting. Today, folks are miserable. All our kids're sad. Did you know, my granddaughter doesn't even know how to bake. She's too busy."

She scoffed.

“Busy? When I's a girl, we were BUSY baking peach cobblers. Or was it strawberry? No, blackberry."

She's foggy, but she's…

Today is your cotton-picking day. I hope you don't blush easily, because you're about to get the biggest fanfare this solar system has ever seen.

I see a single mother loading four children into her dilapidated car in the Walmart parking lot. They're pitching a fit, screaming bloody murder.

I'm writing this to her, and to everyone like her.

Also, to the unrecognized, who think they're nothing. People you'll never hear about. The unpopular, unknown, and under-appreciated.

The woman who takes her kids to school early , then cleans motel rooms. The waiter I met at Waffle House—who's been sleeping in a recliner ever since his mother died.

To the man in Piggly Wiggly, helping his eighty-eight-year-old daddy shop.

The blind boy I saw on the beach, who said, “Mama! Listen to that water! It's hypnotizing!”

I closed my eyes and sat at the water's edge for thirty minutes. I'll be damned if that kid wasn't right.

To the lady who feeds animals at the no-kill shelter. She might not be famous, but to the dogs she's a Messiah.

I'm speaking to the man whose wife committed suicide. To Raquel, the rape victim who lives in a halfway house. To the immigrant

Mexican boys who pooled money together to buy a bicycle—then gave it to an old man.

To the girl who's pregnant illegitimately, who doesn't know what comes next.

To all underdogs.

To worriers; those who can't stop thinking about money. To the lonely, widows, widowers, orphans, and caregivers.

To the arthritic, the injured, and those who can't remember life without aches.

To addicts, who are clean. To addicts who aren't.

To people who quit believing in Santa. To people who're bad at math. To anyone who likes John Wayne.

To the child I met, who works after school so he can afford food for his little brother. To the girl I know, who decided to be a teacher. To my friend, Charise, who wonders where her dead little girl is.

To you.

You who aren't certain if anyone sees you. Who hopes…

...be your own animal. Wear your bright-colored, funky clothes, scribble your name catty-wampus. Wear your silly hat, and don't take it off until Mama says it's time to shower.

Kids, before I say another word, you should know that I don't give advice—because I don't have any. In fact, I'm still trying to figure out what the hangy thing is in my throat.

But if I DID have advice—which I don't—I'd say this to you, my adolescent pals:

Be who you are.

You might think that's easy. You're wrong. Lots of folks ask you—beg you—to be someone other than you. They don't mean any harm. They've just got deadlines, goals, grand ideas. Or: perhaps they claim to know what's best for you. They don't. You'll have to trust me on that one.

You weren't made to please them.

You were created for everyone—meaning, all mankind. In fact, that's why you're alive. And you aren't any good to humanity if you're pretending to be what some narrow-minded bucket-brain thinks you should be.

How about I say it like this:

I believe everyone is their own sort of animal. Me? I've always been a red squirrel. Squirrels are meant to climb trees, sleep all day, avoid

residential dogs, and let all other woodland creatures feed them. It's how we're made.

Squirrels are NOT meant to tow wagons—like pack mules. They aren't meant to swim rivers, burrow in dirt, or fly south for winters. And we're certainly not meant to write. But some of us do.

Anyway, we're squirrels. We have fat cheeks, beady eyes, and poor timing when it comes to oncoming traffic. It would be a crime to pretend we were, say, Labradors. After all, dogs don't climb trees. Just like monkeys don't balance checkbooks. And raccoons can't operate my barbecue grill—even though those little hellions have tried.

Thus, be your own animal. Wear your bright-colored, funky clothes, scribble your name catty-wampus. Wear your silly hat, and don't take it off until Mama says it's time to shower. Love the people you love—also the ones you don't. Be kind. And…

“Honestly, I didn't understand what white trash was.”

“When you're a kid, you don't know you're white trash," he said. "You don't think about things like that. Hell, I didn't even know we's poor until high school.”

Well. Poorness is all relative. He might've had less than the folks living in Antebellum estates. But his family was wealthier than, say, most raccoons.

“It finally clicked in my brain,” he went on. "Got home from school one day, Daddy said he'd come into a lotta money.”

He laughed.

"Turns out, it was only a few-hundred bucks. He strutted like he was a millionaire. Told me he was gonna buy me a new bedroom, since I's sleeping with my little brothers in the same bed.”

The next thing his daddy did was drive to Montgomery to a family friend's mobile-home dealership. On the rear lot were rusted single-wides, ready for the dump.

“We walked through'em,” my friend said. "Looking for the nicest one, they were disgusting. Rat nests, mildew, just gross.”

After selecting a dilapidated single-wide. His daddy's friend let them have it free—only

charging a few hundred for towing it.

That same evening, when his daddy got home, he invited his work friends over.

He went on, “Daddy and his buddies got drunk and cut one whole side off our house, with chainsaws, while Mama's in the kitchen fixing supper.”

Two nights later, the new trailer arrived. They sandwiched both homes together, connecting them to make a double-wide.

"Having my own room felt like being rich,” he said. “I still had no idea it was so trashy until a kid made fun of me at baseball practice. Honestly, I didn't understand what white trash was. Still, it made me cry.”

Years went by. He grew up. Moved away. He went to college. He did well for himself. He bought nicer clothes, some dental work. Eventually, he was working a pretty good job, making a decent living.

As a grown…

“Gimme a break,” he said, playing on his phone. “You're like everyone else, getting all sappy about the good old days.”

The kid behind the bar asked what type of beer I wanted. It was a fancy place, so I asked what kinds they had. It was a mistake. There were nine hundred varieties—not a Budweiser in sight.

The kid handed me an iPad with a menu on the screen.

And before he filled my glass with fifteen-dollar suds, he said, “Sorry, we don't carry Budweiser. This world has changed on you, bucko.”

Bucko?

As a matter of fact, you're right, kid. You want to know how much it's changed? My school bus used to drop me two miles from my house after ball practice. Miss Lynn, the driver, refused to go down the hilly dirt roads for fear she'd get stuck. And I don't want to get cliche here, but what I'm saying is: I walked to school, uphill, both ways, on gravel and mud. A lot of us did.

Go ahead, laugh.

In the summers, the canopies of live oaks, and sugar maples covered our roads. I know this because Daddy

gave me The Pocket Tree-Encyclopedia. And for each new tree-find, I'd earn a pittance for my piggy bank.

Piggy banks. We had those. They were filled with coins. Anyone below twelve used silver pieces to buy salt peanuts, Coca-Cola, or taffy. Do I sound like a bumpkin yet? Good.

We got sunburned a lot. We sweat even more. Our shoes wore out, quick. We got poison ivy whenever the wind blew. We plucked so many deer ticks from our bodies we quit counting. Our dogs followed us off-leash, and we've been drinking coffee since before we had armpit hair.

Our girls could ride horses and shoot rifles. We spent weekends loping trails and open fields. There were no smartphones, only baseball, fishing, frog-gigging, and racy jokes. We didn't know about kidney-rotting narcotics, only strawberry moonshine. The worst sins were Red Man chew, unfiltered Camels, necking, and beer.

Beer.

If there's a tougher girl out there, I've never seen one.

Little Sidney Woznicki has spent her life in and out of UAB. She's a solid kid with a will of steel, and a smiling face. She has a bad liver.

When she was a baby, she turned yellow, they knew something was wrong. Doctors did operations. Her mother quit her job—just to manage Sidney's medication list.

Life's been hard. While most eleven-year-olds sit in class, slaving on schoolwork, Sidney prepares for her second liver transplant.

During Sidney's last invasive procedure, her anesthesia didn't work. They say folks heard her screaming from the waiting room.

If there's a tougher little girl out there, I've never seen one.

But you won't find this family complaining, even though their money is disappearing, along with their energy. In fact, according to the Woznickis, “We are so thankful...”

Thankful.

Josh Clem is a Marine. Also tough. He could crawl through acres of mud with a rifle between his teeth. A few months ago, he married Brianna, and since then, they've been glued at the hip.

Last week, on their way home,

Josh had to stop the car. His head hurt. They rushed him to the ER. Doctors discovered blood vessels in his brain were rupturing.

Yesterday, surgeons finished a risky brain surgery. Josh is laying in bed right now—Brianna by his side. This has been a long few weeks. Not much sleep, lots of worry.

The couple says they're grateful.

Jasper, Alabama—Mitch Murray is like any crimson-blooded Alabama man. He likes big trucks, football, fishing, and thinks Bear Bryant is a member of the Holy Trinity.

But he's different now.

After a car accident and a brain injury, Mitch can't walk, eat, or talk. To make matters worse, his insurance company dropped him. His wife, Tracy, is perhaps the most hopeful, cotton-picking woman you'll ever meet.

"All things're possible," she says. “I let him know how much I love him, and will always be here…

...I don't know what happens when people die. I'd like to think we go to a big party up yonder. A place with rodeos, big symphonies, kids born into normal families.

I knew a man who lived in a tent with his twelve-year-old son. He was plumb crazy. The real kind of crazy. He camped in the woods and wouldn't accept money from anyone.

Sometimes, his son would wander into the church next door during potlucks.

The kid's daddy had a heart attack. The last day we saw the boy, a few of us gave him a Tupperware container full of cash—since we didn't know what else to do. The boy just looked at us. I've never felt so pathetic.

He finally said, “God bless you, guys.”

If he's still alive, that child is a man today.

Another fella I knew: he was a rodeo king. We'd drink beer together. I'd ask him about the old days. He'd tell me about the steel pins in his hip, plate in his skull, neck fusion, and spinal surgeries. God, could he rope.

When they diagnosed him with prostate cancer, he retired from the circuit and started working at a hardware store.

Once he told me, “The hardest part about

dying is wishing I could'a done a few things different.”

Hardly anyone came to his funeral. I sat beside his daughter. They put his ashes in a saddle bag.

His daughter said to me, “I thought more people would'a shown up. God bless you for coming.”

My friend Davey and I painted houses. But he wasn't a house-painter. Long ago, he taught music at Auburn University. Symphonic composition. The man had orchestras playing in his brain.

He was bad to drink.

Sometimes, I'd visit his one-room apartment and find him face-down in his vomit. He told me once, “It ain't me who drinks, it's my demons. I just can't kill them.”

He was purple when the paramedics found him.

His landlady and I stood watching the ambulance taillights disappear. “God bless poor old Davey," she said.

Look, I don't know what happens when people…