He stopped walking and looked straight at the sky—so clear and empty it looked fake. From where I stood, his lanky frame was black against the sun.

This was not altogether unusual for my father, he was an iron worker. He spent his days stick-welding, walking steel beams that were decidedly more terrifying than this.

This was not altogether unusual for my father, he was an iron worker. He spent his days stick-welding, walking steel beams that were decidedly more terrifying than this.

We drove backroads, a cloud of dust kicking up behind us. Daddy wore his smudged-up work clothes. He looked out the windshield. Neither of us said much.

While he drove, we stared at the fields and farmland zipping past our windows. Such things have a way of making your mind run quiet. Barns. Farmland. Endless rows of fenceposts.

He turned at the large creek. The old metal bridge looked like a leftover from the heydays of the railroad. He rolled to a stop, then jammed the gearshift into park.

“See this bridge,” he said. “I used to spend a lot of time on this thing, haven't been here

in years.”

He jumped out of the truck. Then, he rapped his knuckles on the iron. A dull ringing suggested this thing was older and tougher than me.

I looked over the edge. It was a long way down.

He leapt onto the iron beam, then scaled to the top. “I used to do this as a boy," he called down. He held his hands outward and walked along like a tight-rope walker.

This was not altogether unusual for my father, he was an iron worker. He spent his days stick-welding, walking…

“We found inventive ways to keep from starving,” the woman says. “Whatever Daddy could do to make money."

The nursing home has a big flat-screen television. And at ten in the morning, you can find white-haired women sitting in front of it, expressionless. TV blaring.

The woman to my left turns and asks, "Have you seen my daughter? I think she's coming today."

"Sorry, ma'am. Haven't seen her."

On TV: a fitness model explains the paramount importance of the perfect beach-body. This girl looks like she's made of plastic and Spandex.

The elderly woman has no problem talking over the noise. “HEY! That girl on television looks like my daughter. Do you know if my family's coming today?"

Fitness-girl is doing step-ups, and punching the air.

The

old woman goes on, "We didn't have time to exercise in my day. My daddy was a cotton-mill worker. We didn't know where our next meal was coming from. By the time I's fourteen, we'd moved twenty-one times around Alabama."

Now the girl on TV is demonstrating how to tone buttocks by squatting on a chair. “MY BUTT," the girl is saying, "is the most ESSENTIAL part of my being..."

The woman ignores the television. "I had a friend when I's young, she invited me and my little brother for supper.…

The words of his antique songs wouldn't make much sense in today's world. After all, it's difficult to understand songs about poverty while listening to them on a seven-hundred-dollar smartphone.

"Boy, there was a time when the only way to hear a song was to watch a man sing it. And if you liked it, the only way to own it was to learn it."

"Boy, there was a time when the only way to hear a song was to watch a man sing it. And if you liked it, the only way to own it was to learn it."

It sounded like a flock of dying cats. Whining, howling, singing voices, accompanied by out-of-tune guitars and laughter.

It was marvelous.

My neighbor. His family was in town for the holiday weekend. While their grill smoked, they sat on the porch working up a good beer-glow, singing.

I sat outside, my ear cocked toward them.

They sang tunes like: “Uncloudy Day,” or, “Peace in the Valley.” And when they got to “I Come To The Garden,” somebody's wife joined in and put them all

to shame. She knew every verse.

I remember my grandaddy saying once, “Record players stole common folks' voices."

As a five-year-old, all I could do was reflect on this, and answer, "Did you know butterflies can taste with their feet?"

Which is true.

He ignored me and went on, "Boy, there was a time when the only way to hear a song was to watch a man…

I think children should hear it more. Telling someone you love them has a way of making you feel exposed. I wish more folks were brave enough to feel that.

“We use the word, love, too much,” the obnoxious man seated next to me is saying. “The word's almost meaningless today. Nobody uses it right.”

Nice. Four hours on an airplane, and here I am, seated next to a philosopher who smells like Wild Turkey.

"Are you an English teacher, or something?" I'm asking.

“No,” he points out, with slurred speech. "I'm juss a concerned citizen." He laughs, hiccups. "AND a literature professor."

Cute.

The man goes on, “In America, we say we LOVE tacos, or we LOVE donuts... It's just too strong.”

Well, it bears mentioning: if loving donuts is wrong, I'm fully prepared to be incorrect.

Anyway, I disagree

with the esteemed professor. Not only because when he walks to the bathroom, he staggers like a sedated rhinoceros. It's because I like saying, "love."

It's my favorite word.

For example: I LOVE handmade biscuits. And I LOVE a good night's sleep. I love music that doesn't involve teenagers in tight pants, and dogs who beg using only their eyes. I LOVE antiques, Corningware, old wood, and ceiling-fans.

Or, how about the way the morning sun peeks over the trees? Before the rest of the world is awake? I…

“At nineteen, you think you're just gonna do your time in the military, get out, and carry on with your life. But Vietnam screwed everything up.

O beautiful for heroes proved, in liberating strife. 
Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life...

O beautiful for heroes proved, in liberating strife. Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life...

Carl, 92, U.S. Army: “During the war, we had everyone pulling for us at home, and we knew it, too. Even movie stars were rooting for the troops. Those were different times.

“As soldiers, there were moments, between the fighting, over in Europe, that we talked about personal things, stuff you don't never tell nobody else. There's a kind of bond between men who know they're going to die, a deep one. I just couldn't describe it.”

Phillip, 86, U.S. Air Force: “Shoot, I didn't even know what the Korean conflict was when I joined up. But, well, wherever they send you, you gotta go. I

wasn't too worried about it. In hindsight, I should'a been. Those were the worst years of my entire life.”

Johnny, 67, U.S. Army: “When I enlisted, I was only nineteen, man. I wasn't trying to be a good American. All I cared about was girls. Guys in uniforms got girls.

“At nineteen, you think you're just gonna do your time in the military, get out, and carry on with your life. But Vietnam screwed everything up.

“When I came back, I couldn't sleep indoors. I was twenty-four, spending the night in my mama's backyard—with…

Sadness is in the atmosphere. Even if you were to turn off your television and unsubscribe to the paper, it would crawl through your shower drains and toilets.

Birmingham, Alabama—a minor league baseball game, a well-attended one. The chatty boy sitting next to me said his name was Martin. I remember this because he said it over and over again.

Martin had Down syndrome, he wore a hearing aid, and spoke loud enough to rupture my eardrums. “MY NAME'S MARTIN!” he pointed out again.

I must've shaken his hand ninety-seven times.

After the fourth inning, they put Martin's face on the jumbo screen. It was his birthday. Five thousand folks sang to him. I don't think I've ever seen a smile that big on a human-being before.

“I love you, Martin,” said his father beside him.

Martin was ten years old.

Tuscaloosa, Alabama—it costs a small fortune for a parking spot at football games. That is, if you're lucky enough to find one. We drove slow, looking for free space to cram the truck into. A middle-aged man in his yard flagged me down. I lowered my window.

“You can park here,” he said. “On my lawn.”

“How much?” I asked, waiting for a four-digit number.

“Free. I have

a golf-cart, too. I'll even give you a ride to the stadium.”

My wife leaned over to whisper, "Honey, he might be an axe murderer."

Maybe, but this axe murderer had a golf-cart.

I tried to pay the man for his trouble. He said, "Save your money for someone who needs it."

Chatanooga, Tennessee—I saw a girl spill a Frapuccino on her skirt. It went everywhere. She didn't cry about it—though she was close.

Without skipping a beat, the young lady behind the counter came to mop up the mess. She brought a change of clothes. “They're clean,” she said. “I haven't worn them yet.”

“I can't take your clothes," said the other girl.

“Sure you can. Besides, they'll look better on you. You're prettier than I am.”

Well. Pretty is as pretty does.

The older I get, the…

Then, they'd visit the cooler, saying, “'Nother beer?” Which was only a formality—the speaker already had four in his hand before anyone answered.

It was always hot. So hot, your britches were always a little on the damp side. And whenever you hugged your aunt, your wet skin slipped against hers.

And then there was the guitar. My uncle could make it sing. I don't think I've ever seen anything so mesmerizing as when he picked out, “When We All Get To Heaven.”

I made him sing that tune a hundred times.

Behind us sat the iron beast, with smoke puffing from its stack. Four men sat directly behind it. From time to time, they'd shovel smoldering hickory into its belly, frowning.

Then, they'd visit the cooler, saying, “'Nother beer?” Which was

only a formality—the speaker already had four in his hand before anyone answered.

And baseball. My cousins played catch with Daddy. They remarked on what an arm he had. They'd lob the ball at him. He catch it, spin around like he was turning a double play, then fire back.

My cousin flung his glove off and moaned, “Geez, that one hurt my hand.”

It was one of the only times Daddy felt exceptional.

Beneath the big oak were folding tables, topped with foil-covered casserole dishes. If you so much as…