I bid them goodnight. She tried to pay me for gas. I refused.

I have a thing about railroad crossings. I like them. Once, I sat parked at one for twelve minutes, watching freight car after freight car in the dark.

In my passenger seat: a woman in her thirties, Mexican, ninety-five pounds sopping wet. Her children mixed—looking more black than latino. Her oldest kept asking me, “You gonna stay for cena?”

The other boy chimed in. And pretty soon, they were threatening suicide if the seventeen-year-old with red hair didn't stay for supper.

Hers was a bad neighborhood; the area had gone to pot. It might've been nice once-upon-a-time, but the front porches had bars on the windows.

I sat in her

den while she, her aunt, and her cousin cooked.

Her boys showed me their toys—different-colored blocks of wood. They were building a city. The youngest was King Kong, smashing the metropolis to pieces. A stray block hit his brother on the lip. That did it.

King Kong died, right there.

Supper was Hamburger Helper. Not the good kind, but the cheap, off-brand variety. I've eaten expired hog livers that tasted better. Her sons went back for seconds. King Kong led the charge.

I helped with dishes. It was a manual…

“Sometimes,” she said. “You just connect with certain kids. That's how it was with him. I had to help him.”

I don't care if you believe in heaven. But I hope you believe in angels. If you don't, you owe it to yourself to visit a school. You'll see plenty.

And I'm not talking about kids, but about folks who know how to swat hindparts, kiss bruises, and are familiar with the conflict at Valley Forge.

I know one such teacher. Long ago, he was a rambunctious kid, with a proclivity toward accidents. We called him, Shinbone—he busted his shin into three pieces sliding into first base.

We signed his cast, “Get well you ornery little shin.”

Nowadays, he goes by another name. One much more coordinated-sounding. And to his students, he's about as cool as Frigidare. He teaches science and history. He used to coach middle-school football, too, but parents didn't think it was fair letting every child with a bellybutton on the team.

Parents.

Anyway, with his first eighth-grade class, he made a promise to students. If everyone got A's, he swore to shave his head, right there in class. If their combined

average was less than A, he would shave their heads.

On the last day of school, they scalped him like a bunch of Comanches.

I have another teacher friend. She tells me during her first year teaching high-school, one boy's mother overdosed.

She attended the funeral. When she arrived, there were only three people in the room attending the service.

“Mine was the only name in the guestbook,” she told me. “Broke my heart.”

She encouraged the boy to go to college, and even helped him get a football scholarship. That child went on to participate in a national playoff.

And if that doesn't make you feel older than shin, here's another:

I know a woman who had a Mexican boy in her second-grade class. The boy showed up unable to speak a word of English.

“Sometimes,” she said. “You just connect with certain kids.…

Jeremy— “Yeah, okay. My happiest moment. Let's see. Once, I watched the sun come up, sitting on top a three-story office building in Atlanta, that morning my wife had called to tell me she was pregnant. Almost passed out. Happiest moment of my life.”

Carter— "A happiest moment? Hmmm. Well, I always wanted to be in a band, but never got the chance. My daughter started playing music at church, couple years ago. They're guitar player bailed, so she told her friends, 'Hey, my dad plays.' I got to share my lifelong dream with my daughter. That was pretty cool.”

Greg—"Happiness to me is when my son and I go turkey hunting. He's a diabetic, it can make college kinda hard for him. But out there, he's just a normal guy. Last time, he killed a twenty-eight-pound gobbler. I was ecstatic.”

Rosalie—“Sure, I'll tell you a happy story. I was at a farmer's market buying stuff when we opened our restaurant, years ago. In back, I saw this guy with a baby pig and some chickens he was selling.

So I bought the pig. My mom was like, 'A pig? What're you gonna do with a pig?" Best pet I ever had. He's eight now.”

Darlene—“Well, after my dad got diagnosed with stage-four cancer, Mom rented a cabin in the mountains for a month. Our family stayed there, to be near him during treatment. We had so much fun. We rode four-wheelers, played games... Funny, how the worst part of your life can also be the happiest. I miss him.”

Me—What makes me happy? Stories. I'm not exactly sure how it happened, but stories have changed my life. I've made friends I never knew were out there.

In fact, on quests for decent stories, I've visited retirement homes, schools, kitchens, farms, trailer parks, small towns, churches, hospitals, beer joints, barbecue joints, and one Willie Nelson concert. I've met people stronger than I…

“I never knew my real parents,” he said. “I was adopted, I figured that out when I was young.”

I'm not supposed to tell you this story. Even so, the man who told it to me doesn't think his mother would mind.

I can't tell you his name, but I can tell you he's a silver-haired Georgia boy, with the vibrant personality of a tailgate party.

“I never knew my real parents,” he said. “I was adopted, I figured that out when I was young.”

He had a nice life—the only child of a poor woman. He grew up quick, became a roofer. He married a good lady, had three kids. He's retired now.

Something's chewed at him his whole life.

“In high school,” he said. “We did family tree

projects. So, I asked Mama about my genealogy. The only information she knowed was my birthmother's name. So, I looked her up, but was too chicken to call her.”

He's several decades older now. A few years ago, he decided to try again. It led him to his birthmother's youngest son—his half brother.

“She was still alive," he said. "Took me weeks to decide if I really wanted to see her, I was scared.”

So, he drove to Tennessee to find a ninety-something-year-old woman who could hardly walk.

“Soon…

Even so, I don't believe evil is winning. I'm sorry if you disagree—even more sorry if you watch much TV. Because no matter how bad the idiot-box makes it look, I know good people.

Jeni Stephens got married. She's a pretty girl with blonde hair and lean features. It was a happy day, as weddings go. But truth told, she misses her daddy, who was shot and killed in 2006.

Now meet Tom, a seventy-two-year-old who's had a bad heart all his life. One decade ago, he inherited Jeni's daddy's heart.

Last week, Tom showed up to the chapel in a three-piece suit, presented his arm to Jeni, and walked her down the well-known aisle. At the altar, he turned and said, “Here, feel my pulse.”

Jeni touched his chest. “I felt my father,” she said.

As it happens, Tom did too.

LaGrange, Georgia—Dylick, Dennis, Deion, and Jalen are the targets of inner-city gang-recruiters. One such gang, the Insane Gangster Disciples, will not leave them alone. But, these boys aren't giving in. They want more from life than drugs, sex, and drive-bys.

They want to be farmers.

So, they called Miss Zsa Zsa, who operates a farm. “I thought they's looking for handouts," she said.

Turns out they wanted

to learn to grow summer squash. They're the best farm hands she's ever had.

New Orleans, Louisiana—Single father, Reynold, lost his job just before his boys started school. He stood in line at a supermarket with a cart of school-supplies and groceries. He swiped his card.

Denied.

Reynold left his buggy and cried in the parking lot until his face got puffy. When he looked up, he saw a man coming out of the store pushing two carts, headed straight for him.

“He didn't just buy MY cart,” said Reynold. “He gave me HIS cart, too.”

Right now, I can see the television in the other room. The anchor is reading headlines about bombs, murders, and rapes, while wearing a half-smile. A woman convicted of murdering her kids wears the same odd face. So do politicians, celebrities, pop-stars, and whatever the hell the Kardashians are.

Life is funny. She went to school to better her life. Instead she betters everyone else's. And all she asks, is that you don't use her name when you write about her.

Some fool called her, "trash." And that's when she made up her mind. She wanted to better herself, and her family. So, that's what she did.

“That GED test,” she said, while she checked my blood pressure. “That ain't no joke, now. It's tough.”

Her accent is so Alabamian it hurts. She's missing a few teeth, but it doesn't look bad on her. She's old, wiry, but strong.

Where she grew up, country folks didn't go past the eighth grade—still don't. And according to her daddy, “Once a young'un can read, it's time to work.”

Saying this made her laugh.

All six of her brothers dropped out, so

did she. She met a man who worked in a lumber mill, they had two children before she was twenty. She's still with him. She calls him Beater. I don't know why.

When she was twenty-four, Beater suggested she apply for a job at the hospital. She thought this was ridiculous. Hospitals didn't hire poor white trash.

Even so, she inquired. They told her, she needed college. So she called a college. They said she needed a high-school diploma. So she called the high-school. They said she needed a GED.

For…

"Just look at this sunset," she said. "I'm really glad we came this way.”

We sat on my truck hood, watching the sun go down over the Apalachicola Bay.

It was our first date. The exact same day her daddy told me, “Jamie can be as mean as a rattlesnake, but she's good people.”

Then he hollered for her like he was calling hogs for supper. "JAAAAAAMMIIEEEEE!"

She came running down the stairs, her face half made-up, the other half unpainted. “Jeezus, Daddy," she yelled. "I thought something was wrong."

He cackled until he pulled a rib.

That day, we were supposed to do something dating people do. Instead, we ended up driving. We never quit talking long enough to discuss what to do.

So, she chatted about her family, I steered. She hummed a few bars of “Watermelon Crawl." I listened. She knew all the words.

By then, we were a million miles out of town, in the middle of nowhere. I pulled over to buy a tank of gas at a dilapidated station. Of all people, I saw Bobby Donavan—who I used to frame houses with—standing at the gas pump opposite me.

He saw her in the passenger seat, winked at me, and shook his head. “Boy, oh boy,” he said, and…