It was one of the gifts the Good Lord gave him to make up for his heron legs. In high school, he’d pitched so fast that catchers used to tuck sponges into their mitts.

I'm on a screen porch with a radio. I’m listening to the Braves play Detroit in a spring-training baseball game. There’s a ghost with me. One I haven't seen in a long time.

The ghost makes remarks at the radio.

“If they had a good bullpen, they might have a chance this season…” he says.

Today, the ghost is chatty, I can't hear the game over his talking.

“Hey," the ghost goes on. "Remember the time we played ball after your grandaddy's wake?”

Of course I do.

"I was REALLY something, wasn't I?" says the ghost. I can’t see his face, but I know he’s grinning.

And he's right. He was impressive. That afternoon, the men in the family got up a ball game. They played in an alfalfa field. My cousin played catcher. My daddy stood on a dirt mound, pitching. A longneck bottle beside his feet.

The game wasn't serious—it was a disorganized free-for-all. Kids alongside men. A second-grade girl playing shortstop.

That is, until one cousin stepped to the plate.

He was the same age as Daddy.

And I'll bet there's one like him in every American clan. A fella everyone praises. He’s nice-looking, played college ball, drives a nice car. Perfect teeth.

Gag me.

My father paled in comparison. He was a steelworker with long legs that didn’t fit his body. His clothes hung off his tall frame. He sweat for a living. The closest he ever got to college ball was watching the Sugar Bowl.

But, by damn, did he have an arm.

It was one of the gifts the Good Lord gave him to make up for his heron legs. In high school, he’d pitched so fast that catchers used to tuck sponges into their mitts.

Perfect Teeth stood at homeplate. And that's when the air got cold. The two middle-aged men stared each other down. If this game would've taken place a hundred…

Have you seen what’s on television? This country is in the worst trouble we’ve been in and you’re talking about happy-go-lucky (double bleep)…

DEAR SEAN:

I just read a few things you wrote, and I have to say that I refuse to see life through the rose-tinted glasses you obviously wear. I can’t agree with the bull (bleep).

Have you seen what’s on television? This country is in the worst trouble we’ve been in and you’re talking about happy-go-lucky (double bleep)…

The last thing we need is another ignorant redneck on Facebook telling everyone how great things are... So go back to your cornfield and just shut the (unprintable word) up.

Regards,

CALLING IT LIKE I SEE IT IN BIRMINGHAM

DEAR BIRMINGHAM:

Firstly: Nice to meet you. Remind me to invite you to my annual coon roast and rat-killing party. I'd like you to meet my uncle—who holds the national award for most tobacco-spit stains on a truck interior.

Secondly: I can bear being called a redneck—I come from a long line of men with farmer tans and bad handwriting.

But ignorant.

I would rather be quartered with a cheese grater and strung up in front of the A&P.

Look, maybe you’re right about the world. Maybe this is

the biggest trouble we’ve ever known.

Maybe when my great-great grandaddy marched in the Battle of Cumberland Church—during a time of 620,000 civil soldier-deaths on American soil—it was only child’s play.

Maybe the Great Depression itself—a period when those fancy Birmingham subdivisions were once pinewood poverty shacks full of starving kids—was peanuts compared to this.

Maybe the Second World War—60 million deaths worldwide—was a walk in the park compared to your Facebook feed.

Maybe.

But does that mean I should ignore those like Kiera Larsen? She died shoving a toddler out of the path of an oncoming SUV. She ran in front of the vehicle, screaming. The toddler lived.

Kiera was 10 years old.

Or: Lourdes Sanchez, the black newborn whose drug-addict parents left her in a dumpster. She got adopted by a Mexican-American…

"Our lives have changed," she said. "Instead of being the helper, I've become the helpee, something I'm not used to..."

Poteet, Texas—they don’t get too worked up in this town. There’s not much going on. It’s a place with almost three thousand folks. Lots of dust. Windmills. Rural highways. Rusty tractors.

The city's water tower is painted like a strawberry since the town's claim to fame is being the strawberry capital of Texas. That, and this is George Strait's hometown.

This place is also home to Ike Brown.

You’d like Ike. Most people do. He’s got personality, charm, class. He enjoys cowboys, Buzz Lightyear, and using the potty. Ike is two years old.

Two weeks ago, he began having stomach pains. At first, his mother, Stephanie, didn’t think much about it. Tummy aches are as much a part of childhood as cowboys and Indians. Only, the pain didn’t go away.

A few days later, Ike was in a bed at Children’s Methodist in San Antonio. They found a tumor outside his bladder.

It was a shock.

His mother says, “Sunday, I was giving him ibuprofen. Monday, the hospital was giving him morphine...”

A community started praying.

What followed was

Hell Week. Monday and Tuesday were nothing but meds and tests. Wednesday: a biopsy—which wasn’t exactly a Texas waltz. Thursday: an MRI, a CT scan. Specialists said the cancer had probably spread. They believed it to be an aggressive type. Twenty percent survival.

The word nightmare comes to mind. But, it's not a strong enough word.

“He’s been so tough,” Stephanie says. “Nurses refer to him as ‘The Rockstar.’”

Which is an understatement. George Strait has nothing on this cowboy.

Ike's mother made camp inside his hospital room. She fielded calls, texts, emails. She lived on coffee and trays of lukewarm food. People visited, some brought gifts. Everyone said a prayer.

Friday, she left the hospital for the first time in almost a week. After her eyes adjusted to the sunlight, she took time to do the things responsible mothers…

..the woman whose father once molested her, and scarred her face with a razor blade... Claims, "I don't have bad days when I'm busy making sure others have good ones."

A gas station. I buy one sweet tea, two scratch-off lotto tickets. The first ticket is a loser. The second: I win a hundred stinking bucks.

I almost hyperventilate. This has only happened one other time in my life—the hundred bucks, not the hyperventilating.

The cashier hands me a hundred-dollar-bill. I don't usually carry paper money anymore. This represents all the cash I have. And it's enough to buy breakfast.

So, I drive a few miles down the road.

My waitress is a nine-year-old. She’s all smiles, and her yellow apron is too big.

“Two eggs over medium, please,” I tell her.

“Two. Eggs. Oh. Ver. Mee. Dee. Yum,” says Tiny, writing on a notepad.

I order a biscuit, too. She needs help spelling.

Tiny runs to the kitchen. I see her older sister at the grill—twelve, maybe thirteen years old. They’re discussing the confusing nuances of my order.

Tiny's mother brings her to my table. “Sir," says Tiny. "What exactly does ‘over medium’ mean?”

I explain—soft yellow, hard white. She yessirs me and I feel like Methusela's uncle.

But I'm in a good

mood. Just yesterday, I stopped at an antique store near Greenville, Alabama. They had everything from old Jimmy Carter campaign posters, to Depression-era fishing reels.

The lady behind the counter asked me, “You like Indians?" Then she showed me a collection of miniature hand-carved wooden chiefs.

She handed me one. The brave wore Sunday feathers and held a tomahawk.

"My granddaddy carved this," she said. "You can have it.”

"Really?"

"Yeah, I got a million of'em. I give'em away sometimes. It's what he would've wanted."

I had a granddaddy who carved.

A few minutes later: my friend called. He said he's expecting his first child. This is big news. Five years ago, the doc told his wife she was barren. He cried on the phone.

Then, this morning: a hundred-dollar bill for a man who never has…

He told me about his ambitions, he had several. He wanted to be a songwriter. He wanted to quit playing crummy out-of-state gigs. He wanted to be somebody that made his daughter proud.

We weren’t good friends. We were too different to be close. But we worked together, traveled together. There was no getting away from him.

I guess that sort of made us friends.

He drank too much and smoked too much. He did harder stuff nobody knew about. But his personality was inviting. He could make friends with a doorknob.

He’d grown up tough on the outskirts of Atlanta. As a boy, he learned to play guitar, and he picked the hell out of it. It took him places.

He was close with his mother. She came to his gigs. She never missed, she'd sit front-row.

She killed herself before he was full-grown. After her funeral, he spiraled downward.

When we worked together, he was trying to get his life together. He had a new wife, a new daughter. Both were blonde with curls. He wrote songs about them.

He started going to church, he even joined a Bible Study.

Once, we worked in North Carolina for a week. Asheville. It was late spring. Jacket weather. We had the daytime to ourselves so we went

for drives—he couldn’t sit still for longer than a cigarette.

We landed on twelve-hundred mountainous acres that belonged to Billy Graham himself. I drove, he took in scenery. It was the first time I’d known his mouth to run quiet.

A chapel sat on a rocky hill. We stopped. The building was unlocked and empty. Wood floors, maple pews. Billy Graham’s picture was on the wall.

“You reckon Billy Boy ACTUALLY preaches here?” he said.

“Maybe.”

The chapel had a postcard view, overlooking God’s country.

“You think people who kill themselves go to heaven?” he finally asked.

“Yes.”

“Really?”

“No doubt in my mind.”

He spoke of his mother. He was past the crying stages, and he wasn’t angry, either. In fact, he seemed a little hopeful.

He told me about his ambitions, he had several.…

The two-man band plays something slow. Her voice is older than the brunette's, but she sings with more conviction.

Somewhere south of Montgomery—a girl sings on a barroom stage. She’s college-age. Brunette. Her family plays backup. Her daddy is on bass. Brother plays guitar.

She doesn’t do the American Idol act—no vocal gymnastics, no hair flinging. This girl sings Patsy Cline with her eyes closed.

A loudmouth in the crowd makes a gross remark. Her daddy stops playing. A man who weighs as much as a Pontiac bounces the would-be rowdy.

I’ve never visited this place before, but I’ve been to hundreds like it. There’s a spot like this on every American rural route. A glowing sign. Trucks parked around a cinderblock building. Broken cigarette machines.

My fellow Baptists hate this kind of den. But it's a good place to find honest lyrics.

The guitarist speaks into the mic, he calls the bartender to the stage. The crowd of mostly men cheer.

The bartender is a bottle-blonde, early-fifties, pink T-shirt. She’s got a dry voice that sounds like Virginia Slims.

She waited on me earlier. She had the bottle-cap off before I finished saying, "Budweiser." She said her name, but I couldn't

hear over the noise.

The two-man band plays something slow. Her voice is older than the brunette's, but she sings with more conviction.

“In the Sweet By and By,” is her first number. Then, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”

By now, men have placed bottles on flat surfaces. We’re at the Meeting House.

She finishes with “Old Rugged Cross.” And if there’s a dry eye in the county, it’s probably made of glass.

She’s behind the bar again, refilling peanuts, dumping ashtrays. I tell her how much her singing moved me.

All she says is: “Thanks, hun.”

I press my luck and ask where she learned to testify like that.

She laughs. “My dad was a traveling minister. My whole family sang. We went from church to church, it’s how we survived.”

They sang four-part harmony…

Now, she helps folks who are near the end. It’s a heavy job, watching people die. But they say she has a gift for making it easier.

Hospice nurses work like dogs. But then, this woman has never been a stranger to work.

She's got strong eyes and wrinkles. Before she landed this gig, she was a hotel maid, raising two children. It was a tough life, but her kids ate.

Then her mother got sick.

“I sat with Mama every day at the end,” she said. “Our hospice nurse was off-the-chain awesome. If not for her, I don’t know how I woulda gotten through."

Her mother died in the morning. It was raining. The world turns ugly when people die.

That afternoon, she sifted through her mother's belongings. She found her mother’s framed high-school diploma. The glass was broken.

“That’s when it hit me,” she said. “Mama always wanted me to go to college. You know, have the opportunities she never had. Well hell, I never could. We'd always been so poor."

Well hell.

Anyway, she hadn't always been a hotel maid. At eighteen, she'd fallen into the role of a wife. He was a pipe-fitter. She gave him two kids and hamburger steaks

over rice each night. Things weren't great, but they were okay.

One day, he didn't come home. He sent his girlfriend to collect his things. There was a fight. Cops were involved.

She moved in with her mother, she looked for jobs in the newspaper. After a few years of making hotel beds, they were almost a happy family. Almost.

Then her mother’s diagnosis.

"It felt like my life was over," she said. "I was like, 'God, how much more $%#* can you throw at me?'"

So she threw it right back where it came from.

She enrolled in community college. She applied for student aid. She worked full-time, studied. She managed to keep everyone fed.

Her seventeen-year-old son contributed toward rent, her thirteen-year-old daughter cooked. At night, she helped the kids do homework. And when she opened nursing textbooks, they helped…

He’s a nice man, but I can tell he borderlines on being grumpy.

He’s old, sitting outside the restaurant on a bench. He's got white stubble on his face, shoes that have no laces, and a tattered ball-cap.

If I am lucky enough to see old age, I will wear a tattered ball-cap.

I sit beside him. I'm meeting a friend for lunch here. There's a fifteen-minute wait.

“You believe this great weather?” the old man says.

And the conversational ice is broken. Elderly fellas are experts at small talk. A lost art in today's age.

One day, I want to sit outside lunch joints and make remarks about the weather.

We talk. I learn that he's waiting for his daughter. He hasn’t seen her in a long time. She lives a few hours away. They’ve tried to meet for lunch several times, it never works. She's busy. So he drove to her.

He asks what I do for a living. I ask him the same thing.

He says, “Used to be a mechanic, owned my own garage. Never been so happy to retire. Everyone thinks you’re trying to screw’em when you own a garage. Life’s

too short.”

One day, God-willing, I will finish all my sentences with, “Life’s too short.”

During our chat, he checks his watch a dozen times. The hostess tells him there's a table ready. He answers, “No thanks, I’m still waiting on someone.”

He’s a nice man, but I can tell he borderlines on being grumpy.

But when he tells me about his kids, all signs of grumpiness vanish. He talks about his daughter—she's an interior decorator for famous people whose names he can't remember. He tells me how many grandbabies he has. Three.

His cellphone rings.

He slides on reading glasses to answer. He shouts into the receiver. “Can I help you?”

I will answer phones by shouting.

He listens. He frowns. “Of course, darling," he says. "Oh, sure, I understand. No, don’t worry. We’ll do it…

I pulled over for each whimper. Ellie Mae would leap from the vehicle and leave her signature on Arkansas, Mississippi, and every pasture in Alabama.

I traveled four states with a coonhound riding shotgun. She sat between me and my wife. She's a big dog—four hundred pounds of fur, stink, slobber, and hot breath.

She gets restless.

I pulled over for each whimper. Ellie Mae would leap from the vehicle and leave her signature on Arkansas, Mississippi, and every pasture in Alabama.

We spend the night at a KOA, since Marriotts frown on hound dogs drinking from their toilets. Our small cabin is near a pond overrun with geese.

Don—KOA campground host and the man who gets to drive the golf-cart—says, “Better watch them geese, they'll steal food off your table if you ain't careful.”

A few kids feed the birds with white bread. Ellie notices them. She takes the opportunity to go introduce herself. Ellie reasons that any child who would feed geese, would certainly feed a malnourished canine.

I sit on the porch and let her go.

Don relaxes in his golf cart. He wears a yellow KOA T-shirt and Georgia cap. He reaches into a cooler. “You want a beer?”

You

don’t get that kind of service at Marriotts.

Don is from Georgia. He and his wife travel the KOA circuit, working for peanuts and rent-free living.

He has a friendly face. And when he talks, he sounds like a trotline across the Coosa.

“Used to have a dog just like yours,” he says. “When I first seen her, brought back memories.”

Even though he's smiling, I recognize the look he’s wearing. I’ve buried enough good dogs to know it.

His late hound's name was Van. Her formal name was Savannah, but in this part of the world, dog-names are shortened to the fewest possible syllables.

Take me, for instance, I once had a Lab named Hurley Josiah. I called him Jo. He slept in my bathtub. A good boy. Hated thunder.

Another dog: Boone Bear. His nickname was Boo. I watched…

He fingerpicks the tune, “I’ll Fly Away.” And even though I've never met this man, I know him. Just like I know all the verses to this song. It's a melody which sounds like a hymn, but isn't. It's more than that.

He plays a banjo downtown, Crestview, Florida. He’s a big fella, thick-bearded, with a personality so jolly he makes Santa look like a jerk.

“Whatcha want me to play?” he asks a few kids.

Somebody's mother asks, "Do you know ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken?’”

He does. And he plucks through it like a man whose beard is on fire. He plays this music like he belongs in a different world. An older one.

The world your great-grandparents came from—long before twenty-four-hour news channels.

He was homeless for a long time, and it's been hard on his body. He uses a wheelchair. Once, he even died on an operating table from a collapsed lung.

But he's a cheery son of a banjo.

He fingerpicks the tune, “I’ll Fly Away.” And even though I've never met this man, I know him. Just like I know all the verses to this song. It's a melody which sounds like a hymn, but isn't. It's more than that.

It's a rural church, with wood floors. Where preaching is more like shouting, and the

pastor rolls up his sleeves to pray for folks.

It's a funeral procession made of cars with headlights on.

The music is salt peanuts in Coca-Cola, straw hats, and side-of-the-road boiled-peanut shacks.

Like the peanut stand I stopped at last week, outside Dothan. The old man filled my bag until I needed a forklift to move it.

“It's on the house,” the man said.

I paid him anyway.

The banjo-man isn't playing for onlookers at all. He's playing for men who hunted coon with oil lanterns, and women who could grow camellias in red clay dirt—and did.

Women like Miss Flora, whose hair is whiter than Elvis’ Resurrection suit. Who still remembers when the biggest news in the universe wasn't Facebook politics, it was a war in Europe.

“During the Great War,” Miss Flora says—tapping her foot to the banjo rhythm.…