“When you drive through your hometown and see banners with your son’s name on them, it changes you.”

To the man whose son has cancer. Who sat with me in the public park while we watched his boy swing on monkey bars.

The man who said:

“My son’s cancer turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to us. Made me see how good people are.

“When you drive through your hometown and see banners with your son’s name on them, it changes you.”

To John—the man who adopted five dogs. Whose wife, Mindy, was taken too early. The same man who once encouraged me to keep writing at a time when I needed encouragement.

He probably doesn't even remember that.

To Jennifer, who says most people call her, “Jellybean.”

Jellybean is epileptic. She walks to work since she can’t legally drive. She says that her past relationships haven't lasted because of her condition.

Well, she is on top of the world this week. Her boyfriend is an EMT. He knows how to deal with seizures, and isn’t afraid to help her through them.

He asked Jellybean to marry him last Tuesday at his son’s middle-school band concert.

She said

yes.

To the thirty-four-year-old man with severe autism. I’ll call him Bill. Who was abandoned by his mother. The woman dropped him at an ER and said, “I don’t care what you do with him, he’s not coming back here.”

And to the nurse who adopted Bill. Who didn’t just give him a room in her home, but signed papers to make him family.

He now refers to her as "mom.”

And to my mother. The woman who worked harder than any female I’ve ever made eye-contact with. Who didn’t just raise me, but grew up beside me.

Who endured a husband’s suicide, financial ruin, double shifts, single-parenthood, and late bills. Who survived a disease that almost ruined her.

Who still goes for morning walks with her dog, Sunny, saying prayers under her breath.

And to…

Turn on the TV. Read a paper. Another day; another dogfight between angry old men wearing Italian suits and lapel pins.

I saw you. It was at an old Piggly Wiggly. The kind with swinging doors and neon letters that don’t all light up. I watched you open the door for an old woman who used a walking cane.

You couldn’t have been older than twelve. You swung the door open, then wheeled an empty shopping buggy toward the lady.

You said, “Here you go, ma’am.”

She thanked you. You blushed. It was a fine moment.

I also saw you when you stopped traffic to help that dog. You were driving your FedEx truck, making your route. It was a mutt. Tan and white. A pup with hardly any meat on its bones.

You ran across three lanes of traffic, waving your hands at the cars.

I could read your lips. “STOP! STOP! PLEASE!” you were saying.

Three lanes of traffic rolled to a halt. Our vehicles formed a stand-still line while you coaxed a scared animal out of the center lane.

Once, I saw you help a child in the Home Depot find his mother. The boy was lost. He

walked beside you.

When you found his mother, he ran to her. It was a Hollywood style ending. You stood back several feet to take it all in. Smiling.

And, by God, I saw you.

I saw you pay for that woman’s meal in the Mexican restaurant. The waitress seemed surprised when you suggested it.

She answered, “You wanna do WHAT, sir?”

You whispered, “I wanna pay for that lady’s meal.”

Then, you pointed to a woman across the restaurant. She wore a Hardee’s uniform. She had three kids. They were loud, rowdy, sipping dangerous amounts of caffeine and carbonated sugar.

You paid, then stood to leave. You never got to see the woman’s reaction. But I did. She was shocked. It was all over her face. Before she left, she placed a tip on the table.

Everybody won that…

I just met someone. An invisible someone. A man who—despite whatever his problems may be—isn't lost. A man who knows things. Who smokes used cigars. 

He sits on the steps of the Shell Station. A backpack beside him. His skin is rawhide. His beard is white.

His name is Buck. He’s from North Carolina. He fought in Korea, and completed two tours in Vietnam.

He’s not here begging, he’s resting his feet. 

“My old feet hurt more’n they used to,” says Buck. “It’s a bitch getting old, buddy.”

There is a half-smoked cigar next to him. He dug it from an ashtray. It still has life in it, he says.

He’s sipping coffee.

“First cup’a Joe I had in a week,” he tells me. “Fella gave me a quarter, few minutes ago. Piled my coins together to buy me a cup.”

A quarter.

When Buck went inside to buy it, there were only cold dregs left. He asked the cashier if it were possible to brew a fresh pot. She told him to get lost.

So, he’s drinking dregs—for which he is grateful.

There are holes in his shoes. He found these sneakers in a sporting-good-store dumpster. Buck estimates he’s put nearly eight hundred miles on them.

His bloody toes poke through the

fronts. His middle toenail is missing.

Buck explains, “God say, ‘Don't worry what you’ll eat drink or wear.’ That's hard sometimes. Specially when you ain’t eaten.”

I walk inside the gas station on a mission. I ask the aforementioned cashier to brew a fresh pot of coffee—for me.

She smiles and says, “Sure, sweetie.”

Ain't she nice.

I buy a hot cup, an armful of snacks, and a pack of Swisher Unsweetened Mini-Cigars. I give them to Buck, and I tuck a bill into his hand. I wish I had something bigger, but I don't.

Buck starts crying.

And the truth is, I’m embarrassed to even be telling you this. Because this story isn’t about me—it’s about Buck.

“Did you know that I see God in you?” Buck tells me through glazed…

Her boyfriend didn’t stick around during pregnancy. She was forced to work. Her job was in a hotel laundromat. She was promoted to a maid last year.

Colatta is her name. She and I are in the elevator together. She is pushing a large cart of cleaning supplies and mini shampoos.

Colatta is short, black, cheery. She’s wearing scrubs. She is pure Alabama. She has an accent that won’t quit, and wears a War Eagle headband.

“Went to Auburn,” she says. “Wanted to be a vet, but didn’t even come close to finishing ‘cause I had my son.

"Man, I thought my life was over, it was just beginning.”

Her boyfriend didn’t stick around during pregnancy. She was forced to work. Her job was in a hotel laundromat. She was promoted to a maid last year.

“Have a good day,” she says to me, rolling her cart down a corridor.

“You, too,” I say.

“Me?” She laughs. “Already HAVING me a good day. I’m so blessed it ain’t funny.”

Colatta. I love that name.

Later that day, I drive two hours east. I stop at a cafe inside a gas station. It’s a hole-in-the-wall.

After eating, I pay at the register. The cashier is older, very skinny. She places a handheld vibrating box

to her throat to speak. Her voice is robotic.

She hands me a receipt. Then, she presses the device to her neck again and says: “Have a good day. Enjoy this nice weather.”

There is a gnarled scar beneath her jaw.

And she's wishing ME a nice day.

7:09 P.M.—I’ve driven all day. I’m eating in a locals-only beer joint. People in this room are looking at me funny. I’m an out-of-towner and they smell it.

There’s an old man with a service dog—a brown Lab named Hershey.

The man wears a ball cap with a battleship on it. He shows me a tattoo on his forearm which reads: “Albert, Daniel, Adam.”

“My three brothers,” he says. “Killed in Europe. I was too young for the Big War, they sent me to Korea.”

That’s…

Wood planks were sucked from the boardwalk. I saw a bass boat flying through the air. Lawrence’s face was pink with blood and dirt. My T-shirt had been blown clean off. The sand was slicing through my bare skin. 

DEAR SEAN:

I want to write a love letter to my girlfriend, but I’m not good with words, so excuse the typos, there are probably all kinds in this message!

My Tori walked right into my life after my wife left and she's helped raise my two sons and one daughter like they were her own. She became a mother right off, my lifesaver, and she has always been more than just a girl to me. She’s my angel, I want her to know how much I love her. Oh, and we’re getting married.

Thanks for helping me in advance!
JASON 

DEAR JASON AND TORI:

I have seen a hurricane up close.

I was younger, braver, and infinitely more stupid. My friend, Lawrence, and I parked at a beach. We walked toward the angry shore like a couple of young men with dangerously low IQ's. We watched white water churn in the Gulf.

The windblown sand stung my face and nearly ruined me eyes. I leaned headfirst into the wind and let the force lift my teenage body upward.

Like I said: stupid.

The gusts hoisted me an entire foot off the ground, throwing me backward.

I won’t lie, it felt exhilarating.

That day, the water screamed loud enough to cause deafness. It looked like the world was getting ripped apart.

My friend looked at me and shouted. He was only inches from me, but I couldn’t hear his voice. The roaring water made my eardrums throb.

The sand cut my friend’s cheeks and made blood streaks run across his face. The air became pure saltwater. And though we were standing close, we couldn’t see one another.

The pressure sucked air from my lungs.

Lawrence and I traded excitement for flat-out fear. We’d made a grave mistake. We'd been foolish enough to think we could survive a few minutes in Hell.

Only this was not simply Hell. This was…

A few more things I love: Kathryn Tucker Windham, bottle trees, Magnolia Springs, the color yellow, anything made of oak, slow-moving trains, Hank Williams, American buffalos, and breakfast. 

My mother-in-law is watching television, sipping a milkshake. I’m sitting with her.

She’s slurping so that I can hardly hear the television.

It’s just as well. The folks on TV are hollering at each other about political issues, mass shootings, patriotism, and weather conditions. 

My mother-in-law changes the channel and slurps louder.

Different network. Different newscasters. Same five-dollar issues. She changes it again. More shouting. More shameless slurping.

She flips the channel.

The Home Shopping Network advertises commemorative American-flag lapel pins made from recycled cellphone batteries. Only $19.99. Call now.

My mother-in-law turns the television off. She slurps her milkshake so hard the ceiling is about to cave in.

“You know,” says Mother Mary—the sophisticated voice of 1958, and all-around model American. “TV sucks.”

Truer words have seldom been spoken.

Once upon a time, I enjoyed the idiot box. I don’t anymore. The faces on television talk too much about the gruesome and repulsive. They make commentaries only on things they hate.

I wish more people talked about things they loved.

Like daisies. Why aren’t folks talking about those?

Earlier today, I

pulled over to pick some. I got carried away and picked a whole armful. I wrapped the bundle of stems with duct tape and tossed the bouquet onto my dashboard.

I don’t even know who I picked them for.

You know what else I love? The late great Don Williams. I heard him singing about a woman named Amanda on the radio. I turned it up. The lyrics made me think about a woman I love.

A few more things I love: Kathryn Tucker Windham, bottle trees, Magnolia Springs, the color yellow, anything made of oak, slow-moving trains, Hank Williams, American buffalos, and breakfast.

I love the box of family photographs in my closet. Sometimes, I look at them and revisit black-and-white ancestors I never knew.

I love coffee—black and strong. Hashbrown casserole from Cracker Barrel. And my…

The man playing piano is blind. His eyelids are closed. He plays old favorites. “Sweet Sweet Spirit,” and “Give Thanks,” and “I’ll Fly Away.”

A church fellowship hall in Chumuckla. There’s a serious church buffet happening. Kindhearted women with white hair keep the line moving with serving spoons.

You can’t visit a place like this without seeing white-haired women with serving spoons.

The chicken is exquisite. The fried catfish was caught in the Escambia River. Fried okra, cornbread, biscuits, macaroni and cheese. Ham hocks—seasoned with a few butter beans.

It’s my second time through the food line. The white-hairs ask how we liked our food.

The phrase of the night is one you’ll hear all over the Great American South:

“We enjoyed it.”

It's the unofficial motto of Lower Alabama and the Panhandle.

My wife and I sit on folding chairs. I am wearing seersucker.

It’s funny how life repeats itself. As a boy, my mother would’ve forced me into seersucker and penny loafers for a NASCAR rally. Today, I’m wearing such things of my own volition.

The room is alive with voices—talking and laughing. And, of course, there’s singing. You can’t visit a place like this without singing.

The man playing piano is blind. His eyelids are closed. He plays

old favorites. “Sweet Sweet Spirit,” and “Give Thanks,” and “I’ll Fly Away.”

His hands feel the keys for the next chords. He’s playing through the musical score of my childhood.

He has a nice voice, but he isn't trying to impress listeners. That’s not how we Baptists do. If you’re looking for impressive vocal gymnastics, visit the Assembly of God up the road.

We're singing:

“When the shadows of this life have gone,
“I’ll fly away...”

People hum with mouthfuls of peach cobbler. Even kids who aren’t old enough to ride the Teacups at Disney World sing. Some folks are even brave enough to clap.

You cannot visit a place like this and not clap to “I’ll Fly Away.”

At the end of the night, people hug necks. They talk about what…