She touched her chest and said, "Sometimes words can't say what's in here. So I use other words." Then she commenced to rattling off what sounded like frantic Japanese.

She was a short woman, big as a minute. And each Sunday, she used to hug my neck hard enough to suffocate me.

She had fuzzy white hair, and she wore the same shoes, every week. Red Converse.

She cut hair. Her beauty parlor was a double-wide trailer which she also lived in. Once per month, she lowered my ears and told me Bible stories while she snipped. There, I learned about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Baalam's ass, and Zacchaeus.

The last time I saw her, she was hugging unsuspecting Baptists after church service. She hugged too much, too many, and too often.

I knew what those stiff Baptists thought of her. They thought she was “touched.”

A few mushrooms short of a rice casserole.

Maybe she was, Lord knows she was different. But I liked her. She cut good hair, she told nice stories, and the neighborhood dogs followed her.

Her father had been a Holiness preacher. He beat his kids. Like many Pentecostals, she'd grown her hair waist-length as a girl. But by her teenage years,

she'd wandered astray.

She started listening to Elvis. She stayed out. She took up cigarettes.

She cut her hair off.

Her father kicked her out. He wouldn't even let her take clothes with her. Sixteen years old; on her own.

She never darkened the doors of a Pentecostal congregation thereafter. And I understand she hardly ever spoke to her family.

That's all I know about her.

Except that she often claimed she was too loud to be a good Baptist; too quiet to be a good Pentecostal.

Her husband was neither. He fixed cars for a living. He wasn’t religious, but he attended for her.

After service, he’d smoke cigarettes on the church stoop. He’d roll his sleeves and show us younger sanctified brethren the pinup-girl tattoos on his scrawny biceps. I liked to hear him talk. His voice sounded like a bass…

“The truth is,” Kate said. “I’ve never had much faith in people. I’ve been sarcastic… But this past summer, that changed. I finally see the beauty in this world.”

Another prayer quilt arrived on Kate Rowe's porch. She’s lost count of how many she’s received by mail.

“This one's from Ohio,” she said. “That’s a long way away.”

The Buckeye State is a world away from Quitman. This small Georgia town has little more than a few thousand folks, some antebellum homes, and one hell of a football team.

The quilt is for Kate’s son, Gus. A one-year-old with a tranquil personality, red hair, happy face. When he was born, his calm disposition wasn't a concern. But over time, Kate thought he seemed too relaxed. She's a nurse—she has a sixth-sense.

She took him to a neurologist. It was bad. A brain tumor. Gus needed surgery. And fast.

“Two days later,” said Kate. “We were handing our baby to a group of strangers.”

Surgeons. A specialized surgical team that operated for thirteen hours—through a microscope. And that was only the beginning. For Kate and her husband, life didn't stop because Gus had a tumor. They had jobs.

Money doesn’t exactly grow in windowboxes.

“I called my manager,” she said “I needed

to take leave. My manager was like, ‘You don’t have any paid time off left, honey.’”

That's when it all started.

So, some of Kate’s coworkers had a plan. They surrendered their paid-time-off days to help Kate keep her job. Their charitable ideas caught on. Nearly every employee donated paid vacations.

Then:

Folks started giving money, clothes, shoes, toiletries, coffee. Daily packages began arriving. Baskets of snacks, handwritten letters. Friends in Valdosta sent baby supplies, toys, pillows. From Thomasville: enough gift-cards to fill a fifty-gallon drum.

Someone even donated a furnished apartment near the hospital.

“It was mind-blowing,” she said. “The love and support.”

In her hometown, people started a charity. “The Gus Bus,” they called it. Truckloads of bracelets were sold. You couldn’t throw a rock in Brooks County without hitting someone wearing a bracelet.

And prayer…

The exhibit is bare-bones, no digital displays like in a modern Smithsonian. The place resembles an antique store. His suits, his Stetsons, and the blue ‘52 Cadillac he died in—which is smaller than I thought.

It’s a nice day in the Capital of the South. The sun warms the brick buildings downtown, making an urban place feel almost country.

I can’t do big cities. But I can do Montgomery. It feels small—sort of.

There’s a bearded man on the sidewalk, collecting cans. Businessmen eat lunch at an overpriced outdoor restaurant, playing on cellphones.

And Hank Williams.

I see him. He’s staring through the window of his museum on Commerce Street. We've been friends for a long time. He hasn't aged a day.

The first song I listened to after Daddy's funeral was “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” I laid face down on the floor and sobbed until I had a headache.

A boy will do anything to remember his daddy.

This museum is small. They have T-shirts, stationery, and a towering wooden Indian, standing by the door.

The exhibit is bare-bones, no digital displays like in a modern Smithsonian. The place resembles an antique store. His suits, his Stetsons, and the blue ‘52 Cadillac he died in—which is smaller than I thought.

“No photos allowed,” the woman tells a kid behind me.

The boy puts his phone away and complains under his breath to his girlfriend, "They let us take all the pictures we wanted in Nashville."

This isn't Nashville, kid. I’ve visited the Country Music Hall of Fame. I could give a cuss which rhinestone tuxes Kenny Rogers wore on his '83 Japan tour. Today, I'm a boy trying to remember his daddy.

Hank is on the jukebox. He wails. I remember things. Like when Mama got trapped in the chicken coop and almost passed out from heat exhaustion. I recall old men in suspenders. Alfalfa bales.

I can see the morning of my father's funeral. I was supposed to be getting dressed, but sat on the bed in my underwear, wearing over-sized boots.

Only one day earlier, I'd found Daddy at his…

“I had Kirsten when I was eighteen,” her mother tells me. “We kinda grew up together.”

Straughn, Alabama—thirteen years ago. It was a spring morning. The sun was low. Birds made noise. The Straughn High School football stadium was packed. Coach Taylor read a eulogy.

Kirsten was gone.

She was a softball player. Her Tiger teammates sat in the stands. So did rival teams from nearby schools. Her friends wept. Her family sobbed. It was a black day.

She was fourteen. A deer ran in front of the truck. They swerved. Flipped. It was bad.

“I had Kirsten when I was eighteen,” her mother tells me. “We kinda grew up together.”

Her mother is older now, Kirsten’s funeral is only a memory. But she was a good kid. Straight A’s, cheerleader, student ambassador, church-involved. She was cut from rural cloth.

Between ball practices, Kirsten did youth group. After that, she'd ride muddy four-wheelers until the sun went down.

Then the worst.

Churches in nearby counties held vigil for the unconscious girl. Kirsten's waiting room saw the most visitors to ever grace Sacred Heart’s halls. Welcome to small-town Alabama. When one falls, so does the whole of Covington County.

They needed a stadium just to hold her funeral.

When Kirsten was twelve, she began talking about organ donation. She became so enthusiastic about the idea, her mother got concerned.

“I thought it was odd,” her mother says. But the girl was nothing if not passionate.

Her organs were in coolers only hours after she flatlined.

Years went by. Life moved on. The fourteen-year-old beauty queen seemed to fade into history.

“I HAD to know who received those organs,” says her mother.

So she wrote letters, but never received responses. She kept writing. Nothing. She almost gave up. Then, one day it happened.

An envelope from Okeechobee, Florida. A mother whose daughter had needed a kidney. It saved her life. The recipient's name: Lacey.

Kirsten’s mother met Lacey.

Their first meeting was on Mother’s Day—of all days. It…

So, we chose songs the radios quit broadcasting around the time of Harry Truman. Our crowd of white-hairs gave an enthusiastic applause that was as loud as an oscillating fan.

We played music for a nursing home. It was a sterile room with fluorescent lights and a funny smell. People kept asking our guitar player to turn up the volume.

That was a first.

It bears mentioning: we have taken the stage in some ugly places.

We’ve played for motorcyclists with names like, “Bruiser,” “Snake Eyes,” and “Ernie.”

We’ve played clogging dances, barroom weddings, family reunions, sixtieth birthday parties, crawfish boils, car dealership sales, shoe stores, one bar mitzvah.

This was our first nursing home.

So, we chose songs the radios quit broadcasting around the time of Harry Truman. Our crowd of white-hairs gave an enthusiastic applause that was as loud as an oscillating fan.

One woman asked if we knew “Keep on the Sunny Side.” Another asked for “Dixie.” We had three requests for “O When the Saints Go Marching.” One for “Viva Las Vegas.”

A man named Benny—suspenders and hearing-aids—asked for “I Saw the Light.”

We played it quiet and slow; he sang all four verses with his eyes shut. Blessings of higher value, I have not received.

There was a

lady who called me Danny and kept asking, “Did you find my Curly?”

I answered, “No ma'am, I didn't."

"Well, did you even go LOOK?"

High and low, ma'am.

I met a man who played trumpet. He was half black, half white. Skin like caramel. They tell me he’s got some stories.

Midway through our medley, one of the nurses asked us to play “America the Beautiful.”

“They like American songs,” she said.

We started the tune, but never got to sing a word of it. The room beat us to the punch.

A man in back stood. He wore an orange cap with a blue “AU” on it.

The rest stood with him. Their voices weak, but sincere. They sang about Purple Mountains Majesty and Fruited Plains while the band kept steady time.

These people are…

An elderly man sat beside me. Grandfather to the deceased. He grew up in this church. He estimates he’s attended nearly ten thousand socials in this room.

This room is the size of two living rooms and a broom closet. It has a drinking fountain, olive green kitchen appliances, a piano.

And it smells like heaven.

I can think of no happier square-footage than a rural church hall—complete with card-tables and casserole dishes. And I'm not talking religion. I'm talking fried chicken.

Yesterday, I walked through the food-line in one such church. I held a paper plate and did my best not to get gravy on my necktie.

It was a funeral. I met the mother of the deceased, she was a wreck.

Before the memorial service: food. You should’ve seen the lineup. I won't go through the whole list, but here are a few standards:

Chicken and dumplings, fried gizzards, deer sausage, and deep-fried backstrap. Drop biscuits, butter beans, squash casserole, creamed corn, cheese grits.

An elderly man sat beside me. Grandfather to the deceased. He grew up in this church. He estimates he’s attended nearly ten thousand socials in this room.

An old woman wearing a houndstooth skirt-suit, sits on my other side. She's on

the funeral committee. She made this potato salad.

It is a majestic concoction. More white than yellow. If I had to rate her dish on a scale of one to ten, I’d give it two hundred fifty-seven.

“It’s just Duke’s and potatoes,” she says. “Ain't hard.”

Maybe not, but this woman has a gift.

When my father died, we ate potato salad. It was in a fellowship hall—water spots on the ceiling, linoleum floors. The food went down like flu medicine.

A girl my age, named Caroline, had made a layer cake with white icing especially for me. I’ll never forget her. She'd lost her mother earlier that year. We were members of the same club.

There was a note on the cake. It read: “If you ever want to talk…”

Here, funeral's are administered by feeders, not the clergy.…

Old heroes are falling by the hundreds every day. Some die in VA hospital beds. Others, in tents off the interstate, wearing rags.

Augusta, Georgia—the VA Medical Center. Her father smoked like a freight train, even though his doctors told him not to. But, he was dying of colon cancer. If he wanted to burn a couple packs, by God, that was his right.

He was Special Forces. Army. He swore like a commercial fisherman. He chastised any who misused the name of the Good Lord.

He'd seen a lot in his time. He'd been a prisoner of war during Vietnam.

Chemotherapy was some kind of hell, even for a POW. After his last round of treatment, he sat in the courtyard of the Charlie Norwood VA for a celebratory smoke. His daughter beside him.

A fellow vet approached. The man was dirty, bearded, tattered clothes. He smelled like the wrong side of a manure shovel. He asked to bum a smoke.

His name was John.

He stayed. They talked. When her mother arrived with the car, her father introduced the new friend.

She gave the man a once-over and said, “You look hungry, John, come on.”

Come on. The

most gracious two words you will ever hear a Georgian say.

They took him home. Not only did John eat supper, he sat with her father and talked. Their conversation lasted into the night.

John stayed for two months.

They made him a member of the family. In return, John treated them like the only blood kin he’d ever had.

“He held Dad’s hand,” she goes on. “He prayed with him when the pain got bad, he wiped Dad’s mouth when he was sick. John even helped Mom and me move him...”

Her father’s last twenty-four hours were bad, but John was there. She remembers him waiting by the door with a washcloth, or a basin. He never hesitated to do what needed doing, no matter the chore.

Just before her father passed, they gathered around his bed with the clogged faces. They…

This isn't like the big shindigs they do in Mobile or New Orleans. It's a small event. A family day. Kids sit on shoulders. Homemade floats get towed by Silverados. Parents cheer.

Yesterday, 10:05 A.M., Gulf Shores, Alabama—the worst thing you can imagine. Twelve kids injured. Four in critical condition. Screaming parents. A shut-down highway. Helicopters. Flashing lights.

This is a beach town. Here public schools still observe Mardi Gras—a holiday when anyone owning a trumpet plays Dixieland.

And of all places, it happened at the annual Fat Tuesday parade.

I’ve attended a handful of times. Once, when I was a high-schooler, watching my friend play tuba. Once with my cousin—who was so drunk I had to hold him upright.

This isn't like the big shindigs they do in Mobile or New Orleans. It's a small event. A family day. Kids sit on shoulders. Homemade floats get towed by Silverados. Parents cheer.

This year, it was hell on earth.

The Gulf Shores High School band looked good. The sax-section bobbed its horns in rhythm. The drumline tapped out a steady cadence. Lots of smiling. Students waved to parents.

Without warning, an SUV screamed forward. Kids got mowed down. Instruments twisted. Twelve-year-olds. Seventeen-year-olds. Babies.

Like I said. The worst.

“They looked like rag-dolls,”

one person remarked. “It was so freaking scary, it didn’t seem real.”

Someone else saw the driver leap out of the vehicle. It was a seventy-three-year-old man. The look on his face was one of shock.

One woman said, “I was thinking, 'Oh my gosh this is some terrorism act…' But then I saw the old guy and his expression…”

It was an accident that put our section of the world on last night's national news. It attracted cameras, lights, nice-looking reporters.

But, if you’re looking for an ugly ending to this god-awful story, you’re looking in the wrong place. Because this a heart-strong community with salt-of-the-earth folks.

I'm talking teachers, charter-fishermen, boat mechanics, pastors, nurses, landscapers, and Walmart employees.

An entire town huddled together. Parents wearing Mardi Gras beads knelt over teenagers on the pavement. Adults pressed foreheads against…

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…

"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…