“Battle of Marianna lasted thirty minutes,” an old man tells me. “An attack on our hometown, Yankees killed and wounded a quarter of our men.”

The live oaks on Highway 90 are covered in moss. When heading east, you’ll see them. They are enough to make you dizzy.

This is the Panhandle.

In my short life, I’ve seen Trustee’s Garden in Savannah, I’ve eaten fifty-dollar shrimp in Charleston, I've touched the Cadillac Hank Williams died in.

But Highway 90 is as Old South as it comes.

These mossy trees carry chiggers that will eat a man alive. But they are magnificent—the trees, not the chiggers.

Off 90, there’s an uneven road that leads to a dirt arena. The Circle D Rodeo Arena sits in the middle of the sticks.

Once, I saw a rodeo here. The place was crawling with Wranglers, Ariats, and Skoal rings.

I watched a kid take a fall that should’ve broken his legs. He shook it off and pranced away like Mary Lou Retton.

Later that night, I saw him limping so bad he could hardly walk. Two men held him upright.

Downtown Marianna is a treat. They have stores,

old churches, a stunning post office. A Winn Dixie.

There are mansions with columns. The historic houses aren't flashy—just inviting. Folks on porches watch traffic.

One little girl is walking a Labrador on the sidewalk. She doesn’t have an adult with her.

You don't see that in big cities.

A century ago, a Civil War battle was fought on these streets she walks on.

“Battle of Marianna lasted thirty minutes,” an old man tells me. “An attack on our hometown, Yankees killed and wounded a quarter of our men.”

Confederate Park has a white monument that stands tall. It’s not here to honor war. It’s here to remember farmers, shopkeepers, and anyone who died defending their home.

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Today, he's a faceless gray-headed American who pays his taxes and plays with grandkids. He is a forgotten hero in a ten-gallon hat. A God’s-honest patriot.

Jim is wearing a cowboy hat, suspenders. Sometimes he sells tomatoes on the side of an old two-lane highway.

He’s sitting in a folding chair. His brim is pushed upward. Jim is smoker-skinny, and his belt looks too big.

He is my friend’s uncle, and his tomatoes look suspicious.

“Are these HOME-grown?” I ask.

“Yessir.”

The tomatoes are pink and blemish-free. They look like industrial candle wax.

“Did YOU grow them?” I ask.

He winks. “Friend of mine.”

But of course.

We talk. He’s been wanting to talk. He heard I'm a writer. He tells me he is a writer.

Since the third grade, he’s written over seven hundred poems. Maybe more.

His poems are mostly for his own reflection. Though he’s written poetry for local papers—a few funerals and birthdays.

He recites one. It’s about rows of peanuts, blue skies, and a dying mother. My kind of poetry.

But he never got a chance to pursue a career in writing. When the Vietnam draft enacted, he

joined. Instead of poetry, he learned how to jump out of airplanes.

“Killing changes you,” he says, “You’re trained to think of your enemy as nothing but a target, not human. Just how it is.”

All I can do is nod.

“But then,” he goes on. “You’re back home, you get to thinking about their mothers and such. And it messes with you.”

When he arrived stateside, he wasn’t the same. The guilt was crippling. Not for killing, but for surviving. His best friends met their ends before his eyes.

His first week home, he slept outdoors. Sleeping inside made him nervous.

And he had no interest in writing—it was hard enough just…

She’s a flower. In our brief time together, I learn they have three kids, they are Presbyterians, he is an Auburn fan, she is not. She is as friendly as a politician.

She is slightly overdressed for this place. They walk into the cheap Mexican restaurant and stick out.

She’s wearing a blue blouse, blue flats. He’s wearing khakis. They have matching white hair.

He has a nasty cough.

This place is busy, the hostess leads them to the bar while they wait for a table.

The walk is a short one. They make it arm in arm. She orders wine. Him: beer.

They don’t say much. They’re both watching the television above bar. Soccer is on.

“I don’t understand this sport,” he tells me, and he talks like a jar of Karo syrup.

I say something to him. He courtesy-laughs, which leads to a coughing fit. He holds a hanky over his mouth.

“We ONLY watch football,” his wife says, leaning forward while he coughs.

The conversational ice is broken. We talk.

Well—rather, she talks. I listen and say things like: “hmm,” and, “oh, how wonderful,” and “yes ma’am, I hear it’s lovely this time of year.”

She’s a flower. In our brief time together, I learn they have three kids, they are Presbyterians, he is an Auburn fan, she is

not. She is as friendly as a politician.

“You live here?” she asks.

“No ma'am, just here for the night.”

“Us too, we're on our way to Birmingham.”

He’s still coughing. Hard. He stands and leaves for the restroom.

When he’s gone, she tells me, “He’s having surgery in two days.” She points to her chest when she says it.

“It’s his second one,” she goes on. “Say a prayer for him. We’re taking all the prayers we can get.”

I yes-ma’am her.

She’s a cheery little thing.

The hostess calls them, I tell her it was lovely meeting her.

The old man offers her an elbow, they hook arms like it’s nineteen fifty-one. He slides out her chair for her. She sits erect, then places a napkin in her…

I’ve been out West a few times. I hiked the Grand Canyon and didn't sweat a drop all week. It was too dry. The rocks were pretty, but I missed sweating.

I left town early, headed home. I pulled off to watch the sunrise over a peanut field. I almost ran into a ditch, parking on the shoulder.

This small highway is old. And like most old roads in these small parts, it has no true shoulder.

Only a ditch.

I'm eating a breakfast sandwich from Hardee’s. It's not good, but it’s warm.

The higher the sun gets, the louder the birds talk. They’re just waking up. So am I. And it's humid. Warm April mornings like this can make you sweat buckets.

I love to sweat.

I’ve been out West a few times. I hiked the Grand Canyon and didn't sweat a drop all week. It was too dry. The rocks were pretty, but I missed sweating.

As soon as my airplane touched down in Bay County, my underarms and drawers were already damp.

Once, I accompanied a Little League team on an out-of-town trip to Mobile. The van’s air conditioner quit working. The vehicle smelled like little-boy sweat and stinky feet.

The boys opened the windows

and sang, “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho,” and “Father Abraham Had Many Sons,” and “Zacchaeus Was a Wee Little Man.”

The harder they sang, the more they stunk. Sweating and singing go together.

Take, for instance, the Freedom Hill Gospel quartet. I saw them sing in Marianna, Florida a few days ago. The high-tenor was from Two Egg. He wore a John Deere cap, and testified to folks in lawn chairs who applauded when he hit the high notes.

He was sweating. So were members of the quartet. And could those jokers ever sing. Southern Gospel quartets can't sing like that unless their high-tenor is sweating through his shirt.

Anyway, take out a map. Place your finger anywhere in the bottom right-hand corner of the United States. That’s where you’ll find the kinds of small places I'm talking about.

Places with…

“Hot aw-mighty,” remarks one old woman. “Hope folks don't judge us by what’s on TV. It’s too bad about that mess with Governor Bentley.”

Columbiana, Alabama—a place with front porches bearing American flags. There are hanging ferns, historic homes, dog-walkers who wave.

The welcome-to-town sign reads: “Home of Governor Robert Bentley.”

“Hot aw-mighty,” remarks one old woman. “Hope folks don't judge us by what’s on TV. It’s too bad about that mess with Governor Bentley.”

It sure is.

Because this place is more than a two-word byline in a shocking news story. This is heaven.

Reason number one: Davis Drug Company.

In the back of Davis' there’s a flat-top grill. They serve cheeseburgers and tea that's sweet enough to cause temporary blindness.

Bernard P. Fife sits at the counter.

Vinyl stools. Milkshakes. Pimento cheese. Coke in green-tinted bell glasses.

This place.

We’re eating lunch with Rachel. She teaches tenth-grade English. She has the personality of a cherub.

“Wouldn’t live anywhere else,” she says. “This is our bubble from the rest of the world.”

A bubble. Kids mind their manners in Columbiana. High-schoolers drive trucks, wear boots, and listen to Alan Jackson. Teenagers still know who Loretta Lynn is. There is low crime.

It's a place where schoolteachers are like mothers. Principals are

like chaplains. Where the librarian deserves his own book in the Bible.

Rachel says, “Always knew I wanted to teach at THIS school.”

I ask why.

“My tenth-grade teacher, Mrs. Owens, she was the best. I wanted to be like her.”

Mrs. Owens. During my short time in town, I’ve heard more about Mrs. Owens than I have about the aforementioned ex-politician.

I motion to include Mrs. Owens’ name on the town sign. Because she is local values, country wisdom, and good people.

“Mrs. Owens, was my favorite,” says Rachel.

I also meet Rachel’s husband Joe—from New Jersey. He's a long way from home.

“I’m the only Yankee around for miles,” he says. “But this is home.”

He’s lived here for many years now. Joe has even picked up the hint of…

This chapel is a lot like that one. Small. Only, this one used to be crowded on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings. I used to sit with a girl in the third pew from the back.

I’m not a religious man, but I have a thing for churches. Old ones, like this one. Small-built. Modest steeples. Concrete steps.

I was married in this room. I haven’t been here in years.

The sanctuary is dark. They don’t use it for regular services anymore, it often sits vacant.

It’s hard to be here and not think about Cokesbury Hymnals, old ladies with beehive hairdos, or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance on Tuesday nights in a Boy-Scout uniform.

Or church retreats.

Church-folk love retreats. Like father-son weekends on the lake. Once, I accompanied Billy and his daddy on such a retreat—since I had no father.

There was a football game. Fathers against sons. I played corner while Billy sat on the sidelines.

Before the game, I overheard Billy’s father whisper to him, “You’re sitting out this game, son. Sean don’t have no daddy, it’s his turn.”

I never felt more pitiful.

That night, I left my bunk to make water in the woods. I saw a few kids and fathers, sitting on picnic tables. They saw me.

Men stomped out cigarettes. Everyone headed for

their cabins.

Alone again. So, I talked to Daddy in the woods—I did that a lot back then. I had this idea he was floating in the sky, just like in the song: “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.”

I love that song.

As a young man, Miss Lydia Devenson paid me fifty dollars to sing that very hymn for her husband’s funeral. It was the first time I'd ever performed such a role. And it didn’t seem right—like I said, I’m not a religious man.

Before the ceremony, my hands and knees trembled so bad I could hardly stand upright, let alone hold a guitar. I nearly vomited behind the church.

My friend’s aunt, a foot-washing Baptist, found me. She said a prayer:

“Dear Lord, he ain’t got nothing in this world for…

The ghost helps keep this place running, even though he doesn’t do any cooking.

Greenville, Alabama—downtown. This bakery is a no frills joint with glass deli cases and plain tables.

Help yourself to the tea. Have a seat wherever you like.

“Try the chicken salad,” says Miss Ann. “It was my husband’s recipe.”

Miss Ann is wearing a blue apron, bouncing her grandbaby on her hip. She’s standing behind the deli case, smiling.

There’s a ghost beside her. Nobody can see him. He's tall. White-haired. He has a happy face. He wears an apron.

“Ozzie died back in two-thousand fourteen,” Miss Ann says. “He used to make every dish on our menu, this whole deli was his baby.”

The ghost nods.

Ozzie Judah. He was Greenville’s own Chicken Salad Genius. I know this because my sandwich tastes like summer lunches on a Baptist lawn. The only ingredient missing is the out-of-town Gospel quartet, singing “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

There are newspaper clippings, hanging on the wall. They bear pictures of a white-haired man in an apron.

The ghost taps one frame, motioning for me to read it.

They all read the same, more or less: Ozzie Judah will be sorely missed.

He was

a cook’s cook, a family man. A good soul. A workhorse. He spent his final years behind this deli counter, single-handedly helping his community gain weight.

To Ozzie, this place was more than a deli-bakery. It had been a childhood thing. Everyone has dreams, I guess.

Ozzie’s was pimento cheese.

“His pimento cheese recipe,” one customer says. “It’s SO good, you’ll keel over.”

“And Ozzie’s red velvet cake,” another woman says. “Christmas wasn’t Christmas without his cakes, they were incredible.”

The ghost helps keep this place running, even though he doesn’t do any cooking.

And when he’s not floating in the kitchen, he’s busy watching over his grandbabies—being guardian angel is a full-time gig.

The toddler in Miss Ann’s arms smiles. Maybe she's smiling at him. Maybe he’s smiling at her.

“We…

I drove two-lane highways. Old bridges. Township after township. Unincorporated dots on a map.

This is a hole-in-the-wall. They have napkin dispensers on tables, burgers that need warning labels from the surgeon general.

There are deer antlers above the cash register. My waitress has bottle-blonde hair and talks like a pack of Menthol Lights.

I’ve spent the day driving the best parts of America. I passed towns no bigger than bowling alleys. I pumped gas at places that don’t accept credit-cards.

And just this morning, I used an antique Case pocket knife to fix a fuel line in my truck.

It’s the Americanest of pocket knives. I don’t always carry this particular knife—I’m too afraid of losing it.

It belonged to an American man. A dead man. Who, from toddlerhood, was hell-bent on joining the military. Who got rejected because of his bad American ear.

I passed farms. Acres of red rows. I passed hillsides. I saw the foothills. My God. The foothills.

I drove two-lane highways. Old bridges. Township after township. Unincorporated dots on a map.

In one town, I saw a flag hanging from an antebellum house. It was draped over an ornate balcony. I

had to pinch myself to make sure the War Between the States was over.

There were kids riding bikes in the street. They were hollering, laughing.

You don’t see as much bike-riding as you used to. One news report claimed the percentage of kids who ride bikes to school is in the point-zero-zero-digits.

Maybe so. But not here. I stopped my truck to let them cross the street. I waved. They waved back.

Small towns.

Outside town, I found this restaurant—if you can call it that. I almost missed it. It was behind a gas station.

There were only three or four folks inside. The waitress asked if I wanted sweet tea—and that’s how she said it.

She didn’t say: “What can I get you to drink?” Or: “What’ll it be?”

She said, “You want sweet tea,…

She was a forty-seven-year-old, taking Algebra One. But she was no stranger to hard work. Schoolwork was nothing compared to pulling double-shifts and feeding hungry mouths.

Her husband left her with two kids and a Honda. She didn’t even have a place to stay. She moved in with her sister. She worked thankless jobs.

And she hardly ever smiled. Not because she wasn’t happy, but because she was missing teeth.

“Lost these two teeth in middle school,” she says. “My dad got in a car wreck. My brother and I were in his passenger seat.”

Teeth or not, the woman is tough. It's in her hillbilly blood. She raised three kids single-handed. She fought off rowdy teenage boys who dated her daughter. She taught her sons how to be men.

The day after her youngest left for the military, she marched into a local bank. She only had one hour before work.

“I had good credit,” she said. “I knew they couldn’t turn me down. Never had any debt.”

She borrowed a lot.

She could have used the loan money to buy a house. She could’ve invested in dental work. She could’ve replaced her rusted Honda.

She enrolled in community college.

She was a forty-seven-year-old, taking

Algebra One. But she was no stranger to hard work. Schoolwork was nothing compared to pulling double-shifts and feeding hungry mouths.

“I’m a good student,” she said. “Always been a quick learner.”

She was more than quick. She was a natural. She enjoyed each class, each lecture, each teacher, and each test. But more than anything, she liked carrying a backpack.

During her first summer semester, she met a woman. The woman had salt-and-pepper hair and wore white scrubs. She took nursing classes.

Sometimes, between classes they ate lunch together in the breezeway. The woman was nice. They both talked about life. About their families.

“I looked at her,” she said. “And I was like, 'Hell, this lady’s my age. If she can do it, so can I.'"

She enrolled in the nursing program. Seven years, she worked. Seven long…

We aren’t like other clans. We don’t have cookouts anymore. We don’t do three-legged races at barbecues. We don’t own real estate. We're less like a family, more like a support group.

This is the kind of place where tourists eat. It’s on the Gulf. The breeze is warm, the air is sticky.

Mama got here early. She’s drinking a Corona with a lime—as I live and breathe. Beer is something I hardly ever see her do.

Mike is with her. He is gray-haired, blue-eyed, all Alabama. He is family.

I hug Mama. She fits beneath my arm. Always has. She calls me "baby." Always will.

I order a beer. Budweiser. My wife orders something with lime.

Mike and I talk football. He’s an expert. He can name each equipment manager in the SEC since Wade Wallace.

My sister is late arriving. She’s walking onto the deck, carrying a baby. Her husband is with her.

The baby looks like just like her.

She lets me hold her. The kid is heavy—like a sack of Quickcrete. She looks me in the eyes and holds her stare. I make a funny face. I would’ve made an okay daddy.

“She has your eyes,” my sister remarks.

“Really?” I say.

“Yeah, you’re the only person in the family with gray eyes.”

Well

I’ll be dog. A baby with my peepers is an unfortunate soul. But then, I guess this means she’s one of us now.

Poor child. We’re not much of a family.

After Daddy died, Mama, my sister, and I slept in the same bedroom with the door locked. For four years I slept on the floor with our dog. And when my sister had bad dreams, she slept on the floor beside me.

Nobody tells you grief feels just like fear.

We aren’t like other clans. We don’t have cookouts anymore. We don’t do three-legged races at barbecues. We don’t own real estate. We're less like a family, more like a support group.

But we’ve done life together. Lots of life. The three of us worked menial jobs together. We threw newspapers at two…