I remember the blue shirt he wore the last time I saw him. I remember him singing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” while fishing the river. I remember the way he swallowed his tongue for the amusement of his boy.

The Choctawhatchee Bay is calm this morning. I’m fishing. I always fish on Father’s Day weekend.

There is a blue heron standing on the shore, looking at me. He doesn’t move. He only stares.

Strange bird.

Today has been an unproductive day. I caught exactly one catfish and an old Pepsi bottle.

I have eaten my weight in Conecuh Quick Freeze Sausage and Bunny bread.

Things were going fine until this bird showed up for a staring contest.

My wife believes people come back as birds after they die. I don’t know how she came up with this idea.

Once, outside Mobile, we stopped on a red dirt road so she could introduce herself to a flock of turkey buzzards in a hayfield.

An ugly bird stood a few yards away from the flock. It stared at my wife and would not move.

“Do you see that bird?” she said with a grin. “That’s gotta be my daddy!”

I threatened to carry her off to Searcy if she didn’t get

back into the truck. She ignored me.

But this heron is not ignoring me. He looks at me with sharp eyes. Maybe my wife is on to something. This bird could almost pass for my late father if you used your imagination. Long legs. Bone skinny. Quiet.

“Hey,” I yell to him.

He is unmoved.

“Don't you have anything to say to me?” I ask.

The bird doesn’t even blink.

So I cast my line into the water and pretend I can’t see him. He steps closer.

I miss my father. I’m ashamed to tell you that. Because it’s been too many years, I should be over him. I should be grown up. I’m…

He removed his hat and kissed his best gal. To watch the elderly lock lips is a blessing unmatched.

Andalusia, Alabama—my wife and I got our picture made with Hank Williams Senior.

The broad side of a brick building bears the painted portraits of Hank and Audrey Williams. It is the exact spot where they were married in ‘44.

I sang “Hey Good Lookin’” to the spitfire brunette beside me.

She said, “Hush, people’re gonna think you’re out of your mind.”

I am out of my mind. I’ve been a Hank fan since I was knee-high to a beer bottle.

Not long ago, I played an eightieth birthday party with my band. The birthday boy’s wife hired us to play four hours of Hank Williams music.

After driving miles of dirt roads into the sticks of Conecuh County, we set up in a sheet-metal barn with a rusted roof, and concrete floors.

The smell of horse manure was offset by the aroma of barbecued ribs.

If I live long enough to be eighty, I will barbecue ribs at my barnyard shindigs.

There was a table with all

the usual fare. Pimento cheese, potato salad, devilled eggs, raw tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, okra, white peas. Coolers of cheap beer.

A few young folks danced. The birthday boy wore a ten-gallon hat and made his way to the dance floor. He dosey-doed with his wife of sixty-some-odd years.

They were something to see.

“Saw Hank play once,” said Birthday Boy. “Was the biggest fun of my life, my daddy and my best gal was with me.”

He removed his hat and kissed his best gal. To watch the elderly lock lips is a blessing unmatched.

“You’re the best damn present God ever gave me,” he said to her.

Hank couldn't have said it better.

I drove home that…

...Even though you walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, you shouldn't fear any evil because you aren't alone. Thy rod and thy staff, and thy Louisville Slugger will comfort you.

DEAR SEAN:

My mom and dad are getting divorced and my dad is leaving us, it makes me so sad, and my brother is going away for college, too, so I won’t have him anymore starting soon.

Then my doctor told me I have a problem with my heart valve and I’m doing all sorts of tests for it. They say not to worry because it's only a small thing, but I am so scared about everything.

Help me,
SCARED IN NORTH CAROLINA

DEAR SCARED:

After my father’s suicide, I was scared. Very scared. My mother, my sister, and I were all terrified. I can't even tell you why, exactly.

And it was worse at night. We slept in the same bedroom for many years. I slept on the floor, at the foot of Mama’s bed.

Before bedtime, I’d push a dresser in front of her bedroom doorknob.

Irrational, I know.

But that’s fear. It makes you do strange things. And after someone dies—or when parents divorce, or when you get sick,

or when someone hurts you—you get bucketfuls of fear.

One night, my mother heard a crash downstairs. I grabbed a baseball bat—the same slugger I won regional championships with.

I walked the dark house barefoot. I trembled so that I could hardly hold the bat. My heart beat hard.

I saw glowing eyes in the kitchen. Our outdoor cat had gotten trapped indoors. She jumped onto the refrigerator and knocked something over.

I almost vomited. I dropped the bat. I collapsed on the floor and cried until my ears rang.

So, I’m the wrong fella to ask about how to not be afraid. I can’t tell you how because I don’t know.

But I can…

Humility isn’t Miss Lola’s only affliction. She has rheumatoid arthritis. Her condition prevents her from doing things she loves. Like cutting chicken, or manning skillets. It has not, however, affected her delicate tastes.

Miss Lola places casserole dishes on the table. She forms neat rows. The table is full. There is enough Southern fare here to sink the U.S.S. Humdinger.

Close your eyes and imagine heaven’s own Golden Corral franchise. That’s what this fellowship hall is.

There are old women everywhere. They are buzzing through the room making sure things happen.

Miss Lola walks with a hunched back and resembles the late Kathryn Tucker Windham. She makes coffee in the Baptist Bunn machine.

The church roof has just been replaced. The fellowship hall was supposed to be renovated, but they ran out of money.

“New roof is expensive,” remarks Miss Lola. “The other ladies wanted new appliances and new floors, but all we could afford was the new roof and refrigerator.”

For supper, Miss Lola sits beside me. She eats slower than it takes to read the unabridged version of Gone With the Wind.

“Who fried this chicken?” someone asks.

“Ruth,” Miss Lola says. “But hers ain’t as good as mine.”

Humility isn’t Miss Lola’s only affliction. She has rheumatoid arthritis. Her condition prevents

her from doing things she loves. Like cutting chicken, or manning skillets. It has not, however, affected her delicate tastes.

“This chicken's too soggy,” she adds. “Mine was never soggy.”

The macaroni and cheese is equally as magnificent. It comes from Miss Lola’s niece, who just turned fifteen.

The kid used her grandmama’s recipe.

When Miss Lola finishes eating, she hobbles between tables. She wears a blue apron. She gathers used paper plates and silverware. Some servants never quit.

After supper, the room empties. People leave for the sanctuary. Save for a few women. Those who stay behind are mostly gray and white.

I stay, too. I collect trash and fold chairs. Miss Lola and I fold tables and nearly amputate my fingers. This makes her laugh very hard.

Later, she stands at at the three-compartment sink, scrubbing. Well,…

There is a lot I don’t know about this world. I don’t know why society gets colder. I don’t know why families break up, why good people get cancer, or why the self-centered get promoted.

It’s early. I am on the road this morning. I stopped for breakfast at McDonald’s. I know the food’s not good for me, but Egg McMuffins and I have a long history.

There’s a man here with his daughter. They’re in the booth behind me. He talks to her with so much sugar in his voice it’s hard not to smile.

He asks if she had a fun weekend.

She tells him she doesn’t want to leave him and go live with her mother. He tells her she must go. She cries. He holds her.

“Don’t cry,” he says. “We still have weekends together.”

In a nearby booth is a group of Mexican boys. Their voices are happy. Their clothes are filthy.

A jokester in the group attempts a stunt for entertainment value. He leans backward and balances a full cup of coffee on his chin.

This is a bad idea.

A few tables over: a woman. She has a service dog. She doesn’t appear to be blind, but then what do I

know?

The dog sits while she eats. A man comes out of the restroom and pets the dog, but the dog doesn’t even acknowledge him. The animal is all business.

“Pretty dog,” the man says.

The woman answers, “He’s my everything.”

A few kids burst through the doors and stand in line. They are breathless, like they’ve just covered fifty miles on their bikes.

I wish more kids rode to town on bikes.

The man behind me is still talking to his little girl. "Your mother’s here,” he says.

A tall woman walks through the doors. She makes a beeline for the man and daughter. There is no small talk. She’s cool and collected.

They rushed him to the surgeon. They shaved the man’s chest. And while they were at it, they cut his beard off. He looked a hundred years older without it. The lines on his face were deep.

He sat in a construction office trailer. It was after hours. He was off the clock. He watched a black-and-white television after a long day of work.

He was a foreman. He had things to do. Normally, he would've been anywhere else besides the office trailer. But today was different.

A knock on the door.

An old man with an unshaven face and backpack. The man was lean. He asked if he could dig through the job-site dumpster.

“What for?” asked the foreman.

“Looking to make me a house out of a cardboard box. One that won’t get knocked down by the wind.”

So, the foreman showed him the biggest and best boxes. One was large enough to play basketball in.

They talked. They laughed. The foreman asked if the old man was hungry.

“I could eat,” was the man’s response.

The foreman fed him two bologna sandwiches with mustard.

The old man ate caterpillar-slow. He watched the television with big eyes while he chewed.

“Been awhile since

I seen a TV,” he said.

After the man finished his meal, the foreman gave him all the food in the break-room kitchen. Potato chips, Cokes, peanut butter, a loaf of Bunny Bread. He gave him the money in his wallet, too.

“Where’re you staying?” asked the foreman.

“Behind K-Mart.”

“Oh, no. That’s terrible.”

“Nah, it’s nice back there. Sometimes they even throw away old canned food.”

How about that.

The foreman brought the man home. He introduced him to his family. After a fifteen-minute shower, the fella was hardly recognizable. His skin looked three shades lighter. His hair was less yellow.

They ate. They talked about good things. Nice things. The…

Beau became a member of the family. He went to baseball and soccer games. He sat beside Troy during supper—and ate scraps. He slept in the kid’s bedroom. He played hard. He spent summers laying beneath an oak in the backyard.

There was a funeral in Troy Fitzpatrick’s backyard a few afternoons ago. It was under a live oak. It was a well-attended service. Troy’s kids, were there. His wife, one neighbor boy.

Troy said a few words. Something to the tune of: “Dear Lord, we ask you to welcome Beau into heaven with open arms.”

Beau. He was a good boy. A rescue dog.

Eight years ago, Troy had just lost his job as a salesman for a window company.

“I was a mess,” he said. “So depressed, you know, I’s thinking: ‘What the hell are we gonna do?’”

So the Fitzpatricks did what any normal family does during moments of heartache. They went to the animal shelter.

“Must’ve played with a hundred dogs,” said Troy. “Didn't find just one, we found tons. And then we met Beau.”

The dog had already been named. It was the name that struck a chord with Troy. It was his late father’s name.

Beau was reddish with a gentle personality. He’d been born in the shelter, then adopted as a puppy.

Beau’s first owner left town

and took Beau with him. A year after, the shelter got a call from Nashville, Tennessee.

Someone had found Beau in the woods without a collar. The microchip under his skin led to the shelter where Beau was born. The shelter called Beau’s owner.

The man admitted to leaving Beau on the side of a country road—for dead.

A shelter volunteer drove seven hours to get the dog. He stayed in the shelter for one year after that.

Until Troy’s family visited.

Beau became a member of the family. He went to baseball and soccer games. He sat beside Troy during supper—and ate scraps. He slept in the kid’s bedroom. He played hard. He spent summers laying beneath an oak in the backyard.

Beau loved apples, fish, and snotty Kleenexes. He hated smoke.

“Whenever my wife cooked,”…

The line of customers at the counter is the usual crowd. Lanky men with burnt skin and greasy shirts. One man orders three chili dogs. Three.

Things move slow in Fadette, Alabama. This rural community is a fleck of ketchup on the map. Trees. Fields. Farmhouses. Masey Ferguson 8600’s.

I could die happy in Fadette.

The Fadette Convenience Store sits smack-dab on the main drag, between here and nowhere. It’s a Marathon gas station, a country store, and an eatery.

Today, it's hot as twelve hells outside. A boy is shelling peas out front. Inside the store, there are typical things. Beer coolers, beef jerky, Marlboros, Red Man, five-gallon buckets of heavy-equipment hydraulic fluid.

In the back: a one-room restaurant. The kitchen serves food good enough to make grown men blush. Catfish, ribs, smoked chicken, slaw, hush puppies, and Grandmama’s signature chili dogs.

I order a little of everything.

I sit next to a woman and her son. Her husband is a tractor mechanic, her son raises show cattle.

“We come here to eat all the time,” she says. “Best food around.”

It's more than that. This is the best food within

ten thousand country miles. And it's perfect.

The line of customers at the counter is the usual crowd. Lanky men with burnt skin and greasy shirts. One man orders three chili dogs. Three.

“When we started this place,” says owner, Ronald Brannon. “My grandmama cooked. She told me, ‘You make MY chili the way I show you, people will come from miles just to eat it.’ And boy, lemme tell you, they sure do.’”

God rest her soul.

Ronald began this place fifteen years ago. Before that, he worked every job in the book.

“I was a cable installer, a landscaper, a paramedic, a farmer,” he says. “I done it all.”

The old building sat vacant for years before he bought it.

[READ MORE...]

I meet Don, who works in concrete. Billy, who repairs small engines. Steve, who is still looking for work since he quit truck driving. Cassie, who studies stage-acting in Atlanta and works for local newspapers.

The rural South looks good at six in the evening. The sun is low. The peanut fields are so green they’re blue. The grain silos are rusty.

We drive through Slocomb, home of the Tomato Festival. We pass through Tabernacle. I’ll bet they don’t get too worked up in Tabernacle.

And we arrive in Hartford. They tell me this is quite a town. The small community sits in the middle of the Fruited Plains, and it is quintessential Little America.

Nice-looking homes. Old churches. A boy walks on a sidewalk. His dog follows, off-leash.

The public library is a brick building which also serves as courthouse, community center, historical museum, and a reception hall for wedding parties.

I’m in town tonight to speak. I play guitar in a room that's roughly the size of a baptismal tank. I tell a few stories on a microphone.

I have no earthly idea what I’m doing.

Afterward, I am fortunate enough to shake hands with God’s finest people. They are walking-talking masterpieces from Ozark, Wicksburg, Clayhatchee, High Bluff, Bellwood, Earlytown,

Dundee, Malvern, Taylor, Circle City, Slocomb, and Fadette.

I meet a tomato farmer, a cotton farmer, a watermelon farmer, a corn farmer, a goat farmer, an ostrich farmer, a cattle farmer, a tractor mechanic, an twelve-year-old girl who raises show hogs and is strong enough to arm wrestle an adult male.

There is a woman with a walker. She is ninety, with flour-white hair. Martha Green is her name. She has large eyes that sparkle. She eats a cookie and tells me what FSU was like before it turned co-ed.

J.C. shakes my hand. He is a big man with mitts like frying pans, who shares my affection for poundcake.

There is Mandie: five-foot-tall, sweet, gives good hugs, doesn’t know strangers. And former Miss Slocomb gives me a full basket of tomatoes.

If I can find a saltshaker, these tomatoes won’t last ten…

His father was a good man. The kind who had no extra time between mill-whistles. Thursday night Scout meetings were impossible. He drove long commutes, worked overtime, his hateful boss ran him raw. He barely found time for supper.

The early sixties. An era of thick-rimmed glasses, beehive hair-dos, Andy Griffith episodes, and too much eye-makeup.

The sixth-graders made fun of Greg Ford. Nobody could even tell you why. Maybe because he was a soft-spoken kid.

Maybe because kids will be kids.

Greg lived with his father on the poor side of town. His mother left them long ago. Nobody heard from her again.

Young Greg talked about her sometimes, but he was only repeating stories he’d heard from his father. He couldn’t remember her.

He wore a key on a shoestring around his neck. The key to his front door. The other children teased him about that.

Like I said. Kids.

A teacher made him wear the key around his neck after he lost it once. The last thing Greg Ford needed was to wait on a porch-step until dark for his father to get home from the mill.

Anyway, the story here isn’t about keys, or childhood bullies. It’s about the day Greg found a copy of the Boy Scout Manual on the school

bus. He took it home and read it cover to cover.

He asked his father if he could join the Scouts. His father told Greg it wasn’t in the cards.

His father was a good man. The kind who had no extra time between mill-whistles. Thursday night Scout meetings were impossible. He drove long commutes, worked overtime, his hateful boss ran him raw. He barely found time for supper.

Thus, Greg carried the Scout Manual with him. He read it often. He learned about campfire safety, water safety, identifying bear tracks, and how to handle the American flag.

“He never put the manual down,” one classmate remembers. “Was like his security blanket, he really wanted to be a Scout.”

Which broke his teacher’s heart. She looked into taking Greg to meetings herself, but she had a busy family life. Meeting times couldn't have…