Don became head coach for the underdog team at Oneonta High. He was overqualified, it was a gutsy career move. They were a group who hadn't made it far in the playoffs. Nobody expected much from Oneonta.

It’s a sunny day. Coach Don Jacobs kneels by two headstones. Both bear his last name. On the left: his late daughter, Sarah Jacobs—she died too young. He cries.

Men like Don Jacobs do not cry.

Don played for Bear Bryant. Starting quarterback. Late ‘70’s dream-team. He helped Alabama take the ‘79 national championship.

He was a young man when Bryant first said to him—in a trademarked Biblical voice: “Ain’t what happens to you in life, son, but how you deal with it.”

Don’s life was a good one. After college, he had a promising career in coaching. A talented leader. A good family. Then, one of his daughters died. She was fourteen. Beautiful. Smart.

Her car was found twisted around a telephone pole. Everything changed.

Life went on. Don bounced the small-town high-school football circuit like a pinball. Luverne, Robertsdale, Coosa County, Elkmont. A faceless local hero, teaching basic drills to boys barely old enough to shave.

He taught patience, morality, and fight slogans favored by coaches across rural America. Such as: "When you win, nothing hurts."

Or:

"Winners never quit, and quitters never win."

Or: “‘Ain’t what happens to you in life, but how you deal with it.”

Don became head coach for the underdog team at Oneonta High. He was overqualified, it was a gutsy career move. They were a group who hadn't made it far in the playoffs. Nobody expected much from Oneonta.

Then, his wife got pregnant.

It was bliss. Euphoria, even. But his excitement was short-lived. Their son, Joe, was born with a hole in his heart.

I don’t know whether Don was angry at God, but he had every right to be.

He spent most of his days in a Birmingham hospital, the rest on the turf. His team should have started to fall apart. It didn’t.

“It was the opposite,” says his wife. “The players pulled for our baby, prayed for him.…

The family hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in months. They live in the Birmingham hospital. They eat whatever they can get out of vending machines.

Birmingham, Alabama—a hospital room. A steady beeping noise. The fluid bag doles out one drop at a time. Fluorescent lights. The god-awful smell of disinfectant.

Four-year-old Paisley Corbitt is a long way from her home in Graceville. She's fast asleep. When her mother walks in, she doesn’t wake her.

Paisley is worn thin. She's been through hell. Sleep is precious.

Paisely is a towhead with the face of a cherub. She has slept in this bed for too many nights—off and on. This small-town girl would rather be fishing for bream, running in the woods barefoot, or watching TV.

Anything but this.

In January, she got diagnosed with neuroblastoma. If you don’t know what that is, think: the worst cancer imaginable. Then triple it. Then, multiply it by sheer horror. Carry the two. Divide by your worst nightmare.

Her treatment clipboard reads like the unabridged Japanese Dictionary. Five rounds of chemo, invasive surgery, more high-dose chemo, stem-cell transplant, radiation, immunotherapy.

Like I said. Hell.

The family hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in months. They live in the Birmingham hospital.

They eat whatever they can get out of vending machines.

“It’s been hard,” says her mother. “Even harder with two kids. Her brother doesn’t realize what’s happening, he just wants her better so she can play again.”

That makes two of us.

Paisley is weak. She’s lost weight. Her skin is pale. Her hair is falling out. She wears a mask. It is a long, woeful road ahead. A fight. But she is not alone. And that’s why I’m writing this.

“Our community has overwhelmed us,” says her mother. “Graceville has given so much support, food, and love… People have even thrown fundraisers.”

There's a local flyer. It reads: "Team Paisley Raffle." On the front is the photo of a smiling four-year-old with white-blonde hair. Five dollars per ticket. Win a Yeti cooler. I understand they sold a shipload of…

It’s all around us—whatever you call it. I suppose it's always here, hanging in the air like potpourri my mother would make on the stovetop.

Cracker Barrel, 8:17 P.M.—it's busy tonight. There’s a boy in a wheelchair at the table beside me. His father is spoonfeeding him cooked apples.

When the boy's sister says something funny, the boy claps and laughs.

His father wipes his face with a rag and says, “You’re my special boy.” Then, he kisses his forehead.

A nearby girl wanders toward the boy. She is four, maybe. Her hair is in dreadlocks. She stares at him with her hand in her mouth.

“Is he okay?” she asks.

The boy leans and gives a big “HELLO!” There are apple bits on his chin.

The girl gives a smile brighter than a Christmas tree. “HI THERE!” she says in return. Then, she skips off.

Three tables from the boy is an old man. He is a wearing ball cap, Velcro shoes. He’s sitting at a two-top. He orders chicken-fried steak and potatoes. He has no cellphone to occupy his attention. No reading material. He sits.

He and I share a waitress. Her name is Blanche—it’s embroidered on her apron. Whenever he speaks

to her, he holds her hand. Something you don't see much.

He has a voice that sounds genteel enough to predate the War Between the States. It's a wonder he's all alone.

Behind him is a table of Mexican workers—men, women, and kids. They sit covered in paint and grit. They speak rapid Spanish. Lots of laughing.

One Mexican boy crawls into his mother's lap. She strokes his silk hair with her paint-spotted hand, saying, “Cariño mio,” over and over.

And though I don't know Spanish, I imagine this, more or less, means: “You're my special boy.”

To their left: a teenage couple. He weighs a buck ten, she is a foot taller than him. They hold hands when they walk out. They kiss. They look drunk on each other. What a feeling.

When I pay my tab, Brooke is my…

One night, she approached the homeless man with the offer. She walked right into his camp. This woman is fearless.

This is the quintessential beer joint. There are pool tables, chain-smokers, dartboards, a jukebox, and a plywood stage. There’s a young guitarist. He knows three songs. He repeats them.

I think he's overdue for a break.

My friend tells a waitress that I am a writer—if that's what you call it. My pal is only teasing me. The waitress says she has a good story.

And without awaiting my response, she's already telling it.

She is the quintessential barmaid—a no-nonsense woman, mid-fifties, a few tattoos on her forearm. Tough.

“Okay,” she begins, like she’s rehearsed. “So there was this homeless guy..."

I like the story already.

She tells me the man rode his bike all over town. She often saw him on her way to work and wondered where he was going.

So one day, she followed him. He lived behind a strip mall, in the woods. She discovered he had a son.

“It was enough to break your heart,” she adds. “They were living underneath a tarp.”

The next day, she and a friend delivered gift bags. A prepaid cellphone, snacks,

clothes, toys, food. As many items as they could fit into a few gym bags.

“He was skittish,” she said. “Very protective of his son, didn’t want us getting close.”

She couldn’t get him off her mind. She contacted her brother-in-law—a church deacon. She convinced his church to offer the man a room and meals.

One night, she approached the homeless man with the offer. She walked right into his camp. This woman is fearless.

He refused. He told her he didn’t want her charity.

"So I got in his face," she says. "Told him if he didn’t take my handout, I was gon' call the law and have his kid removed."

Magic.

He moved into a small Sunday-school room which she and her friends had outfitted with beds and a mini-fridge. The church agreed to hire him…

He is your typical American kid. Cheery face. Large ears poking beneath a red baseball cap. Freckles. He has a big bandage on his collarbone.

There's a television in the corner of a breakfast restaurant, it's broadcasting a political talk-show. The TV hosts are flinging hands at one another, arguing about God-knows-what while I eat eggs.

“Nonononononono,” says the talking head. “Don’t tell ME I’m un-American, sir. YOU’RE un-American…”

In the booth ahead of me: a young boy. Five years old. Six maybe. He orders cheese and scrambled eggs—I know this because he shouts his order. Which draws looks.

Some children’s voices are shrill when they shout. Not his. His sounds like a laugh fit for a playground.

His mother hushes him.

He is your typical American kid. Cheery face. Large ears poking beneath a red baseball cap. Freckles. He has a big bandage on his collarbone.

He coughs. It sounds like a bad cold. He uses his hat to cover his mouth. His head is bald. I see blue veins underneath his pale scalp.

The TV host shouts, “DON’T YOU TELL ME I’M UN-AMERICAN! I’M AS AMERICAN AS…”

The boy asks his mother, “Are you tired, Mom?”

She smiles and nods.

“Are you as hungry as ME?” he says. “NOBODY'S as

hungry as me.”

She doesn’t answer. She’s pretty. Young, but weathered. She looks like she’s lived twice the life any of her peers have.

He leans on her shoulder. There is a medical bracelet around his wrist. He tells her he’s sorry for being so sick.

Her face swells. “Don’t you ever say that again,” she says. “You hear me?”

“I’M UN-AMERICAN?! I’M UN-AMERICAN?! YOU’RE UN-AMERICAN! YOU, YOU, YOU…”

The boy asks if he’ll be going back to the emergency room again. “I hate it there,” he adds. "I don't wanna go back."

She shakes her head. “I don't know, Tray. We'll have to see.”

Tray. It’s a sturdy name. And he must be a strong kid because he has a tough mama. Life for some five-year-olds is carefree. I don’t get the…

“Moment tickets go on sale,” Miss Connie says. “We sell out in three hours. Celebrities even come to town. Last year, we had Katie Couric.”

Monroeville, Alabama—the middle-school gymnasium smells like one. This old wood floor is about the age of my late granddaddy. It creaks.

I’m watching a rehearsal for a community play. Atticus Finch is hugging his children in the final scene of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The kid-actors fidget between takes. They’re an energetic bunch, just freed from school an hour ago.

“Cut!” yells the director. He calms the rowdy.

Welcome to town—a place with a little over six thousand folks. Here, you’ll find tractor dealerships, barbecue joints, a Piggly Wiggly, a pulp mill.

And, an abandoned middle school—which is where I am tonight.

This is the twenty-sixth year the community has put on this play. It started as a way to raise money for courthouse renovations.

It turned into something else.

“We’ve gone all over the cotton-picking world,” says Miss Connie—wearing a church-lady hat and white gloves. “Hong Kong, England... We’re about to go to Ireland. It’s funny, I guess everybody wants a taste of Alabama.”

I guess.

When the cast isn’t bringing Lower Alabama to the world, the world comes to Monroeville.

“It’s wild,” says

one cast member. “During April and May, we get visitors from Europe, Japan, and Canada to see this thing... Guided tours, busses, crowds... Craziness.”

The city turns into a downright feeding frenzy for anyone who’s never sipped sweet tea, seen shotgun houses, longleaf pines, or heard gospel choirs.

“Moment tickets go on sale,” Miss Connie says. “We sell out in three hours. Celebrities even come to town. Last year, we had Katie Couric.”

My cow in the morning.

“Harper Lee made our way of life famous,” she goes on.

Maybe. But these actors are the furthest thing from famous. They are insurance salesmen, steelworkers, funeral-home directors, policemen, mill-workers, middle-schoolers, grandmothers, attorneys, and preachers with accents so thick they sound like your daddy.

Director Stephen Billy helps children into stage-positions with an easy touch. He’s good…

And while she carried on, I was in another world. Her world. An old one, that we’ll never see again. One with turntables, sitting parlors, barefoot kids, fish-fries, and coffee made over open-flame stoves.

I had a date tonight. My mother-in-law cooked me a steak. A fat one. In one hand she held her walker. In the other, a skillet. The meat made a lot of noise.

“Gotta sear it good,” explained my mother-in-law. “Keeps all the juice in.”

She baked potatoes and yeast rolls, too. Between us, we split a pitcher of sweet tea. I don’t know how she makes her tea, but when the roll is called up yonder, God better have his glass ready.

My T-bone is perfect. Pink. Tender. My coonhound rests her snout on my lap, in case I feel like sharing with starving canines whose owners neglect them.

I’ve been in this family a long time. I’ve eaten my share of steaks at this table. I’ve known this woman since her hair still had color to it. Before the walker.

On the day of my wedding, she greeted me in the lobby before the ceremony. She and my wife's aunt straightened my tux and fussed over me.

“Hot awmighty,” said one. “Who put this tux on you, a wino?”

“You’re a

mess,” said the other. “Looks like you slept in your truck.”

“Your shoes are filthy.”

“Gimme that comb."

“Is this BARBECUE sauce on your collar?”

"I Suwannee."

"I Suwannee, too."

Everybody Suwannee together now.

After she’d trimmed my ear hair and cleaned the smudges from my face using her own spit, my mother-in-law said, “We’re so glad to have you in our family.”

Nobody had ever said anything like that to me.

Anyway, we ate steak, she talked. Mostly, about the old days. She spoke about times before smartphones and twenty-four-hour political channels. An era when towns closed on Sundays. When men cut work to go fishing.

She talked about her mother and how the woman was self-reliant. She could rescreen windows, raise chickens, stain floorboards, and fix mechanical fans.

“But she couldn’t cook to save her…

This is a place where waitresses call you "sugar." Where eating ribs requires two hands, where tea is sweet enough to power residential lawn mowers.

Crestview, Florida—Desi’s Downtown Restaurant is the All-American experience. The food here is something fit for Baptist covered-dish socials.

This is not the tasteless fare that passes for home cooking in modern chain-restaurants. No.

This is real.

This is a place where waitresses call you "sugar." Where eating ribs requires two hands, where tea is sweet enough to power residential lawn mowers.

The buffet selections are basic. Catfish, creamed corn, turnip greens with hocks. They have turkey neck gravy so good it’ll make you look for your aunt in the kitchen.

The local customers are relaxed. Men wear caps with heavy-equipment brands on the fronts. Women wear jeans and scuffed boots. This place is a bona fide field-trip back to 1945.

Beside me: a white-haired woman. She’s friendly. “This used to be the old Lamar Hotel,” she tells me. And she says the word “hotel” like “hoe-tail.”

She goes on, “We pray no out-of-towners find this restaurant because then everybody’d be here.”

Folks like me.

Her husband adjusts his hearing aids and smiles. He tells me the turkey-neck gravy is particularly good today.

So, I waltz to the food-line.

On my way, I see a group of teenagers in camouflage. They're talking about something important. Their plates are piled high. None of them hold smartphones.

A young girl walks by them. They recognize her. Two boys stand and remove their hats just to say hello. I hope this practice never dies.

The waitress is back at my table. "More tea, Sugar?" She’s already pouring before I answer. This is a woman who works hard for a living.

“Isn’t their tea great?” asks my new friend with the hearing aids.

It sure is.

But it's more than tea. It’s the way a woman in a booth hugs a girl and asks how her sick mama is doing. Or how one man tips his waitress twenty bucks.

And it's my server—wearing her high-school…

“Can still remember the first time someone died in my arms,” he tells me. “I remember the smells, my surroundings, the way I felt… It never leaves you.”

God put me together funny. My arms are too long. My legs come to my neck. My feet are the size of waterskis. This makes it hard to shop for things like, say, clothes.

I’m getting a sport jacket for a wedding. The man taking my measurements is named Moe. I know this because it’s on his nametag. He is sturdy-built, caramel skin, middle-aged.

He tells me to hold my arms outward while he pays close attention to how uniquely disproportionate I am.

I’ve met Moe once before. He remembers me.

He recalls that I am an Alabama football fan. He remembers that the last time I visited this store, I was buying clothes for a funeral in South Georgia. He remembers that I always have dog hair on me.

“I got a good memory,” he says. “I was a fire-medic. We had to remember everything ‘cause we couldn’t take notes.”

A fireman-paramedic. A soul who is as equally at home in a yellow NOMEX suit as he is EMT work blues. A man who has removed nine-year-olds

from burning mobile homes. Who has resuscitated ninety-year-olds.

A cotton-picking hero.

“I worked in Greene County, Georgia,” he says. “I’d still be doing it if my family hadn't needed me here. I miss it.”

Georgia credentials don’t count within Florida state lines. The state won’t let him work without a brand new certificate—which requires more schooling. Florida wants its pound of cash.

“Costs ten grand to get certified,” he said. “I can’t afford to start school all over again. Gotta earn a living.”

So he’s fitting people for suits. The same hands that once saved a drowning girl, or a boy with a gut-shot, are now patting my shoulders to make sure I have enough room.

“Can still remember the first time someone died in my arms,” he tells me. “I remember the smells, my surroundings, the way I felt… It never leaves…

She once met a Mexican woman at Bible study. The woman was single, she had a partially deaf son, she lived in a dilapidated apartment, she worked three jobs. She had no car.

I saw her in a parking lot. Her kids were fussing. She had a toddler in a stroller who was howling.

Her attention was on the screaming baby, she didn’t notice her shopping buggy rolling downhill.

I did. So I jogged after it and caught the cart before it smacked the side of a very white, very shiny, very BMW.

She gave me a quick smile and a frantic “Ohmygodthankyousomuch.”

Then, she buckled her three kids into an economy car—a vehicle with rust around the wheel-wells. When she did, she spilled her purse.

God love her.

She threw her head into her hands. She stayed like that a little while. I don’t know whether she was crying, but she sure as hell deserved to.

It wasn’t long ago, I knew a woman like her. A woman who raised two kids on a shoestring, and struggled for every nickel.

The same woman who taught me how to spell my name. And how to say “yes ma’am" and “yessir” to elders.

She once met a Mexican woman at Bible study. The woman

was single, she had a partially deaf son, she lived in a dilapidated apartment, she worked three jobs. She had no car.

Mama carried her to and from Bible study. They made fast friends.

One spring morning, my mother took me for a drive. We rode dirt roads until we landed in an automobile graveyard. At the end of a long driveway were miles of broken vehicles surrounded by weeds and barbed-wire fences.

A man in overalls greeted Mama. He led us to a barn where he kept a ‘68 Ford Bronco—with rust on the wheel-wells and a cracked windshield.

She handed him a wad of cash.

He handed her keys. “Gott’er running,” he said. “Good truck if you ain’t going far.”

We weren't going far. Mama drove the thing home and parked it in our driveway.

That night, Mama…