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 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?”


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…

I don’t care what the suits on television say, kid. Don't believe them. The sod cabins, the longleaf forests, the farmland of our granddaddies. The nurses, EMT's, teachers, janitors. That's us.

A television is playing in a Pensacola bar. The talking head is shouting politics. Most folks in this joint are below thirty, and aren't even watching TV. They're transfixed to glowing smartphones.

The bartender looks thirteen. He stares at the screen and says something under his breath. Something awful.

“This country sucks, man.”

I know he probably doesn’t mean it, but it stings just the same, and I wish he wouldn't say such things.

Even so, it’s not his fault. I don't know what his story is, but perhaps this boy has missed a few blessings in his accumulated years of harrowed wisdom.

Maybe he's never seen things like big azaleas—bright enough to give you trouble breathing.

Those don't suck.

Neither do the Waffle Houses lining the Interstates. I’ve never had a bad meal at such an establishment, nor bad service. And no matter which time of year I visit one, it is always cold enough inside to hang meat.

The Everglades at sunrise, no sucking there. The Suwannee. The fat-bottomed cypress trees. Spanish moss. My bartender needs to

see these things.

And he ought to eat supper with men who plant peanuts and cotton. Fellas who live in trailers parked on a thousand acres. Who raise red Angus, and Herefords. Who still use cattle dogs for herding. Real people. Real callouses.

If you ask me, the boy needs to ride a riverboat, watch shrimp trawlers, or hear stories from men who farm oyster beds.

And he needs hog ribs from Kendall’s Barbecue, in Georgiana. Food that comes out of that tin shack is worth crying over.

County fairs, livestock exhibitions, and kids with prize-winning show hogs.

String bands. Gospel music with Hammond organs. Or music from the the bayou played by men with white hair.


He deserves a trip to Defuniak Springs, Florala, Kinston, Brantley, or Luverne. And for just one afternoon, I’d like to show him a…

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.


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…