It's political season in Palatka. Posters everywhere. One reads: “Elect Gator for sheriff.” The sign beside it: “Crickets, red wigglers, ammunition, and boiled peanuts."

Last Saturday, I rode east on Florida Highway 100 until I ran smack-dab into a sign reading: "Welcome to Palatka."

Palatka is a faded town on the Saint Johns River, with so many mossy oaks it'll catch your breath. There's a downtown small enough to pitch a baseball through, and a diner named, Bradley's—which boasts the most mounted deer in the tri-county area.

It's political season in Palatka. Posters everywhere. One reads: “Elect Gator for sheriff.” The sign beside it: “Crickets, red wigglers, ammunition, and boiled peanuts."

We stayed at a friend's house. Miss Leslie rolled out a spread. Her husband, Tank,—a goodhearted man who resembles a piece of military defense machinery—operated the deep-fryer.

And by dog, we had a party.

The buffet line had all the trimmings you'd expect in the deep South. Field peas with enough ham to make a cardiologist nervous. Venison, casseroles, deep-fried everything.

The conversation didn't follow any ground rules. One woman talked about the health benefits of cow pies. Miss Jane—distinguished English teacher and highly-decorated hell-raiser—recited a toast which made

someone laugh so hard he swallowed his cigarette.

A group of fellas in the corner talked about the finer points of sausage. John told a story about when a hog bit off his buddy's finger.

Then, there's white-headed Nana, whose candy-apple red blouse and earrings matched her pocket book. She looks like the cover of a Better Homes and Gardens magazine—only sassier.

Nana said, “I feel lucky to have lived in Palatka all these years, it was a perfect place to raise children. And even though we don't have many shoe stores, we get by."

They do more than get by.

They live easy. Sure, they have problems, this isn't heaven. But it's pretty stinking close. If you don't believe me, you ought to visit the curbside stand that still sells raw honey using the honor system.

No thefts since 1947.

Well. Except for…

This is my home, I'm standing. Not just for my flag. For my grandaddy, who wore a purple heart, and still does—six feet beneath the soil.

I'm in an interstate truckstop drinking lukewarm coffee that tastes like bathwater. There are antlers on the wall near the Coke machine. My eggs are overdone, my bacon tastes like rubber, my vinyl seat has a tear in it.

This is heaven.

I'm watching television. On the screen: a gentleman in a suit complains about America.

"Sometimes, I hate America," the talking head says. "I don't even like our flag..."

The waitress slaps off the television.

A man at the counter shakes his head and cusses at the TV. I know what he's thinking because I'm thinking the same thing.

This talk-show host has the IQ of coleslaw.

Furthermore, I don't hate my homeland. I love everything from Spanish moss to the Roy Rogers. From swamps to double-wide trailers, to homemade moonshine.

Consequently, once in north Florida, someone gave me a jar of strawberry moonshine. The next morning, I awoke in south Alabama with a toothache.

I also like bass ponds, railroads, hog farms, vegetable stands, and flatbed Fords—I've owned six.

I like Bob Feller, Hank

Aaron, and Ken Griffey Jr. I like pigskin footballs, and coaches who make boys into men. I prefer cheap beer, and though I don't smoke, I love the smell of Virginian tobacco in grandaddy's corncob pipe.

And if that's not patriotic enough, I love Hank, Merle, George, and Willie. I like Will Rogers, Bugs Bunny, Hee Haw, and Louis Armstrong. And whenever I hear a preacher deliver a Baptist-style message, I'm liable to stand and holler.

I'm not finished.

I love Savannah, Charleston, Milton, Jay, Pollard, Defuniak Springs, Valdosta, Grand Ridge, Palatka, Keithville, Greenwood, Lake City, Eastpoint, Wewahitchka, Brewton, Tuscaloosa, Dixonville, and Andalusia.

I like Martin guitars, Stetson hats, Buck knives, Winchester 1873's, and anyone who says, “y'all.”

And when I hear the National Anthem, I don't give a damn which NFL football players throw tantrums about it. This is my home, I'm standing.…

“My daughter treats him like he ain't right, and I can't stand it. Ain't nothing wrong with that child. He's SMARTER than you'n me. Who cares if he don't talk? Hell, I wish more people were like that.”

This child had the reddest hair you've ever seen. He's scooping water out of the river, preparing for a long day of fishing on his granddaddy's boat.

His grandaddy is a smallish man, with few teeth, who wears a Kubota tractor cap. And since I have a soft spot for men who rack up hours beneath the roll-bar, I pray this man catches God's biggest fish.

And I told him as much.

“Thank ya, sir,” he answered. “But really, I hope my grandson has good fishing luck. He's a nut, when it comes to this stuff.”

The boy puttered back and forth, busy. He never looked me in the

eye, but kept himself on a tight checklist, inspecting live-bait, topping gasoline levels, opening coolers, throwing bags of ice against the concrete—to break up the clumps.

As a child, I had no idea why anyone hurled ice bags against the concrete. Males do this all over the world. It wasn't until my late twenties that I realized the reason behind such a thing.

Because it makes us feel like men.

I hollered to the boy, “Good luck fishing!”

But it was as though he didn't hear me. He just bent over…

Sometimes I lay in bed and feel sad about such things. I guess I'm only human. I'm curious to know what it would be like to have something small need you.

Yeah, she's a bad dog. I know this much. There's no way anyone could miss it.

Once, in Oak Mountain State Park, she stole a pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon and toothpicks. She snatched it right off a camper's grill. I didn't even know she'd escaped until I saw a man running through the park with a spatula over his head.

He shouted something I won't repeat—my mother reads these things.

The campground security guard caught her, though I don't know how—I've chased this coonhound across state lines before. Once she was captured, he tried to locate her owner.

No luck. The real owner never came forward.

Ellie Mae spent one night in campground prison, where I understand security guards became hypnotized by her brown eyes. They fed her two Hardee's hamburgers, and marveled at how much she seemed to enjoy the taste of Budweiser.

The next morning: nobody had ever seen toothpicks exit a dog like that before.

And that's nothing.

Once, I left her in the truck while I

ran into Winn Dixie. I kept the AC running, and Willie Nelson playing. Inside, when I rounded the dairy aisle, I saw a familiar lump of black fur wandering down the frozen-food lane, carefree and light on her feet. I followed her all the way to the fresh produce, where I found her gnawing on a bottle of ketchup. It looked like a homicide.

The staff thought she was adorable.

Most people do. But she's not. She's trouble. I've seen her eat twenty-two jars of peanut butter, half a guitar, a laptop charger, and that was just lunch. For supper: a raincoat, a pair of underpants, and three bills. If there's a worse dog out there, I'm hard-pressed to believe it.

But right now, the terrorist coonhound sleeps beneath my feet as we speak. She snores bad. Her head is resting on my foot. She's warm. And I…

Lula Bell is above these thoughts. She has a food bowl, that's enough for her.

Lula Bell is in my lap right now. She's asleep, because it's still early. This cat loves a sunrise, it's the strangest thing you ever saw. She looks straight at it.

When we first got Lula, she had a broken leg and didn't trust humans. If you made any sudden moves, she'd be halfway to Chattanooga in a few seconds.

Before us, she lived in a dumpster behind Winn Dixie. And I have it on good authority her best friend was a long-bearded, soft-spoken man who kept her well fed—which must be true. She's got the plumpest belly in the county.

Store employees said Lula wouldn't let anyone touch

her but this man.

"He had a way with her," one employee said. "He'd just hold her and whisper."

The same employee recalls once seeing the man waiting outside the back door during store hours. He asked if the bakery would be getting rid of any pastries that day.

The employee said he didn't know, then asked why.

"It's my anniversary," said the man. "My wife died a long time ago, but I still celebrate however I can."

“I didn't know if it was true or not," the employee went on.…

Anyway, I'm not sorry about my strong affections for the women of Dixie. There's something special about them, and I'll die believing that.

Women to my left. Women to my right. Pastel colors everywhere. Enough conflicting perfume scents to make my head swim. This might be the largest female gathering on planet earth.

And I'm in their hotel lobby.

If you want to know what I'm talking about, visit Atlanta during a Mary Kay convention. You'll see women of every shape, size, and hair-color—too many different Southern accents to count.

Such as the eighty-year-old woman who sits next to me while I'm eating a lukewarm complimentary breakfast. Her daughters are with her— granddaughters too.

“We ah from Marietta,” the elderly lady says, using eleven syllables.

Then, instead of shaking my hand, Mamaw

extends her wrist. Kind of like the Queen of England does when she blesses a NASCAR race.

Anyway, I'm not sorry about my strong affections for the women of Dixie. There's something special about them, and I'll die believing that.

They are well-behaved, and unpredictable. Using only one breath, they can cuss you blind, then turn around and preach a full-blown sermon. Sometimes they do both at once, using so much charm you end up thanking them for it.

They dress to the nines, often spending upwards of six hours before…

I don't know what it is about shoes and poverty. They're the first things to go when times get rough; first things you buy when you can.

They were poor. Deep-fried poor. So destitute, they didn't have running water. And according to my sources, they cooked meals over an oil drum. The kids had hardly any meat on their bones.

They say the pastor visited their house with money. The father refused the money, claiming things were looking up. But this was a Depression. There was no up.

The pastor left a check anyway. And I understand he cashed it before lunchtime.

The first thing school kids noticed were her new shoes. Red leather ones, she loved red. I don't know what it is about shoes and poverty. They're the first things to go when

times get rough; first things you buy when you can.

The oldest girl walked with a bounce in her step, down the school hallways. She was a nice-looking girl, who rarely spoke. Nobody paid her any mind. Too bad. She had an angel-face. I suppose ratty clothes are hard for junior-high brats to look past.

It was during field class—when kids changed into white T-shirts and white shorts and exercised outside. She left her new bright-colored shoes in her locker.

When class was over, her shoes were gone.

They say she cried…

What we need are people with jumper cables, men unafraid to open doors for girls, and Samaritans—who don't give a blessed hallelujah about money. Good people, who don't use foul language except in heavy traffic.

“Nobody likes me, I'm a loser,” claims my friend's son, Billy.


That's a sad word, coming from nice-looking Billy. Today, he's as blue as a twelve-year-old can be. I asked his daddy where Billy got this ludicrous notion.

“Group of boys,” he said. “Middle-school cliques, you remember how it was.”

Do I.

In middle school they elected me president of the Mouth-Breathers Association of America. I still have my tiara somewhere. So unpopular did I become, I approached my forgetful grandfather for advice one day. My grandaddy pulled me aside and he left me there.

Billy, listen up, I want to tell you about my friend, Murphy. Murphy sought

popularity, too. When Murph was seventeen, he wanted to fit in with the athletes—who all had tiny eagle tattoos above their left nipples. We tried to talk him out of it, but Murph had a will of iron.

So, a carful of us drove two hours into the bad part of town. After Murph worked up a whiskey-glow, he stumbled into a parlor and proclaimed, “Hey, I wanna tatermy misshongreat sallerwacky.”

They knew what he meant.

We boys waited outside, watching various folks dressed in leather walk by. One woman…

“He was a coon hunter. He and his buddies were some of the only men I knew who went after coons at night. But he was also an artist..."

“Would you write a tribute about my dad?” John asked. “I don't mean publicly, just something for my family, his birthday's coming up. I wasn't sure if you did that kinda thing.”

Well, not really, John, but how about a little information? Maybe I can help.

“Okay, he was an abused kid, our grandfather beat him and his brothers. Sometimes bad. My grandfather was awful, I believe that's why my daddy never got mad about anything. Even when my brother backed the car into the garage... Dad just laughed.

“He worked in a pulp mill since the sixties, loved hunting dogs, he thought my mama was a frickin' goddess, he liked humor, too. I think he would'a liked you.”

You've got my attention now, John.

“He was a coon hunter. He and his buddies were some of the only men I knew who went after coons at night. But he was also an artist. He painted, I still have lots of his paintings, and his wood carvings. When Mama died, he got into whittling pretty


A coon-hunting millworker, who likes hounds, painting, and whittling. Keep talking.

“He carved bears, buffalo, coyotes, and all sorts of animals from out West. But it was funny, because in reality, he never really travelled anywhere outside Dallas County.

“Oh, and there's one time, he saved someone's life. Yeah, he was on his way home and saw a car on the shoulder, this guy was choking, dad said his face was purple, the guy would'a probably died.”

A good Samaritan.

“No, he was a Methodist, but not a serious one, you know?"

My favorite kind.

“Everyone invited him to parties, he was the life of parties, had a million jokes he could run through, like the one about the farmer's daughter and the...”

This is a family story, John.

“After he died, our family kinda fell apart, it's hard getting together, 'cause he was…

My waitress was a doll. She kept calling me sweetheart, which sounded more like, “sweehar.” Her name-tag read: Luanne. She couldn't have been more than eighteen. A rough eighteen.

I took the long way home. I drove through miles of dead cornfield. It was like riding through an upside-down whisk broom. Then, green fields, fat clouds, ranches on two hundred acres. Ten, maybe twenty dead possums. Lots of old implements laid to rest in pastures.

I passed inmates on the side of the road, using commercial lawn equipment. They were wearing stripes. I haven't seen stripes in a long time.

I stopped at a rural gas station for tater logs. I once had a friend from Sacramento whose shoes cost more than my coonhound. He didn't know what tater logs were. I pity the soul who's never eaten a tater log.

I drove past trailer hair-salons, and women hanging clothes on honest-to-goodness clotheslines—something I haven't seen since I used to pee the bed.

I blew past a speed trap in Beaver Creek; a cemetery behind a

gas station; a kid advertising a carwash in Milligan; a stray dog with a rabbit in its mouth.

I stopped at an antique store. Two older fellas sat out front. They didn't care if I bought anything, they were glad to have company.

A cooler sat on the porch. One man opened it and said, "You wanna buy some homegrown 'maters?”

These tomatoes looked decidedly suspicious. I've seen my share of handpicked fare. This wasn't it.

“You sure they're homegrown?” I asked.

“Course I'm sure, they had to come from SOMEBODY'S home.”

Then he laughed, because putting the shuck on out-of-towners is an Alabamian pastime.

I passed John Deere dealerships, feed stores—the kind where you can buy anything from cases of beer to Wrangler jeans.

I didn't care if I ever got home.

Long ago, I knew a kid afraid of anything that smelled…