I've sat in Bryant-Denny stadium and gone deaf. I've visited nursing homes and heard stories from the elderly—who know exponentially more than I do. I've laid good dogs in the dirt...

Obnoxious loud-talkers who sit at bars, rank right up there with dogs who lift their legs on your welcome mat.

Take, for instance, the fella at the bar beside me. He launched into a well-rehearsed speech about his world travels. First, the Alps. Then, Belgium, France, Italy, South Africa, Timbuktu.

By then, people at the bar had cleared out.

He asked me, “You done much traveling?”

I shook my head and said, "No, but I've woken up in a cattle pasture."

Loud-Talker rolled his eyes. “See?” he went on. “Now THAT'S your problem. You can't find your true-self unless you TRAVEL!”

So, I paid my tab and traveled my true-self

outside.

The truth is, I've never owned a passport, never stepped foot in Canada, and the closest I've come to self-discovery was South Texas in July, where I saw a real mirage.

I'm uninteresting on paper. I concede. But I regret nothing.

My life hasn't been bad. After all, I've known exceptional people. Like my friend who I'll call, Alan. Alan has no face. Nothing but eyes and pink flesh. This happened when he woke up in a burning mobile home. Pieces of the smoldering ceiling fell on his face…

I'm writing to the haves and have-nots. To the waitress in Waffle House who rushed her mother into the hospital last week, but was too late. Heart attack. The girl took out a loan to pay for the funeral.

I'm writing to the man I saw muscling his child into a carseat in the parking lot. His boy must've been eleven or twelve, but wasn't able to walk. The man lifted him from a wheelchair and buckled him in. The boy drooled all over the man's shirt.

When the man finished, he kissed his son and said, "How about some Ben and Jerry's?" To which the boy commenced to pitching an ever-loving fit.

The good kind of fit.

I'm also writing to the employee standing in front of Piggly Wiggly, her face in her hands. I have no idea what she's crying about, but it must've been important enough to clock out for it.

To the drunk man in the gas station, hollering at the clerk. The police officer showed up to manage the situation. The drunk fella started crying, “My wife, she's run off with my BEST FRIEND! What're my kids gonna do?”

The officer hugged the gentleman.

To the girl who doesn't like her body. The boy who

wishes he were an athlete, but doesn't have the coordination to keep cheese on a cracker.

To the woman whose husband left her with four children. To the kids in the airport, who wear matching yellow T-shirts that read: “Future Farmers of America.” These kids are on their way to Omaha to learn about breakthroughs in animal husbandry. Rena is very excited about this. So is Ted.

Billy told me he doesn't give two flocks about it.

I'm writing to the haves and have-nots. To the waitress in Waffle House who rushed her mother into the hospital last week, but was too late. Heart attack. The girl took out a loan to pay for the funeral.

To my pal, Jake, who had back surgery. To my friend who got wronged by the Methodist church which employed him. To the man on the side of the road, loading a dog…

You feel lucky to have ridden that stupid, god-forsaken, miserable, gas-guzzling, misfiring, ugly, rusted, old, leaky, loud, tractor. Lucky.

I'm watching a boy drive a John Deere, in the distance. At least, I think it's a boy, he's too far away to tell.

I know this kid. I can't see him, but I know what kind of clothes he's wearing, I know how he talks—he uses words like, "ain't," too often. And he gets up early.

I once overheard some folks speculate on why the rural-minded start work so early. One person thought it was to avoid the heat. Another suggested that the Bible commands it.

But if you ask anyone I grew up with, they'd tell you it's because their fathers made them. And these early risers are the kind who say the word, "ain't," too often.

It might go like this:

Before the stars have disappeared, you're still half-asleep, wearing work boots, and you are not a happy customer. It's dark. And since you're too young for coffee, you get lukewarm Coca-Cola.

The barn stinks. The tractor is louder than the Second Coming. And even though you're not old enough

to have a learner's permit, you steer this Ford Model 2N, built during World War Two, until your hindparts go numb.

You watch the morning sky change from purple, to gray, to rose-colored. Then: full sunlight.

The engine makes you deaf. You couldn't hear your own ideas if you had any. You pay attention to the rows you're cutting. Whenever you veer off-line, you cuss yourself.

You look backward at your house. It never occurs to you that one day they'll sell this place. Or that the new owners will let the surrounding fields go to weed.

Then, you grow up, move away. You spend a lot of energy convincing people you aren't a dumb hick—cleaning up the way you talk. You quit saying, “ain't,” and stop slicing the cuffs of your jeans with pocketknives.

It works for a while. You convince yourself you've forgotten that life.…

Five-year-old Miles decided to do something. He donated vitamins and supplements to a local food bank. Other people joined him—so did one health food store.

Mount Pleasant, South Carolina—Jeff found a wiry haired dog. He was blind, deaf, and nosing around behind a Hardee's dumpster. After Jeff took the little fella home, he bathed him, clipped the knots from his fur, and fed him ground beef with melted cheese on top.

Lucky dog.

Later that night, the dog curled up on Jeff's lap while he watched television. Jeff said, “I must've pet that little guy for three solid hours. I didn't even get up to use the bathroom, didn't wanna wake him.”

When Jeff finally got up for bed, the dog's eyes had already rolled back into its head.

“I cried,” said Jeff. “Almost like

I'd owned him my whole life. I'm just glad his last day was a good one.”

Chamblee, Georgia—if you ever see a '77 Oldsmobile that looks like it's two steps from the junkyard, complete with duct-taped interior, it's Rick's car.

“I got this Olds' when I graduated,” said Rick. “They last forever.”

A few years ago, Rick started offering the beater to people who needed help. If they wanted to borrow the car, all they had to do was sign up on a list.

“You know,” said Rick. “Lotta of…

Beautiful. It was an understatement. I'd never seen anything more breathtaking in all my life. Not even a sunrise.

“Hurry up!” Miss June said. “It's happening!”

I came running toward the porch as fast as my chubby seven-year-old legs would take me. “I'll protect you, miss!” I shouted, holding on to my cowboy hat, waving my pistol.

“You don't need to protect me,” she said. “Just hurry, we don't wanna be late!”

I sat in the front seat of Miss June's Cadillac—no seat-belts—staring out the window, my Smith and Wesson holstered around my waist. On my chest: a gold star.

These were the days before iPhone games and juice boxes. If I wasn't wearing a cowboy hat and packing a six-shooter, I was rescuing a maiden from peril, shouting, “I'll

protect you, miss!”

Which is what cowboys do.

Anyway, folks my age might not be as technologically brilliant as today's youth, but we did know how to play dead whenever someone shot us. Which must count for something.

The hospital was a sterile-smelling place. When I walked into the delivery room, I met the smallest thing I'd ever seen—except for frogs. Once, I'd shoved nearly four bullfrogs into my pockets. And then, while sprinting toward the house at top speed, I tripped and fell.

Only one frog survived.

After…

We crawled out of the passenger side, into the ditch. My ears rang, my shoulder was a mess, my eyes wouldn't focus. The two of us sat in the tall grass, silent.

The last thing I remember before the wreck was Jamie singing along with Garth Brooks on the radio. She gave it all she had. I watched her belt out lyrics while I drove along the interstate. Her singing voice: a mixture between Gomer Pyle and a 1953 Buick Skylark.

It was sunny, it felt like the whole world was on fire. We'd just finished camping in Pelham, Alabama. And, after a small spider had found its way onto Jamie's bedroll, she swore off tents for good. And sleeping bags. And husbands.

So, there we were on the interstate. The truck hit us from behind. My wife choked on

the Garth lyrics and flung toward the windshield. I lost control.

He hit us again. On the side.

We spun.

The impact crushed my side of the cab. My windshield turned into shaved ice.

This sent our vehicle sliding into oncoming traffic. It took a quarter of a millisecond for my wife to glance out her window and see a semi-truck honking at us. We screamed, since that's all we could do.

Garth Brooks kept singing.

To tell you the truth, I don't remember much else except a baseball-bat-type sound, accompanied by…

I remember my pal's daddy saying, "It's the damnedest thing, when you're dying you pray for lots of miracles—what you get is lots of people.”

We're at a gas-station-barbecue-joint, a wooden shack that's seen better days. We're the only ones in the place. The waitress serves me tea in a pickle jar which still has the Vlasic label on it.

You don't see that sort of thing anymore.

The truth is, I come from a long line of quart-jar aficionados. My grandaddy sipped a jar on weekends, holidays, fishing trips, and baby dedications. My father also had a collection for special occasions—stored in the shed rafters above the tractor. I wasn't supposed to know about those.

I did.

Once, my friend and I sampled the contents. We climbed into the rafters. He took a swig and

coughed.

“It burns,” he said.

A few seconds later, he fell off the beam onto the dirt. When I asked if he was alright, he laughed, saying, “I never felt gooder!”

That kid is a missionary now.

It doesn't end there. My environmentally-minded wife carries a quart-jar of water in her purse—instead of a plastic bottle. Once, to be funny, I drew three X's on the front.

During a church service, in Wetumpka, Alabama, a ravenous case of cottonmouth overcame her. She unscrewed the lid, then turned it upside…

“...Of tearful partings, how they left you here below. Will the circle be unbroken?...”

The morning after my father passed, my aunt opened every window in the house. She said it was to let his spirit escape.

So, I peeked my head outside.

All I saw were my uncles' two beat-up motorhomes rolling into our driveway. They parked in the tall grass, strung power cords into the barn, extended awnings.

That night, they built a campfire, then sat looking at the stars. Now and then, one uncle would stab the fire, sending a spray of sparks into the night.

Instead of conversation, someone brought out a guitar. In his raspy voice—which sounded like a bloodhound with sinus issues—my uncle sang, “Amazing Grace,” and,

“When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.” When he sang, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” he was nearly overcome.

I didn't understand the song, or what kind of circle he meant. I'm not sure he did either, because when I asked about it, he lit a fresh cigarette and said, “It's the mystery of life, boy.”

Mysteries.

Like the way clouds keep reproducing out of thin air. Or: what makes a heart beat—and what makes it stop? How a fire works, and why politics feels like a poke to the eye…

Anyway, it's not because my life is wonderful, or because I'm naturally happy. My life hasn't always been so wonderful. And I'm not exactly the giddiest little sailor God ever created.

I'm looking at the bay water right now. A storm is blowing in. It looks like heaven is fixing to open up.

Vacationers in the cabin to my right are doing the same thing I'm doing. The man is on his porch, wearing a bright red Georgia Bulldog T-shirt, smoking a cigarette.

Watching.

The family in the cabin to my left is from Auburn, Alabama. The back of their truck, smeared with pictures of tigers and eagles. He's on his porch, too. He's sipping a cup of something that's supposed to be coffee. But I'd bet good money it's hair-of-the-dog.

“Good morning,” says Georgia.

“Good morning,” I'm saying.

Auburn says nothing—his

morning isn't so good.

Well mine is. And I'm just going to come right out and say it: I feel grateful. I don't know why, to tell you the truth. I suppose a man can't control the way he feels, sometimes.

Neither good nor bad.

Anyway, it's not because my life is wonderful, or because I'm naturally happy. My life hasn't always been so wonderful. And I'm not exactly the giddiest little sailor God ever created.

But I'm grateful for things. Things like puppies, geckos, and stocked coolers. For…

It's when kisses taste like salt, when you expect your dance partner to sweat through their clothes. It's when you go swimming with your dogs in the creek, and let the warm water swallow you.

Our air conditioner went out. And if I were to tell you that it's hot, I would be making a gross understatement. It's not hot. It's sweltering—that's what my mama calls it.

Our bedsheets feel like they're made of industrial wool. I smell like the raw side of a mule. My wife has sweat rings under her sweat rings. Our dog looks suicidal.

I don't know how the old-timers did it, before window-units. I remember my grandfather saying, as a boy, he'd sit beneath his house with his dogs. He'd practice guitar; they'd pant.

His mother would lower lunch through the loose floorboards—crumbled cornbread in a jar, doused with buttermilk.

“All food ought be cold during the dog days," he'd say. "Tea, tomatoes, cucumbers, potato salad, watermelon, slaw...”

Summer food.

And then there were summer Sundays. “Church was awful," my grandfather said. "Cramming a bunch of folks into one hot little chapel, everybody sweating. It's enough to make you believe in Hell."

Even so, Hell happened to be his favorite season of the year. I asked him how this could be, when only hours earlier, I'd seen two trees fighting over a dog.

He said, “We didn't notice the heat,…