The double doors of UAB Hospital opened into a corridor filled with people. Hundreds maybe. Too many people to count. They lined the walls, shoulder to shoulder. Heads bowed. Some wore badges. Others wore scrubs. Everyone was anvil silent.

The hero was passing by.

A hospital gurney entered the hallway. A police officer barked out the military-like call.

“LAW ENFORCEMENT! ATTENTION!”

Immediately, the corridor filled with the noises of clicking heels and the rustle of starched trousers as officers stood erect, chins up, shoulders back, chests out. There were duty belts galore. Body-mounted radios aplenty.

Male and female officers held themselves ramrod straight, unblinking.

The hospital bed wheeled forward at a dirge-like pace. Nurses steered. There was no chit-chat. No idle conversation. A real life hero was motionless beneath the sheets.

The uniforms had all come from the surrounding counties and rural backwaters within the quiltwork of central Alabama. Woodstock. Brent. Centerville. Chelsea.

They wore khakis, forest greens, and Class-B tactical blues. They represented different agencies from across the 22nd State, but the same brotherhood.

“PRESENT ARMS!” came

the shout.

A throng of officers showed full salute.

The body of 32-year-old deputy Brad Johnson trundled down the hallway, toward the organ donor center. The corridor between the two medical buildings is roughly the distance of two city blocks. There were more than two blocks’ worth of onlookers.

They call this an “Honor Walk.” It is a ceremony of respect reserved for deceased saints, for exceptional people, for those who have chosen to be organ donors.

And, of course, for heroes.

People sniffed noses. Shoulders quivered with tearful sobs. Following behind the bed was a train of Brad’s mourners, which included Brad’s K9 partner, Bodie. A German shepherd.

“It was in his blood and in his heart to help people,” said a longtime friend, Brandon Jones. “He would do anything for anybody.”

And he proved it. Brad made a life of…

Do this. Get a tomato. Not just any tomato. A Slocomb, Alabama, tomato. Make sure the tomato is firecracker-red and softer than the hindcheeks of a 2-month-old. Find a serrated knife. Cut said tomato into thick slices about the width of the unabridged edition of “Shogun.”

Tomatoes from Geneva County, Alabama, are different from common varieties. They are superior tomatoes.

In fact, top archaeology scholars at Columbia University now believe that the original Garden of Eden was located just north of Highway 52 in Geneva County. And most experts agree that the forbidden fruit consumed by Adam and Eve was originally purchased from the Hendrix Farm Produce tomato stand.

Next, find two slices of Sunbeam bread. In a pinch, you can use Bunny Bread, Wonderbread, or Colonial bread. But stay away from any bread with packaging labels that read something like, “59 whole grains and seeds!” or “3,234 grams of dietary fiber!” This isn’t real bread but an abrasive material meant for sanding boat hulls.

Consequently, if all you have in your

pantry is “gluten-free” or “keto” bread, please stop reading here and go back to California.

Once you have your white, floppy, flaccid, tasteless bread ready, open a jar of Duke’s mayonnaise. Duke’s is the brand with the canary-yellow lid, manufactured and packaged by real evangelical seminary graduates so you know it’s sacred, mostly.

If you don’t have any Duke’s, you’re not totally out of luck. Blue Plate mayonnaise will also work nicely. Bama mayonnaise is also a winner.

Hellmann’s, however, isn’t fit for consumption by a golden retriever. Similarly, Miracle Whip is neither a “miracle,” nor a “whip,” but the brainchild of communists sympathizers who don’t love the Lord. And Kraft mayo is industrial doorknob lubricant.

It bears mentioning, if all you have in your refrigerator is a kind of mayonnaise labeled “light” or “low fat” please forfeit your tomato to someone who will use it correctly and…

I entered Alabama at 11:03 a.m. The sky was vivid blue and cloudless. I pulled into a gas station not far from the state line.

I was exhausted and depleted after a morning on the road. For nearly 40 miles I had been stuck behind a dilapidated truck on a two-lane highway. The truck’s bumper sticker read, NICK SABAN IS MY LOVE LANGUAGE.

I swiped my card. I started pumping gas. And that’s where I met the General, at gas pump Number Eight.

The General introduced himself to me. He was maybe five-four, with a blazing white beard, a pronounced limp. He was bone thin and smelled like a distillery.

There were strips of duct tape on his shoes. His jeans were ragged. He had a duffel bag slung over his shoulder and a calico cat resting in his arms.

“Can you help two travelers out?” he said.

“Where are you traveling?” I asked.

“Ain’t decided yet. Right now we’re fundraising. Can you spare anything?”

“How about ten bucks?”

It was a pittance, but it was all I

had. The General took the cash and thanked me. He told me the United States Army thanked me. Then he nodded to the calico cat, who was purring. “My lieutenant general thanks you, too.”

I almost saluted, but thought better of it.

A few more of the General’s troops emerged from the shadows near the filling station. Some in the General’s company were Persian-white, others were orange striped, one was tri-colored. They flocked to the elderly high-ranking officer, meowing their tails off.

The brass hat stooped on his heels, reached into his heavy duffel bag and removed a bag of Walmart-brand cat food. He scooped out several handfuls and placed the multi-colored food on the pavement near the pump.

“Troops got to eat,” he said.

“What about you?” I asked. “You need to eat, too.”

He shook his head. “They eat. Then…

Three of us sat beside Mama’s above-ground pool, out in the wilds of Black Creek. We were beneath a Dollar-Store umbrella, and a canopy of live oaks longleafs. My mother, my kid sister and me.

Mama’s old transistor radio played Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” My nieces were splashing in the plastic-framed pool, trying to see which child could rupture a vocal cord first. It was hotter than the hinges of hell outside.

“You look good,” Mama said to me.

“So do you,” I said.

“You’ve gained a little weight since the last time I saw you.”

“Well.”

The last time I saw Mama, my wife and I were moving away from the Florida Panhandle. That night, not so long ago, Mama and I were sitting on the Choctawhatchee Bay of my youth.

It was sunset. A heron was on the shore. And I was saying goodbye to Walton County, Florida, bound for Jefferson County, Alabama. Mama didn’t cry. But I did, a little.

She’s shorter than I remember. The woman has always been five-foot-two. But I’d guess she’s more like four-eleven

now. If she were any shorter you could put her in your pocket and carry her around.

She has two brilliant white streaks of hair up front. The rest of her hair is stubbornly brunette. Because that’s what she is. Stubborn. My father once said she was the most stubborn woman he ever met. “She makes talking to a mule look easy,” is how he put it.

The radio was now playing to Conway Twitty’s “Linda On My Mind.” The nieces were engaged in a mutant version of Marco Polo, the worst game ever created by humankind.

“So what’s been going on?” Mama asked. “What have you been doing with yourself since you’ve been living in Birmingham?”

“Not much.”

“You write all the dang time.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Is that all you do is write?”

“Sometimes I…

I have a dream. I have a dream that one day people won’t hate each other.

I have a dream that, someday, upon the West Texan soil, the Lakes of Minnesota, the hillsides of the Carolinas, the peaks of Colorado, the foothills of Alabama and the shores of Sandy Hook, Connecticut, that we will all share the blessed bread of friendship.

I have a dream that someday we Americans will actually grow to like each other again.

I have a dream that one day the tenderness of humankind will not only be demonstrated in the public forum, but within the walls of the home, within our schools, and on our phosphorus blue-lit phone screens.

I have a dream that people will someday listen to one another, no matter how uncomfortable it might be. I have a dream that all who oppose one another will—and I know this is possible—find a common ground.

I have a dream that our children will forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who root for the

wrong football team.

I have a dream that someday all gasoline-pump card readers will accept my debit card without computer error.

I have a dream that my internet service provider will stop experiencing mass outages approximately every six minutes, especially during extra innings. Spectrum Internet, I’m looking at you.

And I have a dream that someday you will only need one password for all your internet accounts, instead of 2,731 passwords, each of which must contain at least 14 characters, one uppercase letter, six numerals, a special character, and the blood of a nanny goat sacrifice.

I have a dream that, one day, less American children will want iPhone 13s and more kids will want Crayola 64s. I have a dream that video games will be less important than building forts.

I have a dream that kids will once again embrace their heaven-sent right to attach baseball cards…

DEAR SEAN:

You’re such a #%^**!!ing idiot and I am so unbelievably disappointed in you after reading your last column.

Before you try to shut me down or fight back, I think if you read through some of the comments left by others on your last post you’ll realize that I’m not alone... When you wonder why you’ve lost all your faithful readers and you’re all alone, know that it's because of your own insensitive words.

I’ll admit that you deceived us all. My husband and I thought you were a good guy, but your insensitivity to the serious divisions

facing the country right now is sickening to me. You are wrong, wrong, wrong. America does suck, and by refusing to admit it so do you.

Also, your whole “it’s a wonderful life” attitude and take on life is pure B.S., too.

You honestly represent the main problem with this country… Nobody cares what you have to say about anything anyway so please do us all a favor and just shut the *#&$! up.

DEAR FRIEND:

Okay.

A television is playing in a Birmingham bar. The talking head is shouting politics. Most folks in this joint are below thirty, and aren't even watching TV. They're transfixed with the opiate glows of their smartphones.

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

“This country sucks, man.”

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

Still, maybe it’s not his fault. I don't know what his story is, I don’t know what his beliefs are, but perhaps this boy has missed a few uniquely American blessings in his accumulated years of harrowed wisdom.

Maybe if he could see a few wondrous things in this country he’d change his opinion about us.

Perhaps he's never seen things like big, neon-pink azaleas bright enough to give you trouble breathing. Those don't suck.

Neither do the Waffle Houses lining the interstates. The shoebox buildings with the canary-yellow tops and the interior globe

lights over the faux-wood tables. Nothing sucks about those. I’ve neither had a bad meal at such an establishment, nor bad service. And no matter which season I visit a Waffle House, it is always cold enough inside to hang meat.

The Everglades at sunrise, no sucking there. The Suwannee River definitely doesn’t suck. The fat-bottomed cypress trees, swollen with bayou water. Spanish moss—which, as it turns out, is neither moss, nor Spanish.

My bartender needs to see these things. They would bless his heart.

If you ask me, the boy needs to ride a riverboat on the Mighty Missouri at dusk, watch the shrimp trawlers combing Lake Pontchartrain. Or listen to stories from the roughnecks who raised beef in Ottawa County, Oklahoma. He should meet the roughnecks who farmed the oyster beds of the Apalachicola Bay.

And he needs smoked ribs from Kendall’s…

The kid was playing guitar in a beer joint. He was pretty good, too. He was mid-20s, he had a ponytail, tattoos, and his face looked like someone dipped it in a bucket of hair. He was a big guy, nice-looking. Maybe six-one. His voice had experience in it.

I was in the seating area, watching him work. Nobody else was paying attention. Everyone else was at the bar, lost in their own world. The male patrons were flirting with anything that moved. The female patrons were trying not to move.

The kid was providing background music. He was playing Merle Haggard, and he wasn’t just playing hits. This kid was playing B-side stuff. Such as, “This Time I Really Do,” “The Longer You Wait,” and “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive.”

Then he started playing Willie, Lefty Frizell, Tex Avery, Bob Wills, and Spade Cooley.

Most folks don’t even know who Spade Cooley is.

This kid deserved someone to pay him attention. Might as well be me.

I used to play music for a living.

Just like him. I played music in rooms where people smoked fistfuls of Marlboros and laughed too much.

On my plywood stage was a repurposed Sam’s Club mayonnaise jar labeled: TIPS.

My highest aspiration was to play a song that would inspire someone to leave a $100 bill in my jar.

That only happened one time. I have played thousands of gigs in my lifetime, from Atlanta to Chiefland. But I have only played one gig where a man tipped a hundred bucks.

I was playing “Amazing Grace” in Pensacola, Florida. The man in the audience was weeping. His son had just died in a car wreck on I-10. The man said his son loved “Amazing Grace.”

The man tried to give me a hundred bucks, and I refused. Namely, because he had been overserved. His breath was potent, and you wouldn’t have wanted to light…

The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show was on television yesterday when my cousin texted urgently:

“Check out that bloodhound!”

I tuned in. I was immediately introduced to Trumpet the bloodhound, who paraded across the purple carpet, his handler trotting beside him, frantically trying to keep up.

The Westminster Dog Show is America’s second oldest sporting event after the Kentucky Derby. And Trumpet is—drumroll please—the first bloodhound to win Westminster’s best in show prize.

Trumpet is your quintessential blood. His loose skin looks like he is wearing a bear-skin robe nine sizes too big. He has enormous lion-paw feet attached to four telephone-pole legs. His prodigious nose can smell what you had for dinner on Saturday night, June 23, 1979.

I have had a longtime love affair with bloodhounds. I’ve had the pleasure of being owned by four hounds in my life, and they have been my greatest friends. There is something special about the breed.

Maybe it’s the gallons of drool they produce. Or maybe it’s the way they shake their coats, causing stringy, snot-like globules

of saliva to fling onto walls and furniture, leaving long tendrils of mucous dangling freely from the ceiling fan.

Or maybe it’s the bloodhound’s voice. A bloodhound does not bark. They bay. Each bloodhound I have owned has had a unique voice that sounds like a lifelong smoker singing Whitney Houston in the shower.

Bloodhounds are obstinate creatures. They do what they want. When they want. How they want.

There is an old saying among bloodhound owners: You do not “train” a bloodhound; you drink.

Also, most bloodhounds have a genetic condition called dysmetropsia, which is a size-preception handicap. This brain disorder causes 100-pound creatures to mistakenly view themselves as six-pound animals. Which is why bloodhounds believe it is their constitutional right to sleep in people’s laps, even if this causes severe groinal injury to lap owners.

My first experience with bloodhounds was with…

You went to heaven yesterday. It was the first day of summer, of all days. You died on the summer solstice.

This world already feels weird without you. Like someone adjusted the picture on the TV screen of existence and screwed up the reception. The colors are off. The sky is a strange shade of blue. The songs of the birds sound mechanical and fake. Nothing feels right.

You made us all love you. I don’t know how you did that. But you did. You had that unique human talent of amiability. People were drawn to you like fruit flies.

I was one such fruit fly.

I was aimless when we first met. A lost kid. Confused about who he was. You were older than me. You were an artist. You loved your life. I wanted to love my life the way you did. I wanted to find joy the way you did.

So you helped me. You and your husband took me in like a stray mutt. You fed me from your

table. You told me I was somebody. You gave me free haircuts.

My wife woke me up this morning to tell me the news of your departure. I couldn’t cry. In fact, I couldn’t feel. I am still pretty numb. And a little sick. It’s like when you touch a stove. That nanosecond before the pain sets in, your whole body is still trying to figure out what just happened. That’s how I feel.

I have had all the normal thoughts that accompany death and dying. I keep thinking: “Life isn’t fair.” “Life is too short.” “Why is life so cruel?”

Sometimes I have thoughts about how maybe it’s God who is cruel, and not life. After all, how could a loving universal creator snuff out the life of an angel while he allows a dictator to die of old age? How, I ask you.

But then…