The words of his antique songs wouldn't make much sense in today's world. After all, it's difficult to understand songs about poverty while listening to them on a seven-hundred-dollar smartphone.

"Boy, there was a time when the only way to hear a song was to watch a man sing it. And if you liked it, the only way to own it was to learn it."

It sounded like a flock of dying cats. Whining, howling, singing voices, accompanied by out-of-tune guitars and laughter.

It was marvelous.

My neighbor. His family was in town for the holiday weekend. While their grill smoked, they sat on the porch working up a good beer-glow, singing.

I sat outside, my ear cocked toward them.

They sang tunes like: “Uncloudy Day,” or, “Peace in the Valley.” And when they got to “I Come To The Garden,” somebody's wife joined in and put them all

to shame. She knew every verse.

I remember my grandaddy saying once, “Record players stole common folks' voices."

As a five-year-old, all I could do was reflect on this, and answer, "Did you know butterflies can taste with their feet?"

Which is true.

He ignored me and went on, "Boy, there was a time when the only way to hear a song was to watch a man…

I think children should hear it more. Telling someone you love them has a way of making you feel exposed. I wish more folks were brave enough to feel that.

“We use the word, love, too much,” the obnoxious man seated next to me is saying. “The word's almost meaningless today. Nobody uses it right.”

Nice. Four hours on an airplane, and here I am, seated next to a philosopher who smells like Wild Turkey.

"Are you an English teacher, or something?" I'm asking.

“No,” he points out, with slurred speech. "I'm juss a concerned citizen." He laughs, hiccups. "AND a literature professor."


The man goes on, “In America, we say we LOVE tacos, or we LOVE donuts... It's just too strong.”

Well, it bears mentioning: if loving donuts is wrong, I'm fully prepared to be incorrect.

Anyway, I disagree

with the esteemed professor. Not only because when he walks to the bathroom, he staggers like a sedated rhinoceros. It's because I like saying, "love."

It's my favorite word.

For example: I LOVE handmade biscuits. And I LOVE a good night's sleep. I love music that doesn't involve teenagers in tight pants, and dogs who beg using only their eyes. I LOVE antiques, Corningware, old wood, and ceiling-fans.

Or, how about the way the morning sun peeks over the trees? Before the rest of the world is awake? I…

“At nineteen, you think you're just gonna do your time in the military, get out, and carry on with your life. But Vietnam screwed everything up.

O beautiful for heroes proved, in liberating strife. Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life...

Carl, 92, U.S. Army: “During the war, we had everyone pulling for us at home, and we knew it, too. Even movie stars were rooting for the troops. Those were different times.

“As soldiers, there were moments, between the fighting, over in Europe, that we talked about personal things, stuff you don't never tell nobody else. There's a kind of bond between men who know they're going to die, a deep one. I just couldn't describe it.”

Phillip, 86, U.S. Air Force: “Shoot, I didn't even know what the Korean conflict was when I joined up. But, well, wherever they send you, you gotta go. I

wasn't too worried about it. In hindsight, I should'a been. Those were the worst years of my entire life.”

Johnny, 67, U.S. Army: “When I enlisted, I was only nineteen, man. I wasn't trying to be a good American. All I cared about was girls. Guys in uniforms got girls.

“At nineteen, you think you're just gonna do your time in the military, get out, and carry on with your life. But Vietnam screwed everything up.

“When I came back, I couldn't sleep indoors. I was twenty-four, spending the night in my mama's backyard—with…

Sadness is in the atmosphere. Even if you were to turn off your television and unsubscribe to the paper, it would crawl through your shower drains and toilets.

Birmingham, Alabama—a minor league baseball game, a well-attended one. The chatty boy sitting next to me said his name was Martin. I remember this because he said it over and over again.

Martin had Down syndrome, he wore a hearing aid, and spoke loud enough to rupture my eardrums. “MY NAME'S MARTIN!” he pointed out again.

I must've shaken his hand ninety-seven times.

After the fourth inning, they put Martin's face on the jumbo screen. It was his birthday. Five thousand folks sang to him. I don't think I've ever seen a smile that big on a human-being before.

“I love you, Martin,” said his father beside him.

Martin was ten years old.

Tuscaloosa, Alabama—it costs a small fortune for a parking spot at football games. That is, if you're lucky enough to find one. We drove slow, looking for free space to cram the truck into. A middle-aged man in his yard flagged me down. I lowered my window.

“You can park here,” he said. “On my lawn.”

“How much?” I asked, waiting for a four-digit number.

“Free. I have

a golf-cart, too. I'll even give you a ride to the stadium.”

My wife leaned over to whisper, "Honey, he might be an axe murderer."

Maybe, but this axe murderer had a golf-cart.

I tried to pay the man for his trouble. He said, "Save your money for someone who needs it."

Chatanooga, Tennessee—I saw a girl spill a Frapuccino on her skirt. It went everywhere. She didn't cry about it—though she was close.

Without skipping a beat, the young lady behind the counter came to mop up the mess. She brought a change of clothes. “They're clean,” she said. “I haven't worn them yet.”

“I can't take your clothes," said the other girl.

“Sure you can. Besides, they'll look better on you. You're prettier than I am.”

Well. Pretty is as pretty does.

The older I get, the…

Then, they'd visit the cooler, saying, “'Nother beer?” Which was only a formality—the speaker already had four in his hand before anyone answered.

It was always hot. So hot, your britches were always a little on the damp side. And whenever you hugged your aunt, your wet skin slipped against hers.

And then there was the guitar. My uncle could make it sing. I don't think I've ever seen anything so mesmerizing as when he picked out, “When We All Get To Heaven.”

I made him sing that tune a hundred times.

Behind us sat the iron beast, with smoke puffing from its stack. Four men sat directly behind it. From time to time, they'd shovel smoldering hickory into its belly, frowning.

Then, they'd visit the cooler, saying, “'Nother beer?” Which was

only a formality—the speaker already had four in his hand before anyone answered.

And baseball. My cousins played catch with Daddy. They remarked on what an arm he had. They'd lob the ball at him. He catch it, spin around like he was turning a double play, then fire back.

My cousin flung his glove off and moaned, “Geez, that one hurt my hand.”

It was one of the only times Daddy felt exceptional.

Beneath the big oak were folding tables, topped with foil-covered casserole dishes. If you so much as…

Don't use the word, “y'all,” “ain't,” or, “reckon,” people might think you're a redneck.

DON'T SWIM IN THE GULF WATER! That's what the experts say. Also: wear enough sunscreen so that you look like a marshmallow. And since we're on the subject, don't eat sugar. Or flour. Or gluten. Or breathe too deeply while in the upright position.

Kids, don't go barefoot. Don't climb trees, or play with bee-bee guns, or eat undercooked hamburgers—which will kill you. Don't play Red Rover, you could break an arm. Don't play baseball, unless you want a concussion. Don't play tackle football. Don't fistfight, you'll go to jail. Don't eat too much birthday cake, and don't you dare ask for more ice cream.

You'll get


Don't watch Westerns—too violent. Don't play with cap-guns. Never use the term, "Indians," that's offensive. Say instead, Native Americans. Don't swing from the monkey bars, don't use tire swings, don't cuss. Just sit Native-American style on the floor and watch the Atlanta Braves take a whooping from the Cleveland Native Americans.

Don't pee outside, ride bikes without helmets, or walk to school. In fact, don't WALK anywhere.

Don't drink anything stronger than apple juice, don't stay up past nine. Don't laugh at dirty jokes. And for God's sake, don't memorize any. If,…

Truth told, I don't know why I count. What does it matter how close the storm is? It's coming for me just the same. There's nothing anyone can do about it. You can't run.

It's raining while I write this. Hard. You ought to see the clouds. They look like dark tidal waves. And in the middle of them, flashes of light, followed by low rumbles. If I close my eyes, the rain almost sounds like a stadium full of people.

This is the best time to sit on your porch. You can see the whole forest soak in a good drink of water. If you're lucky, you might even see a tree get hit by lightning.

Just be careful.

My daddy's friend got struck by lightning once. He was on a job-site. He felt his hair

stand up. So, he laid himself flat on the ground, spread-eagle.

He said it felt like a firecracker went off in his brain. The blast blew off his shoes, burned his scalp, and ruined his hearing. He was never the same. They say he used to be a quiet man who tucked in his shirt; afterward, he was a sloppy, chatty night-owl who liked to chew ice all the time.

He told folks lightning was the best thing that ever happened to him.

Even so, Daddy said whenever it started to rain, he'd…

Males are strange animals. We pretend. In fact, we've been faking it a long time.

“Don't get me talking about my mama,” he said. “Or I'll start crying.”

The man in the necktie started talking about her anyway. There was no way he could help it. He'd just attended her funeral. According to him, it was a small affair. She was in her eighties.

"They did a good job on her," he said. "She looked rested."

It was late. The bartender was tired, musicians packed up instruments, waitresses swept floors, and this man wanted to talk about his mama.

Well, talking about your mother is a tradition in this part of the world. You can hear mama-stories in almost any waterhole across our region. And each tale carries the same weight as a Sunday-school Bible lesson. I don't know if people from other parts talk about mothers quite as often, but I hope they do.

As a teenager, I remember sitting around an Andalusia campfire, watching three boys with beer cans swap mama-stories. Three of us had mothers. John did not.

“You know," said John. "Before Mama died, I fell off the porch once. I broke my leg, I was in a cast for months...”

“I remember that,” said another.