I meet Don, who works in concrete. Billy, who repairs small engines. Steve, who is still looking for work since he quit truck driving. Cassie, who studies stage-acting in Atlanta and works for local newspapers.

The rural South looks good at six in the evening. The sun is low. The peanut fields are so green they’re blue. The grain silos are rusty.

We drive through Slocomb, home of the Tomato Festival. We pass through Tabernacle. I’ll bet they don’t get too worked up in Tabernacle.

And we arrive in Hartford. They tell me this is quite a town. The small community sits in the middle of the Fruited Plains, and it is quintessential Little America.

Nice-looking homes. Old churches. A boy walks on a sidewalk. His dog follows, off-leash.

The public library is a brick building which also serves as courthouse, community center, historical museum, and a reception hall for wedding parties.

I’m in town tonight to speak. I play guitar in a room that's roughly the size of a baptismal tank. I tell a few stories on a microphone.

I have no earthly idea what I’m doing.

Afterward, I am fortunate enough to shake hands with God’s finest people. They are walking-talking masterpieces from Ozark, Wicksburg, Clayhatchee, High Bluff, Bellwood, Earlytown,

Dundee, Malvern, Taylor, Circle City, Slocomb, and Fadette.

I meet a tomato farmer, a cotton farmer, a watermelon farmer, a corn farmer, a goat farmer, an ostrich farmer, a cattle farmer, a tractor mechanic, an twelve-year-old girl who raises show hogs and is strong enough to arm wrestle an adult male.

There is a woman with a walker. She is ninety, with flour-white hair. Martha Green is her name. She has large eyes that sparkle. She eats a cookie and tells me what FSU was like before it turned co-ed.

J.C. shakes my hand. He is a big man with mitts like frying pans, who shares my affection for poundcake.

There is Mandie: five-foot-tall, sweet, gives good hugs, doesn’t know strangers. And former Miss Slocomb gives me a full basket of tomatoes.

If I can find a saltshaker, these tomatoes won’t last ten…

His father was a good man. The kind who had no extra time between mill-whistles. Thursday night Scout meetings were impossible. He drove long commutes, worked overtime, his hateful boss ran him raw. He barely found time for supper.

The early sixties. An era of thick-rimmed glasses, beehive hair-dos, Andy Griffith episodes, and too much eye-makeup.

The sixth-graders made fun of Greg Ford. Nobody could even tell you why. Maybe because he was a soft-spoken kid.

Maybe because kids will be kids.

Greg lived with his father on the poor side of town. His mother left them long ago. Nobody heard from her again.

Young Greg talked about her sometimes, but he was only repeating stories he’d heard from his father. He couldn’t remember her.

He wore a key on a shoestring around his neck. The key to his front door. The other children teased him about that.

Like I said. Kids.

A teacher made him wear the key around his neck after he lost it once. The last thing Greg Ford needed was to wait on a porch-step until dark for his father to get home from the mill.

Anyway, the story here isn’t about keys, or childhood bullies. It’s about the day Greg found a copy of the Boy Scout Manual on the school

bus. He took it home and read it cover to cover.

He asked his father if he could join the Scouts. His father told Greg it wasn’t in the cards.

His father was a good man. The kind who had no extra time between mill-whistles. Thursday night Scout meetings were impossible. He drove long commutes, worked overtime, his hateful boss ran him raw. He barely found time for supper.

Thus, Greg carried the Scout Manual with him. He read it often. He learned about campfire safety, water safety, identifying bear tracks, and how to handle the American flag.

“He never put the manual down,” one classmate remembers. “Was like his security blanket, he really wanted to be a Scout.”

Which broke his teacher’s heart. She looked into taking Greg to meetings herself, but she had a busy family life. Meeting times couldn't have…

On my drive home that evening, I rode the beach route. I pulled over and walked the shoreline. The moon and stars were putting on quite a show. I looked for major constellations, but I’m no good with astronomy.

A few years ago—I played music in a rundown bar on my late father’s birthday. It was a slow night—which felt a lot like singing to a roomful of house cats.

The crowd fizzled. The bartender was reading Cosmo magazine.

On break, an older man offered to buy me a drink. He was droopy-eyed and long-faced. He told me his son had just ended his own life, days earlier.

He drained his bottle, then made small-talk with a thick tongue. I don’t know how our conversation drifted. But conversations involving beer often do.

He said he didn’t believe in God. After his son’s death he came to believe God was nothing but a cruel joke.

He fell from his barstool. I helped him off the ground.

He started crying. “Jeezus,” he said. “You look like my son.”

All I could think to do was hug him.

A cab arrived to carry him home. He tipped the band fifty bucks before he left.

On my drive home that evening,

I rode the beach route. I pulled over and walked the shoreline. The moon and stars were putting on quite a show. I looked for major constellations, but I’m no good with astronomy.

So I thought about the man at the bar.

I reasoned that, if the Almighty were indeed real, He might have sent that poor man to that particular joint. And if that were true, maybe I was supposed to say something to him.

Something like: “Buck up, Daddy Warbucks, the sun’ll come out tomorrow.”


God knows, that’s the sort of thing everyone said to me after Daddy ended his own life.

Anyway, that night I listened to the Gulf water. The sound was hypnotizing. It made…

...When I started writing this column—if that’s what you'd call it—I wanted to meet new people like you. Writing is decidedly more fun than, say, taking knitting classes, or playing rummy with the Junior League.


You’re an idiot and I’m sick of your storytime bull $@%+, you don’t know half as much about life as you think you do… And it pisses me off when you go off giving advice to people.

You’re too young, why don’t you just shut up until you’ve lived a little?



Thank you for your words. I sincerely mean that. Even though they weren't exactly the prettiest sentences I’ve ever read, I’m grateful for them. Sort of.

Because when I started writing this column—if that’s what you'd call it—I wanted to meet new people like you. Writing is decidedly more fun than, say, taking knitting classes, or playing rummy with the Junior League.

Anyway, I’d like to go back to seventh grade for a moment. The year my father swallowed the barrel of a hunting rifle. I lost a lot of good things that year.

I grew up rural. I did not attend high school. I worked.

My first job was at age fourteen, hanging drywall.

My peers attended proms and picked out colleges; I smiled and congratulated them from the sidelines.

The word “outsider” comes to mind.

I visited the library a lot. Once per week, Miss Terri, a short white-haired lady, hand-picked stacks of books for me.

She chose subjects like: chemistry, botany, ornithology, American history, agriculture, wood joinery, classic literature, and Western novels.

I read until my eyes went blurry.

When I hit my mid-twenties, I met an older man on a construction jobsite who had his masters degree. He was swinging a hammer just like me.

I clocked off work early and rode to the local community college. I walked inside and told the…

“My job is to help people make peace, or relax when they’re scared. I try to tell them it's never too late to forgive. I'm living proof.”

He will be seventy-eight this fall. He looks good. He blames his strong health on poor diet and Coca-Cola.

His father was a Pentecostal preacher. As a boy, he grew up underneath a microscope. He was a good kid. He did things all good preacher’s kids do. He sang in church, attended Wednesday services, youth groups, Saturday prayers, and marathon Sundays.

Until age eighteen.

“My girlfriend got pregnant,” he said. “It was hard. People were so judgmental.”

His father kicked him out. The eighteen-year-old gathered his clothes and stayed at a friend’s house.

“All happened so fast,” he said. “One minute I was a straight-A student, the next second I was homeless.”

He and his girlfriend left town. He took a low-paying job. A full two years went by. He called his father and arranged a visit.

He appeared at the church office. He and the preacher spoke for ten minutes before tempers flared.

Old wounds ran deep.

He had a tantrum. He kicked

a hole in his father’s office door, and for almost two decades he and his father had nothing to do with each other. Nothing.

On his forty-sixth birthday, his mother called. It was bad news. His father was sick, they expected him to pass at any moment.

He made an all-night drive to a familiar town. He pulled his car into a familiar driveway. He walked through a familiar front door, into a home he still knew by heart.

“The house was smaller than I remembered,” he said.

His father sat in a recliner. They held one another. They cried. Apologies came easy.

Father and son stayed awake half the night, sipping coffee, telling stories. They laughed. They shed tears enough to fill gallon jugs. One…

I don't know who you are or what you're going through today. But I know life is hard. Damn hard. I know that it breaks you, then mails you a bill.

Somewhere outside Montgomery, Alabama—a gas station. A young girl stands in line. She has long woven hair. In her hands: a soda bottle and a bag of chips.

In front of her is an older gentleman. He has weathered skin, ratty clothes, and work boots.

He tells the cashier he wants twenty-dollars worth of gas. He hands his cash over.

“This ain’t twenty,” says the cashier. “It’s only fourteen bucks.”

The girl steps forward. “Here,” she says, laying a five on the counter.

The man tells the girl he can’t accept money from a little kid.

The girl ignores him.

The cashier rings him up, the girl returns her soda and chips to the shelf. Before the girl leaves, she high fives the man.

He smiles and almost ruptures a cheek.

“God bless you,” he says.

Alpharetta, Georgia—his wife cheated on him and ended up pregnant. She left him and moved in with her lover.

Her lover turned out to be a piece of work—he ditched her. She had her baby alone.

A few hours after she gave birth, the girl called her parents. They

refused her—for religious reasons. A few of her friends did the same.

So, she called her ex-husband. He answered his phone. She expected him to hang up. He didn't.

In fact, before they finished talking, he had already piled into his car and pointed it toward the hospital.

He held her new baby, he kissed it. And years later, that kid still calls him “Daddy.”

Mobile, Alabama—her father committed suicide when she was sixteen. She had three brothers, and a mother who was mentally ill.

And a mortgage.

She got a job to support the family. She worked long hours, then came home to cook suppers. She was a child-mother.

Long after the girl’s brothers left home, she cared for her elderly mother until she died. The girl never married.

She made it to eighty.…

He shuffles into a sitting room, using a walker. He tunes his bass guitar by ear. His joints are knobby, he has no feeling in his left hand. It doesn't stop him.

Opelika, Alabama—this is an old home. The kind of house with frilly curtains, decorative plates, and linoleum floors.

Eighty-seven-year-old Billie Joe Porter sits in a recliner. He’s wearing suspenders, and jeans. His hair is powdered-sugar.

He speaks in the old rural tongue—you’d be hard pressed to understand him if you weren’t paying attention. He ends sentences with, “yessir.”

I wish folks still talked like that.

“Was born in Elmore County, yessir,” says Billie Joe. “My brother showed me how to play guitar when I’s juss a little cuss.”

When Billie Joe learned to play, he was recovering from an accident. His daddy had been cutting a pine tree. It fell on young Billie Joe, crushed his shoulder, and cracked his head like an egg shell.

His brother taught him four chords. Billie Joe took to the instrument like a fly to a brown apple.

“Could tear up a guitar,” he says. “Yessir.”

The truth is, Billie Joe was one of the faceless blue-collar Alabamians. Tall, lanky, with hands

like hams, and a work ethic that didn’t quit.

He married at eighteen. He worked in a cotton mill. He worked for the city. He worked hard hours.

After work, he would tear up guitars, fiddles, upright basses, and lap steels in joints across the South.

He might look like your average elderly man, but he is more than that. He is American music during its heyday.

He is field parties, square dances, livestock auctions, birthdays, honky tonks, beer joints, dance halls, county fairs. He is old-time radio.

“I even played with Hank Williams,” Bille Joe says. “At the old Montgomery Jamboree, yessir.”

During the jamboree, Hank told Billie Joe’s band to start calling out songs. So Billie Joe asked him to…

Before the farewell party ends, one woman stands to say, “You were always there for my boys, you helped’em become men. God bless you, Mister Latham.”

Shelby County High School is quiet. It’s summer. Kids are on break. Classrooms are empty, halls are vacant, the school office is a tomb.

Today, the library is the only room with lights on. Inside are people wearing nice clothes.

There are tables with finger food. Chicken salad is the star of this show. There are sugary items galore. Sweet tea. Lemonade.

The occasion: Mister Latham’s retirement party.

Behind the library desk sits the man himself. A bearded fella in a straw hat. He’s got a happy face, and a personality that could light up a Friday-night home game.

“Mister Latham’s been in this school system thirty-two years,” says one woman. “Been here since before some teachers were even born.”

Ask anyone. Mister Latham is the face of this county. Almost everyone in the region knows him.

His job description isn’t even worth mentioning—because this was more than just a job. It was his home. His church. His family. His world.

Nobody here can articulate how much he means. But they


“Describing how we’re gonna miss Mister Latham,” says one man, “is like describing how much you’d miss water or air.”

He’s taught it all: English, academic research, he’s been a shoulder for crying into, a sounding board.

And he writes. Mister Latham is, and always has been, a writer’s writer. He's written since his early days. Not long ago, he started a blog. It began as a way to share meaningful stories.

The blog took off like a souped-up Pontiac, and his words have become the voice of his own people.

One woman tells me, “I always knew he was talented, but he's always just been so humble.”

Humbleness. Another of his afflictions.

Today, his friends…

I don’t know what makes you smile, laugh, or feel good, but you deserve to be doing more of it. A lot more. In fact, you deserve to be so giddy your cheeks hurt.

The happiest day in eleven-year-old Aaron’s life was when he went hunting for the first time.

“All he ever wanted to do was go hunting,” says Aaron’s mother. “His daddy was a big hunter and fisherman.”


But Aaron’s daddy died in a car accident many years ago. He never got a chance to go.

Enter Joe Seuferer, neighbor and avid hunter, who just moved in next door with his girlfriend.

The first things little Aaron noticed were the Browning stickers on Joseph’s truck. One thing led to another.

Aaron’s first buck was a six-pointer.

The best moment in eighteen-year-old Erica’s natural life was her first guitar recital—which happened last week.

As a girl, Erica lost two fingers in a ski-lift accident. She's been wearing her sleeves long ever since.

A year ago, she she saw a YouTube video of a man with no arms, playing guitar with his feet.

“When I saw that guy,” said Erica. “I was like, ‘I got no excuses.’”

Erica claims that after learning guitar, she feels she can do anything.

Forty-three-year-old Danny just experienced his happiest earthly day acting

in a Hollywood Western.

The lucky dog.

Producers put him on a horse and dressed him in full cowboy regalia.

“I was an extra,” said Danny. “It was like living a childhood dream.”

Danny started riding horses during childhood. He wanted to be in rodeos, but it was not to be. His family went bankrupt when he was a teenager, they sold the farm.

“Losing everything at that young age was traumatic,” he said. “I quit riding altogether.”

Today, Danny makes good money pushing a pencil. He has a wife. Two kids. He pays the bills.

He started riding again last February.

When a friend arranged for Danny to be in a movie, he nearly had a heart attack.

“I got to ride with the outlaws. I know it sounds silly, but I was REALLY…

My late father was a stick welder. My family is blue-collar. I come from rough stock. We don’t use college words, only four-letter ones—and improper conjunctions.


I have just graduated high school and I can't go to college right away because I don’t really know what I want to do with my life right now, and my family doesn’t have money either, so what’s the point? I feel like such a loser because I’m not going. And I don't know what I should do.

Anxiously awaiting your response,


Pleased to meet you, my name is Big Loser Senior.

You shouldn’t be writing me about this. I’m not a counselor, I’m not academic. I’m not even a real writer, truth be told. I accidentally fell into the literary lifestyle on a bet.

A little about me:

I didn’t go to college until I was a grown man. I worked.

A list of my loser jobs: hanging drywall, laying tile, commercial framing, laying sod, landscaping, house painting, scooping ice cream, hanging gutter, manning a deep-fryer, schucking oysters.

Power-washing, patting hamburgers, washing dishes, playing guitar in beer-joints, and dressing up like a mascot for a car-wash grand opening—on one occasion.

My late father

was a stick welder. My family is blue-collar. I come from rough stock. We don’t use college words, only four-letter ones—and improper conjunctions.

We use phrases like: "Ain’t," and "y’all," and "hot aw-mighty.” And: “Want in one hand, tee-tee in the other; see which one fills up first.”

So I’m not your advice man.

Here's what I will say: when I was nine, my father discovered I liked writing. One morning, he handed me a scrap of paper. Written on it were extra-large words, in sloppy handwriting.

I can still remember each word.

They were: munificent, obtuse, loquacious, prosaic, ostentatious, soliloquy, and verbose.

“What’s this?” I asked him.

“Writers need good vocabularies,” he said. “And your old man never went to college, he's stupid. I picked the biggest words I could find in the…