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…

John has no family at the ceremony. No mother, father, uncles, aunts, cousins. There are only two older men standing for him. They are wiry and weathered.

It’s a morning wedding. A simple one. There is Spanish moss in the trees. The birds are out. This is John’s first marriage. He's forty-five years young. It’s the biggest day of his entire life.

And I forgot a wedding gift.

This is his cousin’s hunting land, a place John thought would be a perfect spot for a shindig. He was right.

John’s new wife has two kids. Boys. They are pure energy, but well-behaved.

John has no family at the ceremony. No mother, father, uncles, aunts, cousins. There are only two older men standing for him. They are wiry and weathered.

They used to work on oil rigs with John. He calls them the only family he’s ever had. They treat him like a sort of son.

The bride’s family is in attendance. They are salt-of-the-earth folks. Khakis and button-downs, cotton dresses. Simple.

“I look forward to being a dad to her boys,” says John. “I grew up without one, I know how bad kids need a


John knows a lot more than that. Two years ago, he was diagnosed with cancer. It was bad. He went through surgery, chemo, nausea, hair loss, weight loss. The works. He’s been in remission ever since, but it’s changed him.

“Scared the you-know-what outta me,” says John. “Now I wake up each day and think, ‘Man, is it gonna come back?’ It plays with you mind.”

She is the picture of loveliness. She was married once before. Her husband left her. She and her boys moved in with her mother.

John was working on a concrete crew, laying a driveway for her mother’s rental house. Her kids befriended John right away.

“He was all they could talk about for days,” she says. “I thought, geez,…

Yeah. I know. This world isn’t all rainbows, roses, and ice-cream shops. It’s a hard place to live. People are angrier than they used to be. Money gets harder to come by. So do smiles.

Sunset. A high-school graduation. Students in caps and gowns take the football field. I’ve lost my wife in a crowd of parents and teachers.

There’s a woman next to me. She is old, curly white hair. She is missing teeth. Her accent sounds like hard work.

Granny points to the field. “That’s my Robbie,” she tells me. “First in our family to graduate high school. Told him since he was born, ‘You can become anything when you grow up.’”

She is so proud, her buttons are under strain.

The announcer calls Robbie’s name. Granny claps so hard she almost fractures a wrist.

“That’s him,” she says. “Can you see my Robbie?”

Yes’ ma’am.

A shopping mall—a young woman. Her son is the size of a sixth-grader. She holds him on her hip.

“Will you PLEASE take him, honey?” she says.

Her husband is a skinny man with tattoos. He places the kid in a large stroller. The kid starts bawling.

The man wheels the stroller in circles, making airplane noises.

The kid quits

fussing and smiles. He hollers something along the lines of:


The man stops and kisses the kid’s forehead.

“I love you,” he says.

A gas station—a man is walking toward the door. He is wearing basketball shorts and knee-length surgical stockings. There are stitches on his shaved scalp.

A kid out front stabs out a cigarette and opens the door.

When Basketball Shorts shuffles back outside, the young man is waiting. He helps him into his car—a white Ford. He pumps the man’s gas. They talk. They even laugh.

The Ford drives away.

The kid is left, standing at the pump, waving goodbye.


Seven riflemen fired at the sky. A lone trumpet played “Taps.” If there was a dry eye in the county, it was made of glass.

His funeral was in the dead of summer. It was graveside. Early morning. Muggy.

His skin looked powder-white, his face wore an artificial smile. Red, white, and blue draped over his casket.

They did him up good.

Seven riflemen fired at the sky. A lone trumpet played “Taps.” If there was a dry eye in the county, it was made of glass.

Once, I went to a ball game with him. I was a boy. The organ played “The Star Spangled Banner.”

He stood, saluted, and sang in a voice that was part tenor, part Andy Griffith.

I asked why he sang so loud.

“‘Cause,” he said. “That’s one hell of a flag flying up there.”

I asked where they shot him during the War.

He lifted his arm and pointed to his armpit. “Already showed you this a hundred times,” he said.

Make that one hundred and one.

He grew up on a dirt farm. He was as tough as the callouses on his

hands. He was a musician.

As a young man, he sang on a Thursday-evening gospel radio hour, flatpicking a guitar in a one-room radioshack.

He fell in love. She came from a poor family. They married before he shipped to Europe.

The night before their wedding, they slept in the same bed—on top the covers, with their clothes on.

“He was nothing if not decent,” was once said of him.

But he was more than decent. He was ten-foot tall. His heart was purple, his Case knife was sharp, his fishing rods were bamboo. He listened to the Opry, and Hit Parade. He believed in solid cars, and pretty music.

I liked to watch him play mandolin.