Some kids did math homework, others were talented athletes. I memorized the one about the farmer’s daughter and the preacher.

A little restaurant. The men in the booth behind me are old. They are telling jokes to one another. They are loud men. They have white hair, mugs of coffee, hearing aids.

One man wears overalls. Another wears suspenders with bass fish on them. Welcome to Rural America.

Whenever one man finishes a joke, the others slap their knees and say, “Hooooo boy!”

My waitress tries to take my order, but she can’t concentrate, we’re both eavesdropping on the old men.

An elderly man says:

“So a fella and wife go to Heaven. There’s a BIG CROWD, standing around. And Saint Pete says to everybody:

“‘Men, listen up! Whichever men wore the pants in their household, form a single-file line over HERE! And all men who were henpecked by their wives, stand over THERE!

“And almost every man went to the henpecked line. Except ONE guy, who stood alone in the other line. So Saint Pete shook the man’s hand and said, ‘Sir, I just wanna congratulate you.’

“‘For what?’ the

guy said. ‘I’m only here because my wife told me to stand here.’”

The punchline hits like an atom bomb. One man laughs so hard he almost ruptures his gallbladder.

“Hoooooo boy!”

When I was a boy, my father had hundreds of jokes like this. I would overhear him tell these anecdotes to his roughneck friends and I wished I were like him.

The men I come from speak the language of humor. They gathered on the courthouse steps, or at barbershops, not to discuss feelings or family issues, but to tell funny stories.

As a boy, I wanted to be my father. I wanted to know his stories and tell his jokes. Some kids did math homework, others went to football practice. I memorized the one about the farmer’s daughter and the preacher.

My father would place me on a…

When I reach the fifth floor, I pass more Nigerians in the hall. These are happy people with big personalities. Suddenly I feel very sorry that I did not grow up somewhere exotic.

Mobile, Alabama—a hotel. Early evening. I register at the front desk. Tonight, I am a pilgrim, looking for a room and a hot meal.

The hotel is overrun with folks in brightly colored West African attire. I’ve never seen so many ornate outfits in all my life—and I’ve been to Branson.

“What’s going on tonight?” I ask the clerk behind the desk.

“A Nigerian wedding,” he says. “Hotel’s almost completely booked.”

He hands me my room key and says: “Enjoy your stay.” He blows a bubble with his bubblegum.

I wait for the elevator beside three elegant black women wearing gold turbans. Their evening gowns are magnificent. Their heels are six inches tall.

I compliment their turbans.

They giggle. “These are not turbans,” one woman says. “We call them ‘geles.’”

My people do not go for elaborate headwear. I was raised evangelical. Our wedding attire consists of earth-tones, penny loafers, and SEC neckties.

I ride the elevator with my new friends. They fill the elevator with

laughter, exotic words, and unique perfume.

One young woman asks me, “You are a cowboy, sir? No?”

“No ma’am. Baptist.”

“But your boots. Americans who wear boots are cowboys, no?”

I glance at my ugly kicks. “No, these are just plain-old redneck shoes.”

When I reach the fifth floor, I pass more Nigerians in the hall. These are happy people with big personalities. Suddenly I feel very sorry that I did not grow up somewhere exotic.

Because the weddings of my childhood were not exotic. They were dry affairs in chapels full of people whose idea of a “good time” was watching Lawrence Welk and eating leftover pear salad. My cousin, Alberta, would sing, “Morning Has Broken,” and we would eat fried chicken in the fellowship hall. The end.

I arrive at my room, located at the end of the…

The hotel breakfast attendant, Tamika, watches them move through the buffet line like a pack of caffeinated Golden Retrievers.

Montgomery, Alabama—my hotel breakfast tastes like reconstituted pulpwood. The biscuits are hockey pucks. But the coffee ain’t bad.

I stand in the food-line behind two teenage boys wearing soccer uniforms. They load their paper plates with enough food to last an entire winter.

They are laughing. Smiling. Youth is a potent drug.

One boy displays his phone to the other. “Did you see THIS video?” he says.

“Oh, DUDE!” says the other. “That’s the BEST.”

“I know, the BEST!”

“Totally.”

Also in the dining room with me: more kids who wear uniforms. Twelve-year-olds, thirteen-year-olds, fourteen-year-olds, and their sleep-deprived parents. The kids are sipping dangerous amounts of orange juice and making lots of noise.

One kid listens to music on his phone—for the benefit of the entire dining room. This music sounds like a diesel engine warming up on a January morning.

More kids in uniforms exit the elevator. They walk through the dining room with loud voices, fixing their plates in a frenzy.

The hotel breakfast attendant,

Tamika, watches them move through the buffet-line like a pack of caffeinated golden retrievers.

So we can see, at this point, that there are more kids in this article than there were when I started. The lobby is full of them.

But the truth is, I like being around young people. They don’t talk about osteoporosis, gallbladders, goiters, arthritis, or the paramount importance of fiber. To them, everything is wonderful, new, exciting, and “the best.”

I overhear these kids using the word “best” at least fifty times per paragraph.

“Have you tried these eggs?” says one boy. “They’re the BEST.”

“I know, right?” says the other. “But did you try the cheese? It’s the BEST.”

“Totally!”

The alleged “cheese” he’s talking about is not the best. It is the kind of industrial cheese that can sit on a counter for…

I’m sitting on porch steps with my cousin. We are people-watching in a town about the size of an area rug.

A man is blowing leaves off his driveway. The leaf-blower is filling the neighborhood with noise. They say he’s addicted to yardwork. Poor man.

Miss Elvira is walking her Labrador, Webster, on the sidewalk. The dog is stronger than he looks. The leash looks like it’s about to snap in two. He’s pulling Elvira like Twenty-Mule-Team Borax.

She waves at us. I haven’t seen Miss Elvira since I was nine. My cousin and I picked pinecones in her yard long ago while singing an anthem by the Oak Ridge Boys about her.

Hi-ho, Silver, away.

Peter Stepnowski is poking in his garage. Peter has white hair, thick glasses, and wears tube socks with sandals.

Please Lord, no matter how old I get, don’t let me wear tube socks and sandals.

A delivery truck. A FedEx man jogs the sidewalk, up the steps to the Delanie’s porch. He’s carrying an odd-shaped box that makes every elderly busybody within a six-mile radius become curious.

Take

my aunt, for instance, she is curious.

Four girls walk the sidewalk wearing soccer uniforms. School is out. They have backpacks on shoulders. They’re deep in conversation. Faces serious. They’re solving world problems.

One of the girls is Karin. I remember when her parents announced in Sunday school they were expecting a third baby.

Karin waves. She calls me “Mister Sean.” Those words sound ancient.

Life is moving slow today. That’s how it works in little places.

I was in the big city last week. I rode through five-o’clock traffic, gripping my steering wheel so hard my knuckles popped—I’m lucky I survived.
I watched a transfer truck amputate a Nissan’s side-mirror. I saw two near-accidents, fifteen cop cars, and a whole bucket of middle fingers.

Big places aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

My…

There are kindhearted people. I have seen them. I have shaken their hands, hugged their necks. To find them, you have to know where to look, but they’re around.

DEAR SEAN:

What things do you believe in?

ELEVEN-YEARS-OLD-IN-CHAPEL-HILL

DEAR ELEVEN:

I believe in fried chicken. The kind made by every granny you’ve ever known. The kind fried in black iron skillets.

I believe it is powerful stuff. Which is probably why you see it at funeral receptions, baby showers, and churches.

I also believe in hand-rolled biscuits made from flour, fat, salt, baking powder, and buttermilk. To add additional ingredients to this mix would be like drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

I believe in teaching young men to clean fish. I believe in kids who ask too many questions. And I believe in girls who are gutsy enough to be themselves.

I believe girls have it harder than boys. And I’m sorry for that.

I believe in giving money to the homeless—not once or twice, but every time I see someone down on their luck. Every single time. I believe in giving more than I should.

I believe in old-time country dances. Long ago, before TV’s, smartphones, and twenty-four-hour news channels, I believe people threw more parties.

I believe in bowing heads to say grace. I believe in crickets, loud frogs, and places where you cannot hear busy highways.

I believe in magic tricks. And in teenagers who haven’t found themselves yet. I believe in all golden retrievers, Labs, bloodhounds, some Jack Russels. And marriage.

I believe in Marie, Lorena, and Nadia—living at a battered women’s shelter in South Georgia. I believe in high-school dropouts, and kids who miss their daddies. I believe in nurses.

I believe in music made by hand, fiddles, upright pianos, and the poetry of Hank Williams. I believe in Willie Nelson.

I believe in the memory of grandparents, and keeping them alive with stories. I believe in making lowly people famous, and famous people lowly.

And I believe this world is better than most give it credit. I believe that if folks…

Now we’re on paved roads. We are approaching Pensacola. I have errands to run today. Nothing major, just little things. And Pensacola is our version of a big city.

The windows are down. The weather couldn’t get any prettier. My dogs are leaning out the passenger window, tongues flapping in the wind. They are happy.

The dirt roads are like a large, interconnecting maze. Choose one road, it leads to another, then another, and another. Soon, you’re in No Man’s Land, and you’re the only truck around for miles.

I pass barns in open fields, and cattle pastures, and a John Deere, combing the peanut fields, dust rising behind it.

I stop when we reach my friend’s farm, located on the edge of the world. I kick open the door and watch Thelma Lou and Otis run for parts unknown. They shoot into the distance. Lots of running. Lots or barking. Lots of eating piles of cat poop.

I sit on the porch with my friend.

My friend is old, he has dementia, but he was self-reliant once. Long ago, we worked together. He was strong, and he swung hammers with the best of

us. Today, he wakes up and needs a nurse. Still, sometimes he feels good enough to go feed his cats, or is fortunate enough to go for a walk. But mostly, he naps, or watches TV with his nurse.

Before I leave, I give him a hug. He tells me to, “Stay outta trouble.”

He has always said that. Most old men do.

I load my dogs into my vehicle, and we’re doing forty, going down more dirt roads. We pull over at a filling station.

I’m pumping gas, and I meet a man who is driving a transfer truck from Nashville. We have a short conversation.

He’s been driving for thirty-two years. He started an online business last year with and the project took off. He started earning more with the online venture than he did with his truck.

“Got three more shipments…

Chaperoning, I discovered, is brutal work. We spent nearly nine hours in a church van, driving Interstate 65. There were eighteen boys, ten girls, and three adults.

DEAR SEAN:

I believe our youth group would enjoy your company. Would you ever consider chaperoning with our youth leaders? This year we’re taking our kids to day-hike parts of the Appalachian Trail. Any interest?

Sincerely,
YOUTH-LEADER-DANNY

DEAR DANNY:

Years ago, my minister friend, Bill, and I chaperoned the First Baptist youth group to Dollywood.

Chaperoning, I discovered, is brutal work. We spent nearly nine hours in a church van, driving Interstate 65. There were eighteen boys, ten girls, and three adults.

The ride basically went like this:

Boys took turns making aromas that were strong enough to stop a grown man’s heart—then rated their accomplishments on scales of one-to-ten.

The girls all huddled and sang songs which all contained pretty much the same lyrics:

“Baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby…”

Bill was our driver, Miss Sandra was our acting warden. My job was to make idle threats and prevent unnecessary sinning.

I was good at my job I would threaten with things like:

“Quit touching him!”

Or: “Switch

seats with Allen!”

Or: “Roll down the windows before we all gag!”

Miss Sandra engaged kids in “constructive activities.” Drawing upon her training as an English major, she explained the finer points of poetry, meter, and literary symbolism to the kids. Then, we passed around notepads.

When the kids finished writing their own poems they recited them.

Miller Watkins recited:

“Roses are red,
Violets for the masses,
These youth chaperones,
Don’t know their heads from their…”

Thomas “Taterlog” Matthews also read his poem:

“The Lord is my shepherd,
I am his sheep,
Now pull this van over,
I have to take a major pee.”

When we arrived in Pigeon Forge, we stayed at a rundown motel that appeared to have been built during the late 1970’s.

I went into…