This is your life, Chad. College is Act One.

Call your mama. You asked for my advice about starting college, Chad, so that’s my advice. When you leave for your first semester at Auburn University, don’t forget to call her.

I don’t call my mother enough. I don’t know anybody who does. Which is why you should do it.

Also, don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t take anything too seriously. I’m not saying to quit brushing your teeth. I’m only saying that lots of students take school way too seriously.

This is your life, Chad. College is Act One.

A few years ago, a study found that seventy-three percent of college graduates don’t even use their degrees. I am one of these graduates. In fact, I don’t even know exactly what my job is.

Which brings me to my next point:

You know nothing. And that’s a good thing. The less you understand about life, the happier you will be. The smarter you try to act, the more you will look like a complete jackass.

Ask any elderly man, he’ll tell you

that life was more fun when he was a dumb kid.

So a good motto for your life might be, “Hi, I’m Chad, and I don’t know diddly squat.”

The reason I tell you this is because the only way to actually LEARN diddly squat, is to not know diddly squat beforehand. So keep plenty of cobwebs in your head, don’t be afraid of not having the answers.

Also, put your phone away. Eat more bacon. Don’t bet against an underdog. Help with the dishes. Go bowling. Adopt a pet. Do not ever—this is very important—put pineapple on your pizza.

Ignore trends. The world is full of trends and fads. Fad-movies, fad-music, trendy decor, shiplap, keto, skinny jeans, edamame, etc.

Even religion has become trendy. There was a time when most churches did not approve of music with drums…

Every soul at Children’s Hospital, Birmingham. Doctors, nurses, janitors, cooks, staff, and patients.

I was a little boy. I was in a bad mood. My mother sent me to my room before supper.

“You march upstairs, mister,” she told me. “You go count your blessings.”

“But MAMA!” I said.

“Count’em one by one, young man, make a long list, or you don’t get any meatloaf.”

I’m thirty-some-odd years too late, but my wife is making meatloaf tonight.


My wife—because she loved me first.

And boiled peanuts. Just because.

And dogs. Every dog.

And people who stop four lanes of traffic to save dogs. And people who adopt dogs. And people who like dogs. And people who spend so much time with dogs that they start to think like dogs.

And saturated fat. Pork. Smoked bacon, cured hams, and runny yolks in my fried eggs.

And cotton clothes that just came off a summer clothesline.

And the sound wind makes when it makes its way through the trees. And the smells of fall. And rain. Garlic.

Old radio shows. As a

boy, a local station used to play reruns of Superman, the Lone Ranger, Little Orphan Annie, the Jack Benny Show, Abbott and Costello, and the Grand Ole Opry. I lived for these shows.

And the girl I met in Birmingham—she’s lived in fourteen different foster homes.

The child in Nashville—whose feet are too big for her sneakers. She can’t afford new ones.

Every soul at Children’s Hospital, Birmingham. Doctors, nurses, janitors, cooks, staff, and patients.

Every child who will be fortunate enough to see tomorrow morning. Every child who won’t.

And tomatoes. Tomatoes remind me of things deeper than just tomatoes themselves. They remind me of women who garden. Women like my mother, who suffered to raise two children after her husband met an untimely end.

Mama. The woman who made me. The woman whose voice I…

This is getting bizarre, I’m thinking. I don’t think I’ve locked eyes with a single person today.

The kids in the breakfast joint are twenty-somethings, nice looking, and fit. The kind of people that belong in a running-shoe commercial. Or a beer commercial. Or a fragrance advertisement that takes place on a sailboat.

But something is off. They are taking pictures of their food. Each kid holds a phone above his or her plate.


And something else. They aren’t talking to each other. They aren’t even making eye contact.

They stare at their devices, eating with one hand, holding a phone in the other.

After breakfast, my wife and I head across town. I have a busy day. I have a small-town radio interview at ten.

We arrive at the station where I sit in the waiting room. Everyone in the room is young. Nobody is conversing. Lots of phones.

“Nice weather today,” I say to one woman.

She taps on her device and says, “Hmm.”

“They’re calling for rain tomorrow,” I go on.

No answer.

“The building’s on fire,” I say. “We’re all gonna die a

horrible death.”


I turn to the guy on my other side. “What’re you in for?”

But he’s listening to music on earphones.

And everyone else is gazing at electronic devices until their faces are slack-jawed and streams of drool fall from the corners of their mouths making puddles on the floor, which the custodian ought to be cleaning up, except he’s playing Fruit Ninja on his phone right now.

I’m invited into the sound-proof booth. We’re on the air. I wear headphones.

The host is not looking at me. Instead, he is looking at a phone. The engineer behind soundproof glass is playing on his phone, too. I could be wearing a taxidermied alligator skull for a hat and nobody would even notice.

This is getting bizarre, I’m thinking. I don’t think I’ve locked eyes with…

It’s loud. The yard is full of chattering people. Everyone holds Styrofoam cups, they are all engaged in the art of conversation.

The annual Martin family reunion. Today’s get-together is outdoors, on the Choctawhatchee Bay. Long ago, my wife’s family used to have a trailer here under the oaks. It’s a house now.

“How’s my lipstick?” my wife asks.

“It’s fine.”

“Do I have red on my teeth?”

“Nope, you’re good.”

She dabs the corner of her mouth.

There are about fifty Martins here. These are loud, happy, expressive people. Devout Southern Baptists who drink a little.

My mother-in-law (Mother Mary) is decked out. Her white hair is fixed pretty. She leans onto her roller-walker, sipping sweet tea.

Now and then, she pauses to reapply lipstick. This is her big thing. Lipstick. She listens to a conversation, then smiles and says, “Wait a minute,” and reapplies lipstick.

Jesus Christ could return and Mother Mary would ask him to wait a minute while she reapplied her Bobbi Brown matte lip color.

Mother Mary is looking sporty. She wears a blue-and-white hairline striped shirt, tied sleeves, hoop earrings, and eyeliner.

“How’s my lipstick?” she whispers.

“It’s good,” I say.

“Do I have any on my teeth?”

“I don’t know, say ‘cheese.’”


“A little.”

She wipes. “How about now?”

“Still there.”

“Wipe it off it for me.”

“What am I, a cabana boy?”

It’s loud. The yard is full of chattering people. Everyone holds Styrofoam cups, they are all engaged in the art of conversation.

Elderly people are natural talkers, and that’s what I love about them. You’ll hear tales of the old days, updates on grandchildren, horror stories about hip surgeries, and breakthroughs in the field of blood pressure treatment.

You’ll hear gossip, too.

“Did you hear about Sister So-And-So?” one says. “She lost enough weight to make a ten-year-old.”

“Did you hear about Billy Bob Bradley? He just got released from prison last week.”


This week alone, I received letters from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin; Fayetteville, North Carolina; Chanute, Kansas; Oswego, New York; and Atlanta, Georgia.

Today, I got home to find my mail-lady stuffing my mailbox, using her fist to cram letters and manila envelopes in the government-approved receptacle.

That poor woman. She’s having a hard time because our mailbox was the recent victim of “mailbox baseball,” which is a game played during the summer months.

The rules of the game are loose, but it involves speeding cars filled with teenagers beating the tar out of innocent mailboxes.

The object of this game is: Any teenager who awakes the next morning and still remembers what happened the night before, wins.

Because of this, our beat-up mailbox looks more like a mutant metal pancake with a flag attached.

I need to install a new box, but I kind of like the character our dented mailbox has. It seems to scream to the world, “Hey, look at me! I’m lopsided! When it rains the mail gets wet!”

My mail lady hates our mailbox. She tells me it is one of

the top four things that causes her high blood pressure. The top item on her list is her mother-in-law in Tampa.

I receive a lot of mail. Which is a new thing for me. Used to, nobody wrote me but Ed McMahon and the IRS. But now I get mail from all over, sometimes from exotic countries like Canada.

Today, I got a letter from Jacksonville, from a woman I met a few weeks ago. It was a very touching letter. I cried when I read it.

I also got a letter from a man named Myron, who is from Tacoma, Washington, whose father just died.

This week alone, I received letters from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin; Fayetteville, North Carolina; Chanute, Kansas; Oswego, New York; and Atlanta, Georgia.

Most of my letters, however, come from Alabama. I am fortunate to call Alabama my adopted home away from home.…

Peter explains that they are a homeschool group of kids who all have something in common.

I stand behind them in the checkout aisle. It is a youth group, or maybe it’s a class trip. Either way, I know that they are excited to be on vacation because one boy actually shouts, “I’M SO EXCITED TO BE ON VACATION!”

The boy who hollers is using crutches, the kind that clasp to his arms. He is using a cheerful voice and from what I gather, he is excited to be on vacation.

The adult chaperone who accompanies the kids looks stressed out. There is a look adults often wear when they are responsible for large groups of kids. It’s a look I can spot from a mile away because I have been a youth-group chaperone before.

Going anywhere with a large clot of young people is a test of your humanity. You can not walk into a grocery store without kids running the aisles like rabid cats.

And when you finally find the miniature heathens, usually they’re doing something like playing a game of Butt

Swat in the produce section. The rules of Butt Swat are unclear to me, but apparently the game involves stalks of celery being used as weapons.

But these kids aren’t like that. They are happy kids, and well-behaved. They wear matching yellow T-shirts, and they smile a lot.

I talk to Peter, who is head chaperone.

“We’re from Atlanta,” he says. “We’re here at the beach for a vacation, these kids deserve a little fun.”

Peter explains that they are a homeschool group of kids who all have something in common.

“Most of our kids are differently abled,” says Peter. “We don’t like the term ‘disabled.’ We teach our kids not to use it.”

A few in the group have cerebral palsy, another has a congenital heart defect, others face mental health issues, and some children have mild autism.

“We’re a wild…

What was my favorite song when I was eighteen? Was it “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry?” Or was it “Boy Named Sue?”


FREEPORT—Nick’s Seafood Restaurant sits on the Choctawhatchee Bay. I am eating steamed blue crabs with butter sauce, and I am wearing half the meal on my shirt.

Most people know this joint as “Nick’s in the Sticks.” Namely, those who remember what Walton County was like before it turned into a giant cruise ship.

Our area has changed considerably over the years. For example, long ago you could buy live bait at the grocery store. Those days are gone. Today, you go to the store and you see out-of-town fraternity boys surfing atop shopping carts.

But Nick’s hasn’t changed. The seafood place still has fishing boats out front, chickens roaming the parking lot, and views of the Choctawhatchee.

My mother sits across from me. We are eating seafood, looking at the bay. And we talk about the old days. This is what families do. We talk. It’s a shame that there are so many things I can’t remember.

My memory is getting worse the older I get. I suppose this

happens to everyone sooner or later.

One day you’re sharp as a bread knife; the next day you’re driving through traffic, radio blaring, and you notice the drive-thru bank deposit tube lying in your passenger seat.

A few days ago, I asked my friend’s elderly mother about this problem of forgetting things. She is a tough woman who has survived a lot in her life. She buried three husbands, and two of them were just napping.

“Being forgetful ain’t all that bad,” she said. “Means you’re an old person. Learn to love it ‘cause if you’re not getting older then you‘re dead.”

Well, I have already started forgetting big things. Like certain people I grew up with. I just ran into one such man a few days ago. We weren’t close, but we knew each other. He was talking about the time when…

It’s a memory. One I don't ever want to forget. One that I had waited a lifetime for. I can still close my eyes and relive the whole thing.

There I am. I’ve just arrived in Mount Airy, North Carolina. The weather is crisp. It is nothing short of spectacular. Blue mountains in the distance. Rolling farmland. Picture-perfect downtown. The home of Andy Griffith is just like it always was. Small. Sweet.

I’m on a park bench, holding a bouquet of roses. I’m waiting for my one-on-one interview with the oldest living Andy Griffith Show cast member, Betty Lynn—better known as Barney’s girl, Thelma Lou.

An elderly woman is gardening beside me while I wait. Her hands are covered in soil. Her husband is with her. Shirley and Bob Perkins are in their eighties. They’ve lived here since the earth cooled.

I ask if they ever met Andy Griffith.

“Met him?” Shirley elbows her husband. “Why, Bob’s distant kin to Old Andy.”

I ask what “Old Andy” was like.


he was exactly like on TV. Don’t listen to nobody who says otherwise.”

When our conversation ends, Shirley says, “Before you leave town, get a pork chop sandwich from Snappy Lunch, there’s always a long line, but it’s worth the wait.”

I’m escorted into the museum. Ninety-one-year-old Betty Lynn rolls into the room in a wheelchair. Her hair is red, she sports a yellow blouse and yellow pocketbook. My heart sings.

I hand her the bouquet. She kisses my cheek. Yes. My cheek. My very own cheek. She kisses this. With her lips. I’ve had a crush on Thelma Lou since boyhood. Now that I’m with her, it’s gotten worse.

“Tell me about Andy,” I ask.

“Andy?” she says. “Those were the best years of my life. I still watch the show and laugh.”

Her personal story is a good…

The sound-guys are erecting speaker towers. And I am watching a copper-topped boy in a cowboy hat run in circles.

2:49 P.M.—A farm in LaFayette, Alabama. There are hardly any structures around for miles, only cornfields and silos. My band will play a concert here tonight. A hoedown, if you will.

Our band’s only mission: Fun. With a capital “F.”

When I arrive, the band is already waiting on me. I have been playing music with these men for many years. We’re not great, but we’re okay.

Tom (bass) sits on a porch swing, overlooking miles of corn. Jimmy (drums) leans against his car, smoking a cigarette, lost in a moment of spiritual reflection.

“Gosh,” Jimmy says, “I wonder where people go pee out here?”

The sound-guys are erecting speaker towers. And I am watching a copper-topped boy in a cowboy hat run in circles.

3:32 P.M.—Soundcheck. Tom tunes his upright bass. Jimmy tightens his drumheads. Aaron is on fiddle. I’ll be playing guitar and accordion tonight.

I have played accordion since my early days. The accordion is not an instrument per se, but more of a family embarrassment.

4:08 P.M.—Cars arrive by the dozen. People are mingling. There is an old man drinking out of a Mason jar, clear liquid. I doubt it’s water.

4:32 P.M.—Copper Top approaches me and says, “Is that a REAL accordion?”


“And are you REALLY gon’ play that thang?”



When I was a boy, I took up accordion because I wanted to be like my grandfather. But I learned to play with a bad habit, I stomp my right foot in rhythm. Sometimes I stomp so hard that I develop knee issues. But it’s fun. And that’s the keyword tonight.

5:11 P.M.—The parking area is now overflowing with cars. People have brought folding chairs and coolers. There is a taco truck in the distance.

The old man with the Mason jar is having an animated conversation with a cow.

When the first sliver of light showed, the girl shot to her feet and ran along the beach, waving arms in the air. So did the others.

I’m writing this in the early morning. The birds are asleep, the crickets, too. The sun is about to rise, and it’s going to rise just for you. There is a faint glow behind the trees. Just wait.

I received a letter this morning from a girl I’ll call Caroline. Caroline is eighteen. She told me about herself.

She wrote:

“I feel ugly and I know that’s why I’ve never had a boyfriend... I probably never will have one. People don’t like me, and I’m worried that nobody will ever love me.”

Sweet Caroline.

Here’s another letter from a man we’ll refer to as “Elvis”—because that’s what he wanted to be called. Elvis is forty-four.

He wrote:

“My ex-wife broke my heart… Why is it I end up trusting somebody and they break my heart, and instead of hating THEM, I dislike MYSELF somehow? I don’t like myself...”

And this beautiful young woman:

“I have an arteriovenous malformation… Which is why my arm doesn’t work, and now it’s moving to my leg. The malformation started

small, but has grown to the size of a tennis ball, giving me daily seizures and other obstacles…

“The hardest part about all this is being forgotten. I used to have a lot of friends before my diagnosis, but now...

“I get that people are busy, but is life really about being busy?”

Well, I hate to disappoint these good people who’ve written me, but they’re talking to the wrong guy. I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout nothin’.

The only thing I can possibly think to tell these good folks is about what happened to me during my seventh-grade year.

First, a little background: my seventh-grade year was shaping up to be a good one. Often, in the school cafeteria I’d have my pals laughing until milk spilled from their noses and they lost control of their lower…