But here in Palatka, people still get together for barbecues.

PALATKA—It’s early morning in Florida. There are billions of crickets singing. I am overlooking the Saint Johns River, which cuts straight through Putnam County, and it’s hypnotizing.

If you were to ask what I am thinking about right now, I would tell you flat out: I am thinking of taco dip.

This is because I am a man. Men don’t think complex thoughts. We think painfully simple things. If you could peek inside a grown male’s head, it would shock you. You would find nothing but cobwebs, empty potato-chip bags, and Dale Earnhardt posters.

There is a bass boat out this morning. A man teaches his son to hold a rod. The kid tries to cast, but can’t get the hang of it.

Behind me is a narrow mainstreet, lined with storefronts, a bingo parlor, some gift shops, street lamps. Five or six steeples pepper the skyline.

There’s Angel’s Diner, Florida’s oldest dining railcar. Their burger is a spiritual experience on a bun. That’s not just my opinion, Billy

Graham once ate it and felt the same way.

Speaking of Billy Graham, he preached his first sermons in these parts. He was a nineteen-year-old when he was baptized and ordained here.

They say the tall skinny kid with the oiled hair could be heard shouting in the woods near Silver Lake. He would holler sermons at a specific pine stump for practice. Years later, I understand the stump finally repented.

Young Billy went on to preach in local country churches and shout to roomfuls of people who fanned themselves with paper bulletins.

It all started right here.

Just down the road is Saint Augustine, the oldest city in the United States. It’s got more history than you can shake a taco at.

Though, today Saint Augustine is more of a tourist attraction. The last time I was there, a man wearing…

I drive past a Christmas tree farm surrounded free-range ostriches. Every few feet there are huge live oaks with Spanish moss in the branches.

There is something about this part of Florida. There is a certain feel to it, the closer you get to the Atlantic Ocean. Maybe it’s the cashiers at rural gas stations who call you “sugar” even though they are still in high school.

Or it could be the American flags in the abandoned field, next to the giant crucifix made of hay bales. Or the large sign next to a little country church that reads: “Body Piercing Saved My Life.”

I drive through Starke, I pass a band of Hari Krishnas standing at the traffic light. A bald man in a white tunic is playing bongos, another is playing the kazoo.

A woman knocks on my vehicle window. She looks just like my aunt Eulah, only she wears a sari and facepaint.

“Hey, sugar,” she says. “Blessings upon y’all.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” I say.

“You want a flyer?”

“Why not.”

“Have a nice day, sugar.”

I am not interested in Hari Krishna, but this woman looks like

she could be kin. When I look at her, I cannot shake the idea that I am talking to my aunt Eulah.

The same aunt who I once stayed with for an entire summer. And when my cousin and I got caught placing an M-80 in the neighbor’s mailbox, she had to discipline me.

I never forgot that. She made me go into the yard and pick out my own hickory switch.

“My own what?” I said.

“You heard me, a hickory switch.”

“What does a hickory tree look like?”

“You’re walking on thin ice young man.”

I drive past a Christmas tree farm surrounded by free-range ostriches. Every few feet there are huge live oaks with Spanish moss in the branches.

Hampton is nice, so is Keystone Heights. Ever since Lake City, I have counted sixteen thousand Baptist…

Even so, there’s something about this tune that moves me. I can close my gray eyes and go back in time.

Willie Nelson is on my radio. He is singing one of my favorite songs.

“In the twilight glow I see her,
“Blue eyes crying in the rain,
“When we kissed goodbye and parted,
“I knew we’d never meet again…”

I turn it up because I am a sucker for this tune. Though, I’m not sure why. When I was a boy, the lyrics never made sense to me.

After all, nobody with blue eyes ever cried in the rain for me. And I certainly didn’t have blue eyes. My eyes are gray. My mother used to say my eyes were the color of our pump shed.

Even so, there’s something about this tune that moves me. I can close my gray eyes and go back in time.

And I see my father’s work bench in the garage. A radio sits beside a chest of mini-drawers that is filled with bolts, nuts, screws, washers, and rubber grommets.

Crystal Gayle is singing “Don’t it Make

my Brown Eyes Blue?”

Then Willie begins playing over the speaker. My father turns it up.

“Love is but a dying ember,
“Only memories remain,
“Through the ages, I’ll remember,
“Blue eyes crying in the rain…”

And I am holding a GI Joe doll, watching a tall, skinny man work on something beneath a shop lamp, holding a screwdriver.

He does all his own repairs, this man. Because he believes it is wasteful to hire people to do work you could do yourself. Just like it’s disgraceful, and even unforgivable, to throw away refrigerator leftovers.

The people I come from are proud and self-sufficient, and they are not above eating ten-week old meatloaf that has turned Sea Foam Green. They cut their own hair. And their own lawns.

When I started travelling a lot for work, I hired a yardman to…

Today I read an article my friend sent to me. The article was something that went viral on social media. When I finished reading it, I felt so bad that I had to take some Pepto-Bismol and lie down.

It was depressing. The writer complained about nearly everything. Politics, religion, pollution, crime, taxes, pesticides, SUV’s, pop stars, the price of gas.

And worse, thousands of people agreed that this world is a terrible place.

Well, who am I to say that it isn’t? Nobody, that’s who. Even so, all that reading left me asking myself an important question:

What about chocolate?

Can this world be all that bad as long as we have milk chocolate? Have you ever had a Hershey’s bar when it’s room temperature? It’s a little soft, and it tastes like a Gaither Homecoming special.

It’s hard not to believe that everything is going to be okay while you’re eating chocolate.

And how about pimento cheese? Has the writer ever tried homemade pimento cheese? If he hasn’t, he ought to. Today, my wife just made a fresh batch. I took one bite and I started shaking my leg like Elvis at a revival.

What about daylilies? Or peonies? Or tulips? The colors of summer are almost overwhelming. A pink peony is reason enough to believe life is good.

And there are also the mystical things of life. Things so beautiful that they are hard to name because they are too vast, too immense, and too wistful. Namely, I am speaking of beer.

Have you ever tasted a Budweiser after spending an afternoon mowing your lawn? Your skin is burned, your head is wrapped with an old-man bandanna. And here comes your wife with a beer that’s cold enough to crack your teeth.

How about all-night-singings at church? I don’t know if you’ve ever been to one of…

It’s a simple thing, a hug. Sometimes, I take them for granted. But a hug is made from powerful stuff.

Dear Miss Jean Lee,

I don’t know if you remember me or not, but I remember getting our photo taken together at the Methodist church in Enterprise. You put your arms around me. You squeezed.

I know a good hugger when I meet one. You gave me the same kind of hug my granny used to give.

It was the same way my mother used to hug me, too, just after I’d skinned my knee. She would squeeze me and say, “Sssshhh, it’s gonna be okay.”

Mothers always say that.

I am a connoisseur of good hugs. I collect as many as I can. I have collected hugs that came from as far away as Michigan—which is as far north as I have ever traveled.

But none can compete with your hugs. Yours are top-shelf.

There are people in life who are special. When they walk away, they leave you in better shape than they found you. These are the sort who hug well.


used to work with a woman like this. Her name was Millie, we worked in a commercial kitchen together. She was an elderly black woman with a happy face and large eyes.

She was your all-American cook. She could prepare food that would cause people to stand up, throw their napkins on the floor, and shout.

She was a hugger, too. Before each shift, the waiters and waitresses would all get hugs from her. Myself included.

One time, I remember a twenty-one-year-old girl was upset because her boyfriend left her. Millie held that girl for nearly thirty minutes saying, “Ssssssshhhhh.”

Her culinary creations were the products of a lifetime spent before stoves. Her gumbo, for instance, could heal a broken heart. She made fried chicken so good that even barnyard chickens idolized her.

She passed from pancreatic cancer. The kitchen staff all attended the funeral…

“Yeah,” he says. “It’s just like when they did away with full-service gas stations, remember those?”

I’m standing in a Walmart self-checkout line behind four elderly men. They are wearing polo shirts, tucked into khakis. If I had to guess, I’d say they’re on vacation.

They are pushing a cart full of food, toiletries, and beer. The checkout line is long.

One man says, “I don’t know why they have these god-forsaken self-checkout lanes. I don’t wanna check my ownself out.”

One of my favorite old-man words happens to be “ownself.” It’s even better in its plural form, “ownselfs.”

“Yeah,” adds another man. “It’s just like when they did away with full-service gas stations, remember those?”

“Back when you could get your windshield cleaned, tank filled, a Ko-Kola, and didn’t even have to get outta your car.”

“You know, I reckon if someone tried to wash a fella’s windshield today, the driver would be so shocked he’d think he was getting mugged.”

“Hey, I got mugged once. In Chicago. I thought it was a joke at first.”

“Did he beat you up?”

“Wasn’t a he. It was a woman.”

“A woman mugged you? Did she want your wallet?”

“She certainly didn’t want my body.”

“I’ve never been mugged.”

“Me neither. Ain’t never even been to Chicago.”

“Heard they have a bad smell downtown.”

“Ain’t that bad. Just watch out for the lady muggers.”

“How does this self-checkout thingy work? Are we supposed to just scan things our ownselfs?”

“Here, let me do it, Don, I self-checkout stuff all the time back home.”

“I don’t understand, why we can’t just have a cashier, what was wrong with cashiers?”

“The world’s changing.”

“It sure is. Just yesterday, my grandson asked me to watch a movie on his iPad, he kept pausing it every two seconds to answer texts. He can’t focus for more than a minute.”

“I don’t text.”

“Me either.”

“Yeah, I…

While I write this, Thel is running on the beach toward a magnificent sunset. Occasionally, she walks to the edge of the surf, but she’s too afraid to get in.

I’m watching my dog run on the beach. She’s running alongside the waves. She stops every few moments to stare.

She’s not too sure about waves.

Last week, it was Father’s Day, and I’m a father—well, almost. I have a bloodhound named Thelma Lou. That’s almost like being a father. The only difference, of course, is that human babies don’t chew your wallet then poop inside your boot.

You read that right. My dog didn’t poop ON my boot—as in the exterior. She did her business INSIDE my boot. The basic physics behind this acrobatic marvel are astounding. I only wish I could’ve captured it on video, it would’ve been worth millions.

So poop in a boot, that makes me a father. At least this is what I’m going with.

People without kids, like me, still have the same amount of love parents have. That love has to go somewhere. That’s where dogs come in.

My first dog was a border collie. My father bought it. We named it Pooch. Pooch was bred to herd sheep, but since there were

no sheep around, he herded redheads.

When my mother yelled my name, Pooch would dart off the porch like a bullet. He’d circle me, yelping, nipping. When he died, I thought a piece of me died.

My next dog was Goldie. A retriever. Long, pretty hair, happy face. I raised her from a pup.

Goldie was Hell on Wheels. She lived beside me. She slept while I did homework, she chased baseballs. In the woods, when I was busy with little-boy things, like catching frogs, or swinging on limbs, she watched over me.

Cody was next. She was my father’s dog. She was a chocolate dog who loved my father. I can close my eyes and see him strolling from the barn to the shed, Cody trailing two feet behind him.

When he died, she laid on a pile of…