Aunt Irma was sniffing so hard that I handed her a Kleenex. She hooked arms with me and said, “You know, you’re very cute.”

A few years ago, I went to a friend’s wedding. I arrived at the chapel early. I sat in the front pew while the piano played.

It was the best seat in the house. I wanted to see my buddy’s expression when he stumbled over the words “I do.”

The chapel was adorned with white flowers and greenery. The woman seated beside me was the elderly aunt of the bride.

“My name’s Irma,” she said, presenting her white-gloved hand. “How do you know the groom?”

“We grew up fishing together,” I said.

She looked at me like I had cockroaches crawling out of my eye sockets. “Really? I thought he hated fishing.”

That’s when I had a feeling something was wrong.

And I was correct. When the young groom took the altar, I realized I’d never seen him before in my life.

I started having chest pains. I was at the right church on the wrong weekend.

Soon, the pianist played the familiar chords of

matrimony and the congregation stood. I was going to sneak out the back, but I was too late. The rear doors swung open.

The bride walked the aisle, wearing a gown that was elegant enough to break your heart.

Beside me, Aunt Irma was becoming emotional. “Doesn’t she look just radiant?”

“Does she ever,” I said. “I hardly even recognized her.”

We took our seats. The minister asked who gave the bride away. A white-haired man said, “Her mama and I!”

But when the old man sat alone in his pew, I began to wonder where the mama of the bride was. I almost asked Aunt Irma about it, but I didn’t want to pry.

Anyway, it was a beautiful ceremony. The bride and groom recited vows they’d written themselves.

The groom read a sonnet so eloquent it made most…

I am here today to track down Gomer Pyle. I am looking for glimpses of a world inhabited by Andy, Barney, Opie, and Aunt Bea.

Sylacauga, Alabama—this is your quintessential American town. Old buildings, lots of Baptist churches, and Mama Ree’s restaurant, which serves fare so good you’ll wonder if Granny isn’t in the kitchen.

This is the hometown of Jim Nabors, better known as Gomer Pyle from the Andy Griffith Show.

Earlier today, I toured the city. There is a lot to see.

There’s the Comer museum on Broadway Avenue. They have a room dedicated to Nabors memorabilia. There you can see photos, news clippings, and costumes from the town’s own native son. Up the road is the high school Nabors graduated from.

And of course, Sylacauga is known for more than just Gomer Pyle.

Firstly: it’s one of the only places in the world that produces bedrock marble so pure it was used in the construction of the Lincoln Memorial, and the United States Supreme Court Building.

Sylacauga also boasts the first documented case of an outer-space object falling onto a human. It happened one autumn day in

‘54. A meteorite the size of a grapefruit crashed through a farmhouse roof and hit Mrs. Ann Hodges, who was napping.

It didn’t hurt her too bad, but they say she was fussy for several days thereafter.

Don’t get me wrong, I love meteorites and marble as much as the next guy. But I am here today to track down Gomer Pyle. I am looking for glimpses of a world once inhabited by Andy, Barney, Opie, and Aunt Bea.

The truth is, Andy Griffith raised me. After my father died, we lived with my aunt and my cousins in Georgia. Back then, I was a redhead boy, trapped in a house with six females and 1.5 bathrooms.

Every month, for a span of three to five days, these women would become very grumpy—AT THE SAME TIME. Then, they would gang up on me, threatening to behead and…

I’m in a hotel room, and I should be sleeping, but I can’t. It’s late, and I’m not tired. My nightstand clock tells me it’s 11 P.M. I think I’ll go for a walk.

Now I’m strolling the dark sidewalks, alone. I pass a man who is wearing a hooded sweatshirt, walking the road, pushing a stroller that is filled with tin cans. I hear them rattling.

He grunts a greeting at me.

I wave.

Maybe I will stick very close to my hotel tonight.

I’ve always been a night owl, and this used to rub the adults in my life the wrong way. I come from fundamentalists who don’t believe good things come from nocturnal activities.

As far as they were concerned, night only nurtured evil things like dancing, fighting, carousing mailbox baseball, grand theft auto, and the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

But since we’re being honest, I’ll admit that as a boy I watched Johnny Carson almost every night in secret. I would sneak

downstairs and ignite our television, keeping the volume barely audible.

Johnny’s monologues were the best. The jokes, the gags, the laughs, the interviews. His studio seemed like such a wonderful place to be, and so different from our world.

Of course, I knew I was taking my eternal salvation into my own hands, watching such devilish TV. In my family the only acceptable forms of entertainment were the Lawrence Welk Show, Billy Graham crusades, or watching a washing machine on spin cycle.

The men I come from were morning people. They woke before sunlight, worked hard, sipped coffee all day, and made hour-long conversations about adjusting carburetors.

They burned trash in fifty-gallon drums, ate liver and onions for their birthdays, and went to bed early.

I never fit in with them because I was a night-person. And night-people were not productive, respectable people. Night-people…

The boy was just over three months old. His little fingers, his big eyes, his smooth skin, he was pure perfection.

Montgomery—it was a sunny February day in 1956. Martha and her husband sat in an ugly, sterile, third-floor government office.

Outside was a blue sky, beautiful trees, and birds. Inside, it was dismal.

Martha was wringing her hands. She looked at her husband and saw him bouncing his knees.

“Would you relax?” she said to him.

“You first,” he said.

But the truth was, she was just as anxious as him. And who could blame them? Their adoption papers had been bouncing through the bureaucratic ping-pong machine for twenty-seven months now.

Twenty-seven months.

That’s long enough to earn a master’s degree.

When they first submitted the application they felt nothing but excitement. They filled out the forms and requested a son. The anticipation was almost too much.

What would he look like? Who would he grow to become? After ten years of marriage, Martha was ready to hold her own child. She wanted someone call her “Mama.”

In years past, she’d only ever

held children that belonged to friends or family, and this did nothing to satisfy her two empty arms.

So, they turned in their papers. They hoped, and waited, and stared at their kitchen phone every evening.

But time went on, and the phone did not ring. Six months became a year. A year became two years. Not knowing was torture.

Alabama caseworkers sometimes visited their home in Dothan, without warning. These were friendly social workers, certainly, but only in the governmental sense. The caseworkers would make notes on clipboards, then look at Martha like they were sizing her up for a butcher’s window.

Martha wondered if the phone call would ever come.

Three days ago it did. The bell sounded on Martha’s phone and she almost lost her mind.

The voice on the line said, “You can pick up your son at…

I glanced at my phone and lost my appetite. An old friend died.

A breakfast joint, filled with smells of bacon and coffee. The sound of people, conversing. I was eating my eggs when I got the text.

I glanced at my phone and lost my appetite. An old friend died.

He was seventy-six. He used to be a singer. And I’ll never forget the story I heard about him.

Once, a nine-year-old girl from church asked him to sing for her dog’s funeral. He wore a necktie and the whole nine yards. He sang “Beulah Land.” That’s the kind of guy he was.

I was interrupted from my thoughts. It was another old friend who came through the doors. Lisa, a girl I grew up with.

I hugged her neck and asked how her father was doing.

Lisa smiled. “He’s okay, Mom hired a personal trainer to kick his butt, he whines about it.”

I’ll never forget her father. He once took me to a father-son church retreat at Blue Lake Methodist Camp, along with his own son. He

did this because I had no father and he didn’t want me to be left out.

I stood to leave the restaurant. That’s when I saw another friend. James is his name. James and I used to have a summer job together, parking cars. He’s a mess.

Back then, James would try to procure the phone number of any female unfortunate enough to make eye-contact with him.

I exited the restaurant and saw two more friends in the parking lot. Samantha and her husband, Wade.

We hugged. It was nice seeing them. We were once in a Sunday school class together.

Long ago, our class took a trip to Nashville. Wade brought a Mason jar full of something his Episcopalian uncle had brewed in a bathtub.

Consequently, Wade doesn’t remember much about that trip.

After saying goodbye, I drove across…

They say he sat beside his wife’s bed the morning she passed. He told her, “It’s alright to leave, baby,” right before her final sigh.

He was every old man you’ve ever met. And he wanted to go fishing. Doctors said it was a bad idea, but his son disagreed.

“Doctors don’t know everything,” says his son John. “Daddy wanted to fish, so by God, we took him.”

You should’ve seen it. A sunny day. Four men escorting an old man down the dock. They lowered him into a 14-foot camouflage boat.

The old man held them for support. He mumbled something to them. Nobody understood. The strokes had slowed his mouth down.

The men used ratchet straps to make an improvised seatbelt for him. And away they went.

The old man had been fishing here ever since the invention of red mud.

“Feesing heah wuh mah bess gurl,” the old man said through a contorted mouth.

His daughter translated for her kids: “Granddaddy says he used to fish here with his best girl.”

Granny. His “best girl.” When she was alive, they came here. The old woman loved fishing as much as he did.

The old man wanted a beer. He demonstrated this by reaching

for the cooler. His daughter held a can to his mouth. Beer ran down his chin.

Everyone cheered.

“Don’t tell Daddy’s doctor about this,” John said.

The boat was in motion. The motor trolled. The old man was smiling. Familiar feelings were in the air.

“I remember when Daddy took my middle-school boyfriend out here,” his daughter said. “I knew how to bait my own hook, my boyfriend didn’t. Daddy got a kick outta that.”

She also remembers a senior who once came calling on her. He drove a muscle car and wore too much leather. Her father greeted the kid on the porch, polishing his iron.

“Reckon you’d better keep a’driving, son,” her father told the kid.

The old man was something else. He was funny. He was clever. He was the best our land had to offer.…

My cousin’s ‘82 Ford was riding the two-lane highway. We were listening to our childhood hero on the radio. Willie Nelson was singing “You Were Always on my Mind.” We were seventeen.

We were on our way to Atlanta to visit a friend who had just graduated. Our friend’s father was throwing the mother of all parties. He was taking a bunch of his son’s friends to see a Willie Nelson concert.

You have never met a bigger Willie Nelson fan than the author of this column. I’m crazy about him.

In fourth grade, I had a homemade Willie Nelson lunchbox. My mother had painted the portrait of Willie onto one of my father’s old tool boxes.

Also, I know all the words to most of Willie’s tunes, and I still cry whenever I hear “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys,” since my mother decidedly failed in this regard.

Anyway, the sun was shining, on Highway 29. When we reached Grantville, we passed a

man who was changing his tire on the shoulder of the road.

We drove straight past him.

After a few miles of silence, we started feeling disgusted with ourselves. So we turned around.

We found the old man in a bad state. His tire was flat, and so was his spare. He was elderly. One side of his face was paralyzed, maybe from a stroke.

“I’ll never make it in time,” the old man kept saying. “I’m so late.”

“Late for what?” we asked.

The man shook his head. “Doesn’t matter now, the party starts in forty-five minutes, I’ll never make it to Columbus.”

I looked in in the backseat of his truck. It was filled with boxes of baby items. A stroller, still in a cardboard box, infant clothes on hangers, toys galore. In his truck bed, he had dozens of…