It’s Mother’s Day. We are in the car. I have a bouquet in my lap. My wife is driving. I’m listening to Johnny Cash sing “A Boy Named Sue” in honor of the occasion.

I have a long history with this song on Mother’s Day. For one thing, my mother’s name is Sue. She loves any song with the name “Sue” in it, such as: “Peggy Sue,” or “Wake Up Little Susie,” or “Runaround Sue.”

She does not, however, care for “A Boy Named Sue” because it has two cuss words in it.

I sing this song at a lot of my shows because I like Johnny Cash. But I never sing the cuss words. When I get to the part with the swearing, I always change it to something like: “Son of a Baptist.” Which makes the song very mom-friendly.

I sang this song for a bunch of Methodist ministers at a retreat once. My substitute swear word got a standing ovation. Since it went so well, I decided to try singing

it at a Baptist church. Someone slashed my tires and set fire to my car in the church parking lot.

But anyway, it’s a sleepy Sunday. There isn’t much traffic on the roads. There is a quarantine on and people aren’t going to church this Mother’s Day. Which feels very weird.

For every Sunday of my life there have always been clusters of cars parked at Baptist and Methodist buildings. And on Saturday nights, when the Catholics used to get together to do whatever the heck Catholics did on Saturday nights, there were cars parked there, too.

One time, when I was a kid, several of us boys eavesdropped on a Catholic mass, peeking through the windows to see what went on in there. The priest filled the chapel with a strange fragrant smoke and people were closing their eyes and singing a song.

My cousin Ed…

I’m going to call her Linda. Linda has health issues. She can’t walk very well. She has been using a pair of lightweight forearm crutches since her childhood.

In her lifetime, Linda has had more surgeries than you can shake a catheter at. Which is why Linda never got married because, in her own words: “I think I was just way too much to handle.”

The elderly woman doesn’t come out and say it because she doesn’t have to, living alone is not how anyone envisions their life.

Even so, don’t feel sorry for her. She hates it when people feel sorry for her. Besides she doesn’t live alone. More on that later.

Long ago, when she was stuck in a hospital bed as a kid, Linda decided that she wasn’t going to wallow in self-pity, but would make the best of her life.

When she got older, she got her own apartment, and a good job at junior college, working in the office. She was well-loved. Linda has always been well-loved.

She is a quirky woman.

She dresses with her own unique fashion sense. Sometimes she wears different colored pieces of clothing that deliberately clash.

One former college kid remembers: “Linda was always her own person. We were all just drawn to her.”

Another former student said, “I would always visit Linda between classes and tell her about my problems with boys. She listened really well.”

One morning, Linda was 58 years old, she was on her way into the office when she saw a young female student in the parking lot. The 19-year-old girl—let's call her Mary—was sitting in her car with the windows down, sleeping in the driver’s seat.

“Her belly was out to here,” said Linda, making the shape of a pregnant stomach. “I was like, ‘Whoa, this chick is prego.’”

She was very prego.

Almost nine months, to be exact. The girl said that she…

There is a faint smell of smoke in Walton County this morning. It’s a little hazy, but not too bad. I can see charred pine trees and an ocean of black soot.

Walton County is my home. My first kiss was on the shore of the Choctawhatchee Bay. My first beer was in a camper outside DeFuniak. I met my wife here.

Ours is a diverse county. You’ve got your ultra-elite, who live on the beach, drive Land Rover Autobiographies, and have New England accents. And you have guys like me, with two rusted fishing boats in his front yard, and a fence that has needed replacing since the Carter administration.

A few nights ago, a Walton County Sheriff's Department cruiser sped down our street, past my rusty boats and old fence, and into my driveway. Blue lights blaring. Kicking up gravel. A deputy in a county uniform beat on our door.

“Fire,” was the deputy’s first word. The officer pointed into the distance. “It’s coming this way.”

I looked at the horizon. Just above the treeline was a

cloud of brown smoke rising into the sky like something from a bad horror movie.

“Hurry,” the deputy said.

My wife and I spent the next 10 minutes running through our house, shouting things to each other.




“Hurry,” the deputy pointed out.

I’ve never been given 10 minutes to choose my most essential possessions. It was a bizarre scenario. I mean, what DO you choose?

Here’s what we chose: Wedding photos, four homegrown tomatoes, my favorite hat, one change of clothes, two books, a mounted fish, vitamins, a block of cheese, a white-noise machine, my mother’s handmade quilt, beer.

We crammed our dogs and belongings into our vehicles. I was barefoot. My wife wore pajamas.

Walton County uniforms were barricading our streets. No cars were coming in. Traffic…

I have a letter from Marge, in Louisville, Kentucky. She is 32 years old and she writes:

“I wish my father could be alive to see me, I just graduated from college amidst the coronavirus and am so proud of myself but nobody else is. I hope he would be, too, but I will never know. I started college when Dad was alive and he never got to see me finish before his pancreatic cancer. Is that stupid of an adult like me to want someone to be proud?”

Marge, I remember when I was 6 or 7 years old. I remember the following day explicitly: It was summer. My father and I were in the garage. I was shirtless and sunburned, sitting before a huge Westinghouse floor fan, eating a popsicle.

My father had just finished changing the oil in the Ford. He always had a cool garage. Back before terms like “man cave” were used we just called them garages. He had a workbench, millions of tools,

auto equipment, torque wrenches, and various other welding supplies. And jet posters. Always jet posters.

My father was a frustrated fighter pilot.

If you would have asked him which outlandish wish he could have had granted—this would have been true for him at any age—he would have answered, “I wanna be a fighter pilot.”

It was an obsession with him. He aimed his whole adolescent life toward being a fighter pilot. When he was a young man, he went to take the preliminary pilot physical and the doctor discovered that he was mostly deaf in one ear. The doctor sent him away without even a “Gee, I’m sorry, kid.”

My father was a mess after that. So as a grown man, he did a lot of sitting in the garage, looking at jet posters. On the walls of his garage were—this is not an exaggeration—thousands of posters. They had faded with…

Three years ago. Reeltown, Alabama. There I am, at a vegetable stand. There’s an old man there. I don’t know how old the man running the vegetable stand is, but he’s old enough to have white hair and use words like “rye-chonder” when he points.

He and his wife sit in rocking chairs. There are flats of tomatoes, peppers, jars of honey.

“‘Ch’all dune?” comes the call from his wife—a sweet woman with a kind face.

I inspect the man’s last batch of summer tomatoes. They look good. And it's hard to find good fare on the side of the road anymore.

Factories have taken over the world. Homegrown summer tomatoes are almost a myth.

There’s a clapboard house behind us. The roof is pure rust. The front porch is made of pure history.

“Grew up in that house,” he said. “My mama grew up in that house. Been farming this land since I’s a boy.”

His land nestles in the greenery of the foothills. He grew up using a mule to turn dirt fields. He burned up his childhood

tending cotton, cane, and peanuts. But he doesn't call himself a farmer.

“I’m a country preacher,” he goes on. “‘Fore that, we was missionaries.”

Missionaries. But not overseas. To Native Americans. Primitive tribes in the United States which still cooked over fires and lived without electricity. When they were younger, their missionary work was in Alaska.

“You take a Deep South boy like me,” he says. “Put me in a poverty stricken Eskimo tribe for ten years, that’s an education, boy.”

He’s not like many preachers. He has no doctrine to hammer, no book to thump. All he’s ever wanted to do is help people and to sell vegetables.

And he has a soft spot for Native Americans. He speaks about those he's helped, with wet eyes. This man is made of Domino sugar.

“We just wanted people to know…


Can I babysit your dog sometime? I have always wanted a bloodhound, and my mom says no. But I read once where you let someone babysit your dog, Thelma Lou, and I thought maybe I could do it, maybe when we’re done with social-distancing.

Please say yes,


First of all, Minnesota is a LONG way from Florida. I just did an internet search and discovered that Minnesota is somewhere close to the Arctic Circle.

Secondly, I doubt you want to babysit my dog. My dog goes around eating—and I do not mean to be crude—cat poop. Actually, she doesn’t care which species‘ excrement she eats, as long as it's kosher. Any kind will do. Cats, raccoons, bears, water buffalo, giraffes. This is why you must NEVER let my dog give you a kiss.

I repeat. Never.

Right now, she is sitting on my feet. She weighs about a hundred pounds, and she gets heavier each day. This is because she eats everything in sight. Even furniture.

I don’t

know if you know about bloodhounds, but they are truly scientific marvels. Bloodhounds have a nose with 300 million smell receptors.

To give you an idea of how many that is, consider this: Your typical household American man has approximately 2 smell receptors. We men couldn’t smell odors coming from our own armpits if we were locked in a laundry hamper. Consequently, the average American wife can smell a decomposing tomato from a house three streets away.

A bloodhound’s nose is even more sensitive than that. Their noses can track a scent 12 days after the source has left an area. It is so sensitive that a bloodhound can smell one drop of human blood in several gallons of water.

The thing to remember here is that a dog’s taste buds are related to its sense of smell. Which means my dog loves to eat and…

I am walking through a neighborhood subdivision. It’s not far from my house. People ride bikes. Some are sitting on lawn chairs in driveways, taking in a sunset. Viva la quarantine.

I pass an open garage. Inside the garage is an old man and old woman talking, laughing. They are white-haired and small. His posture is hunched. She is sitting on a tall stool, wearing a towel over her body, keeping a still. He cuts her hair with scissors.

The old man moves around her like a guy who knows what he is doing. You can always tell people who know what they’re doing. My mother, for example, doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing when it comes to cutting hair.

I base this statement on my entire childhood. My mother used to cut my hair on the front porch, like all Baptists. She used dull, rusty, tetanus-covered scissors, and high-powered army horse clippers. Her method for haircuts was eyeballing it.

One time she was giving me a Fundamentalist Special out on the front porch when the clipper guard

popped off. The blade ran straight into a virgin patch of my hair and cut me clear to the scalp. I could feel the blades bite my skin.

The first thing that happened was that my mother covered her mouth and said, “Sweet Jesus.”

My mother didn’t say the Lord's name like that unless communists had invaded U.S. soil, or Conway Twitty had a new album.

“What’s wrong?” I said.

My mother started to laugh. “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.”

“Sorry for what?”

She was snorting now.

I looked in the reflection of the porch window. I saw a kid looking back at me with a chunk missing from his skull. My red hair had an aircraft landing strip in the center.

She was purple-faced, rolling on the porch, and losing bladder control.

“My head!” was all I could say.


MINNEAPOLIS—It was an average Tuesday morning at the VA hospital. Elderly Sam Nilva awoke in his bed with crusty eyelids from sleep. He blinked at the ceiling a few times. A nurse brought some good news.

“You’re going home today, Sam,” she said.

Home. After being stuck in a sterile room for God only knews how long, the Minneapolis VA hospital was discharging him.

Another nurse leaned over Sam’s bed. Her surgical mask, goggles, and face shield could not cover her award-winning smile.

“And guess what?” she said. “We have a little celebration for you, birthday boy.”

Next, the nurses had all gathered in Sam’s room, holding handwritten cards, posters, and a multi-colored banner that read: “Happy Birthday.”

The little old man didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. His face said enough. He was taking it all in. More nurses were chiming in via video phone on a monitor beside his bed. Everyone was cheering. It was a great day.

Sam recovered from a recent brain surgery, and he’s been in this hospital fighting COVID-19.

It was no day at the beach. Some weren’t sure if he’d beat it, but he did. And he did it with flying colors.

Though it should come as no surprise. On Apr. 29, 1919, Samuel Nilva came into this world, and he’s seen a lot worse in his life.

It’s hard to imagine what the world was like back in such an ancient era, but it was a turbulent time to be alive. Woodrow Wilson was in office. The government had just voted to protect sections of virgin land that would become national parks, which was considered a wacky idea by many critics. Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” was just officially published.

Congress had just approved the 19th amendment so that women could vote. Einstein proved Newton's theory of space to be dead wrong. A little football club in Green Bay, Wisconsin, decided to…

The things I could write about pound cake. I could go on and on and bore you to death, but I won’t.

After my father died, I remember visiting a Methodist church with my boyhood friend, and he was introducing me to people. He was raised Methodist, I was not. My people were Baptist.

The Methodists were cheerful. My people didn’t believe in cheer. Our pastor preached hard against alcoholism, promiscuity, and narcotics because these things could lead to cigarette smoking.

My friend pointed to one lady in the congregation. She was slight, with gray hair, and a blue skirt suit.

There are some people you don’t forget. She was one of those people.

She had a heavenly glow. People smiled when they passed by her like she was unique.

“Who’s that woman?” I asked.

“That is the Pound Cake Lady,” my pal said in reverence.

After the Methodist service, my friend led me to a downstairs fellowship hall. The Methodists put out a bigger spread than any I’d ever seen. There was even a special table dedicated

to cornbread and biscuits.

It was too much. Overwhelming. I even saw people standing outside the fellowship hall, smoking cigarettes after their meal. It was as though they were unwinding after sin.

The woman in the blue skirt suit placed something on the end of the table. It was golden, fat, hulking, sacred pound cake.

“Hurry and get some,” said my friend, “before it’s all gone.”

He was right. The cake didn’t last four seconds among those chain-smoking Methodists. But when it disappeared, the old woman replaced it with another.

People blessed her name forevermore. Hallelujah. And so did I.

So every church has a pound cake lady. They are young, middle-aged, or elderly, and they are holy. These ladies are messengers, sent to humanity as proof that God is not gluten-free. He loves white flour, sugar, and butter, no matter what…

There is something about the way the sun falls upon the lustrous water of the Choctawhatchee Bay that lights my heart on fire.

No. Wait. I apologize. That sentence you read in the above paragraph was ridiculous. Lustrous? How immature and overly dramatic. This is because I wrote that sentence when I was about 17 years old, everything was dramatic back then.

That was probably the age when I truly decided that I wanted to be a writer. I was lanky. I was dumb. I was a fatherless dropout. I remember taking my Lettera 32 portable typewriter down to the bay, pulling it out of its travel case, and loading it with paper. I expected a wave of literary inspiration to just (bam!) hit me, but nothing happened. Nada. Zip.

Welcome to writing, kid.

I was sitting there on the shore, my typewriter was getting corroded with salt air, and the only sentence that came to me was the ridiculous one you just read.

But I remember the evening

I wrote it. I was camping by the water in a secluded spot. My dog was with me. Lady was her name. She was curly-haired, and faithful. Behind me was my pup tent. Ahead of me was that water. And that stupid typewriter.

What a dork. I can’t believe the level of dorkiness. I remember sitting by that bay, trying to write what I hoped would become a novel. I got maybe six words into it and realized I was an idiot.

You can’t write a novel at 17, your earlobes haven’t dropped yet. You know nothing of life, or about the joys of paying health insurance premiums that cost more than tactical helicopters. But there I was, trying, and I have to give Young Me credit for giving it his best shot.

Somehow, the kid thought that looking at the big water would give him the right words. But after…