CHARLESTON—It’s my last morning in town, and I will miss this place. The sun is rising over the old American city in a way that steals your breath. The street is lined with colonial single homes. There are fresh horse apples in the street.

I hear the sound of a draft horse clopping behind me, pulling a carriage, warming up his joints for the day. I step aside to let the carriage pass. I wave like a fool because I am a hopeless tourist in a romantic city, and I feel obliged to act like one.

“Can I pet your horsey?” I ask the driver.

Horsey. This word just slips out.

The driver stops, he lets me run my hands along the animal’s silken coat. I wish, by some stroke of fate, that I had been born a horse guy. Horse guys know more about life than I do.

But alas, I am a dog guy. And dog guys know nothing about life. All we do is spend our hard earned money on chew

toys shaped like tacos.

I wave goodbye to the horsey and keep walking. I pass a few construction workers at a nearby house. Charleston is full of construction work, but not the kind you’re used to.

Here, they don’t have whining power tools and loud radial saws. They have a gentle tap-tap-tap from a hammer. Or the sweeping sound of a wood plane against poplar. Old sounds. Noises that were once the soundtrack of America.

Sadly, I’m from Florida. I’ve worked on lots of construction crews, I’ve been reading measuring tapes since age 14. In Florida, our national bird is the Sapsucking Real Estate Contractor, who uses earth-shattering electric power tools, and cheap materials.

It’s not like this in Charleston. Just down the street is the American College of the Building Arts. Students can choose from six specialized traditional crafts that predate mud: timber framing, architectural…

CHARLESTON—Today I hiked into the woods to see a South Carolinaian salt marsh just outside of the city. And it’s stunning.

The cordgrass stretches backward to the barren horizon, poking from the saltwater like green whiskers. A white heron is hunting for breakfast.

And just when the scene couldn’t be more Carolinian, I see a bald eagle flying overhead.

The distant bird glides above the world, moving on an almost imperceptible air current, turning circles.

“You can tell it’s an eagle,” says John (age 11), pointing at the sky. “See how his wings are flat, instead of a V shape?”

John is wearing a sun hat,
a COVID mask, and gobs of sunscreen. He is a bird fanatic. He hands me his binoculars so I can watch the eagle ride the Atlantic breeze.

John goes on: “Most people see soaring birds and automatically think they’re eagles. But they’re usually vultures or some kinda other soaring bird. When you see a dihedral wing shape, it’s not an eagle.”

Dihedral? Who is this kid?

It's hard to believe bald

eagles almost disappeared from this earth. Especially since they’re the quintessential American symbol. But isn’t it always the same tragic story with us humans? Sometimes we ruin the things we love.

Over the years, hunters killed lots of bald eagles. Commercial pesticide usage killed even more. North Americans were wiping out bald eagles by the shipload.

By the 1970s there were an estimated 220 eagles left on the continent. And even worse, nobody could figure out what to do about it.

Zoologists started touring grade schools with bald eagles, simply so children could get a final glimpse of the national bird before the species vanished.

“Eagles are raptors,” says John. “They’re SUPER good at surviving. I’ve even seen them eat snakes before. I love it when they eat snakes.”

But eagles weren’t surviving. Fifty years ago there were only 13 pairs of…

CHARLESTON—I’m walking rough cobblestones beneath South Carolina’s blazing afternoon sun and I’m sweating through my shirt.

I woke up at 6:39 a.m. in our cheap hotel. I plugged in the room’s coffeemaker. I said good morning to the cockroaches. I crawled into the mildewed shower while the coffeemaker gurgled.

The shower steamed up the bathroom and I could see traces of greasy fingerprints appearing on the big mirror. Two words were traced upon the fogged-up glass:

“MARRY ME!!!” With three exclamation points.

I was all smiles. Because my wife didn’t write this, and neither did I. Meaning: within this scumsucking hotel room, someone recently popped The Question. And I can only hope the other someone said yes before they contracted tetanus.

As it happens, Charleston is where my wife and I honeymooned nearly twenty years ago. The town has changed since then. Within the last two decades, for instance, America has built tons of outdoor shopping malls.

In my era (Paleolithic era) indoor malls ruled the world. We had low-tech signs, food courts, and

pushcarts selling cardboard pretzels with “cheese-like” sauce.

But over the years malls gravitated outdoors and the shops got weirder. Today outdoor malls have bright blinking signs and bizarre shops where you can build your own Teddy bears for three hundred bucks. And worse, Yankee Candle stores.

I have nothing against Yankee Candles, in fact I kind of like them. But whenever my wife passes these storefronts we have to stop and smell approximately 7,102 candles until my lungs burn and I have a pumpkin-pie-scented headache.

But nevermind all that because Charleston is a town that rings my bells. This street’s cobblestones were once used as ballast on ships that arrived here in 1670. The brick house I’m strolling past is a place where George Washington once kicked back a few beers.

This is also the town where my wife and I conducted the cheapest honeymoon ever…

CHARLESTON—The Atlanta Braves game plays on the radio. I’m listening on an alarm-clock radio that sits on my hotel nightstand.

Our cheap room overlooks the not-so-snazzy outskirts of the Holy City. This is not one of your slick hotels. This is the kind of place that smells like fifty-year-old Pall Malls and has a wobbly toilet.

We just got into town, but I never miss a game if I can help it. And when I close my eyes, I can see the game, even though it’s happening on a radio.

I wanted to be a baseball writer as a kid. There was an old man in our neighborhood who was an actual sportswriter. The white-haired old salt was the real deal. He carried a portable typewriter to ballgames. He sat in press boxes. He tapped out five-hundred word columns like a regular Red Smith. It was unbearably cool.

The old man could fully appreciate the game in ways that only old men can. He’d covered the Bronx Bombers, the Brooklyn “Bums” in

‘55, and the Milwaukee Braves when they signed a young guy named Hank. He’d shaken hands with Koufax, watched Mantle and Maris duke it out in ‘61, and he was present for Jackie’s funeral.

But alas, I never even came close to being a sportswriter. All I can do is listen by radio.

The sound of the crowd sounds like static. This year Major League Baseball is using fake crowd noise on broadcasts since COVID-19 prohibits fans from attending games. Which means that the Boys of Summer are traveling the nation to play in empty stadiums. This is eerie when you think about it.

But the canned crowd sounds aren’t so bad since baseball doesn’t work without crowds. And if you don’t believe me, sing the first verse of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.”

I was never in any danger of being an actual baseball writer. For…

There is a TV camera in front of me. There are several audio and lighting people packed into this tiny room like pickled hogs’ feet in a jar.

Amidst all the high-tech equipment, there is a makeup department, wardrobe department, lighting people, producers, co-producers, associate producers, executive producers, and supervising administrative associate to the assistant to the co-producers.

I have one task today.

I’m supposed to say a few simple lines for a commercial. Which is a lot harder that it sounds. I haven’t had to memorize any actual lines since I played Paul Revere for my fourth-grade play and told everyone that the British were coming.

“Okay, people!” says the director, clapping his hands. “Let’s do it one more time!”

So we all cheerfully start the scene from the top. We are still wearing our on-camera smiles as though we cannot think of anything more wonderful than doing this take “one more time.” Even though we have been doing it “one more time” for 45,293 times because some idiot who looks like me

and lives in my house keeps muffing his lines.

“Places, people!”

There are large lights aimed at me. These are not small spotlights from the Dollar Tree. These are the sorts of lights used to illuminate runways for 727s. These lights are miniature nuclear events. They are inches away from my bare skin, causing the hair on my forearms to burn off and my neck to flay. It’s great.

The best part about being on camera is that I am discovering how badly my mind operates. I have three ultra-easy lines, but I’ve been at this all day and I can’t say them without screwing up.

In fact, I can’t speak without stuttering, lisping, hiccuping, or having my knee joint pop for no reason.

And on the rare occasion when I get my lines right, someone in the film crew inevitably makes a loud bodily noise…

BIRMINGHAM—I saw you in the Publix parking lot. Your car’s gas tank lid was open. I wanted to tell you. But you were busy.

You were wearing nurse’s scrubs, a hospital badge, and you were changing your baby’s diaper in the backseat of your car.

Your other toddler was watching you have a meltdown. You looked like you were about to cry behind that surgical mask.

Right now, I wish there were a machine I could hook to my chest that would print onto paper the words inside my heart. I’m not always great with sentences, but I have a lot I want to say. Such as: “thank you.”

If you are a nurse, I can only imagine how tired you must be. I can’t begin to understand what nursing is like these days.

Alabama’s COVID-19 cases are on an upward rise. People are dying each day. And, well, I guess nobody knows this better than you.

You’ve probably been working yourself raw, pulling double shifts, seeing the horrors firsthand. And somehow, after you clock out, you still manage to

do the grocery shopping, to pay the bills, and to change your baby’s diaper in the backseat.

Maybe you feel overlooked, a little invisible, and underappreciated. Maybe that’s why you’re so upset. Or maybe you’re overwhelmed with life right now, wondering if what you do truly matters.

You probably view your life the way everyone does. You see yourself going from Point A to Point B, doing your work. No big deal. You’re just one nurse among millions. If you don’t do your job, someone else will.

But you’re wrong. And it’s not just your job that’s important, your life is important in a way that you might never fully appreciate.

This is going to sound silly, but have you ever watched someone knock over a bunch of dominoes?

A few years ago, Liu Yang broke the world record for…