Virginia. Late afternoon. A nice hotel near an airport.

The soldier carried his heavy bag over a shoulder. He wore his usual ACU jacket, patrol cap, and a reverse flag patch on his shoulder. He stepped off the hotel elevator onto the second floor, removed his cap to reveal a high and tight cut.

He wandered down the long hotel corridor, his tactical boots making dull thuds on the carpet.

Then he double checked the slip of paper in his hand which read: “Room 233.”

He repeated the room number to himself, noting the numbers on the passing doors.

It had been a long six months. He’d been on temporary duty assignment, away from his wife and daughters; away from everything. It gets lonely overseas.

He just arrived on U.S. soil this morning. Then he took two flights to get here. His family was supposed to be meeting him at the airport, but his plane came in a few hours early. So he thought he’d come here and surprise them.

He found the room. The number on the

door was 233.

He double- and triple-checked to make sure it was the right room. The last thing you want after being absent from your family for the better part of a year is to surprise the wrong family.

The military man took a deep breath. He was feeling his age today. He’s not old, but he’s got high mileage.

He knocked on the door.

He waited.

His heart was pounding in his throat. But nothing happened. So he knocked again. But he got the same results. Bupkis.

He leaned against the wall and scratched his buzzed head. Where could they be?

That is when he heard the elevator ding behind him. Then he heard voices down the hall.

He knew those voices.

They were decidedly female voices, the same ones he often hears in his sleep. He closed his eyes and…

This is Michael’s story. And it begins in the middle of the night, in the hinterlands of suburban North Carolina.

Michael and his musician friends are hiking through a dark neighborhood, lugging two violins, a viola, a cello, four folding stools, collapsible music stands, and backpacks. And its chilly.

“Are we almost there?” says the cellist. “My feet hurt.”

“Keep your voice down,” says Michael, swinging his violin case at his side. “We’re almost there.”

“I don’t understand why we had to park so far away.”

“Keep your voice down. Do you realize what time it is?”

The cellist is in poor spirits. He is hauling a massive hunk of spruce-and-maple torture otherwise known as a cello. He adjusts the three-quarter-ton case. “I shoulda been a flute player.”

Meet the string quartet. Four average college kids from your average American community college. They’ve been playing chamber music together for three years.

Have you ever listened to a string quartet? Or better yet: Have you ever been awakened by a quartet playing Haydn on your front lawn at 1 A.M.? Me neither.

This was all Michael’s idea.

Michael has a severe case of lovesickness. Lovesickness, according to the dictionary, is the inability to act normally due to love. And tonight’s events are definitely not normal.

Although for 19-year-old Michael, this is more than mere fascination. He has been dating Eleana for one year and he hopes to marry her someday.

Michael and Eleana had an argument last week. And in the way of disagreements, theirs was Hiroshima. Pride got in the way. Feelings got hurt. He’s been lost without her. Eleana won’t take his calls. He tries texting, but she doesn’t answer.

Which leads us to Covert Operation Haydn.

Tonight’s makeshift string section sets up in a semicircle on Eleana’s front lawn. Michael is nervous. His hands are trembling when he opens his violin case.

Life is not like the romance…

“Otis!” says the girl working the fast-food drive-thru window. “Gimme a kiss!”

I am in my truck, buying hamburgers. The drive-up cashier’s name is Shawnda. She is a notorious Otis lover.

Otis (alleged Labrador) crawls over the steering wheel to greet Shawnda, and his prodigious canine butt is wagging in my face. His tail is swinging like a Louisville Slugger. I think I’m going to have a black eye.

Shawnda scruffs his hair. “Can I give him some French fries?”

“Why not. He’s a growing boy.”

She gives him a single handful and says, “Gosh, I really want a dog of my own.”

I massage my sore eye. “Take mine, please.”

“You think I should finally break down and get a dog?”

I know from previous conversations that Shawnda lives with her elderly grandmother. Also, Shawnda works part-time while taking college classes.

Sadly, I am unable to answer her question because there is a pool-noodle-sized canine tail whacking me in the face, knocking off my hat.

So I change tacks. “How’s your granny doing?”

“Oh…” She sighs. “One day at a time.”

Shawnda is her grandmother’s

primary caregiver. Shawnda is the one who cuts the grass, pays the bills, cooks, cleans. Hers is not a simple life.

But I see a different side of the cheerful young woman whenever Otis is around. She leans in for the full-face lick. “I love you, Otis.”

Before we leave, Otis gives Shawnda a grandiose goodbye by licking every nanometer of her hands. I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure this is frowned upon in the fast-food franchise employee manual.

We pay for our food and off we go. Shawnda continues to wave farewell in my rear view.

I turn to Otis. “You have a new girlfriend.”

He says nothing.

“Hey, I get it. She’s sweet. Just promise me you won’t rush into anything.”

Otis blinks.

“So, where do you wanna eat today?”


Just before midnight. Somewhere on the Texas prairie. A 20-year-old named Mark was driving on a two-lane highway on his way home.

You have to be careful when driving on an empty prairie. It’s easy to develop “prairie foot.” On a flat landscape, without landmarks, your foot tends to get heavy on the gas pedal. It’s not hard to travel upwards of 200 miles per hour by accident.

Mark saw flashing hazards ahead. A brokedown truck with a horse trailer attached. He pumped his brakes and pulled over. And in the rural tradition of all who wear roper boots, he was ready to help.

“Need a hand?”

A young woman slid from beneath the truck chassis. She had grease smudges on her face. She was holding a scissor jack. And she was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen.

Mark felt his breath get trapped in his throat.

She smiled. “Sorry. No speak’a the Inglés too good.”

Her truck had a flat tire. In her passenger seat was a silent elderly woman. The girl had been under the

vehicle looking for the jackpoint on the old Silverado, which can be dangerous business for the uninitiated.

“Allow me,” Mark said, already on the pavement.

It turned out to be a bigger problem than he’d expected. Her spare tire was shot, worn to the canvas. There was no way she was getting home on that thing.

Mark attached the horse trailer to his own truck and told her he’d take them home. But where did she live? Her jumbled English made it impossible to understand her directions.

So the girl drew him a map. And since there was no paper in Mark’s truck to write upon, she used a Sharpie to draw the route on Mark’s hand.

He presented her his hand, which was trembling when she wrote upon it.

It was 2 A.M. when he reached her aunt’s house. He led…

Dear Anonymous,

You wrote to me from the ICU waiting room at 1:37 A.M. this morning. In your email you told me about your daughter, fighting to stay alive. You told me that you were a mess. You said you needed a smile.

Then you finished by asking a simple question. You asked what I believe Hope is.

And you spelled it with a capital H.

Normally I wouldn’t answer a question like this because, I think we can all agree, I ain’t a very smart guy. In fact, I’m a putz. But you seemed desperate. So if my mediocre, halfcocked words can give you a few moments of calm, then, well...

Words you shall have.

So Hope. Capital H. I submit that, for this column, we pretend Hope is not merely a four-letter word or a positive feeling. Let’s make Hope tangible; a three-dimensional object. That way we can hold it. Touch it.

Let’s say that Hope (capital H) is actually a one-pound shaker of arts-and-craft glitter.

Have you ever fooled around with glitter? It’s messy stuff. Glitter is a clean

freak’s nightmare. Any second-grade teacher will tell you that glitter is a communicable disease.

Yesterday, for instance, my wife visited my cousin’s kid’s playroom where unsupervised children were playing with illegal quantities of glitter. Their sparkly hands touched my wife, who in turn touched me. And that was all it took.

Currently, there are stubborn pieces of glitter in my teeth, on my keyboard, and in my eye sockets. There will be glitter in my casket.

Because you can’t end glitter. You can’t fight it. You can’t eradicate it. Try washing your hands; glitter will laugh at you.

Hope is like glitter. It doesn’t take much. And it really hangs on.

Although I also believe Hope is fuel, like gasoline. To explain what I mean let’s use a hypothetical anecdote.

First, for this illustration, let’s pretend you have…

I’m a kid. I am in bed. Mama is up late. The kettle on the stove is whistling. The sound wakes me. I look at the clock, it is two in the morning.

I walk downstairs to see my mother at our dining table. The tabletop is scattered with paper, envelopes, an empty mug, and a calculator.

She leans over a mess of bills that might as well be a tablecloth. She punches numbers on the calculator and makes a grimace. I know my mother. I know that look.

“What’s wrong?” I say.

She runs her fingers through her hair. “Oh, I’m just robbing Peter to pay Paul, go back to bed.”

“Who’s Paul?”

“Paul Newman, who else? Now go to bed.” She buries herself in her hands.

“Have you been crying, Mama?”

“I’m not crying, now go to sleep.”

“But, I can’t sleep.”

“Upstairs, now!”


She points at me. “I don’t wanna hear about your ‘but.’ I want you to go to bed.”

“I’m not tired.”

“Well,” she says with a sigh. “Then just pretend to sleep, I don’t care what you do. Go upstairs

and count your blessings.”

This is what all Baptists do. We do not count sheep, or listen to meditative sleep instructional CDs by Deepak Chopra. That stuff is for Methodists.

“Blessings?” I say to my mother with my trademarked rebellious tone. “WHAT blessings? We’re probably gonna STARVE to death aren’t we?”

I don’t know what has come over me, talking like this. I storm upstairs, slide beneath the covers, I stare at the ceiling. I can’t sleep because life has dealt my family nothing but lemons. And I’m worried. We have limited means, tall debts, and a car that leaks oil like a colander. And now my mother is having to pay this Paul fella.

My mother comes into the bedroom. She sits beside me. She touches my hair and doesn’t say anything.

“Listen up, class!” The ninth-grade teacher is using her powerful, no-nonsense voice. “Eyes up front! I want everyone to hush and give Mister Dietrich your full attention.”

It is a weekday afternoon. I am staring into my computer webcam. I am a thousand miles away from their classroom, on a video conference call with Mrs. Barry’s ninth-graders.

I see my face on the computer monitor. I resemble a doe staring into the highbeams of an oncoming Peterbilt semi.

“Hi,” I say.

I am greeted with mumbles. I don’t know what it is about ninth-graders, but they are expert mumblers.

Mrs. Barry is unsatisfied with this communal muttering. “I couldn’t hear you, class.”

The class repeats the greeting, and they sound like grim robots. “Hello, Mister Dietrich.”

I don’t like it when they call me Mister Dietrich. I have spoken in many schools over the years, teachers always insist on students using this salutation. “Mister Dietrich” makes me sound like the defendant.

I can tell the kids are bored. I briefly consider whipping up some “technical difficulties” on my end

and signing off. But a deal is a deal. And I promised to speak to Mrs. Barry’s class of remedial students, most of whom are falling behind in their studies.

We are supposed to be talking about English. The students have prepared written questions, which they will recite from index cards, addressing the giant head on the projector screen.

My giant head.

A boy stands. He reads his question. “I like your story about church potlucks. What’s your favorite casserole?” He sits.

I clear my throat like a guy under oath. “Chicken divan casserole.”

The class gives no response. Crickets. I am dying.

So I expound upon the finer points of the finest chicken-curry casserole to ever be perpetuated by the fundamentalist women of my childhood, then I invite more questions.

A girl stands. “How long did it take to grow…