Last week. I saw a young mother in the supermarket parking lot. Her kids were fussing. She had a toddler in a stroller who was howling.

Her attention was on the screaming baby, so she didn’t notice her fugitive shopping buggy rolling downhill.

I did. So I jogged after it and caught the cart before it smacked the door of a very white, very shiny, very BMW.

She gave me a quick smile and a frantic “Ohmygodthankyousomuch.”

The baby screamed another chorus of misery.

Then the mother buckled her three kids into an economy car—a vehicle with rust around the wheel-wells. When she did, she spilled her purse. It was one of those big beach-bag deals.

God love her.

She threw her head into her hands while her stuff went flying everywhere. She stayed like that a little while. I don’t know whether she was crying, but she certainly deserved to.

A few random strangers and I helped gather her things in the parking lot. I chased a runaway lipstick tube and mid journey, I was

immediately lost in a time warp.

Because, you see, long ago I knew a woman like her. A single woman, a widow, who raised two kids on a shoestring, and struggled for every buffalo nickel.

The same woman who taught me to spell my name. To tie my shoes. And how to yes-ma’am and yes-sir my elders. A woman I called Mama.

I will never forget when Mama met a young Latina woman at her Wednesday Bible study when I was a child.

The Spanish-speaking woman was single, she had a partially deaf son, she lived in a dilapidated apartment, she worked many jobs. The woman had no car, and you won’t get far in a world of interstates and overpasses without tires. Nobody knew this better than Mama.

So Mama made friends with the woman. She carried the young woman to and from…

He sat alone in a breakfast joint. He was old, wearing wrinkled clothes, with white stubble on his chin, like he forgot to shave. He was doing a crossword puzzle.

When I am old, I will forget to shave and do crosswords.

He wore a Navy ball cap with scrambled-egg embellishments on the bill, his reading glasses on his nose.

Buck Owens was overhead singing “Together Again.”

I pulled up a stool beside him. Socially distanced, of course. We micro-smiled at each other. The waitress handed me a menu, I gave it back and replied, “Three eggs, sunny, and bacon, please.”

The old guy and I exchanged another formal grin. Minutes went by. He broke the ice first. “Where’s home, fella?”

When I am old, I will call strangers fella.

I jerked a thumb behind me. “About three hours that way. You?”

He laughed. “Nineteen hours in the other direction. On vacation with my kids in Crawfordville this week.” He looked at me over his readers. “Had to get outta the condo, my granddaughters were driving me insane.”

The waitress refilled his mug. The man

used six packets of sugar in his coffee.

I will someday use six packets of sugar.

The inscription on his ballcap caught my eyes, it read: “Navy Chaplain Corps.”

I pointed to his hat. “Bet I can guess what you did for a living.”

The man smiled. “Yep. I’m an inactive chaplain—there’s no such thing as a retired chaplain.”

“So, how’d you get into the business of saving Navy souls?”

He laughed again. “Well, I didn’t save’em. I just listened to a lot of’em talk.”


He added, “My daddy was a preacher. But that ain’t what made me wanna be a Holy Joe.”

“What did?”

“Oh, lotta things.” He looked at me with eyes of slate blue, the color of dungarees. “You ever hear of the SS Dorchester?”

I shook my head. “Was that…

Sundown. I’m on vacation, sitting on the beach. I’m wearing a red Hawaiian shirt, swim trunks, a Resistol summerwear cattleman’s hat, and I’m reading Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express.”

I’m carefully keeping my electrolytes and B vitamins balanced with a healthful tonic that comes in longneck bottles.

In the middle distance, I’m watching a mother teach her son to swim.

“Don’t let me go, Mom!” the kid shouts, and his voice ricochets off the smooth water. He’s maybe 6 years old.

“I won’t let you go,” his mother says.

“Please! Don’t let go.”

“I won’t.”


“Keep kicking your legs, honey, I’ve got you.”

The colors of the sun paint a Monet on the Gulf’s glasslike surface. The kid’s father is also watching the ordeal. The dad is half in the water, knee-deep, videoing the whole thing on his phone.

“Wave to the camera!” shouts Dad.

And in this moment I am eternally grateful that I was born before the Age of Phone Video. I wouldn’t have wanted my chubby childhood on film.

I don’t need visual documentation of my fledgling moments. Such

as the second-grade Christmas pageant when I dropped a frankincense box off the gymnasium stage and nearly gave Mrs. Simms a subdural hematoma.

Besides, I don’t look good on camera. If someone would have videoed my first swim lesson, I’ll tell you what they would have witnessed: incoordination.

The guy who first attempted to teach me to swim was named Rodney. Rodney was a lifeguard at our public pool. He had army tattoos and a deep affection for unfiltered Camels.

The main thing I remember about Rodney was that he drove a 1970 Dodge Charger (B-body) with a 440 Six Pack Hemi hood cutout and a pistol-grip shifter. Not that this matters.

When it came to swimming, Rodney’s philosophy was pretty laid back. He would throw us kids in the shallow end like bowling balls…

“First you gotta peel the eggs,” says the old woman as she peels hard boiled eggs over a sink. “This is the hardest part. You gotta have good fingernails.”

We are having a video call. The white-haired woman is standing in her kitchen. When she finishes peeling, she fires up an Oster electric mixer that whirs like a son of a gun.

“I use an electric mixer to whip my egg filling ‘cause my hands get tired stirring.” She laughs. “My deviled eggs are so good.”

Good. The goodness of mankind is a hotly contested idea in today’s tense world. Historically, this is nothing new. People have scoffed at the idea that mankind is intrinsically good since Eve took up dressmaking. Many believe there is no inherent goodness in human nature.

And then there are people like Miss Reba, with her deviled eggs.

Reba is 83 and a committed deviled-egg artist. The woman has been cooking for funerals, weddings, and local clambakes for 60-some-odd years. And she’s still chugging.

“The secret to good deviled eggs,” says Miss Reba,

addressing the phone camera, “is there ain’t no secret.”

This makes her giggle again. Then Reba takes a sip of a potent clear drink her daughter, Annie, mixed in honor of our phone call.

I ask the old woman, “What’s in the glass?”

Reba takes a sip. “Ovaltine.”

Miss Reba’s deviled eggs are famous in four counties. This particular batch is for the family of a 17-year-old girl who died in a car wreck. These eggs are for the funeral.

Sometimes Reba has been known to travel up to six hours to deliver her deviled eggs.

I asked why Reba does this. Why prepare food for random people, then go to the trouble of hand delivering it?

“Because I need them to see my face. Need them to know someone’s praying for’em. Deviled eggs are my excuse for dropping by.”

Miss Reba…

An old Florida village. Not the touristy kind with swimsuit shops and scooter rentals. This is a place where the local high-school colors are probably camo and orange.

We are vacationing nearby this week. I am in search of tuna dip.

I pull into a random seafood market. The place isn’t fancy. This is rural Florida, where all seafood markets are required by state law to look like rundown miniature correctional facilities.

In the sandy parking area an old man and a kid leap out of a dusty Suburban then walk inside. The old man wears an Atlanta Braves ballcap. His grandson, maybe 9 years old, wears a Freddie Freeman jersey.

Inside the market, the old man never speaks. He communicates via sign language with the boy. I don’t speak sign language, but I speak fluent Kid. And I see a lot of love on that little freckled face.

When the employee at the counter is ready to take their order, the old man gestures to the kid who serves as our translator this afternoon.

The kid

points and speaks to the guy at the counter. “We want three pounds of those.”

The seafood market employee is a man with a shaved head, lots of inkwork, and an unlit cigarette wedged in his lips. We must have caught him just before a smoke break.

The inactive cigarette bounces when he talks. “Three pounds of shrimp? Anything else, boss?”

The kid checks with Granddaddy for instructions. The old man looks over the motherlode of seafood displayed on ice. Choices, choices. He signs to Junior.

Junior translates. “Yeah. What’re those things?”

“These? Grouper cheeks. Good eating. Want some?”

The kid signs to the old man who nods.

“Yes, please.”

The kid never stops signing, even when speaking to the cashier. It’s called being polite to Grandad.

“Sure thing, bossman.” The guy behind the counter is trying to act nonchalant about this exchange,…

I am driving toward the edge of the known Earth on a remote Franklin County highway. We’re going on vacation, and my old Ford is taking us there.

The speed limit is 65 mph, but we Fords just do the best we can.

I’m a Ford guy. My father and grandfather were Ford men. We Ford patrons have our critics, we’ve heard all the demeaning jokes. But we’re okay with being teased about our vehicles.

You can say what you will about our cars, but I’d rather push a Ford than drive a BMW.

This afternoon, I’m the only vehicle on this chipped, Floridian pavement. Save for a ‘78 Bronco Ranger XLT ahead with a bumper sticker that reads: “That’s not a leak, that’s just my Ford marking its territory.”

Ford guys.

I am driving through the real Florida. I roll past Panhandle hamlets and locales the general public rarely hears about.

Port Saint Joe, Apalachicola, Eastpoint, Tate’s Hell State Forest, Carabelle, Saint Teresa, Alligator Point, the Ochlockonee Bay. Florida’s “Forgotten Coast” becomes the “Big Bend” where, mercifully, you often lose

cellular service.

I check my phone. No signal. Hallelujah.

The beach house we rented this week is off the map. It’s an outdated shack, built during the Carter Administration. It’s got all the archaic fixtures you don’t see anymore.

The bedrooms are clad in honest-to-goodness shag carpet. In the kitchen is an olive drab rotary phone. They have tube TVs, and a Scrabble game that’s missing all the O’s.

There is a window-unit AC which only works if you slam your beer on it. The water heater is roughly the size of a football; hot showers last 27.3 seconds.

No cable, no internet. I’ll be writing these columns using my trusty 28-year-old portable AlphaSmart word processor—a primitive device that requires nothing but double-A batteries and a few Fonzie-at-the-jukebox slaps.

I’ve almost forgotten how good it feels to be disconnected…

He was two years old when his mother gave him away. He has one faint memory of her. In the memory, she is sitting in the backseat, holding him. He remembers radio music. Sunlight. That’s all.

It’s a short recollection, but it’s all he has.

His addict mother underhanded him to his aunt like he was an unwanted Labrador. His aunt had worse addiction problems than his mother, the situation didn’t work out. He was five when his aunt gave him to the foster system.

Group homes are not places you want to find yourself as a kid. Three squares and a bed. It’s no day at the Best Western. In orphanages love is hard to come by. Hope can seem like a myth.

When he was thirteen he came down with pneumonia. It landed him in the hospital for a week. He didn’t care if he survived.

At night, he’d often stare out his hospital window and wonder if anyone even cared whether he lived.

“I was alone, man,” he told me. “I was a kid

who was totally alone. Lotta people don’t know how that feels. I hope they never do.”

One night a woman with gray hair and kind eyes visited the boy’s room. She was a night-shift nurse. She saw him looking at the Milky Way through the window.

“Whatcha staring at?” she asked.

“I dunno. Stars, I guess.”

Their relationship was as easy as throwing a rock. She talked. He listened. She told stories that left him engrossed. A good story can do a lot for a lonely kid.

The woman told a particularly moving story the kid would never forget. It was a tale about her grandmother, who had been raised in orphanages during the Great Depression. This story hit the boy where he lived. His ears grew ten sizes while she talked.

She told him how her granny wore ratty clothes and ate…