The SEC Championship football game is playing on a television in an empty living room.

In this room there is no furniture, no framed pictures, no lamps, and no signs of life. Just a barren house and spiders who died of old age.

This used to be my mother-in-law’s house. Now that she is no longer with us, it’s a tomb.

My wife and I are seated on the hard floor, watching our last game in this room, eating box dinners. The Michelob never tasted so bittersweet.

Alabama just intercepted the ball. My wife leaps to her feet, howling, dancing the Cabbage Patch, shouting at the TV.

We are big TV shouters in this family. It’s tradition. My wife is worse about shouting than I am. If you ever get a chance, ask my wife about the time Washington Nationals Park security approached her about yelling inappropriate remarks to a starting pitcher regarding his mother.

But anyway, it’s hard to believe that only one hundred days ago this living room was populated with cushy sofas, oaken

side tables, brass floor lamps, gaudy 1970s wall art, and easy chairs.

What’s more, these rooms once contained my mother-in-law’s Christmas decorations, her cookbook anthologies, her porcelain figurines, her past issues of “Southern Living” dating back to February 1966, and her closets full of outdated polyester clothing.

But after the recent estate sale, all that remains is a TV.

Over the years I watched this TV a lot with with my mother-in-law. I have seen roughly four million Hallmark Channel Christmas movies on this screen. I’ve seen each episode of “Murder She Wrote” six or seven times. And I’ve watched all nine seasons of “Little House on the Prairie” thrice.

And, of course, each year the family would gather in this den to watch the SEC Championship. On this humble 48-inch low-definition screen, I’ve seen Alabama win seven SEC titles. After tonight, eight.


Hundreds of people lined the hospital hallways to pay respects to Skip Nicholson, a fallen officer they’d never met. It was midafternoon. Ascension Sacred Heart Pensacola hospital was so quiet you could have heard a tongue depressor drop.

Hospital employees filed into the halls, looking for places to stand, wedging against walls, tucking themselves in open doorways, and cramming together like canned oysters. The crowd was three deep in some spots.

“Find your places, people,” said one nurse. Then she did a let’s-hustle clap for effect.


People bowed heads, closed eyes, someone made the Sign of the Cross. There were doctors, nurses, techs, and volunteers. There were officers from the Pensacola Police Department, the Escambia County Sheriff’s Department, the Florida Highway Patrol, and the Pensacola Fire Department. There were orderlies, cafeteria workers, and custodians.

They lined every centimeter of available wallspace, forming a human chain that connected from the morgue to the hospital’s front doors.

And it was all for Skip.

Retired deputy Madison “Skip” Nicholson died two nights ago. It all started in Wilcox County,

Alabama. A rural county about half the size of Delaware, with a population small enough to fit into your guest bathroom.

On Wednesday, Skip responded to a domestic call in Yellow Bluff with another deputy. The irony is that Skip had retired from doing patrol work long ago. At his age, Skip should have been at home with his boots off, reading the paper, watching Pat Sajack on TV.

Instead he was on the job.

But then, men like Skip aren’t average men. Law enforcement runs deep within their circulatory system. It’s caked in their arteries like LDL. Being a peace officer is just who they are.

Skip had worked with the Wilcox County Sheriff’s Department for 40 years. He had done everything from serving subpoenas to scrubbing the jailhouse toilets.

You don’t just turn it off after you retire.

Skip was shot…

Christmas Eve, 1978. It was late. The rural Pennsylvania highway was empty. All over America, stockings were hung by the carbon monoxide detectors with care. Children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of mortgage foreclosures danced through their parents’ heads.

And Todd was standing on the shoulder of a county highway, freezing his backside off.

The snow was falling like TV static. He was trembling.

Now his Honda Concerto was broken down, dead, parked on the rumble strip like a monument to Japanese auto engineering. And since this was an age before cellphones, he was up a well-known creek without the aid of an oar.

The snow fell harder. Todd pulled his coat tighter.

Headlights appeared behind him.

Todd waved his arms like a cast member on “Gilligan’s Island.”

The high beams illuminated the spindrifts of snow, the air brakes squealed, and the semi truck vibrated the Earth as it eased onto the shoulder. The tractor trailer was the size of a rural school district. There was a wreath on the grille.

Todd should have been glad someone stopped to help, but he wasn’t. His heart sank into his stomach because he recognized that wreath. He knew that truck.

Descending from the cab was a man dressed in plaid, wearing steel-toed ropers. It was Todd’s dad.

It was the last person he wanted to see.

Todd and his estranged father were enemies. His father had left home when Todd was six to drive an eighteen-wheeler across the U.S.. The man had been absent from his life until Todd hit his mid-thirties. Over the last few years, the old man had been trying to reconnect with his broken family, but as far as Todd was concerned, it was too late for reunions. Todd didn’t hold a grudge per se. He embraced it.

His father looked beneath the hood of Todd’s car. His old man had always been good…

The last thing I want to do is sound like an old fart. But some things cannot be helped.

Yesterday I was fiddling with my truck radio dial, looking for classic Christmas tunes, but I couldn’t find any. Only new stuff. Here it is December and the only festive music I found on the airwaves was Beyoncé having a vocal seizure.

I finally turned the radio off and drove in silence like a true geezer.

That’s how geezerhood starts, you know. First it’s complaining about current music. Next thing you know it’s early dinners and Ensure meal-replacement shakes.

All this got me wondering, what happened to the music of Christmas Past? Where did Frank and Dean go? Where is Bing hiding? Where are Nat, Ella, and Louis? Come back Johnny Mathis, we miss you.

Look, I get it. I fully understand that the music of yesteryear is outdated. The radio jockeys today are merely trying to give their youthful FM-listening audience what it wants. However, there is one thing I want to point out to

these jockeys:

Youthful people do not listen to FM anymore.

Youthful people have smart devices with 3,500 gigs of storage and earbuds. They have iTunes, Spotify, and streaming service subscriptions coming out their earholes.

You know who still listens to old-fashioned FM radio? I’ll tell you. People who drive old model cars with manual transmissions and do not have Bluetooth stereos. And do you know what kinds of stiffs still drive these jalopies? That’s right. Old farts.

So here’s a concept: Why not play some music for us? Bring back the Christmas classics of yore, I beg of you, Mister DJ. More Sinatra; less Brittney.

Once upon a time, our radios played a Christmas lineup that never changed. It was the same top-forty Yuletide mix each year, the same tunes your great grandfather listened to while fighting the Mexican-American War. And it worked.

This music…

Yesterday I met Ray Charles in Albany, Georgia. He was in a good mood. I was, too. I waved at him. He didn’t wave back.

I met him when I was walking on Front Street. I was bundled in my jacket, it was cold outside, and I heard music in the distance, reverberating across the smooth surface of the Flint River.

I followed the music until I found him.

Ray’s life-sized bronze statue stands downtown. He is depicted behind a baby grand, perpetually leaning his right shoulder into the downbeat. He wears a bowtie and Ray-Ban Wayfarer shades.

The all-weather sound system played Ray’s “The Spirit of Christmas” while a waterfall spilled beneath him.

I was close enough to touch the hem of his tuxedo.

I sat on a “piano-key” bench and listened. The next song was “Oh What a Beautiful Morning.” The Count Basie Orchestra was kicking harder than a government mule, and Brother Ray never sounded so good.

I am a lifelong Ray Charles fanatic. When I was six years old,

my father gave me the album “Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music” and I listened to Ray sing “You Win Again” until the record warped from overuse.

At which point my father bought a replacement album. I wore that one out, too.

I learned to play piano at age nine when my old man bought a cheap spinet from the classified section of the newspaper. For my birthday he placed the waterlogged piano in our basement, next to the water heater. My mother made a cake with chocolate piano keys on it.

Daddy refused to pay for lessons because my father was a hick whose philosophy was, if the kid is meant to play the piano, he will. I was potty trained under the same system.

So I listened to Ray Charles records. The first piano tune I ever learned was “Hit the Road Jack.” The…

“I’d suggest getting your affairs in order,” the doctor told the older woman.

The doc said this with no emotion. He just looked at his shoes because apparently he couldn’t bear to meet her eyes.

“Are you telling me that I’m dying?” she said.

No answer. Just a nod. Then more medical jargon.

The news hit her like a runaway boxcar. She went home and almost had a nervous breakdown. She was about to hyperventilate. She needed to think. Needed to lower her heart rate.

Must breathe. Must sit. Must keep it together. Inhale. Exhale.

Music. That’s what she needed right now. Something—anything—to distract her from the fear. She turned on the old wooden GE radio sitting in the kitchen and closed her eyes.

The music blasted through the linoleum room. Dean Martin sang about silver bells, and Der Bingle sang about dreams involving glistening treetops and white Christmases. She cried upon her enamel breakfast table.

Death. She wasn’t ready to die. She had raised four kids alone after her husband left her years ago.

She was the single mom you’ve

seen a million-and-five times in public. The mom who clips coupons from the Sunday paper, who works three jobs, who sews denim patches on the butts of Little League uniforms.

Now her children were grown and she was, what, on her way out? It was a cruel joke, she told God. Cruel and disgusting. And it was beneath him.


Her old radio crackled and hissed with static.

Then the music stopped. Then static. Then music. Then the reception was garbled with snowy interference and the receiver started picking up a station in Spanish.

She smacked the radio. Which only made her cry harder. So she smacked the radio again. And again.

And again.

The static was replaced by the voice of an obnoxious radio preacher blaring through the tweed speaker. And although she cannot recall the sermonizer’s exact…

The sky above Surry County, North Carolina, smells of burnt wood and heavy soot tonight. The atmosphere is hazed with a melancholy brown smoke and the forest is eerily calm. The chestnut oaks and the pitch pines creak from the dryness of the air.

And a wildfire on Pilot Mountain rages on. The fire started Saturday.

From a distance, the top of the mountain looks like a glowing ember of Kingsford charcoal. Three hundred acres have been consumed, and that number will have grown by the time you read this.

Andy Griffith was born and bred in Surry County, just 14 miles up the road in the hamlet of Mount Airy, otherwise known as Mayberry.

Pilot Mountain State Park is a magnificent place. The Yadkin River, one of the longest rivers in the Old North State, weaves directly through the pine-choked corridor of the park before easing its way into South Carolina.

There are trails here with overlooks pretty enough to compromise the well-being of a cardiac patient. On a clear day you

can stand atop Pilot Mountain and see halfway to Fiji.

Simply put, this is God’s country.

Meanwhile, atop this 2,421-foot flaming quartzite rock, fire crews work incessantly, battling wind changes and dry conditions, trying to contain hell.

These are men and women who will likely receive no public recognition for their bravery. Which isn’t unusual in their line of work. Firefighters, like all public servants, are accustomed to being overlooked.

One of my longtime friends is a career fire medic. He says, “We fly under the radar. I won’t say that we’re overlooked, but most people don’t really stop and think about what we do. But hey, it’s okay, we’re not doing this for the press.”

Right now, there are 29,705 fire departments in the Lower Forty-Eight. There are roughly 1,115,000 career and volunteer firefighters in the U.S., an estimated 93,000 are female. The Forest Service employs…