The following situation has happened to me many times. I will be in a public place, such as the supermarket, and I’ll notice another shopper staring at me.

Eventually, this person will come over and say, “Excuse me, I hate to bother you, but I’m a big fan of your writing on Facebook.”

I’ll smile and say, “You’re not bothering me.”

Then the enthusiastic person will call their husband over. “Honey, come here quick, this is the guy who writes for the Pensacola Police Department’s Facebook page.”

“No,” I’ll say. “You’re thinking of Steve Davis. We’re both redheaded writers from the same part of Florida. I’m Sean Dietrich.”

“Oh, God, I’m so sorry.”

“That’s okay, Steve is a good friend.”

Long pause.

“Well, your writing is really good, too.”

Then this person avoids eye contact and walks away.

The first time I ever met Captain Steve Davis, I was giving a speech at the Rotary Club in Pensacola, years ago. After I had successfully put 32 elderly Rotarians into comas, Steve introduced himself to me.

He was somewhat of a local

celebrity, and we were both writers, so we hit it off. Then he asked if I wanted to eat authentic Mexican food with the entire Pensacola Police Department.

Truthfully, I was intimidated to be around so many cops. After all, Pensacola was the biggest city I knew. I am a Walton County kid, to me Pensacola was Manhattan.

Pensacola was where old people from my town traveled for serious medical procedures and elective dental surgeries. Pensacola was where you bought your used cars, did your Christmas shopping, and got your gallbladder pulled. This was the big city.

And here was a captain of the police force asking me to hang out. I was flattered. I ate so much salsa my gastrointestinal tract was never the same.

Over the years, Steve helped me become a small part of the Pensacola…

The following story took place yesterday afternoon, somewhere in Minnesota. The temperature was 29 degrees below death.

Nineteen-year-old Chloe parked her piece-of-junkola car outside the high-school gymnasium. The car spewed blue exhaust and purred like a 68-year-old smoker. The parking lot was encrusted with snow.

Chloe is an orphan. She was raised in foster care under hard circumstances. She was the quintessential hard-luck case you grew up with. Underprivileged. Underconfident. Quiet.

After graduating, Chloe has been living on her own in Minneapolis. It’s been difficult. She’s never lived alone before. Each month has been a financial hell. She works two jobs and makes minimum wage at both.

She was engaged, but her fiancée cheated on her. This rusted ‘92 Toyota with the duct-taped bumper represents the nicest thing she owns. And it only runs on days of the week beginning with R.

Chloe trotted across the parking lot toward her small-town school, pulling her coat tight.

Today was the annual high-school alumni lunch, a rural tradition. The hometown graduating classes return to their alma mater to participate in

the Christmas hoopla and eat hotdish—whatever that is. It is a kind of old-world tradition that wouldn’t survive in, say, New York City.

The teachers fawned over Chloe like they always have.

“Oh, Chloe, we’ve missed you!” said one.

“Chloe!” said another, “you’re taller than the last time I saw you!”

“Chloe, gimme a hug.”

Chloe, Chloe, Chloe.

They love this girl. Always have. They haven’t seen her since she sat in their classrooms, diagraming sentences, solving for X, and learning more than anyone ought to know about the cosine.

After Chloe graduated, several teachers have tried to stay in touch with her. They call each week, they send cards, they even stop by her apartment sometimes.

Sadly, Chloe usually avoids them, and she never returns calls. Chloe doesn’t want anyone feeling sorry for her. And, as I said, she is 19.

I was eleven. I was invited to try out for the Christmas community choir. A lady visited our church to conduct the auditions.

I had been practicing for three weeks, learning the lyrics to “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

My father, the welder, took me to the audition after work. Before it was my turn to sing, he gave me a pep talk.

“Knock it outta the park,” he said. “Like Mickey Mantle, you hear?”

I sang for the lady in the wire-rimmed glasses who held the clipboard. She was less than impressed with me.

“Stop singing!” she shouted, interrupting my song. “We’re looking for something else, I’m sorry. Next please?”

My father stormed forward from the back of the church. He looked like he was on his way to pick a fight with an umpire.

“Now wait a minute, Lady,” he said. “I demand you let my boy finish his song. He’s been working on it for weeks. What kind of heartless woman doesn’t let a kid finish his song?”

The woman’s mouth dropped open. She looked at my

father like he’d lost his mind.

She sat down and asked me to sing it again. I cleared my throat. I sang. I did much better than before. It wasn’t a home run, per se, but more like an outfield triple.

I got the part.

I was fifteen feet tall. Until that day I’d never done anything special with my life—unless you counted the noises I could make with my armpits. I was a chubby kid with awkward features, I was neither handsome, nor athletic.

But now I was a soloist.

It took months of preparation to get it right. Each day after school, I would rehearse for my mother in the kitchen while she made supper.

On the night of the performance, my father arrived home an hour late. He wheeled into our driveway, kicking gravel behind his tires.

Dear Chaquille,

Merry Christmas. You don’t know me, and I don’t know you. I’m just a middle-aged guy with thinning hair who saw your tag hanging on the Angel Tree in the lobby of the Methodist Church.

The Angel Tree is something the ladies in church have been doing since the Earth cooled. Each Christmas, for as long as I can remember, they have been providing gifts for kids who are going through hard times. Kids like you.

The program was started in 1979 by the Salvation Army, when Charles and Shirley White of Lynchburg, Virginia, decided to do something meaningful and began gathering clothing and toys for children at Christmas.

A few years later, Nashville radio station WSM became a sponsor of Angel Tree. After that, each rural family who heard about Angel Tree during broadcasts of the “Grand Ol’ Opry” wanted to be a part of it. My own clan included. The idea spread like a veritable brushfire.

So when I got your Christmas list, the first thing that struck me was

that most of your personalized items were baseball stuff.

This warmed the ventricles of this old first baseman's heart. I am a baseball guy, too, Chaquille. This year when the Braves won the World Series, I cheered like—well—an 11-year-old boy.

The first thing you wanted was pine tar for your bat, so my wife and I bought you enough pine tar to last until you’re 35th birthday.

You also asked for a pair of cleats, men’s shoe size 10. Holy freaking cow. You’ve got humongous feet. I went with Nikes.

Next, you asked for a baseball bat. I’m guessing, by the size of your prodigious man-sized feet that you’re a 31/21. I bought a Louisville Slugger, since there is no other American brand that is of any consequence.

I also bought you a basic glove. I chose the Rawlings Youth Highlight Series. Natural leather color. Old…

I wish I could give you a hug right now. I really do. I’d reach through this screen and squeeze you so firmly that your eardrums would pop.

I would hold you for a long time, too. I would hug you for five, ten, or thirty minutes. Long enough for everything to start getting a little weird. Then I’d hug you some more.

Because people need hugs. We need them in a biological way.

Oh, sure, you probably think you’re doing all right in a hugless world. You think you’re surviving just fine without all that sappy Oprah Winfrey business. You’re tough. You’re self-sufficient. You’re smart. You’re intelligent. You drink V8.

But you’re wrong, pal. You need hugs. You need someone to embrace you, for your own health, and you need it right this moment.

You see, when two people hug, their hearts are squished together, only separated by inches of bone, adipose, and muscle. During a hug, the two cardiac pumps actually start beating together like two kettle drums making perfect music.

Sort of like two violinists,

playing Strauss. Or like two clarinetists in junior-high, playing “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” simultaneously, but in two very different keys.

You probably know this already, but hugs release a chemical in the brain called oxytocin, which is what most neurologists refer to as the body’s “Woodstock” hormone.

Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter that makes you feel, quite literally, loved. It is the body’s own love drug.

When you give or get a hug, your body is flooded with oxytocin, your “love” hormone levels go through the stratosphere. Your blood pressure goes down, your immune system improves, and your mammary glands begin producing more milk. Which is nothing short of a miracle, especially if you’re male.

In short, a hug can save a person’s life.

When I was a boy, at our church there was a volunteer program called the Baby Savers. The idea…

I have here a letter from Fayetteville, North Carolina.

“Dear Sean,” the handwritten letter begins. “My name is Christine and I wanted to share a story with you… In 1985 I was driving home to North Carolina, and I was probably suffering from depression. It had been a really bad year…”

It was nearly Christmas. Christine was stuck behind nine million miles of glowing tail lights in a traffic jam. Her 7-year-old daughter was in the backseat singing with the radio. The defroster was fogging up the windshield.

“How much longer till we get to Granny’s?” said the little girl.

“Almost there,” said Christine, just like she’d been saying every five minutes for the last four states.

Christine cranked up the radio to drown out her daughter’s interrogations. Gene Autry was singing full blast. Christine looked in the rear view mirror to see her daughter, driving an imaginary sleigh.

It had indeed been a very long, hard year. How hard? After a disastrous breakup, Christine lost everything and was kicked out of her apartment. She

was homeless, and flat broke. She was going home to North Carolina to beg her estranged mother to allow her to move back in.

This trip was a last resort.

She had barely enough pennies to get them to the Old North State. She and her daughter had been surviving on JIF and Corn Nuts.

Up ahead, there was a man walking on the highway in the dark drizzle. He was wearing a tattered peacoat, his face was a veritable hair explosion. He shuffled between the standstill cars, knocking on windows, speaking to drivers in the traffic jam.

A few motorists gave him handouts; most refused to roll down the window.

In a few moments, the man was knocking on Christine’s glass.

She wasn’t sure how to respond. The protective mother in her would have ignored him, just to be safe. The human being inside…


As an author and teacher, for over 30 years, I’m disappointed in where I see young people such as yourself taking the written word. Writing for “likes” online is not the same as writing because you actually have something to say.

I don’t need a response,


In fourth grade I was a chubby redheaded kid with 204 freckles and Bugs Bunny teeth. I was under-confident, an unexceptional student, and my main talent was that I could play a repertoire of Elvis hits on my armpit. By all accounts, I was a dweeb. But…

On the playground I was a tetherball god.

I don’t mean to sound cocky, but few could beat me. And believe me they tried. I played all the hall-of-famers. I sparred with Brad “Fingers” McPherson and cleaned his clock. I beat Ashley “Mankiller” Walker in triple overtime. I even played Mister Edmunds, our PE teacher. The EMTs said he’d eventually walk again.

My secret to tetherball was consistency. I was not a powerful player, and I

wasn’t even all that good. But I never gave up. And even when I lost horribly, I would always shake my opponents’ hands, sportsmanlike, and say, “Hey, this was fun.”

And the heck of it is, I actually meant those words. Because I freaking loved tetherball.

Anyway, there was a boy in my grade named Jason Snipes. He was roughly the size of a municipal water tower with the amiable personality of a stepped-on snake.

He was your classic bully. He would steal your lunch money, coldcock any boy who wore short pants, and I’m pretty sure he started shaving at age 4.

He pulled some real stunts in his day. One time, for example, during a baseball game, Jason intentionally slid feet first into the second baseman’s leg and shattered the kid’s shin in three places.

Another time he was caught throwing claw hammers…