Last night we stood in a long line for the symphony, waiting to get into the theater. My wife and I were dressed in our finest Christmas clothes purchased from T.J. Maxx.

There was light frost on the sidewalk. I was rubbing my hands together, trying not to freeze off my Blessed Assurance.

So I did some people-watching to keep my mind off the cold.

The first person who caught my eye was a construction worker across the street, wearing a watch cap. He was talking on a phone, smoking a cigarette. It sounded like he was speaking to a child.

“Don’t cry, sweetheart,” the man said. “Daddy loves you. Don’t ever forget that. No matter how bad it gets, remember your daddy loves you.”

He spoke so sincerely it hurt.

Also in line was an old couple. They were conversing in a foreign language. Their skin was olive; their hair was cotton. They were dressed in fancy clothes, the kind they don’t sell at T.J. Maxx.

The old lady kissed the man, and I saw the man

hold her tightly, as though he’d won her at the fair.

I don’t know what their strange words meant, but if I had to guess, they were probably saying, “It’s cold enough to freeze the nuts off a pecan tree.”

I saw a teenage boy accompanying a young woman who was in a wheelchair. I think they were out on a date.

The girl wore a satin blue dress and a shawl. The boy wore a tux. He was staring longingly at his date. Occasionally they would kiss and you could see sparks fly off their bodies.

Everyone was watching them and smiling.

Meantime, in the parking area across the street I saw a middle-aged woman and her elderly mother arrive in a Lincoln, dressed in heels and silk, carrying sequined pocketbooks.

The younger woman was helping the elderly lady out of…

We bought a live Christmas tree today. After nearly two decades of being married, my wife and I have never bought a live tree together.

We went with a balsam fir. We were going to get a Fraser fir or a Douglas fir, but we didn’t want to reverse mortgage our house.

The first thing I realized when buying a live tree is that Christmas trees have gone up in price considerably since my childhood. For a balsam fir that’s roughly the size of a mature traffic cone you’re looking at a price tag of $79.99.

“Think of this as an entry level tree,” said the tree salesman. “Kinda like the Toyota Corolla of the Christmas tree world.”

So after we paid for our tree, we strapped it to the top of our van and took the interstate home, traveling upwards of 75 mph. By the time we pulled into our driveway, most of the pine needles had blown away so that it looked like we had a piece of

driftwood attached to our vehicle roof.

Once the tree was inside the house, we prepared to have a night of Christmas reverie and joy. I fetched the box of decorations while my wife cued up Christmas music on our streaming service ($10.99 per month).

And by “cued up Christmas music” I mean, of course, that my wife struggled with an endless technological nightmare of Wi-Fi settings, forgotten internet passwords, faulty modem connections, and customer service phone representatives headquartered in Bangladesh. Finally my wife said, “screw it,” and turned on the radio.

And the memories got so thick you had to swat them away like gnats.

When I was a kid we always had the best Christmas trees. I don’t know what happened over the years, but somewhere along the way my family quit using live trees.

Which is probably why the only Christmas tree paraphernalia I could find in our…

Eighteen years. That sounds like a long time, but it’s not. Not when you think about it. Eighteen years is nothing.

It’s hard to believe that eighteen years ago we were just two ordinary people with two very different last names. It’s almost hard to conceive of a period before we were together.

I look at old photos of you and me, and I marvel at how we’ve both morphed over the years. Somehow you’ve become more lovely, more poised, and your skin looks too smooth for your age. Somehow my nose had gotten bigger. So has my butt.

Sometimes I travel backward in my memory and try to recall what we were like when we first met. Do you ever do that?

I close my eyes and attempt to remember how naïve I was. And I try to recapture a little bit of that boy I used to be.

God. I miss being naïve. I miss being stupid, unafraid, and even foolish. I was less worried about little things back then. I was braver. More

trusting. Dumber, yes. But I also laughed more. Even when the world looked like it was falling apart, I managed to laugh often.

But somewhere along the way I grew up. I became more cautious, more responsible. In some ways, I’d like to think I’ve improved with age, over these last eighteen years, but in many ways, I’ve become stiffer.

Even so, do you know what hasn’t changed in the last eighteen years? Us. We are still you and me. We are still Sean and Jamie.

When we first met, you were balm to my broken heart. I had a pitiful childhood fraught with the suicide of a parent, violence, loss, bereavement. Then, all of a sudden, I met you.

Overnight, my world got bigger. My mind shifted into a more beautiful place. Suddenly, this life wasn’t dark and hazy, it was sunny and…

A supermarket checkout line. Cheesy holiday music is playing overhead. Not the fun kind of cheesy music, but the kind once heard in Kmart á la 1973.

There is an old man at the head of our long checkout line, standing at the register. He digs through his pockets, but keeps coming up empty handed.

“I’m sorry, miss,” he says to the cashier. “I must’ve left my wallet at home.”

He is embarrassed, and the young cashier is unsure about what to do.

I am watching this entire exchange closely because I am a columnist who writes human interest stories.

We columnists must keep our observational reflexes honed as sharp as wiffle-ball bats. We have to stay ready because we are not real writers.

Writers are inspired artists and poets. Columnists are factory-line workers who take whatever stories they can get.

Your big-time writer is a person with incredibly poignant things to say about life and the profundity of the human condition; they have grand ambitions of someday winning a major literary award,

and possibly having a “New York Times” best-smeller.

A columnist’s highest aspiration is for someone to cut his or her column out of the paper and hang it on the refrigerator.

So columnists have to work harder than true writers because we can’t rely on inspiration. Besides, our job is not to be inspired, but to constantly find new stories. This is not simple work. Therefore, most of the time you find me writing about key social issues such as, say, my dogs.

But the beauty of all this is, every once in a while a column will actually fall into your lap.

This is a rare thing indeed, and one of the most precious things that can happen to a stringer of words. Your task as a columnist is to be mindful enough to notice this pivotal moment is occurring, then to ignore it and keep…

Dear Kentucky,

Your strength moves me. Ever since the tornadoes hit your state, I have been watching you on the evening news. I marvel at your courage. You are beautiful.

I see ambitious big-city news journalists, trying unsuccessfully to understand your downhome accents during interviews. And I watch you tell your most devastating stories while wearing an easy smile, without flinching.

I watch state officials address the public and I hear their voices crack. I see Red Cross volunteers cry. I see children with battered faces, parents wearing borrowed clothes, and young mothers without their babies.

Your communities look like confetti piles. Your land is a mud hole.

And yet you look unshaken. How? How do you do that, Kentucky?

When your sons and daughters stare into the lens, how do they find the mettle to tell the world about loved ones gone missing, tornado-related deaths, or relatives crushed beneath falling debris?

How do these interviewees manage to also tell the camera that they are “Trusting in God,” or “Taking it one day at a


You inspire me.

I’m inspired by the shirtless man wandering a demolished sidestreet, determinedly looking for his dog.

I am moved by the old fella pleading with camera crews to help find his missing wife.

I grieve the seven children who died on the same residential street.

I pray for you, Kentucky. I really do. I pray for your people, your first responders, your transplants, your prodigals, and the lineworkers visiting the Bluegrass State. I pray for your wounded heart, your ravaged lands, and for your splintered gathering places.

I see images of your young ones climbing over haystacks of rubble. I see men and women leading prayer in nuclear war zones. I weep with you. Then I offer a prayer alongside you.

And while I know that the last thing you need right now are the prayers of some average Joe Six-Pack like…

Somewhere in Alabama. A small town with a cute main street, lots of muddy trucks, and men who wear neon orange, even to church.

The elementary school staff went overboard on decorations that year. Too overboard. The school had, for instance, purchased two dozen balsam fir Christmas trees.

The school placed the trees in each classroom, office, hallway, multi-purpose room, and urinal. They bought so many live trees the school had leftovers.

“It’s the fresh smell everyone likes,” said the 73-year-old maintenance man. “Everyone just loves a live tree.”

Let’s call him Butch. The grizzled janitor reminds you of your favorite uncle. He’s a Vietnam vet who smokes like a diesel freighter and is about as warm and fuzzy as 300-grit sandpaper.

After Butch decorated the school halls, he had three surplus balsams left. He stored the trees in the custodian’s closet, then texted a local preacher.

“I just told the preacher, ‘Hey, look, I got two or three trees left, if you know anyone who wants a real tree, just tell’em to call me. They can have one.’”


first telephone call came in late that night. It was the voice of a child. A little girl.

“Is this the man with the trees?”

“Yes it is.”

“My family ain’t got no tree.”

The next day, Butch drove into the hinterlands, past miles of cotton and rows of peanuts, until he found a doublewide trailer on a dirt lot. A faded blue tarp covered the roof.

He installed the tree for the needy family and received roughly six thousand hugs before he left. The little girl wished him a merry Christmas. She even kissed his cheek.

On his drive back into town he got another phone call. “Hi,” said the voice of an old woman. “Is this the man with the trees?”

“It is.”

“Well, I’d love a real tree.”

In a few hours Butch was in an elderly…

The year was 1943. It was Christmas in the South Pacific. The U.S.S. North Carolina was adrift somewhere between Australia and the Edge of the World.

The BB-55 battleship was alive with the excitement of 2,339 foul-mouthed sailors, swabbies, Marines, and brass hats who had been at sea for a month. Most of whom did not bathe regularly.

Tonight was the annual Christmas party. The highlight of the year.

There was a holiday feast served on the mess deck. The turkey dinner tasted like lukewarm cardboard doused in Pennzoil gravy. But it worked.

There was the Christmas show. The crew always put on a slam-bang show, complete with skits, music, tap dancing, and a burlesque striptease wherein sailors dressed up like Hedy Lamarr and Veronica Lake and disrobed before a deafening roar of laughter.

Before the show, Chaplain Everett Weubbens was preparing the stage, getting the PA system ready, positioning the spotlights.

He was a Lutheran man with a meek disposition and an easy smile. He was excited about tonight’s show because he had a

big surprise in store.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It all started months earlier when the Chappy decided to take up a collection so that crewmen could send Christmas gifts home to their kids and loved ones.

Chappy collected five bucks from dads, husbands, and sons aboard. The men picked out gifts from the Macy’s catalog. Fathers selected Tinkertoys, toy pianos, dresses, dolls, Goldenbooks, and Louisville Sluggers. Others selected gifts for their wives.

The Chappy crammed the cash into a shoebox and typed a letter to Macy’s Department Store, begging Macy’s to deliver these gifts to the respective addresses enclosed:

“Dear Sir,” he began, “we realize that we are asking a great deal but... You will be adding greatly to the happiness of our children and to our own Christmas joy out here in one of the war zones.”

When the letter made it…

When I called her, the old woman was preparing to leave southern Kansas at sunrise, bound for western Kentucky, where the recent tornadoes hit.

It all started for her yesterday evening.

“I was praying for Kentucky,” she said, “and God just told me to go.”

So that’s what she decided to do.

She packed an overnight bag, made sure her house was locked, and hired a cat-sitter. She activated the timer on her Christmas lights. She plugged in the life-size inflatable Nativity scene in her front yard.

A seven hour drive awaited her. She had plenty of coffee in her thermos, and CDs to listen to.

“I don’t mind long drives,” she said. “It’s kinda relaxing.”

Before she pulled away, she opened the tailgate of her F-150 one last time to make sure it was all there.

Inside her truck bed were a few hundred bags of groceries. She spent a lot of money buying them. She bought things like diapers, Saltines, Wonderbread, JIF, ramen noodles, toilet paper, Folgers, crossword puzzle books, socks, and baby formula.

The old woman

slammed the tailgate shut. “I got so many groceries in there I could start my own village.”

Then she crawled into her half-ton and drove off.

We continued our phone conversation as she sailed along Highway 400, past hamlets like McCume, Cherokee, and Atlas, edging eastward. I asked what her plan was with all the groceries.

“Plan?” She laughed. “Ain’t got no plan.”

So she will simply drive. And somewhere outside Springfield, she’ll catch Highway 60, and keep driving until she hits western Kentucky and sees the heart-crushing damage.

“Then I’ll just pray for signs,” she explained. “God’ll tell me what to do next.”

Sixty-six years ago, the old woman went through the worst tornado in Kansas history. She was a child, living with her aunt in Udall, Kansas.

The year was 1955. It was a different world. The bumper stickers…

The email on my screen reads:

“Dear Sean, my oldest grandchild, Bryson, is 11 years old and was diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma, stage three, just one day before he started sixth grade.

“This cancer covered ninety percent of his body, and after four terrifying chemo rounds the cancer is dying. But this type is so aggressive that if there is one cell left it could cover his whole body in a few days again.

“He is the sweetest and most fun guy, but I’ve seen his smile fade. His spirit is sinking and he has indicated he doesn’t want to go through this anymore. We tell him to keep fighting. What words can you, a stranger, say to help him get through this?”

Dear Bryson, I was ten years old when I first met a boy named Darren Wilkinson in Boy Scouts. He was smaller than the other boys. Everyone always thought he was my little brother because he was so tiny and frail.

Frail he might have been. But Darren was no

shrinking violet. Ask anyone. Darren had the personality of a junkyard Rottweiler.

Darren was born prematurely with an array of cardiac problems and physical maladies most could never endure.

Darren had undergone multiple surgeries. He bore a five-inch scar on his sternum which he would gladly show you for a quarter. The scar on his upper thigh would cost you a buck.

He was born with only four fingers on his right hand, no thumb—surgeons later reattached another finger as a makeshift thumb. His knees didn’t work right. He had diabetes. He was partially deaf.

Whenever he exerted himself during baseball practice, he had trouble breathing and his lips would turn blue. And once, during recess, after overdoing it, he almost went into a coma.

Darren’s father always carried a small cooler of medication and gave Darren injections every few hours. We boys were often reminded by…

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…