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…

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…