Jack was laid to rest today at 12 p.m. sharp. It was a small service in the Peterson’s backyard. There were folding chairs. Jack’s pinewood box was decorated with white flowers and his favorite chew toys.

It was an exemplary summer day. The East Texas sky was powder blue. A suffocating 103 degrees. It didn’t look like a day for a funeral. It looked like a day to sit beside an inground pool and guzzle something cold and potent.

Most attendees were neighbors. They were all ages. Some brought refreshments. Others brought pound cakes or cold salads. The whole affair was pretty simple. No frills. Lots of food.

The way Jack would have wanted it.

People took turns sharing memories before the group. An 8-year-old girl cried when she delivered hers.

“Jack used to always steal my food. If I turned away, even for a little bit, my food was gone. My chips, my sandwich or whatever. He ate it. He was so cute.”

“Oh, I remember when Jack escaped once,” said a neighbor woman with grayish

hair and Jackie-O sunglasses.

“I was working in my yard and I saw him fly by. I knew he wasn’t supposed to be out, so my husband and I chased him for a whole mile. When I found him, Jack was digging in a trashcan. That’s my main memory of Jack. Running free.”

A 15-year-old girl was lightly weeping when she shared hers, nervously reading from a page.

“When I was child, Jack saved my life. I fell into my grandma’s swimming pool when I was 4, and he started barking and making noise, and my mom came out and rescued me. I could have died if it wasn’t for Jack.”

That one got everyone sniffing.

Especially Mom.

Mom was closest to Jack. The irony here is, Mom never wanted a dog. She didn’t even like dogs.

That all changed one afternoon when…

I am mid-20s. I am a cub journalist for a tiny local newspaper with a circulation of about six. My biggest dream is to write for the Tallahassee newspaper someday. But it’s not working out. They’ve turned down all my work.

But I’m still trying, God love me. Namely, because I am an idiot.

Today, I am at a small-town nursing home near Tally, doing an interview with someone exceptional. My hope is that the said Tallahassee publication will recognize my immutable genius and publish me.

It’s a pipe dream, yes. But hey, if a writer doesn’t dream then he is a CPA.

My interviewee today is an elderly woman who doesn’t even know I’m here because she has Alzheimer’s.

She used to be a tenth-grade teacher. She has changed many students’ lives. She is nothing short of inspirational.

The woman sits in a wheelchair, watching “Jeopardy!” and blurting out answers along with gameshow contestants.

Which makes it a little hard to concentrate.

I ask my lead-off question.

But I am answered with: “Who the [deleted] are you? And where’s my blueberry yogurt?”

“This man

is a writer,” the dayshift nurse explains. “Remember, I told you? He’s trying to get published with the ‘Tallahassee Democrat’? He wants to interview you?”

“I don’t care who he is,” she says. “Where’s my yogurt, you [deleted deleteds]?”

So we are off to a great start.

I ask another interview question. She answers without breaking eye contact with the TV.

“What is the Treaty of Tordesillas!”

After several minutes, I am about to give up on my interview effort altogether. Mostly, because I’m too distracted by Alex Trebek’s episode du jour.

Truthfully, I’ve never been a fan of “Jeopardy!” It moves too fast. By the time I’ve figured out the first question, the show is finished and the 18-year-old from Sheboygan who designs nanotubular probes for NASA has won 12 thousand dollars. Roll the…

It was an average Thursday night. The crowd waiting to get into Truist Park was a biblical mass. There were too many people to comprehend.

Everyone was sweating through their undergarments. The smell of human armpit odor was in the air.

It was a sold-out game. Forty-odd thousand baseball fans stood waiting for the sacred gates to open. There wasn’t a frown in the bunch. Almost everyone in this crowd was cheerful.

That’s baseball for you.

At its heart baseball has always been about fun. Plain and simple. At ballgames, most people are glad to be there.

You’ll see kids in jerseys, laughing with each other. Mothers smiling, bouncing babies on hips. Old men with bright eyes, wearing leather mitts that predate the Eisenhower presidency, telling stories about “the Say Hey Kid” and “Hammerin’ Hank” to their grandchildren.

And that’s the beauty of this game. It is one of the only American institutions remaining wherein people of different persuasions, ages and creeds can find a common bond, and boo in unison at the same umpire.


place where all God’s children can come together and pay $18 for a beer.

That’s probably why I love the game so much. Because there are no divisions in a ballpark. Here, you’ll see all cultures. All classes. All kinds.

Guys who drive Peterbilts brush shoulders with men who drive Range Rovers. Bankers and attorneys stand alongside millworkers and pipe fitters and cheer for the same home run.

A home run which was launched by a 24-year-old Afro-Dominican who earns more money per fiscal year than Pope Francis.

The gates opened.

Children in line started vibrating with enthusiasm. Parents hoisted toddlers onto shoulders. And the throngs began moving toward the City of Joy.

Truist Park, 10 miles north of Atlanta. A 1.1-billion-dollar ballpark and real-estate development that makes Disney World look like a trip to the gastroenterologist. This place is nothing but a fun…

Truist Park. I am seated near the Atlanta bullpen. The game is about to start. But in my mind, I am a million miles away.

Yesterday I had CT scans at Brookwood Hospital. My appointment was an early one. I was pretty nervous.

I battled to find a parking space in the garage. I wedged my truck between a haphazardly parked Cadillac and a drunk Silverado, leaving six millimeters of clearance.

I got checked into the hospital by a woman who was either suffering from clinical depression or had not consumed her daily quantum of caffeine. Then I was taken to a room where I was exposed to dangerous amounts of daytime television.

I was here because the doctor ordered Tests. Namely, because my doc didn’t like what she saw. She wanted the CT scan “just to be sure.”

That’s how she put it. “Just to be sure.”

Within the last 60 days I’ve had five friends die of cancer. And now here I was, sitting in a sterile hospital waiting to be checked for the same

thing. Just to be sure.

A woman in scrubs opened the door.

“Sean?” she said.

I swallowed the lump of clay in my throat and rose from my chair.

I was herded into the inner sanctum of the diagnostic center. Past the rooms crowded with high-tech equipment. Past the imposing machines outfitted with blinking lights, digital tentacles, blue lasers, and sprawling hydraulic arms. It was like touring the bowels of the Starship Enterprise.

A nurse made me drink a funny-tasting liquid. They jabbed me with needles the size of milkshake straws. They took me into a room with a giant, thrumming machine.

The technician was a perky woman. The lady smiled and said, “Take off your pants.”


She pointed to my southerly regions. “Your pants, the zippers and buttons interfere with the scan. Take off your pants.”

I was sure she was…

I remember when I first met Robbie. I was 9 years old. We were approximately the same age. We met at church.

My very first memory of him is one of laughter. Because that’s what we did when we first met. We laughed. We laughed hard. We laughed in the middle of a church service.

It was the kind of crippling laughter that makes you lose control of all muscular function. The kind of laughter that causes drool to leak from the corners of your mouth.

It was nuclear laughter. We laughed so hard we could not breath. Couldn’t speak.

The adults in the pews kept telling us to “Hush,” or “Show some respect,” or “Would you two shut up?”

But you know how it works. The more they told us to stop, the harder we laughed. We laughed until we nearly peed our little church trousers.

To this day, I cannot remember laughing any harder than I did with Robbie Conrad.

He came from a good family. His parents ran the prison ministry.

They were meek people. I remember Robbie and his dad liked professional wrestling. They knew all the wrestlers’ names. They knew all the moves.

I also remember that Robbie and his dad seemed to have a pretty good relationship, something I never had with my old man. He and his dad seemed to actually like each other. Whereas, sometimes I wasn’t sure how my father felt about me.

A little over a year after we first met, my father died. My father died by suicide, and my father tried to kill my mother, too. So it made for juicy gossip. My family made the newspaper. We became a walking stigma.

When your father dies the way mine did, your boyhood friends don’t know how to deal with it. So they don’t. Your friends just cut you off. You become a nonentity.

My Little League team dropped…

A potluck. A little church in the sticks. There were maybe 50 people at the covered-dish social.

Attendees were all ages. All classes. They represented all creeds, income brackets and SEC football allegiances.

The casserole dishes were steaming, aligned on red-and-white gingham tablecloths. The desert table was about to buckle from the combined weight of so many refined carbohydrates. The tea was sweet enough to power a residential lawn mower.

Before anyone ate, the old preacher shuffled to the center of the room and called for everyone’s attention. He walked with a pronounced limp. His face was half paralyzed.

The room fell silent.

When the old man spoke, few could understand his slurred words and thick tongue. It almost sounded like the old pulpiteer had been drinking. But liquor wasn’t the culprit here. It was thrombosis.

After his recent stroke, the old man’s small motor functions have been inhibited. This affected his speech. Which is why he no longer preaches or prays publicly anymore. Nobody can understand him.

But the old man still attends church here. Every

Sunday. He is supportive and enthusiastic about the church’s new preacher. He still comes to every social event. He can still eat his weight in squash casserole.

And he can still write.

Which he does. Every day. And sometimes he writes out his prayers for others to read aloud. Like the one he wrote this afternoon.

Everyone bowed heads and joined hands to form a human chain. Some closed their eyes. Some didn’t.

A gaggle of children walked forward, gathering around the old man before the prayer. They were kids of all ages. Big and small. They all held index cards.

Visitors were wondering what was happening here. What were all these kids doing before the prayer?

The old man hoisted a little girl onto his hip. He gave her the go-ahead, and she began to read aloud from her index card.


Somewhere near Eclectic. A small A-frame cabin in the chlorophyll-choked woods of Alabama on Lake Martin.

I awoke on America’s 246th birthday. I was lying in a single bed, nestled in an all-wood room with piney walls. The walls were adorned in fishing tackle, and a singular mounted bass about the size of the late Sonny Liston.

I could hear the coffeemaker in the kitchen, gurgling its sunrise anthem.

I staggered out of bed and glanced out my window to greet the day.

The lake outside was the color of a mirror, upturned toward the sky. The pre-sunrise clouds were pink and gray, waiting for dawn.

There was a squirrel outside my window, staring at me with its little shark eyes. Eyes that were saying to me, “If circumstances were different, and if I were a lot bigger, I would eat you.”

I went to the bathroom to see a man about a dog. I played Wordle. I got it in five because I’m an idiot.

I stumbled into the kitchen. I stood before the Mr. Coffee

machine, and my attention was diverted.

I saw them.

They were on the counter. Unassuming, little crimson tennis balls, stacked neatly in a pyramid. They looked supple and friendly. Because that’s how Peaches from Chilton County are supposed to look.

I picked one up. I held it in my hands and used my thumb to test its ripeness.

There’s a technique for checking a peach’s edibility. You use your thumb to apply the slightest amount of pressure. Like probing a fresh bruise.

You want the peach’s meat to give a little, but not too much. If your thumb makes a small dent, the peach is ready to eat. If you break your thumbnail, you might want to wait a few days to let it ripen.

This one was just right. Which is why I opted against coffee.

Since I was 9 years old,…

“Why do we celebrate the Fourth of July?” my 6-year-old niece asked me.

We were by the swimming pool. It was the perfect afternoon. The sky was Technicolor blue. The smell of Kingsford smoke was in the air. In the distance some hapless teen with a mullet haircut was attempting to shoot a bottle rocket from a well-known orifice of his body.

At first, I wasn’t sure how to answer my niece’s question. At least not in a way she would understand.

After all, this particular American holiday is a grandiose thing. How do you describe to a 6-year-old the significance of Old Glory, Purple Mountains Majesty and the inexpressible splendor of Dale Earnhardt Sr.?

“Well, sweetie,” I said. “That’s a good question…”

But then I sort of drew a blank. Why DO we celebrate the Fourth?

I suddenly realized I know less about this American holiday than I thought I did. In fact, one could say that I don’t know Shinola about the Fourth of July.

And apparently I’m not alone. Because I conducted an informal

study wherein I asked students in Mrs. Anderson’s Sunday school class why we celebrate this uniquely American holiday.

Here are some answers I received:

John, 11, said, “It was the French or something.”

Eilene, 9, “That’s when we won the war against Mexico. No wait. I mean China.”

Benji, 9, “Because that’s when we do the fireworks.”

Ashley, 12, “We celebrate this holiday because in 1812, we signed a Treaty of Paris, and it just became a thing.”

And my favorite answer of all comes from Landon, age 8, who answered with the utmost sincerity when he said: “It’s when Diana Ross made our flag.”

So all this got me thinking. Exactly how much do my fellow adults know about the Fourth of July? I posed the same question to grown-ups.

Pamela, 32, “Well, the Fourth of July is our nation’s literal birthday,…

Mendon, Missouri. Population 171. There’s really nothing here. The tiny town is located off Route 11, just south of Yellow Creek. You’re three hours west of Saint Louis, two hours east of Kansas City.

It’s quiet. No attractions. No major landmarks. Nobody famous ever lived here unless you count Vern Kennedy, right-hander for the White Sox, circa 1934.

If you’re looking for entertainment in Mendon, your main option is Busch Light. But you’ll have to drive all the way to Brunswick to find a liquor store.

“We are just country folk,” said Mendon native Carol Ann Wamsley, “and that's what makes us a special place.”

At its heart, Mendon is a railroad town. The first iron tracks were laid in 1887. Within a decade, a town sprang up. You had a few dozen storefronts, a school, a newspaper, and a couple churches with steeply conflicting views on eternal damnation. Most of that is gone now.

Today, the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad line still passes the northwest side of the community, only

now it’s the Southern Transcon Railroad.

The Amtrak Southwest Chief runs through town regularly. On summer afternoons you can see the Amtrak locomotive in the distance, racing across the prairie like a polished chromium bullet. But the train never stops here. It just keeps moving.

Until last week.

It was a Monday that will live in infamy. The Southwest Chief made an unexpected stop near Mendon, of all places.

The Chief was traveling 87 mph, bound for Chicago. There were more people aboard than there are living within Mendon’s city limits.

Up ahead a dump truck was on the tracks. The truck was obstructing the crossing of County Road 113. This was not a small truck. This was a vehicle about the size of a Sonic Drive-In.

The train never slowed.

The sound of the collision could be heard from as far away as Westville. It was…

The double doors of UAB Hospital opened into a corridor filled with people. Hundreds maybe. Too many people to count. They lined the walls, shoulder to shoulder. Heads bowed. Some wore badges. Others wore scrubs. Everyone was anvil silent.

The hero was passing by.

A hospital gurney entered the hallway. A police officer barked out the military-like call.


Immediately, the corridor filled with the noises of clicking heels and the rustle of starched trousers as officers stood erect, chins up, shoulders back, chests out. There were duty belts galore. Body-mounted radios aplenty.

Male and female officers held themselves ramrod straight, unblinking.

The hospital bed wheeled forward at a dirge-like pace. Nurses steered. There was no chit-chat. No idle conversation. A real life hero was motionless beneath the sheets.

The uniforms had all come from the surrounding counties and rural backwaters within the quiltwork of central Alabama. Woodstock. Brent. Centerville. Chelsea.

They wore khakis, forest greens, and Class-B tactical blues. They represented different agencies from across the 22nd State, but the same brotherhood.


the shout.

A throng of officers showed full salute.

The body of 32-year-old deputy Brad Johnson trundled down the hallway, toward the organ donor center. The corridor between the two medical buildings is roughly the distance of two city blocks. There were more than two blocks’ worth of onlookers.

They call this an “Honor Walk.” It is a ceremony of respect reserved for deceased saints, for exceptional people, for those who have chosen to be organ donors.

And, of course, for heroes.

People sniffed noses. Shoulders quivered with tearful sobs. Following behind the bed was a train of Brad’s mourners, which included Brad’s K9 partner, Bodie. A German shepherd.

“It was in his blood and in his heart to help people,” said a longtime friend, Brandon Jones. “He would do anything for anybody.”

And he proved it. Brad made a life of…