The Vulcan is in a good mood tonight. He stands watch over Birmingham. The largest cast-iron statue in the world.

He is suspended 124 feet above the world. His right arm is outstretched, holding a spear. He wears a blacksmith’s apron. Roman sandals. And his butt is showing.

My wife and I showed up at Vulcan Park and Museum a few minutes before sundown. I bought a few tickets from the ticket booth. The cashier was a girl in a Troy University sweatshirt.

“Y’all new in town?” she asked.

“Moved here five months ago,” said I.

She gave me the tickets.

“Well, it’s nice to have you to Birmingham.”

My wife and I ascended the stone staircase toward the enormous tower. Atop the tower stands the statue. The Vulcan was built in 1904 by an Italian sculptor Giussepe Moretti. It’s a work of high art.

Every day I drive on the freeway I see the Vulcan, perched high in the distance, standing above the earth. He reminds me that I live in Birmingham now.

This town is my new home.

Which I keep forgetting. Namely, because I am a Florida man. I did my growing up two miles from the Gulf of Mexico, one mile from the Choctawhatchee Bay. My people ate raw oysters non-ironically. We had no basements. No fireplaces. Only sand spurs, yellow flies and doublewides.

But now I live here. A city of 210,000 with a metro area that brings it to roughly 1.2 million people. This town has it all. The Appalachians, museums, blues, jazz, soul, barbecue, unlimited breweries, and the unique transcendental torment that is Highway 280.

Before we ascended the tower, I showed the guard my ticket. He glanced at it and said, “New in town?”

I told him I was.

He tipped his hat. “It’s nice to have you in Birmingham.”

There are 159 steps leading to the top of the Vulcan tower.…

She lost her best friend. It happened yesterday.

He was a good boy. Fourteen years old. He was always beside her. When she ate supper. When she watched television. When she used the restroom. He even slept on the floor near her bed.

He was a Labrador, and then some. The biggest in his litter of 12. His shoulders were wide, his neck was a column of muscle.

He wasn’t a playful dog, but he was happy. He was gentle. He liked children, chewing, lying in the sun, he loved tomatoes. He enjoyed walks, but only short ones. He seemed to go crazy over “Downton Abbey.”

He could eat more than any dog she’d ever seen. He was a garbage disposal with a tail.

When she worked nights in a commercial kitchen, he waited for her to get home. She’d arrive after work, he would be seated at the front door, squealing.

She would bring him things from work. The spoils of her occupation. Fish guts, lamb fat, chicken gristle, and sacred ground beef.

And he

loved her for it.

But she owed it to him—and then some. He’d seen her through hard times. He knew her emotions like a roadmap. He knew when she was sad, happy, or angry, before anyone else did.

When her father died, he crawled on a sofa and placed his hundred-pound body in her lap. It almost crushed her.

“I love you,” is what he was actually saying. Which is the only thing dogs know how to say—except: “Feed me right now or I’ll poop in the kitchen.”

He was with her when she lost her job. He was with her when she moved houses. He was with her when she passed a class, certifying her as a teacher. He was with her when her mother was ill.

Yesterday, she took him to the vet. She sat beside him for a few minutes before…

These aren’t my stories, but I’m going to tell them.

Let’s call her Dana. Dana was going for a walk near her home. It was a dirt road. Her high-school reunion was coming up, she was getting into shape.

A truck pulled beside her. He slowed down. He rolled his window open, he asked if she needed a ride.

Something was wrong. It was the way he looked at her.

Before she knew it, he’d jumped out of the vehicle. She tried to get away. He overpowered her and threw her into a ditch.

She landed a few good hits to his face, but he outweighed her.

He used a pocketknife. He pressed it against her. She screamed something. She doesn’t remember which words she used, but she aimed them toward heaven.

Something happened.

His body froze. Completely. He was like a statue, only meaner. She wanted to run, but she was too scared.

That’s when she saw another man standing above her attacker. He was tall, with a calm face.

“It’s gonna be okay, Dana,” the tall man said. “Go on home, sweetie, everything’s gonna be

okay.”

Here’s another:

Jim was dying. A seventy-something Vietnam veteran with high morals, pancreatic cancer, and a two-packs-a-day habit.

Doctors said his cancer would kill him.

Treatments were hell. Jim met a man in the VA hospital. A homeless man with a duffle bag. A fellow vet.

They shared a few cigarettes. They swapped stories. They understood each other. Jim invited the man home.

The man stayed in Jim’s guest room. He stayed for several months.

He became Jim’s caregiver. He wiped Jim’s mouth after episodes of vomiting, he stayed up late during sleepless nights, he helped Jim bathe. He’d pat Jim’s back when nausea got bad, saying, “It’s gonna be alright.”

And he was there on Jim’s final day, too. He waited in the den while Jim’s family gathered around his bed.…

A beer joint. In the sticks. A cinderblock building. There were beat-up trucks parked in a dusty parking lot. No sign. Only a small Pabst Blue Ribbon marquee indicated this was a place where a man could break a dry spell.

My companions were old enough to be my grandfathers. I accepted their invitations to attend their private waterhole.

“We don’t want anyone to know it’s here,” said one old man whom I will call Billy. Although that is not his name.

“Otherwise, people will ruin it,” said Billy’s cohort.

It was a dank place. A lot like the place where Miss Wanda sold me my very first beer when I was 14.

Yes, I realize 14 is way too young to consume libation. I also realize that if Wanda had done such a thing today, she would be rotting beneath Tutwiler Prison. But those were different times.

Wanda gave me an ice-cold Miller High Life in exchange for a song played on my guitar. She asked me to sing to the barroom because—how’s this for irony?—

her mother heard me sing in church once.

I sang “Hello Walls.” I tried to make my voice do like Faron Young’s voice did.

Billy opened the door. The old men assumed their barstools. The place smelled like someone’s crawl space.

There was a tiny plywood stage in the corner. An old guy with a ponytail was picking and singing Vern Gosdin’s “Set’em Up Joe.”

I ordered a Miller High Life, just to see if the spirit of Wanda lived on.

“We don’t carry High Life,” said the bartender. She was young and full-faced. But in a pleasing way.

My two partners ordered Bud Lights. I ordered a Budweiser. The girl called out. “I need two Bud Lights and one beer!”

The other bartender was nicknamed “Tiny.” He weighed roughly 250 lbs., and his arms were the size of fire hydrants. He used…

Dear Bryson,

When we first heard you had cancer, you have no idea how many people began praying for you. Then again, you might have an idea. Either way, there were a lot of us.

We were praying night and day. Day and night. Every single morning at breakfast. Each dinner. You were in our hearts. You were in our minds. You worked your way into our souls.

That might sound a little creepy, but it’s true. You are a fighter.

And now you’re starting school. Your first day of seventh grade. And I am thrilled to hear it. Because, you see, when I first got your grandmother’s letter about how you were suffering from an aggressive cancer, I read her words and wept. Because at the time, you see, I was going through a very difficult period in my own life, physically.

The doctor wasn’t sure whether I had cancer or not. They wanted to check me out. Do a bunch of tests. It scared the Shinola out of me.

I am a

wimp. A big baby. I am nothing compared to you, Bryson.

Because there you were. Showing me what real bravery looks like. You were facing the devil. Head on. You were fighting.

I found myself checking you out on Facebook a lot. I read all the updates, and comments people were writing to you. I read all the words of encouragement. All the prayers.

I saw pictures of you with your head shaved. Your face was puffy from the medication, and you looked pretty tired. But you were always smiling. I don’t know how.

You gave me strength, Bryson. Really. Just knowing what you endured, and all that you suffered, you imparted actual strength to me.

So when your grandmother wrote to me yesterday, asking me to give you some words of advice before you started the seventh grade, I chuckled. Because I felt the strong…

Canterbury Methodist Church. Mountain Brook, Alabama. I was running late. I jogged through the parking lot. On the way to the door, I was greeted by a woman carrying a plate of sugar cookies. Her mane was white. She wore tennis shoes.

I tugged the door open for her.

“We’re so glad you’re joining us today,” she said.

“Proud to be here, ma’am.”

I was led through the bowels of the church. Past the framed pictures of blond Jesus. I entered a multi-use room where a gaggle of mature belles were gathered.

They were all knitting.

“Welcome!” said Miss Gerri.

She walked toward me with arms outstretched. Her hair was blazing white, tinged with the faintest traces of a bygone redhead. Her skin was freckled. Her smile was enormous. She gave me a hug.

Miss Gerri smelled good. Why do older women always smell so good? What sort of perfume do older women wear? Chanel? Estée Lauder? Lady Stetson? Opium? It’s like they all got together one day and agreed on the perfect smell.

It is a smell that reminds you of someone

who loves you. Someone who cherishes you. Someone who cares. A grandmother maybe. Or a favorite aunt. It is a smell deeper than mere perfume. I wish I could bottle this smell.

“We are the Knit Wits,” said one woman. Her eyes never left her needles. “We’re a knitting club. We make prayer shawls, but we also make clothes and hats for the homeless people.”

“Knitting is fun,” said another.

“It’s very therapeutic,” someone added.

“Rosie Greer used to do needlepoint.”

“Robin Williams used to knit.”

“Russell Crowe knits, too.”

“I would drink Russell Crowe’s bathwater,” said another.

They passed around a plate of sugar cookies. A woman named Anne was sitting beside me. She removed her latest knitting creation, a prayer shawl she has been working on for the past several months.

These prayer shawls are…

DEAR SEAN:

My doctor says I have depression. I am 81 years old, and I don’t have any friends to cheer me up at my retirement home. I’m just not very social, and I’m pretty much all alone right now. What should I do?

I’m tired of being depressed. I realize you don’t have time to answer an old woman, but I like the way you write.

Puh-leeez write back if you can,
FRIENDLESS-IN-CLEMSON

DEAR CLEMSON:

Look. You don’t want advice from me. You know more about life than I ever will.

Moreover, if I gave you advice, your life would fall apart. One time, I gave my cousin some advice with his ex-wife and he actually followed it. And now he lives in a refrigerator carton.

Even so, I can tell you something with complete certainty. After having wrestled with depressive tendencies for my short lifetime, I have learned one thing about human beings.

We are social animals.

Read that last sentence again. Write it on your bathroom wall. Say it over and again to yourself. Because

when we get depressed, no matter what the reason, we tend to withdraw. And this is the worst thing anyone can do.

I know you don’t like to think of yourself as an animal, but you are. And just like all animals, you need six crucial things to survive. Food, water, shelter, sleep, air and access to an iPhone. And as a human animal, you have an important seventh need:

The need to party.

I’m not joking. As humans, it’s important for us to pile up together sometimes, to laugh in group settings, and to drink potent beverages made from malted barley.

Not all animals on the planet are social like us. Koalas, for example, are non-social animals. So are bears, skunks, sloths and platypuses.

But you are not a skunk. Neither are you a sloth. And a platypus, if you’ll…

There is something about being on a mountain. Something invigorating. Something exhilarating. It makes me think of heaven.

I am standing on a mountain right now, staring at forever. The trappings of society are miles below me. There is no rank or status up here. No schedule. No spam email. No 24-hour news channels.

The foothills of the Appalachians are before me, sprawled out like a giant green quilt. The whole of Jefferson County is behind me. And my problems seem so small up here. Like itty bitty gnats. Only uglier.

Oak Mountain State Park is the largest park in Alabama, and it’s about the size of a small continent.

This park was supposed to be a national park. That was the original idea. They were going to call it Little Smoky Mountain National Park. It was going to be ridiculously cool. But then Pearl Harbor happened. America went to war instead. And the idea fell through.

But the park turned out ridiculously cool anyway.

So people are always surprised when I

take them to Oak Mountain. They always say the same thing: “I didn’t know you had this kind of beauty in Alabama.”

Because most people only know the Alabama they see on TV. I can’t tell you how many outsiders I meet who think Alabama is nothing but hicks and swamp bogs.

Outsiders have some mental image of Alabamians as toothless, barefoot hillbillies sitting on the porches of 42-foot Fleetwood doublewides, cooking squirrel, polishing their Remingtons, watching NASCAR. Which is an unfair stereotype. We also watch football.

Oak Mountain is tucked within the Appalachian foothills. You’re looking at 9,940 acres of oaken woodlands and several mountain lakes. In the 1930s, this place was built with the same hands that built Yosemite. The Civilian Conservation Corps put their heart and soul into this land. And you can tell when you hike these trails.

Although truthfully, I am not a…

It’s nine at night. Ron is rolling over the dark Appalachians, traveling 70 mph. He’s bound for Kentucky. We’re talking on the phone.

He’s a security guard at a department store in Florida. He just got time off so he can travel to Kentucky to help with disaster relief.

“I’m a fifth generation Kentuckian,” he says. “I been away from home for thirty years. But it’s like my daddy always said, we take care of our own.”

So far, the flood in Kentucky has killed 25 people. Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said he expected the death toll to continue to rise. Among the dead are six children. Four of which were swept away from their parents’ grasp in the floodwaters.

Some say it was the worst flood in Appalachian history. Certainly it is the worst flood this generation of Kentuckians has ever seen.

At least 33,000 have no electricity. Mudslides have made roads impassable. Hundreds of businesses and homes have been wiped off the map. Or swallowed.

Many people are still missing. Elderly people with

dementia. Young fathers and mothers who never made it home from work. And lest we forget, the multitudes of pets.

And yet, the destruction isn’t the story here. Because even though the Eastern portion of the state has turned into mud soup, the Kentucky spirit hasn’t.

“These people are tough as rocks,” said one EMT. “I’ve never seen nothing like it. These people are rescuing their ownselves. Makes me proud to be a Kentuckian.”

There have been around 98 reported rescues by emergency crews. There have been exponentially more conducted by ordinary civilians and neighbors.

The Samaritans have been arriving from all parts of the state. They call them the Bluegrass Navy.

They are men and women in all-weather hunting gear, towing fishing boats. Guys in camo caps, driving Fords and Chevys, who usually skin bucks or gut bass on the weekends.

These are people…