The Choctawhatchee River is 141 miles of magic. You might think that sounds whacko, and you’re probably right. But I am just naïve enough to believe in magic.

The Choctawhatchee’s headwaters start as two separate forks, located in Barbour and Henry County, Alabama. The river then flows southward, snaking its way through Geneva County, lulling itself past the Florida line, finally emptying into the Choctawhatchee Bay of my youth.

The water undergoes many changes on its journey to the Sunshine State. Even the color of the river changes slightly as it slices through mud, clay and silt.

In some places the water is olive green. In other places the water can look more reddish, like iced tea. By the time the water spills into the 129 square miles of brackish bay, the water is almost silvery blue.

When I was a young sap, old men used to say the Choctawhatchee River was different from other tributaries. Not only is the water staggeringly clean, the river also contains some of

the oldest fish known to man. Among these species is the Gulf sturgeon, a frightening armored fish that traces its origins back to the Triassic Period, shortly after the birth of Willie Nelson.

These are wicked fish, known to jump right out of the water and assault fishermen. I know of a man who was knocked out of his boat and injured by a whopping sturgeon while he was eating a liver wurst sandwich.

So there is a special element that is unnamable about the Choctawhatchee. Using a fishing rod, I have spent entire summers trying to figure out what this unnamable charm is, but I have no answer except to say that, yes, it’s magic.

Which brings me to a recent example of this particular magic. A few days ago, near Hartford, Alabama (pop. 2,624), something happened.

A kayaker was paddling along the river and saw something stuck in the…

In my family, there was no real difference between religion and fried chicken. The two items went hand in hand. When you attended church events, you ate fried chicken. Any other dish was borderline paganism.

We did not, for example, get together at the Baptist covered-dish suppers to eat chickpeas. To my knowledge no kale ever crossed the threshold of my childhood fellowship hall. And it would have been more acceptable to smoke Marlboro Reds in the sanctuary than it would have been to eat anything containing tofu.

So it was fried chicken. All the way. We had drumsticks that were roughly the size of Danny DeVito, and white-meat breasts that required the strength of three men to lift. There were short thighs so large that you would have sworn someone’s husband was missing his left leg.

The frying was done in the church kitchen by women with names like Jeannie, Delores, Carla May, Delpha, Martha Ann, Voncille, Wanda Lou, and Eleanor Sue. They worked at a GE stove that

was Harvest Gold and featured electric eyes that never sat level.

These women used ancient iron skillets, heirloom pot holders, and wooden spoons that had seen so much action they didn’t even look like spoons anymore but gnarled pieces of hickory.

The galley’s formica countertops were adorned with a fine dusting of King Arthur flour. There were industrial-sized jars of Crisco on each surface, slipping and sliding in puddles of polyunsaturated fat.

If you stepped into this kitchen during a frying frenzy, you were met with a cumulus of hot air so sultry with artery-clogging vegetable shortening, you could inhale once and experience a fatal cardiac event.

Meantime, you and your cousin would be out in the fellowship hall dining area, setting up steel folding chairs. These were dangerous chairs you handled, chairs with a particular folding mechanism capable of slicing the fingers off little boys who operated them incorrectly.

It was sundown at the beach. There was a small group gathered at the public beach access, dressed in wedding attire. The bride wore flowers in her hair and carried a bouquet. The groom wore slacks and a nice shirt. Everyone was barefoot.

I sort of grew up barefoot. In fact, I grew up on this very beach. I remember working as a beach attendant/lifeguard one summer, after getting my heart broken by a young woman who shall remain nameless.

One morning I showed up before work, when this beach was empty, I waded into the cool water and I asked God to notice me. Pathetic, I know. But that’s all I wanted, was to be seen. A body can go a whole lifetime without feeling like anyone sees them.

I remember I was in chest-deep water when a seagull immediately landed beside me. He dunked himself in the Gulf, then shook his feathers violently so that it looked like he had a little mohawk. I laughed, then dunked myself beneath the saltwater, reemerged,

just like my new friend.

And the seagull stayed put, floating alongside yours truly, just staring at me. At the time I didn’t know what this mini experience meant, but it seemed to mean something.

“Is everybody ready?” shouted the groom. “Let’s get started before the sun sets!”

So the wedding party plodded across the beach in our bare feet, moving into position.

“Why’re you carrying that big book?” a kid asked me on our walk. “Are you the one marrying them?”

“Yes,” I said.

“You a preacher?”

I almost choked on my own spittle. “No.”

The story goes: I was legally ordained about a decade ago because a friend asked me to do their wedding. So I sent a certified check to a strange mail-order ordination company that charged me $150 to be a man of the cloth. In return, they sent me a little…

JACKSONVILLE, Fla.—A car accident. A crushed car, sideways in the median. Years ago.

She saw the car and pulled over. She jogged toward it. It was instinct. She opened the door. The man wasn’t breathing.

She had been working part-time at a pre-school. Pre-schools have mandatory CPR certification classes. Only a few days earlier, she had practiced resuscitating dummies in a church fellowship hall.

She pulled the man out of the battered vehicle. She found his breastbone. Thirty compressions. Two rescue breaths.

He’s alive today. A father of four. He keeps in touch.

ATHENS, Ga.—Nineteen-year-old Billy didn’t want to get into a fistfight. He’d never been in a fight before. He saw a younger kid being beaten by two large boys. He couldn’t stay out of it.

Billy, who’d never thrown a punch in his life, pushed himself into the conflict. He fended off the two attackers, but not without being beaten-up.

Billy took the kid to the emergency room. They became fast friends. He brought the kid home to meet his parents. The boy told them he’d been living

with his uncle—who neglected him.

Billy’s parents invited the kid live with them. They fixed the guest bedroom. They bought him a Playstation. They fed him. They made him one of their own.

When Billy got married, the kid was his best man. When Billy had his first son, the kid became a godfather.

When the kid wore a cap and gown to receive a diploma, seven people stood and clapped for him.

HOOVER, Ala.—Leigh Ann was your classic shut-in. She was too old and feeble to go anywhere.

Most days, she sat in a recliner watching her stories on TV. Sometimes she forgot to feed herself. She had nobody. She’d been lonely ever since her husband passed. Leigh Ann had no children.

One day, a young man who lived on her street noticed the street-address numbers on her house,…

A fast-food chain. I was standing in line, waiting for my Oreo milkshake. There was a group ahead of me, with ages ranging from mid-twenties to mid-sixties, all dressed nicely. Mostly women.

The older group members were wearing pearls and blouses. The younger ones wore modern hairstyles, jeans, and tattoos. They were all teachers.

“It’s Teacher Appreciation Week,” one teacher explained. “We’re here because we get free stuff.”

“They give us free burgers today,” said another excited teacher.

“This is a fun week for a teacher,” added another woman. “They have buy-one-get-one deals at all the good restaurants if you show your school ID. My husband is going to take me out every night this week. He just doesn’t know it yet.”

Turns out, the deals for teachers are never ending. All over the US, teachers are getting major discounts and freebies this week.

At Barnes and Noble, for example, all teachers get free coffees. At most franchise fast-food joints teachers get free fries, burgers, tots, hot dogs, sandwiches, shakes, cookies, ice cream, and apple pies.

There are companies offering discounted Caribbean cruises, half-price cellphone plans, and even free underpants.

There are deals to be had at AT&T, Michael’s, Levi’s, Vineyard Vines, J. Crew, Verizon, and of course, Crocs.

This week at Office Depot, teachers get 20 percent off. At Dollar General, teachers get 5 percent off for a whole month. And at select local restaurants, teachers receive free fishbowl Margaritas the size of above-ground kiddie pools.

“But they only give you one Margarita,” said a teacher. “And that’s not nearly enough for a teacher.”

While my Oreo delight was being whipped to perfection, I asked several of them how they entered into education.

“Oh, I always knew I wanted to be a teacher,” says one. “My mom says I used to line up my dolls in my room like students and boss them around.”

“I was a music major,”…

I was interviewed by a kid. I’ll call her “Kay,” but that’s not her name. Kay is a foster child who loves Auburn University football.

Kay is also serious about the sanctity of the interview process. Kay wants to be a lawyer when she grows up.

She got in touch with me because this is National Foster Care Month. Today happens to be National Foster Care Day.

Her digital recorder sat on the table. She gave me bottled water. She also had prepared homemade pimento cheese because she knows pimento cheese is my favorite.

It was very good cheese. However, instead of using pimentos, Kay used homegrown habanero peppers from her foster-mother’s garden that were spicy enough to strip the paint off interstate pavement. My lower intestinal tract will never be the same.

The interview was for Kay’s school. She was supposed to be writing about people who were fascinating. But she couldn’t find anyone like that, so instead she wrote about me.

She pressed the button on the recorder.

“Please state your name.” Her pencil was poised mid-air.

“Sean Dietrich.”

“Your FULL name, please,” Kay said.

“Sean P. Dietrich.”

“What does

the ‘P’ stand for, please?”



“No, not really, I was just trying to make you laugh.”

But Kay does not laugh. She doesn’t move a facial muscle. Kay will make a very good prosecutor.

“Tell me how you started writing?”

“With a pencil,” I said.

“Please be serious.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’m a writer by accident, really.”


“I was no good at anything else. And believe me, I’ve tried it all. I’ve worked a lot of jobs.”

“What kinds of jobs?”

“Oh boy, let’s see…. I’ve been a drywaller, a landscaper, an electrician’s assistant, a house painter, an ice-cream scooper, a beer-joint pianist, and once, after a wild night in Biloxi, I got ordained.”

“Is that true?” said Kay. “Were you really ordained?”

I retrieve…

Dear Naomi Judd,

I heard you died yesterday, you were 76 years young, and lovely. Your family said you died from “mental illness.” No sources close to your people have officially said it was suicide, but it doesn’t take a nuclear engineer to guess what happened.

I saw the headline in the paper and it ripped me apart. Any hint at the word “suicide” always does this to me. I am haunted by that word.

Growing up, that word followed me like a swarm of locusts. It was like a heavy cloud over me. You know the character Pig Pen, from the “Peanuts” comic strip? You know how a cloud of dust is always following him around wherever he goes? That was me and the stigma of suicide.

My father died by suicide, just like you. Or, rather, he died of “mental illness,” like your family told the reporters. Which is a more accurate way of saying it, when you think about it. Nobody ever dies of suicide. It’s

the mental illness that kills a person before the suicide ever does. It’s the untreated abscess in the human psyche that festers and kills a person. Not the gun.

Earlier this year, I was in Tybee Island for a book event. At our hotel, I happened to meet a guy who was in a wheelchair at the front desk. We made friends. There was something about him I liked. Something different. Something special. He came to my show that night. He sat in the back row while I told stories about my childhood to a small theater of snoring people. He laughed at my jokes. He bought a book.

His name was Lynn. Before the wheelchair, he was a touring rock-and-roll musician. He traveled with bands, played lead guitar, and had a good time. And you could tell he was a good guy.

It turned out that Lynn and I had…