Granddaddy placed me on his knee, he fuzzed my hair and smoked his Bing Crosby pipe. The world smelled like Prince Albert in a can.

“The year was 1862,” Granddaddy began his story. “The day was Christmas. The place was eastern Virginia.”

East Virginia. God’s country. Where the Rappahannock River traverses the Blue Ridge Mountains, then dumps itself into the Chesapeake like a pitcher of ice tea. The War was on. The landscape was torn up from war.

“And it was so cold,” said Granddaddy.

Paralyzingly cold. The winter of 1862 was brutal. You could break a tooth eating a bowl of soup.

Eighteen-year-old privates were sleeping on barren earth, huddled together like puppies beneath woolen blankets. Grown men—military men—spooned together, just to survive.

But this cold snap was nothing compared to the hunger. Some soldiers were so hungry they were eating their tobacco. There are stories about soldiers eating their own shoe leather.

Christmas morning came with fresh misery. A wet snow had fallen overnight. Gaggles of army boys awoke with frostbitten noses and frozen

earlobes. Others were coughing themselves to death.

The opposing armies were camped on opposite sides of the river. Gray coats on one side. Blues on the other. Before evening, these countrymen would probably be killing each other. “It was a hell of a time to be a soldier.”

I interrupted my Baptist grandfather. “Grandaddy, you can’t say ‘hell.’”

My grandfather, the grizzled veteran who spent his youth dodging shells in Anzio, Italy, said, “Son, there is no other word for war but hell.”

That morning, a few young soldiers were on patrol near the banks of the Rappahannock. They stopped patrolling when they saw the enemy on the other side of the river, also patrolling.

Both groups halted.

Soldiers on both sides of the river were skin and bones, with sunken eyes and the pallor of cadavers.

It was a stare down between adversaries.…

I almost didn’t write this because I swore I’d never tell anyone what I’m about to tell you. But I have to.

A few weeks ago I received a letter postmarked from Nunavut, Canada. An invitation said that I had been selected along with a few other writers for an exclusive, one-on-one interview with a very important person who wears a red suit and owns a lot of reindeer and is not Oprah Winfrey.

The next day, I was on a plane from Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, flying to Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport. Our plane landed in a bunch of Midwestern gray snow. And I mean a bunch of snow.

Milwaukee was as cold as a witch’s underwire. I don’t know why anyone would choose to live in Milwaukee in the winter. Which brings up a joke my mother’s friend Judy, from Milwaukee always tells:

“What do you call a good looking man on the streets of Milwaukee?” “Frozen to death.”

So the layover wasn’t too bad. Neither were my other connecting flights to Tacoma,

British Columbia, and Fairbanks International Airport.

When I reached Alaska, things were touch-and-go. I caught a commuter flight to Deadhorse Airport, near Prudhoe Bay—which is basically the edge of the world where the temperature drops to forty below zero sometimes.

The next commuter plane was piloted by a Norwegian guy named Arvid who, while we were flying through a heavy blizzard, remarked, “I have never flown in an actual blizzard before.”

So things were going great. When we finally touched down, Arvid made the Sign of the Cross, and I changed my trousers.

We were on the remote Fosheim Peninsula at a research facility on Ellesmere Island. This facility has been continuously manned since 1947 and was covered in about ten feet of snowdrift. But the men who run the place are very friendly. Which is remarkable considering they are isolated from modern civilization and most of…

Afternoon. First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida. America’s oldest continuously occupied city. Look it up.

Taylor has a lot of work to do today. It’s the Christmas season, and this is the biggest day, annually, of Taylor’s career.

Taylor is an officer with the Pensacola Police Department, a detective of sorts. Electronics-detection. Taylor’s day job is catching bad guys who abuse kids. In fact, you could say that Taylor’s life is all about protecting children.

Taylor is 4 years old. He is an English Labrador.

Before he came to the PPD, he was a failed service dog for the elderly. His trainers flunked him because he kept trying to play with the tennis balls on people’s walkers.

“Friendly animal,” his former trainers noted, “but lacks focus, and talks too much in class.”

So he was trained as a police dog. He was an instant success.

“And he’s great with kids,” says one officer. “He’s one of our most valuable guys on the force. We don’t mind that he drinks from the toilet.”

Today, however, Taylor is serving as police liaison to a

bunch of kids.

1:44 p.m., Officer Taylor arrives at First Baptist with Officer Ike Isenberg, his partner. Taylor’s tail is wagging so hard his butt almost falls off.

The church parking lot is chock-full of busted Hondas, dilapidated Chevys and outmoded Nissans. There are cop cars galore.

Taylor excitedly bounds out of the vehicle and prances toward the church.


December has been a busy month for the department. All month, officers have been buying gifts for underprivileged kids in town.

These are kids whom officers run into on the job. Maybe the child’s family member was arrested. Maybe someone in the home has been murdered.

No matter what the issue, when an officer identifies a kid who is going to have a hard candy Christmas, the kid’s name goes on The List.

Come December, the whole department…

I’m proud of you. That’s the entire point of this entire column/essay/article/Facebook post/English travesty/verbiage trainwreck/whatever you call it. So if you’re pressed for time, you can quit reading here.

Just know that I’m proud.

I’m nobody. So my proudness means nothing, really. But nonetheless, I am very proud of you. I hope you’re proud, too. You’re pretty great.

Over the next few days, you’re going to be getting together with family members. It’s the Christmas season. You will be with out-of-towners. Sons and daughters. Mothers and fathers. Brothers and sisters. Or—God have mercy—in-laws.

Or perhaps YOU are the out-of-towner. Maybe you’re the outsider at the table

Either way, you’re going to be hanging out with people seated across from the holiday supper who silently judge you.

People who smile at you in that fake, nasty-nice way. These Cherished Family members will be polite to your face, but will make you feel like turd soup.

You’ll feel under scrutiny. What does your house look like? Is it a mess? How about your life? Is it a wreck? How about your job? Is it

a good one? What about your kids? Are they screwed-up? Or are they successful human beings with eight-digit incomes?

What about your current health? Are you sick? Are you in tip-top shape? Do you do cardio? How about yoga? Are you overweight? How about your financial portfolio? Stock options? How’s your guest bathroom? Is it clean? Or do you have a pink-carpet toilet seat cover that screams “Hints from Heloise” circa 1959?

Are you kick-butt successful? Are you a wealthy person with a current-model Land Rover Autograph, who has a financial advisor with Roman numerals after his name?

Or do you drive a 1992 F-150 with 197,623 miles, crumbling upholstery, rusted fenders, a busted stereo, dog-nose-slobber on the windows, and three pistons that misfire?

It doesn’t matter what your situation is, what I’m getting at is that you…

Winter. The year is 1949. The war has been over for a while, but it’s still fresh on everyone’s minds. Which is why people are having babies like crazy. War does that to people.

This new generation of babies will be known as the Baby Boomers, and each day they are being born by the truckload. These children will grow up one day and change the world by inventing revolutionary things such as DNA fingerprinting, the World Wide Web, the portable dialysis machine, and Donny Osmond.

But not all babies are lucky enough to be born into good lives. By which I mean that some babies have fathers who don’t want them. One woman—I will call her Macy—was pregnant with a baby like that.

So Macy’s mother did what lots of small-town mothers did in those days, she sent Macy away. Macy was supposed to go live with her aunt in Illinois, but it didn’t work out. So Macy tried Kansas City. That didn’t work either. And this brings us to the

beginning of our story.

Macy was alone. And penniless. Without a friend in the world. If we were to describe her situation with the blunt terms that my grandfather might have used: “Macy didn’t have a pot to [ugly word] in, or a [ugly word] window to throw it out of.”

She used her last few bucks to buy a bus ticket to Omaha, because she believed that this was a place where she could make a better life. Maybe nobody would ask questions about illegitimate babies in Omaha. Maybe nobody would bat an eye if she told them she was a widow.

So her bus was purring along when some very crummy weather hit. The weather went from snowstorm to deathstorm in only a few hours. History would later remember this weather system as one of the century’s worst blizzards to hit the Plains.

The bus rolled…

“Get in, partner!” said my old man. “We’re late.”

My father was seated behind the wheel of a 1977 F-100. He was dressed in work clothes. Denim. Muddy boots. My father was building the GM plant. He had raccoon eyes from wearing welding goggles, and he smelled worse than a chicken plant burning down.

My father and I piled into the Ford. We drove across Nashville. Whereupon Daddy immediately stopped at Dairy Queen to buy ice cream.

My father was fanatical about his ice cream. In fact—this is true—on weekends when my mother was out of town, my father would eat three square meals of ice cream.

The lady behind the Dairy Queen counter handed us two chocolate dipped cones and an order of fries. We ate them while speeding through Davidson County traffic at dusk.

When we arrived at Opryland. The place was about as big as a subtropical continent. Opryland is home of “The Grand Ole Opry.” It is America’s country-music theme park.

Think: Disneyland with cheating songs.

People filtered into the auditorium to see the Opry.

Families. Kids. Winnebagos with gaggles of Midwestern tourists. Guys wearing cowboy hats. People in gaudy T-shirts. The smell of hotdogs and peanuts was in the air. It was like a baseball game, but with fiddles.

“Well, here we are,” said my father.

I was so excited I almost peed my Levi’s. I was wearing an oversized cowboy hat.

My father slapped my shoulder. “You practice your guitar hard enough, one day you’ll be up there on that stage.”

We found a seat. I watched the show with slack-jawed wonder. Because I’ve always been attracted to music. My music obsession began when I was 3, I watched my aunt play “Lo How a Rose ‘Er Blooming” on the piano.

It changed my life.

You don’t choose to play music, music chooses you. It’s an affliction. A problem. An obsession. A compulsion.


My granddaddy said you can tell a lot about a person by the way they treat a dog. Someone who treats a dog badly, is a bad person. Plain and simple. A person who treats a dog with regard and deference is a good egg.

Right now, my wife is holding our blind coonhound, Marigold. She holds our pet like a baby. Not like a dog.

The Christmas tree in our den is sparkling with twinkly lights. And my wife is stroking Marigold’s head. The same canine head that was smashed in by an abuser.

Marigold’s face was struck with a blunt object. Her optic nerve scarred over. She lost her vision. The doctor removed one eye. This week, Marigold has another ophthalmologist appointment. The doctor is likely going to tell us we need to remove the other eye, too. It doesn’t work, and it’s causing too much pain.

What probably happened, the vet said, is that someone paid a lot of money for this hunting dog, a high-dollar scent hound. But Marigold turned

out to be gun shy. Loud sounds wreck her. Her abuser wasn’t happy about shelling out thousands of bucks for a dog who doesn’t like noise.

So he took his frustration out on the animal. He used a hard object. A length of rebar, maybe. Perhaps the butt of a rifle. Maybe a two-by-four.

My wife is softly humming to Marigold. “I love you,” she is quietly singing.

Life with a blind dog is tricky. It’s not like having a regular dog in the house. When we feed Marigold treats, for example, you have to touch her nose and let her know you’re near. Then, Marigold simply opens her mouth wide and hopes like crazy that someone will place the food into her mouth.

“Please feed me,” is what she’s saying. “I don’t know where you are, but I’m opening my mouth to make it easier…