Opening Day of baseball.

The neighborhood is alive with summer sounds. It’s lunchtime. I’m sipping my lunch from a tin can.

A few streets over, I hear kids’ voices. Their far-off laughter is infectious. I know they’re playing catch because I hear the rhythmic slaps of leather. Like a metronome.

And I’m thinking about the innumerable evenings my father and I played catch. Catch was our thing. We played whenever the mood hit.

Daddy never went anywhere without our ball gloves in the backseat. We played catch in all kinds of places. In public parks. In driveways. Backyards. In the church parking lot, during the sermon.

Some men’s fathers were Methodists or Presbyterians. My father was a National League man.

Which is why I am on the front porch, listening to dad’s old Zenith console radio. Tweed speaker. Particle-wood cabinet. The game sounds like it’s coming out of a walkie talkie, courtesy of 690 AM. Joe Simpson is in good voice today.

As each year goes by, baseball gets harder to love. The salaries get higher. The

game gets more commercial. I keep getting older; the players stay the same age.

The sport of my youth no longer resembles itself. When I was a kid, professional baseball was played by guys who looked like beer-swilling lumberjacks and retired war veterans.

Bucky Dent was the man. Dale Murphy was a deity. You had guys like George Brett, with cheeks full of Red Man, rushing the mound after an inside pitch to beat the pitcher’s everlasting aspirations.

We had Ripken. Nolan. Sid Bream. And it wasn’t a game unless Bobby Cox made a serious attempt to decapitate an umpire.

Baseball has new rules now. The worst corruption to the game is the clock. My father would roll in his grave.

During my youth, there was no game clock in baseball. In fact, baseball was the only thing in life without a clock.…

A Catholic church. It was lunchtime. The chapel was empty when I wandered in. The janitor was Latino and spoke fractured English. He was elderly, with lily-white hair.

“May I help joo?” he said.

I asked to speak to the priest.

“Have a seat,” the custodian said, “the Padre will be with you shortly.”

I sat in a pew. The church was stone quiet. The A/C compressor kicked on. I could feel the Blessed Virgin looking at me with either disapproval or shock.

Because I’m not Catholic. Not even close. Truthfully, I don’t know what I am. Neither did I know why I was here.

I was raised Southern Baptist. We were the kind of strict people who fought against alcohol and premarital sex because it could lead to bingo.

But today I am broken. Every time I think about the three 9-year-olds who were gunned down in Nashville, my heart shatters. I cannot stop weeping. I think of the three adults who were slaughtered in the hallways, and I fall to pieces.

“I’m not Catholic,” I explained to the custodian.

He shrugged.

“Nobody’s perfect.”

I waited for the priest. And the janitor waited with me, which was nice of him.

The old man sat in the pew beside me. We both stared at the intricate stained glass above the altar, glowing like multi-colored fire.

The janitor’s face looked like aged leather. It made me wonder what a man his age was doing, still tying down a nine-to-five.

“Joo are not Catholic,” he said, “yet you are here?”

“Well, I figured, how could it hurt?”

He nodded.

More silence.

I looked at the framed paintings of the 14 Stations of the Cross on the chapel walls. Jesus sort of looked like a Ken doll with a beard.

“Joo are here for a confession?” the custodian asked me.

“I don’t know. Maybe. I guess I just wanted to talk to someone.”

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are the victims of the Covenant School shooting in Nashville, for they are with God.

Blessed are the Covenant School staff members, the traumatized, the wounded, for these shall be called Children of God.

Blessed are the three 9-year-olds, Hallie Scruggs, Evelyn Dieckhaus, and William Kinney, whose innocent bodies were demoralized in a senseless act of murder, for they are seated on the lap of the Almighty. Blessed are Cynthia Peak (61), Mike Hill (61), and Katherine Koonce (60), for their lives were beautiful.

Blessed are their loved ones, with broken hearts, with battered minds. Blessed are all Nashvillians who weep.

Blessed are the shell-shocked. Blessed are the confused. Blessed are the pissed-off. Blessed are the traumatized. Blessed are the people who blame themselves, even though it’s not their fault. Blessed are the bystanders.

Blessed are the men and women in Nashville who can think of no other way to respond to this erratic tragedy

than to help others.

Blessed are the total strangers who have shown up on the scene just to cry. Blessed are those gathered outside Covenant School to hold candles, present bouquets, and memorialize the lost ones.

Blessed are the local media persons whose job is to stand in front of cameras and report, matter-of-factly, on the worst crime of humanity.

Blessed are all those with big hearts, who just want to help. Blessed are the givers. The doers. The feeders. The bakers. The babysitters. The shuttle drivers. In a world of people blinded by their own anger, bless you. A million times, bless you. You are not invisible.

Blessed are those who painstakingly try to maintain peace, especially while everyone else in this world is fighting like rabid canines. As politicians hold public urination contests, and random people on Facebook fight from 3,000 miles away. Blessed are the peacemakers.

Blessed are…

People in Lebanon, Tennessee, are funny about their town name.

“If you gon’ say it,” the bartender explains, “say it right. It’s pronounced ‘Leb’nun.’”

I order a beer, attempt to say the name, and perfectly butcher it.

“Keep practicing,” the bartender says,

Lebanon is a Rockwellian town. This city has everything you’d need in an all-American hamlet. A town square. A feed and seed. A Dollar Tree.

The bartender asks what I am doing in town. So I tell him. I came to Lebanon on a pilgrimage of sorts. I’ve received an unusual amount of emails from Tennesseans telling me about Lebanon.

One woman emailed last week and said “Lebanon is where America’s kindest people live.”

So I asked my bartender if he agreed with this statement.

He nodded. “One hundred percent. We have some first-class people here.”

Then he told me about Cody Liddle.

Last month, Cody sustained multiple injuries in a boating accident on Hickory Lake. His outboard motor flipped into his boat and struck him. Cody almost died. To say he has a long road to recovery is an understatement.

But that’s

where the good folks of Lebanon stepped in.

Money started running thin for the Liddles. There was the hospital stay, the insurance deductibles, missed work, the price of food.

“The whole town banded together,” the bartender says. “It was amazing.”

Someone set up a donation page with a $10,000-dollar goal. Within days, Lebanon raised over $20,000.

Then the local T-shirt shop printed shirts. The drive raised $9,000 bucks faster than you can say “Leb’nun.”

There is also an upcoming bass tournament in Cody’s honor. All proceeds go to the Liddles.

“People are the real deal in Lebanon,” says the barkeep.

“Leb-BAH-non,” I try to pronounce.

“Just stop.”

And there’s Chelsea Stiltner. Twenty-eight years old. Beautiful. Contagious smile. Mother of five. Prime of her life.

A few weeks ago, Chelsea was checking the mailbox when a…

This morning I walked into a drugstore in downtown Nashville and bought three sacks of blue raspberry Dum-Dums.

The cashier looked at me funny. She casually asked why I was buying so many blue raspberry suckers.

So I told her a story.

It all starts in Corbin, Kentucky, which sits halfway between Knoxville, Tennessee, and Lexington, right off I-75. The little downtown looks like it belongs on the cover of a “Saturday Evening Post.”

Corbin rural. These people are salt-of-the-earth. I once had a friend from southeastern Kentucky. We were in Boy Scouts together. He called it a “campfar.”

These are solid people. Sturdy people. They’ve had to be inasmuch these are the descendants of coal miners. They have black sediment in their bloodstream.

I visited Corbin years ago to interview a retired coal miner who survived the Hurricane Creek mine disaster in the 70s. The tragedy happened about an hour northeast of Corbin. It was the largest mining disaster in U.S. history.

I asked my interviewee, point-blankly, how he survived the deadliest mining disaster in the history of

our country. The old man simply replied, “God.”

And I never forgot that response.

The drugstore gal, interrupting my story. “Wait. I think I’ve heard of Corbin before.”

A lot of people have. They just don’t realize it. Namely, because Corbin is the birthplace of the greatest invention of the 20th century; an invention we use every day; a societal advance that changed the lives of all Americans, making our modern lives possible.

I am of course talking about Kentucky Fried Chicken.

“Yes, that’s it,” said the cashier. “I’ve been to that museum in Corbin. I got my picture made with Colonel Sanders. Please, go on with your story.”

So I did.

I told her that last week, Corbin endured a major disaster. Only this catastrophe didn’t happen in a coal mine. It occurred in a residential area.

Eight-year-old Eli Hill…

March 24, 2023. The year of our Lord. I am backstage at the Opry, about to perform.

This cannot be real.

There are tour buses outside which cost more than tactical nuclear submarines. There are performers in clothes that look like disco balls. Rhinestones everywhere.

The security guard is a guy named Jim who shows me to a dressing room.

“Welcome to the Opry,” he says with a smile. “We’re so glad to have you.”

On my way through the hall, we pass display cases containing Loretta Lynn’s gown, antique Stetsons from the heads of famous troubadours like Ernest Tubb, and Luke Bryan’s pedicure kit.

There are framed portraits of Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, Little Jimmy Dickens, George Strait, Garth Brooks, and several other stunningly attractive performers of country music who I’ve never heard of.

This can NOT be real.

I am not here. This is not reality. I am not Opry material. I have red hair, buck teeth, and my nose is so big I look like a guy sniffing a tomato. This is a dream.

Now I am

in my dressing room. They tell me this room has been used by debuting artists since 19-hundred-and-forever. There’s no telling who has changed their skivvies in this room. Alan Jackson. Garth Brooks. Reba.

“Dolly might have changed her underwire in this very room,” someone remarks.

My cup runneth over.

So I change my clothes. I look at myself in the mirror, shirtless, surrounded by lightbulbs. I am frumpy, goofy looking, and when I grin I bear a striking resemblance to Mister Ed. This definitely can’t be happening.

There is a rap on my door. It’s time for soundcheck.

I meet the house band. We shake hands and run through tunes. These guys are virtuosos. My heart is pounding like a Sousa march.

Soundcheck is over. Back to the dressing room.

The Opry begins.

I sit on a sofa watching the…

I remember going to see the Grand Ole Opry as a boy. My father drove through the busy city of Nashville. I was five, he was thirty-six.

“Daddy,” I said, “Do you think that there will be anyone famous there?”

“Do I?” he said. “You better know it. There’s always famous people at the Opry, and famous ghosts, too.”

“Ghosts? Really?”

My daddy always was good with a ghost story.

“Why sure,” he said. “The ghost of Hank Williams, for one thing. And Hank Snow, and Lefty Frizzell... There’s always ghosts at the Opry.”

“Are they nice ghosts?”


“Depends on what?”

“On if you’re a nice little boy or not.”

“What happens if I’m not a nice little boy?”

“A ghost will swoop down from the rafters suck out your soul, and send you to Hell and make you listen to classical music for eternity.”

Daddy’s ghost stories always were a little offbeat.

Then he would laugh. My father had a laugh that sounded like Mister Ed.

My father and I walked into the amphitheater and were greeted by the smell of

hotdogs and popcorn. I had the greatest evening of my life.

Men in ten-gallon hats. Women in rhinestones. Steel guitars, dueling fiddles, the sound of Keith Bilbrey's silky announcing voice.

We were suspended from the real world for a while. It was a star-studded dream, wrapped in a beehive hairdo, with a guitar strapped to its chest. Onstage we saw Jerry Clower, telling jokes.

My father laughed, slapping his armrest. And there was that Mister Ed laugh again. His odd laugh was funnier than any joke that ever inspired it.

But the height of our evening was not the music, nor the laughs, nor the sparkling rhinestones. The apex of this memory happened after the show.

We made our way to the lobby. There was a horde of people waiting in line. We couldn’t see what they…

Buc-ee’s convenience store sits outside Athens, Alabama, like a giant squatting beaver.

This Texas-based gas station place is not a mere gas station. Buc-ee’s is a dwarf planet. You’re looking at Six Flags Over Circle K.

And the place is packed today.

“We’re packed every day,” says an older employee wearing a cowboy hat. “Every day is like a Who concert in here.”

If you go to Buc-ee’s, be prepared to wait in a line of traffic. There are 120 gas pumps jammed full of SUVs, compact cars and oversized trucks. They come from all over. The license plates read Maine, Nebraska, Nevada, Vermont, and Alaska.

Walking into the store is like going into an Alan Jackson concert, only less organized. We’re talking 53,470 square-feet of commercial retail space. You see people from all walks. Rich and poor. Old and young. Yoga pants and partial nudity.

They have everything here.

Buc-ee’s features a Texas-style barbecue pit with line cooks wearing cattleman hats. The brisket is good. The employees call you Sugar, which is sweet, but also weird inasmuch as

some of the employees are old enough to be your great-grandchildren.

The food is good. They roast nuts here. Try the cinnamon glazed pecans, they taste like licking the throne of the risen Savior.

They have fudge in every shape, color, and political party. The mint-fudge has been legally classified as a narcotic in three states.

Buc-ee’s serves banana pudding, which isn’t bad. They have ghost pepper jerky that will utterly ruin your bowels.

They sell baby onesies, vape pens, barbecue grills, deer feed, machetes, fishing kayaks, and tactical helicopters. There is a wall of beer.

Also, Buc-ee’s sells the kind of crafty merchandise you’d find in a Hobby Lobby. There are American-flag cutting boards, for example. They sell bejeweled steer-head skulls. There are Buc-ee’s underpants.

I see a bumper sticker reading, “I bet Jesus would have used HIS turn signals.”

It was our place. That’s what it was. I grew up in a little fishing village, nestled in the Florida Panhandle.

This was long before the tattoo parlors, before the T-shirt shops, before Whole Foods and Bass Pro.

Today our little town is not even a shadow of its former glory. On any given month, Destin is inundated with 8 million tourists wearing thong bikinis. And those are just the men.

But once upon a time, we had Pepito’s. It was your quintessential Mexican dive restaurant. It was clean. The staff was friendly. They had ugly orange walls. The joint was always packed.

They served good food. The chips were always hot. The salsa was fresh from an actual tin can. They had ice-cold Tecate.

You could order a “King Burrito,” and you wouldn’t be hungry again for the next three or four presidential administrations.

My first kiss happened outside Pepito’s. It was late. Her name was Teresa. She had red hair and she smelled like Head and Shoulders.

Do people name their kids Teresa anymore?

As a young man, all my friends went to Pepito’s because it was where you went. We spent entire evenings in those booths, discussing who we were going to grow up to become.

For a few bucks, you could fill your belly on queso dip that would turn your bowels into stone. If you had enough cash left over, you could take in a movie across the street.

Years later, I worked at the restaurant next door to Pepito’s. We served cheap sirloins. I was a line cook. I worked in a dank kitchen until 1AM every weeknight, doing dishes.

They were long nights. Pepito’s shared our same dumpster. So whenever I took out the trash, there were always a few Latino guys out there smoking cigarettes, speaking in rapid-fire Español, drinking longneck Pacificos.

I learned to speak Spanish in that alley. I had…

It was quite a night in Heaven. The angels were busy. The cherubim and seraphim were fluttering around, batting their wings, in preparation for the big party.

Moses, the commanding officer, was barking orders at the kitchen staff.

“Did you remember the queso dip?” Moses asked a subordinate angel. “God gets ticked off if we forget the queso.”

“He does?” answered the angel, private first class.

“Oh yes,” said Moses. “Remember Sodom and Gomorrah? That was because God ran out of queso dip during a big game.”


“Yep. And do you remember Noah’s flood? That’s what happens when God runs out of Old Milwaukee.”

So the angels were on top of things. They were making sure all the trimmings for the big party were in place.

They made sure the Igloo coolers were stocked. They made sure the hors d'oeuvres were perfect. They got a deli tray from Publix.

The Beulah Reception Hall had never looked lovelier. There was a massive radio tuned to 650 AM, out of Nashville, Tennessee, so everyone could listen to the “Grand Ole Opry.”

Barbecue had been

catered from A&R Barbecue in Memphis. Ice cream had been flown in from Dairy Queen. The worker angels had hauled in enough queso dip to sink the U.S.S. North Carolina.

“I don’t see why this party is such a big deal,” said one of the angels. “I didn’t know God listened to the ‘Grand Ole Opry.’”

“He does,” said Moses. “God invented country music.”

This party, however, wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill soiree. God was throwing this particular party for one of His best friends. His friend’s name was John.”

“John must be very important for God to throw a party for him,” said the angel.

“He is. God loves him very much.”

“How did John die?”

Moses got quiet. “Does it matter?”

Soon, the party was underway. Guests started arriving. Within moments, the reception hall was full…