Knoxville. Last year. I am walking into a Waffle House to get supper because everywhere else is closed at this hour. The sidewalks are rolled up. The lights are off. Knoxville is asleep.

I should be asleep, too, of course. But I’m not. Because I had to make a speech earlier tonight. It was one of those long nights where I drove straight to Knoxville and came right back.

I had to wear a tux. Have you ever been to a Waffle House while wearing a tuxedo? You get a lot of funny looks.

“Did you just finish with senior prom?” the waitress asks.

“No,” I say. “It was much worse. I had to make a speech to drunk rich people.”

She leans on the counter. “You wanna cry about it?”

“No. I’m past that.”

“So. What’re we drinking, Prom King?”

“Anything that’s hot and black.”

“One cup of tar, coming up.”

There is a guy at the counter who is dressed in a service uniform of some kind. He is old. There are tattoos all over his arms. Tattoos on his knuckles. Piercings all

over his face. A ring in his nose.

He is a little long in the tooth to have a ring in his nose, but there you are. The tattoos on his knuckles let me know that he has no problem using those babies.

He gazes into his coffee cup.

Here is a man who is not playing with his phone. Which is a rarity in our world. He’s not reading anything. He’s not talking to anyone. He’s just gazing.

“Evening,” I say to him.

He glances up from his coffee. “Hi ya, buddy.”

He’s country, with an accent like your favorite uncle. Country people always call you “buddy.”

The waitress stops by the old man’s mug.

“Get you a refill?” she says.

“Yes, please,” he says as she pours. “Thank you, baby.”

Country people also…

The Alabama mountains look good today. The evening sun is cresting over the hillsides. I’m watching an Appalachian spring overtake the foothills beneath me.

Beside me is Otis. Otis is an athletic dog. He hikes faster than me. He is smarter than me. He can hike farther distances, too. Otis probably even knows how to do algebra.

I, on the other hand, am no athlete. I come out here and I hike in a style that would make athletes cringe. I hike slow. And I mean R-E-A-L-L-Y slow. I am DMV slow.

In my backpack, I carry all the nutrition anyone could need. I have chicken salad from Chicken Salad Chick. I have a Payday. And I have two beers. One for me. One for Otis.

You will not find any gluten-free energy bars or trail mix in my bag. You will not find lifegiving food that nourishes the arteries and feeds the limbic system. You will find food which contains bacon, and Budweiser.

Whenever I stop for lunch, I sit on

a tall rock and dangle my legs off the edge, and I watch the world below me.

Otis never wants his beer. Which means that, once again, I am forced to drink it. The things I do for this dog.

And after a brief moment of repose, we are back to hiking again. We move steadily upward. My pale, shaky thighs are weak. I have unusually scrawny legs. My mother used to say I looked like a guy riding a chicken across the backyard.

But eventually, we reach the top. Whereupon I will pause to catch my breath while Otis looks at me as if to say, “You shouldn’t have drank my beer.”

And the view is arresting.

My father was a mountain lover. He was an ironworker. Local Number 10. He was a stick welder. Stick welders are real men.

My old man could climb things. Anything.…

Sunset. There must be a million people gathered in Railroad Park tonight. Downtown Birmingham is crazy. There are no parking spots left. People are parking cars as far away as Milwaukee.

The Alabama Symphony Orchestra is playing a Memorial Day weekend concert outdoors in the park. Concert goers have come from every corner of the earth. This place is like Woodstock, only with fewer naked people.

There are children, playing tag. Young families. High-schoolers, full of hormones, with only one thing on their minds. (Hint: It ain’t bingo.) College couples on first dates, carrying on intense conversations. And elderly married couples, who haven’t conversed since the Nixon administration.

The symphony tunes up. And away we go. The music can be heard all the way in Hoover.

The most interesting person I will meet this evening is a young man with Down syndrome. He is 6 years old. His family’s blanket is near mine. He listens to the orchestra with slack-jawed awe. I’ll call him Ray.

“We just adopted him,” Ray’s parents say.

Ray’s biological mother got

rid of her son when he was a newborn. And by “got rid of” I mean that she threw Ray in a dumpster when she discovered his developmental disabilities.

A neighbor found the infant screaming among the garbage. And yet here he is. I have never seen a child more excited. Also, I have never been hugged so many times. Ray is a big hugger.

After each hug, Ray listens to music for a few seconds, until he suddenly realizes he isn’t hugging me, so he re-hugs me again. We do this every 9 seconds.

“Ray loves everyone,” says his mother.

Ray and I meet a young woman nearby. I’d guess she is maybe 16. She is very pretty. Ray wanders over to this girl and gives her a big hug.

“You smell good,” Ray tells her.

“Thank you,” she says.

“What about me?”…

Danny and the band arrived late to the nursing home. They were running behind schedule because of traffic. But they were here, and that’s all that mattered.

And they brought their instruments.

“We’re all waiting for you, Danny,” said the nurse, leading the band toward the rec room.

Residents filled the day-use room, wall to wall. There were dozens of wheelchairs, O2 canisters, and a corral of roller-walkers stabled near the door like Appaloosas on the open range.

Residents had donned their Sunday best. Old men wore ballcaps with KOREA and VIETNAM embroidered on the fronts. Old ladies sported oversized tennis shoes and hairdos which hadn’t changed since the Johnson administration. Everyone’s hearing aids were cranked up.

The musicians set up near the spinet piano. Then Danny introduced the band over the mic.

There was Roger on the drums. Roger is no spring zucchini, he’s been playing the skins since Buddy Holly was a household name.

Albert was on double bass. I asked how long Albert has been playing the upright. His only response was,

“I have underpants that are older than you.”

And of course, there’s Danny, playing his collector’s item candy-apple-red Country Gentleman guitar, which is worth about as much as an amphibious aircraft carrier. Danny’s mother bought him this guitar in 1960. “My mom gave me this guitar for my thirteenth birthday,” he said.

The band opened with a few easy numbers. Just the classics. “Summertime,” by Gershwin. That always gets the collective heart rate up. Then “Fly Me to the Moon,” the older crowd loves that one.

One man in the front row became so excited that he began to shout, “I have to pee!” Whereupon the rowdy stood and attempted to demonstrate this for his fans just before the nurse escorted him from the room.

The band followed this with “You’re Not Mine Anymore,” by Willie Nelson. A song which debuted in 1954, when many…

Yesterday was international Redhead Day. I’ll bet you didn’t know we redheads have our own holiday, but we do. And it’s an important day.

Because countless redheads throughout history fought so that we, as a nation, could observe this holiday in freedom. Our ginger ancestors died protecting precious rights that many of us redheads enjoy today.

Such as the right to wear orange or burgundy; the right to be cast as the little orphan Annie in the school musical production of “Annie”; and the right to get free beer on Saint Patrick’s Day.

You probably know a redhead in your life. And speaking as a genetic minority, we ruddy complected persons could use your support right now.

Because redheads are disappearing.

That’s right. Modern research shows that the number of those carrying the recessive gene causing red hair are declining.

The percentage of redheads has dropped steeply within the last few years. At one time, the earth’s population of redheads was about 19 percent. Today it’s down to 2 percent. That’s barely enough to

form a jayvee basketball team.

We are diminishing in huge numbers each year. And each time we die, we take our genetics with us.

If this trend continues, by the year 2100 there will be approximately 3 redheads left including Willie Nelson.

I am a longtime redhead. My hair turned strawberry in my teens, but I was born with hair the color of Ronald McDonald.

I was also a jaundice baby, which means my skin was the color of sickly urine. My mother said I was also born with a pointy head. “You looked like a No. 2 pencil,” my mother recalls.

My mop of hair, however, was the main attraction in the delivery room. The first words of the nurse who delivered me were, “You know what they say about redheads and preachers…”

Unfortunately, nobody ever learned what they say about redheads and preachers because…

I came into town driving on Highway 331. The sun was setting. The sky was pink. The first thing I saw was the bay of my youth, and I almost started to cry tears of nostalgia.

Whereupon a motorist in a Range Rover traveling upwards of 190 mph tried to run me off the bridge and into the bay water.

Welcome home.

The Choctawhatchee Bay is pure majesty. You’re looking at 127 square miles of brackish water, fed by the Choctawhatchee River. A unique habitat that’s home to species like leatherback turtles, alligators, porpoises, and sturgeon.

What is a sturgeon? Glad you asked. A sturgeon is a prehistoric fish species that looks uglier than homemade fudge. Sturgeons predate the Jurassic Period. They can live up to 100 years, grow 20 feet long, and if you catch one in your cousin’s boat you will have no choice but to grab another beer.

I veered off 98 and took the old beach road near Blue Mountain. And I was on Highway 30A.

The highway was littered with beach tourists aplenty. There were bazillions of them. On every crosswalk. Many such tourists wore thong bikinis, stiletto heels, and hoop earrings. And those were just the men.

This place has changed.

At one time, my home county had a population of 21,000 folks. We had one or two grocery stores, a few filling stations, and Barney Fife still checked the doorknobs every night.

Everyone’s daddy fished. Everyone’s mother sewed their Halloween costumes. Nobody spelled “taters” with a P. And words like “ruined” were always pronounced “ruint.”

Today, Walton County sees more than 5.3 million visitors per year. The average tourist spends an average of $889 each day, amounting to $4.8 billion in direct spending.

We are a small town whose main crop is real estate developers. We have 1,267,124 supermarkets.

But I still remember olden times. I remember when 30A was desolate and tranquil.…

We showed up to the baseball game with minutes to spare. The Sand Mountain sports complex parking lot was overrun with muddy trucks, economy cars, and SUVs. They were calling for rain tonight, but the powers that be had decided this baseball game would not be canceled.

There was excitement in the air. The same kind of under-the-surface joy that precedes all ball games. Only more so. Because, you see, this was a Miracle League game.

Miracle League baseball began in Conyers, Georgia, in 1998. It all started when a Little League coach named Eddie invited a 7-year-old wheelchair user to join his baseball team. One thing led to another. And a league was born.

The original premise was simple. The kids would play real baseball. On a real field. With real uniforms and everything.

The league has come a long way since then. Today, there are over 350 Miracle League Organizations across the country including Puerto Rico, Canada and Mexico. The Miracle League serves over 450,000 with disabilities. And believe me when

I say this: Disney World has nothing on this organization.

This is the happiest place on earth.

The first guy I met when we arrived was a young father. He was helping a little girl walk across the parking lot. The girl had golden hair and an open smile. She was using a walker. Her name was Mia.

Mia wore polyester baseball pants, a jersey, and she looked ready to smack the cover off the ball.

I was attending the game with my friend Becca. Becca is 11 years old. She is blind. When she met Mia, midfield, they were pure excitement.

“We’re going to win!” shouted Becca.

“We’re going win!” replied Mia.

Then they held hands and made their way to the dugout.

Of course winning isn’t the main objective here. Actually, they don’t even keep score. If you were to keep score at a Miracle…

This hotel does an okay breakfast. Not great. But edible. If you don’t mind eating, for example, linoleum.

The hotel’s flagship dish is a premade omelet that looks and tastes like industrial plastic. The biscuits are hockey pucks. The gravy is not unlike commercial adhesive. And the sausage—I know from experience—will turn your bowels into stone.

This morning, the lobby is full of people waiting to eat. Everyone is hungry. Everyone is fussy. They are grumbling and murmuring like the Children of Israel. I am among them.

We come from all walks.

There is a girl’s softball team, clad in uniforms. There is a group of workmen, wearing neon vests and boots; they look like they could eat a whole cow.

There is a gaggle of business guys in nice suits, dragging roller bags. These men are constantly thumbing away on their phones, wearing Bluetooth earbuds, and having animated conversations with invisible people.

A group of young men in ultra-tight cycling attire, wearing jerseys covered in corporate logos even though nobody pays these people

to ride their $32,000 cycles.

And there are three Mennonite families, dressed in dark colors and modest clothing.

Enter Carolyn.

Our entire dining room experience is managed by one woman. She is a meek woman. Older. The mother of six. She lives in North Alabama. She drives 45 minutes to work every morning. She works doubles shifts most days.

After she works the breakfast shift, she cleans rooms and does laundry. She makes her living cleans up our mess.

Carolyn is a woman who looks like your grandmother. Sweet face. Small stature. Slightly bent from the decades of hard work.

She sees the crowd of people waiting in line for breakfast, and she realizes that this is all her fault. She is behind schedule this morning because her daughter is pregnant, and Carolyn was at the ER all night with her daughter, making sure the baby…

The things I could write about pound cake. I could go on and on and bore you to death, so I think I will.

After my father died, I remember visiting a Methodist church with my boyhood friend, and he was introducing me to people. He was raised Methodist, I was not. My people were Baptist.

The Methodists were cheerful. My people didn’t believe in cheer. Our pastor preached hard against alcoholism and promiscuity because these things could lead to dancing.

My friend pointed to one lady in the congregation. She was slight, with gray hair, and a blue skirt suit.

There are some people you don’t forget. She was one of those people. She had a heavenly glow. People smiled when they passed by her like she was unique.

“Who’s that woman?” I asked.

“That is the Pound Cake Lady,” my pal said in reverence.

After the Methodist service, my friend led me to a downstairs fellowship hall. The Methodists put out a bigger spread than any I’d ever seen. There was even a special table

dedicated to cornbread and biscuits.

It was too much. Overwhelming. I even saw people standing outside the fellowship hall, smoking cigarettes after their meal. It was as though they were unwinding after sin.

The woman in the blue skirt suit placed something on the end of the table. It was golden, fat, hulking, sacred pound cake.

“Hurry and get some,” said my friend, “before it’s all gone.”

He was right. The cake didn’t last four seconds among those chain-smoking Methodists. But when it disappeared, the old woman replaced it with another.

People blessed her name forevermore. Hallelujah. And so did I.

So every church has a pound cake lady. They are young, middle-aged, or elderly, and they are holy. These ladies are messengers, sent to humanity as proof that God is not gluten-free. He loves white flour, sugar, and butter, no matter what…

The pediatric oncology ward is a scary place. I don’t care who you are, or how tough you think you are. You walk through this part of the hospital and you’re scared spitless.

I approached the nurse’s station. A horseshoe desk. The nurse was popping her gum. She gave me an appraising look.

“You Sean?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am.”

In a few moments, she was knocking on the hospital room door. I walked into the room and there was another nurse seated at the boy’s bedside, keeping an eye on his vitals.

The boy’s mother was down the hall, taking the first shower she’d taken in eight days. Meantime, the boy was asleep. He was bald. There was a feeding tube in his nostrils.

“Knock, knock,” the nurse said quietly.

The boy stirred. He looked at me and smiled. His blue eyes were the color of tap water.

“Is it you?” he said. “Sean of the South?”

“I’ve been called worse,” I said.

“I thought you’d be fatter.”

Which was a compliment, I suppose.

“I’ve wanted to meet you,” the boy said. “Because you’re a redhead, and so am I.” He

touched his bald head. “Well, I WAS a redhead.”

I sat at his bedside.

“I’m dying,” he said. “I probably won’t be here in a few weeks.”

His words broke me. I began to cry but I held it in. This kid didn’t need my tears. He’d shed enough of his own. This is the one thing I’ve learned by writing about many pediatric cancer patients throughout my career. These kids don’t need tears, they need strength and laughter.

Then the kid said, “Guess what?”


“I’ve been to heaven,” he said.

“You have?”

He nodded.

I grew up fundamentalist. The version of heaven I was force fed was all about streets of gold and mansions. My people were obsessed with the paving material of heaven’s streets and the…