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Willie finished the concert by welcoming Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter onto the stage.

Last week, my wife surprised me with tickets to a Willie Nelson concert, saying, "Pack your bags, Miss Daisy."

The next thing I knew, we were sitting four hundred feet away from the redheaded stranger himself.

He played all the classics. One by one. And when he sang, "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys," I cried. Since my mama decidedly failed in this regard.

Willie finished the concert by welcoming Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter onto the stage. Seven thousand of us rose to our feet and nearly tore the place apart. The ninety-one year-old president hugged the eighty-three-year-old cowboy. I couldn't have been happier if I'd seen Bear

Bryant and Jesus shake hands.

Then, Willie sang, "Amazing Grace."

So did Jimmy and Rosalynn.

So did I.

Seven thousand folks set their beers down—since this is what you do while singing hymns. The woman next to me sat down and just stared into the night sky, listening to all the voices.

Willie sang the second verse.

I closed my eyes.

We sang this song at my grandmama's funeral, at my grandaddy's, my uncle's, my cousin's, father-in-law's, and Daddy's. To people of my pedigree, this song is sacred.

I finished college by age thirty-something. Also I have seen Willie Nelson in concert. And, not to brag, but I hold the regional record for eating the most consecutive slices of blueberry pie at last year’s Fourth of July dinner on the grounds.

I am fishing. Hogtown Bayou couldn’t be any prettier if it tried. The clouds over this bay are nothing short of American poetry

The air is salty. The crickets are out. The water is calmer than a monk on Miller Lite.

The Choctawhatchee Bay is the best part of my youth. When I was sixteen, I took Wendy Benton to the shores of Hogtown Bayou. It was a poor-man’s date.

Hogtown Bayou resembles Beulah Land. Not that long ago, forests still stretched for miles. You could find longleaf pines with catfaces the turpentiners once carved on them, long before the invention of cable television.

And, if you fished the right spots, you had to carry a baseball bat to swat the fish away.

Wendy was from Mountain Brook. She was repulsed by this place.

“Fishing?” she said. “Gross. You brought me FISHING?”

“No,” I said. “I brought you to see a magnificent sunset.”

“But, you have a fishing pole in your hands.”

“I do? Well, would you look

at that? How’d that get there?”

I caught a one-pound redfish. Wendy swatted mosquitoes. She never returned my calls. I understand she married an attorney and lives in Toledo.

Years later, I took the would-be Mrs. Dietrich to Hogtown Bayou. Her name was Jamie.

Jamie said, “Do you take all your heifers out here?”

The answer was no.

I told her I wanted to live on Hogtown Bayou one day. I wanted to fish here whenever I felt like it. I told her all about myself. She listened.

She caught a fish bigger than the state of Delaware. I asked her to marry me a few weeks later. We bought a small house a stone's throw from Hogtown Bayou.

Tonight, I caught jack squat. A miniature pinfish, one stingray, and one Mountain Dew bottle. My father, had he been alive, would’ve…

I want Willie Nelson to live forever. And I’d like it if the lady who throws my newspaper at three in the morning would inherit a million dollars.

How I got invited to a corporate business convention isn’t the story here. But let’s just say there are lots of people wearing nice suits and finishing sentences with: “Did I already give you a card?”

There is a guest speaker. He is famous. I don’t care for him. His talent: complaining.

He complains about America, religion, the economy, pro-sports. About lukewarm fried eggs.

The people love him. They applaud after each purple-faced rant.

The woman next to me says, “Oh, I watch his show on TV all the time. Don’t you just love him?” She grinned. “By the way, did I already give you a card?”

I do not love him. If you ask me, he needs considerably more fiber in his diet.

I leave the main event and make the long drive back home. The sun is setting. It is a stunning sky.

I don’t know what’s happening to the world. People are angry. TV personalities earn seven-digit incomes by getting peeved.

Well, maybe I am feeling particularly inspired by the guest speaker. Because I have a mind to make a list

of my own complaints.

My first complaint: sunsets.

Sunsets don’t last long enough. They only give a few minutes of sky-painted glory, then it’s goodnight, Gracie.

I know. That’s not a real complaint, but give me time, I’m new to this.

Complaint two: puppies. They grow up too fast. There is nothing half as marvelous as razor-sharp puppy teeth. This, I know.

I’m also complaining that there aren’t more barbecue joints.

I don’t mean the fancy kind where waiters wear all-black and use iPads to email copies of your receipt. I’m talking concrete-block joints with ugly bathrooms, decent service, and food that your doctor warns you about, served in red plastic baskets.

Something else: I wish people gave more compliments for no reason.

Hardback hymnals. I’m not happy about their disappearance. Give me elderly Miss…

She's a little girl with an uncle who looks like me. An uncle who once cried at a Willie Nelson concert when he discovered he had a new niece.

One year ago—Atlanta, Georgia. Willie Nelson stood on stage and sang my childhood. He sang: “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.”

I rose to my feet in honor of Mama—who expressly failed in this regard.

While Willie played for thousands, my wife handed me her glowing cellphone. There were photos of a pink newborn baby on it.

“That’s your niece!” yelled my wife.

I cried, then smiled for three hundred days.

Though it bears mentioning, life hasn’t always been worth smiling about. Take, for instance, the day we scattered my father’s ashes. That was a particularly bad day.

I had hoped his remains would catch the wind and fly away like angel dust. They dropped like a brick.

That following year, I wore out Daddy’s vinyl record collection, trying to remember him.

One of my favorite records: an album bearing portraits of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings on the cover.

I listened to “Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” until I half-hated the melody.

But, of course, I never could hate that song. I sang it on my very first gig.

And I was god-awful.

At the end of the night, the owner paid me fifteen bucks and said, “Learn some new songs, kid. If I hear that damn Willie song one more time, I’m gonna go crazy.”

I tried to learn as many new songs as I could. After swinging a hammer during the afternoons, I’d practice music until the wee hours.

I peddled my unimpressive songs to rundown places and earned next-to-nothing for my mediocre performances.

They were joints Mama would’ve been ashamed of, with neon signs in windows and sad people at tables.

In one such…

The sun was coming up. We rode toward Charleston, doing sixty-five miles per hour in a two-seat truck.

“I can’t believe we’re married,” said my new wife.

“Me neither.”

In my wallet was two hundred dollars cash. It was all I had. I earned it by selling my guitar, one week earlier.

My late father told me once, “If you ever get married, marry a woman who don’t care about money. Happiness and money are of no relation.”

Well, she must not have cared because I had none. I was a blue-collar nothing with a nothing-future ahead of me. I had no high-school education. No achievements. No pot to you-know-what in, and no plant to pour it on. And not much confidence. Until her.

She unfolded a roadmap on the dashboard. My truck radio played a Willie Nelson cassette. I was married. Married. Things were looking up.

We arrived at a cheap motor-inn. She took a shower while I watched the idiot box. Andy Griffith was on.

I’d seen the episode a hundred times. Barney makes Otis jump rope to prove he’s

sober. You know the rest. Crisis. Cliffhanger. Andy saves the day. Roll credits.

I made reservations at an upscale restaurant where the waiter pulled the chairs out for you. I wore the only necktie I owned.

We ate food I could not afford. I paid a hundred bucks—plus tip. We walked the streets, arm in arm.

“I can’t believe we’re married,” she said.

Then came the sound of horse hooves. A carriage. A man stepped out and groomed his animals on the sidewalk. My wife remarked how pretty the horses were.

I asked how much he charged for rides.

“Hundred bucks,” he said.

I handed him my remaining wad of cash. “How much will this buy?”

He thought about it. “How’s ten minutes sound?”

We covered ourselves with a blanket. He carted us through the streets. We saw…

ATLANTA—I don’t do big cities. But if you were to force me to pick my favorite American city, I wouldn’t pick one because I don’t like being forced to do anything.

My mother used to “force” me to eat tapioca pudding as a kid, the texture reminded me of snot and I refused to eat it because I couldn’t understand how the same advanced civilization that gave us bacon came up with mucus pudding.

But if you were to ask me nicely to pick a favorite major American city, maybe I would pick Atlanta. Because I have history here.

Right now I am thinking warm fuzzy thoughts about this city because I am standing in a 32-mile long line in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, awaiting airport security to strip search me.

We in the crowd of air passengers have been dutifully removing our belts, earrings, shoes, dentures, and insulin pumps, waiting to get past the Transportation Security checkpoint and board the plane. But I just tripped the metal detector for the second time, which

is a lot like winning the lottery.

A friendly veteran TSA representative informs me that she is eager to help me through the frisking process. “Halt and put your hands where I can see them, sir,” she says in a helpful voice. “Now.”

So I have plenty of time to remember things during this moment. Things like, for instance, gag-inducing tapioca.

And while I’m being fondled by TSA, I’m also thinking about the days when the Atlanta Journal Constitution was the highlight of my life, back when newspapers were still newspapers.

We lived in Atlanta for a hot minute when I was a boy, and I loved the AJC newspaper. Each morning I would be the first to retrieve the news. My uncle thought this was hysterical, a kid fetching the paper.

“That’s a pretty good trick, Fido,” he’d say. “How about I teach you to…

DEAR SEAN:

I know you have more important questions, but I’ve seen pictures of you wearing a cowboy hat and want to ask if you think it’s stupid for me to wear one? My brother says I will look stupid.

Thank you,
14-YEAR-OLD-IN-TAMPA

DEAR TAMPA:

Your brother doesn’t love the Lord.

I am a Resistol hat man myself. And it is my firmly held opinion that we need more kids in this world wearing behemoth headgear and dressing up like Willie Hugh Nelson.

Our nation’s forebears wore broad-brimmed, high-crowned hats; from the Pilgrim days to Burt Reynolds. Even the pope has his own enormous hat. So why shouldn’t you?

Take me. I’m no cowboy. Not even close. I am what you’d call a middle-aged homeowner with a 30-year-fixed mortgage. I don’t own a horse or live on a ranch, although my wife says my truck smells like a substance common to barnyards. But none of this matters because the main reason I wear a cowboy hat is this:

It works.

For years I worked on construction and

landscaping crews. We baked out in the sun all day, and ball caps didn’t cut it. In Florida, baseball hats are about as useful as ejection seats in a helicopter.

With a standard ball cap your neck and lower face remain exposed. And speaking as a card-carrying fair-skinned redhead who can develop third-degree sunburns in a movie theater, I need total coverage.

The second reason I wear the big hat is because I come from rural people, cattle people, livestock auctioneers, VFW bingo champions, and septic-tank installation specialists. These men wore tall hats with wide brims, and there was nothing unusual about it.

I received my first cattleman’s hat when I was very young and I never took it off. I have early photographs of myself wearing a diaper, sucking my thumb, and sporting a Resistol hat for my mother’s Bible study…

I pull into the designated parking space at the supermarket. My vehicle is idling. This is what you call “touchless” grocery shopping.

This pandemic has brought a lot of heartache and misery. But, let us never forget, this pandemic also brought us touchless grocery shopping, wherein store employees magically fill your car with groceries while you listen to Willie Nelson on the radio. It’s quite wonderful.

My back passenger door opens.

“Can you pull forward a little, sir?” says the happy young woman in the surgical mask.

Sir. I hate it when people call me sir. Especially young people. It makes me feel like Fred Mertz.

I inch my vehicle forward until she says stop. She is late twenties, long dreadlocks, and the personality of a cherub. “You just want them in the back seat, sir?”

“In the back will be perfect,” I say.

She gets busy loading. “You having a good day so far, sir?”

“I’m alright. How about you?”

“Oh, yes, sir. I’m having maybe my best day ever.”

“Best ever? You only get one of those.”

“Well, I’m

pregnant,” she blurts out. And I get the feeling she just needs to tell someone. “I just found out a few hours ago, before work. My boyfriend and I are gonna have a baby. I’m so happy.”

She loads several more bags onto my floorboards. I am observing her through my rear view mirror. I can tell by her squinty eyes that she’s smiling.

“Congratulations. You must be so excited.”

“Oh, you have no idea, I wasn’t supposed to be able to get pregnant. I was told I’d never be pregnant. I have a bunch of medical issues.”

“Ah.”

She bear hugs a sack of dog food that weighs about as much as a government helicopter. I suddenly wish this pregnant woman wasn’t lifting such heavy things. My reflex is to lift these things for her, but she instructs…

The expert on television said that post-pandemic life would never return to normal. He insisted that handshakes, crowds, parties, and hugs will forever be extinct.

“The world will probably never go back to hugs,” he said into the camera. “I seriously doubt whether we’ll see people hugging in twenty years.”

I turned off the TV, it was making me queasy. Namely, because I don’t want to live in a world without hugs. I need hugs. I miss hugs. My mother used to say the only cure for crying is a mama-hug.

Usually she would say this to a child who was crying. Then she would demonstrate.

Today I was thinking about all this when I was rifling through old photos. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Have you looked at your old photos lately?

These pictures will shock you because: (a) you used to have more hair, and (b) in every old photo you’re in a crowded place, or with a gathering, or standing in a group with arms slung

around each other, half hugging.

In many of my photos I am seated in a restaurant with others, sharing appetizers, double dipping, graciously distributing my personal bacteria among friends. My glowing face looks like it is made of neon joy.

There were the photos from baseball games in Atlanta. My wife and I were in a stadium with 42,000 other fans. I was eating nachos served in a helmet, cheering alongside strangers, exchanging germs with half of Clayton, Cobb, Gwinnett, and Fulton County.

And there were the photos from a past wedding anniversary. My wife and I went to a fancy Mexican restaurant. The waiters misunderstood when I told them it was our anniversary, whereupon fifteen employees swarmed our table to sing “Happy Birthday” in Spanish.

They placed a sombrero on my head and coerced me to ingest a shot of birthday-boy tequila. I tried to explain that I…

I am in traffic, riding through Birmingham, listening to an oldies AM radio station. Extreme oldies. The music coming through my speakers takes me to an antique world of hi-fis, beehive hairdos, and weird congealed salads.

The radio DJ says, “...And that was a song from Benny Goodman, now let’s hear one from the Les Baxter Orchestra...”

I remember my granny listening to Les Baxter albums. One such album was called “The Primitive and the Passionate,” ala 1962. On the cover was a photo of a woman who could’ve passed for Sophia Loren, dancing in a sultry way, beckoning to all who looked upon her. Even little Baptist boys.

I remember the record playing on a turntable. It was lush and tranquilizing. When you hear music like that, you are immediately transported to an earlier time, sitting on a plastic-covered sofa, watching someone’s dad—usually named Gary, Frank, or Dennis—use a cocktail shaker to make a Manhattan.

I remember another Les Baxter record. “Space Escapade” (1958). On the cover was Les Baxter dressed in

a spaceman suit with spacegirls falling all over him. Keep in mind, Les Baxter looked a lot like your grandfather’s dentist.

But the record was great. An hour’s worth of exotic orchestral music that sounds exactly like being trapped in a department store with your mother while she’s trying on dresses.

“Attention shoppers,” the department store intercom says. “Special on aisle twelve, make your own julienne fries with the new Fry-O-Matic! Fourteen ninety-nine with rebate. Also, ask your sales associate about our sale on boy’s athletic supporters.”

The radio station is now playing selections from the country music vein. Conway Twitty. Hank Snow. Followed by Buck Owens, singing “Together Again.” I turn it up.

If I close my eyes, I’m sitting in front of a Zenith console TV with my father. On the screen: Roy Clark and Buck Owens are surrounded by their “Hee Haw” gals in…