A potluck. A little church in the sticks. There were maybe 50 people at the covered-dish social.

Attendees were all ages. All classes. They represented all creeds, income brackets and SEC football allegiances.

The casserole dishes were steaming, aligned on red-and-white gingham tablecloths. The desert table was about to buckle from the combined weight of so many refined carbohydrates. The tea was sweet enough to power a residential lawn mower.

Before anyone ate, the old preacher shuffled to the center of the room and called for everyone’s attention. He walked with a pronounced limp. His face was half paralyzed.

The room fell silent.

When the old man spoke, few could understand his slurred words and thick tongue. It almost sounded like the old pulpiteer had been drinking. But liquor wasn’t the culprit here. It was thrombosis.

After his recent stroke, the old man’s small motor functions have been inhibited. This affected his speech. Which is why he no longer preaches or prays publicly anymore. Nobody can understand him.

But the old man still attends church here. Every

Sunday. He is supportive and enthusiastic about the church’s new preacher. He still comes to every social event. He can still eat his weight in squash casserole.

And he can still write.

Which he does. Every day. And sometimes he writes out his prayers for others to read aloud. Like the one he wrote this afternoon.

Everyone bowed heads and joined hands to form a human chain. Some closed their eyes. Some didn’t.

A gaggle of children walked forward, gathering around the old man before the prayer. They were kids of all ages. Big and small. They all held index cards.

Visitors were wondering what was happening here. What were all these kids doing before the prayer?

The old man hoisted a little girl onto his hip. He gave her the go-ahead, and she began to read aloud from her index card.

“Dear…

Somewhere near Eclectic. A small A-frame cabin in the chlorophyll-choked woods of Alabama on Lake Martin.

I awoke on America’s 246th birthday. I was lying in a single bed, nestled in an all-wood room with piney walls. The walls were adorned in fishing tackle, and a singular mounted bass about the size of the late Sonny Liston.

I could hear the coffeemaker in the kitchen, gurgling its sunrise anthem.

I staggered out of bed and glanced out my window to greet the day.

The lake outside was the color of a mirror, upturned toward the sky. The pre-sunrise clouds were pink and gray, waiting for dawn.

There was a squirrel outside my window, staring at me with its little shark eyes. Eyes that were saying to me, “If circumstances were different, and if I were a lot bigger, I would eat you.”

I went to the bathroom to see a man about a dog. I played Wordle. I got it in five because I’m an idiot.

I stumbled into the kitchen. I stood before the Mr. Coffee

machine, and my attention was diverted.

I saw them.

They were on the counter. Unassuming, little crimson tennis balls, stacked neatly in a pyramid. They looked supple and friendly. Because that’s how Peaches from Chilton County are supposed to look.

I picked one up. I held it in my hands and used my thumb to test its ripeness.

There’s a technique for checking a peach’s edibility. You use your thumb to apply the slightest amount of pressure. Like probing a fresh bruise.

You want the peach’s meat to give a little, but not too much. If your thumb makes a small dent, the peach is ready to eat. If you break your thumbnail, you might want to wait a few days to let it ripen.

This one was just right. Which is why I opted against coffee.

Since I was 9 years old,…

“Why do we celebrate the Fourth of July?” my 6-year-old niece asked me.

We were by the swimming pool. It was the perfect afternoon. The sky was Technicolor blue. The smell of Kingsford smoke was in the air. In the distance some hapless teen with a mullet haircut was attempting to shoot a bottle rocket from a well-known orifice of his body.

At first, I wasn’t sure how to answer my niece’s question. At least not in a way she would understand.

After all, this particular American holiday is a grandiose thing. How do you describe to a 6-year-old the significance of Old Glory, Purple Mountains Majesty and the inexpressible splendor of Dale Earnhardt Sr.?

“Well, sweetie,” I said. “That’s a good question…”

But then I sort of drew a blank. Why DO we celebrate the Fourth?

I suddenly realized I know less about this American holiday than I thought I did. In fact, one could say that I don’t know Shinola about the Fourth of July.

And apparently I’m not alone. Because I conducted an informal

study wherein I asked students in Mrs. Anderson’s Sunday school class why we celebrate this uniquely American holiday.

Here are some answers I received:

John, 11, said, “It was the French or something.”

Eilene, 9, “That’s when we won the war against Mexico. No wait. I mean China.”

Benji, 9, “Because that’s when we do the fireworks.”

Ashley, 12, “We celebrate this holiday because in 1812, we signed a Treaty of Paris, and it just became a thing.”

And my favorite answer of all comes from Landon, age 8, who answered with the utmost sincerity when he said: “It’s when Diana Ross made our flag.”

So all this got me thinking. Exactly how much do my fellow adults know about the Fourth of July? I posed the same question to grown-ups.

Pamela, 32, “Well, the Fourth of July is our nation’s literal birthday,…

Mendon, Missouri. Population 171. There’s really nothing here. The tiny town is located off Route 11, just south of Yellow Creek. You’re three hours west of Saint Louis, two hours east of Kansas City.

It’s quiet. No attractions. No major landmarks. Nobody famous ever lived here unless you count Vern Kennedy, right-hander for the White Sox, circa 1934.

If you’re looking for entertainment in Mendon, your main option is Busch Light. But you’ll have to drive all the way to Brunswick to find a liquor store.

“We are just country folk,” said Mendon native Carol Ann Wamsley, “and that's what makes us a special place.”

At its heart, Mendon is a railroad town. The first iron tracks were laid in 1887. Within a decade, a town sprang up. You had a few dozen storefronts, a school, a newspaper, and a couple churches with steeply conflicting views on eternal damnation. Most of that is gone now.

Today, the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad line still passes the northwest side of the community, only

now it’s the Southern Transcon Railroad.

The Amtrak Southwest Chief runs through town regularly. On summer afternoons you can see the Amtrak locomotive in the distance, racing across the prairie like a polished chromium bullet. But the train never stops here. It just keeps moving.

Until last week.

It was a Monday that will live in infamy. The Southwest Chief made an unexpected stop near Mendon, of all places.

The Chief was traveling 87 mph, bound for Chicago. There were more people aboard than there are living within Mendon’s city limits.

Up ahead a dump truck was on the tracks. The truck was obstructing the crossing of County Road 113. This was not a small truck. This was a vehicle about the size of a Sonic Drive-In.

The train never slowed.

The sound of the collision could be heard from as far away as Westville. It was…

The double doors of UAB Hospital opened into a corridor filled with people. Hundreds maybe. Too many people to count. They lined the walls, shoulder to shoulder. Heads bowed. Some wore badges. Others wore scrubs. Everyone was anvil silent.

The hero was passing by.

A hospital gurney entered the hallway. A police officer barked out the military-like call.

“LAW ENFORCEMENT! ATTENTION!”

Immediately, the corridor filled with the noises of clicking heels and the rustle of starched trousers as officers stood erect, chins up, shoulders back, chests out. There were duty belts galore. Body-mounted radios aplenty.

Male and female officers held themselves ramrod straight, unblinking.

The hospital bed wheeled forward at a dirge-like pace. Nurses steered. There was no chit-chat. No idle conversation. A real life hero was motionless beneath the sheets.

The uniforms had all come from the surrounding counties and rural backwaters within the quiltwork of central Alabama. Woodstock. Brent. Centerville. Chelsea.

They wore khakis, forest greens, and Class-B tactical blues. They represented different agencies from across the 22nd State, but the same brotherhood.

“PRESENT ARMS!” came

the shout.

A throng of officers showed full salute.

The body of 32-year-old deputy Brad Johnson trundled down the hallway, toward the organ donor center. The corridor between the two medical buildings is roughly the distance of two city blocks. There were more than two blocks’ worth of onlookers.

They call this an “Honor Walk.” It is a ceremony of respect reserved for deceased saints, for exceptional people, for those who have chosen to be organ donors.

And, of course, for heroes.

People sniffed noses. Shoulders quivered with tearful sobs. Following behind the bed was a train of Brad’s mourners, which included Brad’s K9 partner, Bodie. A German shepherd.

“It was in his blood and in his heart to help people,” said a longtime friend, Brandon Jones. “He would do anything for anybody.”

And he proved it. Brad made a life of…

Do this. Get a tomato. Not just any tomato. A Slocomb, Alabama, tomato. Make sure the tomato is firecracker-red and softer than the hindcheeks of a 2-month-old. Find a serrated knife. Cut said tomato into thick slices about the width of the unabridged edition of “Shogun.”

Tomatoes from Geneva County, Alabama, are different from common varieties. They are superior tomatoes.

In fact, top archaeology scholars at Columbia University now believe that the original Garden of Eden was located just north of Highway 52 in Geneva County. And most experts agree that the forbidden fruit consumed by Adam and Eve was originally purchased from the Hendrix Farm Produce tomato stand.

Next, find two slices of Sunbeam bread. In a pinch, you can use Bunny Bread, Wonderbread, or Colonial bread. But stay away from any bread with packaging labels that read something like, “59 whole grains and seeds!” or “3,234 grams of dietary fiber!” This isn’t real bread but an abrasive material meant for sanding boat hulls.

Consequently, if all you have in your

pantry is “gluten-free” or “keto” bread, please stop reading here and go back to California.

Once you have your white, floppy, flaccid, tasteless bread ready, open a jar of Duke’s mayonnaise. Duke’s is the brand with the canary-yellow lid, manufactured and packaged by real evangelical seminary graduates so you know it’s sacred, mostly.

If you don’t have any Duke’s, you’re not totally out of luck. Blue Plate mayonnaise will also work nicely. Bama mayonnaise is also a winner.

Hellmann’s, however, isn’t fit for consumption by a golden retriever. Similarly, Miracle Whip is neither a “miracle,” nor a “whip,” but the brainchild of communists sympathizers who don’t love the Lord. And Kraft mayo is industrial doorknob lubricant.

It bears mentioning, if all you have in your refrigerator is a kind of mayonnaise labeled “light” or “low fat” please forfeit your tomato to someone who will use it correctly and…

I entered Alabama at 11:03 a.m. The sky was vivid blue and cloudless. I pulled into a gas station not far from the state line.

I was exhausted and depleted after a morning on the road. For nearly 40 miles I had been stuck behind a dilapidated truck on a two-lane highway. The truck’s bumper sticker read, NICK SABAN IS MY LOVE LANGUAGE.

I swiped my card. I started pumping gas. And that’s where I met the General, at gas pump Number Eight.

The General introduced himself to me. He was maybe five-four, with a blazing white beard, a pronounced limp. He was bone thin and smelled like a distillery.

There were strips of duct tape on his shoes. His jeans were ragged. He had a duffel bag slung over his shoulder and a calico cat resting in his arms.

“Can you help two travelers out?” he said.

“Where are you traveling?” I asked.

“Ain’t decided yet. Right now we’re fundraising. Can you spare anything?”

“How about ten bucks?”

It was a pittance, but it was all I

had. The General took the cash and thanked me. He told me the United States Army thanked me. Then he nodded to the calico cat, who was purring. “My lieutenant general thanks you, too.”

I almost saluted, but thought better of it.

A few more of the General’s troops emerged from the shadows near the filling station. Some in the General’s company were Persian-white, others were orange striped, one was tri-colored. They flocked to the elderly high-ranking officer, meowing their tails off.

The brass hat stooped on his heels, reached into his heavy duffel bag and removed a bag of Walmart-brand cat food. He scooped out several handfuls and placed the multi-colored food on the pavement near the pump.

“Troops got to eat,” he said.

“What about you?” I asked. “You need to eat, too.”

He shook his head. “They eat. Then…

Three of us sat beside Mama’s above-ground pool, out in the wilds of Black Creek. We were beneath a Dollar-Store umbrella, and a canopy of live oaks longleafs. My mother, my kid sister and me.

Mama’s old transistor radio played Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” My nieces were splashing in the plastic-framed pool, trying to see which child could rupture a vocal cord first. It was hotter than the hinges of hell outside.

“You look good,” Mama said to me.

“So do you,” I said.

“You’ve gained a little weight since the last time I saw you.”

“Well.”

The last time I saw Mama, my wife and I were moving away from the Florida Panhandle. That night, not so long ago, Mama and I were sitting on the Choctawhatchee Bay of my youth.

It was sunset. A heron was on the shore. And I was saying goodbye to Walton County, Florida, bound for Jefferson County, Alabama. Mama didn’t cry. But I did, a little.

She’s shorter than I remember. The woman has always been five-foot-two. But I’d guess she’s more like four-eleven

now. If she were any shorter you could put her in your pocket and carry her around.

She has two brilliant white streaks of hair up front. The rest of her hair is stubbornly brunette. Because that’s what she is. Stubborn. My father once said she was the most stubborn woman he ever met. “She makes talking to a mule look easy,” is how he put it.

The radio was now playing to Conway Twitty’s “Linda On My Mind.” The nieces were engaged in a mutant version of Marco Polo, the worst game ever created by humankind.

“So what’s been going on?” Mama asked. “What have you been doing with yourself since you’ve been living in Birmingham?”

“Not much.”

“You write all the dang time.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Is that all you do is write?”

“Sometimes I…

I have a dream. I have a dream that one day people won’t hate each other.

I have a dream that, someday, upon the West Texan soil, the Lakes of Minnesota, the hillsides of the Carolinas, the peaks of Colorado, the foothills of Alabama and the shores of Sandy Hook, Connecticut, that we will all share the blessed bread of friendship.

I have a dream that someday we Americans will actually grow to like each other again.

I have a dream that one day the tenderness of humankind will not only be demonstrated in the public forum, but within the walls of the home, within our schools, and on our phosphorus blue-lit phone screens.

I have a dream that people will someday listen to one another, no matter how uncomfortable it might be. I have a dream that all who oppose one another will—and I know this is possible—find a common ground.

I have a dream that our children will forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who root for the

wrong football team.

I have a dream that someday all gasoline-pump card readers will accept my debit card without computer error.

I have a dream that my internet service provider will stop experiencing mass outages approximately every six minutes, especially during extra innings. Spectrum Internet, I’m looking at you.

And I have a dream that someday you will only need one password for all your internet accounts, instead of 2,731 passwords, each of which must contain at least 14 characters, one uppercase letter, six numerals, a special character, and the blood of a nanny goat sacrifice.

I have a dream that, one day, less American children will want iPhone 13s and more kids will want Crayola 64s. I have a dream that video games will be less important than building forts.

I have a dream that kids will once again embrace their heaven-sent right to attach baseball cards…

DEAR SEAN:

You’re such a #%^**!!ing idiot and I am so unbelievably disappointed in you after reading your last column.

Before you try to shut me down or fight back, I think if you read through some of the comments left by others on your last post you’ll realize that I’m not alone... When you wonder why you’ve lost all your faithful readers and you’re all alone, know that it's because of your own insensitive words.

I’ll admit that you deceived us all. My husband and I thought you were a good guy, but your insensitivity to the serious divisions

facing the country right now is sickening to me. You are wrong, wrong, wrong. America does suck, and by refusing to admit it so do you.

Also, your whole “it’s a wonderful life” attitude and take on life is pure B.S., too.

You honestly represent the main problem with this country… Nobody cares what you have to say about anything anyway so please do us all a favor and just shut the *#&$! up.

DEAR FRIEND:

Okay.