Peter explains that they are a homeschool group of kids who all have something in common.

I stand behind them in the checkout aisle. It is a youth group, or maybe it’s a class trip. Either way, I know that they are excited to be on vacation because one boy actually shouts, “I’M SO EXCITED TO BE ON VACATION!”

The boy who hollers is using crutches, the kind that clasp to his arms. He is using a cheerful voice and from what I gather, he is excited to be on vacation.

The adult chaperone who accompanies the kids looks stressed out. There is a look adults often wear when they are responsible for large groups of kids. It’s a look I can spot from a mile away because I have been a youth-group chaperone before.

Going anywhere with a large clot of young people is a test of your humanity. You can not walk into a grocery store without kids running the aisles like rabid cats.

And when you finally find the miniature heathens, usually they’re doing something like playing a game of Butt

Swat in the produce section. The rules of Butt Swat are unclear to me, but apparently the game involves stalks of celery being used as weapons.

But these kids aren’t like that. They are happy kids, and well-behaved. They wear matching yellow T-shirts, and they smile a lot.

I talk to Peter, who is head chaperone.

“We’re from Atlanta,” he says. “We’re here at the beach for a vacation, these kids deserve a little fun.”

Peter explains that they are a homeschool group of kids who all have something in common.

“Most of our kids are differently abled,” says Peter. “We don’t like the term ‘disabled.’ We teach our kids not to use it.”

A few in the group have cerebral palsy, another has a congenital heart defect, others face mental health issues, and some children have mild autism.

“We’re a wild…

“‘Bondad’ means ‘goodness’ in Spanish and it’s my favorite word.”

Nashville, Tennessee—Nathan is twelve. He is on his way to soccer practice. His mother is driving. He is in the backseat of the car. He sees something.

“Pull over, Mom!” says Nathan.

She does.

It’s a family, walking along the shoulder of the road. They are Hispanic. A woman pushes a stroller, two young boys walk behind her. None of them speak much English.

But this is no problem. Nathan has been taking Spanish in school. Nathan translates. He tells his mother that the family’s car has broken down.

So, his mother calls a tow truck. While they wait, Nathan’s mother treats the family to supper. They carry on choppy conversations in broken tongues. Nathan translates the best he can.

By the end of the night, two families have become friends. And to shorten a long story, today Nathan is a grown man who can say things in Spanish, and explain them.

For instance, Nathan tells me: “Did you know that ‘bondad’ means ‘goodness’ in Spanish? It’s my favorite word.”

Bueno, Nathan.

Katy, Texas—She is an EMT student. She doesn’t know whether she wants this for a career. She’s been on ride-alongs, sitting in ambulances, watching emergency workers. She has seen some terrible scenes.

“The first accident I ever saw,” she says, “was so traumatic, I couldn’t stop thinking about it for months. I just didn’t know if I was cut out to be a paramedic.”

One night, she is walking into a movie theater. She sees an old woman leaving the theater. The woman stumbles on the curb and falls onto her face.

Blood. Broken bones. Hollering. It is a mess.

The EMT in her kicks into action. The staff brings her an emergency first-aid kit. She dresses the woman’s wounds just like she’d been studying. She immobilizes the woman’s neck. She keeps her calm.

“I was cool…

So what I am about to say, I say to both friends and critics. I say it to the happy, and to the angry. I say it anyone who can fog up a mirror.

A retired professor sent me a letter. He told me that one of my stories was "plain," and "needed more work." And he told me a lot more than that, too.

I was afraid he was going to grade my work and give me a C minus.

I have a noted history of getting C's. I once set a longstanding academic record for earning the most consecutive C's in my weight division. Things like that stick with you.

Not all the messages I receive are bad, though. For example: This morning I got a message from a man in Tallapoosa. He started with the words, “I love you.”

That was nice. I can’t think of a better way to start a weekday.

Then, the man went on to tell me about something that happened to him once.

Years ago, he was standing in a supermarket line. He was trying to pay for his groceries, but his card got declined. A woman in line paid for his items. She was a stranger.

He’s never told anyone about this.

“That woman probably didn’t know it,” he wrote, “but I was a single dad, at the time I was broke. She put food in my kids’ mouths.”

There’s the letter I got from the woman in Chattanooga.

She got pregnant when she was seventeen. Her family kicked her out of the house. She almost gave the child up for adoption because seventeen-year-olds can't afford babies.

She wanted her child to have a good life, even if this meant letting it go.

A neighbor woman invited the girl to live with her for as long as the girl needed. She offered to babysit her child, and to let her use her car. The woman's only condition was that the girl stay in school.

That was ten years ago, today the girl has a nursing degree and a nine-year-old.

Here's another.…

Anyway, yesterday morning was a beautiful sunrise. I woke early. I watched the colors over the highway. I drove to meet my cousin at a breakfast joint.

Montgomery, Alabama—it was late afternoon, the grocery store was busy. It was a big weekend, hurried customers played demolition derby with shopping carts.

I saw two young men shopping together. Their basket was overflowing with bachelor food. Microwave dinners, hotdogs, potato chips, Michelob Ultra, spray cheese.

The youngest man was wearing cargo shorts. His right leg was disfigured. Below the knee, his leg was mostly shinbone without any visible muscle, covered in scars.

I followed the men around the supermarket because I am a writer, and writers are odd people.

When they reached the self-checkout lane, I was a few customers behind them in line.

An old man approached the men. They had a brief conversation. I tried to listen to their words but their voices were too quiet.

The only thing I heard the elderly man say was: “Where were you stationed?”

“Afghanistan,” the young man answered. Also, I heard the words, “ambush,” “explosion,” and “physical therapy.”

When the young

men finished scanning items, I will never forget what happened next. The old man removed his wallet and swiped his credit card.

The young men tried to stop him, but they were too slow. The man replaced his wallet, then winked at them and said, “You snooze, you lose, fellas.”

I can still see that old man when I close my eyes. Some things stick with you, I guess.

Just like the time I saw an elderly woman in Franklin, Tennessee. Her car wouldn’t start. Three men from inside the gas station rushed to help her.

They were large men with long beards, dirty clothes, and work boots. They crawled over her car until they figured out the problem beneath the hood.

“It’s her serpentine belt!” one man finally shouted.

That was all it took. They leapt into their truck and left. After a few…

Jacksonville, Florida—a car accident. A crushed car, sideways in the median. Years ago. She saw the car and pulled over

She jogged toward it. It was instinct. She opened the door. The man wasn’t breathing.

She had been working part-time at a pre-school. Pre-schools have mandatory CPR certification classes. Only a few days earlier, she had practiced resuscitating dummies in a church fellowship hall.

She pulled the man out of the battered vehicle. She found his breastbone. Thirty compressions. Two rescue breaths.

He’s alive today. A father of four. He keeps in touch.

Athens, Georgia—nineteen-year-old Billy didn’t want to get into a fistfight. He’d never been in a fight before. He saw a younger kid being beaten by two large boys. He couldn’t stay out of it.

Billy, who’d never thrown a punch in his life, pushed himself into the conflict. He fended off the two attackers, but not without being beaten-up.

Billy took the kid to the emergency room. They became fast friends. He brought the kid home

to meet his parents. The boy told them he’d been living with his uncle—who neglected him.

Billy’s parents invited the kid live with them. They fixed the guest bedroom. They bought him a Playstation. They fed him. They made him one of their own.

When Billy got married, the kid was his best man. When Billy had his first son, the kid became a godfather.

When the kid wore a cap and gown to receive a diploma, seven people stood and clapped for him.

Hoover, Alabama—Leigh Ann was your classic shut-in. She was too old and feeble to go anywhere.

Most days, she sat in a recliner watching her stories on TV. Sometimes she forgot to feed herself. She had nobody. She’d been lonely ever since her husband passed. Leigh Ann had no children.

One day, a young man who…

It’s funny, what you think about in your final moments.

I’m watching a sunrise through tall Southern pines. It’s making its heavenly climb, and I’m looking right at it, sitting on the hood of my truck.

Last night, I was almost killed. I’m not joking. I was nearly hit head-on by a red truck that was driving in the wrong lane.

It was dark. I was the only one on the road. I saw headlights speeding toward me. And I mean speeding.

I expected the vehicle would get out of my way. It didn’t. I almost swerved for the ditch.

I closed my eyes. I expected a loud sound, followed by pain, maybe the voice of Charlton Heston.

What I heard was a vehicle scream by fast enough to suck the rust off my hitch.

I pulled over. My heart beat hard enough to crack my sternum. And I cried.

It’s funny, what you think about in your final moments.

I thought about the old woman from my childhood church. She was white-haired, and balding. She claimed that on the night my father died, she had a vision. She said she

saw him laughing in heaven.

For years, I was not happy about her unsolicited remarks. I don't know why.

I don't feel that way anymore. I'm glad she told me.

During my brief encounter, I also wondered if I’d wake up to abalone gates. Would I see Granny? My uncles, my aunts? My father?

Or: would I wake up as a baby squirrel, high up in a longleaf pine. A mockingbird, tweeting in a nest, maybe? Or a newborn hound, in someone’s barn? Or a hungry raccoon, nosing through garbage for some fresh loaded diapers?

I thought about my wife.

When we first married, I once told her I didn’t want her to remarry if I died. I joked, saying I wanted her to grieve me as a lonely widow. We’d laugh about that.

But last night, I was…

She doesn’t answer. Instead, she glances out the window. She sees what we all see. There is a red truck near the window, a young family inside it.

An interstate gas station. Christmas music is playing overhead. The place is busy. There is a ten-minute wait for the men’s room.

I am here to buy some crummy boiled peanuts and fill up my truck. I have another hour left on the road.

I can’t believe it’s already Christmas season. The holidays come quicker each year. It feels like only yesterday we were shooting fireworks and waving little American flags.

The line at the cash register is long. I am standing behind a young man who looks exhausted. He is covered in sweat and dust. He is wearing work boots and a neon reflective work vest.

There is only one cashier. She is old, she wears a Santa hat and calls everyone “sweetie.”

She is a cheery woman, with white hair and blue eyes. She sends every customer away with kind words and a smile. She says things like:

“Take care, now,” or, “God bless,” or “Have a good day, sweetie.”

The young man ahead of me

carries a Gatorade and a bag of potato chips. When it’s his turn to pay, he digs into his pocket and places a handful of dollars on the counter.

He says, “Can I have four dollars of gas on pump two, please?”

“Four dollars?” the woman says.

“Yes, ma’am.”

She doesn’t answer. Instead, she glances out the window. She sees what we all see. There is a red truck near the window, a young family inside it.

“You drivin’ that red Dodge, sweetie?” she asks.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Her face breaks into a toothy smile. “Well, you’re in luck, some guy overpaid earlier on that pump. You can go ahead and have thirty bucks of gas if you want.”

“Really?” the kid says.

“Yeah, really.”

She gives him a receipt. He heads for the door. Before he exits, she…

David drove across two states to buy hunting dogs for his son. His son was born blind. He has never been hunting, never worn orange, never touched a rifle.

A few months ago, that all changed.

David’s friends invited them hunting in Oklahoma.

“Found out that raccoon hunting ain’t like some other kinds of hunting,” says David. “You don't just sit, you follow dogs, basically. That’s almost all there is to it.”

David took his son hunting for the first time. They followed howling animals through the woods. He held his son’s hand, marching through underbrush.

David says, “First time I heard my son say, ‘I can hear the dogs, Dad!’ It almost made me break down and...”

For months, it was all his son talked about. He kept asking for an encore hunt. David decided to do something about it.

He drove north to buy trained hounds. They cost him a small fortune.

Tomorrow, David will surprise his son with two brand new family members—of the long-eared variety.

“You have no idea, hunting with my son makes me feel like a good dad.”

Also: tomorrow morning, Jace is going to ask Brittany to marry him. He’s been planning the proposal for months.

They’ve been together six years. She’s helped raise his kids. She’s been his greatest love. His cheer-section. A best friend.

If she says yes, he’s taking her to the mountains—no kids, no pets. Just two lovers at high altitude. He will convince her that this trip is for celebration, but there’s more to it.

“I got family and friends on standby,” Jace says. “We’re gonna do a surprise wedding in the woods.”

It will happen like this:

They’ll leave their rental cabin, on a leisurely walk. They’ll follow a dirt trail until they happen upon a preacher, a small crowd, and a scenic overlook.

“She always wanted a simple wedding, without dresses, or flowers and big stuff.…

To the thirty-four-year-old man with severe autism. I’ll call him Bill. Who was abandoned by his mother. The woman dropped him at an ER and said, “I don’t care what you do with him, he’s not coming back here.”

To the man whose son has cancer. Who sat with me in the public park while we watched his boy swing on monkey bars.

The man who said:

“My son’s cancer turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to us. Made me see how good people are.

“When you drive through your hometown and see banners with your son’s name on them, it changes you.”

To John—the man who adopted five dogs. Whose wife, Mindy, was taken too early. The same man who once encouraged me to keep writing at a time when I needed encouragement.

He probably doesn't even remember that.

To Jennifer, who says most people call her, “Jellybean.”

Jellybean is epileptic. She walks to work since she can’t legally drive. She says that her past relationships haven't lasted because of her condition.

Well, she is on top of the world this week. Her boyfriend is an EMT. He knows how to deal with seizures, and isn’t afraid to help her through them.

He asked Jellybean to marry him last Tuesday at his son’s middle-school band concert.

She

said yes.

To the thirty-four-year-old man with severe autism. I’ll call him Bill. Who was abandoned by his mother. The woman dropped him at an ER and said, “I don’t care what you do with him, he’s not coming back here.”

And to the nurse who adopted Bill. Who didn’t just give him a room in her home, but signed papers to make him family.

He now refers to her as "Mom.”

And to my mother. The woman who worked harder than any female I’ve ever made eye-contact with. Who didn’t just raise me, but grew up beside me.

Who endured a husband’s suicide, financial ruin, double shifts, single-parenthood, and late bills. Who survived a disease that almost ruined her.

Who still goes for morning walks with her dog, Sunny, who still says thank-you prayers under her…

I’m crazy about small towns. The world has gotten so big. Shopping malls are bigger. Interstates have swallowed rural routes. Small churches are disappearing. The women’s groups of my mother’s generation have become a thing of the past.

Nothing, and I mean nothing, feels as good as a hug. This month alone, I’ve spoken at a handful of places and I have received roughly—this is no exaggeration—five trillion hugs from people.

Including two hundred grade school students this morning.

Hugs do something to a person. After ten hugs, a fella starts to feel warm inside. After two hundred, his heart is raw. Right around four hundred, he forgets every evil thing he ever saw or heard. People need hugs. And by “people,” I mean me. I love a good hug.

I also love baseball. It’s a beautiful game. While I write this, I am listening to a radio. The Milwaukee Brewers are doing battle with the Dodgers. I want the Dodgers to eat mud.

And, I love football. I was born during the third quarter of Coach Bear Bryant’s farewell game. My father was watching the hospital-room television during the exact moment the doc smacked my hindparts.

I’m crazy about small towns. The world has gotten so big.

Shopping malls are bigger. Interstates have swallowed rural routes. Small churches are disappearing. The women’s groups of my mother’s generation have become a thing of the past.

But not in small towns. In small towns, Little America is still alive and well.

Which reminds me: I love little things. I love them even more than I did when I started this article.

The small Chevette I learned to drive in. The small coin I bought at a gift shop atop the mountain where my father is buried—I carry it everywhere. I like little trucks from yesteryear. Little farmhouses. Little billboards painted on the sides of barns.

Little upright pianos in my aunt’s den—the kind she only plays at Christmas.

Speaking of holidays, I love them, too. Each and every one. Christmas, Turkey Day, Labor Day, and Halloween.

Last year I spent…