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…

In the food court is a merry-go-round. There is a single-file line waiting to board the carousel. First in line is an older man. He has white hair, and he walks with an uneven gait. A young woman is holding his arm.

It’s a sunny day. The Birmingham Galleria Mall is busy. There are hundreds of people beneath the tall atrium. They have places to go and things to buy.

I am here with my wife, who is shopping for blue jeans at Old Navy.

Shopping for jeans with your wife is a dangerous gamble. In the Western world, the leading cause of divorce is shopping for blue jeans at Old Navy with your wife. Ranking second is chewing your food too loud.

It goes like this:

Your wife locks herself in the dressing room with eighty-seven pairs of jeans. While she tries them on, you, the husband, go to the designated detention area with other husbands.

Intermittently, you wife emerges from her room, modeling jeans that look exactly like the jeans she wore when she entered the store.

Then, she glances at her reflection and begins speaking in foreign tongues. She asks things like: “Does this chino inseam appear too constricting?”

And: “Do you

think these boot-cuts too are too roomy on the calf region?”

We husbands have no idea what our wives are actually asking. This is why we often mumble. Because we know our words don’t really matter when it comes to blue jeans. Our wives will make their own decisions.

We know that by the end of the day our wives will have at least two emotional breakdowns, and likely leave the store without a single pair of blue jeans because they hate blue jeans and they wish blue jeans would’ve never been invented and they hate anyone who wears blue jeans including members of Congress, anyone below age thirty, and Cher.

And instead of buying jeans, our wives end up getting something like a “cute little cardigan that was on clearance.”

Then everyone goes out for ice cream. The end.

The best thing a guy can do…

He hugged me one more time. His mother took his arm, they walked away. The boy walks with a pronounced limp, holding his mother for balance. And I can’t quit thinking about him.

He was tall, lean, and young. When he approached me, he hugged me. Then, his mother hugged us both. A three-person club sandwich.

He must’ve been a foot taller than I was. His voice squeaked with adolescence. His skin was freckled. He had a long neck.

He recognized me.

“I liked your books, sir,” he said, through a nervous stutter.

Sir? No way. Such titles are reserved for men who wear penny loafers when fishing.

“I read all your books when I was in the hospital,” the boy said. “I kinda got to know you, and it was kinda like we were friends.”

His mother tells me his story. It’s a long one, and it’s not mine to repeat. He has the determination of a saint, and a long road ahead of him. He suffers more than other kids his age. And he might not survive his struggle.

Before he walked away, he told me: “I list ten new things I love every day. I write’em on

paper. My dad told me to do that.”

He tapped his finger against his head. “Gotta keep on thinking ‘bout good things I love. What kinda things do you love?”

I was rendered mute. I couldn’t seem to find words. I noticed a large moon-shaped scar beneath his hair. I tried to say something, anything, but I didn’t.

He hugged me one more time. His mother took his arm, they walked away. The boy walked with a pronounced limp, holding his mother for balance. And I can’t quit thinking about him.

On the off-chance that he is reading this:

1. I love Mexican food. In fact, I have had a lifelong love affair with it. A Mexican man I used to work with with used to make a dish called “chilaquiles verdes.” Before work, he would fry corn tortillas and scrambled eggs, then crumble enough…

So if you’re still reading this—I wouldn’t blame you if you weren’t—I wish I had more to offer you before you start your day. These stories, plus a dime, won’t even buy you a lukewarm cup of coffee.

I saw a boy with only one hand pitch a baseball in Nashville, Tennessee. I have never seen anything like it. Not before. Not since.

I sat beside his mother in their backyard and watched.

“He don’t even play on a team,” his mother said. “Truth be told, he’s not into baseball. He’s really into Star Wars.”

It all started when his little brother needed help batting for Little League. It was Big Brother who learned how to pitch by watching YouTube. They practiced in the backyard.

The kid turned out to be a good ball player. His mother says this is because he believes he can do anything.

“I mean he REALLY thinks he has no limits,” his mother says. “He’ll try anything.”

You can see it on his face. He is everything I hope to be in when I grow up. And he’s not even twelve.

I asked the boy if I could write about him. He said, “Don’t write too much.”

Then he smiled. “And

can you make my name be Luke Skywalker? Then I can read it at school and everyone will be jealous!”

Fair enough.

Then, he and his brother pretended to sword fight, in front of me.

A few months ago, I watched a man ride a bike half way up Pike’s Peak mountain in Colorado. The man was seventy-two. There was a line of traffic behind him while he pedaled.

His calves were shaped like slabs of limestone. His skin looked like old wood. He rode with a clot of younger cyclists and held his own.

When I talked to him afterward, he smelled like sweat, onions, and a retired jockstrap.

He started biking at age sixty-six when his wife left him.

“I was stuck in the house,” he said. “Couldn’t find the willpower to go anywhere. I was just eating crap,…