Line workers like these men invade disaster zones like armies. They work from dawn to dusk.

Just outside Chipley, Florida, three wooden crosses stand beside the highway at the intersection of Highway 77 and Talton Drive. I pulled over to look at them.

Neon-colored vests hang from a pinewood crossarm, which resembles an electrical utility pole.

Beneath the crosses are hardhats, American flags, and handwritten notes. The roadside monument was built to honor three line workers killed in a hit-and-run accident in Washington County.

You might’ve read about it. It happened months ago when a vehicle left the road and struck workers who were restoring power to an area affected by Hurricane Michael.

I am interrupted by the sound of tires on gravel.

A truck pulls beside me. The driver kills his engine and rolls his window down. I see a man with tanned cheeks and lines on his face.

He doesn’t introduce himself, he only says:

“Them lineman were working seventeen-hour days. They came from all over the nation after the storm, worked like dogs. They were good,

good men.”

Good men.

Line workers like these men invade disaster zones like armies. They work from dawn to dusk. They survive on light sleep, caffeine, and text messages from their children.

“I’ll tell ya,” the man says, “losing one of our own was harder on folks in Chipley than the storm was.”

Chipley is a town with a main street so short you could roll a bowling ball through it without much effort. The community is so tight it holds water.

When I was sixteen, I once dated a girl who lived in Chipley, she pronounced it “CHEE-yip-lee.” She was from a family who still shelled peas on the porch before supper.

After the hurricane, utility workers came by the hundreds, they blanketed Northwest Florida. In this part of the world, you couldn’t drive 10 feet without seeing cherry-pickers beside utility poles, and men working…

Dear Katrina,

Thanks for the story you sent me. I read it twice because it was so good. I especially liked the part about the magical princess falling in love with the NFL player. Love stories are the best.

From your letter, it sounds like this year has been hard on you. Not only did your parents get divorced, but you’ve relocated to a new state.

You asked me a question:

“I don’t have friends at my new school, how do I get everyone to like me?”

That’s a tough one, Katrina. I don’t really have an answer.

But, judging by your well-written letter, and your three-page story fairytale romance, this is not going to be difficult. You are a very bright ten-year-old with a unique talent.

I know this because in your story you used the word “exquisite” when you described your main character.

Most girls would’ve chosen a different word. They would’ve used the word “beautiful,” or worse: “pretty.” But not you. You went for the gold

medal. That shows real smarts.

When I was your age, I also had an usual talent. I could memorize song lyrics after only hearing a tune once or twice.

My father thought this ability was wonderful. He would turn on a radio, let me listen to a song, then flip it off to see if I could remember the words.

Usually, I could sing almost every verse.

At school, however, I was an outsider. I wasn’t a natural athlete, I wasn’t a good student, I had an overbite, and I was chubby. I didn’t have many friends.

But that all changed one fateful day. Our class had an after-school party. I don’t remember what we were celebrating, but I remember cake.

The kids ate so much sugar it made them insane. Especially George Walborsky. And if you knew George Walborsky, like so…

We were newlyweds, living in a grungy apartment.

Each morning, I would wake before her. I would pass my morning hours writing poetry on a yellow legal pad, sipping coffee.

Mostly, I’d write the kinds of god-awful things you’d expect newlyweds to write. I’m talking painfully corny stuff. I’d leave these poems on slips of paper scattered throughout our apartment for her to find.

One such poem read:

“Together, the two of us,
“In thought, and deed, and breath, and heart,
“Shall never be lacerated apart.”

Gag me with number-two pencil. “Lacerated?” What kind of a dork uses that word? In fact, I’m not certain this verb works in this particular case.

LACERATE [verb: las-uh-reyt] lac·er·at·ed, lac·er·at·ing
1. to tear; mangle; rip. Example: “Hey dude, that poem you wrote really freakin’ lacerated.”

My wife saved all my crummy poems in a shoebox, and today they reside in a storage closet.

Anyway, when we first married, we lived in an apartment that smelled like dead squirrels.

I am not being figurative. I mean our apartment actually had a nest of decomposing squirrels in the attic above our master bedroom.

The place was tiny, and about as ugly as homemade soap. The tenant before us had painted the walls black and greenish-gray. Sherwin Williams officially titled this color “Seasick Granite®.”

When we moved in, we made the place our own. We painted the walls brown and khaki. We bought a used coffee table and some scented candles.

My friend, Chubbs, found an old console television on the side of the road. I was lucky enough to claim the TV before the garbage man came.

The thing was heavier than a dead preacher, but we got it up the stairs. Chubbs, however, would suffer from severe disc degenerative problems for the rest of his life.

Our building sat across the…

My family was represented by three. My mama, my sister, and my uncle. Mama’s mascara was running. My sister was in a dress.

I’m on I-65, just outside Birmingham. I’m in the passenger seat, writing. My wife is driving.

It’s early. The sun is still low. In the last three days, we’ve been in four different cities. We just ate breakfast at Cracker Barrel.

Now, more driving.

I remember the day we married. I was standing in the groom’s dressing room. I wasn't nervous until I unzipped the tuxedo bag.

Then, my body got cold. My forehead developed a thin film of sweat.

There was a knock on my door. It was my future father-in-law.

“I’m here to tie your bowtie,” he said.

I stood before this man, rocking on my heels while he secured my neckwear.

Then, he slapped my shoulder and said, “Couldn’t ask for a better looking son, if I do say so myself.”

Son.

The preacher arrived. He straightened my collar and whispered: “I have to say this to every groom: it's not too late to change your mind if you’re not sure...”

I told him he

was wasting his time. Granted, I might not have been a smart man, but I’d never been more sure of anything.

“Alright,” he said. “Let’s go make history.”

And we did. I stood in a small chapel. Half of Brewton, Alabama, had driven an hour and forty minutes to watch the putz in a monkey suit marry one of their town’s fair daughters.

My family was represented by three. My mama, my sister, and my uncle. Mama’s mascara was running. My sister was in a dress.

The doors swung open. A woman walked the aisle.

I would tell you that she was beautiful, or that she took my breath away, but that would be selling her short. She was more than that.

She was everything.

She wore her trademark smile. The same smile she wears today. When…

When she saw the turtle nestled among the tall weeds, she noticed red nail-polish writing on his shell. Two initials which read: L.B.

“I’ll bet you’ve never written a column about a turtle,” said Mary, sitting across from me at the coffee shop.

No. I can’t say that I have. And I’m not sure I want to break a lucky streak.

Then Mary told me a story.

She was a thirteen-year-old when she found L.B. in her mother’s flowerbed. She was a tomboy in jeans, with scraped knees, dirty fingernails, and a bad case of freckles.

L.B. was a terrestrial box turtle.

Her parents had just divorced. Her father left town with his new girlfriend. He couldn’t have moved any farther away if he’d left planet Earth.

Life was sad. Her mother was always in a bad mood, her older brother started spending time away from home.

Most nights, she fended for herself, eating TV dinners, watching television, and waiting for her mother to get home.

When she saw the turtle nestled among the tall weeds, she noticed red nail-polish writing on his shell. Two initials which read: L.B.

He was a gentle creature, he didn’t squirm or

snap. She noticed something wrong with his shell, and blood smears on his wounded back leg.

Her first move was to call her father for advice.

“Dad!” she said into the phone. “I found something in the yard!”

“Sweetie,” he said. “We’ve been over this, you can’t keep calling long distance every fifteen minutes, I have a job, I’m very busy.”

“But Dad,” she said. “I just found a tur—”

A dial tone.

So, she took the turtle to her elderly neighbor, Miss Stanley. People said the old woman was a little crazy, and this might have been true.

Miss Stanley had dozens of animals wandering her place—dogs, cats, an iguana, exotic birds. But if anyone would’ve known how to fix L.B.’s leg, it was her.

The old woman invited Mary inside. She…

Aunt Irma was sniffing so hard that I handed her a Kleenex. She hooked arms with me and said, “You know, you’re very cute.”

A few years ago, I went to a friend’s wedding. I arrived at the chapel early. I sat in the front pew while the piano played.

It was the best seat in the house. I wanted to see my buddy’s expression when he stumbled over the words “I do.”

The chapel was adorned with white flowers and greenery. The woman seated beside me was the elderly aunt of the bride.

“My name’s Irma,” she said, presenting her white-gloved hand. “How do you know the groom?”

“We grew up fishing together,” I said.

She looked at me like I had cockroaches crawling out of my eye sockets. “Really? I thought he hated fishing.”

That’s when I had a feeling something was wrong.

And I was correct. When the young groom took the altar, I realized I’d never seen him before in my life.

I started having chest pains. I was at the right church on the wrong weekend.

Soon, the pianist played the familiar chords of

matrimony and the congregation stood. I was going to sneak out the back, but I was too late. The rear doors swung open.

The bride walked the aisle, wearing a gown that was elegant enough to break your heart.

Beside me, Aunt Irma was becoming emotional. “Doesn’t she look just radiant?”

“Does she ever,” I said. “I hardly even recognized her.”

We took our seats. The minister asked who gave the bride away. A white-haired man said, “Her mama and I!”

But when the old man sat alone in his pew, I began to wonder where the mama of the bride was. I almost asked Aunt Irma about it, but I didn’t want to pry.

Anyway, it was a beautiful ceremony. The bride and groom recited vows they’d written themselves.

The groom read a sonnet so eloquent it made most…

I am here today to track down Gomer Pyle. I am looking for glimpses of a world inhabited by Andy, Barney, Opie, and Aunt Bea.

Sylacauga, Alabama—this is your quintessential American town. Old buildings, lots of Baptist churches, and Mama Ree’s restaurant, which serves fare so good you’ll wonder if Granny isn’t in the kitchen.

This is the hometown of Jim Nabors, better known as Gomer Pyle from the Andy Griffith Show.

Earlier today, I toured the city. There is a lot to see.

There’s the Comer museum on Broadway Avenue. They have a room dedicated to Nabors memorabilia. There you can see photos, news clippings, and costumes from the town’s own native son. Up the road is the high school Nabors graduated from.

And of course, Sylacauga is known for more than just Gomer Pyle.

Firstly: it’s one of the only places in the world that produces bedrock marble so pure it was used in the construction of the Lincoln Memorial, and the United States Supreme Court Building.

Sylacauga also boasts the first documented case of an outer-space object falling onto a human. It happened one autumn day in

‘54. A meteorite the size of a grapefruit crashed through a farmhouse roof and hit Mrs. Ann Hodges, who was napping.

It didn’t hurt her too bad, but they say she was fussy for several days thereafter.

Don’t get me wrong, I love meteorites and marble as much as the next guy. But I am here today to track down Gomer Pyle. I am looking for glimpses of a world once inhabited by Andy, Barney, Opie, and Aunt Bea.

The truth is, Andy Griffith raised me. After my father died, we lived with my aunt and my cousins in Georgia. Back then, I was a redhead boy, trapped in a house with six females and 1.5 bathrooms.

Every month, for a span of three to five days, these women would become very grumpy—AT THE SAME TIME. Then, they would gang up on me, threatening to behead and…

I’m in a hotel room, and I should be sleeping, but I can’t. It’s late, and I’m not tired. My nightstand clock tells me it’s 11 P.M. I think I’ll go for a walk.

Now I’m strolling the dark sidewalks, alone. I pass a man who is wearing a hooded sweatshirt, walking the road, pushing a stroller that is filled with tin cans. I hear them rattling.

He grunts a greeting at me.

I wave.

Maybe I will stick very close to my hotel tonight.

I’ve always been a night owl, and this used to rub the adults in my life the wrong way. I come from fundamentalists who don’t believe good things come from nocturnal activities.

As far as they were concerned, night only nurtured evil things like dancing, fighting, carousing mailbox baseball, grand theft auto, and the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

But since we’re being honest, I’ll admit that as a boy I watched Johnny Carson almost every night in secret. I would sneak

downstairs and ignite our television, keeping the volume barely audible.

Johnny’s monologues were the best. The jokes, the gags, the laughs, the interviews. His studio seemed like such a wonderful place to be, and so different from our world.

Of course, I knew I was taking my eternal salvation into my own hands, watching such devilish TV. In my family the only acceptable forms of entertainment were the Lawrence Welk Show, Billy Graham crusades, or watching a washing machine on spin cycle.

The men I come from were morning people. They woke before sunlight, worked hard, sipped coffee all day, and made hour-long conversations about adjusting carburetors.

They burned trash in fifty-gallon drums, ate liver and onions for their birthdays, and went to bed early.

I never fit in with them because I was a night-person. And night-people were not productive, respectable people. Night-people…

The boy was just over three months old. His little fingers, his big eyes, his smooth skin, he was pure perfection.

Montgomery—it was a sunny February day in 1956. Martha and her husband sat in an ugly, sterile, third-floor government office.

Outside was a blue sky, beautiful trees, and birds. Inside, it was dismal.

Martha was wringing her hands. She looked at her husband and saw him bouncing his knees.

“Would you relax?” she said to him.

“You first,” he said.

But the truth was, she was just as anxious as him. And who could blame them? Their adoption papers had been bouncing through the bureaucratic ping-pong machine for twenty-seven months now.

Twenty-seven months.

That’s long enough to earn a master’s degree.

When they first submitted the application they felt nothing but excitement. They filled out the forms and requested a son. The anticipation was almost too much.

What would he look like? Who would he grow to become? After ten years of marriage, Martha was ready to hold her own child. She wanted someone call her “Mama.”

In years past, she’d only ever

held children that belonged to friends or family, and this did nothing to satisfy her two empty arms.

So, they turned in their papers. They hoped, and waited, and stared at their kitchen phone every evening.

But time went on, and the phone did not ring. Six months became a year. A year became two years. Not knowing was torture.

Alabama caseworkers sometimes visited their home in Dothan, without warning. These were friendly social workers, certainly, but only in the governmental sense. The caseworkers would make notes on clipboards, then look at Martha like they were sizing her up for a butcher’s window.

Martha wondered if the phone call would ever come.

Three days ago it did. The bell sounded on Martha’s phone and she almost lost her mind.

The voice on the line said, “You can pick up your son at…

I glanced at my phone and lost my appetite. An old friend died.

A breakfast joint, filled with smells of bacon and coffee. The sound of people, conversing. I was eating my eggs when I got the text.

I glanced at my phone and lost my appetite. An old friend died.

He was seventy-six. He used to be a singer. And I’ll never forget the story I heard about him.

Once, a nine-year-old girl from church asked him to sing for her dog’s funeral. He wore a necktie and the whole nine yards. He sang “Beulah Land.” That’s the kind of guy he was.

I was interrupted from my thoughts. It was another old friend who came through the doors. Lisa, a girl I grew up with.

I hugged her neck and asked how her father was doing.

Lisa smiled. “He’s okay, Mom hired a personal trainer to kick his butt, he whines about it.”

I’ll never forget her father. He once took me to a father-son church retreat at Blue Lake Methodist Camp, along with his own son. He

did this because I had no father and he didn’t want me to be left out.

I stood to leave the restaurant. That’s when I saw another friend. James is his name. James and I used to have a summer job together, parking cars. He’s a mess.

Back then, James would try to procure the phone number of any female unfortunate enough to make eye-contact with him.

I exited the restaurant and saw two more friends in the parking lot. Samantha and her husband, Wade.

We hugged. It was nice seeing them. We were once in a Sunday school class together.

Long ago, our class took a trip to Nashville. Wade brought a Mason jar full of something his Episcopalian uncle had brewed in a bathtub.

Consequently, Wade doesn’t remember much about that trip.

After saying goodbye, I drove across…