The cardboard sign on the highway said “Hot Bulled Pee-Nuts.”

I pulled over out of pure instinct. For there are few things I love more than a pee-nut that has been properly bulled.

I parked. I stepped out of my truck and walked toward the smell of steaming Cajun spices. The man boiling peanuts was older, seated beneath an Auburn University tent.

He was dressed in Levis and square-toes. He wore a belt buckle the size of a hubcap. He used a canoe paddle to stir a kettle seated atop a roaring blue propane flame.

Beside him was a 50-pound bag of Sam’s Club salt. He removed handfuls of salt and tossed them into the boiling water like fairy dust. Then he licked his fingers for show.

And the line grew longer.

Soon, there were six of us standing there, on the side of a rural Alabamian highway at noon. We were sweating in the violent heat until our clothes were translucent and our hair was matted.

“He does good peanuts,” said a guy in line.

The man looked as though he had come directly from work. He wore a necktie. His shoes cost more than my truck.

“They’re worth it,” said another woman balancing a baby on her hip. “My husband says his spicy peanuts are the best he’s ever had.”

So we waited. And waited.

And waited.

Now and then the old man would remove a hot goober pea, crack it open, and sample it. Then he’d spit it out, shake his head, and announce that they weren’t ready yet.

A few kids on BMX bikes showed up. They ditched their cycles and joined the line. And we became 8.

Then a truck with Florida tags stopped. A man and his wife got out and assumed a place in line. And then we were 11.

“First time I ever had a boiled peanut,” said a guy in line,…

There was something about the way he walked. He was a stray. You can just tell.

I called him, clicking my tongue like Roy Rogers calling Trigger.

He had pitbull in him. I could tell by the broad face and the knife-like eyes.

Most US strays are pitbulls. My friend, John, works at animal shelters. John said people buy pitbulls thinking they’ll be cool-looking dogs, but aren’t prepared for the kind of pitbull stubbornness that makes a mule look reasonable.

So the dog usually gets canned. Some take their dog to shelters. Many don’t. Many exemplary citizens just drop dogs off on busy highways.

I know about pitts. I have a pitbull-mix named Otis. He was found walking the streets of Defuniak Springs, Florida. He hadn’t eaten in days.

But getting back to the original pitbull I was telling you about.

It took a whole hour to gain his trust. When I was sure he trusted me—really trusted me—I lifted him into my truck.

He rode in my passenger seat the whole way to the shelter. I lifted him out of

my truck because he was limping badly. Plus, I didn’t want him to run. “Come here, boy.”

came trotting toward me. He was beautiful. Muscular torso. Amber eyes. His coat was smoky gray. He was sweeter than a Chilton County peach.

There was blood all over him. Someone had tried to crop his ears, but they had butchered him. It looked like they’d cut him with box cutters. His ears were almost completely removed, open wounds. Ear holes were exposed. Blood caked on his face.

I removed my own belt, and used it as a leash. I walked into the animal shelter holding my pants up with half of my backside showing.

The older ladies behind the counter gave me funny looks.

“I can see your butt,” one said.

“I’m sorry,” I said, grasping my pants.

“It’s okay, I’ve…

“Dear Sean, how can we save this country?” the email began.

The writer lives in Hartford, Connecticut. His name is Michael. I have no idea why Michael thinks a hayseed like me is qualified to answer this loaded question. I’m not a smart guy. Blondes tell jokes about me.

Still, I have an idea.

The way to save this country is to eat together. We don’t eat together anymore. We don’t eat supper at the same table. When did that stop?

A recent study found that only 29 percent of Americans sit to eat supper with family each day. Fifty years ago, the statistic was nearly 99 percent.

On average about 50 percent of millennials admit to cooking their own suppers. Whereas the number was around 80 percent with baby boomers.

Something else. We need to put the Wurlitzer organ back in Major League Baseball.

I don’t know if you’re aware, but baseball has undergone many changes since we were kids. Even the rules have changed. There is a pitch clock. No more cigar


But the biggest disappointment was losing the organ. I attended a game recently and all I heard was Lady Gaga blasting overhead.

This is an affront.

In 1941, organist Ray Nelson debuted at Wrigley Field. It was the first time organ music was heard in baseball. He played before 18,678 Cubs fans. He played “When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for T-U-L-S-A.”

A half century ago, each American ballpark had an organist. Today, there are only seven.

Another way to save this country is to bring back piano lessons. Five decades ago, 81 percent of American kids took piano lessons. Do you know what the percentage is now? Eight percent.

That’s not enough Americans to form a Rotary Club.

I took piano lessons. My teacher was Miss Betty, who smelled like bath powder and Icy Hot. She said if I played “Savior Like a Shepherd Lead…

Virginia. Inova Fairfax hospital. Not so long ago. Decent weather. Just another day in old Virginny.

Taylor Givens and Collin Kobelja were young. Two practical strangers. A couple of kids. Both awaiting cardiac transplants, lying in their hospital beds, about to be wheeled into the OR.

Not their best day ever.

Taylor. Seventeen years old. Pretty. Redhead. Viral cardiomyopathy. She would miss graduation. Centreville High School would give her an impromptu ceremony in her hospital room.

Collin. Your all-American guy. Good personality. Liked goofing off with friends. Probably a big fan of flatulent noises. Congenital heart defect. This was his second transplant. He had his first at 17 months.

They would both receive transplants on the same day.

Which is actually pretty unique. In America, there are about 3,800 heart transplants annually. Sometimes, patients wait years for a new heart. Some never get one.

But today, two organs had arrived in ice-filled coolers. And the dormant hearts would soon be beating again.

Taylor and Collin would undergo identical surgeries. Same doctors. Same hospital floor.

Same crappy cafeteria Jello. Same nurses, installing similar catheters, using the same gentle touch of professional wrestlers.

They had met each other before at cardiologist appointments. But there were never any romantic notions. After all, they had more important things to think about. Such as, for example, living.

But this fateful day in surgery represented a new beginning. Both operations were a success. The Jello was exquisite.

After that, they went about their lives. They never thought about each other. Until five years later. Casual Facebook messages were sent about doctors. A conversation was struck. A relationship was in the making.

Then, one day Collin visited Taylor in the hospital after a procedure. Just to be nice. This time, there were sparks. Big ones.

Taylor remembers that there was ​“a really strong connection that I don’t think either one of us was expecting.”

They started dating.…

We weren’t friends per se. But I knew him.

I don’t know how it started. I’d wake up in the mornings, hop in the truck, and drive to a nearby gas station. I’d buy a newspaper. A weak cup of joe.

The old guy was usually there. Waiting outside the gas station, smoking a cigarette.

He looked ancient. Bushy gray beard—stained orange from tobacco. His face was painted with a thousand wrinkles. His shoes were falling apart.

He carried a backpack the size of a Buick, which usually sat at his feet. He had a little dog with him named Rufus.

“Rufus is a purebred,” he’d always say. “Heinz 57 breed.”

“In the afternoon,” said the gas-station cashier, “he always asked customers for handouts, but never in the mornings. I don’t know why he didn't ask for handouts in the mornings.”

I do. Because he was hungover.

“Either way, someone always bought him a cup of coffee,” the cashier went on. “And if someone didn’t, we’d let him have as much free coffee as he wanted.”

His name changed each time we talked. Once, he was

Jerry. Another time, he was Ron. He’d been Apollo, James, Ricky, you name it. Who knows what his name was.

He’d talk about anything. He’d cuss politicians. Talk about this current generation’s selfish ways. He’d talk of Vietnam. Then, inevitably, he’d usually talk about God.

God was one of his go-to subjects. I guess you get to know God pretty well when you’re homeless.

Sometimes, he’d preach a little. And his sermons always came off flat because of the gin on his breath. Still, I’d give him plenty of Amens, and then I’d wish him a good day. And he’d always—always—God bless me.

Whereupon he’d heft his backpack onto his frail back, and set off for heaven only knows where.

Sometimes I’d see him on the side of the road, walking steadily onward. Through…

Three days after the Twin Towers collapsed, Bob Beckwith showed up in Manhattan to look for survivors in the rubble. He had no business being there.

Nobody thought it was a good idea. Bob was a retired fireman. He was a little long in the tooth to be doing search and rescue work. His family begged him not to go.

“They said you’re 69, you’re too old.”

“But you don’t stop being a firefighter,” an old firefighter once told me. “It’s like being a dad. It’s not a job. It’s who you are.”

Bob Beckwith. A slender man. Loose built. Broad shoulders. Face creased with age. A New York voice—a little defiant, a little in-your-face.

Directly after the 9/11 attacks, Bob heard one of his colleague’s sons was unaccounted for, among hundreds of other missing firefighters.

Bob hopped in the car and drove to Lower Manhattan. Uninvited. Unannounced. He lied his way through the National Guard checkpoints.

He used his official voice. He wore a leatherhead helmet to complete the picture. He acted like he belonged there. Because, of

course, he did.

“I cut in between the cones, and I drove over to Williamsburg Bridge.”

Bob jumped out of his car and got straight to work.

“I go start digging with the guys in the North Tower, and we come across a pumper with a 76 Engine. And we’re working because we’re looking for survivors and we’re looking for people, and we’re hoping they found an air pocket or something.”

Ground Zero was a mosaic of emergency workers. Fire-medics. Police. Volunteers. Search and rescue dogs. Paramedics. Mohawk ironworkers. You name it.

They were all digging through ash and steel until hands bled and fingernails popped off.

What happened to Bob next was pure chance. If you believe in chance.

“We found the [charred] pumper, a fire engine, so I jumped up on it. And a guy comes over to me…

I get a lot of mail in the form of letters, texts, emails, and subpoenas. Many of these messages are questions, which I am not always able to answer. So I’ve answered some here by compiling the most commonly asked questions. Let’s get started.

Q: Do you receive hate mail?

A: This is the Age of the Internet. Everyone gets critical mail. I get it all the time.

Q: Really? What do these people say?

A: I don’t want to talk about it.

Q: Did someone once Tweet about how your head was “unnaturally big for his body”?

A: Maybe.

Q: Did this tweet get thousands of responses from random strangers who agreed that your head was, indeed, prodigiously large?

A: Perhaps.

Q: How did that make you feel?

A: I measured my head in the bathroom mirror.

Q: So I thought you lived in Alabama, and then I read that you lived in Florida. Which state is it?

A: I live in Alabama. But I am from the Florida Panhandle, which is a unique region we natives lovingly refer to as L.A.

“Lower Alabama.”

Simply put, every truck in the neighborhoods of my youth had either an Auburn University bumper sticker or a tag for The University of Alabama. Also, I actually own a pair of camouflage underpants.

Q: Really?

A: They were a gift.

Q: So which team do you root for, Alabama or Auburn?

A: I may or may not have a tattoo of Nick Saban beneath my camo skivvies.

Q: You have frequently written that you don't like calling yourself a writer. Why?

A: Being a writer in America is one of those occupational categories nobody understands.

You know how when you’re a kid and your teacher asks what you want to be when you grow up? If you were gutsy enough to tell this teacher you wanted to be a writer, chances are she stared…

I have here an email which reads:

“Sean, you often write of angels and miracles, and today, of Heaven. But if Heaven and angels are real, which I do believe, then Hell and demons must also be real. I guess writing about those is less fun? People don’t like to think about those ideas. But presenting only one side of the spiritual realm is perhaps misleading?”

After reading the above letter, I realized something important. I have never written about hell. Over the years I’ve written about angels, miracles, cancer survivors, dogs, play-off games, small towns, and eyebrow hair. But never hell.

To verify that this was true, I had my research department, Jamie Martin Dietrich, comb through a decade’s worth of columns. The research department determined that—unless you count columns on the NCAA National Championship—I have never written about hell.

Thus, I am going to tell you a true anecdote about hell, a place which, I can assure you, is real. I know this because I visited hell a few months

ago when I went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to register a boat trailer.

No sooner had I entered the DMV than the clerk said, “Take a number and get in line!” And I knew I was in purgatory.

So there I was, standing in a line of tormented souls, all waiting for our numbers to be called. This line was longer than the line to the men’s room at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

I was alongside people who were unshaven and disheveled, gnashing their teeth, and surviving on vending machine food. I met an elderly man who had been standing in line to register his Ford Station Wagon since 1954.

After 40 days and 40 nights of waiting, I was finally invited to approach a teller window.

I told the clerk I wanted to register my boat trailer.

She managed to say her next sentence in one, eye-rolling…

Becca and I walked inside Waffle House. The air was surgically cold. It smelled like cured pork. I have had a lifelong love affair with Waffle House. If you have to ask why, you might be from Iowa.

We selected a corner booth. Becca is 11. She is also blind. The waitress asked what we wanted to drink.

“Sweet tea,” said Becca.

“I’ll have the same.”

Becca and I talked about everything and nothing. Of life. Of love. Of boogers. You never know what an 11-year-old is going to talk about.

She had just gotten out of school. She was energetic and gabby. I learned about her friends, Paisley, and Brinley, and Nora, and Bryce, and so forth.

Also, I learned that, The Powers That Be do indeed manufacture fidget spinners that one can wear on one’s wrist. Spinners which not only spin, but also light up.

Becca had three such spinners in her purse.

Yes. A purse. Becca has recently started carrying a purse. She wears it across her torso. She looks very grown-up. It’s a large

purse. Floral print. Like the kind your mom used to carry.

My mother’s purse contained half the contents of the known solar system. She carried everything in there.

If you told Mama you were hungry, for example, she would give you something from her purse. A Kit Kat, or a sleeve of saltines, or a ketchup packet.

No matter what Mama gave you, it usually tasted like expired makeup and purse dirt. But you ate it, by dog, because there were starving people in China.

So anyway, Becca is probably my best friend. I don’t know how this happened. I didn’t know grown-ups could become best friends with children. But there you are.

I have discovered that I prefer Becca’s company. I made a promise to myself early on, that I would never speak to her like she was a child.


The old man showed up to visit his granddaughter in the pediatric oncology wing of the hospital. It was late. He took the elevator and got a few weird looks from other passengers since he was carrying a bouquet, a boombox and wearing a snappy suit.

He walked into his granddaughter’s hospital room. The little girl’s face turned 101 shades of thrilled.

“Grandpa!” said the child in a weakened whisper.

The nurses cleared away the girl’s supper of Jello and creamed potatoes. Her mother dabbed her chin.

He placed the boombox onto a chair. He straightened his coat. He hit the play button. The room began to fill with the silken sounds of the Count Basie Orchestra. Then came the trombone-like voice of Old Blue Eyes. The song was “The Way You Look Tonight.”

“I promised my granddaughter I would teach her to dance,” the old man recalls. “Told her I’d make sure she knew the Foxtrot, the Samba, the Rumba, and the Waltz before she got married. But we never got around to it, so I wanted

to fix that.”

The nurses helped the frail child out of bed. The little girl’s head was bald. Her limbs and face were swollen from the effects of the medications she’d been taking. And she was tired. Cancer is not for sissies.

“Let me have your hands,” said Granddaddy.

Her little hands fit into his old palms nicely.

“Now stand on my feet,” he said.

The child placed her stocking feet atop the old man’s shoes. He stooped to kiss her shiny head. “That’s good,” he said.

He moved his feet back and forth and told her to follow his lead. They had to pause now and then because they were both prone to laughing fits.

The nurses videoed with their phones. A few orderlies watched from the doorway. The girl’s mother sat on the hospital bed, watching.

“This is how Grandpa…