The first dish on the line was always squash and cheese casserole.

MONTGOMERY—I am giving a speech to six hundred Methodists tonight.

These are happy people who smell very nice. Their combined scent in this auditorium is so wonderful that I could keep breathing until I hyperventilate.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Methodists. I’ve known a lot of them. I even married one. Well, sort of. My wife is half Methodist on her mother’s side.

My buddy Allen went to a Methodist church and after every service they had huge potlucks. The first dish on the line was always squash and cheese casserole.

The church also had a bell choir. You’ve never seen anything more fun that a bell choir.

Methodists set up fifty bells on tables and ring them at rehearsed intervals. Some musicians are better than others.

If you are good bell-ringer, they let you play more than one bell. If you are great bell-ringer, they put you on salary.

Once, I was in the Methodist bell choir. I was filling in

for Miss Henrietta, who had hip replacement surgery. Miss Henrietta was also the church pianist. I filled in for her on piano, too.

After service, we visited Henrietta in the hospital. Her visitors brought so much cheesy squash casserole the nurses had to tell people they weren’t allowed to bring any more.

When Henrietta got released, they say it took seven coolers to store all her squash casserole.

The very next Sunday, she played piano at service. They dedicated the service to her as a surprise. After the singing, people got up and read memories about her.

There were a lot of memories to be read, the old woman had been attending that church since Calvin Coolidge was in office.

At the end of service, she was invited to say a few words to the congregation. She was overcome, all she could manage to say was,…

The older you get, the more important the little pieces of your past become. You find yourself wanting to remember the itty-bitty details. Things you didn’t even know you cared about. Because they are not just memories, they’re you.

ATLANTA—I don’t do big cities, but I don’t mind Atlanta.

If you were to force me to pick my favorite American city, I wouldn’t pick one because I don’t like being forced to do anything.

My mother used to force me to eat tapioca pudding as a kid, the texture reminded me of old-person snot and I refused to eat it because I couldn’t understand how the same advanced civilization that invented bacon, airplanes, and the Thigh Master, came up with tapioca.

But like I was saying, if you asked me nicely to pick a favorite major American city, maybe I would pick Atlanta. Because I have history here.

Right now I am driving I-285, through Atlanta’s congested traffic. The long line of vehicles moves five feet per hour. It’s miserable.

I have plenty of time to remember all kinds of things in this gridlock. Things like, for instance, tapioca.

And I can recall an era before smartphones, when newspapers were works of journalism, before they

got swallowed by internet agencies who produce articles entitled: “TWENTY-ONE REASONS WHY BOTTLED WATER WILL KILL YOU.”

And I remember when the Atlanta Journal Constitution was the highlight of my day.

We lived in Atlanta for a hot minute when I was a boy, and each morning I would be the first to retrieve the newspaper. My uncle thought this was hysterical.

“You’re fetching the paper?” he said. “That’s a pretty good trick, Fido. How about next I teach you to shake, roll over, and tee-tee on command?”

But I already knew how to do those things.

So I would open the paper to read my favorite columnist. Then, I would cut out the column with scissors because it was the brightest spot of my day.

Later, when my uncle would shake open his newspaper, he would find a gaping hole where…

It was an accident. That’s all it was. I am not getting old.

I wasn’t particularly tired yesterday, but something came over me. I was on the sofa, eating lunch, watching a daytime ballgame, sipping iced tea, drowsing off.

The next thing I knew, I awoke two hours later, disoriented, covered in iced tea, ice cubes melting on my chest, and I was drooling.

My wife found me. She looked shocked. She said, “Were you just taking a nap?”

“A nap?” I said. “Don’t be silly. Naps are for people with AARP cards, and I’m WAY too young for those.”

“You were napping.”

“No I wasn’t.”

“Yes you were.”

“No. I was practicing mindfulness.”

I have my dignity to preserve.

When I was a kid, I remember my mother once saying, “You know you’re getting old when you fall asleep and spill food on yourself.”

That’s never been me. I was a fast-moving kid with a taste for danger, always looking for international thrills.

My bicycle had baseball cards on the spokes, and I knew how to beat the Jacob’s Ladder game without even trying.

I knew the rules to Texas Hold’em, and played for high stakes behind the fellowship hall with Jay Ray, Ed Lee, and the janitor, Mister Stew. To this day, Mister Stew still owes me nine hundred thousand dollars.

Who has time for naps? Not me.

Growing up, I strapped a transistor radio to my bicycle handlebars and rode gravel roads, listening to “Hit the Road Jack” until the speaker popped.

I had dirt beneath my fingernails. I could climb any tree. I was raw energy. Everyone knew this about me.

Case in point: when I was seven, I was in the school production of Handel's Messiah, and the teacher had to write brief biographies about the soloists in the bulletins.

She wrote about…

A pilot talks on the loudspeaker and says we will be grounded.

I am writing from a plane that is stuck on a runway. It’s raining. Hard. I have a screaming baby behind me. Angry passengers surround me.

I have to be in Atlanta tonight, but it’s not looking good.

We have been on this god-forsaken plane for an hour, waiting out a storm. People are fussy, children scream, a man barks at a flight attendant.

A pilot talks on the loudspeaker and says we will be grounded.

People boo. A few cuss. One man throws a rotten tomato at the cockpit.

No, I’m just kidding. It wasn’t rotten.

And we sit.

One hour.

Two hours.

Three hours.

The pilot intercoms again. He says that after three hours, the government mandates he take us back to the airport.

People boo again. More swearing. A few more rotten tomatoes.

Because the only thing worse than sitting on a plane with loud infants and people carrying exotic strains of yellow fever, would be going back to the airport

and sleeping on the hard floor beneath a television that blares 24-hour news.

“Just great,” one man says.

“Well this sucks,” says the old woman behind me.

“@#$%&!” says the priest across the aisle.

I am texting my wife because it looks like I am not going to make it to Atlanta until noon tomorrow.

The pilot taxis back to the terminal. People moan. The storm is getting worse. The rain sounds like gravel on a shed roof. We’re finished.

But.

At the last minute, the intercom dings. The captain says there is a slight break in the weather, and we are going to “give it a shot.”

Those are his exact words, which terrify me. You don’t want to hear “let’s give it a shot” from your pilot, your dentist, your thoracic surgeon, or your tattoo artist.

Then…

LAGUARDIA AIRPORT—I am in a line a mile long. Actually, it’s not a mile. I'm exaggerating for literary value. In truth, the line is three hundred thousand kilometers long.

There are two women having a conversation behind me:

The woman says, “So I just says to him, ‘Lou, I’m not gonna take it anymore.’”

“Good for you,” says the other.

“That’s what I told him.”

“You really said it?”

“I just opened my mouth and said ‘Lou, I’m not doing it, I’m not gonna take it.’”

“You go, girl.”

We’re all waiting to get through the TSA checkpoint, which is a lot like checking in to federal prison. You have to remove your clothes, take off your shoes, get frisked, and say your ABC’s backward.

The man herding people through security looks like he starred in the movie “My Cousin Vinny.”

And he only knows two words: “Quickly, please.”

Vinny is working hard, scanning people with an electronic wand, barking at children, and demanding that elderly people remove their insulin pumps and dental fillings before going through

the scanner.

“Quickly, please.”

I remove my boots and place my backpack onto a conveyor belt.

The talking women behind me never quit.

“That’s exactly how I told it to him, ‘I’m done, Lou.’”

“You really said it like that?”

“Yep.”

“To Lou?”

“I told him.”

On my first attempt walking through the X-ray machine, I set off the alarm. I try a second time, it beeps again.

“Sir,” says Vinny. “Please remove your belt.”

“My belt?”

“Quickly, please.”

This belt buckle always gets me into trouble with metal detectors. But it is a special buckle I bought when I visited my father’s grave. I wear it every day because it reminds me of him.

It also holds my pants up.

We try the scanner again.…

“You aren’t from New York, are you? Wanna know how I know that?”

New York City—my plane just touched down. LaGuardia Airport is a nightmare.

I am here for the BookExpo America, the largest book fair in the U.S. Think: Disneyland for people with big vocabularies.

I have only visited this city once before. I was a teenager, traveling with the church choir.

I was such a nervous wreck I had a panic attack downtown. Dizziness, heart racing, the works. The choir director took me to a walk-in clinic and they gave me a sedative that made me drool on the subway ride back.

I come from simple people. My mother often told horror stories about such big cities. These urban legends were almost never true, but they freaked me out.

“Did you hear about my friend’s sister, Jeanne?” Mother might say. “Her brother’s cousin’s neighbor’s nephew was in New York for a wedding, someone shot him in the kneecaps when he was leaving church, then threw him into the Hudson River.”

Welcome to New York.

I hail a Yellow Cab. I am in the backseat.

My driver is from Indonesia. He drives like he’s clinically insane.

He is telling me about himself, but I can’t focus on a word he says because—it’s important that you understand this—there is a lizard is in his backseat.

“Where are you from?” the driver asks.

“Why is there a lizard in my seat?” I say.

“You aren’t from New York, are you? Wanna know how I know that?”

“Can we please slow down?”

“Because you are not wearing all-black Ha!”

“I think your lizard is carsick.”

The cab spits me out onto 76,397th Street, and charges me six hundred dollars. Soon, I am wandering sidewalks, looking for my hotel.

I am lost. I can’t seem to find my way. My mother’s horror stories are coming back to me.

Like the one about the man in…

My wife loves this magazine, too. When we first married, we moved into an ratty apartment. She brought a box of hardback cookbooks with her. The magazine produces a yearly compilation of its recipes.

On my mother’s coffee table. A magazine. Always, this magazine. Ever since I can remember.

To her, it was the magazine of all magazines—second only to a Billy Graham newsletter. It sat beside her Bible, between a bowl of potpourri and an ashtray for company.

I have memories of her reading recipes. Hot chicken salad casserole was one such recipe. If you have never had hot chicken salad casserole, I’ll pray for you.

She had hundreds of back issues. They sat in the corner. Over the years, they collected dust bunnies that were roughly the size of Joe Namath.

Sometimes, she used these magazines to balance rickety tables. Other times, she rolled them up tightly to use as disciplinary devices on sass-mouths.

My wife loves this magazine, too. When we first married, we moved into a ratty apartment. She brought a box of hardback cookbooks with her—yearly compilations of the magazine’s recipes.

“Are those all yours?” I asked.

“Yeah, been collecting them since I was a kid, my parents give

me a new cookbook every Christmas. It’s tradition.”

That’s when I knew I had married the right woman. The kind of woman who would never wear white after Labor Day because her mother would have strangled her with the cord from a kitchen mixer.

To the women in my life, it was more than a magazine. It was the secret to red velvet cake. It was a collection of house plans they daydreamed about. It was like Emily Post and Dale Earnhardt had given birth to a love child on Mama’s coffee table.

Every church lady revered it. Every elementary school teacher read it on lunch break.

And rumor had it—I shouldn’t be telling you this—that Michael Swanson’s mother, Miss Adeline, tattooed the famous ‘79-issue banana pudding recipe on a hidden region of her body.

You didn’t hear that from me.…

It’s late night. She’s driving an empty highway. The radio is playing something lively. She’s heading toward South Carolina. A new life. A new job. A new town.

She’s got a lot going for her. She’s fresh out of college, smart, ambitious, she comes from a good family, she’s got all the support she can stand.

She’s giddy about her new job. She starts on Monday. She’ll get her own office, good benefits, the whole enchilada. She’s wondering where life is going to take her next, and she’s feeling pure excitement.

She doesn’t see the deer jump in front of her. All she hears is the sound of crunching.

It’s over fast. She smashes into a guardrail, her vehicle tumbles a few times. There is blood in her vision, but she’s not hurt—it’s a miracle.

Her car is wrecked, she’s stuck in a ditch, but she’s alive with no broken bones. She tries to crawl out of the vehicle, but the door is jammed.

That’s when she hears something. Footsteps in the brush. A man crawls into her vehicle through the shattered windshield. He pulls her free.

Her new friend says, “You’re gonna be alright.”

It’s dark. They hike toward the highway to flag a car down. When she gets to the road, the man is gone.

Here’s another:

Bill has cancer. It started as a skin problem on his back. It grew fast. It spread. Doctors operate and cut it out.

After the invasive procedure, he lies on a hospital bed, subjected to lethal doses of daytime television.

Bill is sad. He has no wife, no children, no immediate family to visit him. He’s never felt as alone as he does today.

Then.

He sees a child, standing by the open door. He doesn’t know how the boy got in. Only friends and family are allowed to visit—Bill has…

We lost touch a long, long time ago. He probably wouldn’t have been able to pick the adult-me out of a crowd.

He was unknown to you. But not to me. We were friends. Sort of.

Ours wasn’t a long lasting friendship, but we rode the school bus together. So I guess that made us friends.

He would save a seat for me; I would board the bus, walk the aisle, and plop on the cushion beside him.

He was funny. We laughed a lot. Some kids are just born to be funny.

He kept a journal of sketches. They were good. He could draw anything. And I remember when he trusted me enough to let me look through his journal. Inside were dozens of bald eagles.

“Why do you draw so many eagles?” I asked.

“‘Cause they’re cool, why else?”

He didn’t have many friends because he was shy, and shy people are like that. I was the same way.

Between the two of us we were so timid we squeaked. And if ever we saw each other outside the confines of the bus, we were even shy

around each other.

When he got a part in the school play, nobody was sure how it would go. The kid was so quiet he wouldn’t even raise a hand in class.

He was afraid to play football, he didn’t like baseball. He liked to read and draw instead.

Yet here he was playing Mayor Shinn in the Music Man.

I was in the musical, too. In fact, I played one of the guys in the barbershop quartet. Our quartet sang a song named “Sincere.”

I still remember the lyrics:

“How can there be any sin in sincere?
“Where is the good in goodbye?
“Your apprehensions confuse me dear,
“Puzzle and mystify...”

There are some things you don’t forget.

I was the bass singer for the group. Not because I actually sang bass, but because I was…

I was a round child with curly copper hair, freckles, buck teeth, big feet, and fat knees, who mostly daydreamed about meatloaf.

Today is World Redhead Day. And as a longtime redhead, I am in full support of this important national holiday.

It is difficult growing up as a redhead. For me it was doubly hard because I was also chubby.

I was a round child with curly copper hair, freckles, buck teeth, big feet, and puffy knees, who mostly daydreamed about meatloaf.

To make matters worse, in fourth-grade P.E. class, our uniforms included a white T-shirt with our last names on the backs.

Across my shoulders, in permanent marker, was written: “DIETRICH.” Which, if you’ll notice, clearly looks like the two words: “DIET” and “RICH.”

You can imagine the jokes.

“Hey, DIET RICH! Did you eat a RICH DIET today, pucker face?”

At the beginning of each gym period we were supposed to jog around the parking lot for twelve minutes straight. I don’t know why twelve instead of, say, three, but I believe our gym teacher was a sociopath.

I ran with the same grace as John

Belushi. The P.E. teacher, Mister Danny, would sound his whistle whenever he didn’t feel I wasn’t showing enough “hustle.”

Mister Danny was obsessed with hustle. It was all he talked about. And I’m sure it was his favorite dance to perform at various wedding receptions.

But it didn’t matter if I were running harder than Forty-Mule-Team Borax, still he’d yell, “Dietrich! Show some more hustle!”

The skinny kids would howl when I lagged behind the rest of the joggers. They would run past me, fuzz my hair, and say, “Rub a ginger for good luck!”

Or: “Hey DIET RICH, Your mama should pay the ice cream man to keep on driving!”

It hurt. In fact, it still hurts. But I tolerated it because I knew that as soon as school let out, my mother would make meatloaf for supper.

And I love meatloaf.…