My cousin’s ‘82 Ford was riding the two-lane highway. We were listening to our childhood hero on the radio. Willie Nelson was singing “You Were Always on my Mind.” We were seventeen.
We were on our way to Atlanta to visit a friend who had just graduated. Our friend’s father was throwing the mother of all parties. He was taking a bunch of his son’s friends to see a Willie Nelson concert.
You have never met a bigger Willie Nelson fan than the author of this column. I’m crazy about him.
In fourth grade, I had a homemade Willie Nelson lunchbox. My mother had painted the portrait of Willie onto one of my father’s old tool boxes.
Also, I know all the words to most of Willie’s tunes, and I still cry whenever I hear “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys,” since my mother decidedly failed in this regard.
Anyway, the sun was shining, on Highway 29. When we reached Grantville, we passed a man who was changing his tire on the shoulder of the road.
We drove straight past him.
After a few miles of silence, we started feeling disgusted with ourselves. So we turned around.
We found the old man in a bad state. His tire was flat, and so was his spare. He was elderly. One side of his face was paralyzed, maybe from a stroke.
“I’ll never make it in time,” the old man kept saying. “I’m so late.”
“Late for what?” we asked.
The man shook his head. “Doesn’t matter now, the party starts in forty-five minutes, I’ll never make it to Columbus.”
I looked in in the backseat of his truck. It was filled with boxes of baby items. A stroller, still in a cardboard box, infant clothes on hangers, toys galore. In his truck bed, he had dozens of Styrofoam coolers.
“What kinda party?” I asked.
“A baby shower.”
This was bad luck for the old man. We were heading north. Columbus was an hour south behind us.
Even so, my cousin and I talked it over. We decided that we would give this man a ride to Columbus. We still had time, if we played our cards right. We might even be able to make Atlanta with plenty of time to buy a hotdog before the concert.
We transferred the toys and coolers. Soon, my cousin’s truck was weighted with pastel-colored baby paraphernalia.
We sped toward Columbus fast enough to melt our tires. My cousin channeled the spirit of the great Richard Petty—long live the immortal champion.
The old man had a lot to say.
He told us that long ago, his wife left him. She took his kids to California. His children were adults now, and he hardly knew them.
But recently, his daughter moved back to Georgia. And he wanted to be a part of her life. Though he was in poor health, the man had volunteered to cater the food for his daughter’s shower.
“I got enough pork in them coolers to feed a hundred girls,” he told us. “Been smoking shoulders all week.”
We finally arrived in Columbus. We were early, which was a true miracle. My cousin was considering a new career path at the Talladega Superspeedway.
The neighborhood was filling up with cars. Young women were walking toward the house, carrying wrapped gifts.
After we unloaded the coolers into the kitchen, the old man begged us to eat something before we left.
We were seventeen, my cousin I had the appetites of North Atlantic whales. We ate until our feet swelled.
The house was bustling with women. And when the old man introduced us to his lovely daughter, she hugged us and even kissed us on the cheeks.
“Oh, thanks for helping my dad get here!” she said. “You’ll never know how much it means to me.”
She was the prettiest girl to ever make physical contact with my cousin without gagging. Which was really saying something. My cousin was known to have body odor that could set off residential smoke detectors.
Well, we were about to bolt for Atlanta, but something wouldn’t let us. We couldn’t leave this old man. I don’t know why.
So we stayed. We ate pork. We visited. We even helped do dishes. At the end of the night, I called my pal in Atlanta, and apologized for missing the concert.
When I hung up, I felt no regret because the old man was looking right at me. He wore a smile so big that his paralyzed eyelid fluttered.
“Sorry I made you miss your concert,” said the old man. “I feel awful about it.”
“Don’t feel bad,” my cousin said. “Willie never even missed us.”
I nodded. And though I didn’t mean to say it, the words sort of fell out by accident.
“Yeah,” I said. “We don’t even like Willie Nelson.”
But it was a lie, and I’ve been waiting a long time to set the record straight.
Willie, if you’re out there, I sincerely hope you know that I was only trying to make an old man feel better. I am still a fan of your work, and I still have that lunchbox.
Even though I never got to see you in person that day, you have to believe me, Willie.
You were always on my mind.
Judy Matone - February 4, 2019 6:27 am
I love Willie Nelson as well. I went to see him back in the 70’s in Springfield Il at the state fair. I was young with two kids and it was a night out for my husband and I. I was dog tired and I am probably the only person ever to fall asleep at a Willie Nelson concert. So you aren’t the only one who missed out on Willie. Seems impossible but it is true.
Sandi in FL. - February 4, 2019 6:46 am
In the early 70’s (1972 I think it was.) I got to see Willie singing in downtown Atlanta in a smoke-filled, dimly lit place where we had to walk down a long flight of stairs to enter. Willie sang with a tin bucket of beer on the floor beside him, out of which he sipped a few swallows between songs. He had no back-up band, no bodyguards, no fancy lights … just his guitar, faded jeans and red bandana, and was fast gaining popularity in the spotlight. For two hours he sang his heart out, and the crowd relished every minute. The last sentence of your post is the title of my favorite sing of his. I regret not asking for his autograph. Willie is one-of-a-kind.
Karen - February 4, 2019 8:03 am
My parents bought tickets for our entire family to see Willie Nelson in 1978 in Huntsville, Alabama. I was a young nurse, working the night shift in ICU. I had worked all night, and couldn’t sleep that day, even though it was my day off. So, I also fell asleep, standing up, while Willie sang. We were on the fifth row, and Willie noticed. I am sure he thought I was crazy. Emmy Lou Harris opened for him. I became a lifelong fan of hers. I saw him again, twice. I was awake for those events. I will never forget the Texas flag unfurling as he started his performance.
You have always had a good heart, Sean. I know Willie would approve that you & your cousin took care of that man.
Gary - February 4, 2019 9:58 am
I’ve never been to a Willie concert but I have seen Porter Wagonet in Moblie and Bill Anderson in Moultrie, Ga. I think Dolly was with Porter. Not sure, I was only about ten years old I remember Spec Rhodes was there.
ponder304 - February 4, 2019 10:37 am
I think you did exactly the same thing Willie would have done……I can hear him singing and smiling now!
Tara Becker - February 4, 2019 11:11 am
Love everything you write….but Richard Petty is still alive and well. 🙂
Karen Hazel - February 5, 2019 1:13 am
That’s what I wanted to say. Richard Petty is still alive and well.
David - February 4, 2019 12:06 pm
Love your writings. However I don’t think Richard Petty has left us for the racetrack in the sky just yet.
Roger - February 4, 2019 12:13 pm
“The late, great Richard Pety?’ Sean, you need a better fact checker.
Sally T. - February 4, 2019 3:24 pm
Petty, with two T’s. Just like your comment. I doubt that Sean has an actual “fact checker”, other than himself. He is not perfect, as he points out at least weekly in his columns. Please, let’s be kind to one another and cut each other a break.
Roger - February 4, 2019 4:03 pm
Put the brakes on, there, Sister. I’m not trying to tear anyone down. Facts are facts. “The King”, the great Richard Petty, with two “T”s – thanks for the correction – is not dead. I will thank you in advance for understanding that facts matter. Yes, it was a great story. However, even Dan Brown gets his historical facts correct when writing his fictional stories.
Shaw - February 4, 2019 1:23 pm
Sean, great column, but aren’t so many of yours great? I would LOVE to see a photo of the Willie Lunchbox!!!! Please post a picture of it somewhere – I’m sure Willie would like it too. I’ve seen him 4 or 5 times, and every one was great. My favorite time was the last time, in 2008 or so, when my Dad got to go with us to see him. My parents LOVED Willie, and Waylon too. A really great time for me, with wonderful memories – and Willie sang too!!
My father passed in 2010, but that concert was a great experience.
Connie Havard Ryland - February 4, 2019 1:36 pm
I’m sure Willie would not only understand but applaud. He’s big on family and other good things, no matter what people think. You may have to stand in line behind me to be his biggest fan. I’ve seem him six times and have tickets already to see him in April in Mobile. Of course, I am one of your biggest fans as well. I look forward to your column every day.
Jess in Athens, GA - February 4, 2019 1:42 pm
Pssst….Sean, Richard Petty is still alive. You scared me when you wrote ” My cousin channeled the spirit of the late great Richard Petty—God rest the immortal champion.” I checked online including Dead or Alive.com and the King is still kickin’. Thought I’d let you know. Other than that it was a good read as always.
Bonida Kimbrough - March 5, 2019 3:31 pm
It doesn’t say LATE!
Phillip Saunders - February 4, 2019 1:53 pm
Sean, you and your cuz obviously live by the code of the Boy Scout Slogan: “Do a good turn daily.” Don’t worry, Willie has to be proud of you.
Peggy Branch - February 4, 2019 2:19 pm
Willie will be in Mobile in Apri!
Nancy Wright - February 4, 2019 2:44 pm
Boy, you come from some good stock!
Jack Darnell - February 4, 2019 3:36 pm
I hope someone forwards this to Willie and you get an invite to Mobile front section with a chance to pick with him. You are a good man Charlie Brown. As always, you recall a good story!
Shelton A. - February 4, 2019 3:58 pm
Doing the right thing is hard…and you were just boys, too. Willie missed seeing you. I think Willie has a soft spot for men (and young men) like you.
Carolyn Allen - February 4, 2019 4:56 pm
A great post Sean. I commend you and your cousin for doing the right thing. I think goodness is in the family genes!
Pat - February 4, 2019 4:59 pm
Sandy Hutchinson - February 4, 2019 5:26 pm
I was gonna tell you Richard Petty is not dead, but someone else already did. I really like your posts. You have a good way with words. I like that you titled this one Crazy but didn’t mention that song or even that it was a Willy Nelson song, You’re good kind of crazy.
Sandy Hutchinson - February 4, 2019 5:30 pm
One more thought about Richard Petty. He made a run for Governor here in North Carolina some years ago. Sometime in there he ran up on someone who was in front of him on the highway and not driving fast enough. He didn’t act one bit sorry about it. That was the end of Richard Petty’s state level political aspirations.
Chasity Davis Ritter - February 4, 2019 5:49 pm
Oh what I wouldn’t give if I could share this with Willie.for you Closest I ever got was an impersonator that showed up at an Elvis impersonator show. I said “wow you really sound/look like him” and said “I Willie do!” I wish you could see him play. I’d love to see that lunch box too!! But God bless you always for the kind soul you are. You make me want to be better too.
Tim House - February 4, 2019 9:48 pm
Well, Richard Petty isn’t “the late”… He’s still going strong!
Debbie Britt - February 5, 2019 2:35 am
I have a feeling that Willie will see or at least here about this! You may still get your wish yet!
Rita - February 5, 2019 3:59 am
Guess I don’t really need to say that the King, Richard Petty, is alive and well. Still wearing his cowboy hat and shades. And still has his old #43 out there on the track every week, with a driver named Bubba Wallace. Sean, I love your writing and look forward to them every day!
Kathy Coxwell - February 5, 2019 3:54 pm
Your mama didn’t fail. She reared the finest gentleman cowboy in the world!
Susan in GA - February 5, 2019 11:22 pm
Luv it, Luv it, Luv it. Doing the right thing is always the right thing, and you and your buddy did it.
Kristine Wehrheim - February 6, 2019 2:30 am
Me too Willie! Always on my mind! But never saw you. And always a fan of Sean.
Gwen Monroe - February 7, 2019 8:59 pm
You and your cousin are one in a million❤️
Melissa Mikkelsen - March 5, 2019 10:39 am
The first concert I remember going to was a Willie Nelson Concert. I have been lucky enough to take my girls to see him too. He holds a huge spot in my heart, especially because like me he loves music and horses. I will always love Willie.
Josie Retan - February 5, 2021 6:51 am
Where are you Willie? And you need to read this!