Will the Old Folks’ Club & Elderly Persons With Ridiculously Expensive Hearing Aids Society meeting now come to order? Thank you.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is a privilege to welcome this evening’s keynote speaker to our podium. He is 94 years young, his name is Jon. Let’s give him a rousing round of applause.

Sustained applause. A few cat calls.

“Good evening, friends, constituents, and esteemed members who are still awake. My name is Jon, and I am pleased to be addressing the Old Folks’ Club & Elderly Persons With Ridiculously Expensive Hearing Aids Society tonight.

“I’d first like to thank your chairman for inviting me. I’d like to also thank the Methodist ladies group for providing the extremely tiny crustless cucumber finger sandwiches. Let’s all give them a hand.”

Applause.

“Tonight I have a story to share. My tale begins when I was a much younger man of seven. I can hardly remember back that far.

“I had a nice childhood. I liked playing marbles, I was active in neighborhood baseball games, I loved Mallo Cups.

Sadly, at my current age I can’t eat candy anymore, and I have yet to relocate my marbles.

“When the Great Depression came along—I don’t have to remind you how hard it was—life changed more for some of us than others.

“In my family we were helpless. There was nothing to be done. My dad lost his job, my mom lost hers. Me and my little brother, Skeeter, didn’t know how bad it was, except that we were eating a lotta cabbage soup.

“My parents started falling behind on house payments. They began taking whatever jobs they could, but each month things got worse. Our water got shut off. Then we had no electricity, and Skeeter and I weren’t getting along because he was a boob.

“Anyway, my dad started working for a grocery store and delivering groceries and such. The money stunk,…

A beer joint, somewhere in middle Alabama. I pull the truck over and walk inside. It’s getting late. The place is mostly empty except for a few stragglers and an old guy at the bar eating a hamburger in the dark.

Overhead the radio is playing Johnny Paycheck’s “Don’t Take Her She’s All I Got.” The server-slash-barkeep this evening is bearded, stoutly built, with hands like Virginia hams.

“Something to drink?” says the man behind the wood.

“Whatever’s cold.”

“Got the big three on tap. Your call.”

“Surprise me.”

“Ite.”

He pulls the stick. The amber juice arrives in a heavy mug with a handle, the kind of mug people used long before they quit visiting dancehalls. The beer tastes stale, flat, and perfect.

“Something to eat, buddy?”

I eye the menu. “What’s good?”

“Anything that ain’t from our kitchen.”

“I’ll take a burger.”

“Ite.”

Johnny Paycheck gives way to Porter Wagoner who is singing “The Cold Hard Facts of Life.”

The old man at the bar beside me is quietly singing along while trying to eat his hamburger. But he is having mild to severe muscular tremors,

and he can hardly hold his food with his stiffened arthritic hands.

Then things get even worse when his sleeve accidentally swipes across his plate and food flies onto the bartop.

The barman returns and sees the minor mess. “Hey, you spilled your food.”

“Sorry.”

“You old coot.” The barman laughs and takes care of the old guy’s problem like it’s no big deal, smiling the whole time, keeping things light and unembarrassing. This barkeep is good people.

Soon my hamburger arrives in a red basket and the music du jour has become Don Gibson’s “Throw Myself a Party.” The old man sings backup while the young bartender removes fries from the would-be rowdy’s lap.

“You like this old music, don’t you?” says the barkeep.

The old man grins. “Shoot. Grew up…

BRIAN—Hi, Sean. I read your story yesterday about miracles and it really hit a nerve…

I wanted to share one of my own miracles with you from when I was 23 years old and my wife gave birth, she died after delivery from sepsis and I was sure my life was over.

I thought about putting my daughter up for adoption because I didn’t think I was man enough to raise her alone and I wanted her to have the best life she could ever have, even if it wasn’t with me.

Holding my daughter on that first night I felt an overwhelming peace that it would all be okay and I should raise my daughter, knowing that I would have lots of help from above. My daughter is fifty-eight now. Thank you.

CHERYL— My miracle was when mom had cancer after she retired. They all told her there was nothing they could do.

My mother lived until age ninety-two.

BENJAMIN—I was in a car accident when I was coming home from work and

I rear ended a logging truck. I probably should have died, but I am alive because of a man who was passing by me and pulled me from my car.

DOROTHY—When [my sister and I] were girls our dad and mom were going to get divorced and me and my sister were living in fear… Because my mom wasn’t a stable person and we also knew my dad was going to leave us.

My aunt showed up that night unexpectedly to take us to come live with her in Arizona. My mom ended up in an institution for people dealing with mental issues and my dad totally disappeared.

My aunt said that it was a dream that woke her up and told her to drive those six hours to come get us and raise us.

GRACE—I’m not ready to share what happened to me yet, but…

When I was a kid I believed in miracles. All kids do. In fact that’s the best part about being a kid. You believe in practically everything and everyone.

You believe in Santa, cowboys, Bigfoot, love songs, happy endings, and you seriously believe that if Rachel Alison kisses you it means you're automatically married.

Personally, I was a big believer in eating SpaghettiOs for breakfast. I also believed in the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and especially in Dale “The Intimidator” Earnhardt. I believed in angels, in magic, and most of all I believed in miracles.

But something changed over the years. I quit believing in stuff. I can trace this change back to fourth grade when my family life sort of went downhill.

By fifth grade, my home life completely fell apart, and shortly thereafter things got even worse when my father used a hunting rifle to remove himself from our lives.

That same year I learned some basic lessons about human nature. Firstly, I learned that nobody—nobody—knows how to deal with you after

you’ve experienced trauma. So they just don’t.

Friends quit returning calls. People instinctively distance themselves from you. They don’t mean any harm, but you end up getting blackballed just the same. Eventually you become a kind of foreigner in your own homeplace.

Which is why I dropped out of school, I felt like a sideshow among my peers.

By high-school age I was working on construction sites, and I was missing out on teenage rites of passage like homecoming, prom, football games, applying toilet paper rolls to trees, and mooning law enforcement officials on spring break.

The way I grew up left me disappointed with this world. I was disenchanted. And miracles? Don’t make me gag.

But one summer when I was an adult, this too would change.

I had just finished my high-school equivalency classes and enrolled in community college. I was trying to…

Troy, Alabama. Five years ago. It was a funeral unlike anything you have ever seen before.

It was raining hard in Alabama. The bleachers in Troy University’s Sartain Hall Gymnasium were filling with mourners. Lots of them. One by one the people came.

Outside the gym a Haynes Life Flight helicopter sat parked on the pavement for effect. Surrounding it were fire trucks, police cruisers, and five-hundred acres of ambulances and flashing lightbars. The horizon was packed with emergency vehicles.

The visitors came from all over the Yellowhammer State. Coffee, Pike, Covington, Dale, Elmore, and Montgomery. They came to honor their own.

In the gym, on the free-throw line, were three caskets draped in American flags. The funerary boxes were huddled together in tight formation. The hems of their flags barely moved in the air conditioning.

Those in attendance were wearing EMS blues, flight suits, duty belts, and class-A uniforms. Many were on-call. Radios were still clipped to vests. Tactical boots were muddy. Some had been working long shifts and were running on

fumes.

Gentle murmurs came to a close when an audio recording played on the sound system overhead. It was loud. The sound reverberated off the smooth surfaces and wooden floor.

This arena usually only hears the noises of screaming fans and the squeaks of rubber shoes. On this day the court heard the last radio transmission for Haynes Life Flight Two.

The helicopter crashed eighty miles south of Montgomery, only days before this service. This radio call was a ceremonial message to the deceased, a traditional send off among the initiated.

Static. “November-Nine-One-One-Golf-Foxtrot, we show you departing with four souls onboard, we’ll take it from here…” More static.

The sounds of sniffs were everywhere. And EMS workers don’t cry often.

The accident had happened during the wee hours on an average Saturday. The helipad crew at Troy Regional Medical Center was having a quiet night when a…

DEAR SEAN:

Since I am writing a book I wanted to know what it’s like being an author. So I prepared the following for you:

1. Does it get weird when people you don’t know know your name?
2. Is writing tiring?
3. Do you get too much attention?

Write me back soon with your answers. How are Otis and Thelma Lou and Ms. Jamie doing? Tell them I said hi.

Sincerely,
10-YEAR-OLD-IN-BATON-ROUGE

DEAR BATON ROUGE:

First off, kudos for writing your book. Books are fun. Writing a book is a lot like jumping out of a speeding vehicle. It hurts, and all your friends send Hallmark cards when they hear about it.

In fact the hardest part of the whole book process is simply beginning. I have met many people who want to write books, who have great ideas for books, who possess heaps of bookish talent, but never actually sit down and write the dang book.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. You asked three well-formed questions. Therefore I will answer.

And I promise to answer with the kind of straight talk I wish someone would have used with me when I was your age.

You see, I’ve wanted to be a writer since the fourth grade. Whenever I would tell this to my teachers they usually responded by patting my head and saying, “Well, just remember God needs janitors, too.”

1. “Does it get weird when strangers know your name?”

You must be confusing me with someone else, nobody recognizes me.

Then again there was one time when I was in a train station after an author event last year. I deboarded and two excited kids rushed up to me with smiles and notebooks in their hands. I was so flattered.

One girl said, “Can I have your autograph?”

I did my best John Wayne and replied, “Be glad to, ma’am.”

No sooner had…

DESTIN, Fla.—The fireworks crackled above our little beach town. The moon was out. The beaches of my youth looked the way they always do: slammed.

“I wanna go home,” I told my wife while I hauled cheap beach junk onto a crowded shore. “I don’t care about fireworks.”

She laughed. “C’mon, it’ll be fun.”

“Define fun.”

My idea of fun is not communing with greased-up tourist torsos on a public beach to watch low explosive pyrotechnics.

“I brought a radio,” my wife said, sweetening the deal.

“Wow. A radio. Gee, Wally, neato.”

That remark got me a rib contusion.

The beach was covered in blankets and families. Loud children played tag in the dark. People grilled. There were the sounds of fireworks that shook your skull. My wife fired up the old transistor and immediately Alan Jackson started singing about the Chattahoochee.

Against my will I actually made some new friends among the summer people. Like the couple on the blanket next to ours who was eating popsicles and watching the sky. The guy said he was a preacher

from Katy, Texas, on vacation with his wife.

“Hey man,” he said, reaching into his cooler. “You wanna popsicle?” Then he glanced in both directions and said suggestively, “They’re homemade.”

Before I could consider the deeper meaning of the clergyman’s coded words my wife answered for us both and pretty soon we were sucking frozen homemade ice pops that were made entirely from tequila.

The preacher smiled. His tongue was royal blue. “Good stuff, huh?”

Texans.

After that I found myself laughing often and sometimes singing backup with our little radio. Also I had double vision. Before my wife could stop me I was already introducing myself to total strangers on nearby blankets like I was running for public office.

I met a guy cooking hotdogs on a Coleman camp stove, he was from Atlanta. He was shirtless, large, with skin…

I’m driving on the interstate with Elvis. I found him at a truck stop. The “Aloha Live From Hawaii Via Satellite” album was on a clearance CD rack for $8.95 plus tax and I figured what the heck. It is now playing on my truck radio.

Forty-seven years ago this record peaked at number one and has yet to be outdone in my opinion. This album has it all. It has energy. Heart. Soul. A blazing hot rhythm section.

They called it “the concert seen ‘round the world” because in 1973 around 1.5 billion people viewed Elvis’s televised performance worldwide, more than tuned in to see the moon landing.

And it’s evident why. There is something electric about the whole album. Hearing a 6,000-plus crowd cheer like lunatics inside the Honolulu International Center is spellbinding. And when the king’s “Taking Care of Business” band opens with “See See Rider,” the concert takes on the intensity of a veritable nuclear event.

I can visualize Elvis taking the stage, wearing his American Eagle jumpsuit, doing his semi-karate

moves. I can see his 30-piece orchestra, the Sweet Inspirations backup singers, his silver screen smile, and his flowery lei.

No, they don’t have music like Elvis on the radio anymore.

Which is why I don’t listen to the radio. Today’s stations only play today’s “hits.” If you want oldies you need digital streaming services. Sadly, I have a non-digital truck radio that was manufactured back when today’s pop-stars were still filling their Pampers with fresh hits. So I’m obsolete.

Still, my old-fashioned radio is hanging in there. A few days ago I scanned local stations just to see what today’s music was like. I ended up learning a lot about modern society.

For starters, song melodies don’t matter anymore, neither do instruments, lyrics, or talent for that matter. They’d let you on the radio if you were playing an electric chainsaw.

Secondly, your average…

Dear Young Person

I am an imaginary old man. I am every World War II veteran you never knew. I am each faceless GI from the bygone European War. Or any other war for that matter.

I am in my 90s and 100s now. Lots of young folks probably don’t even know I exist.

In my war, I was one of the hundreds of thousands of infantrymen, airmen, sailors, marines, mess sergeants, seabees, brass hats, engineers, doctors, medics, buck privates, and rear-echelon potato-peelers.

We hopped islands in the Pacific. We served in the African war theater. We beat the devil, then we came home and became the old fart next door.

Wartime was one heck of an era to be young. Let me tell ya. When we went overseas we were still teenagers, smooth skinned, scared spitless, with government haircuts, wearing brand new wedding rings. We hadn’t seen action yet, so we were jittery and lots of us smoked through a week’s rations of Luckies in one day.

Then it happened. It was different

for everyone, but it happened. Shells landed everywhere. People screamed. And in a moment our fear melted away and we had war jobs to do. It didn’t matter who we were or which posts were ours. Everyone worked in the grand assembly line of battle.

When the smoke cleared and the action was over, we had new confidence in ourselves, and we were no longer boys.

And anyway, we weren’t just boys, we were girls, too. There were 350,000 females serving in the U.S. Armed Forces in World War II. People forget that.

Speaking of women. We guys were always talking about our sweethearts, wives, and mothers. If you mentioned someone’s girl a man was liable to talk for hours about her. And even if you’d already seen his wallet photos before, you never interrupted a guy talking about his gal. Because eventually you’d be talking…

Good morning, Erin. You don’t really know me, and I don’t really know you, but I wanted to thank you for inviting me to your wedding last weekend. It was a beautiful service.

You picked a good man to marry. Todd is an old friend. He’s moral, kind, loud-mouthed, and he can handle more adult beverages than any man I’ve ever known because he is an Episcopalian.

He is giving. Once, I saw him empty his wallet and give it to a handful of Latino boys outside the hardware store. It was cold weather. They were looking for an honest day’s work. They were wearing T-shirts. He gave them cash to buy coats.

That’s your new husband.

Anyway, it was a nice ceremony. They tell me that you and your mother decorated the chapel all by yourselves—and on a puny budget. It was breathtaking. We in the vestibule were all raving about how beautiful it was as soon as we walked through the doors. The white colors, the draped linen, the floral arrangements, and the magnolia

blossoms.

Somebody’s redheaded toddler was running around in the back pews throughout the service. And not that this was an issue, but evidently he had something fragrant in his diaper. We all know this because we could smell him before we entered the chapel, from a distance of roughly three blocks away.

His mother chased him, she was livid. She wore the angry face of maternal wrath, adorned in pearls and heels. She couldn’t catch the kid. He eluded her grasp, then ran toward the altar of God just before the wedding started.

He waved hello to the congregation.

We waved back.

Then he dug a hand into the seat of his britches and fished around for something which we all sincerely hoped wasn’t semi-solid organic matter.

And once his furious mother caught him, we all knew this particular redhead would not see his…