I have a letter from Marge, in Louisville, Kentucky. She is 32 years old and she writes:

“I wish my father could be alive to see me, I just graduated from college amidst the coronavirus and am so proud of myself but nobody else is. I hope he would be, too, but I will never know. I started college when Dad was alive and he never got to see me finish before his pancreatic cancer. Is that stupid of an adult like me to want someone to be proud?”

Marge, I remember when I was 6 or 7 years old. I remember the following day explicitly: It was summer. My father and I were in the garage. I was shirtless and sunburned, sitting before a huge Westinghouse floor fan, eating a popsicle.

My father had just finished changing the oil in the Ford. He always had a cool garage. Back before terms like “man cave” were used we just called them garages. He had a workbench, millions of tools,

auto equipment, torque wrenches, and various other welding supplies. And jet posters. Always jet posters.

My father was a frustrated fighter pilot.

If you would have asked him which outlandish wish he could have had granted—this would have been true for him at any age—he would have answered, “I wanna be a fighter pilot.”

It was an obsession with him. He aimed his whole adolescent life toward being a fighter pilot. When he was a young man, he went to take the preliminary pilot physical and the doctor discovered that he was mostly deaf in one ear. The doctor sent him away without even a “Gee, I’m sorry, kid.”

My father was a mess after that. So as a grown man, he did a lot of sitting in the garage, looking at jet posters. On the walls of his garage were—this is not an exaggeration—thousands of posters. They had faded with…

Three years ago. Reeltown, Alabama. There I am, at a vegetable stand. There’s an old man there. I don’t know how old the man running the vegetable stand is, but he’s old enough to have white hair and use words like “rye-chonder” when he points.

He and his wife sit in rocking chairs. There are flats of tomatoes, peppers, jars of honey.

“‘Ch’all dune?” comes the call from his wife—a sweet woman with a kind face.

I inspect the man’s last batch of summer tomatoes. They look good. And it's hard to find good fare on the side of the road anymore.

Factories have taken over the world. Homegrown summer tomatoes are almost a myth.

There’s a clapboard house behind us. The roof is pure rust. The front porch is made of pure history.

“Grew up in that house,” he said. “My mama grew up in that house. Been farming this land since I’s a boy.”

His land nestles in the greenery of the foothills. He grew up using a mule to turn dirt fields. He burned up his childhood

tending cotton, cane, and peanuts. But he doesn't call himself a farmer.

“I’m a country preacher,” he goes on. “‘Fore that, we was missionaries.”

Missionaries. But not overseas. To Native Americans. Primitive tribes in the United States which still cooked over fires and lived without electricity. When they were younger, their missionary work was in Alaska.

“You take a Deep South boy like me,” he says. “Put me in a poverty stricken Eskimo tribe for ten years, that’s an education, boy.”

He’s not like many preachers. He has no doctrine to hammer, no book to thump. All he’s ever wanted to do is help people and to sell vegetables.

And he has a soft spot for Native Americans. He speaks about those he's helped, with wet eyes. This man is made of Domino sugar.

“We just wanted people to know…

DEAR SEAN:

Can I babysit your dog sometime? I have always wanted a bloodhound, and my mom says no. But I read once where you let someone babysit your dog, Thelma Lou, and I thought maybe I could do it, maybe when we’re done with social-distancing.

Please say yes,
KID-FROM-MINNESOTA

DEAR MINNESOTA:

First of all, Minnesota is a LONG way from Florida. I just did an internet search and discovered that Minnesota is somewhere close to the Arctic Circle.

Secondly, I doubt you want to babysit my dog. My dog goes around eating—and I do not mean to be crude—cat poop. Actually, she doesn’t care which species‘ excrement she eats, as long as it's kosher. Any kind will do. Cats, raccoons, bears, water buffalo, giraffes. This is why you must NEVER let my dog give you a kiss.

I repeat. Never.

Right now, she is sitting on my feet. She weighs about a hundred pounds, and she gets heavier each day. This is because she eats everything in sight. Even furniture.

I don’t

know if you know about bloodhounds, but they are truly scientific marvels. Bloodhounds have a nose with 300 million smell receptors.

To give you an idea of how many that is, consider this: Your typical household American man has approximately 2 smell receptors. We men couldn’t smell odors coming from our own armpits if we were locked in a laundry hamper. Consequently, the average American wife can smell a decomposing tomato from a house three streets away.

A bloodhound’s nose is even more sensitive than that. Their noses can track a scent 12 days after the source has left an area. It is so sensitive that a bloodhound can smell one drop of human blood in several gallons of water.

The thing to remember here is that a dog’s taste buds are related to its sense of smell. Which means my dog loves to eat and…

I am walking through a neighborhood subdivision. It’s not far from my house. People ride bikes. Some are sitting on lawn chairs in driveways, taking in a sunset. Viva la quarantine.

I pass an open garage. Inside the garage is an old man and old woman talking, laughing. They are white-haired and small. His posture is hunched. She is sitting on a tall stool, wearing a towel over her body, keeping a still. He cuts her hair with scissors.

The old man moves around her like a guy who knows what he is doing. You can always tell people who know what they’re doing. My mother, for example, doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing when it comes to cutting hair.

I base this statement on my entire childhood. My mother used to cut my hair on the front porch, like all Baptists. She used dull, rusty, tetanus-covered scissors, and high-powered army horse clippers. Her method for haircuts was eyeballing it.

One time she was giving me a Fundamentalist Special out on the front porch when the clipper guard

popped off. The blade ran straight into a virgin patch of my hair and cut me clear to the scalp. I could feel the blades bite my skin.

The first thing that happened was that my mother covered her mouth and said, “Sweet Jesus.”

My mother didn’t say the Lord's name like that unless communists had invaded U.S. soil, or Conway Twitty had a new album.

“What’s wrong?” I said.

My mother started to laugh. “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.”

“Sorry for what?”

She was snorting now.

I looked in the reflection of the porch window. I saw a kid looking back at me with a chunk missing from his skull. My red hair had an aircraft landing strip in the center.

She was purple-faced, rolling on the porch, and losing bladder control.

“My head!” was all I could say.

“We…

MINNEAPOLIS—It was an average Tuesday morning at the VA hospital. Elderly Sam Nilva awoke in his bed with crusty eyelids from sleep. He blinked at the ceiling a few times. A nurse brought some good news.

“You’re going home today, Sam,” she said.

Home. After being stuck in a sterile room for God only knews how long, the Minneapolis VA hospital was discharging him.

Another nurse leaned over Sam’s bed. Her surgical mask, goggles, and face shield could not cover her award-winning smile.

“And guess what?” she said. “We have a little celebration for you, birthday boy.”

Next, the nurses had all gathered in Sam’s room, holding handwritten cards, posters, and a multi-colored banner that read: “Happy Birthday.”

The little old man didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. His face said enough. He was taking it all in. More nurses were chiming in via video phone on a monitor beside his bed. Everyone was cheering. It was a great day.

Sam recovered from a recent brain surgery, and he’s been in this hospital fighting COVID-19.

It was no day at the beach. Some weren’t sure if he’d beat it, but he did. And he did it with flying colors.

Though it should come as no surprise. On Apr. 29, 1919, Samuel Nilva came into this world, and he’s seen a lot worse in his life.

It’s hard to imagine what the world was like back in such an ancient era, but it was a turbulent time to be alive. Woodrow Wilson was in office. The government had just voted to protect sections of virgin land that would become national parks, which was considered a wacky idea by many critics. Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” was just officially published.

Congress had just approved the 19th amendment so that women could vote. Einstein proved Newton's theory of space to be dead wrong. A little football club in Green Bay, Wisconsin, decided to…

The things I could write about pound cake. I could go on and on and bore you to death, but I won’t.

After my father died, I remember visiting a Methodist church with my boyhood friend, and he was introducing me to people. He was raised Methodist, I was not. My people were Baptist.

The Methodists were cheerful. My people didn’t believe in cheer. Our pastor preached hard against alcoholism, promiscuity, and narcotics because these things could lead to cigarette smoking.

My friend pointed to one lady in the congregation. She was slight, with gray hair, and a blue skirt suit.

There are some people you don’t forget. She was one of those people.

She had a heavenly glow. People smiled when they passed by her like she was unique.

“Who’s that woman?” I asked.

“That is the Pound Cake Lady,” my pal said in reverence.

After the Methodist service, my friend led me to a downstairs fellowship hall. The Methodists put out a bigger spread than any I’d ever seen. There was even a special table dedicated

to cornbread and biscuits.

It was too much. Overwhelming. I even saw people standing outside the fellowship hall, smoking cigarettes after their meal. It was as though they were unwinding after sin.

The woman in the blue skirt suit placed something on the end of the table. It was golden, fat, hulking, sacred pound cake.

“Hurry and get some,” said my friend, “before it’s all gone.”

He was right. The cake didn’t last four seconds among those chain-smoking Methodists. But when it disappeared, the old woman replaced it with another.

People blessed her name forevermore. Hallelujah. And so did I.

So every church has a pound cake lady. They are young, middle-aged, or elderly, and they are holy. These ladies are messengers, sent to humanity as proof that God is not gluten-free. He loves white flour, sugar, and butter, no matter what…

There is something about the way the sun falls upon the lustrous water of the Choctawhatchee Bay that lights my heart on fire.

No. Wait. I apologize. That sentence you read in the above paragraph was ridiculous. Lustrous? How immature and overly dramatic. This is because I wrote that sentence when I was about 17 years old, everything was dramatic back then.

That was probably the age when I truly decided that I wanted to be a writer. I was lanky. I was dumb. I was a fatherless dropout. I remember taking my Lettera 32 portable typewriter down to the bay, pulling it out of its travel case, and loading it with paper. I expected a wave of literary inspiration to just (bam!) hit me, but nothing happened. Nada. Zip.

Welcome to writing, kid.

I was sitting there on the shore, my typewriter was getting corroded with salt air, and the only sentence that came to me was the ridiculous one you just read.

But I remember the evening

I wrote it. I was camping by the water in a secluded spot. My dog was with me. Lady was her name. She was curly-haired, and faithful. Behind me was my pup tent. Ahead of me was that water. And that stupid typewriter.

What a dork. I can’t believe the level of dorkiness. I remember sitting by that bay, trying to write what I hoped would become a novel. I got maybe six words into it and realized I was an idiot.

You can’t write a novel at 17, your earlobes haven’t dropped yet. You know nothing of life, or about the joys of paying health insurance premiums that cost more than tactical helicopters. But there I was, trying, and I have to give Young Me credit for giving it his best shot.

Somehow, the kid thought that looking at the big water would give him the right words. But after…

I have here an email from a woman in North Carolina, named Pam, who writes:

“My dad died of COVID-19, and there could only be a few of us at his funeral for obvious reasons. I don’t know how to stay positive anymore, I don’t know how to cope, I’m crying while I write this. He was my best friend and he’s gone.”

Pam, after I read your letter, out of pure reflex I was tempted to say, “I am sorry.”

But I caught myself. People are programmed to say that little phrase without even thinking. We say it because we don’t know what else to say at funerals. It just slips out. I don’t care for the phrase.

I don’t mean to imply that saying “I’m sorry” is insensitive. It’s just that EVERYONE says it. And sometimes, it comes off as insincere.

The day of my father's funeral, for example, I must have heard this phrase about 24,192 times. By the end of the day I never wanted to hear “I’m sorry” again.

There are other things people

could say in these instances. People could always go with something honest, like: “Hey, I don’t know what to say.” Or they could just hug you and say nothing.

But alas, most folks stick with the old standbys. “He was a good man.” “Life is short.” Or my personal favorite: “He’s in a better place.”

Do you know what I wish people would say at funerals sometimes? The truth. As in:

“This really sucks.”

One time, my mother had a momentary breakdown shortly after my father passed. Her emotions overtook her. She screamed until her voice broke. She said over and over again, “THIS SUCKS!!!”

We’d never heard her say that word before. But she was saying how we all felt. And it needed to be said.

The ironic thing is, my mother didn’t talk that way. My mother is a…

We are getting gentle rain in Northwest Florida. I am on the porch, watching it fall. I love rain. We have been quarantined for 45 days, and I am going crazy. So the rain is a friend.

Maybe I like rain because of what it represented when I was growing up. See, the people I come from never stopped working. Not even on holidays, weekends, or during the World Series. It was always work, work, work. The only time they ever took a break was when the preacher was about to bury them.

Unless it was raining.

And this, I suppose, is why rain will always be special to me. Rain makes me think of days passed on the porch. The only time my father and mother would sit on the porch and refrain from blatant yard work was during a good rain.

My mother would be sewing something. My father would be shirtless, like a hick. He never wore a shirt at home. His people never wore shirts, either. He

hated shirts. One time I asked my father what life was like before I was born, and I’ll never forget when he said, “We used to walk around naked all day.”

I don’t think he was telling the full truth because my mother was a hand-raising fundamentalist who did not believe in nakedness. If she could have had her way, I would have showered with my clothes on.

My mother’s fundamentalist food was always particularly good on rainy days. This is because my mother would bust her butt in the kitchen since she couldn’t bust her butt outside.

She had these gospel records she would listen to while she would be frying something. Or a gospel radio show she would have playing, where Baptist quartets sang songs that only men who were castrated could sing.

Her food was legendary. That’s another thing about my family. We grew up breaking…

Yesterday I went for a walk. I have been going on a lot of walks ever since the word “quarantine” became a household term.

Sometimes, I like to be alone in the woods. I grew to become a big fan of the woods when I was a young man, growing up in a household full of females, waiting sometimes nine hours for the bathroom to be free. I visited the woods a lot back then.

One of my favorite secluded spots is near the water, in a big swamp.

When I arrived, I saw two men fishing. They sat on overturned buckets. One man was mid-60s, the other was about 19 maybe 20. Both wore surgical masks and they were sitting about 25 feet apart.

This is one of my all-time favorite fishing spots. But the funny thing is, this place has terrible fishing. That’s not why people come. They all visit for the same reason I do.

They come because these surroundings are a sanctuary. Large swollen cypress trees stand in

swamp water that goes on for acres, dotted with billions of lily pads, croaking frogs, a few gators, and egrets.

I love egrets. Sometimes I stop by this little place simply to watch egrets. Egrets have that ice-cold glare. A look that says they are smarter than you are. A look that says they don’t give a rip about what kinds of problems mankind gets himself tangled in. All an egret cares about is eating.

I introduced myself to the two fishermen.

“I’m Mark,” the young kid told me. “And this is my dad.”

Dad said, “I’d shake your hand, but...”

Right. Social-distancing. I stayed about 30 feet away from them.

Dad has a weak immune system after having survived an infection following a surgery last year. When the coronavirus epidemic hit, Mark was away at college in northern Alabama. They told Mark to stay away from home…