This week alone, I received letters from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin; Fayetteville, North Carolina; Chanute, Kansas; Oswego, New York; and Atlanta, Georgia.

Today, I got home to find my mail-lady stuffing my mailbox, using her fist to cram letters and manila envelopes in the government-approved receptacle.

That poor woman. She’s having a hard time because our mailbox was the recent victim of “mailbox baseball,” which is a game played during the summer months.

The rules of the game are loose, but it involves speeding cars filled with teenagers beating the tar out of innocent mailboxes.

The object of this game is: Any teenager who awakes the next morning and still remembers what happened the night before, wins.

Because of this, our beat-up mailbox looks more like a mutant metal pancake with a flag attached.

I need to install a new box, but I kind of like the character our dented mailbox has. It seems to scream to the world, “Hey, look at me! I’m lopsided! When it rains the mail gets wet!”

My mail lady hates our mailbox. She tells me it is one of

the top four things that causes her high blood pressure. The top item on her list is her mother-in-law in Tampa.

I receive a lot of mail. Which is a new thing for me. Used to, nobody wrote me but Ed McMahon and the IRS. But now I get mail from all over, sometimes from exotic countries like Canada.

Today, I got a letter from Jacksonville, from a woman I met a few weeks ago. It was a very touching letter. I cried when I read it.

I also got a letter from a man named Myron, who is from Tacoma, Washington, whose father just died.

This week alone, I received letters from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin; Fayetteville, North Carolina; Chanute, Kansas; Oswego, New York; and Atlanta, Georgia.

Most of my letters, however, come from Alabama. I am fortunate to call Alabama my adopted home away from home.…

Peter explains that they are a homeschool group of kids who all have something in common.

I stand behind them in the checkout aisle. It is a youth group, or maybe it’s a class trip. Either way, I know that they are excited to be on vacation because one boy actually shouts, “I’M SO EXCITED TO BE ON VACATION!”

The boy who hollers is using crutches, the kind that clasp to his arms. He is using a cheerful voice and from what I gather, he is excited to be on vacation.

The adult chaperone who accompanies the kids looks stressed out. There is a look adults often wear when they are responsible for large groups of kids. It’s a look I can spot from a mile away because I have been a youth-group chaperone before.

Going anywhere with a large clot of young people is a test of your humanity. You can not walk into a grocery store without kids running the aisles like rabid cats.

And when you finally find the miniature heathens, usually they’re doing something like playing a game of Butt

Swat in the produce section. The rules of Butt Swat are unclear to me, but apparently the game involves stalks of celery being used as weapons.

But these kids aren’t like that. They are happy kids, and well-behaved. They wear matching yellow T-shirts, and they smile a lot.

I talk to Peter, who is head chaperone.

“We’re from Atlanta,” he says. “We’re here at the beach for a vacation, these kids deserve a little fun.”

Peter explains that they are a homeschool group of kids who all have something in common.

“Most of our kids are differently abled,” says Peter. “We don’t like the term ‘disabled.’ We teach our kids not to use it.”

A few in the group have cerebral palsy, another has a congenital heart defect, others face mental health issues, and some children have mild autism.

“We’re a wild…

So I had to steal a Corningware percolator from my mother’s cabinet. I’m not proud of this, but she had three of them in her kitchen.

This is going to sound silly, but I miss the days when people used Corningware coffee percolators. Yeah, I know this particular kitchen accessory is an antique, but not in my house.

We have been using one since our first day of marriage.

Oh, we would have gladly used an electric coffee maker if someone would have given us one for a wedding gift. But fundamentalist Baptists don’t give practical wedding gifts. They give things you will never use.

For example: Serving plates shaped like the Crown of Thorns.

So I had to steal a Corningware percolator from my mother’s cabinet on my wedding day. I’m not proud of this, but she had three of them in her kitchen.

And while we’re talking about kitchens, I also miss the era of kitchen phones. Do you know how long it’s been since I used a rotary phone? A long time.

I realize that kids who were raised on cellphones might not know what rotary phones are, but they are missing out.

The wall-mounted kitchen phone was an important device in my personal childhood, and the world changed when we lost them.

Before the age of smartphones, there was only ONE way to talk to the opposite sex after school hours. You had to physically WALK into your mother’s kitchen, DIAL a telephone number in front of God and country, and endure Twenty Questions from your mother.

“What’re you doing?” your mother would ask, using the same tone she used when she suspected babies of having full diapers. “Are we calling a special someone?”

And it got worse.

You knew that after you dialed the number the girl’s father would answer first. Her father was a man who worked at the mill, who shaved his back with a dull axe blade, who weighed more than a Chevy Impala, who was a decorated…

What was my favorite song when I was eighteen? Was it “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry?” Or was it “Boy Named Sue?”

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FREEPORT—Nick’s Seafood Restaurant sits on the Choctawhatchee Bay. I am eating steamed blue crabs with butter sauce, and I am wearing half the meal on my shirt.

Most people know this joint as “Nick’s in the Sticks.” Namely, those who remember what Walton County was like before it turned into a giant cruise ship.

Our area has changed considerably over the years. For example, long ago you could buy live bait at the grocery store. Those days are gone. Today, you go to the store and you see out-of-town fraternity boys surfing atop shopping carts.

But Nick’s hasn’t changed. The seafood place still has fishing boats out front, chickens roaming the parking lot, and views of the Choctawhatchee.

My mother sits across from me. We are eating seafood, looking at the bay. And we talk about the old days. This is what families do. We talk. It’s a shame that there are so many things I can’t remember.

My memory is getting worse the older I get. I suppose this

happens to everyone sooner or later.

One day you’re sharp as a bread knife; the next day you’re driving through traffic, radio blaring, and you notice the drive-thru bank deposit tube lying in your passenger seat.

A few days ago, I asked my friend’s elderly mother about this problem of forgetting things. She is a tough woman who has survived a lot in her life. She buried three husbands, and two of them were just napping.

“Being forgetful ain’t all that bad,” she said. “Means you’re an old person. Learn to love it ‘cause if you’re not getting older then you‘re dead.”

Well, I have already started forgetting big things. Like certain people I grew up with. I just ran into one such man a few days ago. We weren’t close, but we knew each other. He was talking about the time when…

It’s a memory. One I don't ever want to forget. One that I had waited a lifetime for. I can still close my eyes and relive the whole thing.

There I am. I’ve just arrived in Mount Airy, North Carolina. The weather is crisp. It is nothing short of spectacular. Blue mountains in the distance. Rolling farmland. Picture-perfect downtown. The home of Andy Griffith is just like it always was. Small. Sweet.

I’m on a park bench, holding a bouquet of roses. I’m waiting for my one-on-one interview with the oldest living Andy Griffith Show cast member, Betty Lynn—better known as Barney’s girl, Thelma Lou.

An elderly woman is gardening beside me while I wait. Her hands are covered in soil. Her husband is with her. Shirley and Bob Perkins are in their eighties. They’ve lived here since the earth cooled.

I ask if they ever met Andy Griffith.

“Met him?” Shirley elbows her husband. “Why, Bob’s distant kin to Old Andy.”

I ask what “Old Andy” was like.

“Oh,

he was exactly like on TV. Don’t listen to nobody who says otherwise.”

When our conversation ends, Shirley says, “Before you leave town, get a pork chop sandwich from Snappy Lunch, there’s always a long line, but it’s worth the wait.”

I’m escorted into the museum. Ninety-one-year-old Betty Lynn rolls into the room in a wheelchair. Her hair is red, she sports a yellow blouse and yellow pocketbook. My heart sings.

I hand her the bouquet. She kisses my cheek. Yes. My cheek. My very own cheek. She kisses this. With her lips. I’ve had a crush on Thelma Lou since boyhood. Now that I’m with her, it’s gotten worse.

“Tell me about Andy,” I ask.

“Andy?” she says. “Those were the best years of my life. I still watch the show and laugh.”

Her personal story is a good…

The sound-guys are erecting speaker towers. And I am watching a copper-topped boy in a cowboy hat run in circles.

2:49 P.M.—A farm in LaFayette, Alabama. There are hardly any structures around for miles, only cornfields and silos. My band will play a concert here tonight. A hoedown, if you will.

Our band’s only mission: Fun. With a capital “F.”

When I arrive, the band is already waiting on me. I have been playing music with these men for many years. We’re not great, but we’re okay.

Tom (bass) sits on a porch swing, overlooking miles of corn. Jimmy (drums) leans against his car, smoking a cigarette, lost in a moment of spiritual reflection.

“Gosh,” Jimmy says, “I wonder where people go pee out here?”

The sound-guys are erecting speaker towers. And I am watching a copper-topped boy in a cowboy hat run in circles.

3:32 P.M.—Soundcheck. Tom tunes his upright bass. Jimmy tightens his drumheads. Aaron is on fiddle. I’ll be playing guitar and accordion tonight.

I have played accordion since my early days. The accordion is not an instrument per se, but more of a family embarrassment.

4:08 P.M.—Cars arrive by the dozen. People are mingling. There is an old man drinking out of a Mason jar, clear liquid. I doubt it’s water.

4:32 P.M.—Copper Top approaches me and says, “Is that a REAL accordion?”

“Yep.”

“And are you REALLY gon’ play that thang?”

“Yessir.”

“Dang.”

When I was a boy, I took up accordion because I wanted to be like my grandfather. But I learned to play with a bad habit, I stomp my right foot in rhythm. Sometimes I stomp so hard that I develop knee issues. But it’s fun. And that’s the keyword tonight.

5:11 P.M.—The parking area is now overflowing with cars. People have brought folding chairs and coolers. There is a taco truck in the distance.

The old man with the Mason jar is having an animated conversation with a cow.

When the first sliver of light showed, the girl shot to her feet and ran along the beach, waving arms in the air. So did the others.

I’m writing this in the early morning. The birds are asleep, the crickets, too. The sun is about to rise, and it’s going to rise just for you. There is a faint glow behind the trees. Just wait.

I received a letter this morning from a girl I’ll call Caroline. Caroline is eighteen. She told me about herself.

She wrote:

“I feel ugly and I know that’s why I’ve never had a boyfriend... I probably never will have one. People don’t like me, and I’m worried that nobody will ever love me.”

Sweet Caroline.

Here’s another letter from a man we’ll refer to as “Elvis”—because that’s what he wanted to be called. Elvis is forty-four.

He wrote:

“My ex-wife broke my heart… Why is it I end up trusting somebody and they break my heart, and instead of hating THEM, I dislike MYSELF somehow? I don’t like myself...”

And this beautiful young woman:

“I have an arteriovenous malformation… Which is why my arm doesn’t work, and now it’s moving to my leg. The malformation started

small, but has grown to the size of a tennis ball, giving me daily seizures and other obstacles…

“The hardest part about all this is being forgotten. I used to have a lot of friends before my diagnosis, but now...

“I get that people are busy, but is life really about being busy?”

Well, I hate to disappoint these good people who’ve written me, but they’re talking to the wrong guy. I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout nothin’.

The only thing I can possibly think to tell these good folks is about what happened to me during my seventh-grade year.

First, a little background: my seventh-grade year was shaping up to be a good one. Often, in the school cafeteria I’d have my pals laughing until milk spilled from their noses and they lost control of their lower…

And I was thinking: “What in the Sam Hill am I doing here?”

FAIRHOPE—A bookstore downtown. A book signing. I am wearing a sport coat, shaking hands, and smiling. There are a lot of people here tonight, and I am writing my name in their books.

The ironic thing is that I am not a legitimate writer. At least, I have a hard time seeing myself that way.

I have always seen myself as a Ford-owner first, a redhead second. A close third would be a devoted husband. However, in my house this job title has no official description. It would be hard, for instance, to view my family role as any different than the role of our dogs.

My dogs and I both sleep a lot, we both depend on my wife for meals, and the highlight of our day is finding a tree in the backyard that needs watering.

But here at this bookstore, I am signing books, and people are treating me like a real writer. It’s enough to make a grown man cry.

What am I

supposed to do? Smile and pretend that I’m actually what these people think I am? It feels ridiculous. It just doesn’t feel real.

I am thinking about the time in fourth grade when my mother told me I was smart, but I didn’t believe her. I seriously thought my mother was full of beans.

I made the worst grades in class. And bad grades take a toll on a kid’s mind. They make him feel like he’s doomed to be a janitor.

Imagine: All your friends are getting papers back with A’s, but your papers always bear a D, F, or a frowny face.

Also, I often got in trouble for things I didn’t do. Like the time when Mark Campbell brought a racy magazine to class. Mark’s desk was beside mine.

Mark whispered something to me but I ignored him because our teacher…

It takes place in the parking lot, before everyone parts ways. It’s called the Goodbye Ceremony.

A beach bar. My wife and I are with our cousins, James and Jessica. We are eating pizza. Somebody got a little crazy and even ordered oysters.

You know what my favorite part of any family gathering is? Not oysters or pizza. The part at the end. It takes place in the parking lot, before everyone parts ways. It’s called the Goodbye Ceremony.

In this part of the world, the simple act of saying goodbye can last for three hours. Sometimes longer if it’s football season.

James and Jessica are cool cousins. I once rode out a hurricane with James. I’ll never forget it. Hurricane Ivan was tearing through Brewton, Alabama. The rest of the family was downstairs, listening to a radio by candlelight.

James and I were upstairs, the ultimate thrill seekers, watching the storm. But we couldn’t see anything because it was too dark.

So our entire conversation basically went like this:

“Did you hear that?”

“Yeah.”

“What about that?”

“Yep.”

When the storm hit, we heard creaking and groaning. It sounded like the core of the planet was getting ripped from the soil and hurling through outer space somewhere above the casino in Atmore.

The next morning, the town had lost so many trees you couldn’t drive down Belleville Avenue. The power was out. It was tragic.

But Brewton’s families banded together. You could see people on porches, cooking food on gas grills, drinking beer at noon.

Because that’s what family does.

Family is important to me. It becomes even more important the older I get. I didn’t grow up with much. And at this age I have to sort of create my own, which isn’t easy because I have no kids.

This is tough sometimes because I really like kids. I like them so much that every child I meet—I know this is going to…

“Come and get it,” says my wife.

There comes a time when a man must stand up for what he believes and ask for extra gravy on his chicken fried steak. Which is exactly what I am doing.

I am asking my wife to cover my plate in white pepper gravy.

I have a long history with chicken fried steak. It goes back to when I was a child.

Chicken fried steak was a real treat in our household. We rarely ate it at home. And we hardly ever went out to eat, either. Eating out was too expensive, and my father was so cheap that he wouldn’t have given a nickel to see Jesus ride a bike.

If we ever did go out, I was only allowed to order ice water. No ice.

Until one fateful Saturday morning, for an unknown reason, my father decided to take our family to a breakfast restaurant.

I can still remember it. The place was a dive. Vinyl seat cushions. Napkin dispensers. George Jones was singing

overhead.

My father told me I could have anything I wanted on the menu. So I ordered chicken fried steak and asked the waitress for extra white gravy.

My father said, “You’ll never finish all that.”

I laughed at my critics.

The waitress brought me a steak that was about the size of Venezuela. I ate three bites and had to be carried out of the restaurant on a stretcher.

When I got older, I visited a themed restaurant outside Little Rock that claimed to have the world’s biggest chicken fried steak.

When I ordered, the perky waitress said, “You sure you wanna order that? You look kinda puny, kid.”

“I’m sure.”

My steak arrived on a platter with a Bowie knife sticking from the top. And I could swear I heard George Jones singing overhead.

“Stand back,” I said. “This could get…