Dear Kentucky,

Your strength moves me. Ever since the tornadoes hit your state, I have been watching you on the evening news. I marvel at your courage. You are beautiful.

I see ambitious big-city news journalists, trying unsuccessfully to understand your downhome accents during interviews. And I watch you tell your most devastating stories while wearing an easy smile, without flinching.

I watch state officials address the public and I hear their voices crack. I see Red Cross volunteers cry. I see children with battered faces, parents wearing borrowed clothes, and young mothers without their babies.

Your communities look like confetti piles. Your land is a mud hole.

And yet you look unshaken. How? How do you do that, Kentucky?

When your sons and daughters stare into the lens, how do they find the mettle to tell the world about loved ones gone missing, tornado-related deaths, or relatives crushed beneath falling debris?

How do these interviewees manage to also tell the camera that they are “Trusting in God,” or “Taking it one day at a


You inspire me.

I’m inspired by the shirtless man wandering a demolished sidestreet, determinedly looking for his dog.

I am moved by the old fella pleading with camera crews to help find his missing wife.

I grieve the seven children who died on the same residential street.

I pray for you, Kentucky. I really do. I pray for your people, your first responders, your transplants, your prodigals, and the lineworkers visiting the Bluegrass State. I pray for your wounded heart, your ravaged lands, and for your splintered gathering places.

I see images of your young ones climbing over haystacks of rubble. I see men and women leading prayer in nuclear war zones. I weep with you. Then I offer a prayer alongside you.

And while I know that the last thing you need right now are the prayers of some average Joe Six-Pack like…

Somewhere in Alabama. A small town with a cute main street, lots of muddy trucks, and men who wear neon orange, even to church.

The elementary school staff went overboard on decorations that year. Too overboard. The school had, for instance, purchased two dozen balsam fir Christmas trees.

The school placed the trees in each classroom, office, hallway, multi-purpose room, and urinal. They bought so many live trees the school had leftovers.

“It’s the fresh smell everyone likes,” said the 73-year-old maintenance man. “Everyone just loves a live tree.”

Let’s call him Butch. The grizzled janitor reminds you of your favorite uncle. He’s a Vietnam vet who smokes like a diesel freighter and is about as warm and fuzzy as 300-grit sandpaper.

After Butch decorated the school halls, he had three surplus balsams left. He stored the trees in the custodian’s closet, then texted a local preacher.

“I just told the preacher, ‘Hey, look, I got two or three trees left, if you know anyone who wants a real tree, just tell’em to call me. They can have one.’”


first telephone call came in late that night. It was the voice of a child. A little girl.

“Is this the man with the trees?”

“Yes it is.”

“My family ain’t got no tree.”

The next day, Butch drove into the hinterlands, past miles of cotton and rows of peanuts, until he found a doublewide trailer on a dirt lot. A faded blue tarp covered the roof.

He installed the tree for the needy family and received roughly six thousand hugs before he left. The little girl wished him a merry Christmas. She even kissed his cheek.

On his drive back into town he got another phone call. “Hi,” said the voice of an old woman. “Is this the man with the trees?”

“It is.”

“Well, I’d love a real tree.”

In a few hours Butch was in an elderly…

The year was 1943. It was Christmas in the South Pacific. The U.S.S. North Carolina was adrift somewhere between Australia and the Edge of the World.

The BB-55 battleship was alive with the excitement of 2,339 foul-mouthed sailors, swabbies, Marines, and brass hats who had been at sea for a month. Most of whom did not bathe regularly.

Tonight was the annual Christmas party. The highlight of the year.

There was a holiday feast served on the mess deck. The turkey dinner tasted like lukewarm cardboard doused in Pennzoil gravy. But it worked.

There was the Christmas show. The crew always put on a slam-bang show, complete with skits, music, tap dancing, and a burlesque striptease wherein sailors dressed up like Hedy Lamarr and Veronica Lake and disrobed before a deafening roar of laughter.

Before the show, Chaplain Everett Weubbens was preparing the stage, getting the PA system ready, positioning the spotlights.

He was a Lutheran man with a meek disposition and an easy smile. He was excited about tonight’s show because he had a

big surprise in store.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It all started months earlier when the Chappy decided to take up a collection so that crewmen could send Christmas gifts home to their kids and loved ones.

Chappy collected five bucks from dads, husbands, and sons aboard. The men picked out gifts from the Macy’s catalog. Fathers selected Tinkertoys, toy pianos, dresses, dolls, Goldenbooks, and Louisville Sluggers. Others selected gifts for their wives.

The Chappy crammed the cash into a shoebox and typed a letter to Macy’s Department Store, begging Macy’s to deliver these gifts to the respective addresses enclosed:

“Dear Sir,” he began, “we realize that we are asking a great deal but... You will be adding greatly to the happiness of our children and to our own Christmas joy out here in one of the war zones.”

When the letter made it…

When I called her, the old woman was preparing to leave southern Kansas at sunrise, bound for western Kentucky, where the recent tornadoes hit.

It all started for her yesterday evening.

“I was praying for Kentucky,” she said, “and God just told me to go.”

So that’s what she decided to do.

She packed an overnight bag, made sure her house was locked, and hired a cat-sitter. She activated the timer on her Christmas lights. She plugged in the life-size inflatable Nativity scene in her front yard.

A seven hour drive awaited her. She had plenty of coffee in her thermos, and CDs to listen to.

“I don’t mind long drives,” she said. “It’s kinda relaxing.”

Before she pulled away, she opened the tailgate of her F-150 one last time to make sure it was all there.

Inside her truck bed were a few hundred bags of groceries. She spent a lot of money buying them. She bought things like diapers, Saltines, Wonderbread, JIF, ramen noodles, toilet paper, Folgers, crossword puzzle books, socks, and baby formula.

The old woman

slammed the tailgate shut. “I got so many groceries in there I could start my own village.”

Then she crawled into her half-ton and drove off.

We continued our phone conversation as she sailed along Highway 400, past hamlets like McCume, Cherokee, and Atlas, edging eastward. I asked what her plan was with all the groceries.

“Plan?” She laughed. “Ain’t got no plan.”

So she will simply drive. And somewhere outside Springfield, she’ll catch Highway 60, and keep driving until she hits western Kentucky and sees the heart-crushing damage.

“Then I’ll just pray for signs,” she explained. “God’ll tell me what to do next.”

Sixty-six years ago, the old woman went through the worst tornado in Kansas history. She was a child, living with her aunt in Udall, Kansas.

The year was 1955. It was a different world. The bumper stickers…

The email on my screen reads:

“Dear Sean, my oldest grandchild, Bryson, is 11 years old and was diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma, stage three, just one day before he started sixth grade.

“This cancer covered ninety percent of his body, and after four terrifying chemo rounds the cancer is dying. But this type is so aggressive that if there is one cell left it could cover his whole body in a few days again.

“He is the sweetest and most fun guy, but I’ve seen his smile fade. His spirit is sinking and he has indicated he doesn’t want to go through this anymore. We tell him to keep fighting. What words can you, a stranger, say to help him get through this?”

Dear Bryson, I was ten years old when I first met a boy named Darren Wilkinson in Boy Scouts. He was smaller than the other boys. Everyone always thought he was my little brother because he was so tiny and frail.

Frail he might have been. But Darren was no

shrinking violet. Ask anyone. Darren had the personality of a junkyard Rottweiler.

Darren was born prematurely with an array of cardiac problems and physical maladies most could never endure.

Darren had undergone multiple surgeries. He bore a five-inch scar on his sternum which he would gladly show you for a quarter. The scar on his upper thigh would cost you a buck.

He was born with only four fingers on his right hand, no thumb—surgeons later reattached another finger as a makeshift thumb. His knees didn’t work right. He had diabetes. He was partially deaf.

Whenever he exerted himself during baseball practice, he had trouble breathing and his lips would turn blue. And once, during recess, after overdoing it, he almost went into a coma.

Darren’s father always carried a small cooler of medication and gave Darren injections every few hours. We boys were often reminded by…

The following situation has happened to me many times. I will be in a public place, such as the supermarket, and I’ll notice another shopper staring at me.

Eventually, this person will come over and say, “Excuse me, I hate to bother you, but I’m a big fan of your writing on Facebook.”

I’ll smile and say, “You’re not bothering me.”

Then the enthusiastic person will call their husband over. “Honey, come here quick, this is the guy who writes for the Pensacola Police Department’s Facebook page.”

“No,” I’ll say. “You’re thinking of Steve Davis. We’re both redheaded writers from the same part of Florida. I’m Sean Dietrich.”

“Oh, God, I’m so sorry.”

“That’s okay, Steve is a good friend.”

Long pause.

“Well, your writing is really good, too.”

Then this person avoids eye contact and walks away.

The first time I ever met Captain Steve Davis, I was giving a speech at the Rotary Club in Pensacola, years ago. After I had successfully put 32 elderly Rotarians into comas, Steve introduced himself to me.

He was somewhat of a local

celebrity, and we were both writers, so we hit it off. Then he asked if I wanted to eat authentic Mexican food with the entire Pensacola Police Department.

Truthfully, I was intimidated to be around so many cops. After all, Pensacola was the biggest city I knew. I am a Walton County kid, to me Pensacola was Manhattan.

Pensacola was where old people from my town traveled for serious medical procedures and elective dental surgeries. Pensacola was where you bought your used cars, did your Christmas shopping, and got your gallbladder pulled. This was the big city.

And here was a captain of the police force asking me to hang out. I was flattered. I ate so much salsa my gastrointestinal tract was never the same.

Over the years, Steve helped me become a small part of the Pensacola…

The following story took place yesterday afternoon, somewhere in Minnesota. The temperature was 29 degrees below death.

Nineteen-year-old Chloe parked her piece-of-junkola car outside the high-school gymnasium. The car spewed blue exhaust and purred like a 68-year-old smoker. The parking lot was encrusted with snow.

Chloe is an orphan. She was raised in foster care under hard circumstances. She was the quintessential hard-luck case you grew up with. Underprivileged. Underconfident. Quiet.

After graduating, Chloe has been living on her own in Minneapolis. It’s been difficult. She’s never lived alone before. Each month has been a financial hell. She works two jobs and makes minimum wage at both.

She was engaged, but her fiancée cheated on her. This rusted ‘92 Toyota with the duct-taped bumper represents the nicest thing she owns. And it only runs on days of the week beginning with R.

Chloe trotted across the parking lot toward her small-town school, pulling her coat tight.

Today was the annual high-school alumni lunch, a rural tradition. The hometown graduating classes return to their alma mater to participate in

the Christmas hoopla and eat hotdish—whatever that is. It is a kind of old-world tradition that wouldn’t survive in, say, New York City.

The teachers fawned over Chloe like they always have.

“Oh, Chloe, we’ve missed you!” said one.

“Chloe!” said another, “you’re taller than the last time I saw you!”

“Chloe, gimme a hug.”

Chloe, Chloe, Chloe.

They love this girl. Always have. They haven’t seen her since she sat in their classrooms, diagraming sentences, solving for X, and learning more than anyone ought to know about the cosine.

After Chloe graduated, several teachers have tried to stay in touch with her. They call each week, they send cards, they even stop by her apartment sometimes.

Sadly, Chloe usually avoids them, and she never returns calls. Chloe doesn’t want anyone feeling sorry for her. And, as I said, she is 19.

I was eleven. I was invited to try out for the Christmas community choir. A lady visited our church to conduct the auditions.

I had been practicing for three weeks, learning the lyrics to “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

My father, the welder, took me to the audition after work. Before it was my turn to sing, he gave me a pep talk.

“Knock it outta the park,” he said. “Like Mickey Mantle, you hear?”

I sang for the lady in the wire-rimmed glasses who held the clipboard. She was less than impressed with me.

“Stop singing!” she shouted, interrupting my song. “We’re looking for something else, I’m sorry. Next please?”

My father stormed forward from the back of the church. He looked like he was on his way to pick a fight with an umpire.

“Now wait a minute, Lady,” he said. “I demand you let my boy finish his song. He’s been working on it for weeks. What kind of heartless woman doesn’t let a kid finish his song?”

The woman’s mouth dropped open. She looked at my

father like he’d lost his mind.

She sat down and asked me to sing it again. I cleared my throat. I sang. I did much better than before. It wasn’t a home run, per se, but more like an outfield triple.

I got the part.

I was fifteen feet tall. Until that day I’d never done anything special with my life—unless you counted the noises I could make with my armpits. I was a chubby kid with awkward features, I was neither handsome, nor athletic.

But now I was a soloist.

It took months of preparation to get it right. Each day after school, I would rehearse for my mother in the kitchen while she made supper.

On the night of the performance, my father arrived home an hour late. He wheeled into our driveway, kicking gravel behind his tires.

Dear Chaquille,

Merry Christmas. You don’t know me, and I don’t know you. I’m just a middle-aged guy with thinning hair who saw your tag hanging on the Angel Tree in the lobby of the Methodist Church.

The Angel Tree is something the ladies in church have been doing since the Earth cooled. Each Christmas, for as long as I can remember, they have been providing gifts for kids who are going through hard times. Kids like you.

The program was started in 1979 by the Salvation Army, when Charles and Shirley White of Lynchburg, Virginia, decided to do something meaningful and began gathering clothing and toys for children at Christmas.

A few years later, Nashville radio station WSM became a sponsor of Angel Tree. After that, each rural family who heard about Angel Tree during broadcasts of the “Grand Ol’ Opry” wanted to be a part of it. My own clan included. The idea spread like a veritable brushfire.

So when I got your Christmas list, the first thing that struck me was

that most of your personalized items were baseball stuff.

This warmed the ventricles of this old first baseman's heart. I am a baseball guy, too, Chaquille. This year when the Braves won the World Series, I cheered like—well—an 11-year-old boy.

The first thing you wanted was pine tar for your bat, so my wife and I bought you enough pine tar to last until you’re 35th birthday.

You also asked for a pair of cleats, men’s shoe size 10. Holy freaking cow. You’ve got humongous feet. I went with Nikes.

Next, you asked for a baseball bat. I’m guessing, by the size of your prodigious man-sized feet that you’re a 31/21. I bought a Louisville Slugger, since there is no other American brand that is of any consequence.

I also bought you a basic glove. I chose the Rawlings Youth Highlight Series. Natural leather color. Old…

I wish I could give you a hug right now. I really do. I’d reach through this screen and squeeze you so firmly that your eardrums would pop.

I would hold you for a long time, too. I would hug you for five, ten, or thirty minutes. Long enough for everything to start getting a little weird. Then I’d hug you some more.

Because people need hugs. We need them in a biological way.

Oh, sure, you probably think you’re doing all right in a hugless world. You think you’re surviving just fine without all that sappy Oprah Winfrey business. You’re tough. You’re self-sufficient. You’re smart. You’re intelligent. You drink V8.

But you’re wrong, pal. You need hugs. You need someone to embrace you, for your own health, and you need it right this moment.

You see, when two people hug, their hearts are squished together, only separated by inches of bone, adipose, and muscle. During a hug, the two cardiac pumps actually start beating together like two kettle drums making perfect music.

Sort of like two violinists,

playing Strauss. Or like two clarinetists in junior-high, playing “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” simultaneously, but in two very different keys.

You probably know this already, but hugs release a chemical in the brain called oxytocin, which is what most neurologists refer to as the body’s “Woodstock” hormone.

Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter that makes you feel, quite literally, loved. It is the body’s own love drug.

When you give or get a hug, your body is flooded with oxytocin, your “love” hormone levels go through the stratosphere. Your blood pressure goes down, your immune system improves, and your mammary glands begin producing more milk. Which is nothing short of a miracle, especially if you’re male.

In short, a hug can save a person’s life.

When I was a boy, at our church there was a volunteer program called the Baby Savers. The idea…