I was on my way home. I was taking the scenic route from Alabama to Florida because I love backroads. I can’t stand interstates. Interstates scare me.
I’ve been in an interstate accident exactly once. My truck looked like a smashed Weltmeister accordion when it was over. I never felt the same ease on major highways after that.
Besides, there’s something lyrical about old faded roads that lead you home. People write songs about these ancient roads.
I doubt whether anyone writes songs about Interstate 65.
It was on one such rundown highway a few days ago that my phone rang. It was the voice of a kid.
“Hello?” said the voice. “Is this Sean?”
I was taken off guard. I get a lot of solicitor calls, but never from kids. “Yes, this is him.”
“Your wife gave me your number, is this a bad time?”
“Uh—no. Wait, my WIFE gave you this number?” She hadn’t told me anything about this.
“Yessir, Mister Dietrich.”
“Oh, no. Please don’t call me Mister Dietrich. Mister Dietrich died about 30 years ago. Call me Sean.”
Our conversation went from there. It wasn’t awkward. In fact, it was nice. He was a boy who had read one of my columns and wanted to call and meet me.
At first I was confused, but then I kind of got into the spirit of our conversation. We became fast buddies, and covered all topics.
“What’s your favorite movie?” the kid asked.
“Toss up between ‘Lonesome Dove,’ ‘Music Man,’ or anything with Abbott and Costello.”
“I like Dumbo.”
“Dumbo is a good movie.”
“I like how he can fly.”
And this is pretty much how the discussion went. There was no objective to it. No real point. Truthfully, I had no idea what was going on, neither could I understand why my wife would give my number to strangers.
Even so, I like kids. Always have. I have no children, so interactions like this mean more to me. After all, there will be no kids jumping into my arms when I get home. I attend no piano recitals, no PTA meetings, no basketball games where a little boy or girl keeps looking into the bleachers and shouting “Hi Dad!”
“When you were little,” said the young man. “Did you like to write?”
“Yeah, I did. I wrote all the time. What about you?”
“Yes. I like to write stories because I can pretend my life is happy. Did you ever wish your life was different?”
I had to think about this. How much should you share with a kid? There’s got to be a rule about too much honesty somewhere. When I was growing up, it was the adult policy to candy coat everything. Adults never told the truth if it was too grizzly.
“Yes,” I said. “I wished my life was different. But you can’t put too much stock in my answer.”
I laughed. “What I mean is, my circumstances were probably different. I had a rough childhood.”
I said, “What about you, why do you wish life was different?”
“Well. I miss my dad. He’s gone.”
And there it was. I had a feeling this was coming. I asked no questions because it’s not polite to ask a kid what happened to his old man. He will tell you if he wants to. And if he doesn’t, he won’t. I know this from experience.
The kid decides not to tell.
“Do you like to read?” I ask. “Books I mean.”
“Yeah, a little. You?”
“Yep. One of my favorite books is ‘Chili Dawgs Always Bark at Night.’ Although, that might be a little old for you. How old are you again?”
“My dad committed suicide.”
It was all making sense now. This kid and I were members of the same club.
I wiped my right eye. “How long ago did your father—uh. Pass away.”
“Hey, know what? I did read YOUR book,” the kid said. “And the part about your dad, when he died, and you were my age, and you felt like me, that was the part I liked.”
I had to pull over.
In my mediocre career as a writer, I’ve talked to a lot of kids about the suicide of a parent. I once gave a talk in a gymnasium in North Alabama where a little girl came to me afterward and hugged me for about five minutes, crying into my shirt. Her teachers merely stood back and let her get it all out. Her father had only been in the ground a week.
And a few years ago, when I gave a talk in a high school in West Virginia, a kid came to me afterward to shake my hand. He wore camouflage and boots. He told me his mother had gone out the same way my father had.
When he said it, his face started to crack open. He was trying so hard to be strong, because boys are like that.
So I took a chance and pulled him into myself and we hugged guy-style, slapping backs like we were trying to dislodge bronchial tissue. That’s when the young man cried until he was embarrassed. I told him not to be, then I blew my nose loudly to demonstrate my point.
My life’s purpose, if I have any purpose at all on this earth, is to tell kids that they are not alone. To tell my friends that it gets better. Because it really does. If you can just hold on.
When our phone conversation ended, I remained parked in a gas station for a few minutes, pulling myself together. I was thinking about my new buddy, and how he’ll probably read these words. And when he does, I hope he knows how brave I think he is.
Then, I blew my nose loudly, and resumed driving along the quiet, gentle, often unpredictable backroads of Alabama. Because as I said, they are much better than interstates.