By Sean Dietrich
I am an honorary Alabamian, even though Florida is my home state. It’s kind of a long story, but I promise, if you bear with me, this will be a complete waste of your time.
It started in a hotel lobby full of Alabama officials. It was sort of like spring break check-in at some fancy resort. Only these weren’t teenagers with suntans. These were white-haired people with sport coats and extremely low centers of gravity.
I went to the front desk and checked into my hotel room.
A guy behind me in line said, “So, you’re the keynote speaker for the Alabama Governor’s Conference?”
“Where in Alabama are you from?”
“I’m from Florida.”
“What? And YOU’RE our keynote speaker?”
To which he replied, “Huh!”
The enormous auditorium started to fill up. And I’m talking about a room the size of a rural school district. I kept having this feeling that I didn’t belong here. What was I doing? I’m not an Alabamian. I was starting to feel pretty dumb.
Another man shook my hand and said, “So, what part of Alabama are you from?”
“I’m not,” I said. “I’m from the Panhandle.”
He gave a confused look, then he said “Why on earth did they hire you?”
So things were off to a great start.
I took the stage. I tapped the microphone. I said, “Hello, is this thing on?” But it turned out that the sound system was screwed up. What everyone heard was:
And that’s how the next 40 minutes went.
When I finished, nobody was aware that I had concluded my speech because my voice was still reverberating in the airplane-hangar-like room. For all I know my voice is still echoing in that auditorium to this day.
The thing is, I truly love Alabama. That’s probably why I was asked to speak. I write more columns about Alabama than I do about other topics such as my wife, my dogs, the dangers of gout, cornbread, Greenland, etc.
Because where I live, the line between Alabama and the Panhandle is blurry. There’s a good reason for this. A few hundred years ago, Florida and Alabama were once part of the same territory. Some scholars even claim that if Alabama would have waited only two more years to become a state, West Florida might have been part of it.
Thus, half of my friends are Alabamians, many of my memories take place in Alabama, I root for Alabama football, and I found my wife in Escambia County.
Furthermore, my current career—if that’s what you’d call it—would be nothing if it weren’t for the state of Alabama.
Years ago, when my first book was published, the first thing I did was order 150 copies to give away for Christmas. I announced this to a few friends. Word spread quick. The next day my email inbox was flooded with book requests from people in Alabama.
And the funny thing is, I didn’t get a single book request from a Floridian except for my cousin who says he used my book to fix a wobbly table.
So to summarize, the people in Alabama are dear to me. In fact, to show you how deep my connection goes, in Alabama my books are sometimes used in gastroenterologist’s offices as tranquilizers for routine colonoscopies.
I am not kidding about this. Yesterday, one Alabamian wrote me to say—and this is a verbatim quote—“Monday I’m going in for my first colonoscopy. I’m not allowed to have a cell phone, but I CAN BRING A BOOK so in a way you’ll be there with me.”
You wouldn’t get this kind of love in, for instance, Idaho.
Anyway, some years later I got another chance to speak at a big Alabama conference. When I arrived at the fancy hotel, it was the same scene as before. All the important state officials were wearing khakis and giving skeptical looks when they learned that a Florida man was their keynote speaker.
I took the podium to see several hundred uninterested faces. And I almost turned around and walked off the stage. When I finished my speech, I stepped into the hallway to get some air and to reconsider my career path.
There, I met an old man who was waiting for me. He was skinny, gray, unshaven, and his shirt was untucked. He said, “I was hoping I’d catch you, Sean.”
He had a warm smile, and he looked tired. We shook hands. Then he handed me a tattered book. I recognized it instantly. It was my book. A book I once gave away at Christmas, a lifetime ago.
He told me the book had once belonged to his wife. And before she died of breast cancer, she made him promise to get it signed. Even if he had to do it after she died.
The night of her funeral he read my book cover to cover—my piddly, ordinary, mediocre book. Then he read it again. And again. And a few more times. And now he simply wanted me to sign it.
So naturally, by the time he finished his story the two of us were crying like a couple of blithering idiots. I’m pretty sure I got snot all over his shirt. Then we went to lunch and we talked for hours.
Before we parted, he hugged me. And in a drawl so thick it belonged on cornbread, he said, “Sean, I love you. And I hereby proclaim you an honorary Alabamian, son.”
It’s been official ever since.
I want to wish a happy 200th birthday to the state of Alabama.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, and novelist, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in Southern Living, the Tallahassee Democrat, Southern Magazine, Yellowhammer News, the Bitter Southerner, the Mobile Press Register and he has authored seven books.