By Sean Dietrich
I’ll never forget it. I was a boy. An old man visited our house. He was a friend of our family, though I don’t remember how.
“I knew your daddy before he died,” the man told me.
I can hardly remember that man. All I can remember are the colorful socks he wore. They were bright-colored, with pictures of dogs on them.
Before he left, he handed me a book. It was a hardback, titled: “Kathy Sue Loudermilk, I Love You: A Good Beer Joint is Hard to Find, and Other Facts of Life.”
I read the first page. The words sort of jumped off the page and made me smile.
It’s funny what a few words can do to a boy.
I read the book of humor columns in one sitting. Then, I read it again. The next week, I went to the library and found every book the columnist ever wrote.
I’ve loved him ever since.
After my father’s death, we lived in Atlanta, briefly, in the upstairs bedroom of my uncle’s house. In the mornings, I would trot to the end of the driveway to retrieve the newspaper before Fifi the Terrorist Pomeranian made her morning rounds.
Often, I would unfold the paper and read my favorite columnist there in the driveway. Then I would use scissors to cut out the column for a keepsake.
In the evenings, when my uncle would shake open his paper after a long day at the office, there would be a large hole on page A4. And he would cuss.
I loved everything the columnist wrote, and I read almost every one of his words.
When he wrote about his father, I cried. When he wrote about his dog, I laughed. When he wrote about traveling backroads, I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
But time intervened, like it often does.
Mine was a hard childhood, I won’t go into details. Life sort of keeps going. I became a blue-collar. I never went to high school. And I had a haircut that looked like my uncle Merel had trimmed my hair with a dull pocketknife in the back of a moving livestock trailer.
But I had a friend, and he made life bearable—as long as I could find him in print.
Of course, nobody lives forever. The beloved columnist died of complications during heart surgery. I mourned him.
All of a sudden, the newspapers felt empty without his words. And so did I. I know it sounds dramatic, but when you fall in love with someone’s words, it’s real.
After his death, I tried my hand at writing. At first I wrote 250-word columns on a Lettera typewriter my mother gave me, or on a legal pad. It was only for my own enjoyment.
The writing led nowhere, I was not very educated, and I had no experience with the written word.
Even so, I enjoyed writing because when my fingers moved on a keyboard, it made me feel like I was no longer the lovable loser with a prison-camp haircut, but a budding writer. And somehow, the written word took over my life.
Years later, I met a middle-aged man at church. Service was over, I was heading out the door. I was late for work.
His name was Michael. He followed me to my truck to pay me a compliment.
“Hey,” he said. “I read some of your writing, and I liked it!”
He actually liked it?
The man went on to say that he had lived and worked in Atlanta as an artist for many years. My ears perked up.
Whenever I hear the word “Atlanta” I think of two things. The lovable, yet misunderstood Braves and my favorite columnist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
The man smiled at the mention of the columnist’s name. He told me he had been friends with the late author.
I lost it. I probably made a fool of myself.
“You knew him?” I shouted.
Thus, it was on a clear summer day, in a parking lot located in the heart of Walton County, Michael indulged me.
He told tales I would’ve never heard otherwise. Tales about frequenting taverns with a hero, working with him, laughing with him, and about the last telephone exchange they had.
Our chat only lasted 10 minutes, but it was one of the most meaningful conversations of my entire life.
That day in the parking lot, he shook my hand, and that’s when I noticed this man was wearing multi-colored socks.
He left me with the words: “Keep writing, Sean, I think you woulda made him proud.”
He’ll probably read this next sentence, so I hope he knows I mean it with all my heart: his words meant everything to me.
That day, I changed my plans. I called in sick from work. I went home and I started writing something a lot like this. And since that day, I haven’t found a good reason to stop.
It’s funny what a few words can do to a boy.
I will always love you, Lewis Grizzard.
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.