My wife and I crossed the Alabama line and arrived in the southernmost U.S. State. The cradle of our youth. Our windows were down and the radio was playing. The sky was ultramarine. The welcome-to-our-state sign was adorned with non-native palm trees.
The highway sign read, WELCOME TO FLORIDA—THE SUNSHINE STATE.
Of course the misconception about Florida is that we are a land of sunshine and Mickey-Mouse ears. Which is patently untrue. We also have Mel Tillis. And frankly, we don’t get as much sunshine as you’d think.
Fact: Florida has more annual days wherein the sun is blocked by 20 to 70 percent cloud coverage.
We also receive 54 inches of rain per year, which is more average rainfall than Seattle. And don’t even get us started on hurricane season, which goes from June to the following June. The tourism council should call us the “I Hope You Bought Trip Insurance State.”
Nevertheless, Florida is my home. It will always be the scenery of my subconscious. Its minerals are in my blood. It is who I am. Currently, I live far away, but I am a Florida child. And you can’t change who you are unless you are Brittany Spears.
West Florida was a great place to spend a feckless youth. I passed the first portion of life walking barefoot among sandspurs and shattered longneck bottles. It was a quiet time to be alive.
At one time, my home county had a grand total of 30,000 people, which isn’t enough to fill up Yankee Stadium. There was nothing here unless you counted the squirrels and the fundamentalists.
Every night before bed, the crickets would sing us to sleep. Our pine trees were tall and ancient. The Gulf air was so salty it made your skin sting. Our Camaros were perched upon their blocks like works of high art. Our Fleetwood singlewides were exquisite.
You could actually see the Milky Way in our night sky, which always surprised the out-of-towners. In the far off you could watch the lights from the shrimp boats as they trawled the Choctawhatchee Bay. You could taste heaven in our blue crabs. Our bullfrogs had legs so shapely they made KFC look bad.
I traced my name on that bay with a cheap outboard motor purchased from the classified section of the “Destin Log.” I threw away millions of dollars on fishing lures in the name of the Red Drum Fish. I learned the finer points of advanced hook-removal surgery by using a pair of needle nose pliers and reciting the 23rd Psalm.
Most of all, I miss the olden times. I miss the easy pace of a bygone era. An era that might not have even existed except in my imagination. Still, I miss the way the world looked before Olive Garden came to town.
This is where I went to school, in several doublewide trailers haphazardly arranged to form what could loosely be called a “junior college.”
I washed dishes at the Green Knight Lounge. I played piano at the Baptist church on Matthew Boulevard. My mother and I threw the “Northwest Florida Daily News” each morning at 3 a.m.
And long before the powers that be demolished miles of forest to build an outlet mall roughly the size of an urban school district, the woman I would eventually marry worked at the Waffle House across the highway.
She drove a gasoline-powered golf cart to work and wore a little paper hat called the “confidence killer.” The jukebox played Willie. The chili was perfect.
I proposed to her on the bay near that Waffle House. I married her a few miles down the road in a clapboard chapel with a mildewed steeple and an out-of-tune Hammond.
This is where I learned how to be me. This is where I found my voice.
Over time, however, our little town changed. Everything does. They clearcut the field where we played baseball and built a Red Lobster. They tore down the fishing rodeo docks on the harbor and built Disney World for drunk people.
The Floridian real estate developer is a unique parasite. In the wild, it is ruthless and mean. After it devours millions of acres, it burrows into its nest and purchases an 18-piece set of golf clubs on Amazon without remorse.
I watched our hometown get invaded by ravenous developers with fat wallets and Newark accents.
They uprooted our sleepy two-lane highway, and made it 10 lanes. They raised the speed limit from 35 to 65. They put in six trillion stoplights. Drivers became erratic and unpredictable, today many motorists will attempt to pass you in a car wash.
But I’m not complaining.
No. Because even though she has her flaws; even though she has had extensive plastic surgery; even though they built a high-rise hotel where my little 60-person church used to stand; even though few trawl for shrimp upon the virginal Choctawhatchee waters anymore, she is still home.
My initials are still carved on the old live oak tree in Santa Rosa Beach where I first kissed my wife. My fishing hole is still intact. The Waffle House is still there; there is even a jukebox in the dining room.
And if I stand in the right place long enough, at the right time of day, I can see why they call this magnificent place the Sunshine State.