Florida Boy

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.

48 comments

  1. Carol ROTHWELL - March 30, 2022 7:02 am

    Your the best ! ❤️

    Reply
  2. Debbie g - March 30, 2022 7:15 am

    It will always be home wherever you and Jamie are Y’all are the two souls joined that make you home anywhere on this earth or in the Milky Way Love ❤️

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  3. Martha - March 30, 2022 9:11 am

    I understand your feelings. Born and raised here in northeast Florida I love my space.I live on an island. Sometimes I would like a sign at the bridge that says, we are full go home. But they keep coming. Still I stay. Yes, I love my space.

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  4. Beth Kinstler - March 30, 2022 10:09 am

    I can assert with some degree of authority that it wasn’t northerners who despoiled the landscape in the south. In Savannah it was all locals who cut down trees and tarmacked the parking lots to build disgusting malls and car dealerships, sprawling out from the downtown and midtown area.

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  5. Beth Kinstler - March 30, 2022 10:11 am

    It wasn’t just northern developers who ruined and despoiled the landscape. There were plenty of southern ones in white belts and patent leather shoes who also had a hand in it.

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  6. Linda Massengill - March 30, 2022 10:14 am

    I have lived in Georgia for 42 years, but I will always consider myself a Florida girl; I may live in Atlanta, but I am FROM Florida. I wouldn’t give anything for my wonder years growing up in Marianna. Thanks for sharing your love of your home state. Thanks for your daily stories, too.

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  7. southerngirlalways - March 30, 2022 10:15 am

    I’m a native Floridian and love my home state despite not being there now. All the other places I’ve lived and traveled I’ve met people who thought they knew the Sunshine State. I always told them there was a south Florida that they were familiar with (palm trees, Miami beaches, Disney World, and interlopers from the north). My Florida was North Florida — where the crackers lived, the Southerners who didn’t live at the beach and play tennis every day. Small towns like Interlachen, Newberry, Hawthorne, Keystone Heights, Starke, Lake City were places I knew and loved. I now understand why my father never wanted to live in a big city. Sean, your writing speaks to me in so many different ways. Keep it up.

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  8. Marcia MacLean - March 30, 2022 10:54 am

    Welcome back! Looking forward to your show Thursday, March 31st in Panama City, FL. https://www.facebook.com/events/1096680731124693/

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  9. Gwynn - March 30, 2022 11:15 am

    “the scenery of my subconscious.” I love that. This made me not just see Florida, but feel it as well. Things are not the same in my home in the mountains either, but thankfully the scenery of my subconscious is there for good. Change like this always reminds me of the Robert Frost poem, Nothing Gold Can Stay.

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    • Kim Morris Ladoczky - March 31, 2022 5:28 pm

      Oh my heart. You have touched my Florida girl soul. Born in Jacksonville, moved to Orlando at 2, before the Mouse House. Daddy helped put in the glass at Tomorrowland Terrace, sister worked there, we thought it was wonderful then. I have stayed in the Central Florida area all my life. I truly Florida. It’s in every fiber of my being. Yet, the smell of orange blossoms is gone, the expanse of concrete stretches as far as the eye can see, & my family has moved. I feel the pull north, sadly.

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  10. Linda crane - March 30, 2022 11:23 am

    The DisneyWorld for drunks is an eyesore. I remember crossing the bridge and feeling in awe of the Gulf. Now, you can’t see it. I’m not sure developers “get it.” I’ve moved to Clayton NC, but still miss the smell, sound, and feel of that glorious sugary beach sand

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  11. Pete Foley - March 30, 2022 11:30 am

    “They paved Paradise and put up a SmallMart” … or something like that. Well-penned, Sean!

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  12. Dina - March 30, 2022 11:43 am

    Every day I say…I love how Sean writes. You don’t sugar coat it. You tell the joys and sorrows so eloquently. Yesterday I cried a river both happy and sad tears. Today I am quiet and and awed. Native Floridians know what Florida once was and the sheer joy of it.

    My husbands descendants settled the area where we live. Many have passed on and most of the others sold and moved away looking for a place just like it. We can’t find any other place we could call home. So we fight the traffic, watch the long lines of cars waiting to drop off children to the school around the corner but directly behind us.

    The birds are silent during after school care…they too are speechless as the woman screams at the children.

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  13. Brenda - March 30, 2022 11:45 am

    Oh Sean! This one touched my heart. I’m 72 years old and a Florida native. You have described Florida of my youth so perfectly. God bless you for sharing your wonderful stories with the rest of us. Keep on keeping on! 🌴

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  14. Kathryn - March 30, 2022 12:09 pm

    Florida native here – PC born & raised, educated at the state’s finest university in the state capital, still living in my beloved Tally. The destruction of my hometown of PC saddens me – I will never return. The pristine white beaches and clear aqua waters are gone, replaced by high rise condos and hundreds of neon-lit tacky tourist traps, the waters fouled by e.coli, red tide, and other substances & organisms we don’t even want to know about. The desecration of God’s handiwork evident along Florida’s “Emerald Coast,” is tragic, permanent and sinful. Memories are all that the old-timers like you and me have left.

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  15. marcellehoffman - March 30, 2022 12:26 pm

    I remember your area when I visited as a child from New Orleans, year after year, staying in small bungalows with a swinging screen door that slammed with a bang every time we ran outside. The sand was right outside the front door. Year after year, then my last visit was a college trip and the small hotels were still there. I closed my eyes, and lead my New Orleans life, then returned. I was shocked, gone were the houses, small hotels and the feeling that everyone knew each other. Gone was the predictability that I loved. The old images now stay in my head and make me smile; thank you for renewing those pictures. Your article hit the spot. Thank you for writing.

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  16. Sissy Lingle - March 30, 2022 12:40 pm

    Dear Sean,
    I get it about Florida. I moved to Crystal River in 1967, there was one traffic light and 14,000 people in the whole county. I raised my kids there, divorced my dentist husband, taught school, married my college sweetheart, retired at age 56 when the fifth grade boys became too bad to be fun, saw the county grow to 144,000 and moved back to my Georgia. I had seen my beautiful St. Simon’s Island, the land of my youth, grow to a traffic-filled mess, and we moved one hour north to quiet McIntosh County. We built a home in a great neighborhood on Harris Neck Creek, near the wildlife preserve and the “Smallest Church” that you and Jamie visited. Our county has a bit more than 10,000 folks, no 3 way traffic lights, and the best seafood in the world. We have shrimp boats, crabbers, oysters, people raising clams in our clean salt water. And yes, you can see the milky way here. It sounds a lot like your childhood home. Come back and visit us, we love you and Jamie, and would love you more in person!!

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  17. Susan W Fitch - March 30, 2022 12:41 pm

    Nothing like living on the water- be it beach, bay or river. A view of the water calms the spirit and adds years to your life! We live on a creek that leads out to the Rappahannock River with herons, eagles and ospreys. My parents-in-law moved to Vero Beach in the 80’s, and it was a nightmare trying to get out of the driveway onto the main road! But they loved their beach and their community on the Atlantic! We all have a memories-until we don’t!

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    • Anita Harrell - April 3, 2022 3:09 am

      I grew up visiting my Aunt and Uncle on the Corrotoman River, right off the Rappahannock every summer. Some of my favorite memories. My Aunt is now 92 and living back in Alabama, but I still miss those summers.

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  18. Gayle Bailey - March 30, 2022 12:43 pm

    Thank you for reminding me of the Florida I grew up in. It was glorious!

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  19. Bobby - March 30, 2022 12:45 pm

    I grew up 90 miles from PCB but haven’t been back since Funland closed.

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  20. Pat Richey - March 30, 2022 12:48 pm

    born in Ft Myers many years ago. I live in Mobile, but will always be a Florida girl! thank you

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  21. Shelton A. - March 30, 2022 1:10 pm

    Home will always be home. No move, no matter how far away, changes that fact. But home is also where you live with Jamie. And it’s her home state. SO, now you have two homes. God bless you both and the pup-dogs.

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  22. Abbe Laboda - March 30, 2022 1:12 pm

    All true!

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  23. James willis - March 30, 2022 1:16 pm

    Sounds like south Baldwin county al.

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  24. oldandblessed - March 30, 2022 1:36 pm

    Wonderful stroll down memory lane, romanticizing things of the past, as we all do. Can you still see the Milky Way?

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  25. Greg - March 30, 2022 1:36 pm

    Hendry Co Fla: Population 40,000……but we just got a Wal Mart….sigh, there goes the neighborhood

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  26. Sharon Allemang - March 30, 2022 1:45 pm

    Thanx as always for your words of wisdom!! I felt as if this morning you have some thoughts about what has happened to your home state to
    Share!! I agree what happens in the name of “progress” is not always kind to our land!! But we are along for the ride anyway!! Praise the Lord♥️

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  27. Helen De Prima - March 30, 2022 2:05 pm

    Saw the same thing happen to the country road where my cousin and I could ride our horses. Now it’s multiple lanes of traffic through wall-to-wall shopping malls and apartment complexes; the Interstate system devoured my grandparents’ small farm, the magic kingdom where I grew up. But yeah, I still love Louisville.

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  28. JAMES W NEAREN JR - March 30, 2022 2:38 pm

    Classic Sean. Truly some fantastic lines. “Our Camaros were perched on blocks like works of high art.”

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  29. Marilyn - March 30, 2022 2:45 pm

    Thinking of sparse, Sean…Out West in Wallace County Kansas we stopped counting before we reached 2,000 … just ‘cause there weren’t any more folks livin’ there!
    I certainly enjoy your posts! Keep it up!

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  30. Ed Glaize - March 30, 2022 2:47 pm

    I grew up there too and remember when you could go on Holiday Isle to camp and hardly see a light except our campfire. Miss those days and miss the Gulf now I live miles inland. Thanks for your reminder of home and your daily reminders that life, despite hardship is good.

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  31. AlaRedClayGirl - March 30, 2022 3:04 pm

    My husband and children are the 5th and 6th generations in his family to reside in our little North Alabama town. The bigger city living next door is slowly creeping this way with their subdivisions and stores. If it takes over completely it will be because our own town people sold out to them. Still, it is home and there’s no place I’d rather be.

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  32. Nancy - March 30, 2022 3:30 pm

    You sound homesick already

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  33. Susan Ramer - March 30, 2022 3:43 pm

    I feel the same way about my home state Colorado

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  34. CHARALEEN WRIGHT - March 30, 2022 4:28 pm

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  35. Evelyn - March 30, 2022 4:33 pm

    Maybe you and Jamie should move back to Florida.
    Birmingham is way too different!

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  36. Verna Kays - March 30, 2022 6:16 pm

    You broke my heart..you made me cry..thank you Sean❤

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  37. Larry Ratliff - March 30, 2022 6:19 pm

    I can identify with the feeling of being a Florida boy out of place. I grew up in Pensacola Fl with salt water running thru these veins. I joining the military right out of high school because I thought I wanted to get as far away from Florida as I could. But my first assignment was Eglin AFB Fl where I met my wife who grew up in Niceville Fl. We soon got an another assignment to England where you can experience 4 seasons all in one day. Literally we felt like fish out of water, we longing to smell the salty air of the Gulf of Mexico and dip our feet in the warm brackish waters of the Choctawhatchee Bay and taste the sweet flavors of it bountiful blue crab. Yes Florida is who we are and we miss our Original Florida boy “Sean Dietrich” and he will always have a place in our heart……

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  38. Linda Moon - March 30, 2022 9:06 pm

    I’m not a Florida girl, but I like remembering olden times from a picture of my teen-age girlfriends and me at a Panama City Beach trip. And just beside that photo is a picture of my current friends and me from a trip to the mountains in Mentone, Alabama. Each picture is a reminder of all of us who met and became friends here in our hometown. And I loved the telling here of your home!

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  39. Debbie - March 30, 2022 9:40 pm

    I left Alabama at 13. At 70, it’s still home in my heart.

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  40. Sue Rhodus - March 30, 2022 10:49 pm

    Me thinks this boy is homesick !

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  41. MAM - March 30, 2022 11:08 pm

    Nancy and Sue, I, too, thought Sean was already homesick. I was born and raised in Texas, returned to live in a different part for 9 years, moved away again, and I still miss Texas. In fact, while I was writing this, I was whispering it to myself (to make sure I spelled everything correctly) with a Texas twang. Home is home, and we have to bloom where we’re planted, but the memories of our first home still linger within us.

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  42. Rebecca Kuiper - March 31, 2022 10:07 am

    We are driving down to Santa Rosa beach tomorrow with our kids for vacation. 😊 It may not feel like the Sunshine state to you all, but in Michigan we are currently experiencing weather called a “wintry mix” so we are very excited to visit your hometown next week!

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  43. kris - March 31, 2022 12:45 pm

    Florida is so beautiful, but it can be ugly. It’s laid back but yet it goes at 1000 mph. But I absolutely love it. And it’s home, it will always be my home.

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  44. Gayle Wilson - March 31, 2022 6:03 pm

    Born and raised a Floridian I use to dream of the day of leaving. That day did not come and at times when the temperature is hot enough to fry eggs (my grandpa’s favorite saying) and the humidity is so thick you get an instant facial, I don’t dream of leaving anymore.

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  45. art wimberley - April 1, 2022 9:43 pm

    My husband spent his childhood (1936-1947) in the panhandle of FL, just east of your hometown. More in the “elbow” and “armpit” of the panhandle. For more than thirty years he took me there regularly and I came to dearly love the countryside. It is still nice to visit but has changed so much over the years. But, my hometown has too. Thank you, Sean. I appreciate your insight and reminders of a simpler time.

    Reply
  46. Joyce Sunday - April 4, 2022 1:08 am

    It’s possible to leave South Walton and Destin, but the memories of how it used to be are hard to shake. I truly enjoy your stories.

    Reply

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