DESTIN, Fla.—The fireworks crackled above our little beach town. The moon was out. The beaches of my youth looked the way they always do: slammed.
“I wanna go home,” I told my wife while I hauled cheap beach junk onto a crowded shore. “I don’t care about fireworks.”
She laughed. “C’mon, it’ll be fun.”
My idea of fun is not communing with greased-up tourist torsos on a public beach to watch low explosive pyrotechnics.
“I brought a radio,” my wife said, sweetening the deal.
“Wow. A radio. Gee, Wally, neato.”
That remark got me a rib contusion.
The beach was covered in blankets and families. Loud children played tag in the dark. People grilled. There were the sounds of fireworks that shook your skull. My wife fired up the old transistor and immediately Alan Jackson started singing about the Chattahoochee.
Against my will I actually made some new friends among the summer people. Like the couple on the blanket next to ours who was eating popsicles and watching the sky. The guy said he was a preacher from Katy, Texas, on vacation with his wife.
“Hey man,” he said, reaching into his cooler. “You wanna popsicle?” Then he glanced in both directions and said suggestively, “They’re homemade.”
Before I could consider the deeper meaning of the clergyman’s coded words my wife answered for us both and pretty soon we were sucking frozen homemade ice pops that were made entirely from tequila.
The preacher smiled. His tongue was royal blue. “Good stuff, huh?”
After that I found myself laughing often and sometimes singing backup with our little radio. Also I had double vision. Before my wife could stop me I was already introducing myself to total strangers on nearby blankets like I was running for public office.
I met a guy cooking hotdogs on a Coleman camp stove, he was from Atlanta. He was shirtless, large, with skin the color of fresh coffee. He was listening to quiet hip hop music and said his name was DeAndre. He had a lot to say.
“Man, this has been the hardest year of my life. But it’s also the year I got woke up and found out what I’m supposed to be.
“I’m a dad. Got three girls. During the quarantines I quit my job and decided I’m gonna put the same dedication into being a dad as I was putting into being a workaholic.”
A few feet behind DeAndre were two elderly women from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, decked in pastel colors. They were eavesdropping. “God bless you, sir,” they said to DeAndre. “That’s the most beautiful thing I ever heard a dad say.”
So we gave them some Texan-pops.
The women reluctantly accepted the pops and said, “But we’re Lutherans.”
“Then lick very slowly, ladies,” DeAndre cautioned.
Next I met a small crowd of middle-aged people wearing matching yellow T-shirts. They were from somewhere in North Carolina, having a family reunion.
“This is our first outing,” said one woman, “the first time our family has gotten together since the pandemic. During COVID, my mom had hip surgery. She died from complications and the hospital didn’t allow visitors, so we never got to see her before she…”
Everyone became solemn, including me.
“She loved Destin,” one daughter went on. “We brought her ashes with us, she would’ve wanted to be here this year.”
Sometimes I forget how much I have to be grateful for.
After that I rose to go to the bathroom whereupon I lost my balance and fell into the lap of a sweet older woman from Conway, Arkansas. But I recovered nicely, gave everyone the okay sign, apologized, and the lady agreed not to lawyer up.
On the walk to the public bathrooms I realized that I’d met all kinds of people that evening. Good people who have been surviving the last 400-some days of uncertainty just like me.
And I wonder if we all realize that we’ve been living through an era our great-grandkids will read about in social studies textbooks.
When I returned to our blanket the fireworks had finished with a finale. The human being I love most in this world hugged me and we sort of leaned against each other while George Strait sang “You Look So Good In Love” over a battery-powered Sony.
“You know something?” I said to my wife. “You were right about tonight, this was actually pretty fun.”
Then we kissed an old-person kiss, which means more than the other kinds. She squeezed my chin a little too firmly and said, “Define fun.”
I had it coming.