I remember an old café where old fishing boat captains used to hang out. I was a kid. I lived up the road from the joint, in a cinder-block house. I frequently walked to this greasy spoon to listen to the old men jaw.
Destin was different back then. We didn’t have 4.5 million visitors. Highway 98 wasn’t America’s largest automotive parking lot. We were small. We were unknown. We had old men.
They were vile old men. Unshaven. Unwashed. Unsanctified. Undomesticated. Unfriendly. Un-everything. They smoked Luckys and survived on bad habits. Their skin looked like chewed-up boot leather and their teeth had gone to be with Jesus long ago.
They were commercial fishermen. The real deal. A dying breed. These men did not like where the world was going, so they were always ticked off. Their favorite thing to say, “Hell, I don’t know anymore… I. Just. Don’t. Know.”
This phrase was their theme song. They said it often. But then, they were roughnecks. They did not use politically correct language. They did not listen to Michael Jackson. They smelled like sweat. They always wore trousers—even in 280-degree weather. Their pants were stained with fish guts, Clorox, and non-synthetic motor oil.
Whenever they stood, they swore loudly as their joints crackled. Whenever they stooped, they winced in pain. They had scars all over their sun-browned forearms. Sometimes they were missing fingers. Dogs and children followed these men around.
Their stories were a joy. Namely, because they spoke of olden times. Of the way Destin used to be before it was overrun with G-strings, T-shirt shops, and zip lines.
The men spoke of old time street dances, community fish fries, dinner on the grounds, all-day singings, unsinkable Fords, and the price of gasoline.
I remember hearing them discuss the first fishing rodeo. The fishing rodeo was held here in ‘48, to attract visitors during the slow season. Harry Truman was president. Gas was 26 cents a gallon. Back then, the first rodeo grand prizes were windshield wipers, a toaster, and beer.
Today, the over $100,000 in cash prizes are awarded. Today, an estimated 50,000 anglers from 30 states and 7 countries participate in the Rodeo. What is the fishing rodeo like today? It’s like Woodstock, only with more nudity.
The old men spoke of digging the East Pass, in ‘29, to allow water to escape the Choctawhatchee Bay after hard rains. About how a whole town once came together and altered the Floridian landscape with nothing more than buckets and shovels and front-end loaders.
Today, the Pass is known by locals as “Crap Island.” Here’s why:
Each year, some 50 gazillion tourists driving fancy boats, which all cost more than tactical government helicopters, drop anchor in East Pass. Sometimes there are—literally—thousands of boats there at once, all crammed together, butt cheek to elbow.
That’s a lot of people in one place. And here’s the thing. There are no bathrooms.
Today, the waters of Destin Pass have the highest concentration of human urine and fecal matter, second only to New Jersey.
Those old men saw it coming. I can still see them, sitting around that old café table. I can still hear their grizzled voices.
I can still hear them talking about community Christmas parties, back during the Great Depression, when Santa would give shoes and clothes to local children whose daddies were fishermen.
I still hear the old men speaking of my old homeplace. A town that, long ago, before 4.5 million discovered it, used to be called a village. That was actually what we called ourselves. It was printed on our welcome-to-town sign. “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village.”
Our little harbor was filled with old boats. Our churches were full of old women who all taught piano. Our homes were made of blocks. Our mothers and fathers worked hard for a living. Our cafés were full of old timers who were openly frightened by the prospect of change. I for one don’t blame them. Not one bit.
I just don’t know anymore. I just don’t know.