MILTON—This is your quintessential West Floridian small town. It is bordered by the Blackwater River, with a cute mainstreet, and a great catfish joint. My hometown is about an hour east of here.
If you want to understand our culture in the Panhandle, you visit a place like Milton, Crestview, or DeFuniak Springs. If you want sixty-story condos with tennis courts, go thirty miles south until you see the Red Lobster restaurants and jet-ski rentals.
Tonight we’re doing a Christmas show at the historic Imogene Theatre in downtown Milton. By “we,” I mean my friends. There will be a band, a choir, and me. I don’t expect many people in the audience tonight because, like I said, this is a small town.
It’s forty minutes until showtime. My wife is with me backstage. She’s trying to stay upbeat because she knows small crowds can be discouraging. Sometimes with a tiny crowd it feels like you’re performing onstage at your own funeral reception.
I ask one of the stagehands, “Do you expect anybody to actually come to this show tonight?”
The man just shrugs and says, “This is Milton,” as if this explains everything.
The bluegrass band arrives. Blue Mullet is what they call themselves. They tune their instruments and take the stage for soundcheck. I can’t help but notice they look perfect, playing in this antique room.
Behind them is a Vaudevillian backdrop—hand painted from the 1920s. The floorboards are heart pine, the brass chandeliers look original, the balcony railing is painted white.
The band plays to the empty theater before the doors open. The fiddle player is making his instrument whine. The upright bassist is “slapping the old doghouse.” The mandolinist sings into a snuff-tin microphone.
I am in the wings, watching with one of the maintenance men.
“You know,” he says, “Hank Williams played in this room.”
“Yep. So did Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl.”
I ask him if he thinks anyone will come to this show tonight.
He shrugs. “You gotta remember where we are, this is Milton.”
So I’ve heard.
After the band finishes. A children’s choir takes the stage for their soundcheck. The Pensacola Children’s Choir sings carols so tenderly they give everyone nearby a toothache. They even do choreographed dance moves.
You should hear the sound of a hundred heavy feet clomping on an antique wooden stage that was built in 1912.
“Hope that stage holds up,” says the maintenance man. “It’s pretty old.”
The choir leaps in unison and the windows rattle.
The doors are about to open. I still need to get changed. I wander backstage with the band to our dressing room. The lady flips the light switch and says, “Sorry, our dressing room ain’t very big.”
This is the understatement of the year. The room is about the size of a regulation porta-john.
“How’s the crowd looking?” one of the musicians asks the lady.
“Crowd?” she says with a laugh. “You’ve never been to Milton, have you?”
So five bluegrass musicians and I cram ourselves into this room. Instruments and all. We stand shoulder to shoulder. The fiddle neck is poking the guitar player, who is lying against the upright bass, which is leaning against the mandolin player, whose elbow is in my kidneys, and my left leg is dangling out the window.
But these are bluegrass musicians, and bluegrass musicians are crazy.
“Hey!” says the mandolin player. “Let’s play some Christmas music!”
They launch into “Christmas Times A’Comin’” and it’s the kind of music that makes me want to clap my hands. But I don’t. Because if I did, I’d give the bass player a concussion.
Soon, a guy wearing headphones tells us, “Three minutes until showtime.”
The choir performs first. We can’t see how many people are in the audience. We are too busy trying not to put our foot through someone’s mandolin.
Next, the band takes the stage. And I am left in the dressing room alone. I can tell from the noise that it’s going to be a little crowd, probably consisting of four or five people who got gypped when they won these tickets in a free raffle at the VFW.
I listen to the band. And their music makes me feel good. I stare into the dressing room mirror.
“Wow,” I am thinking, “Minnie Pearl once looked into this mirror when she was doing her makeup. Hank probably adjusted his hat while standing in this very spot.”
Knock! Knock! Knock!
The guy with headphones says, “You’re on.”
Here goes nothing. I take a few breaths. I pat my face a few times. I step onto the stage. I hear my own footsteps echo in the old room. I see the audience. And I almost can’t believe it.
It’s a full house. People are standing in the back, spilling into the lobby, and seated in the balcony. And I can’t make any words come out of my mouth or else I might cry. Because I see friends in this crowd, not strangers. Old friends. New friends. Young friends. Some people I grew up with. My cousins are on the front row. My wife is, too. There is even a man in a plaid suit.
I’m ashamed to say that I spent the first half of my youth feeling like a complete loser. Because of this, I tried to figure out a way to leave home. I wanted an exciting life, far from this state. I wanted to do something wild. Something adventurous. To be somebody. But tonight, I am wondering how thick headed could one idiot be? The Florida Panhandle is my home.
And like they’ve been telling me all night:
This is Milton.