O Florida

We got married shortly after the death of Dale Earnhardt. It was a uniquely dim period in American history. Not long before our wedding, the World Trade Center attacks had happened, then our nation was at war. American flags fluttered from every pole, business, and automotive antenna. There was an unspoken gloom in the air.

I was in our apartment, watching the news, eating breakfast before work. The Space Shuttle Columbia disaster had recently occurred. Cable news was blaring footage of NASA’s STS 107, which disintegrated upon the reentry, killing seven crewmembers.

It seemed like the world was falling apart.

The news anchors were incessantly talking about shark attacks, terrorist attacks, suicide bombers, shoe bombers, car bombers, mystery bombers, and “American Idol.”

Our kitchen phone rang.

“Hello?”

It was my new wife. I heard screaming toddlers in the background. My wife worked at a daycare.

“Hey,” she said, “don’t forget about tonight, we’re meeting the realtor after work.”

More toddler screaming.

“I can hardly hear you,” I said. “There’s a lot of shouting.”

“Oh, that’s just little Timmy. He’s pooping.”

“He yells when he poops?”

“No, he’s hollering because I am currently wiping his bootyus-maximus,” she said. “Look, just don’t forget about the realtor, okay?”

I hung up and I said a silent prayer for Timmy’s unfortunate plight in life.

After our shifts ended, I picked up my wife from work in the singular car we shared—a stunning ‘89 Nissan Maxima which, at one time, had been metallic gold, but was now completely obscured by approximately six inches of rust.

We followed our realtor’s SUV deep into the country, taking a labyrinth of dirt roads into the West Florida woods until we heard banjo music. Finally, the realtor pulled over beside a cattle gate with a painted plywood sign reading LOT FOR SALE. Although, to call it a “lot” would be misleading. It was an alligator singles bar.

The realtor removed her spike heels and laced up her hiking boots. In minutes, we were plodding through bald cypresses, palmettos, and the shoe-sucking mud, following a meandering creek. A deer bolted past us. Then a hawk of some kind.

The realtor looked at her survey map and, between mosquito swats, she said, “So, what do you think of the lot?”

“It’s awfully swampy,” I said, plucking a freshwater leech off my neck.

“You should make an offer,” the realtor said. “This is Florida, honey. Leeches are hot right now.”

So we made an offer that represented every dime we had. I look back now and I laugh because the price we offered was less than most people pay for a GE dishwasher. But to a couple of broke newlyweds, we might as well have been buying an island territory in Micronesia.

The seller accepted our offer. The next weekend my wife and I had a picnic in our forest. We ate sandwiches from a wicker basket. We swatted yellow flies, communed with the poison oak, and fended off black bears.

Yes! Bears! Shortly after we bought the land, a neighbor sighted not one, but six black bears wandering our property. This neighbor even took a photograph, which made the local paper.

We were fools to buy this land, of course. Everyone said that building a house in a swamp like this would be pure idiocy. So, naturally, we built a house.

Ours was a simple floorplan with a cheap interior and an air conditioner that worked on days of the week beginning with P. Our dirt road had deep ditches. Our mailbox had been assaulted by sophomores with baseball bats so many times it was formally declared unfit for service in a letter the mailman left on my porch.

And this home has been our life for 20 years. We have lived within the West Floridian wilderness. And we’ve seen the forest slowly disappear around us, one tree at a time.

First came the subdivision across the street. Then came another subdivision. Then the multi-thousand-unit apartment complex in our backyard, complete with fitness room and dog park. Then someone got the bright idea to build a Walmart 1,584 feet from my doorstep.

Then came the breakfast joint, the dentist’s office, the golf-cart dealer, the supermarket, the retirement home, followed by ANOTHER retirement home, a gas station, a car wash, and a tattoo parlor. And as of yesterday, I read in the paper they are going to construct—why not?—a Dave & Buster’s.

But sometimes I still sit in my front yard, late at night, listening to the frogs sing their evening arias, and I remember things. I remember that young couple who sank their savings into a swamp. I remember their ‘89 Nissan.

Truthfully, I don’t feel any older than I did when we first bought this land. Yes, I realize that I’m not the same hummingbird I used to be, but it doesn’t seem like that long ago. Not to me. Why does life move so fast? And why does it keep speeding up?

In 30 days my wife and I will leave this boggy place and move to a new state. Our old lives will be behind us, a new phase will commence. And the remarkable thing is, there’s nothing remarkable about that. Neither is there anything exceptional about how each day I become a little older, and less like that young man I used to be.

Even so, no matter how old I get, somehow it still seems as though Dale Earnhardt died just yesterday.

56 comments

  1. Melanie - February 5, 2022 8:49 am

    I’m sorry what they’ve done to your Florida, Sean. People just can’t keep a dadgummed secret and there goes Paradise. Thank you for sharing the memories of what it used to be. ❤️

    Reply
    • Richard Owen - February 5, 2022 2:19 pm

      It was more than “there goes Paradise”, Melanie. I lived in Sean’s neck of the woods (a few miles from him as we lived on County Road 30A) for 15 years on Camp Creek Lake. The real problem came when all the people came from outside the state but wanted to make the area like where they had just come FROM. If they hated it there that they wanted to leave, why change “Paradise”? Never did get an answer to that question from newcomers.
      Oh, I worked for one of the newspapers in Walton County as their sole staff photographer and sports editor/writer (’99-’08). I don’t remember the photo he wrote about but it may have been in the paper that was in the NORTH end of the county that had the contract for legal advertisements.

      Reply
      • Marcie - February 5, 2022 6:22 pm

        Ugh! I live in rural NE Alabama, near a lake and a national park, and people do this all the time. Move here for a variety of reasons-lower taxes, fewer neighbors, more trees- and immediately start complaining about what we don’t have and what we should get or do. All of which would turn here into where they left.

        Reply
  2. Michelle - February 5, 2022 11:00 am

    Another wonderful post. Thank you for sharing this special moment. As the saying goes, adventure awaits.

    Reply
  3. Paul McCutchen - February 5, 2022 11:34 am

    My wife and I got married on 9/7/2001. She has been in this house for over thirty years and for me it’s been over twenty. On the day we decided to get married we were going to go before a judge but the judge was taking off early so we went during our lunch hour. It wasn’t our first but a little more informal than we wanted so we were going to have a get together for friends and family the following week and we know what happened then. Like you and Jamie our house was in the country but now I have fast food within a mile along with grocery stores barber shops and the such. Our house sits on four acres but at times it seems to be getting crowded.

    Reply
  4. Leslie in NC - February 5, 2022 11:48 am

    Born & raised in Florida, I now live in the foothills of NC. The Florida I loved and grew up in is long gone and leaving there several years ago was a no-brainer for me. The older I get, the less tolerant I am of the heat & humidity, not to mention the increased crime & crazy traffic. My little town in NC is perfect for me. I wish you & Jamie (and the pups) much happiness in your new home in Birmingham.

    Reply
  5. Pat - February 5, 2022 12:20 pm

    Now I know why you chose Birmingham over Baldwin County, Alabama. Over here you’d be jumping from the proverbial frying pan into the fire called “progress” by those who never knew the bears.

    Reply
    • Noah - February 5, 2022 2:39 pm

      Truth. We are only ten-year residents of Baldwin County – in Fairhope – and sadly we see that same word progress describing the development of farms and forests into subdivisions and stores. I grew up in Birmingham and preferred living in smaller towns; Auburn for college, Tuscaloosa for law school and then 37 years of work; and now Fairhope. I hope Birmingham gives Jamie the joy she desires, and that Sean finds new people and lives to write about in his new home.

      Reply
  6. gwenthinks - February 5, 2022 12:25 pm

    New adventure awaits! Best of luck!

    Reply
  7. Joy Jacobs - February 5, 2022 12:38 pm

    “ Why does life move so fast? And why does it keep speeding up?” at age 70 I think this every day.

    Reply
  8. Jimmy Stewart - February 5, 2022 12:43 pm

    Sean!!! Love the Dale Earnhardt shoutout! It does seem like just yesterday. I was watching the race when it happened and the world changed. I saw the footage again last week. It just seems so surreal. So avoidable. Heroes don’t die. In part, it seems like yesterday because he was such a giant. Thank you for bringing sanity into our lives every day. It’s refreshing, inspiring, uplifting and always always, it seems, gut wrenchingly honest!!! We all need to take a more honest and practical look at the people around us. Thank you for doing that for me everyday. Blessings to you and Jamie as you relocate to BHam!

    Reply
  9. Suellen - February 5, 2022 12:53 pm

    It’s not just Florida. My grandparents lived in a house in the country. It’s almost comical to see it today. This tiny house and it’s one acre plot surrounded by huge houses in subdivisions. There is no country anymore between one city and the next. I wonder where it will all end. The older I get the faster time goes. It seems like yesterday I was sitting at a picnic table on the lawn of that tiny house surrounded by family celebrating some birthday or other. Sadly so many of those people are long gone.

    Reply
  10. Lauren Walker - February 5, 2022 1:06 pm

    We of the Florida Forgotten Coast will miss you! Enjoy ALA and stop by for a sweet tea every now and then. You’re always welcome to drop a fishing line into Ochlockonee Bay off our sea wall.

    Reply
  11. Penn Wells - February 5, 2022 1:19 pm

    It does fly by, doesn’t it? The important thing, as Clint Eastwood says, is to get up every morning and go out, because if you don’t, you let the ‘old man’ move in – with his diabetes, and bad knees, and torn rotator cuff, and liver issues and macular pucker and… well, it helps if you can just focus on this minute and not two days from now…. while continuing to put one foot in front of the other as you… go out! (Don’t let the Old Man in!)

    Reply
  12. Lisa K Riley - February 5, 2022 1:23 pm

    Golly. Interesting how we mark time. I moved back to my home state and “re-met” the love of my life just after Dale died. Drove a truck with “In Memory of 3” stickers in the window.

    Reply
  13. Marlene - February 5, 2022 1:35 pm

    Leaving a place is hard. But I read a quote once that said, “Don’t look back. That’s not the way you’re going.” My hubby and I retired last year (our choice) and it’s been a weird adjustment. I miss my work and the people. But we have two little grandsons we look after and I get to focus on them full-time now. We so enjoy their company and they keep us young and our lives fun and interesting. But soon, they, too, will be gone…off to school. So I guess we savor each moment and commit the moments to memory, knowing everything comes to an end. But as gwenthinks said, “New adventure awaits!” Look ahead and make it wonderful :-).

    Reply
  14. Cat - February 5, 2022 1:46 pm

    Welcome to Central Alabama! We are so glad the Ham will be your home base!! Not to worry~we have mosquitos and humidity here, as well, along with some swampy land in precarious areas lest you get homesick!

    Reply
  15. Shelton A. - February 5, 2022 1:47 pm

    I had a WalMart about that close to my house. But I was lucky. Down the hill behind the house, was a large retention pond, full of alligators and snakes. Had to kill a water moccasin that was being tormented by my dog, Lucky. Shot it (blew its head off actually) with my .410 shotgun. My neighbors called the police for which I got a warning. I miss that house. Seems just like yesterday, only it was close to 28 or so years ago. Time does start to fly but the memories you make never die…unlike that snake. Lucky was very lucky that day! Make some fine memories between now and moving day. Blessings and peace.

    Reply
  16. Lisa - February 5, 2022 2:18 pm

    Dear Sean, I too have had my feet stuck in the red clay hills of north Florida my whole life. But the rest of my large family are all from Birmingham. It’s a great city and I look forward to hearing about your adventure. I became a fan when my niece Annie, owner of The Bookshelf in Thomasville, introduced me to you. Since then I’ve read your books and daily posts. I quickly bought your last book in hopes of meeting at the signing scheduled in Thomasville, sadly cancelled because of the pandemic. I’ve held out hope to meet you because you live in North Florida and I figured surely our paths would cross at some point. That seems a little less likely now, but I’ll keep reading and watching for the next book tour, hoping you make it back down here for a signing. Thanks for the quality writing that makes me laugh AND cry, often in the same post. Best wishes to you guys.

    Reply
    • Marcia MacLean - February 6, 2022 2:18 pm

      Lisa, Sean will be in Panama City, FL on 3/31/22. Tickets are available at www eventbrite. com.

      Reply
  17. Helen De Prima - February 5, 2022 2:36 pm

    I saw the same things happen to the country road where my cousin and I rode our horses as kids — all the farms replaced by wall-to-wall-to-wall strip malls. Where I live now, I see nothing but grass and trees out my kitchen window plus an occasional deer or wandering bear.

    Reply
  18. Debbie - February 5, 2022 2:38 pm

    I mourn the loss of old Florida too.

    Reply
  19. Ginger Smith - February 5, 2022 2:39 pm

    Cloudland Canyon in northwest Georgia. When you go, in late March or early April, let me know and we’ll meet y’all there. Welcome to our part of the world.

    Reply
  20. James willis - February 5, 2022 2:54 pm

    I live 240 acres away from where I was born 76 years ago,but now it’s a subdivision

    Reply
  21. Pamela Mills - February 5, 2022 3:21 pm

    We moved to Moody, Alabama after 40 years in Wetumpka. Near enough to Birmingham for doctors and hospitals, but away from the “big town” feel. God bless your move and your new adventure!

    Reply
  22. AlaRedClayGirl - February 5, 2022 3:23 pm

    Urban sprawl has also hit our neck of the woods. We are “in the country” with our cows, pigs and chicken. Deer, coyotes, skunks, possums and hawks are all around us, as well as subdivisions. Wal-Mart is 5 minutes away. I just hope these former city dwellers that move into these subdivisions don’t start complaining about the wildlife and farm animals. I hope you and Jamie have a grand time on your new adventure. Remember what Robert Browning wrote, “Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be!”

    Reply
  23. Lisa - February 5, 2022 3:28 pm

    When Dale Earnhardt died my little girl heard his name so much she wrote a little ditty about him. Seems like yesterday. We still sing it every now and then. That little girl grew up in Birmingham, got married and is now a neighbor of yours near Point Washington. The encroachment around them makes me so sad. I have been a follower of yours for many years and in so many of your stories I feel I know exactly of where you are speaking. Never ran into you in Santa Rosa Beach but hope to bump into you and Jamie in the Ham. Welcome to our neck of the woods. Blessings to you both.

    Reply
  24. Dorothy Holloway - February 5, 2022 3:29 pm

    Thanks for sharing your life and experiences . I would like to welcome you and yours to Alabama.Here , I think you will find rich inspiration for this unique gift God has given you, and I for one, look forward to your writings.

    Reply
  25. DAVID A WILSON - February 5, 2022 3:30 pm

    GREAT WRITING; I can relate!

    Reply
  26. CHARALEEN WRIGHT - February 5, 2022 3:46 pm

    Reply
  27. Patricia Gibson - February 5, 2022 3:48 pm

    Wishing you guys the best❤️

    Reply
  28. Vickie Margene - February 5, 2022 3:49 pm

    I will miss those moments on Choctawhatchee Bay.

    Reply
  29. Gayle Wilson - February 5, 2022 3:54 pm

    Sean, another chapter in a great book that you and Jamie will turn the page together. I know you and Jamie will make it a great chapter.

    Reply
  30. Larry Ratliff - February 5, 2022 3:57 pm

    We will miss you as one of our Adopted Floridians here in NW Florida and wish you well in your new home in Alabama. We will still come to see you at the Imogene Theater in Milton Florida as you make your circuit thru these great United States of America. God bless you and your family Sean Dietrich.

    Reply
  31. Stacey Wallace - February 5, 2022 4:09 pm

    Sean, I’m so excited that y’all are moving to Alabama. I told my husband that what I want most is to go hear you speak somewhere nearby Auburn, where we live. Birmingham is only about an hour and a half from us. We hope to see you after you and Jamie get settled. As another reader said, you will love beautiful Lake Martin, located in Alexander City (“Eleck” City to the locals), my hometown.

    Reply
  32. Craig Johnson - February 5, 2022 4:44 pm

    Having been to Micronesia, it’s a lot like Florida but without the people! Good luck in B-Ham, we have a place in T-Town. In April we’ll be headed your way and I’ll stop at Nick’s “in the Sticks” at the top of the bay and raise a toast to you!

    Reply
  33. Doug McNeely - February 5, 2022 4:59 pm

    Excellent stuff, I was shoveling ice in Des Moines that fateful day. Seems like yesterday.

    Reply
  34. Sandy Burnett - February 5, 2022 5:00 pm

    Time only goes faster as you get older, by my standards you are still young with plenty of time left. It’s wonderful that you can write wherever you live. The stories may become more varied and you may gain new perspectives. You won’t be living in Florida swamp land anymore. Every new place has a plethora of things you you didn’t know about before. Having lived in about 10 states I’ve learned this. Blessings on your new adventure on this fast moving highway of life.

    Reply
  35. Jocelyn Knepler - February 5, 2022 5:49 pm

    Completely and totally agree! I see young people looking in my direction, as if to help an “old lady”, and I look around in search of her.

    Reply
  36. Pingback: Sean of the South: O Florida | The Trussville Tribune

  37. Tom - February 5, 2022 6:00 pm

    As Clint Eastwood said “ Don’t let the old man in”! I try to remember this every morning when I get up.

    Reply
  38. Spurgeon - February 5, 2022 6:56 pm

    My dad used to say the years go by faster as you get older, because they represent a smaller and smaller slice of your life. It’s all relative. When you’re 20, a year is 1/20th of your life. When you’re 60, it’s 1/60th. All I know is, I look at my 18 month ago grandson and can’t believe what I’m seeing. I would swear his mother was 18 months old just last year.

    Reply
  39. Fran Jackson - February 5, 2022 7:43 pm

    THE older we get, the faster time goes.

    Reply
  40. Dave+Conkle - February 5, 2022 8:00 pm

    Where are you moving to ?

    Reply
  41. MAM - February 5, 2022 8:18 pm

    Moving days are happy and sad. You’re living a former home and moving to a new one. Make the best of it. Keep the good memories of the “old” place and expunge the not-so-happy ones. You’ll build new good memories quickly enough. Thanks, Sean, for your every day writing.

    Reply
  42. Linda Moon - February 5, 2022 8:47 pm

    Well, I had to read through some lemons to get to the lemonade. I hate it when worlds seem to fall apart…yours, mine, or anyone else’s. But, I soon read about young fools in love. If you’re lucky, you become old fools living and loving a long life. “Grow Old or Die Young” is one of my life-affirming sayings, and I hope you and Jamie grow old together as you settle in the hills far away from swamps. “All Our Tomorrows Too Soon Become Just Yesterdays” is another of my affirmations, so savor each day, Jamie and Sean!

    Reply
  43. Becky+Souders - February 5, 2022 9:04 pm

    Just this morning I was doling out my meds for the coming week into what I call my “senior calendar” pill caddy. And as I dropped pills into slots, I thought “Didn’t I just do this yesterday?” Nope. That was a week ago, and I have that thought every Saturday. My life is flying and there’s not that much left! Yikes. I feel your pain.

    Reply
  44. Anne Arthur - February 5, 2022 9:58 pm

    Lovely account of your adventueous spirit. You guys rock, and I wish you lots of happiness in Alabama. You’ll live annew adventures there. May they be funny and memorable.

    Reply
  45. Kathy - February 6, 2022 12:45 am

    Isn’t it a curious combination that it doesn’t seem that long ago, but it does.

    Reply
  46. Buster - February 6, 2022 12:49 am

    Sorry if someone already said this, but I am sure little Timmy will someday be able to relate: Life is like a roll of toilet paper— the closer you get to the end, the faster it goes.

    Reply
  47. Susan Ogden - February 6, 2022 4:02 am

    Congratulations and Blessings on your new place!! I am sure it will be wonderful! Think of this as another adventure. Looking forward to the book that this adventure spawns!!

    Reply
  48. Jeanie Perdue Ward - February 7, 2022 3:56 am

    Thank you for taking up for the wonderful people of the South. I am born and raised Texan, but had the privilege of living in the lovely town of Homewood, Alabama for about 5 years – long enough to give my children a real childhood. I am happy to hear you are moving to Birmingham. I think you will love such a beautiful area – they even have four seasons. Do yourself a favor and visit Homewood, especially during the fall around Halloween and try to take in the annual Christmas parade – you won’t be sorry!

    Reply
  49. Belinda Byrd - February 7, 2022 5:10 pm

    Such wonderful “beginning” memories!!
    We had a Nissan Sentra too….. 💕

    Reply
  50. Bob - February 8, 2022 12:44 am

    Sean, I absolutely love a “high” percentage of your daily messages, stories and lessons. A good number of these are emotionally invoking while others are entertaining, humorous and simply reflective of life in the South, more specifically the “Gulf Coast.” To many of us, “Heaven.” At times I wonder how anyone your age could even possibly have experienced, much less convey the knowledge that some of these convey. For most, it takes more years of life’s “whoopin” board to teach such lessons.

    I’m a “medium” old guy, native Floridian who likes “Angel” experiences. My wife of more years than you have existed and I have shared the same or similar stories as you and Jamie with the final days and death/loss of her momma. Throw in burying a child, all of the parents, family members at all levels and 12-extraordinarily special Dalmatians and 1-exceptionally sweet cat and you get the picture. We get it! Sue and I have 5-children.

    Every day is a gift but also gives us the firm knowledge, “not faith but knowledge,” that we are eternal beings and our Lord and Father have a plan. There “are” others, unseen, in the room in those final hours and days.

    Now, we come down to your highly embellished narrative of your current home, its location, its beginnings, the growth in that area and overall reality. Maybe it is your way of subconsciously dealing with a departure from the “Sunshine State” to what I believe you referred to the 2?th State of the Union. Humor is great but do not place our alligators, black bears, deer and insects in such of a negative light when Birmingham is void of such incredible inhabitants! You sir, are “a nut!” Birmingham is “full of” a far more invasive and dangerous species. There are, a couple of “really good” BBQ restaurants, the “one and only” redeeming value. Happy to sit down over a few beers to discuss, as one Floridian to another.

    In as much as Jamie sounds to be “the forever” girl and a wonderful and incredible lady, moving from the Florida Panhandle to Birmingham, Alabama can quite accurately be attuned to a visit to the Proctologist with a more than severe, multiple locality stoppage or blockage of the plumbing!

    You without question “will question” your sanity within 8-months. The wonderful smell of the ocean, the sea birds, McGuires bean soup and Joe Patti’s for the “World’s Best” seafood. The purest, whitest, softest, sandy beaches with “emerald green,” crystal clear” water the likes of which can only be found in Heaven. Beautiful and not so beautiful, bikini clad ladies. The Destin Seafood Festival. Sorry Sean, Birmingham has nothing close. If you find it so, then your “real roots” have failed!

    I truly wish you and Jamie the very best in life and beyond. You have finally revealed a crack in the hull of wisdom. The “grass is always greener.” Not so, rarely is. I left over the years a few times. Learned my lesson, wash, rinse, spine dry, repeat. “Finally” achieved the wisdom that is. I know folks from Kansas that love Kansas. I have friends in Texas that will fight you if you question Texas. I even have some friends in Minnesota that this week sent me images of their back yard thermometers reading minus 36. I question the sanity of all. I sir, am a Floridian, forever and ever, ever! God Bless, best of luck in “Birmingham?” Wow!

    Reply
  51. Joe - February 8, 2022 6:53 pm

    Yep Sean, i live in the woods close to palatka, my Florida is disappearing one tree at a time also, SAD.

    Reply
  52. Allen Madding - February 9, 2022 3:59 pm

    i will always remember the day Dale died. I was trying to re-find my center after an ugly divorce. I was living in a hotel room and looking forward to the NASCAR season starting and some semblance of normality returning to my life. I sat stunned as Ken Schrader waved frantically for help and continued to plod thru some of the darkest days of my life.
    God bless y’all on your new adventure and your new home. God Speed.

    Reply

Leave a Comment