Port Saint Joe is painted with late afternoon sunlight, and I am walking downtown with my wife.
The small Panhandle city is busy with pre-summer tourists. The storefronts look the same way they did in the 1950’s. The old theater marquee reads, “God bless Port Saint Joe.”
I love it here. Long ago, I wrote a novel here. Actually, it was more like a novella. It wasn’t thick enough to balance a wobbly table, but I’ll never forget the sense of accomplishment it gave me.
I didn’t think I could do it. I had almost no faith in myself. To write it, I had camped in a small sixteen-foot camper with my dog.
It was my pal, Lyle, who first encouraged me to do it.
He said, “If you don’t give yourself permission to do something you’ve always wanted to, then what the hell’s your life all about?”
So I tried it. I camped. I wrote for hours, then I ate oysters for supper and drank Red Stripe beer. My bloodhound could eat nearly as many raw oysters as I could.
My bloodhound was born in Indian Pass, just down the road from Port Saint Joe. When I first got her, she was the kind of pup who had saltwater in her blood. She lived for this water.
Throughout her life, we would visit often. I loved watching her run these beaches. She was a special dog.
Some of her ashes sit on my mantle, some ride in my truck. I also brought some of her on this trip.
I put a few spoonfuls of her ash into a Red Stripe bottle, with a cork in the top and rocks in the bottom. And there was a handwritten poem inside.
It was short:
“I love her, Ellie Mae,
Though she is now above,
May she rest forever on the bottom,
In a place she loved.”
It ain’t Shakespeare, but dogs don’t care how well you write. I lobbed the bottle into the water this morning. No tears. Only happiness for the thirteen years she lived.
I know I write a lot about dogs. And I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But I am who I am.
Port Saint Joe is also where my wife and I came for my thirtieth birthday. We rented a little place, and we spent too much time on the beach.
We were here because it had been a defining year for me. That year, I’d given myself permission to do several things I’d always wanted to do. And it had changed me.
I finished college—finally. And I wasn’t doing construction work anymore, I was playing music in a local band. I was fishing more often. And I’d written a novel.
Me. An author.
No longer was I Heaven’s most lovable loser. My life was taking a turn for the better.
You should’ve seen me walk the streets of Port Saint Joe on my thirtieth birthday, my dog beside me. I looked like I’d just discovered teeth.
I don’t know a thing about the nature of life, but I don’t think happiness is something a young man can whip up. I believe over time it grows on him, like algae.
Take, for example, blue jeans. A few weeks ago, I bought some jeans from a retailer. They charged me an arm, a leg, and a kidney for them.
They were pre-worn, pre-faded, pre-washed, pre-approved, and pre-whatever. They were the nicest jeans I have ever owned. They fit better than any I’d ever had.
And I hated them.
Because that’s not how we used to buy jeans growing up. The jean purchases of my youth happened like this:
Mama took you to the store. She picked out a pair of rock-hard denim jeans that were stiff enough to sand boat hulls. She washed them, and you wore them every single day for the next sixteen years.
By the end of those sixteen years, you had a great pair of jeans. They weren’t the best, and they weren’t perfect, but they were yours, and you were happy with them.
My life has been pretty much the same way. It’s taken me a long time to finally get broken in.
How did I start talking about jeans?
Anyway, my wife and I weave in and out of stores in Port Saint Joe’s downtown. She tries on sun hats; I consider buying a fishing rod. We’re playing tourists today. And it’s nice.
We are about to go to dinner to eat oysters and drink Red Stripe beer. And I am smiling. I don’t know how this happened. I don’t know why.
Maybe I’m smiling because the weather is right. Maybe it’s because I had a good night’s sleep. Maybe it’s fate. Maybe all I needed was to give myself permission to smile.
Perhaps it’s because my late friend will forever rest on the Gulf’s bottom.
Or it could be that I’m just happy.
God bless Port Saint Joe.