Twenty-one years ago I called Florida’s panhandle home.
A friend of mine just this week was discussing her and her husband’s plans to vacation there this summer, and all of my memories from my time in the Sunshine State began floating their way to the surface of my thoughts.
It was in late 1994 that I was summoned back to Ohio because my paternal grandfather had passed away.
I had intended on returning to Florida, near the sandy beaches that I frequented before and after my job at a nearby Orange Beach, Ala. hotel. So, I left all my belongings behind.
You see, my grandma and I had a special relationship, and in the days following Grandpa’s passing it was determined that I should stay with Grandma for a time.
Grandpa had been her companion for more than half a century. She was more broken with grief than I had ever seen her.
I still planned to return to Florida at some point.
And eventually it happened that I didn’t, despite my plans. Grandma needed me, so I stayed here.
In August of 1995 came Hurricane Erin and then Hurricane Opal in October. Both of them swept into my Florida neck of the woods. It was within days of the latter storm that I learned that those belongings I had left behind were casualties — my high school yearbooks, my high school diploma, and a ring that my grandmother had given me, an anniversary present from Grandpa.
After that second dreadful landfall I got a call from my friend with whom I was living. It was all gone. The flooding was too much and the storm surge had reached our abode, ruining everything in its path.
I still think about it, the places I lived in Florida and the friendships I built over my few years as a Sunshine Stater.
I drove a few miles of coastline along Perdido Key on my way to work and back home again. It was often I’d stop at the beach, park my car, and go sit in the sand for a time.
One evening, just as the sun was draining into the horizon, I watched a tropical storm miles out. Above my head stars were popping out in the darkening sky, but way out there over the Gulf of Mexico were angry clouds and lots of lighting, and it was spectacular.
Incidentally, for all of my ocean swimming in the Atlantic, Pacific, Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico, the latter is the only place I ever received the venomous sting of a jellyfish, and as my luck goes, this wasn’t just some run-of-the-mill jellyfish, but a Portuguese Man-o-War. It nailed me good, all over my right foot and leg and over parts of my left leg. By the time I made it to the beach, my right leg was a useless appendage, the communication between my brain and leg cut off for a time by the toxins, I presume.
There was a terrible amount of pain and I also became pretty nauseated, so I laid there on my towel on the beach, a spent puddle of flesh and bone that only moments before had been enjoying a salt-water frolic.
After a few hours it passed, for the most part, and I went on my way, undeterred from further frolicking.
You know, there was still sand in my old Mustang years after my return to the Buckeye State.
A scary old bayou is the location of my first, and thus far only attempt, at learning to water ski. I never did get up on those things. The motivation of alligators sharing the same water as me wasn’t quite enough, I guess.
It was a regular occurrence to go out on a bayou close to my friend’s house to do some fishing. It was also common for my friends and me to pile into a boat and cut across Pensacola Bay for some dinner at Pensacola Beach.
On that trip we’d always pass a ship that had been sunk by the Navy years before for the aquatic life. More often than not, a couple dolphins would be playing around that thing. And no matter how long I’d lived down there, it was always a lovely surprise to this Ohio girl.
There was a little dive where we’d go for dinner sometimes. You could pull your boat right up, or drive there in your car.
Worn wooden floors and walls, worn wooden tables with benches, and lots of thrown-open, worn wooden flaps around the whole of the place letting in a salty breeze as we would chow down on some freshly-caught Gulf fare.
With the regularity with which we ate fresh-from-the-ocean fish and other yummy saltwater critters, to this day I cannot, or will not, eat ocean fish here. I must be by the sea.
The last ocean fish I had was on a trip to California about six years ago. In a little restaurant right off Cannery Row, I had the best halibut that has ever been eaten in the history of humankind, and it came out of the water just hours before hitting my plate in its perfectly-prepared perfection.
It’s made me jaded, and it’s led me to avoid places like Red Lobster like the plague.
My life was centered around the water when I lived in Florida, which sort of just happens since water is absolutely everywhere. And that proximity to water certainly makes the oppressive humidity much easier to bear.
Oh, the memories. I have only been back there one time since I left so long ago, and it was as if I had never left.
I never really thought about it before, but this week’s sojourn into days gone by made me realize that the balmy state sort of served as a greenhouse to propagating some really good memories.
Reach Angela Shepherd at 937-393-3456, ext. 1681, or on Twitter @wordyshepherd.