We actually had several other reasons to make this trip. Back in November 1968 Dear Diane and I spent our one-night honeymoon in a Holiday Inn located on this very beach. In those days there were only a few modest hotels here and I believe only the Holiday Inn was open at that time of year. I can remember leaving the wedding reception at Naval Air Station Pensacola's Mustin Beach Officers' Club and asking my new bride, "Well, which way shall we go, east or west?" She simply smiled and said, "Let's go to Panama City. I'm sure we can find a nice hotel there. And while we're there we can also stop and visit with my Aunt Pearl and Uncle Dewey." (Her aunt and uncle had been unable to attend the wedding.) And so I headed east and drove to Panama City Beach. The wedding was on Saturday morning, the honeymoon on Saturday night, and on Sunday we drove back to Pensacola. We had no choice. Diane had to return to teaching her high schoolers on Monday morning, and that evening I had to fly my final instrument check before finishing up Navy pilot training. Looking back on it, I can say only that it was all very wonderful. We were young and excited about the life we saw before us. That was 45 years ago. See the photo below. There we are, young and happy, leaving the church.
And so, it is good to return and spend a few days here, even though all is so changed. But there's an even more ancient family connection to Panama City Beach. In 1950 and 1951 my family spent much of a year living here on this beach. My father was an Army officer stationed at then-Camp Rucker in Dothan, Alabama. He decided to rent a cottage for the family here, spend the work-week in Dothan, and spend the weekends with us. The backdoor of our little two-bedroom cottage opened right on the beach and, believe me, the livin' was easy. My brother, Jeff, and I attended Drummond Park School (which has since been renamed) and thoroughly enjoyed our backyard of sand and water. In the photo below I'm the little guy standing, wearing my favorite cowboy shirt and watching the older boys as they dug a hole in the sand. Jeff, four years older, is second from right.
I can recall much of that year, but everything is now gone. The little beachfront cottages (visible in the background of the above photo) with their sandy floors and space heaters and primitive kitchens have been replaced by towering condos and hotels. The miles of empty beaches littered with fascinating gifts from the sea now play host to thousands of sun screen-coated tourists sipping tropical drinks from the hotel bar. Our landlady, Mrs. Andrews, who made us a huge batch of the most wonderful hush puppies every week went to her well-deserved reward decades ago. I can't recall the names of any of the local kids on the school bus who laughed at our Yankee accents (I had to fight my way to respect and friendship). And thankfully the chain gangs that moved noisily past our house almost every afternoon have disappeared. But I feel specially blessed to have experienced that year, which was so very different from our family life in Connecticut and suburban New York. Panama City Beach in 1950 is an America that no longer exists, and for some reason that saddens me. It would seem Thomas Wolfe was right.
Tomorrow we'll drive along the coast to Pensacola, and there we'll pray at the graveside of Diane's parents and take a 95-year-old family friend out to lunch.