I recently spent an extended weekend on the Gulf Coast of Florida, which is both a “vacationland” and a real place where real people live year-round. I was on vacation but also taking part in some “real people” activities with my parents. My parents live in Pensacola for several months each year in a strange reverse snowbird pattern of being in Florida for spring and summer. As natives of West Florida, they are undaunted by the heat.
With that prelude, here are some impressions and little episodes that convey a sense of visiting the Gulf Coast now.
Southwest Airlines Flies to Panama City!
I had some “Southwest dollars” to spend, so I was delighted to find that Southwest has just begun a nonstop daily service from Baltimore Washington International Airport (BWI) to Panama City, Florida. Having trundled back and forth 1100 miles each way from Baltimore to Pensacola many, many times over the decades-by car, train, bus, and plane-I was amazed to find that I could actually fly to a city close to Pensacola in two hours and fifteen minutes! It was like magic.
The flight lived up to the expectations. With “early bird boarding” (cost $10 and was well worth it), I grabbed an exit row seat on the aisle and even had an empty seat next to me. The flight attendants were jolly and offered us extra beverages and snacks. We took off right on time and landed 26 minutes early in Panama City. This was heaven-less than two hours of a pleasant flight and I am just 100 miles from Pensacola! Not only that, we exited the plane into a brand spanking new airport. It was pristine, bright, colorful, modern, and untouched by humans.
Panama City Has a Brand New International Airport!
And there’s the rub. (There is always a rub.) The airport was so new that my parents’ GPS did not know about it and they ended up at the old airport to collect me. Amazingly, in a low moment for change management, the signs posted at the (deserted, silent, car-less) old airport simply said “Airport Closed” without providing information about how to get to the new one. About 1.5 hours later, after grilling a police person who finally appeared, and a few wrong turns caused by poor directions, they collected me. And we were back on track….
While waiting on a bench at the “arriving flights” area of the new airport, I got a good look at the comings and goings. Here are some key observations:
White SUVs, cars, and jeeps are plentiful. It seemed like about half the vehicles were white. Is this because white is cooler in the sun? Or is it something more subtle about keying your car color to the white sand beaches? What is that white-car-thing about?
The gulf coast area is very flat. Sitting there outside the airport I could see for miles and miles. Every approaching car could be tracked visually for a long, long time before finally appearing and revealing itself to belong to someone other than my parents.
The entire crew from my flight was whisked away in (you guessed it) a white van. Will they all stay in a swanky hotel? Would they be sunning on the beach the next day? We will never know.
Arrival in Pensacola, Oil Spill Saturation Begins
Driving from P’City to P’Cola late in the evening afforded us an opportunity to see all the bright lights of Destin, Fort Walton Beach, Navarre, etc. with light traffic. We even caught glimpses of sand dunes in our headlights. We stopped to grab some “grab and go” sandwiches and observed that everyone else in line was purchasing copious amount of beer. Hmmm. We hope they are not out on the road after consuming all that beer. I am reminded of a co-worker who once owned a motel here and referred to it as the “Redneck Riviera.”
Once in Pensacola, I soon learned that the oil spill in the Gulf is not only the topic du jour, but the topic du mois (month, for those who took Spanish or German in high school), and perhaps the topic de l’annee (yep, year) here. It is all over the local news, the Pensacola News Journal, and in conversations among residents. In fact, the oil has not landed here so far, but has only despoiled beaches and wildlife in the beleaguered state of Louisiana.
As everyone here on the Florida coast wrings their collective hands about the potential oil impact here, it is difficult to tell whether there is more passion about damage to the environment or damage to the tourist economy. Both are vitally important to West Florida. I have to say that listening to the Obama press conference about the oil spill was a more intense experience sitting here in Pensacola than it would have been in my family room in Maryland.
Gay Pride in the Deep South?
In fact, the dependence on and devotion to the tourist trade creates an interesting scenario in which hordes (truly, hordes) of gays and lesbians (but mostly gay men) descend on Pensacola Beach over the Memorial Day weekend and are welcomed. Culturally, this is not Providence, Rhode Island or even Dewey Beach, Delaware! This is Reagan country, Fox News country, the Bible belt, and the home of a huge U.S. Navy presence, but tolerance is the watchword when tourist dollars are at issue. This effect is accentuated while the oil spill looms as a threat. Doing the right thing, obeying civil rights laws, and making money are curiously aligned.
Interestingly, while I am here and the gay men are here there is news from Washington that the House of Representatives has approved a bill repealing the “Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell” policy in the armed services. Although Senate approval is far from assured, could this set the stage for a time when some of the gay men on Pensacola Beach over the Memorial Day weekend drive over from the NASP-Naval Air Station Pensacola? It is an intriguing thought.
Friday Night in the Emergency Room
One of our favorite excursions when visiting Pensacola is the bargain-seeking drive 60 miles northwest to Foley, Alabama to the Tanger Outlet Mall. After our traditional Southern chicken and dumplings at the Cracker Barrel restaurant, we hit the stores. Unfortunately, my mom caught her toe on a dangerous irregular edge of concrete and hit the ground (but not before we had successfully purchased six pairs of shoes between the two of us…).
It was very heartening that in a flash an estimated eight people descended on her, prostrate there on the concrete, helped her to her feet, provided wet cloths to catch the blood from her over-eye laceration, escorted her to a bench, and stayed with her until I could be summoned from the other side of the mall. One woman was a nurse and she suggested that some stitches could be required to close the wound and that medical attention was important.
We headed back to Pensacola immediately and wound up spending, by actual measure, 6 hours in the Emergency Room at Sacred Heart Hospital-most of that time in chairs in the waiting room. The staff was well-organized and professional and eventually we got what we came for (a CAT scan, steri strips for the wound, a tetanus shot, a mini neurological exam). Here are some key observations from the “slice of life” we saw in the ER.
My mom’s medical team consisted of two male nurses and one African American doctor (from Harlem in NYC he said). This diversity would not have been possible in Pensacola in most of the 20th century. It is a new day! It’s the 21st century!
People in the ER come in family groups-husbands with ill wives, parents with ill children, and grown-up children accompanying ill elderly parents. While waiting, my Mom and I made a game of trying to figure out who the patient was in each group and how the various parties were related to one another. Sometimes the relationships were not obvious, such as the young woman with the 3-year-old daughter accompanied by a young man who looked too young to be her significant other and did not have that significant other “vibe”-her younger brother, perhaps?
Conclusion: Visit the Gulf Coast of Florida
Pensacola, along with the entire Florida gulf coast, is a fascinating blend of Spanish style architecture and Spanish moss, military influence, traditional Southern cooking and values, and the homogenizing influence of tourism, mass media and modern transience. Culturally, the area is trying to keep its neighborliness but shed its intolerance. Recently the white sand beaches of the Florida gulf coast have been battered by hurricanes and are now threatened by a huge oil spill, but I can tell you based on first hand observation that it is still here, still beautiful, and eminently worth visiting.