The beaches of northwest Florida are really without equal in the continental United States. There’s mile after mile of sand so white you’d think it had been bleached for a television commercial. The water starts at the shore a spectacular emerald green then slowly darkens to a midnight blue. In class rooms around the world geologists eagerly flex their intellectual muscle in lengthy lectures on the various facets of their field to explain how all that beauty just happened but the bottom line is that at first sight the only word that comes to mind to anyone who has been there is awesome.
They walked down the beach across steps that had been built up over the dunes. As soon as his feet touched the sand, Hoss went into a crazed kamikaze sprint for the water. Debbie began to lay her towel down but Jake stopped her.
“Probably be better if we set up camp down a little way. Those tracks are for the beach patrol. They cruise up and down regularly.”
“Alright, Mr. Professional Beach Bum, show me how it’s done.”
He carried the cooler down the beach about twenty feet and then towards the shore.
“This is the spot,” he said dropping the cooler.
“Are you sure? I mean, the sand looks a little better right down there.”
“Where? Oh, I get it, sarcasm. You may think I’m being picky, but you should know years of misdirected energy went into it.”
“I wouldn’t call it misdirected,” she said laying out her towel and then laying out on it. “I would call it being in tune.”
“Maybe so, but I have doubts about what I’ve been getting in tune with. It’s been twenty years that seem like two weeks with marginal progress to show.”
“Marginal progress? I’ll tell you about marginal progress. You know how kids used to tease each other about their parents paying people to play with them. That’s what I’m on vacation from right now.”
“You’re a babysitter? I thought you had some type of corporate job.” He pulled a beer out of the cooler and offered it to her. She accepted, so he got another one for himself.
“I am and I do. Public relations is just a grown up term for rent-a-friend. I’m hired by companies to reach out to disaffected groups to win their support for ideas they don’t like.”
“I wouldn’t let it bother me too much if I were you. Everyone hates their job at some point or another.”
“I don’t hate that job, I loathe it.”
“Well, that’s what people come down here for, to recharge their lives, to see something that makes them feel good again.”
“It does do that,” she answered surveying the scene. “I would say from the crowds that the majority of people need this.”
“Monday to Sunday, regional people when it’s warm and northerners where it’s not.”
“It’s this crowded down here on Sundays? I thought most people in the Bible Belt were in church all day Sunday.”
“They are when they’re somewhere that church is the closest place to God, but down here . . . well, you can’t get any closer to God than this.”
The scene around them was proof enough for his theory. It was filled with families and friends playing in the sand and surf. Everyone played at their own pace: singles played volleyball together, families built sandcastles or just sat at the point where the waves finally kissed the beach, youngsters with masks and snorkels looked for shells and fish in waist deep water, and some people just aimlessly floated on rafts.
At night the setting made for an even more spiritual experience. There were couples of all ages cuddled on chairs and towels. Down by the water single people were walking, drawn by romantic ideals of meeting someone or simply awed by the metallic confetti-like reflection of moonlight on waves.
She stared out at the water for a few minutes and rose off her towel saying, “I found a better spot.” She pulled down her shorts and kicked them with one foot onto a corner of the towel. “You coming?” Jake took off his shirt, dropped it on top of the cooler and walked next to her down to the Gulf. As they took their first step in, two kids in a strange hopping run passed them going in the opposite direction. One, a girl, was screaming “Jellyfish!” over and over again with a look of mortal terror on her face. The other, a boy, was one bound behind but on his face was an excited smile like he was playing tag, not keep away.
Debbie looked at Jake and said, “Should we be worried?”
“About jellyfish? No more than you should be about bees in your backyard.”
Jake picked a wave to dive into and swam under water about twenty feet. He came up in water that was only chest high, but chose to half float instead.
“C’mon, it’s water, get wet,” he called to her. She followed his lead with a spring that put her parallel to the surface. Hardly making a splash, she picked up a breaststroke that was possibly Olympic caliber. She reached him in a flash and assumed his bobbing posture.
“Lemme guess, high school swim team?” he said dryly.
“And collegiate all state two years,” she beamed back.
He stood up for a moment and applauded her. She did a little water curtsy in reply.
“Yeah, I was gonna swim in college also, but they filled in the pool at good old L.A.U.”
“LA U.? You mean UCLA? I thought you went to school in Alabama,” she asked.
“Yeah, L.A.U. is Lower Alabama University. Formally know as Folsom State University it is named for the great governor Big Jim Folsom,” he said in mocking pride.
“Ah, ha. And what did they fill in the pool with?”
“Concrete. People that lived around the school were complaining about mosquitoes. They thought they bred in chlorine water evidently.”
“Speaks highly of the Alabama education system.”
“You have no idea. In most things, Alabama’s not as bad as people like to make it out to be. But when it comes to education, the state government ain’t out to win any awards. You know the people up there will vote for a sales tax increase to give a fishing supply store tax breaks to open up, but they won’t vote for one extra cent to got to public education?”
“Growing up in West Virginia gave me the same impression, but that doesn’t mean you have to stay there.”
“There are schools outside of Alabama.”
“In every direction.”
“I – as in me – know – as in understand and agree.”
Debbie jumped half way out of the water letting out a screech.
“Something bit me!”
“On the back of my foot.”
“Let me see.”
She spun around and arched her left leg up out of the water. Jake balanced her on her leg with one hand as he looked over her foot.
“Where was it?” he asked again.
“Right on the back of my heel.”
He rubbed on her heel looking for any sign of broken skin.
“I don’t see anything. Are you sure it was a bite?”
“Yes,” she said emphatically, “or maybe.”
“Maybe a nibble,” he said letting go of her foot.
“It was a bite. I felt teeth. You people aren’t very sympathetic around here. You probably don’t even believe shark bite victims.”
“If there’s evidence of a bite, we are sympathetic. I promise you. We want visitors to stay, and stay whole while they stay.”
“You do not. The whole southern hospitality thing is a myth, isn’t it?”
“It is not. I will prove it to you.” Then he said with a formal southern drawl, “My dear lady, how have you enjoyed the beaches of South Walton?”
“So far, very much,” she said playing along.
“That is wonderful to hear. We hope you will be staying a while. Won’t you?”
“As long as it is interesting.”
“Ah, superb. Is there anything we can do for ya’ll that will help.”
“Yes, you can stay interesting.”
He paused and stared almost into her. She continued doing a slow bounce to keep her head above the waves and her earrings, small garnet stones dangling by short silver chains, slowly bobbed with her. Each time they rose, they hung for just a moment free from gravity.
“Well, we will certainly try to do just that.”
“Good,” she said.
“You know, from a historical standpoint, this area is as interesting as you will find.”
“Really? Do tell.”
“Last night, we were talking about Four Mile Beach. You remember?”
“Yes, do you?”
“Of course, I do. I may howl at the moon on occasion, but I never forget a conversation. Anyway . . . late in World War II, when most of this area was used for pilot training, Four Mile Beach was the site of some top secret tests. You may know that the Germans were leaders in the field of rocketry. They developed what was to be the first modern guided missile, the V1. By today’s standards, they weren’t very accurate. They would land any where up to a hundred miles off their intended target. But as far as psychological warfare went, they were extremely effective. They were rocket propelled, but there was a small inertia propeller on the nose so that it made a buzzing sound as it drifted down to detonation. The noise gave them the nickname The Buzz Bomb. The Army got a hold of several of them as the war began going our way.”
“I remember reading about that. The Battle of Britain, right?”
“Yes, exactly. The Germans launched them from occupied France over the English Channel and into Great Britain. They were aiming for London, but as I said, they weren’t always very accurate. So the Allies got a hold of several of these things during the Liberation of France. They brought them here to figure out how to shoot them down. Since Eglin was a major training base for fighter pilots, they brought them there. They built a few launching ramps in the dunes at Four Mile Beach pointing out to the Gulf and launched them for target practice. The launching ramps are still there today, slightly over-grown. There are also a few rusted out V1 rockets in the brush around the ramps, must have been duds.”
“I’ll have to check that out tomorrow night.”
“Why tomorrow night?”
“I’ve been invited to a party at Walter White’s house.”
“Amazing, here two weeks and already hanging out with the rich.”
She turned towards the shore and started swimming in.
“Hey, where you going?”
“To get dry.”
He maneuvered around into a dead man’s float with his face pointed skyward. He laid as still as possible surrendering to the waves as they rolled arcs through his body. For everyone there is a place that they can find real peace. The religious find it in church in sermons, songs and prayer. Hunters find it at the hours when the sun is just barely hanging on the horizon, their instincts and senses at full volume. For Jake Burns, it was that moment, face basking in the Florida sun, body carried by the sea. It only took him a few minutes before he reached clarity and after that he felt more refreshed than after sleep or shower. Slowly coming out of his trance, he swam a butterfly stroke back to the shore.
RETURN TO TABLE OF CONTENTS CONTINUE TO CHAPTER 14