The Folklore Project
A Handle on the Panhandle
By Meredith Frye
My children were sticking wrinkly, saltwater-soaked fingers into a Tupperware of watermelon, and it reminded me of childhood. Sprinkling table salt on the cold, red, seed-filled fruit, which most certainly means I am Southern because we salt our fruit. I don’t know when seedless became all that the roadside stand sells, but it sure takes the fun out of eating it — standing half-naked in the heat of summer, spitting bragging rights from atop hot crossties.
They took the seeds out of watermelons. Such is life these days — trading the natural hours for a minute of convenience.
Watching them that day, I thought about one of the greatest assets of our southernmost states — easy access to beautiful beaches. That remains the same, but as is the trend in life, I’m reminded of all that’s changed.
My family and my husband’s both spent summer trips along the Florida panhandle, along with the rest of the Alabama and Georgia natives. From Pensacola to Apalachicola, we both have memories from childhood at nearly every stop in between. You could get out of your car, from whatever state you’d driven, open a door and experience humid gulf air that literally took your breath away. The sand was whiter than sawdust but darker than snow and felt soft on my hands, as if they were in my mother’s White Lily flour. There, we would experience many firsts — like sunburns, the cold wet feeling of aloe being rubbed onto tight hot skin, one whole summer of freckles forming.
My favorite trip — spent with another mom and her two children, who were mine and my brother’s ages — found us in a one-story, cinder-block house a couple blocks from Panama City Beach. Its shining beacon was the rooftop patio its owners had constructed. We spent as much time up there as we could, which wasn’t much in the sweltering Florida sun. On those afternoons, we poached the local motel pool and each of us memorized room numbers from the doors that were visible on the pool deck, provided any security personnel questioned our validity. Every morning that week my mom went for a run, leaving her friend and us kids sleeping around 5 a.m. One morning my brother was up early enough to walk with her, and together they raided a local diner with shells for sale in a quarter candy machine. That diner held magic for me for years — a place where one coin resulted in beauty I’d have had to search all week for on the beaches. I would have traded the natural hours for a minute of convenience, I guess…
My husband swears he and his brother singlehandedly altered the geography of Mexico Beach, Florida. Back in the ’80s, his parents rented their foursome, and sometimes a few tagalong friends, a trailer two blocks from the beach. On one particular trip, the two of them spent an entire day connecting a then-estuary with the ocean. He says (and his father and brother recall the same story) that when the two waters met, a rushing tide swept up anything and everything in its path. To this day, Google Maps shows a body of water so large it separates the beach into two parts. I suspect if this was true, or half as sensational as he insists, the city authorities would be knocking down our door for meddling with the natural environment.
I can still smell my mother’s Hawaiian Tropic Dark Tanning Oil, the clear brown bottle greasy from use. Cancer took old people, but we didn’t know why. She was straddling that fine line between whether to wear her bikini or finally switch to a one-piece like most other mothers had. Our mornings were spent at beachside donut shacks, innocently ingesting copious amounts of refined sugars and gluten — words we’d never heard back then. Evenings were spent crowded around bubble TV sets and a VCR, walking around on linoleum floors drinking tap water, juices from concentrate, and, God forbid, cow’s milk. The world was our oyster because we knew so little about it and longed to know more — not from some search engine but from truly experiencing the events, long and heart-wrenching, true and beautiful. Phones rang loud throughout beach houses on landlines we just called telephones, husbands and family members checking on us. And the rest of the week the house just rang loud with laughter and screams — our sheer delight in the hot summer minutes that all went by so fast, in everything life on the coast had to offer. Escape from everything else.
Now, we hardly escape. Emails come in like they do back home. Texts, calls, social media. The world doesn’t stop now like it used to. But the world fell away those summers, not just for us kids but for our oil-slathered parents too, soaking away the hottest days with ocean water, Miller Lite, and wine coolers. As I sit here on my iPhone typing notes for this essay, my kids are swimming in a one-acre pool. A lifeguard watches from above, and I think, “Well, at least we didn’t bring the babysitter.”
It wasn’t but a few years ago when our family of five was sharing a one-room studio during a beach trip. It was so small that when we put our three children down for naps, we drank beer in the bathtub because there was nowhere else to congregate. We’ve moved up a little since then, but that simple beach trip contains some of my favorite memories from our vacations as adults. Now, we rent a house with enough bedrooms to separate the children for naps. We chase our boys up and down Florida State Road 30A beaches in Coast Guard-approved swim vests. We prep our auto-immune meals in BPA-free bowls and pour bottled water over filtered ice cubes. Meals cost a fortune, and my kids wear seersucker and polos to dinner (because they’re too old to wear john- johns). We ride bikes through Rosemary Beach as the smell of jasmine fills the air around us. The boys wear helmets and we yell after them — “Look both ways!” and “Watch for cars!” But I long for the old days when the places we rented didn’t have TVs, much less cable, and the best scenery wasn’t on a screen in front of our faces but out over the ocean, from the top of a house, its roof hot under our bare feet. Helicopter moms didn’t exist, or at least we didn’t know any. We wore airbrushed T-shirts to dinner, if we went to dinner at all. And the rest of the time we hardly wore anything, especially helmets. Kids were kids, and sometimes grown-ups were, too.
Nature wasn’t on a channel. It was in our backyards, lurking outside that Mexico Beach trailer in an estuary filled with animals that could kill two brothers. I think about that now and shudder. There are just as many sharks in the ocean and alligators in the bay, but somehow we all of a sudden feel smarter — like the great big internet has revealed the things we couldn’t have figured out on our own. I long for the days when we knew less, when everything wasn’t so sensationalized, when maybe our parents weren’t worried because they didn’t know they should be.
We bought a minivan a few weeks ago — a rite of passage in parenthood — and I couldn’t wait to take it to the beach. As I filled it to the brim with whatever is the opposite of necessities, I had to ask myself, “What would my mother have packed 30 years ago?” All this at my fingertips, so why leave it behind? I think that’s what we do in our daily lives: bathe ourselves in worldly noise and stimulation, instead of sit in quiet contemplation. We see it, do it, scroll it, swipe it, when sometimes we should just soak up the natural — hear the ocean, smell the air. Give back a convenient minute for a few natural hours, back to feeling grounded and dependent upon nothing. Free like a child of the ’80s. Free like a dip in the motel pool. Free like the wind on our sunburned backs.
My husband says his mother never seemed hurried then. She wasn’t agitated or irritated on those beach trips. Maybe she managed stress better than I do, or maybe there was just less to stress about. No yelling, no screaming, no schedules. Or then again, maybe that’s the romanticizing we do. They had nothing to do but while the day away near water. Alligators watched as my husband and his brother set out crab traps filled with chicken necks purchased from the local grocery store. On nights when they’d caught something, his dad would pan-fry a fish or boil a few crabs. Wasting days on end for that great big catch. Really hard work for really great reward. Once, when they were setting out their traps, a small alligator watched them from below the Mexico Beach bridge. They watched the animal for awhile before dropping a massive rock on top of it. Together with animal rights groups, that alligator’s still looking for them (he lived).
We went to see that trailer a few years ago — still sitting in the same spot, weathered and worn from 30 years of summer renters. In the fall, I think we will pay homage to my husband’s summer memories and take our three young boys to Mexico Beach. I doubt we’ll rent the trailer; I’m afraid it might be condemned. But I’d like to imagine the memories we’d make in a two-bedroom shack — all five of us and maybe a few tagalong friends — with nothing but a few VHS tapes and some high-fructose corn syrup to consume. Estuary out the back door, gators and moccasins crawling. Sharks awaiting. There are still memories to be made, but they are safer and more comfortable. From our house that faces the ocean, I’ll yell to them about the undertow in my bikini, because unlike my own mother I can’t bear to cross over. They’ll float happily in their vests, bucket hats, and goggles, slathered in 80-SPF sunscreen — whiling the day away without worry. They’ll never know the bubble we’ve placed around them, or for that matter the even bigger one they’ll subject their own children to one day. And I suspect that in our childhoods, we never had a clue either.
We were drinking from water guns filled with the same pool water we peed in. We didn’t wear rash guards; heck, we hardly wore sunscreen. But I guess that with the world at our fingertips, there also comes a world of responsibility to protect ourselves and our offspring. I’d like to think our parents were afforded the same opportunities, but I know that’s not true. I think they probably had the money to do what we do now, but they found their next beach houses from magazines they picked up on the last one, or from numbers they jotted down off signs up and down the strip. Then they picked up the telephone.
I’d like for once to visit that Panama City Beach house again, feet hot on a black tar roof, invade that motel pool and not think too much about it. Throw my grocery-store towel down, dangle my tan legs from the plastic strips of worn-out deck chairs. I’d like to show up, make up a fake room number, pretend I was a tenant, and swim around in a little pee and chlorine. I’d go back if I could take the innocence along with me.
The ride to those beaches, no matter which route you take, is littered with roadside stands that sell things like vegetables, hoop cheese, boiled peanuts, and bonsai trees. Their signs all advertise their wares.
On this last trip, I wondered when those same signs first read, “Seedless Watermelons.”