For as long as I can remember I have loved summer. When I say summer, I mean the true American South summertime with its five months of near 100-degree days and warm, humid nights. Granted, the advent of air conditioning to my everyday world sometime in the early 1950s was not unwelcome, but to this day I can tolerate that artificial chill for only a few hours before I must get outside and breathe in some warmth and humidity. Most true southern girls are like that and in my mid-twentieth century childhood and adolescence most of us spent our summer days in or near the water, mostly in it; swimming was what we did in summer. Didn’t much matter whether it was a pond, a lake or a swimming pool, we were in it. And then there was The Beach.
The Beach: two words that then, and now, evoke feelings of euphoric anticipation and nostalgia all at the same time. Magic!
My love affair with The Beach began in the midst of World War II when my family moved from Montgomery to Pensacola and I was introduced to the wonders of Pensacola Beach. The excitement would begin as we left downtown Pensacola and its waterfront docks on Pensacola Bay; it would steadily increase as we drove across the interminable (to me) bay bridge to a narrow isthmus of land now known as Gulf Breeze, would continue to mount as we passed several small picnic and fishing beaches on either side of the short two-lane road across the isthmus, and then onto a second and, thankfully, shorter bridge that spanned Santa Rosa Sound until we were finally deposited on Santa Rosa Island itself and the site of the holy grail: the Casino and Pensacola Beach – The Beach!
When we finally entered the Casino’s north entrance from the parking lot, the atmosphere was nearly palpable with a heady combination of aromas of beach food, snow-cones, suntan lotion, sand and sea air. The Casino, vintage early thirties, was a mammoth wood and concrete structure with at least two levels and complete with bath houses, restaurants, balconies, ballroom and, my memory tells me, a marvelous terrazzo floor. From the perspective of a four-year-old it was breathtaking, overwhelming, a palace! But the real magic was beyond, through the bank of open doors to a broad stretch of gleaming white sand so bright it hurt your eyes, and beyond that the gorgeous cooling waters of the Gulf of Mexico stretching endlessly to the south and producing wonderful sea breezes over the entire island. It was Heaven – it was The Beach!
That love affair has endured undiminished for nearly seventy years. Over the ensuing decades The Beach, in the lexicon of my family, came to mean the entire stretch of sugar-sand beaches along the Florida Panhandle from Pensacola to Fort Walton to Destin to Panama City. And I have touched them all. The War’s end led to our moving from Pensacola in 1950, first back to Alabama and then finally to Mississippi. Nevertheless, since that day in 1944 whether as a child, a teenager, a young wife and mother, and now as a great-grandmother, almost every summer I have managed to find my way back to The Beach, sometimes alone, sometimes with an entire crew of loved ones in tow. Each trip has its own set of circumstances, most joyous, some profoundly sorrowful, but at The Beach the magic is still there.
May it always be so. -Lisa Davis