My City By the Bay
Y’all!! It’s 4th of July weekend. There were absolutely perfect grand finale fireworks exploding over the bay behind Wahoos Stadium last Saturday night as Cat Country belted out the Star Spangled Banner and Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” for the whole town, songs we know by heart because we’ve heard them, literally, hundreds and hundreds of times growing up here. Our townsfolk serenaded each other up and down the coastline as they sprawled out on blankets laid on pelts of damp grass downtown in the historic district while their kids twirled sparklers in the air screaming, “Look, mama!” We drank ice cold canned drinks plucked from sloshy coolers doubling as benches and we grilled big fat hotdogs, sitting on the hallowed ground of five hundred years of European history as kids hit baseballs and men planned offshore fishing trips for next weekend. We ate truckloads of chilled watermelon. We drove our big lifted trucks to get down there, or maybe our convertibles, or our Jeeps, because the climate of this area just begs for you to ride around with the top down, the twang of a Luke Bryan country song blaring out your window, talking with your passenger about the excitement of the Blue Angels Show coming up the next weekend. We complain about the traffic…and the heat…my God the heat, but yes, we love it here. The pride we have in our military, the confident air of superiority we have in all things USA…well, it makes us walk a little straighter and push our shoulders back just a smidge. It’s gooood to be an American. Really good. I couldn’t be more patriotic right now in my red, white and blue hangover if I’d signed the Declaration of Independence myself. We love our country.
Pensacola (est. in 1559) is the oldest European settlement in all of America, predating St. Augustine by well over five years (est. 1565) and inhabited by the Spanish 48 years before the English ever even got here (Jamestown, est. 1607). I love the history of our little town so much I can’t even contain my enthusiasm; it’s a history fan’s dream to live in the middle of this place. Kings come here. And Queens. King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia of Spain visited us in 2009 to commemorate the city’s 450th anniversary of colonization, complete with the unveiling of a beautiful bronze statue of a conquistador holding a Spanish flag. The royal couple stood elegantly in the balcony of the Wentworth Museum as the crowds squealed, the two of them gesturing below to us with perfect royal waves. This city, our beautiful City of Five Flags, holds dominion over every other city in America I can think of for its significance in North American history. Our town has an abundance of historical importance: pre-historic native groups thrived here, and the Spanish, the French, the British, the Union and the Confederacy have all vied for control of this area because it’s an incredible, vivacious, thriving place to live. We love our history.
Pace, the tiny little suburb I live in just north of Pensacola, was just this week named “Best Florida City for Young Families” by the financial website NerdWallet. We’ll take it! Pace High School’s mascot is the Patriot and I’m not even kidding when I say it’s sort of Norman Rockwell-y. Too perfectly small-town to even be real, but it is. On Friday nights at our home football games there really are fireworks when the Varsity team comes running through a human tunnel of students, screaming and cheering as the boys bounce and race towards their adoring home side bleachers. This area churns out athletes like Nike makes sneakers. Baseball players in the Big Leagues, football players in the NFL, psh! It’s all just commonplace around here and we are as proud of our kids as if we’d raised them ourselves. The athletic talent pool coming out of the schools around here is almost unfair. We follow our kids on their journeys and we root for their successes from afar, whether we’re in line at Target or talking to the waitress at Sonny’s BBQ; and then when they come home to visit, we still treat them like family, like our kids.
If you’d gone to any restaurant in town yesterday and just watched, every person there was a soccer fan…a glittery, sparkly red, white and blue soccer fan, because the United States Women’s Team absolutely killed Japan in the World Cup and the enthusiasm caught on like a brush fire. For soccer! Ya know, with all that USA! USA! USA! pumping through the air last night, I felt a little bit like Wonder Woman. We love our sports.
We are five years out from the BP oil spill of 2010, an environmental disaster that so deeply devastated all of us once the black crude oil started creeping inland in tiny droplets on our beloved beaches. We actually grieved for our coastline like someone died that summer. It was the same feeling you get when you want to visit a loved one, but can’t. If I were told I couldn’t see my friends, or touch my child, or listen to the sound of my mother’s voice, that’s how it felt to be told we shouldn’t go to the beach. I still remember the ache in my heart the morning those first little black teardrops washed up and I grew weepy and desperate at the thought of the clean-up. Guilt, remorse, deep sadness. We mourned. The locals are called there, everyone who knows those beaches can tell you this. We inhale the salty air when we roll down our windows at the top of the Bob Sikes Bridge and sea water always makes me think to myself, “This smells like home.” We look to the left at the jet skiers and to the right towards Ft. Pickens and we grow giddy with excitement at crunching the sugar white sand under our toes, dunking ourselves in the absolutely crystal clear blue-green water. On a perfect day when the water is tepid and the surf is flat, you turn to the person next to you and say, ‘This is Heaven. Can you believe we live here?’ It’s baptism for the locals and it never ever gets old or loses its impact no matter how many times we go there. We love our beaches.
Like I said, in 1559 the first Europeans trudged ashore and planted a cross in the dunes, claiming the land for Spain and for God. Then they held a traditional Catholic mass. It was far from the last religious service they would hold around here because in this neck of the woods, we love Jesus. There are thousands of churches in Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties, so many in fact that I’m not even comfortable quoting the statistics I found because they are so outlandish. (check it out: www.sharefaith.com) And it’s no mistake that the deep-rooted spiritualty and human kindness found here is positively tied to the small-town family atmosphere we grow up around, the ties we have to our youth groups, to our church families and to our neighbors; it’s tangible just about everywhere. The goodness in people is present all around; most people are just genuine people. There is literally nowhere around here that I am afraid to go. There is no section of town too dangerous, no neighborhood too perilous. My town is still small-town to me no matter where I go and I feel safe here all the time.
I’ve seen my theories proven many times over when I traveled, too. Recently, I took a group of high schoolers to Boston on a field trip and the one thing the New Englanders said over and over again was how kind, honest and polite our children were. The yes ma’ams and the no sirs and the God Bless Yous were simply uncanny to folks up there, the depths of faith they saw in our kids was purely unique. Our people are kind, our folks are generous and most people you meet from here really care about you if you are in need. Their mamas and daddies raised them that way. Go ahead, visit somewhere else up north, out west, abroad…and then come back here. You’ll feel the difference. We love our faith.
But you can’t get skinny here. We eat. On the way home from the beach, most folks admit to making a pit stop at the Krispy Kreme. I’ve often wondered why that franchise doesn’t build another store here. The one we have, located on Cervantes Street, is our version of Atlanta’s Varsity Hotdogs or Boston’s Mike’s Pastries and it is busy all the time. It’s an icon and it’s almost wrong not to go there once in a while if you’re a local. It’s like paying homage to your ancestors, your butter-loving, Crisco-obsessed Southern ancestors. Krispy Kreme’s blinking HOT FRESH NOW sign sends hearts racing. But there’s more. PegLeg Pete’s oysters claim to be a World Famous aphrodisiac (it’s true). Who in the world can make fried chicken that’s actually better than my mother’s? There’s only one place: Five Sisters in the Belmont-Devillers district. I’d only pay for an egg salad sandwich from one place in the whole universe and that’s Jerry’s Drive In. Think we can’t compete with the big cities for something fancy? Well, you’re wrong. I’ve been to the best restaurants Miami has to offer and I can tell you, our Iron can hold its own. Most of the time, and I’ll stop after this one, I politely suggest ten pounds of fresh gulf shrimp from Maria’s Seafood or Joe Patti’s for take-out, steamed on-site with their own special recipe of spices. It’s an experience in itself to grab the little paper number and wait in line; just meeting the people who work there is worth the money you’ll spend. They are a whole lot like the kids I took to Boston. So when people from here have out-of-town guests who want to go where the locals go, there’s just not an easy solution. It would take a week to hit all the great spots. Our restaurants are our traditions. We love our food.
Ok, there is one other thing that made me cry, besides the day our beaches sprouted little black speckles. It was the first time, and the second time, and the thirteenth time… I ever saw the Blue Angels fly. To be honest, if I happen to be taking a first-timer, seeing it through their eyes can bring the ugly-happy tears all over again. I stick my fingers in my ears when I spy them coming way off in the distance and I brace myself for the slice of shrieking thunder coming my way, but I still get tingly all over with excitement. I feel my heart swell and almost burst when they zoom by; it’s as if those sleek blue planes give me a reassuring nod as they pass, telling me, “We are always on duty. We got you.” We are safe, we are secure, and we are out of harm’s way. And it doesn’t stink at all that our town, my town, is a military town. Soldiers and bases and saluting and uniforms, they’re all around me, reminding me every day that freedom is something inherent to being a member of my special city, this amazing society, our great nation. Walking the corridors of the mall, the military is there. Strolling downtown on Gallery Night, the military is there. Watching a live band perform at the Vinyl, the military is there. It’s our stamp on the nation: we are the Cradle of Naval Aviation, and it makes us pretty cool. We love our culture.
Between these two hamlets, Pace and Pensacola, I’ve made a beautiful life for myself and my family. My son thrives here. I wouldn’t raise him anywhere else in the world. It’s my hometown and I don’t want to live anywhere else, ever. The band Journey says it best, (Listen here: Lights)
“When the lights go down in the city, and the sun shines on the bay.
I want to be there, in my city.”
For most of you reading this, you are nodding in recognition, with nostalgia. You know it, too. But if our city isn’t special to you yet, you should come, because it’s getting better and better all the time. (For information: Visit Pensacola)
Click to watch this awesome video about Our City By the Bay: View
All Photographs/Images courtesy of Frank Abbott Photography