I was a military brat for many years. I was lucky enough to complete the last three years of high school in the same school located in the suburban town of Irvine, California. When I walked across that stage, I was a California girl ready to embark on an adventure. A few weeks later, I packed up my little 1980s Toyota Corolla and drove across country to Pensacola, Florida where four years later I walked across a different stage at the University of West Florida as a California girl turned Southern transplant.
When I first arrived in Pensacola, this California girl was shocked by the polite (and very good looking!) Southern gentlemen who opened doors, offered to carry your bags, wore their baseball hats properly turned to the front and said yes ma’am to your mother. I fell in love with the South immediately. That was in 1996.
I didn’t just fall in love with the Gulf Coast, I fell in love with one of those Southern gentlemen. When my friends were caught up with quick romances, this man slowly courted me at various functions and school activities, before we went out together officially. We married shortly after college in 2000 and have been here in Pensacola ever since. We contemplate leaving and, someday, jobs or other circumstances might take us away from the Gulf Coast, but for now we are satisfied with where we are and appreciate what we have.
We travel all over the place and when we return to the Gulf Coast, as we get closer, we can feel ourselves slowing down a bit more, looking for the first sign of tea that is already sweet, and the humidity that quickly heals dried skin and chapped lips. Pensacola is rich with culture. We claim to be the oldest city (though not continuously inhabited). We are the home of the Blue Angels. We celebrate things like mullet (the fish, not the hair do) by throwing them back and forth over the Alabama/Florida state line, crawfish with a low country boil complete with corn and potatoes spread over this morning’s newspaper, and we throw beads and moon pies to celebrate Mardi Gras. We are also one of those cities that has been through a hurricane.
Every summer we make sure that our hurricane kit is stocked with items that are not near expiration, plenty of water bottles, canned goods and batteries. Then we sit back and watch and wait hoping that it is not us this time but praying that it isn’t our Gulf Coast neighbors either.
We had been through minor storms before. Since we have lived in Pensacola, we had storms that escalated to tropical storms and then to hurricanes. They always veered off or were categorized as 1’s in the Saffir Simpson scale. Minor storms that were cause for a party because the next day it was beautiful, school was cancelled, and we got to spend the day on the beach. In 2004, we watched the news and listened to the radio as Hurricane Ivan barreled right towards us knowing that this time it would be different. My 4 week old son, oblivious to what was going on, spent the night in the hall closet where I curled around him hoping that our roof would hold and that we would get power quickly afterwards. Finally we all fell asleep so exhausted we couldn’t keep our eyes open any longer.
The next day, I met my neighbors. We lived in this house for two years and were friendly with our neighbors but we were wrapped up in our own lives so there was never more than a wave hello and a how are ya. The morning after Hurricane Ivan hit, we were outside helping several other people move trees out of the street, checking to make sure no one needed help, saying hello to people coming to help us, patching roofs and fences, and passing out food that we couldn’t possibly eat before it spoiled. Once it was done, we turned and reintroduced ourselves.
In 2005, we watched our New Orleans neighbors devastated by Hurricane Katrina. At the time I was teaching at a high school where we welcomed student upon student. Students who lost everything in Katrina and were coming to live with a relative or family friend so they could attend school. I was so impressed by our students welcoming them with open arms. They had been there last year, after all.
After Hurricane Ivan, a few of our friends and acquaintances gave up and moved out. But we stay. Right now, I can’t think of any better place to be. A place where I live less than 20 minutes from some of the most beautiful beaches in the world (and believe me I have been to lots of different beaches!). When most of you are still trying to dig out of your snow covered driveways, my family is sitting at the beach watching the little waves roll in. In October when you are looking for long sleeves and pants sewn into a Halloween costume, I am looking for tank tops. A place where I get to start working on my flip flop tan in March. I can set my watch by the 2:00 rainstorms that bring lightning and thunder like no other place I have seen. The Southern Magnolias are only around for a short time but these dinner plate size flowers make me giddy with excitement when I see the giant bulbs ready to bloom. The fried chicken in the school cafeterias is some of the best you will ever try because it is made with love. Restaurants will give you take out cups for your soda and the sweet tea is divine and made perfectly no matter where you are dining.
A place that has become as much a part of me as it would have been had I been born and raised here. That is why this Southern Transplant remains.
This post was submitted to the Hope Remains carnival at Storybleed. Be sure to visit and read the beautiful stories written by others who love the Gulf Coast.