Pale invaders and tanned crusaders
Are worshipping the sun
On the corner of “walk” and “don’t walk”
Somewhere on US 1.
I’m back to livin’ Florida’s
Blue skies and ultra-violet rays
Lookin’ for better days.
Is it coincidence that often draws us back to the same place, or maybe habit? My observations run along the lines that accumulating years of memories help define the places we frequent.
Florida Gulf Coast cities have consistently called out in years past, but the beautiful song of the sirens in Panama City Beach in particular have been the most alluring.
A recent coincidental convergence spawned recollections of Florida and set the sirens to singing once more. One was old news in a Mount Pleasant (Texas) Daily Tribune clipping documenting my initial adventure to the Sunshine State. The other is current news that I’m headed back there soon.
During the last every five year “whether it needs it or not” reorganizing of my archives (a.k.a. “that unorganized bunch of junk I’ve saved”), I discovered a yellowed newspaper photo depicting a group of smiling motorcycle riders ready to depart Northeast Texas for Florida.
Blame it on reorganization, or on Murphy because it’s something I needed, but the clipping has since rejoined the ranks of temporarily unfindable items. However, memory tells me the photographer recorded the image in about ’73 or ’74 at the home of Larry and Dixie Spruill, organizers of the event and owners of a Mount Pleasant motorcycle shop.
The Spruill family was pictured, as was Oscar Elliott and yours truly. However, I’m crawling no farther out on a memory limb with names until I have evidence in hand again. I’m pretty sure statutes of limitation have expired for said adventure, but I’m taking no chances.
The anxious assemblage departed one afternoon after 5 p.m. hoping to get as far as possible before sleeping. Memories endure about our rolling into Vicksburg, Mississippi way after dark and seeking rooms.
Don’t know whether she volunteered or was appointed, but Dixie Spruill inquired about rooms at the motel office while the rest of us waited nearby out of sight. I’m assuming that was to forgo frightening the night clerk with a bunch of sapped cycle riders in the parking lot. Whatever the reason, it worked.
Next afternoon, we roared into Panama City Beach for a week’s stay at the Barney Gray Motel. “World’s Most Beautiful Bathing Beach” as a period chamber ad touted, or “Redneck Riviera” as others have called it, didn’t matter, we were there just for the fun.
Not long out of college and my first time to Florida, for me the trip was fun filled with educational experiences … of sorts. It’s where I learned about severe sunburn, the kind necessitating innovative ways of sleeping while standing, and about nights trying to forget about sunburn while cruising the Miracle Mile Beach Highway 98 amid hot cycles, cool cars and loud parties. It’s also where I learned about streakers. Hey, it was the 70s.
The bare facts of that story were that a group of us huddled around an arcade pinball machine watching the player on a streak piling up points. I never saw Ethel, but I did look when a couple of young women ran through the arcade toward us—au naturel. Couldn’t tell whether they were wearing nothing but a smile because they were wearing nothing but a paper bag on their head. At first unsure about whether to stare or share, I finally called out to alert the nearest bystanders, being ever careful to keep an eye on the birthday suit expo headed our direction. “Guys,” I stuttered, “Hey guys … over here … look!”
The streakers flashed by us, and out the door before someone finally turned and asked, “What?”
“Never mind,” I said, “Telling you about it—it just wouldn’t be the same.”
In years since, Panama City and I have streaked past each other at least a couple of other times. Once was in the mid 1980s returning from Daytona Beach driving a ’56 Ford Thunderbird when the little ‘Bird’s generator gave up the ghost in a restaurant parking lot. An hour’s worth of parking lot repairs followed by a meal in the Panama City restaurant and we were on the road again.
Then it was just a few years ago while there on a working expedition capturing product application photography for my employer that I noticed the Barney Gray Motel, along with most of the original Miracle Strip Beach magic, had succumbed to high-rise luxury hotels and lavish condos.
Thankfully, not long ago a friend sent me an old postcard depicting the motel in the 1950s. I was pretty sure the place looked the same in 60s as well, because it still looked like the postcard pic when we were there in the 70s.
Hopefully when I’m back on the Florida Gulf Coast next month, I’ll find time to visit Panama City Beach again. But, without the Barney Gray Motel and the arcade streaker, the siren’s song just won’t be the same.
Leon Aldridge — July 15, 2015