RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: Florida glowed in vivid colors and tasted of bounty from low tide

By Rheta Grimsley Johnson/NEMS Daily Journal

PENSACOLA, Fla. – There’s a feeling about Florida, at least for those of us who grew up in the uncomplicated 1950s and felt its white sand between our toes. We were living in the era of Annette Funicello and beach blanket bingo.
I can remember my first involuntary gulp of salty ocean. It was here, and I was 3.
So much of this state has gone the way of California – congested highways, boring box high-rise dwellings, snowbirds from Minnesota and Michigan taking the place of natives, waterfront you cannot see unless you check into an overpriced hotel – that I have other places I go now when I feel that desperate need to catch a glimpse of the sea.
But there’s still something about Florida, a feeling you get in your gut that comes from receded memory when you cross the state line. I remember the orange juice they used to serve at the rest areas, and the emptiness of the orange groves of central Florida in the days before wall-to-wall development and the Mouse. I remember the smell of Orange Blossom perfume, sold by the ounce in tiny bottles shaped like the namesake fruit.
Florida was a land of postcards come to life. The colors and light were here more vivid, the shops sold seashells instead of milk and bread, you ate things harvested at low tide and fried up in a skillet. It was a kind of heaven.
I wanted to be a mermaid at Weeki Wachee, and might well have been if I could have held my breath for more than five seconds and filled out a mermaid suit. It was a worthy goal at any rate.
My best Florida memories are of this town where I spent five years as a young child. And I catch myself getting excited as I drive down Highway 45 from Mississippi to Mobile, Ala. The vegetation changes, and by Citronelle, the soil is sandy and the azaleas outside of each and every home and business – including the tire and auto-parts store – are higher than the buildings.
If Florida has a state color, it must be hot pink.
It is night before I reach my destination, but the next day I am rewarded. The center of Pensacola looks the same, thank goodness, with its pastel houses and mom-and-pop diners where waitresses who remember names serve Nassau grits and eggs over easy.
I envy my friends Thom and Tony who live here now, who have tomato plants shoulder-high before mine are even planted. They can see the sea, if they want, on a daily basis; the federal government keeps a stretch labeled as National Seashore out of the hands of developers.
Things rush through my mind and make me remember a world, a different world, full of possibilities. I am back in a time when suntans were a good thing, and you painted your toenails bright-red and wore sandals to show them off, and sundresses came out of the closet immediately after Easter and orange juice was sometimes squeezed fresh from a tree in the yard.
My family eventually would pile into the Buick and leave Pensacola, but for years, to me, a vacation meant Florida. It was a state with magic, where my father took off his necktie and my mother wore shorts and my sisters and I could buy postcards that helped us remember where we had been.
I have business here and don’t have time to get to the beach, or paint my toenails, or even to eat an unhealthy quantity of fried shellfish. And yet something in me is thrilled, if not completely satisfied, by the fact I’ve been to Florida.
There’s probably not a postcard for Pensacola Junior College, so I take a picture of an azalea and a palm tree and make my own.

Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a syndicated columnist. She lives in the Iuka vicinity. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.