A magical place, revisited
A return to the Sound,
and the source
On a journey with his daughter to his boyhood home, this writer rediscovers the waterways that sparked a life’s passion.
By Jack Davis
I paddled the kayak. Nine-year-old Willa sat behind and above me on the hull with her legs dangling in the cockpit. She was the beauty queen on top of a convertible’s rear seat in the hometown parade. I was the anonymous driver the crowd never bothers to see. Our single-boat parade followed a one-mile route on Santa Rosa Sound between Fort Walton Beach and Mary Esther in the Panhandle. Willa had no crowd to wave to, although at one point we saw three people standing onshore who acknowledged us. The queen waved back, as did her driver, the queen’s dad.
It was April 2015. At my insistence, we were visiting a magical place of my youth. I was Willa’s age when my family moved to Santa Rosa Sound. My sisters and I went from a suburban Atlanta neighborhood with a torrent of Baby Boom kids to a narrow, one-home-lot strip between U.S. Highway 98 and the Sound.
A retired Air Force colonel and his wife lived on one side of us and an elderly couple who were seasonal residents the other. Our new neighborhood was a kid desert.
I could sit at the end of our splintered dock and sulk for want of playmates, or I could get a fishing rod and cast myself into the Sound’s watery cul-de-sac. I chose the latter. A fish net and boat soon followed. I already had the requisite dog, Lulu, a springer spaniel made for a water life.
I’m sure at times I was lonely and bored, but emphatic nature conspired against disengagement. Atlanta was fixed at a latitude beneath seamless grey skies. The Florida Panhandle and the Sound peeked out from beneath them into a transformative Oz of golden light and color. There were birds that not only flew but fished; tall white dunes that leapfrogged across barrier islands; live oaks that exploded with long, wild branches; matted tendrils of Spanish moss that hung to arm’s reach; palm trees with effusive fronds that swished and rattled in the wind; and sunsets that threw ebullient swaths of pink and orange across the sky.
And there was Santa Rosa Sound, a sprightly estuarine environment that was wholly foreign to me. Lapping 40 feet out from our door, the Sound, not two football fields across, separated us from undeveloped Santa Rosa Island, one of those duney barriers. Looking left from the end of our dock, you saw what you saw looking right: an infinite straight line of shining water. The Sound was a quiet neighborhood, outside the occasional recreational boat and tug-driven barge and the ever-present animated wildlife.
Like so many newcomers to coastal Florida, I was instantly fascinated by the mullet that leaped from the water and bellyflopped back in. Always I asked why they jumped, and always no one had an answer. Not even the weathered, boathook-thin fisherman who twice weekly eased across our view in his old bateaux, oars clunking in the hollow of the air. He’d stop at the dock whenever my father signaled to buy mullet and live crabs, occasionally splurging for a flounder.
All this in our backyard. The Sound was my playground, refuge, and classroom, teaching me about the natural world as I had not known it before. All was an imprint that never faded.
When I took Willa to Mary Esther, I was in the middle of writing a book on the Gulf of Mexico. A day never passed without my mind wandering into an archive of memories of the Sound. That wandering was vital. It passed me through immutable sights, sounds, smells, and colors of years before and retrieved a bone-deep passion for the Gulf that helped me tell its story. Early in the writing, I realized that latent boyhood experiences on the Sound had gelled into the inspiration for the book.
Ironically, while the Sound was ordaining the future writer in me, I rarely read books. Yet I read a lot. I read the drowsy shore and sea breezes, the intense winds, and the flight of birds under both conditions. There was the swim of fish, shuffle of crabs, and inching of mollusks. There were the smells of low tide, breathing mudflats, approaching storms, and fine days in any season to read. There were the sounds of stillness, harmony, and tumult on and around the water.
I was also reading my emotional responses to the Sound’s nature, responses that years ahead shaped a spiritual center. The estuary introduced me to solitude and reflection, which enabled me to arrive at that center, and both were necessary companions for what I later did in life.
Kids interested in knowing where they come from usually want to learn something about their parents’ personal histories. Not Willa. A DNA ancestry test was enough for her. When I pitched the idea of a father-daughter trip to my childhood waters, she wasn’t terribly keen for the five-hour drive — with Dad — from our home in Gainesville. So, I bribed her with the promise of an afternoon at a Hawaiian-themed waterpark called Big Kahuna’s.
We spent the night in a motel on the Sound and got up early the next morning. The temperature veered toward perfect, and the fleecy air wrapped itself around us. Scattering the morning light, the Sound floated quietly in its channel and encouraged us to do the same. I unloaded the kayak, and we launched near the motel dock, where lolling brown pelicans waited for someone with a fishing pole to come along.
Minutes later, we were paddling past my old house. Willa endured me chattering on about how little had changed in the decades since I last saw it. What stood out most were the first- and second-floor screened porches that still stretched the length of the house. In front of them next to the walk was the jelly palm with a fruity scent I remembered, although taller now. The rebuilt dock followed the original footprint, and a familiar patch of marsh grass rose to one side of it. I used to fish off that dock, I told Willa. I pulled my seine net near the shore over there. My dog and I boated over to that island.
I navigated out to it. We walked barefoot in the island’s sand and the limpid shallow water where hermit crabs trundled about. We watched for jumping mullet and fishing birds. Spring migrators dropped in to refuel.
We then paddled back toward the motel. Three people outside the house waved as we passed. After securing the kayak in the back of my truck, Willa and I walked up the road to see the other side of the house. By chance, we met the owners, who had recently bought the place. They seemed unsurprised to see us and invited us in.
Sadly, much had changed, ruining the opportunity for Willa to know the mystical aura that once possessed the house. Except for the door hardware, windows, and fireplaces, the house was all pine, built in the 1930s by a man named Count Darling. That name in itself was mystical. The family who bought the house from us exorcised his spirit by hanging drywall over the ceilings and walls, which had been beautiful, sap-running tongue-and-groove boarding milled from Alabama and Florida pine. They had sectioned off my big bedroom into two and turned the breakfast room of 160 windowpanes (I once cleaned them for a penny a piece) into a TV room with two windows.
Like so many newcomers to coastal Florida, I was instantly fascinated by the mullet that leaped from the water and bellyflopped back in. Always I asked why they jumped, and always no one had an answer.
The new owners were planning to restore the original interior and picked my brain. I recalled a set of French doors here and an under-stairway cubby there, where my mother made wine. We walked out onto the upstairs screened porch and I squeezed Willa, telling her I slept out here on summer nights. I then stood quietly embraced in the past, captive to the passing air and the view of the Sound and shadowed dunes. “Dad,” Willa said with a nudge.
Until then, I had been blabbing excitedly about the house and my days on the Sound, sharing how that utterly alive, illuminating estuary had changed my sense of self and humanity’s place in the world. It seemed too much for Willa. Vastly more interesting was our hosts’ young Weimaraner swimming for racquetballs thrown in the concrete pool, another banal addition of the previous owners.
We said our goodbyes, and Willa and I left, stopping down the road for lunch. Going to Big Kahuna’s no longer appealed to me. The clamor of people and the wild yet unwilded water, I worried, would spoil the lingering experience of being on the Sound again. But I had promised. We finished eating and drove through the white-dune canyon of Okaloosa Island, crossed over the bridge to Destin — shockingly plastic, commercial, and extreme — and approached Big Kahuna’s on our left.
Willa looked over from the passenger seat and then turned her gaze back ahead. “I don’t want to go there anymore,” she said. “Let’s go home.”
Listening to the Heartbeat
The Wild Heart of Florida, co-edited by Jack E. Davis and Leslie K. Poole, assistant professor of environmental studies at Rollins College, is a just-published collection of some of Florida’s most prominent writers, poets, and environmentalists writing about the natural wonders of the state. This anthology, published by University Press of Florida, is a follow-up to The Wild Heart of Florida, and includes 34 stories by a rich array of writers, including Davis, Cynthia Barnett, and marine biologist Anmari Alvarez Aleman, all featured in this issue of FORUM.
Jack E. Davis is a professor of history and the Rothman Family Chair in the Humanities at the University of Florida, where he specializes in environmental history and sustainability studies. In 2018, his book The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea won the Pulitzer Prize in history. Most recently he coedited The Wilder Heart of Florida, a collection of personal essays and poems about natural Florida, with former student Leslie Poole. In 2019, he received an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship to support the writing of his book, Bird of Paradox: How the Bald Eagle Saved the Soul of America, to be published in March 2022.
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