So it follows that I get a lot of questions about things that folks from places like Houston don’t quite understand. For example:
“What’s that stuff on the beach?”
“Yuck. Why is it there?”
Being a gentleman, I refrain from telling them it is “just to spoil your vacation,” but instead I explain that it is all part of nature’s plan to re-nourish the beach naturally. (The grass washes ashore, dries and holds the sand.) If there are kids around, I tell them that if they look closely at the Sargasso when it is in the water, they might find little shrimp, crabs and fish camouflaged to blend in.
References to sea life immediately bring out questions about dangers that lurk in the water, and the question most frequently asked is, “Are there sharks?”
Now, I want to be truthful, but I don’t want to keep them on the shore, so I generally tell them, “Yes, but they are just as scared of you as you are of them. Don’t wear shiny jewelry when you swim and don’t go in the water at dusk, which is when sharks are more likely to feed.”
I might also add that they have a better chance of getting hit by a falling soft-drink machine than bitten by a shark (no lie, someone crunched the numbers). But if the person asking the question was one of the few who has had an unfortunate run-in with a Coke machine, that statistic could keep them out of the Gulf forever.
I often take this opportunity to I ask them, “Where y’all from?”
A few give me that “what the hell is it to you” look, a look you would expect from someone who tells folks that they live off Interstate 65, Exit 122. But most, being Southerners, start with a state (“we’re from Georgia”) fully expecting me to ask, “Where in Georgia,” and get the conversation going.
The other day, I met a nice family from Gadsden who knew folks I knew and we had a dandy time for about five minutes, which I have decided is the limit for casual coastal conversation with someone you don’t know.
Taking me for a native, they seldom ask about “home,” but instead ask local things like where to eat or what to do at night. I advise as best I can for someone who usually eats in and goes to bed early.
There also are those who I instinctively know should be left alone — like the woman who passed me on the walkway the other day, a cigarette dangling from her lips. She took a deep drag, then flicked the fire off the end and stuffed the butt in her bikini bra. The only reason I would want to know where she was from would be so I wouldn’t go there.
Then there was this guy from the Walton County Sheriff’s Department.
I saw him pull his car up at the street end of the walkway, get out and walk toward the beach end where two women waited at the top of the stairs.
Uh-oh, I thought. Somebody done gone and done what they shouldn’t have gone and done this early in the morning; it was about 9 and already hot as nine kinds of hell. And the officer was wearing dark clothes. Also had a big gun, handcuffs and other instruments of restraint and destruction. One look and you would stop doing what you were doing even if it was OK to do it.
Gifted as I am with a natural desire to be of help — otherwise known as being nosy — I followed at a discrete distance, ever alert because if he pulled that gun, I was outta there.
But he didn’t. Instead, this giant of a man, who seemed to get bigger the closer I got, bent over a small wheelchair, and as the two women gathered their beach bags, the officer gently lifted a little girl, cradled her in his arms and carried her down the stairs to the beach.
One of the beach bags had a tube running from it to the girl who, I realized, was severely handicapped. The women asked me to carry that bag and follow the officer. Then they picked up the rest, and we all went to the beach to the chair under the umbrella.
And as the officer carefully placed her where she could watch the water, the little girl smiled the smile of an angel.
You meet some of the best people at the beach.
Harvey H. Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.