Friday, March 11, I loaded up four teenage boys and a dog and, with a heady mixture of fear and anxiety, I took off with the crew for the Gulf Coast.
The rest of the group — including two mamas and three teenage girls — came down the next day.
The kids were good. I even got some yard work out of them. There were no 911 calls or visits from the Walton County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Department.
And Libby the Lab had a time of it.
But if ours was not a house party in the usual sense, others were.
Let me explain.
While I was there, I observed what was going on around me, and from those observations I can report that if the number of people on spring break is any indication, the tourist economy is recovering. Reports from all along the Gulf Coast show that bookings are up and cash registers are ringing.
And many of those spring break tourists are staying in houses instead of condos.
This is nothing new. For a number of years now, I have noticed that more and more cottages in our community were being rented during spring break.
Despite the fact that we are far from the clubs and chaos of Panama City Beach, and even farther from the frantic fun of Gulf Shores, year after year there has been a growing student population gathered there to celebrate a week without school. And since there are not many condos at our beach, they rent houses.
A few doors down from us, a group of students from the University of Alabama settled into a two-story cottage. They occupied the upper floor while what appeared to be a couple of mothers took up the floor beneath as in-house chaperones — living close, but not too close.
Yes, the students were rowdy. They hung over the balcony and shouted at passing girls. But no one fell off (it was a short drop to the grass, but it still would have hurt) and none of the neighbors felt they needed to call the cops.
Meanwhile, if the T-shirts and “cover-ups” worn on the beach by sorority girls are any indication, most of the KDs from Auburn University rented a place somewhere nearby. I bet the boys in our group could have told me where.
Now, this “chaperoned house party” is not a new phenomena, but rather the recycling of an old tradition going back to the 1960s when sororities and fraternities took over tourist cabins or a floor of a small motel. They came down with a chaperone carefully chosen to give parents and/or college authorities at least the illusion of adult supervision.
However, during the 1980s and 1990s, as the high-rises rose along the Coast, owners began looking for a way to pay the mortgage. Working with rental agencies, they began renting to students who came down in smaller groups without even a “tamed” adult, whose inclusion had fooled no one. The kids crammed themselves into a few units and turned spring break along the Gulf Coast into the sorta event that the folks from “Girls Gone Wild” just had to film.
That still goes on, I hear, but there also seems to be a return to the house-party gatherings of yesteryear.
Why is this?
Well, maybe it is because spring break has gotten so big that it has spilled out into communities like ours.
Or maybe parents have heard enough of the stories of spring-break excesses (or maybe remember them from their youth) and figure a house close to the beach but away from bright lights and temptations is the better way to go — since their kids are going anyway. That many communities are within walking distance of places that kids enjoy makes houses there particularly attractive to students and parents alike.
Or maybe more high school students (or at least under-aged kids) are spring-breaking now than have before. These underage students bring chaperones because in order to rent a house or a cautiously-controlled condo, they need an adult along to pick up the keys.
It could be any number of reasons, but the fact remains that where once spring-breakers were concentrated in party places like Panama City Beach and Gulf Shores, they now are looking to rent where they did not rent before.
And folks with rental property in resort communities along the Coast are facing the decision that motel and condo owners along the “strips” of Panama City and Gulf Shores faced before them.
Do they rent to chaperoned students and hope the damages don’t eat up the hefty deposits?
Or do they let the houses sit vacant and miss out on the bonanza?
If history is any indication, rental-property owners will take the money and their chances.
Many already are.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.