For those of you who know me, you will recall that one of my favorite statements is “The state that I grew up in does not exist anymore.” Being from Florida, that is an understatement! Growing up, my parents instilled a pride in my home state by almost everything they did. One of the things that I remember most is that we did not take any vacation outside of Florida. In fact, I never set foot outside of the state until while I was in high school we drove west to visit my aunt and uncle in Pensacola. We took a day trip over to Mobile. So despite being less than 50 miles from Georgia, my first crossing of the Florida state line was 300 miles west.
When I was 14, Dad rented a beach house in Bradenton Beach Florida for 2 weeks. It was nestled next to State Route 789 on the long narrow spit of Barrier Island between Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key south of Sarasota. There were just a few wooden beach houses on the Gulf side of the highway and we used it as the base of operations as we spent some time exploring the southwest coast of Florida. Because we had two weeks, we had a lot of down time between day trips to frolic in the water and play on the beach. I was just becoming interested in snorkeling and I was amazed how much clearer the water was in the Gulf than it was in the Atlantic. Clearer and warmer too.
One of the nicest things about that vacation was that were other families in the houses nearby who had rented their homes for the same time period. So every other afternoon or so, we would be out there, playing volleyball, building sandcastles and seashell hunting along the beach. Every hour or so, we would take a dip in the gulf to cool off from the warm Florida sun. There was a brother and sister from the house next door and we spent a lot of time with them. They were from Poughkeepsie, New York, a place that seemed completely foreign to me. There was a wooden swing at the edge of the sand dunes and many of the evenings I would be sitting with Dianne on those salty wooden planks looking at the sun set over the Gulf and talking about life and our different plans for the future. I will not try to tell you that those were deep conversations; after all we were both 14. She was looking forward to being a nurse and a mom and I was planning to fly jets for the Navy.
I never saw or heard from Dianne from Poughkeepsie after that summer. During the 90s, I was in Poughkeepsie a couple of times as part of the Firing Line Television Crew taping debates at Bard College, a few miles north along the Hudson River. Both times I was there in the winter and I could not help but compare the cold barren hillsides with the flat sandy beaches of Bradenton. You may ask why didn’t I try to look her up, but you know kids; Dianne was just Dianne, and her brother was just Bob. I never knew their last name. Still I couldn’t help but wonder whatever became of them. Alas, another memory sliding off into the mists of time.
But all that has changed. Most of the homes along State Route 789 were on the land side of the road with nothing but a few dunes and the beach on the water side. My friend Dean was telling me about how developers built out the dunes by dumping sand from the dredging of Tampa Bay to create a big enough footing to build high rise hotels. So the old fabulous clapboard family-owned beachfront homes faced the back side of these high rises. No more sea breezes or even a view of the gulf. The natural progression was for them to be torn down to accommodate condos and commercial development. Don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong about these inevitable changes, I'm talking about an experience of a simple vacation in an old beach house along a quiet lightly traveled road that can't be had today.
Like so many places in Florida, this happened in Jacksonville Beach as well. There were many family owned beach houses not only on the beach but also in the rows of blocks behind the first row of homes. Most of these homes did not have or need air conditioning because the sea breeze swept across the entire land all the way to the Inter-coastal Waterway to the west. We could walk along the wide beach and see nothing but quaint wooden cottages with wide ocean facing porches littered with grandmothers watching their grandkids frolic in the sun bathed Atlantic. I was last on the beach a couple of years ago and there are almost no private homes until you drive way down A1A to South Ponte Vedra almost to St. Augustine. Many of those old homes have been replaced with new modern single family structures, but a few of the old style homes are still there. Right there, where the Tolomato River separates Vilano Beach from the mainland is the St Johns County – St Augustine Airport. If you ever get a chance to fly out of Runway 13 there, be sure to turn left after departure, fly north along the shore and observe one of the last long stretches of privately owned individual beachfront homes on the Atlantic along the First Coast of Florida.
I wonder what those high rises down at Bradenton Beach are like? It would be fun to find out! Oh MY!