Lessons From The Florida Panhandle

The Florida Panhandle. It’s a place I know well. It is a place that is near and dear to my heart.

My daddy, his siblings, and all my first cousins grew up there. I was born there. My grandparents lived there. My daddy is buried there, and my mother’s ashes are there.

When I was five months old, my family moved to Brewton, Alabama, and I never lived in the Panhandle again, but we visited family there regularly. We also vacationed at the beaches along the gulf coast in the Panhandle. I learned a lot in the Panhandle.

This past week, I took my teenage daughter on a road trip through the panhandle. Neither of us had been there since 2007, and she had no recollection of that visit. I also showed her some places she had never been. She didn’t act particularly interested in all my stories, but maybe she will remember some.

Maybe she will remember my telling her about doodlebugs in the Panhandle. Nope, I’m not talking about VWs. I’m talking about antlions, insects whose larvae dig pits to capture prey. If you’re not familiar with them, this will be as confusing to you as it was to my daughter. But doodlebug pits look like tiny holes in the ground with a small crater around them. When my cousins and I were little, our Granddaddy showed us how to get doodlebugs to come out of what we thought were their homes. He told us to put a tiny stick down into the hole and stir it while saying, “Doodlebug, doodlebug, come out and get a cup of coffee. Doodlebug, doodlebug, your house is on fire.” After a few stirs and a few chants, the doodlebug would emerge! We thought it was because of our chanting, but as an adult, I know it was because of the stirring. I think Granddaddy was just giving us something to do, so we wouldn’t bother people, but we spent hours bothering doodlebugs…and we had fun and made memories!

I also learned about biddies in the Panhandle. Nope…not gossiping old ladies or hot girls (urban slang). Biddies…young chickens. I must have been about six or seven the first time I heard young chickens called “biddies” by my cousin, Patti. I think we were visiting her house when she suggested we go see the biddies. I followed her to someone’s barn…I have no idea who it belonged to. I don’t remember much about the biddies, but I do remember there were cats there…and hay. I also know my mother must not have known where we were. She would have been worried about snakes. I don’t think we stayed long, but I learned that some folks call young chickens “biddies.”

When my Granddaddy died, a family friend took some of the cousins to get a milkshake at cousin Patti’s other grandparents’ store in Sneads while the grownups talked. They didn’t have a chocolate shake, so I ordered a strawberry shake. I feel sure the folks at Patti’s grandparents’ store knew how to make good milkshakes, but on that day, I learned I don’t like strawberry milkshakes.

On the beach in Panama City Beach one year, when I was a teenager, I learned that tar sometimes washes up with the tide. There had been an oil spill in the Caribbean, and the jetstream pushed a lot of the tar into the Gulf of Mexico. I knew nothing about it, until I was walking the beach near the Fontainebleau Terrace and got some tar on my white sneakers. Had to throw those away…tar doesn’t just wash out easily.

Also in Panama City Beach, at Miracle Strip Amusement Park, I learned a Scrambler amusement park ride is a lot more fun when it’s enclosed in a giant building shaped like an abominable snowman with loud music playing and mirrors on the walls…and bright lights flashing. I also saw a chicken play a piano at Miracle Strip and rode the Starliner roller coaster.

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Miracle Strip Amusement Park in 60s or early 70s

And everywhere in the Panhandle, I learned that gnats will congregate around your eyes, your nose, and any cuts or scrapes you have. Natural springs are naturally cold (Blue Springs Recreational Area). And more info here. I learned that Spanish moss is beautiful, even though it’s not a moss at all…it’s a flowering plant. I learned about stalactites and stalagmites at Florida Caverns State Park in Marianna. In Quincy, I learned about a banker who loaned folks money to buy Coca Cola stock….eventually making them millionaires. Many years later, I became friends with that banker’s great granddaughters purely by accident, after meeting one of them at a party in Charlotte! From my daddy and his siblings, I learned what life was like in the rural Panhandle after the Great Depression. I learned about peach trees right outside the door whose limbs were used as switches. I learned about the one room schoolhouse in Bascom and Faye Dunaway’s being a student there. Yes, that Faye Dunaway…of Bonnie and Clyde fame. I listened to speculation about how a community called Two Egg got its name, and I ate as much pound cake as I could when I visited a great aunt in Two Egg. In my grandmother’s house, I learned what an antique sewing machine looked like, and I heard stories about my grandmother and aunt playing organ and piano at folks’ weddings and funerals…oh, one funeral story I’ll have to share another time. At the beaches in the panhandle, I learned how much fun it is to bunk with all your cousins in one house on vacation. And I used my first crosswalk button to cross the beach road in Mexico Beach when I was six…it was malfunctioning and shocked the stew out of me. On that same trip, I learned about wading out into a bay to catch scallops on the same trip. And I learned that fireworks are pretty on the beach.

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Blue Springs Recreational Area and Park, Marianna, Florida

The coastal Panhandle looks different now. There are planned communities and high rise condos where beach houses and roadside motels used to be. The original Miracle Strip Amusement Park is long gone from Panama City Beach, but there is a new Miracle Strip located near Pier Park on the beach road. Shipwreck Island waterpark and Capt. Anderson’s Restaurant are still there, and even the old Fontainebleau Terrace is still standing…it was a beauty in its heyday.

A little farther north, along Highway 90 in Jackson County, one big difference is that most motel/hotel accommodations either closed or moved over to I-10 after it was completed through the area. Well, that and the Hurricane Michael damage that is everywhere from Panama City to Jackson County…lots of devastation. In Marianna, lots of the downtown businesses were damaged and/or destroyed. I have lots of memories there…getting my first Florida State University sweatshirt at Daffin’s, seeing the RCA dog on top of one downtown business, and watching Mary Poppins in the old movie theatre there. The theatre has been gone for a long time, but I remember. Say a prayer for the folks who are still affected by that terrible storm. Lots of people are still suffering, including my aunt, whose house in Panama City was badly damaged by the storm.

The Panhandle taught me a lot. All this, and I didn’t even mention Tallahassee, Destin, and other places yet! Whew! I’ll share stuff about those places soon. Big lessons from all over the Panhandle. Mostly, it taught me my aunts, uncles, and cousins are keepers. Maybe we need to plan another beach vacation for the whole bunch!

I hope my daughter will remember some of it…

***Some friends asked me about the planned communities along the Gulf Coast. You can find lots of rental information here.

 

 

 

 

 

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I Visited A Cult

Oh, yes, I did.

I visited the international training center of a cult, and on the surface, everything looked great.

But I’m going to try to refer to it as a “community” instead of a “cult.” I won’t say which “community” it was, but my 21-year-old nephew came into town with a friend over the weekend, and on Friday night, he announced to me that they wanted to visit a cult (he used the word “cult”) on Saturday…and he wanted me to go with them. I had questions, of course. “You don’t want to join the cult, right?” “Why do you want to go?” “How far away is it?” “Is it scary?”

He showed me the group’s website. It looked pretty benign, And it said they welcome visitors, so I agreed to go, and we made plans to leave the next day. I should mention my husband thinks we are all nuts.

Early Saturday afternoon, we got into the SUV and drove over an hour to the address listed on the website. We were excited to see what we would find! Upon arrival, we drove into the parking lot at the front of the group of houses and got out. We walked around looking for people, but all we saw were sheep out front eating hay. One of the sheep had a penchant for magnolia leaves, so we watched them for a while and discussed what we should do.

Ultimately, we decided to go to another road and approach from the back. When we drove into a back parking lot, we saw a woman stick her head around a fence. I asked my nephew’s friend to put down her passenger-side window, and in my best sweet southern voice, I said, “Hey! We read on your website that y’all welcome visitors! We’re just curious and would like to find out what y’all are all about!” Once she decided we were friendly, she offered to show us around. She explained we weren’t seeing many people because Saturday is the Sabbath, and most people were resting.

We followed her into the dining hall/meeting room, which was lovely…clean and nicely decorated. We ran into a couple more friendly people inside who readily introduced themselves. From there, she showed us the barn area, where they had goats and cows. And after that, we walked over to one of the community’s houses, where members of the “community” had gathered outside for music. We were offered tea, and we all took a cup. I thought it was delicious, and my nephew did too, but I noticed his friend was holding hers…not drinking it. I knew she was thinking about Jonestown, so I took the tea off her hands and drank it myself.

We were welcomed with open arms by everyone gathered outside, and we asked any questions we could think of. Are people free to come and go as they please? Yes. If someone leaves the community, are they shunned? No. Do y’all drink alcohol? No. What are your beliefs? How do you support yourselves? I wanted my nephew to ask if they used cannabis, but none of us had the nerve to ask that. I thought I smelled it wafting out of a house at one point, but I couldn’t be sure. And this group believes everyone should work together for the greater good of the community. Every person contributes by working…like bees in a hive. Children are educated onsite. We weren’t bashful…we asked questions. We didn’t ask in a threatening way…we asked in a curious way, which is exactly what we were…curious.

We left after a couple of hours thinking, “This isn’t a cult at all! They’re just a religious commune!” Everyone was so friendly. They were very reserved, but they were friendly. We had no reason to believe they were anything but good folks.

And then, after we got home, we googled the name of their “community,” and that’s when things got weird!

Unbeknownst to us, just last week, the FBI had released from their vault information from a 2013 investigation into this particular group. At the top of the report, it says, “Open investigation based on allegations that children are being sexually exploited.” And somehow, we decided to visit right after the report was released from the vault? We had no idea! In the report, there is testimony from former members of the community with allegations of child labor, sexual abuse, sexual orgies, and drug use. That led us to look at other websites, where we found allegations of community members being held against their will…and more. And honestly, it frightened us. Is any of the “testimony” true? I don’t know, but it was enough to make my hair stand on end.

And it made me a little sad. I thought of the sweet people we had met. Most of them were friendly, but some of them were looking at us wide-eyed, and one of them appeared a little unstable, but we chalked it up to dementia. But after reading everything, I couldn’t help but wonder if some of the wide-eyed ones were desperate to leave. Were they unhappy? Were they being abused? Did they want us to take them with us? Did they want to pass us notes asking us to send help? Of course, that’s all my imagination. No one, at any time, indicated they were unhappy. In fact, most of them appeared very happy.

In hindsight, I’m glad we didn’t google the community before we went, because we never would have gone. I believe there are some good people in that group. Are there bad folks? I don’t know. But I’m guessing that will be my only visit to their commune. We went unannounced, but didn’t see anything suspicious. Of course, my nephew’s friend pointed out that we were really only shown the animals and the interior of one building, which was almost unoccupied at the time, so there wasn’t much opportunity for us to see anything nefarious.

Giving them the benefit of the doubt, they seemed like nice people. Of course, someone else pointed out to me that “of course they were nice! They wanted y’all to join!” Yeah…they probably didn’t want me. I’m way beyond child-bearing years, and I’m sure they could take one look at me and tell I’m way too high maintenance. My nephew, on the other hand, is low maintenance, strong, hardworking, good-looking, musically talented, and artistic. Any cult would love to have him. His friend is pretty and outgoing…they’d love to have a young lady join up, I’m sure. But I would have been a total drain on their system.

And in their defense, the FBI closed the 2013 investigation. Since I never read anything about any arrests, and they didn’t invade the place like they did with David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, I’m guessing they didn’t uncover enough evidence to support the allegations.

Either way, we got out unscathed. If anyone ever tries to hold me at a commune, they will run me off as soon as they figure out I don’t even know how to mop very well!

On our way home, I thought of how happy my parents would be that my nephew was hanging out with me in North Carolina. And I wished I could call them to tell them about the experience…they would have loved hearing about it.