... local family flies south to little-known gem
Our flight originated too early in the morning of June 27, 2012, for we had to be at
the airport as dawn arrived -- and wait, wait, wait. Our goal was Pensacola,
Florida, my mother's hometown, the family's hometown as brought about by the Civil
War. We lost heavily in that war, including Great Grandfather Issac Strickland -- a
reluctant Confederate soldier who lasted barely three months before he died, in of
all things, as a guard on a medical train that crashed head-on with a southbound
train. Hardly a glorious end.
By 1865 the war was over, but Great Grandmother Narcissa Strickland had no source of
income, no husband, no home in Alabama, yet with five youngsters. It was her
decision to stack her meager goods on an ox-cart, and move on -- to Pensacola in
Florida, some 125 miles away -- on foot, with five kids.
And so our trip was a call for an annual reunion, produced by fifth, sixth, seventh
-- and maybe eighth - generations of the original family, to meet once again in what
is considered the family home: Pensacola. Things have changed over the years, and
the sleepy little coastal town has seen booms and busts -- and has now blossomed
into a fabulous (but little known) seaport city on the very edge of the Gulf of
It is a beautiful place, an historic place, a place that industry has overlooked for
the past century. Right after "The War" ended, there was a world-wide demand for the
fine yellow pine that covered the rolling hills of Alabama and Panhandle Florida,
and the resulting dramatic demand for this new wealth created a boomtown in
Pensacola and its fine harbor -- Escambia Bay.
The blossoming boomtown drew in thousands of people -- most of whom were ex-
soldiers, now without jobs, without homes, without anything but muscle -- and
suddenly Pensacola was recognized as a world-class shipping port. The industry
lasted some 20 years, and suddenly the loggers and shippers found no more yellow
pine -- not a stick left growing.
So much for history. The town has seen its ups and downs, and is, today, a beautiful
city located on a white sandy beach that stretches at least a hundred miles in both
directions. Instead of lumber, Pensacola is now the home of the Naval Air Station,
an industry that refuses to go away as long as there is strife in the world. It is
also the home of the Navy's "Blue Angels."
The above photos are of Joe Patti's seafood supermarket, where seafood was just off-
loaded from the boats, parked just outside the door. Talk about fresh! Talk about
variety! Patti's place is just west of downtown, not too far from the new stadium
where the Blue Wahoos play double-A ball.
But the food! The seafood. That southern cooking! And the beaches -- fine fluffy
sand dunes and sun-warmed seawater .. make this a special place. Lorry and I, in our
week-long stay, ate nothing but seafood. And grits. And biscuits and gravy. And some
Southern Fried Chicken. Oh, so good. We ate four times at a small chain of
restaurants called The Shrimp Basket, where, as an hors d'oeuvre, I ordered a dozen
oysters on the half shell -- the largest of which was six inches across. They were
fresh and delicious, and were a special that week for thirty-five cents each.
A dozen large, fresh oysters for four bucks! And my martini was just under five.
Enough about good food -- except to add one item: Denny's, the chain, is something
else in the South. For about five bucks, one can get two eggs, biscuits and gravy,
bacon and a bowl of delightful southern grits. Air-conditioned, clean, with lovely
Downtown is lovely place again. Palafox Street is the main drag, and features new,
modern stores with enjoyable shopping. Unlike the other parts of Florida, Pensacola
on the panhandle is a summer resort -- drawing lots of vacationers from mid-America.
The old fishing pier has been redesigned as a lovely walking and fishing place,
while Pensacola has maintained its reputation as a deep-water port with an
industrial pier big enough for the largest of ships.
Actually Lorry and I have spent several winter months (in our retirement) on Perdido
Key. Not quite warm enough for long swims, it surely is more pleasant than New
England's snow storms. When it is zero in Boston, it is 65 in Pensacola. It is
Florida, after all. I did laps in the pool every morning.
There are many reasons to visit Pensacola: First, outstanding weather almost year
round. The sunsets over the Gulf are frequently spectacular. The beaches are long,
soft and white, and now protected. The water is warm and inviting -- and
one has a choice of swimming in the Gulf waves or choosing the slightly warmer water
of the inland waterway -- wide smooth areas such as Big Lagoon, Santa Rosa Sound,
Escambia Bay. There are two long spits of sand islands just offshore, running for
almost 50 miles -- Santa Rosa Island and Perdido Key. The outside has Gulf waves,
the inside is smooth, calm and warm.
At the left is the path from the lighthouse to Big Lagoon -- a lovely place to
picnic and swim. This is Naval Air Station property, which is usually open to the
public for access to the huge air museum, the hospital and other facilities that
were once part of the town of Warrington -- where Great Grandfather Frederick Blum
settled before the Civil War. And he and his two wives (in succession) had some
fifteen children, who in turn provided much of the population of Panhandle Florida.
And finally, there is the Naval Air Museum, where visitors can see some one hundred
specimens of America's fighting planes -- from a huge reproduction of the first
aircraft to cross the Atlantic, to World War I bi-wing fighters, to World War II
modern propeller-driven planes like this Grumman Wildcat (I recall from 70 years
ago), to the jets over Korea, and the faster-than-sound cold war jets. There are two
huge hangers plus a third display on a runway -- it is an amazing place where you
can actually crawl into a cockpit, or fly a simulator, or see, in a cut-away, how
flying sailors operated a big World War II PBY.
And finally there are two planes significant to World War II -- the Marine's gull-
winged Corsair and a Japanese Zero. A last note: There was an uproar among older
Navy vets when that Zero was displayed in Pensacola; the Zero had been designed to
outfly America's bi-planes, and a lot of men were lost in those early fights over
the Pacific Ocean. The Zero was lighter, faster and more maneuverable than anything
we had; it was a credit to American industry to suddenly design and produce its
Lorry and I spent eight days in Pensacola, renewing family ties and visiting with
the five remaining cousins of our generation. The people of the south are truly good
folks -- and good family, as large as it may be.
August 3, 2012