The Cradle of Naval Retrospection

Let me take you back to the late summer of 1991.  I’ve just graduated college with a BS degree and a commission as an Ensign in the Navy, and had been able to spend the early part of the summer doing not a whole lot while staying with my parents, who had recently moved up to the Bay Area from Los Angeles, as the Aviation Training Command wasn’t yet ready for me.  They’ve now informed me that they are (ready for me, that is), and I’m driving across the country for the first time in my red Jeep, having lived my entire life in California.  Though going to college had been a quantum leap in freedom, this was yet another.  Arguably, this leap was even bigger than the last.  I’m twenty-two years old, and I look like this.

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I don’t remember where I stayed along the way across the country, but I do remember approaching Pensacola and that very first time pulling off I-10, bathing in the waves of heat and humidity as well as the somewhere-between-ocean-and-swamp smell that permeated everything and struck me as sweetish and fertile.  My anticipatory excitement was off the charts.  Pensacola is technically Florida, but more akin to Alabama, being right at the end of the panhandle and surrounded by its neighbor to the north and west.  It was a world away from California.

Here’s the geographical setup in Pensacola, as I think it provides a little insight.  Note the thin barrier islands, with Perdido Key to the west, Pensacola Beach in the middle (but far from the Pensacola Naval Air Station, which sits southwest of downtown), and Navarre Beach out to the east.  Whiting Field (the flight training base, where I was stationed after my initial indoctrination training was complete) is way up to the north of Milton, aka the middle of nowhere.

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On my first night there, I contacted some friends from college who had come out for flight training a year prior and were still making their way through the program.  We met at their place on Perdido Key and headed out to the Flora-bama, an enormous beachfront bar/liquor store complex (in P-cola vernacular: a “lounge and package”) that straddles the border between the two states.  At the time they had about a half dozen sub-bars within the main bar, and were semi-famous for an annual “mullet toss,” which is exactly what it sounds like, and a huge event.  Incidentally, the hairstyle is named after the fish, not vice versa.  It became clear very quickly that my friends had settled in deeply over the past year, as they comfortably disappeared into the crowd, acknowledging greetings from various bartenders and fellow bar-goers.  Later in the evening I was surprised to see one of my friends on stage, playing his guitar and singing some country standards. [Side note:  He’s really good, and just released an album.  Check it out.]  The end of my first night in the South found me wandering into a decidedly slower paced room in which there was a booming sing-along in progress.  It took me a second to recognize the tune, but I soon pegged it as “Dixie,” but at half speed, maybe less, for maximum emotional impact.  A look around me at the tear-stained faces of my new neighbors, one arm around the person next to them and the other raising a tightly held beer in a plastic cup while they sang their hearts out, told me that the emotions ran deep.  This wasn’t a jokey sing-along, they really meant it.  Wow.  I truly had left California behind.

Soon I linked up with some college / Naval ROTC friends and rented a house right on Pensacola Beach, which surprised me by having the whitest sand I had ever seen.  I had seen “white sand beaches” before but they always disappointed me by looking just a shade or two lighter than the beige I was used to from Southern California.  This beach was white.  Like sugar.  The house was a no-frills hunk of cinder block, but it had a second-floor balcony which overlooked the sand and water.  I don’t remember how much rent I paid, but it was no more than $200/month.  In fact I think it was $150.

And here it gets even better.  Whoever’s job responsibility includes deciding how many Student Naval Aviators to accept into the program at any given time has a tricky task.  The complexities of balancing the constantly changing “needs of the Navy” with the number of incoming students (as well as several other uncontrollable variables I’m sure) result in massive training tempo variations for individual flight students, anywhere from immediate entry into the program and two training events per day until graduation to stopping training altogether and just waiting around to start again.  They were even occasionally doing what they (or maybe just we?) called “bottom blows,” where the lowest performing XX percent of students are simply cut from the program and either sent to other Navy communities or just freed from their commitment to the Navy altogether.  As luck would have it, I arrived in Pensacola during a student glut, even after a fairly recent “bottom blow.”  I wouldn’t be beginning flight training for quite some time.

Some unfortunate Navy Lieutenant was assigned as “Student Control Officer,” and his job was essentially to manage and find, um, “gainful” employment for this massive pool of newly commissioned Ensigns while trickling them slowly into the front end of the training program.  Fortunately I only met him once or twice, but he always looked harried and more than a little annoyed.  How that situation looked from my side of things, however, was a mere 3 days per week for a couple hours per day of doing things like demonstrating the obstacle course to the current crop of students or riding around base on a tricycle (I’m serious) with a Wet Bulb Globe Thermometer (the “whib-jit”) and taking readings to determine whether it was too hot to conduct various types of training.  That was the extent of my responsibilities.

I also discovered, once I started making friends with other student-pool dwellers, that while we were enjoying the euphoria of newly found freedom, our Naval Academy graduate friends took that concept into the stratosphere owing to their previous four years’ excessive / oppressive control over their lives.  They were an intriguing lot, and running around in the same circles as they did made an exciting time even more so for me.  A few became dear, lifelong friends, and a few nearly beat my friends and me into a pulp when we showed up at a party we hadn’t been invited to (actually we had, but the potential pummelers didn’t know that) and didn’t quite fit in.  Interestingly, there ended up being some overlap between those two groups.

So OK, let’s recap quickly before I move on.  I’m just out of college, I’m living on the beach with friends in a new part of the country, I and a few hundred of my soon-to-be colleagues are about to enter a Naval Aviator training program in a city that’s all about its Naval Aviators, and I’m making a Naval Officer’s salary for working (sorry, “working”) about 10 hours per week.  I did this for almost a year.

What could possibly happen?

I should add that once I finally did start the program, the student glut hadn’t dissipated, resulting in an average flight event rate of about one every week and a half.  You would call to listen to the recording of the next day’s flight schedule early in the evening, and if you weren’t on it (and generally you weren’t), that was it – you were off the next day.  Didn’t even have to call in each morning to verify you weren’t face down in a ditch somewhere.  Now I did mention in a previous post that my living situation became less favorable once I moved off the beach and up nearer to Whiting Field in an attempt to be responsible.  Bad call.  Still though, that’s a lot of paid time off, and once I moved back to the beach for the last two months or so, this time a half hour to the east in Navarre, my living situation exceeded even the Pensacola Beach salad days.

As much as I really, really want to just go entirely off the rails right now and write about the stories – SO many stories – from that time frame, I actually am attempting to go somewhere that brings us back to here and now in Pensacola…  Memory lane.  Nostalgia central.  I spent almost two years making the best kind of memories in Pensacola, and save for one evening at a friend’s house in the early 2000s, I had not been back since.

So how does a visit to city 26 years after you left it live up to that?  Everyone knows you can’t go home again, and there must be a corollary that says something like “you can’t go back to Pensacola again.”  I knew this.  Something I hadn’t entirely known was that Tacco’s experience in Pensacola was not even remotely like mine.  I thought we were seeing this visit similarly.  Not so.  You’d think we would’ve covered this ground at some point in our 16 years of marriage, but somehow we managed not to until just about the Alabama border, as I was babbling about some of the things I was looking forward to seeing and giddily alluding to 20 of my 200 flight school stories (again), and she offered “you know, I really don’t have many memories here.”

Sccrrraaattttccchhh… um, really?

“I mean, I appreciate that you do, but you need to understand that I got here, went straight into training, did two events per day until I finished this phase and then I left.  I didn’t have any time to play.”  Wow.  Makes sense of course, but it was somewhat mind-blowing, both the difference in our experiences and the fact that I hadn’t really ever asked her about this.

So I guess Pensacola is my place, and I would be the sole parent pointing out the various “here’s where x happened…” sights to my almost-pretending-to-be-interested family/audience.  That’s good to know.

I had split the visit into two planned segments – the first a two-night stay on Pensacola Beach and the second a longer stay (including a work trip for me) at the RV park on the Naval Air Station.

My first impression tracked somewhat with my impressions of driving through the bayou south and west of New Orleans.  Namely that Pensacola has grown up.  The town in which it once took maximum effort to even find an OK bottle of wine to buy (Actual quote, more or less: “son… I dunno about no Cab-yer-nay, but we got reyed, we got waaht.  Rat there in them boxes.  They got a spout in the bottom even…”), now sports a thriving downtown with more solid-looking restaurants than I could count, arts festivals, and Portland-style food trucks.  Crossing the bridge onto the beach revealed the even more surprising sight of dozens of high-rise hotels and condos, multiple restaurant row / entertainment-type areas, and scads of beachfront mansions.  When I lived there our cinder block cube was pretty much the standard, there were about a half-dozen restaurants total, and I think there was a miniature golf course with water hazards dyed an unholy red and a large Paul Bunyan.  They’ve done an excellent job classing the place up!

Our RV park sat on the Intracoastal Waterway side of the island, but was just a short walk to the beach, and we wasted no time setting up camp and prepping for some beach ops.

First though, lunch at Peg Leg Pete’s, a once-sleepy little place on the sand which had served as a backdrop to several of my Pensacola Beach stories and served up some memorable baked oysters of various styles to boot.  True to form, it had about tripled in size as well, and appeared to be quite popular.

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The oysters were every bit as tasty as I remembered, though the eccentric guy on the acoustic guitar playing “Harvest Moon” was sadly nowhere to be found.  Ah well.

The beach was maybe not quite as white as I remembered, but still impressive, and the kids marveled, as I once had, at how the sand squeaked under your footsteps due to the uniformity of the grain size.

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Sometimes it’s difficult for me to remember that technically school is still in session for our kids;  fortunately Tacco does a better job of being diligent in that respect than I do, and she tempered my vision of an utterly unproductive full day playing on the beach with a suggestion that we visit Fort Pickens at the western end of our island and part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore.  So glad she did – I learned quite a bit there that I had never been interested enough to seek out when I lived just down the street years before.

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Fort Pickens is one of three strategically positioned forts which served to defend the narrow entrance to Pensacola Harbor.  From any of the three you can see the other two, but the range circles of their guns fell just shy of each other, while overlapping in the bay’s entrance, so they were able to set up an effective crossfire.  I suspect TACCO will go into more detail about the various forts, but one of the tidbits of knowledge that really stuck with me was the fact that, had it not been for inclement weather, Fort Pickens and not Fort Sumter would have likely been the site of the Civil War’s first shots fired.  It, too, was held by government (Union) soldiers at the time and a group of Confederate soldiers had an attack planned and ready to go from further east on the island, but weather prevented it.  And then hell broke loose in South Carolina.

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More beach play followed our short history lesson, and we were able to get together with some friends for dinner out on the beach right next to our RV park.

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The next morning greeted us with threatening clouds and a good bit of wind, but we figured we’d be remiss if we didn’t take the opportunity to do a bit more beach walking / exploring.

IMG_1069We actually walked up the beach to the aforementioned cinder block cube that once housed me.  I’ve gotta say, it was pretty ugly.  And the large expanse of sand that led to the water was now fenced off and overgrown with beach plants that protect the dunes from erosion.  There was also a massive mansion between the house and the water – where’d that come from?  But it was entertaining to see, even if no one wanted to hear me talk about throwing furniture off the balcony, trying to use a large inflatable island to surf, or putting holes in the neighbor’s guitar.  In place of that I texted a picture of it to the old roomies and got to reminisce a bit via text message.

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Another surprise – that house came up on Zillow as being worth $800K… what?!?!?  I think it was worth a tenth of that at most when we were there; if only we had known.

Our campsite on the Naval Air Station was a bit more rustic, and we were met upon arrival with a classic Florida-style thunderstorm that turned the whole place into a temporary pond.

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The location was good though, with a short walk to the Bayfront beach, another of the forts nearby (on the base), a historic lighthouse within walking distance, and the Museum of Naval Aviation just up the street.  On top of that, it sat essentially at show center for the almost-weekly Blue Angels practices, making this the second time the kids were able to see a Blue Angels show this trip.

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I missed most of the time there due to my work commitments.  My only thing to note from the going-to-and-from-work experience: Pensacola is a DIFFICULT city to get to, at least as a pilot.  There aren’t many flights that serve it, and there are a ton of other pilots who live there.  Getting to work was tricky – getting back was almost impossible.  I made it as far as Atlanta and then was bumped off of four successive flights.  I was just about to give up and go find a hotel room for the night when a Hail Mary passenger no-show allowed me to slide into a seat and get back to my family.

We rounded out our Pensacola time with another beach walk and one more nostalgic night out to eat at McGuire’s, which is another of the classic P-Cola restaurants, particularly for the aviation crowd.  If I recall correctly, it was known for a few things: Huge food portions; signed dollar bills stapled to just about every inch of the ceiling and walls (to which you were encouraged to add your own); confusing bathroom signage that tended to incite hilarity; and a big moose head behind the makeshift “stage” (usually hosting sloppily singing patrons rather than any actual talent) which you were supposed to kiss, but I forget exactly why.  The kids were surprised to hear that for a short time I donned the McGuire’s green vest and tended bar for their catering division while in Flight School.  THAT was fun.

McGuire’s itself was a little bit disappointing, but not the sad kind of disappointing.  More like the confirmation I hadn’t realized I needed that this Pensacola was not the Pensacola I once lived in, that that time and place are securely bygone and have been properly celebrated, and that I could definitively close that book.  It’s a much bigger restaurant now, with lots of little sub-rooms, one of which we were tucked into.  I couldn’t even find the moose initially.  My kids didn’t find the bathroom signage that confusing or amusing (basically each door has the opposite gender’s name with an arrow pointing to the other door)… guess that only incites hilarity after a few drinks.  And the food was just ok.  Big portions in themselves just don’t do it for me.  Kinda the opposite actually.  The sub-room in which we were seated happened to be Blue Angel themed, and I found myself sitting across from the flight suit of a classmate of mine from back in the P-Cola days.  He had been not just a Blue Angel, but the Commanding Officer of the Blues, and this was a long enough time ago to have his flight suit displayed on the wall in commemoration.  That officially makes me old I’m pretty sure.  If nothing else, I can see “old” from here.

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Yes, this was an excellent visit.  I like Pensacola and always will.  It’s a fun and dynamic town with an extensive history both military and otherwise, miles of gorgeous beaches, and a laid back Southern charm.  I’ll always associate it with a time of my life in which I had it so incredibly good, and I even knew how good I had it while I was in it, yet still I wasn’t able to fathom just how insanely memorable it all was.

And with that it’s time to move on.

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