Destin

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sean dietrichBy Sean Dietrich

DESTIN, Fla.—I’m in a traffic jam. Standstill. Cars are backed up to the horizon. I am stuck among them, trapped on Highway 98, suffocating within a cloud of blue exhaust and unspeakable misery.

We are moving at 0.002 miles per hour. I look out my window and see a gopher turtle crawling past my truck.

Our town has been having bad traffic lately, ever since the city began highway construction shortly after the Civil War. There are a million-and-one orange construction barrels located on our roadways. And these barrels keep multiplying.

At night when everyone sleeps I’m convinced these barrels all get together and have wild parties and reproduce lots of little baby construction barrels.

The powers that be told residents these highway “upgrades” would be finished a few years ago, but things keep getting pushed back. Currently the Florida Department of Transportation does not expect current upgrades to be finished until the installation of the next pope.

Thousands of years from now, when Florida’s coastline is underwater, archaeologists will find millions of petrified automobiles still stuck in Destin gridlock, miles beneath the Gulf, awaiting the completion of upgrades.

Most of the vehicles in today’s congestion belong to summer tourists. Such as the flock of Range Rovers Autographs ahead of me with Georgia plates. A few of these motorists strike me as the uppity type because they occasionally glance at my rusted, ugly Ford and wince.
Something also tells me they aren’t crazy about my bumper sticker, which reads: “You mess with me and you mess with the whole trailer park.”

It’s hard to believe our town used to be a sleepy village, complete with captivating trailer parks. But there was indeed a time when Destin had about 7,500 full-time residents, and one small grocery store that played Hank Snow on the radio.

Today, the summer population here swells to somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000. And I firmly believe that most of these visitors bring their own construction barrels with them.
Truth be told, I don’t recognize our city anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, but it’s difficult watching this place get torn down only to be painstakingly rebuilt into a Wayne Newton stage set.

In olden days this town had one stoplight, four feral cats, and a few old guys on a porch counting cars. Everyone’s kids looked like Opie Taylor, and October’s annual Fishing Rodeo was the apex of civilized life.

The only traffic jams occurred whenever someone’s chicken crossed Highway 98. The Shell station still did repairs. And every mom in town still shared casserole dishes with each other.

At church, during covered-dish suppers, I’d hear stories from the elderly men who still remembered ancient Destin. They’d talk about when William Marler built the first post office facing Calhoun Avenue in ‘34.

“Built the whole dang thing himself,” they’d say. “Every cabinet and joist from scratch.”
Or they’d tell you about the legendary four fishermen in ‘29 who used nothing but hand shovels to dig out East Pass.

“Didn’t use no ‘quipment a’tall. Nothin’ but their backs.”

I was married in a little church on Matthew Boulevard, a place with a leaky roof and a busted Hammond organ. But it’s only a memory now. Today the old church is dwarfed by surrounding multiplex high-rise condominiums with parking garages, poolside bar service, and a nightly Jimmy Buffet impersonator.

But I still miss the old chapel. I miss Easter Sunday mornings when the crowded sanctuary would transform itself into a fire marshal’s worst nightmare. There were so many church visitors that when we sang “Up From the Grave He Arose,” the light fixtures rattled.
Then everyone would leave church and head to the in-laws’ house for Sunday dinner whereupon we’d eat carbohydrates until our pancreases gave out.

Those days are long gone.

And I suppose that’s just how life goes. I realize nothing stays the same. You cannot stand in the way of progress, and you can’t stifle “upgrades.” Otherwise, you’ll be living in the past, recalling an era when people still slowed down at yellow lights instead of speeding up.
No, if you don’t embrace the steamroller of modernism you’ll forever be stuck daydreaming about that little cinderblock house on 1st Street where your mother once lived, and her little tomato garden, and the pleasant glow that followed Sunday dinner.

And the next thing you know you’ll be alone in a dark room singing “Precious Memories” to your longneck bottle.

Such things are not healthy. You don’t want to be one of those nostalgic fools who is always talking about how great life was before cell phones, back when we still had Sadie Hawkins dances, hand-battered fried chicken, out-of-town gospel quartets, games of horseshoes, and homemade ice cream.

You can’t just sit around and constantly reminisce about dirt roads, cars with chrome bumpers, AM radios, shelling peas, summer romances, neighborhood fish fries, or the way the sand dunes once looked, all covered in sea oats.

So I’ve decided I’m going to roll with the times. I am going to embrace all the changes life throws at me. No matter how this little town keeps altering itself, I promise myself that I’m going to be happy about it all and keep living in the present.

And I will do this just as soon as this highway construction finishes.