To a ten year old, a road trip is all about the destination. Meaning, of course, that not only is the journey not half the fun, it is of absolutely no import at all. And this particular trip had been built up by the grown-ups and my own mind to epic proportions. It was a new place that was untouched by humans. It was 15 miles from Gulf Shores, but it might as well have been a hundred. Our condo was the only one on the Alabama side of the island. It was isolated and private and peaceful and you could fish right outside your back door in the river or across the street on the beach. I had heard all of this info discussed at length, but what I heard was fishing, fishing, and more fishing.
My father and some business partners had done some development in the Orange Beach area in the early eighties. They had invested in and assisted with the development of the Ole River Condominiums on Perdido Key. These condos were across the street from the beach on Old River, which is a navigable waterway that connects Alabama Pass in Orange Beach with Big Lagoon at Inerarity Point in Florida. This was the first structure built on the Alabama side of Perdido Key. I had been to the beach a few times before, but I only remembered portions of each visit and was always in hotels, so you could not carry fishing gear and did not have access to places to fish without driving.
So, the day came when the condos were completed and our personal units had to be furnished. My dad and his partners decided they would purchase furniture in Dalton, Georgia, load it onto trucks, and drive it all down to the condo, thereby saving thousands of dollars on furniture costs. This was accomplished on a Friday afternoon early in June. School was just out and I was anticipating this trip more highly than any other I can remember.
Early Saturday morning, everyone gathered at our farm house in preparation for the trip to the coast. Proper routes and travel times were discussed amongst the men, while the women talked of where to go shopping for the decorative items each unit would need before they were deemed fit for proper living. I was paying attention to nothing other than the time that was being wasted by all involved. We should be on the road, driving to the world’s greatest and most exotic fishing destination.
The group consisted of my family, Tommy’s family, and Tommy’s dad, Bobby. Tommy and Bobby were dad’s partners in the development of the condos. They had a son, Wade, which was my age, who also liked to fish, so I was in hog heaven. My mom and Dad would drive one of the large moving vans, Tommy and his wife would drive the other, and Wade and I would ride with Bobby in his 1973 Chevy Luv pickup truck. This would be the running around vehicle once we got to the beach. Now in 1983 a full moving van might be able to go 55 miles per hour and maybe even 60 downhill. Interstate speed limits were still 55 miles per hour, so everyone figured it should take around 7 hours to make the trip if there was one fuel stop involved. 7 hours of driving does not compute with a ten year old farm boy.
To my great relief and with extreme exuberance on the part of both of us boys, we got the trip underway. It was pouring rain. We left the Summit community and headed south. At the Rainbow Crossing 4 way stop, I asked Bobby if we were almost there. He said No and lit a cigarette. About a mile past the Rainbow Crossing on Highway 231, the Chevy Luv pickup truck went dead. Apparently, the Chevy Luv pickup truck had an exposed electrical connection somewhere under the hood that caused it to go dead if it got too wet. I might mention that it was pouring rain. It was not a problem, you just had to wait a few minutes for it to dry out. So, our journey continued thusly: about every 30 minutes, we boys would ask Bobby if we were close. He would say no and light another cigarette. Every 20 – 25 minutes, the Luv would go dead due to wet electrical connections under the hood and we would sit and wait for it to dry out enough to start back up. To make an even longer story somewhat shorter, let’s just say our seven hour trip ended up being a hair over nine. That equates to roughly eighteen or twenty “are we there yet” questions, twenty-four times the truck went dead, one fuel and restroom stop, and probably 3 much-deserved packs of cigarettes consumed. The moving trucks didn’t fare much better, as they only arrived 40 minutes or so ahead of us. The heavy rain created limited visibility and the fuel consumption and overall velocity of the fully loaded moving vans were grossly mis-estimated. Of course, it was near dark when we arrived, and the heavy overcast and continued heavy rain made it even darker. As a side note, this is one of very few times I have seen it rain constantly and consistently across the entire state of Alabama. Anyway, we were all back together and, more importantly, we had arrived. Oh the fish that would be caught tomorrow when the sun came up and the rain stopped.
All that was left to do was to get the furniture off of the trucks and into the condos. As the units we had were on the first and second level right next to the elevator doors, this would prove to be an easy task with minimal investment of time and energy. The men estimated 2 – 3 hours to get everything off of the trucks and into the units. Another hour to help the women set it all up and then we would all be relaxing on the Redneck Riviera.
A very slight problem arose soon after the trucks got unloaded. As it was still raining heavily, the moving trucks were backed up next to the covered parking areas and the furniture was offloaded from the trucks into the dry parking area adjacent to the elevators that would soon carry it straight to the entrances to the units. After all of the furniture was offloaded in to the parking area, they moved the first piece to the elevator. Now, to make this next part understandable, I am going to offer some facts and perspective about this furniture. As these units were developed as rental properties, the men did not want to furnish with dainty, flimsy decorative pieces, and instead opted for rough-hewn, commercial grade, solid pine pieces that would have withstood anything save a direct nuclear blast. Chairs, dressers, night stands, tables, sofas, bed frames – all were constructed of materials that would remain beyond the holocaust. Another attribute of the indestructible furniture is that it was all oversized. Whether to accommodate large folks or small cattle, or just because of the size of the lumber that was used in construction, I could not tell you.
Anyway, as the men struggled to get the first piece onto the elevator, a disheartening realization settled upon them. The only thing that would actually go through the door of the elevator were 4 side tables that went at the ends of the sofas and the 6 nightstands for the bedrooms. Every other piece was too wide or long to get on the elevator. I might also mention here that it was still raining.
A new plan was devised. The rented moving vans were outfitted with security straps, come-along winches, and rolling platforms for moving heavy objects. So, the straps would be affixed to the balcony railing, the come-along attached to that, then a strap would be attached to the other end of the come-along and that strap then affixed to the furniture which would be winched up piece by piece to the first floor unit. After that was accomplished, the truck would be moved into place at the balcony of the first floor unit and the process would be repeated to get the remaining furniture onto the roof of the moving truck, and then the entire lifting piece would be moved to the second story and the process repeated.
Well, you can imagine how that went. I eventually lost my enthusiasm for being at the beach. We had arrived too late to do anything and anyway, back then, there was nothing in that area except the Flora-Bama Lounge, and there were certainly no other people down there. So, I eventually drifted off to sleep on the bare floor of one of the units and rested fitfully between being woken up by the dads moving furniture.
A little after sunup the next day, the rain slackened and the last few pieces of furniture were hoisted up to the second story unit. At this point, the moms made coffee and a light breakfast of items they had purchased at the grocery store in Gulf Shores the night before. The men ate and then went to sleep. I could see the ocean from the balcony of our condo, but the overcast, rough surf, and the lack of people made it look less inviting than I had imagined. I was sure there were fish to be caught, but I sure didn’t want to wake dad up to ask him where my fishing rod was. Wade and I decided to explore the river behind the condos. During the first phase of construction, the builders did not add the docks. Those came later, so the river was lined with canes and grasses that were easily six or seven feet tall, meaning we could not see a blamed thing back there except the vegetation. I believe we did manage to capture a hermit crab that occupied about 30 minutes or so of that morning.
About the time we let the hermit crab go, Wade’s dad, Tommy, walked down to the river with a fishing rod, fought his way through the cane, made one cast with a rooster tail and caught the most beautiful fish I had ever seen. It was a 3 pound Spanish mackerel and it was glorious. Shaped like a saber, its sides were silver chrome with gold spots, it’s back blue chrome, a stiff, forked tail, and a mouth full of pointed razor blades. It glowed despite the lack of sunlight and I remember thinking that it would probably blind you in full sunlight. It was the most amazing fish I had ever seen. And I wanted one of my own. I so wanted to keep that fish, but Tommy turned it loose. I ran back up to the condo and burst through the door to find our bags packed and mom locking everything up. Apparently, we were leaving to go back home as dad had to be back in the office the next day to meet a client with an emergency job. Dad had not packed any fishing gear for that trip anyway. It was specifically to get the furniture in the condo and take a couple of days to relax on the beach. Of course, I was devastated, but then again, when you are ten, you don’t understand the complexities of adult life or the motivations and manifestations that control it. I was in a place that could produce the fish of a lifetime in just one cast, and I was not even going to get to make that cast. Heartbreak is an understatement. I know I wore my disappointment on my sleeve and probably sulked for weeks afterward.
I want to point out that my dad more than made up for that first trip with the fishing adventures I enjoyed on many subsequent visits. With the exception of catching my first bass with my dad and a fishing and camping trip we took together one summer, my fondest fishing memories come from the Alabama Gulf Coast. And most of these include dad as well. Come to think of it, some of my other fondest memories come from there as well, but that is another story for another time, and probably another audience. I have caught dozens of species of fish from Old River, Perdido Bay, the jetties and seawall of Perdido Pass at Alabama Point, The Gulf State Park Pier, the beaches of Perdido Key, offshore charters out of Orange Beach Marina, and in Mobile Bay to the west. Over the years, from Old River, I have taken sheepshead, redfish, spotted seatrout, flounder, pinfish, stingray, sharks, catfish, mullet, mangrove snapper, and many unidentifiable creatures and a host of other fish. I even got my own Spanish mackerel on the Gulf State Park Pier later on in that summer of 1983. Looking back, I can recall with alacrity and clarity several eventful trips and even individual catches that are etched into my memory, but none so clear as that first Spanish that Tommy caught on that first trip. I can see the fish in that 33 year-old memory more clearly than if it was a hi-res photo taken yesterday. That fish inflamed in me a passion for saltwater fishing that remains to this day. Don’t get me wrong, I will fish anywhere, anytime, for anything, but there is something special about a place that can produce so much variety in such a short period of time.
Disappointments can be overcome, failures can be surmounted, and wrongs can be righted. However, you only have so many opportunities to create a memory with a loved one or a cherished soul. Please do not let one pass you by. We all grow older, and as much as we dislike it, we cannot regain our youth. But, we can revisit it through the memories we made. Somebody made those memories possible for you. It’s your job to make them possible for someone else. So, do your job, create memories and opportunities for memories with and for those you love and care about. It will be their catalyst to those cherished days and the legacy by which you are remembered. When it’s all said and done and your race is over, the only thing that remains of you in this word is the remembrance of you by them.