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Darrell Huckaby: A grand time sifting through memories of the beach

Darrell Huckaby

Darrell Huckaby

There’s an old Southern expression, “back in my old stompin’ grounds.” Having examined the nuances of Southern-speak for nearly six decades now, I have determined that “stompin’ grounds” generally referred not so much to a place where one lived, but more a place where one visited, hung out and — more importantly — shared good times with good people.

I found myself back in my old stompin' grounds last week. My lovely wife Lisa and I had business to attend in Jacksonville, Fla., -- and for once that business didn't involve orange-and-blue-clad mullet- and jean shorts-wearing Gator fans.

We spent a morning at the Mayo Clinic, gathering information for future reference. That same evening I had the opportunity to entertain a great group of seniors at Deermeadows Baptist Church. In between -- well, in between we did a little stomping around on Jacksonville Beach.

Jacksonville Beach was a magical destination in the 1950s. The Bibb mills would shut down for the week of July 4th and my family and a large contingent of their friends would head south to enjoy the sun and sand and surf and -- if we had managed to save back a few extra dollars -- a seafood dinner at Strickland's.

Travel was different back then. We would always leave in the middle of the night. Cars weren't air-conditioned in those days -- not ours, anyway -- and it was cooler. Plus, we would save an entire night's lodging. My sister would stretch out on the back seat and wrap herself up in a blanket and go to sleep. I would lie across the deck behind the back seat and gaze at the stars in the black night sky, dozing off occasionally.

In the front seat my parents would laugh and talk and snuggle and drink moonshine whiskey out of Dixie cups while singing "On the Jericho Road" and "Side by Side" at the tops of their off-pitch voices. This was before the days of interstate highways, of course, and once in a great while Daddy would slam on brakes to avoid hitting a possum in the road. My sister and I would wind up intertwined in the back floorboard with the transmission hump digging into our backs. It was part of the adventure.

There was usually a whole caravan of cars strung out along 441, and we would stop in a roadside park south of Macon and have a big picnic breakfast at about 4 a.m. Nothing tastes better than country ham biscuits, deviled eggs and hot coffee out of a thermos with a full moon keeping vigil overhead.

The trip was prelude to the fun we would have once we actually got to the beach. My family always stayed in a two-story boarding house across the street from the beach called St. John's Apartments. The St. John family lived on the lower level. There were three apartments upstairs that they rented out. There was a screened porch across the front of those units that provided a view of the ocean, across the roof of the low-rise motel across the street.

The Atlantic Ocean, with her rolling surf, was the main attraction of the week, and I would spend all day, every day riding the waves on a patched up tire inner tube, attempting to dig through the sand to China and making giant sand forts that would disappear at high tide.

There was a pier a block or so down the beach and once or twice a day we would walk to the end to see what the fishermen were catching. Once we saw them pull in a 12-foot shark -- at low tide. I spent a lot of time building sand castles the rest of that week.

A half-mile north was the boardwalk, with its giant Ferris wheel and roller coaster -- the Wild Mouse -- and other attractions. I wasn't a thrill seeker at that point on life and the one night a week we went to the boardwalk, I spent most of my time and what little money I had in the penny arcade. To spend four days at Jacksonville Beach with family and friends was as close to heaven as a little lint-head boy could get in 1959.

Now I told you all of that to tell you this. Last week, my lifetime friend, Terri Hubbard Cooper, picked Lisa and me up at our Jacksonville hotel and in between Mayo and the church service, took us out to Jacksonville Beach. She was patient enough to drive slowly up and down the streets and avenues and let me get out and walk around and use my instincts to locate all of the old places I used to haunt. The old pier is long gone, but we found where it had been.

The boardwalk has been gone even longer, but the Red Cross Lifeguard Station is still standing -- and still in use -- and Rob, the guy in charge, gave us a tour of the facility and showed us dozens of pictures of the beach during its heyday. He even let us climb up in the observation tower -- something I always dreamed of doing when I was 7.

And best of all -- yes we did -- we found the building that had once been St. John's apartments. Like me, it is just barely standing, after all these years. It had been remodeled a few times. But it was there.

What a grand and glorious afternoon we spent digging up my past. Precious memories -- how they do linger.

Darrell Huckaby is a local educator and author. Email him at dhuck08@bellsouth.net. For past columns, visit www.rockdalecitizen.com or www.newtoncitizen.com.