A Love Letter to Pensacola, Florida

Ah Pensacola! My hometown. City of my birth. The little community where I was squeezed from my mother’s womb after a nine month gestation period. Is there anything left to say about America’s first non-permanent European settlement that hasn’t already been committed to either thin white sheets of material made from pulped wood or to cyberspace by some poor loser overpaying America Online for access to free web space that averages four hits every year?

Well, yeah, I think there might be.

Arguably, Pensacola’s greatest claim to fame is its sugary white beaches. Millions, if not thousands, of residents and tourists eagerly flock to our beaches every year in a completely altruistic attempt to provide tuition money to the children of the region’s many dermatologists and skin care professionals. It is a testament to the Pensacola political establishment’s recognition of the drawing power of our pristine white-sand beaches that they have provided license for so much of that sand to be dug up and presumably put on display in museums throughout the world. While some short-sighted residents feel the sand could be better used here, next to the water, thankfully the prevailing wisdom has dominated and so we instead have huge steel structures in place of the formerly gently sloping dunes, allowing ever more people to enjoy that sand which has been left untouched by bulldozers.

Now a few silly people still complain that they can’t actually see the beaches from the road traveling along the gulf coast, but I say if they really want to see the beach that badly, then contribute to the economy and pay for the motel or condo room. I mean it’s not like access to the beach is a Jeffersonian inalienable right. Doctors and lawyers and the other professionals who make huge contributions to the local political leaders who created zoning laws work hard for their money. Shouldn’t they have the right to build large, expensive homes on the beach even if they do block the view from tourists and residents who, after all, made a conscious decision at some point in their lives not to pursue a career allowing them enough income to buy a house which blocks the view of the beach from other people who don’t have the income to buy an equally large house?

“I am an antichrist,” sang Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols in their song “Anarchy in the UK” during the hot, sultry summer that was London in 1976. I learned of Rotten’s identifying himself with the antichrist some years later having never, thankfully, actually heard the song on Pensacola radio even once in the intervening 26 years. In 1976 Pensacola radio was in just exactly the same state as it is now. It is my opinion-quite clearly shared by the majority of my fellow Pensacolians who on two different occasions rejected radio stations that had the poor judgment to play songs which never made it on Casey Kasem’s top forty countdown list-that radio should only play that music which is enjoyed by the majority of listeners. Popularity is, after all, the unparalleled determiner of critical worth. (This can be proven beyond the shadow of a doubt by the fact that the movie most honored by the Academy Awards-the unquestioned arbiter of a film’s merit-is also the most commercially popular film of all time: Titanic, or 2200 Stories on Board That Ship and the Best I Can Come Up With Is One About a Poor but Honest Boy Falling In Love with a Rich But Insipid Girl Whose Fiancé is Apparently The Devil).

I have a friend who complains that Pensacola hasn’t been exposed to some of the best music of the past 25-plus years simply because this music hasn’t been embraced by the larger portion of the population. Of course, this friend also still wears ties thinner than Michael Jackson’s nose and labors under the impression that MTV still plays music videos because he hasn’t watched it since “Safety Dance” fell out of heavy rotation. I personally rejoice in the fact that my hometown has exactly 16 FM radio stations which at any given point of the day may possibly be playing the latest appeal to liberal, open-minded inclusivity by Eminem or Faith Hill’s latest ode to involuntary bodily functions. (After back to back songs about breathing and crying, I can’t wait for her next single, entitled simply and elegantly, “Burp”).

I personally thank God that on Pensacola radio the seventy-five year old Led Zeppelin song “Stairway to Heaven” is going to be heard roughly fifty-seven times every single day, 365 days a year. My whiny friend with the skinny ties complains that this 36 minute long opus–and doesn’t it seem like it zooms by in a mere 11 minutes?–has been taking up air time for decades that could have been used to expose listeners to the music of such artists as Joy Division, Gang of Four, The Specials, New Order, Rank and File, the Pogues, Belly, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Fountains of Wayne, Letters to Cleo and The Rentals, but I say you can never be exposed to that ditty about the woman who claims that all that glitters is gold too often. And do you honestly believe that a group that actually named itself Fountains of Wayne is going to produce a song with the lyrical complexities of such other Pensacola radio mainstays as Styx, Journey or Britney Spears? No, Pensacola radio is in fine shape, thank you very much.

One of my favorite things about living in Pensacola is my hometown’s unquestioned dedication to Judeo-Christian values and faith. Little known fact: in 1924, a law was passed mandating that at every intersection in town there had to be a church on at least two corners. Pensacola is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the most churches per capita in the US. In fact, there are a staggering 14 churches for every single resident in the city, leaving one to wonder just why it is that 66.6% of our population attends Olive Baptist Church.

But by no means think that our residents are those type of people who spend an hour or six a week inside the structure numbly going through the rituals of faith without practicing what they preach. Pensacola is a very, very pious town, believe me. There has been some criticism in the past that Pensacola’s religious community is so backwardly conservative and fundamentalist that the entire town must face some complicity in creating an environment which could only inevitably lead to the creation of four teenagers who would express their belief in the concept of love thy neighbor by choosing Jesus’s birthday as the one perfect day of the year on which to blow up an abortion clinic. Or else they point to the fact that only in Pensacola have there been two separate occasions when avowedly Christian men killed two doctors who were performing abortions. I think it was Keanu Reeves in Speed who said, “Dude, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” I mean, after all, sometimes things come up and you miss a church service now and then. Let’s not blame the whole town because these two men apparently skipped that sermon about the Sixth Commandment.

That all-consuming commitment to Biblical faith is reflected in Pensacola’s appointed guardians, who take their roles as moral guides very seriously. Far from being embarrassed, I’m proud of the fact that my City Council did everything in their power to ban the movie The Last Temptation of Christ from local theaters in 1988. If only the City Council had been successful in its attempt to determine what constituted the proper moral content of the entertainment choices made to its residents, I wouldn’t have been forced to make that decision myself. Life is so much easier when those who know better are able to decide for you. Now, I know some crybabies tried to make a big deal out of the fact that the City Council voted to ban a movie none of them had actually seen, but my answer to that is I don’t need to eat sushi to know that it’s raw fish.

I’m often asked what’s the one element of Pensacola that means the most to me. “Jim,” I’m asked, “what is the one thing about Pensacola that keeps you living here when as a nearly-free American you could choose to live in New York, or Chicago, or Waterbury, Connecticut?” After first patiently explaining that my name is Tim, not Jim, I go on to say that the greatest thing about Pensacola has to be the weather. Some of my northern friends like to brag about how where they live the seasons change and the leaves turn all beautiful shades of color and they get to enjoy snow-related sports. But I say who needs four seasons when one will do? What could be better than wearing T-shirts and shorts on Christmas Day when opening up the present of a nice, expensive leather jacket that your Aunt June from Baltimore sent you? And who among us hasn’t experienced the thrill of coming inside on a nice July day with your shirt becoming a part of your body through osmosis, your hair matted about your face, and the virtual inability to breathe because the temperature is 95 degrees and the humidity reached actual infinity.

Pensacola. Home to the hemorrhage-producing screech of the Blue Angels waking you up at 6:30 in the morning, the eternally unselfish politician WD Childers, and the abolishment of the turn signal law. Why would anyone choose to live anywhere but here?