Those of us who grew up in Pensacola are accustomed to calling it a tourist town. That is, there are things intrinsic to this place that make people want to visit.
The beaches. The Naval Aviation Museum. Blackwater Forest. Deep sea fishing. Rivers and creeks perfect for canoeing. Pensacola Bay for sailing and fishing. The world’s longest fishing pier (or at least, it was). The lighthouse. Gulf Islands National Seashore. Increasingly, downtown Pensacola.
When I lived on Pensacola Beach, I often took some of my vacation at home. I figured that if people were spending big bucks to stay at the beach, I was getting a bargain.
But over time, familiarity can obscure these special things. Sometimes we need a reminder.
On the Tuesday after the rain-shortened Blue Angels beach show, a friend and I headed to Fort Pickens to walk the shore. Tropical Storm Barry had swept past, and I love to see how Santa Rosa Island has changed from an encounter with the tides and surf driven by tropical weather.
We started on the Gulf side, rounded the tip of the island, and on an incoming tide took a long swim in the cool water just inside the mouth. We then resumed our walk to the fishing pier, with the idea of hiking back to our car along the seawall.
It was already beastly hot, and the humidity was high. But I noticed a growing crowd, many of them sitting on chairs along the beach or on the seawall, or standing behind it. There was some breeze, but I thought it curious for even beach-starved tourists to sit on concrete and asphalt as noon approached in the middle of July.
Being keenly observant, I figured that something must be going on.
So I asked a man with a camera and long lens, standing atop the seawall, if all these people were gathering for any particular purpose. Was something going on, I asked?
He looked down at me with what looked like some astonishment, blinked once or twice, and said, in a tone that seemed to hold some admonishment, “The Blue Angels!” and turned back to his camera.
Oh, I said. What time?
He looked back, his face scrunched into an even more disapproving scowl, and spit out, “11:30!”
Ah-hah. Now I got it. In other words, the regular Blue Angels Tuesday practice, the one that announces itself with a roar at my home on the west side of downtown. With a little effort I can see them from my back porch.
I started to one-up the guy by telling him I could watch the Blues from my home, but in all honesty I was feeling somewhat sheepish, the local who just got schooled on his hometown by a tourist.
Anyway, in a few minutes the practice began, and despite having seen it countless times over six decades, we were still drawn to stop and gaze skyward as the Blues cut their aerial patterns low over our heads, their roaring engines washing us in sound.
My friend and I started talking about local knowledge, things we know that tourists didn’t know, and might never know. “Yeah,” he said. “But I guess we haven’t been very local lately.”