I don’t go to the beach anymore.
That beautiful place that was a constant in my life has lost its allure.
I grew up ‘beachside’ – the sand and waves just a block away from my parents’ front door in Ormond Beach – the soothing background music I could hear and smell as I went to sleep on cool evenings with the jalousie windows open.
In my younger years, it became an almost daily escape – with no tolls, signage, or physical barriers – a time when one could drive from Flagler County to Ponce Inlet anytime of the day or night and everyone knew the rules because there were so few of them to remember.
The unique beauty of the barren windswept strand in winter, standing on an approach to marvel in the froth and churn of a wild ‘Nor’easter,’ taking in the silent beauty of an Atlantic sunrise.
Vivid memories etched in my mind’s eye.
Childhood walks with my dad and our dog, surf fishing with friends, dragging a blue canvas raft to the water’s edge, the scream of seagulls and sandpipers scurrying from an incoming tide, the healing qualities of clean saltwater, the satisfying warmth of hot sun on tan shoulders, watching the ‘submarine races’ with negative ions creating an energy at the water’s edge.
The fun, crowds, and music of spring break – the sights, sounds, and mix of aromas on the breeze – salt air mixed with the scent of tanning lotion, taffy, and footlong corndogs at the Boardwalk.
If you know, you know.
Going to ‘The Beach’ was an experience we shared – one that brought millions of visitors to our area when The World’s Most Famous Beach was recognized everywhere in the known universe.
But they went home, back to work and school somewhere “up north,” and we lucky few stayed.
We made our homes, families, and lives here on this salty piece of land – blissfully complacent in the knowledge our beach would always be there for ‘Us.’
Regrettably, I no longer feel welcome there.
No longer at home.
On Sunday, The Daytona Beach News-Journal’s outstanding columnist Mark Lane wrote an informative piece advocating for a recent state legislative push to ban cigarette smoking from Florida beaches – and while my contrarian instinct was to write a barnburner opposing further regulations which limit otherwise lawful activity in an outdoor public space – especially one that smokers and non-smokers alike pay for – I realized, what happens on the beach is no longer a concern of mine.
Screw it. Smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em – or don’t – I just don’t care anymore.
I’m a hardhead – a ‘one and done’ kind of guy. You don’t get two bites at the same apple with me – and I’m perceptive enough to know when and where I am not wanted.
Several years ago, just after I retired, a friend and I took a drive on the beach on a glorious summer day. It was the first time in a long time, but that wonderful smell and the sun shimmering on the waves and ripples like a million mirrors brought so many good memories flooding back.
I purchased an annual resident pass from a toll taker (my first), listened politely to the rules and regulations, rolled the windows down as instructed, turned on my lights, stayed in the traffic lane, no more than 10mph (“strictly enforced”), radio down, didn’t even think about texting, etc., etc.
Safe in the knowledge that after a lifetime of driving the beach I knew what I was doing.
As we cruised north, two beach safety officers were stopped in the traffic lane in front of me – conferring door-to-door just like I have done thousands of times as a law enforcement officer – and rather than leave the marked traffic lane to guide around them, I stopped several car lengths behind and waited patiently.
No big deal. No rush. Just enjoying the day.
When the meeting ended, one of the officers pulled forward, stopping at my open driver’s window.
At first, I thought he may have been someone I knew professionally, maybe worked or trained with in the past, but before I could exchange pleasantries, the uniformed officer angrily asked me what I was doing driving in an area marked for four-wheel-drive vehicles only?
It was the one directive in a forest of ‘do this/don’t do that’ signs, ugly wooden poles, and ubiquitous traffic cones that I missed – and my mistake infuriated this young law enforcement officer – who proceeded to put me on notice that if I became stuck in the soft sand, he “…will not help me.”
Verbatim. “I will not help you.”
I never forgot that. . .
Having recently retired from over three-decades in the police service – I was privately bemused at how something this insignificant could trigger such a furious response – especially from an officer whose very job description includes being a good ambassador for Volusia County beaches.
I remained silent and attentive.
Trust me. I have lost my composure in uniform and acted less than professionally more than once. As a young, inexperienced officer I could be “badge heavy” and cringeworthily officious.
Given my time in service I understand better than most that everyone has the occasional difficult day when emotions are raw.
But this officer seemed intent on punishing me for having violated a rule that, save for a temporary sign on the sand, I didn’t even know existed.
And he succeeded.
Admittedly, I was embarrassed in front of my friend – and my feelings were hurt.
Although he had no way of knowing, in my mind, a former “colleague” had treated me harshly for an infraction that could have been managed with an instructive, “The sand is getting soft ahead. Follow me back the way you came so your vehicle won’t get stuck.”
The ass chewing went on several minutes too long, and it became increasingly uncomfortable as my friend looked at me with a nervous “Is this really happening?” expression.
In my mind, the interaction spoke to a culture within the various divisions charged with managing our beach – and, while I have no evidence of it, for some reason I came to the immediate conclusion that my experience wasn’t unique – an environment marked by harsh enforcement of petty rules that created an unpleasant and uninviting atmosphere.
For me, anyway.
When my tongue-lashing was complete – I responded with a contrite, “Yes, sir,” and apologized to the officer for my transgression – then asked him for the quickest way off the strand.
I have never been back. And I never will.
I don’t belong there anymore.
Sounds strange as I write about it – how something so insignificant could have such a lasting impact.
But it did.
In my mind, the beach I grew up on, that place I longed to get back to whenever I was away, is now the domain of a nameless bearded bully with a badge – and there is nothing the administration of the Volusia County Coastal Division, Beach Safety Department, or my strategically clueless elected representatives can do about it – even if they wanted to.
Look, I know some outstanding current and former law enforcement officers who serve and protect with Volusia County Beach Safety, good cops and true professionals, who make a positive difference in the life of our community everyday – and things may have changed since the impressive Andrew Etheridge assumed command as our new Beach Safety Director – I don’t know.
And I don’t care.
I was reminded of this experience last week as the Volusia County Council smartly voted to grant a ten-year contract to Beach Rentals & Refreshments of Volusia County, a local company who employs some sixty area families providing quality food, refreshments, and amenities to beachgoers from around the world.
During the company’s presentation before the council, I learned that later this year, visitors will have the opportunity to rent cool beach teepees and fire pits, complete with a catered upscale dining experience, electric jetboards, ebikes, golf carts, and shop tony mobile boutiques, while enjoying exciting new food and beverage options without ever leaving their beach chair or pool deck.
Why hadn’t I heard any of this before?
With so many wonderful new amenities and entertainment options coming to Volusia County beaches, many are asking how many more overpriced out-of-town “branding” consultants do we need?
Maybe all the pieces and parts are already in the box if we just look close enough?
In my cynical view, it evokes the old idiom, “Can’t see the forest for the trees.”
Perhaps the Halifax Area Advertising Authority is so preoccupied with those things of singular importance to hoteliers in this multifaceted “hospitality market” that they cannot see the opportunities sprouting up right before their eyes.
My hope is that the HAAA Board of Directors, elected officials, and others in the industry will ensure that, as our beach management gurus negotiate the new contract, they establish a mutually beneficial working relationship with those concessionaires and entrepreneurs who are developing a fun and engaging experience for our diverse draw – vacationers, locals, and day-trippers alike – and work cooperatively to bring new and innovative recreation opportunities to the strand.
My standing second Monday of the month visit to the local public affairs forum GovStuff Live! with Big John – the ‘fastest two-hours in radio’ – has been postponed until Monday, January 24, 2022, due my on-going bout with COVID-19.
I hope you’ll tune-in.
Stay safe out there, y’all!