I wish I’d bought souvenirs along the way. Of course, I have photos, but I traveled back and forth from Apalachicola to Bay St. Louis for two years, and all I have to show are pictures, business cards, maps, tourist brochures, and scribbled notes on shorthand pads. And, hooray, my book!
“No souvenirs” didn’t dawn on me until I went thrift shopping last week with my teen-age grandson. Rummaging (I love that word) through the t-shirts crammed along the rack (arranged by color) I saw this purple one. St. George’s Island was the last stop on my literary map from Bay. St. Louis to Apalachicola. I bought the secondhand purple t-shirt.
At the next thrift shop I saw this one from Panama City, another reminder I didn’t buy a souvenir. I passed on this shirt. I ate too much good food for two years exploring these places — medium t-shirts don’t fit anymore.
After the thrift shops, my grandson and I stopped at the Four Winds International Deli in Pensacola and I discovered even more tangible reminders of my adventures over the last two years. Those people sure can market Scenic 30A!
My book is my souvenir. Here’s hoping the descriptions and details in A Literary Traveler’s Guide to the Gulf South are good enough to last a lifetime. Happy travels, happy reading. My book is available on Amazon.
They called themselves “military brats.” New kids in my hometown were usually children of Navy officers working on defense contracts with Ingalls Shipbuilding. When they arrived at Pascagoula High School, they were bright, worldly, and a threat to my grade point average. They were more than smart –they were intelligent, academically driven, leaders, and definitely not brats.
As far as I know, none of these classmates became writers. If they did, they’re probably writing manuals for NASA. But some other self-proclaimed “military brats” are included in my book, A Literary Traveler’s Guide to the Gulf South: Bay St. Louis to Apalachicola. Thanks to the Army, Air Force and Navy for stationing their finest (along with their offspring and spouses) in the Gulf South, pens in hand, ready to spin great tales.
The 335-mile stretch from Bay St. Louis to Apalachicola hosts five major military bases. These installations bring an influx of tens of thousands of residents to the area. The largest military presence in the state of Florida is in the Panhandle. Eglin Air Force Base, Hurlburt Field, Tyndall Air Force Base, and Naval Air Station Pensacola add more than 35,000 military personnel to the Panhandle at any given time. NAS Pensacola alone employs more than 16,000 military and 7,400 civilian personnel. Though Alabama has a minor coastal military presence, next door in Mississippi, Keesler Air Force Base is home to 4,008 active-duty military, 1,546 civil service employees, and 1,700 contractors.
Here’s the military roll call of contemporary authors included in my book. They offer readers a wide variety of books ranging from military fiction, military romance, cozy mysteries, memoirs, and Broadway.
Air Force:Good Morning America host and author Robin Roberts, the daughter of a Tuskegee Airman, calls herself a military brat. Her father, a full-bird Colonel, retired from the Air Force after being stationed at Keesler Airfield in Gulfport. From age nine, Robin’s home was Pass Christian. She loves “the Pass” and the Pass loves her back. Her memoir, Everybody’s Got Something, which tells the story of her battle with Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS), includes a salute to her father and his military service. As a host for ABC’s Good Morning America she once did a segment where she lived out a fantasy for the program as she learned to fly. She learned on the same type plane her father had flown in the 1940s. She later flew a P-51 Mustang, a genuine Tuskegee Airmen plane, owned by Tom Cruise. Along with many accolades for journalism and the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, she’s written three books and co-authored one with her mother. She launched her latest book, Brighter By the Day: Waking Up to New Hopes and Dreams at her hometown with the first stop on her book tour at Pass Christian Books. She may call herself a brat, but to me, she’s a real trooper.
Army: Best-selling author Joshilyn Jackson lived in seven states before she was nine. Her father Bob, according to his obituary, “was a decorated Army officer, an Airborne Ranger who earned a Silver Star, six Bronze Stars (two for valor), a Purple Heart, and many other military awards. Bob served three combat tours, first in the Dominican Republic, where he helped start a church that exists to this day, and then twice in Vietnam . . . after retiring from the Army, he began a second career in Pensacola.” Joshilyn was born in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, and the family lived on military bases where she recalls hearing the cadence. Her father retired from the military when she was about nine and they settled in Pensacola, where she lived until she headed off to college.
Photo credit: sherryharrisauthor.com
Air Force: Sherry Harris – Cozy mystery writer Sherry Harris has written more than a dozen books in two series. Her Chloe Jackson Sea Glass Saloon Mystery series is set in the Florida Panhandle. Her husband, an Air Force officer, was stationed at Hurlburt Field and they lived in Shalimar from 2000 to 2003. One delightful series centers around garage sale finds. She once told an interviewer that as a military spouse, she honed her fine garage sale skills as they moved around the country with the Air Force. Some of the clever titles include Tagged for Death, I Know What You Bid Last Summer, Let’s Fake A Deal, and All Murders Final.
Air Force: Vicki Hinze – USA Today bestselling author of more than 35 books, was raised in New
Orleans. Hinze married a career Hurricane Hunter/Special Ops officer. They and their children moved every few years. Mississippi, California, Illinois, Florida, and Texas.” Vicki lives in Florida with her artist husband, a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel.
Navy: Wallis Warfield Simpson, who eventually married the King of England, moved to Pensacola in 1916 to live with her cousin, who was married to a U.S. Navy captain and new head of the Pensacola Air Base. Wallis met her first husband Win Spencer, a U.S. Navy aviator stationed in Pensacola. She writes of life in the Pensacola Navy Yard and as the wife of a pilot in her memoir The Heart Has Its Reasons: The Memoirs of the Duchess of Windsor (1956).
And the Military Personnel
Army Air Corps: Neil Simon, Broadway playwright and author of Biloxi Blues, was stationed at Keesler when it was Keesler Army Base. He joined the Army Air Force Reserve just before the end of World War II, and his first assignment was at Keesler. It was also his inspiration for his popular Broadway play (and film by the same name) Biloxi Blues.
Air Force: Hunter S. Thompson, founder of gonzo journalism, was stationed at Eglin Air Force Base where he got his first newspaper gig for the base newspaper. After covering sports for the Air Force, he went on to more exciting adventures, like riding for a year with the notorious motorcycle gang Hell’s Angels gathering material for his book Hell’s Angels.
Army: W.E.B. Griffin (William Edmund Butterworth) the author of some of the most successful military series ever written, Brotherhood of War and The Corps, was stationed at Fort Rucker in southeast Alabama, before he moved to Fairhope to write fulltime. More than fifty million copies of his books are in print in more than ten different languages. He wrote or co-authored more than 250 books under several pseudonyms, W.E.B. Griffin, his most famous pen name.
When I see this list of authors, I wonder which man or woman stationed at Eglin, Keesler, Tyndall or Hurlburt is destined to be a famous author. Which kids attending the local high schools will be the next best-selling authors? Research assures me the answers are only a generation away. According to a 2020 article in Forbes Magazine titled The States That Defend Us—Where Do Our Military Volunteers Call Home? (forbes.com) military service is becoming rarer. But, those who join come from families, culture and locations that value military service. That’s true of the towns from Bay St. Louis to Apalachicola. Chances are we’ll be seeing more famous writers from around here soon. I hope all those military-friendly colleges along the Coast expand their creative writing programs – they’ve got some great prospects heading their way.
Three of the federal government’s best kept secrets are within driving distance from my house. I found all three of these hideaways because of a single book – Mark Childress’ V for Victor. I wanted to know more about Weeks Bay, a primary setting in this World War II novel, so I headed for Alabama. That’s where I discovered NERR – National Estuary Research Reserves, portions of our country set aside for protection (reserves) and research. My visit to Weeks Bay Estuarine Research Reserve sent me on a grand adventure for my guidebook – locating other estuary reserves, places where rivers converge, pouring fresh water into larger bodies of saltwater.
Only 30 National Estuarine Research Reserves exist in the U.S. The most recent reserve in the program, which began in the 1970s, just opened in January. In the parameters of my Literary Traveler’s Guide to the Gulf South: Bay St. Louis to Apalachicola, each of the three states hosts an estuary reserve. Mississippi, Alabama and Florida have each partnered with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and NOS (National Ocean Service) to preserve and protect the wild places where the rivers meet the sea – estuaries, marshes, swamps, bayous, bays, bogs and all other types of wetlands. Along with interpretative centers, displays, boardwalks and trails, each has plenty to offer the traveler. And scientific research is conducted continuously at the reserves.
Each of the three NERRs I’ve visited–Apalachicola, Weeks Bay and Grand Bay–is different. Each researches and monitors the estuary system, but offers different exhibits and activities for the visitors. They are open to the public, but you really have to be looking to find these secret treasures. They’re not on tourism guides. And, the areas are so vast – 234,000 acres (much of it water) in Apalachicola–you sometimes need GPS coordinates to find the entrance ways.
Boardwalk sign: the headwaters of the Chattahoochee are 434 miles from the Apalachicola Bay.
Apalachicola has wonderful boardwalks leading all the way to Apalachicola Bay with marvelous vistas. Along the way, signs indicate which rivers flow into the bay and their distance. Among the great exhibits inside, there’s a cool gift shop. You might also catch a glimpse of an American alligator, Florida manatee, bald eagle, and loggerhead sea turtle. Inside the 5,400-square-foot nature center are three 1,000-gallon tanks, with fish of the region swimming around.
Grand Bay’s boardwalk leads to Hawks Marsh, a small bayou with grasses and dozens of plant species to identify. Nearby, ospreys nest in towering power lines. The staff keeps a running whiteboard tally of sightings We also saw bluebirds and added several sightings on my iNaturalist phone app. Inside the interpretative center, Tobi, a fascinating diamondback tortoise, swims solo in a large aquarium. I think he likes to swim over and say hello to visitors. At least he did to me.
As if nature isn’t enough, Grand Bay features an Art in the Open sculpture with one of Walter Anderson’s designs.
At Weeks Bay you can walk several boardwalks to see saltwater marshes and bottomlands, and the bay. Interpretative signs lead the way. There’s a two-story observation deck at the bay. An interesting section of Weeks Bay NERR is the pitcher plant bog with a boardwalk ending at the Fish River. The NERR facility took a beating in Hurricane Sally, but they are repairing the boardwalks. Inside are excellent displays. Be sure to pull out the drawers in the education classroom to study the skeletons.
Thanks to one book, V for Victor, I am a proud advocate for NERRS. I even tried to make a donation – but they can’t accept money since they’re a government agency. So, I’m encouraging all my readers to visit a NERR near you! If you’re too far inland, enjoy these books by regional authors which feature estuaries.
Several species of carnivorous pitcher plants thrive in the bog at Weeks Bay.
Two teenage girls disappear on a sandbar in the Pascagoula River
Carolyn Haines’ Judas Burning is a perfect novel to link with the Grand Bay National Estuary Research Reserve. Haines, who is from southeast Mississippi, set this novel on the Pascagoula River, northwest of Lucedale where the Chickasawhay and Leaf Rivers converge with the Pascagoula. The mystery features my favorite type of character, a small-town newspaper editor crusading for justice. Most of Haines’ best-selling novels are her cozy mysteries, but this novel takes a serious turn. Protagonist Dixon Sinclair has bought the local newspaper in her small Mississippi hometown and returns from the big city to publish the paper, deal with her alcoholism, and seek justice for her father’s murder. The novel is rich in setting and filled with local color: Pascagoula River Bridge, Gautier, highways 57 and 98, the Legend of the Singing River. The river itself is just as important a character as those who live along its banks. It provides adventure, refuge, sanctuary, recreation, food, and, of course, danger for two teenage girls. One of the fascinating exhibits at the Grand Bay National Research Reserve is a series of audio interviews with photographs of people who grew up in the region. Listening to their stories shows the importance of the river in their lives.
Two teenage girls disappear crossing the old train trestle across the Apalachicola River
Almost all of Michael Lister’s mysteries mention the Apalachicola River, the Dead Lakes, and the Chipola River in Florida, perhaps because Lister lives and writes in nearby Wewahitchka. He grew up along the Apalachicola River. His bestsellers, thirty-something of them, all with the word “blood” in the title, usually feature prison-chaplain-turned-investigator John Jordan. In Out for Blood, John Jordan takes the role of sidekick, helping female sheriff Reggie Summers solve the crime. Lister uses authentic locations along the Apalachicola like Carver Landing and acknowledges the diverse and ecological importance of the river as he writes about search and rescue boats, divers and volunteers with scent dogs scouting the banks, swamps, and tributaries for the missing girls. In this novel, too, the river provides nourishment, entertainment, escape and adventure. Walking down the boardwalk to the bay at Apalachicola National Estuary Research Reserve you can feel the rushing rivers, pouring into the Apalachicola, a powerful force converging and emptying into a Apalachicola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
Nazi submarine slips into Mobile Bay in WW II
The Fish and Magnolia Rivers converge into Weeks Bay which then pours out into Mobile Bay. Author Mark Childress knows this area well as he moved to Magnolia Springs and lived in the cabin mentioned in the book. He motored his boat up and down the Magnolia River and into Mobile Bay. The protagonist in the novel, a young boy, discovers the presence of a Nazi submarine in Mobile Bay and tries repeatedly to let authorities know.
When I read this following section, I knew I had to find Weeks Bay – “The Magnolia River meanders for five miles from its spring, widening, opening and mixing with the salty tide as it approaches Weeks Bay. This wide, shallow lake narrows down to a mouth. The lower jaw of this mouth was Willie’s Island – a half-mile of marsh grass, a long stretch of thicket woods, a high place of two or three acres well-shaded by live oaks, with Weeks Bay on one side and the big bay, Mobile, on the other.” I really wanted to see this place, much of it authentic, a tiny bit imagined. When I stood on the boardwalk at Weeks Bay NERR and looked across the bay, I knew two things: the setting is gorgeous, and the author captured it perfectly. Childress spins a tale both rich in history and setting.
When you head out for summer vacation, I encourage you to find a National Estuarine Research Reserve and visit. Load the iNaturalist app on your phone and begin a grand adventure of your own. And, if it rains, pick up one of these three books and immerse yourself in a good mystery set where land meets saltwater.
I recently discovered two cozy mystery series set along the Emerald Coast, near where I live in Northwest Florida. The Florida Panhandle is 680 miles from Miami yet only a stone’s throw from Alabama. Sometimes folks call it “LA” (for Lower Alabama) because it’s politically and culturally different from the rest of Florida. That makes it a great place to set a mystery. Both writers of these series have personal connections with the area. One once lived here and her parents still do; the other finally moved here after being a visitor for years. Both have superbly recreated the towns and beaches along Scenic Highway 30A, so if you can’t make it down to the Emerald Coast for spring break, pick up one of these cozy mysteries and enjoy the scenery and the sleuthing.
I learned about Sherry Harris’ books listening to the Welcome to Florida podcast Episode 89: Cozy Florida Mysteries and promptly downloaded From Beer to Eternity: A Chloe Jackson Sea Glass Saloon Mystery on my Kindle. Within seconds I was reading about Chloe, a children’s librarian from Chicago, who comes to the Emerald Coast for the funeral of her friend Boone. She stays in Emerald Cove (the fictional town where we all want to live when the murderer leaves) to honor a promise. She had promised Boone to watch out for his grandmother if anything happened to him in Afghanistan. So, 28-year-old Chloe goes to work at Grandmother Vivi’s bar, The Sea Glass, in Emerald Cove. If only we Panhandle residents could find this charming beach town with Old Florida houses and beach cottages, where high rises and chain-stores haven’t invaded. We readers believe in Emerald Cove, we long for it. Harris pinpoints its geography–50 miles west of Panama City and 50 miles east of Pensacola. It’s a next-door neighbor to Destin, just close enough to see the Destin harbor lights at night! It’s west of Grayton Beach in Walton County. So, I’m sticking my push pin in a map of Scenic Highway 30A because Emerald Cove has a beach and Chloe has to drive to reach Highway 98. (That’s pretty good sleuthing on my part.)
In the plot, librarian-turned server Chloe sets out to solve a murder in which Grandmother Vivi is the prime suspect. In doing so, Chloe mentions plenty of real Destin locations: McGuire’s Irish Pub, Emerald Grande Resort Hotel, Crab Trap Restaurant and James Lee Park, plus Okaloosa Island Bridge, the Gulfarium and the East Pass Bridge (where a truck tries to end her sleuthing-ways by almost ramming her into the bridge’s guardrail). As her investigation continues, Chloe visits tourist sites, takes tours and rents a jet ski. The fictional Redneck Rollercoaster trolley and midnight glass-bottom boat trip show the quirkiness of Panhandle characters. Chloe also makes some side trips to Fort Walton and mentions Eglin Air Force Base. To solve the crime and save her own skin, Chloe uses her big-city ways (traffic maneuvers) and librarian skills (wicked looks that silence school children). Sherry Harris has done an excellent job of capturing the lifestyle of locals who work in beach towns. From the descriptions in this book, there’s no doubt Sherry Harris once lived on the Emerald Coast because she knows her setting perfectly.
I learned of independent author Deborah Rine’s 30A mystery series from a tourist magazine about Scenic 30A, the old state highway that bypasses U.S. Highway 98 and hugs the coastline. Scenic 30A is dotted with posh and polished beach towns including the famed Seaside from the movie The Truman Show. When I stopped at Sun Dog Books in Seaside to ask about local authors and books about the area, the bookseller immediately recommended Rine’s books and pointed to a pile of copies stacked on the particle board floor by my left foot! I promptly bought an autographed copy of the newly released Missing on 30A. The plot is almost “ripped from the headlines” with politicians in fancy beach houses entertaining underage women and hints of sex trafficking. The protagonist Claire, trying to solve the murder of her Chief of Police husband, unravels the clues as she takes on a new profession – real estate sales. The author is very specific in the setting of her Emerald Coast mystery series. All three books include scenic highway 30A in the title, starting with The Girl on 30A and Envy on 30A, both published in 2018,and continuing with Missing on 30A in 2020.
Rine, who grew up in Illinois and has lived in Sweden, Belgium, France and Italy, retired in Freeport in Walton County after vacationing for years on the Emerald Coast. She now lives just miles from where her books are set. The series includes mention of almost all the beaches and towns. In Missing on 30A, the protagonist, a runner, brings the reader along on her beach runs beginning at Grayton Beach, where her home is located in Lemon Cove. When not exercising, Claire visits spas, yoga studios, coffeehouses, ice cream stands, restaurants, multi-million-dollar houses and gated subdivisions. Most of the restaurants and shops in the book exist, while some like Magnolia Spa & Resort, Beach Mania and the Lemon Cove neighborhood are fictional. Claire’s clue-chasing also takes the reader to Panama City and St. Andrew’s Marina and DeFuniak Springs. Real life locales on 30A include Heavenly Shortcakes and Ice Cream (Santa Rosa Beach); Amivada Coffee (Seaside, Santa Rosa, Miramar Beach, Panama City Beach, Rosemary Beach); Amici’s Italian Kitchen (Inlet Beach); LaCrema restaurant (Rosemary Beach); Restaurant Paradis (Rosemary Beach) Old Florida Fish House (Seagrove Beach); Grayton Seafood Company (Santa Rosa Beach); Fish Out of Water restaurant (WaterColor); and Wild Olives Wine Bar (Rosemary Beach) to name a few.
Missing on 30A was a little more than a “cozy” with murders, robberies, kidnapping and sex trafficking, but it’s a good read, especially if you’re vacationing or live on Scenic Highway 30A.
Both are good reads, but I highly recommend the paperback version at the beach. It’s too hard to read a Kindle in the blazing sunlight reflected off the emerald waters and sugar sands along the Florida’s Emerald Coast.
With just a few fact-checks left before publishing my book, I headed to Point Clear, Alabama, with my friend from Texas. It would be a short daytrip – visit the Grand Hotel and zip back home. I had already researched two writers who’d written about Point Clear and its famous hotel, The Grand, but I needed to see this historic place for myself.
Point Clear rests on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay and dates back to the early 1800s when wealthy families settled there to escape yellow fever. It has its quirks. In Point Clear, front yards face Mobile Bay and backyards face the highway. To have a Point Clear address (at your backyard entrance), you must also have a post office box, otherwise, even if you are one of the 2000 folks who actually live in Point Clear, your address will read Fairhope — a more populated town three miles away.
The Grand Hotel has the best address: One Grand Avenue, Point Clear, Alabama (of course there’s also their P.O. Box 639). The hotel is famous among golfers and travelers, but it’s the only hotel I’ve ever heard of with its own historian. Fortunately, Susan Stein was working the Tuesday morning we visited. She’s a fountain of information about the area and knows her literature and writers – especially when it comes to the Grand Hotel. Susan provided names of four writers I hadn’t encountered in my research. I had already discovered connections with William March, Fannie Flagg, W.E.B. Griffin, Mark Childress and Winston Groom.
When my friend mentioned her husband went to high school in Marshall, Texas, with a current resident of Point Clear, Susan brought the writing story full circle. That current resident, Albert Key, rescued the World’s Smallest Library and placed it in his backyard. He is also the father of well-known author, Watt Key. Thanks to my Texas friends and Susan, I’ve added a fascinating Point Clear site and an author with a personal connection to my book.
Along with information about Watt Key and his young adult novels about the “Bay Boys,” I also learned that Anne George, former Alabama Poet Laureate and author of the Southern Sisters Mystery series, set one novel, This One and Magic Life, in Point Clear at the Grand Hotel. Jennifer Paddock’s novel Point Clear is also set at the Grand Hotel. Paddock, along with writing several novels, was a tennis instructor for years at The Grand. New York Times bestselling author and inspirational speaker Andy Andrews, who lives in Orange Beach, set his latest book The Noticer Returns at the Grand Hotel.
I learned the late W.E.B, Griffin, author of more than 70 military fiction and detective novels under several pseudonyms, had lived about four houses up from The Grand at 17697 Scenic Highway 98. He played golf at the Grand’s Lakewood Golf Course. And I also learned that locals pronounce the penname as the word “Web” rather than saying each initial individually.
Susan Stein has a lobby office filled with flyers and notebooks and fascinating articles about The Grand and its history. For me, her nicest treasure is a glass front antique case displaying the novels that include The Grand and Point Clear. And Susan is indeed a treasure for the Marriott International’s Autograph Collection of Hotels and their Grand Hotel Golf Resort & Spa.
Watching Michael W. Twitty’s Master Class opened my culinary eyes. I’m teaching a “Memories to Memoir” class at the senior center and continually look for inspiring, unique writing prompts to spark memories. In the class, culinary historian Twitty, author of The Cooking Gene, encourages people, especially African Americans, to trace their roots through “foodsteps” rather than footsteps and to acknowledge their ancestors’ contribution to the culinary scene.
For one assignment, I drafted a list of dishes that tell my life story. Of course, my current adult culinary story is a mixture of cultures. My recipe box demonstrates it– Jewish chicken salad and stromboli from neighbors, green chili, adobo and tortilla soup from friends, muffuletta salad, Chinese pepper steak and Thai vegetables from co-workers, stuffed cabbage and spaghetti sauce from my husband’s family. From traveling, I added recipes for goat cheese salad, Welsh rarebit, and peanut soup.
My roots and what I grew up eating are a far cry from the 25 dishes I listed to tell my life story. My ancestors ate differently than I do today. By the age of 20, with the exception of boxed pizza, the most exotic food I had ever tasted was from the University of Southern Mississippi’s cafeteria line when they served fried plantains topped with blackberry sauce.
The hand drawn cover for my book of family recipes – before my first computer and clip art.
When I study the food of my ancestors I see survival by living off the land — a garden, a chicken yard, a cow, a mullet net, a shotgun. Rather than finding ten dishes to represent my entire life like he suggests, I’m stepping back in time to what I ate before heading off to college. That’s how I’ll channel my culinary roots. I can’t limit the list to ten meals, but I can group my family’s dishes into categories – or better yet, food branches of my culinary family tree. I’m ahead of the game here. I once created a family recipe cookbook for a church auction. It sold for $25 to a woman who didn’t cook (RIP, Liz Maddox). I kept a copy for myself. The old typewritten cookbook sparked culinary memories.
My Ancestry Culinary Categories
Vegetables: crowder peas, speckled butter beans, turnip greens, fresh tomatoes, eggplant with corn and tomatoes, corn casserole
One Pot Meals: chicken and dumplings, ham pot pie
Entrees: boiled shrimp, fried fish, red beans and rice, chili
Sandwiches: tomato sandwiches, pork ‘n bean sandwiches, and peanut butter mixed jelly (yes we mixed the two before applying to bread)
Soups: okra soup, turtle egg soup, oyster stew, and all kinds of gumbo
Salads: deviled eggs, slic ed tomatoes, potato salad
Flavorings: file, cinnamon, onions, garlic
Bread: cornbread, dumplings, biscuits
Desserts: pecan pie, jelly cake, sweet potato pie, buttermilk pie, one cup cobbler
Specials: fig preserves and scuppernong jelly, cinnamon toast, toast-stuffed-down (buttered toast topped with sugar and cold milk); a turkey egg for the golden egg at Easter and chicken eggs boiled and dyed to hide; pecan lady fingers and peanut butter candy
Much of what my ancestors ate originates from Mexico and South America – corn, peanuts, tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes. Fortunately our similar Southern climate allowed the crops to grow here. The pecan and scuppernong are native to the Southern United States, but our beloved figs originated in Asia.
Some of the best family recipes originate from the humblest of staples. Note the potatoes should be boiled or baked before mashing. I never could spell cinnamon correctly!
Twitty talks much of the Transatlantic trade routes and the manpower of enslaved people to get food and recipes, to our table. Since I grew up in the Deep South where people were enslaved, I acknowledge their contributions to our Southern culture when it comes to flavors. And I acknowledge my ancestors for having the courage to survive on their own – without slaves or money, just tending the good earth.
I hope my senior citizen students like the assignment. Maybe they’ll even bring some food samples to class. We’ve already discovered that homemade Valentine cookies and Girl Scout cookies can stir up a large batch of memories.
Whimsical, beautiful, inspirational, meditative, serene–a secret garden off bustling Government Street in Mobile–just 80 feet of frontage, but enough to sneak your car into the quiet parking lot by the two-story brick house and enter the gates to Cornerstone Garden. I went with family members and each of us discovered, along with all the beauty, something surprising – a sycamore tree, a chip and chirp teapot tree, a badminton net, a koi pond, and the opportunity to talk to the owner Vaughan Drinkard.
We had enjoyed a morning at the History Museum of Mobile and Fort Conde and were waiting for my favorite Irish pub, Callaghan’s in the Oakleigh Garden Historic District, to open. Always a family looking for a destination with time to spare, my son discovered Cornerstone Garden and within minutes we were transported into a wondrous free botanical garden, also in the Oakleigh Historic Garden District. For me, late December was the perfect time to visit because I love camellias. More than 150 varieties were bursting with color, most almost ready to pop open. A sign by the front gate designates Cornerstone Garden as part of the American Camellia Trail.
The long narrow garden opens into an Informal English Garden where everything blooms white. The soft palette is accented by the rich green of boxwood hedges and a surprising touch of pastel yellow of flax lillies – just enough color to turn formal into informal.
Passing through the English Garden and by a water feature, I discovered the main reason I’ll return. The camellias were just opening, but even a fallen blossom, like the one in the photo at the top, is majestic. Others like the miniature camellia, with blooms as tiny as quarters, exhibit a fascinating structure – stark yellow bristly center against pink or white or red petals upheld by waxy green leaves. At Cornerstone, even the traditional sasanqua, the camellia most landscapers plop into a front yard, is elevated in glory.
The chip and chirp tree, blooming with teapots, caught my fancy. I snapped photos, over and over, fascinated with the concept of teapots suspended from a tree. This time of year and the lack of foliage allowed me to study the dangling ceramic beauties. Mr. Drinkard told me the tree was his wife’s idea, and typically, the teapots are antiques, those theirs aren’t. It reminds me of a favorite quote, “Age is a matter of mind. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” I don’t mind new teapots hanging from trees.
Winding through the middle garden, I reached the koi pond and sat on a secluded bench to enjoy the serenity and study my surroundings. All the plants are labeled with botanical names, but keeping in the spirit of the garden, signs with scriptures and quotes add interesting information and opportunity for reflection. My sons were delighted to see a placard with the story of Zacchaeus under the Sycamore tree. They’d learned a song with the line “Zacchaeus, come down out of that tree!” in Vacation Bible School years ago.
In the Japanese garden the sound of trickling water from the koi pond and the red leaves of a Japanese maple set the scene. In contrast, the tropical plants in this back section–including plumeria from Hawaii – remind me we’re in the deep south, almost the tropics, though it’s easy to imagine being in Japan. I’d like to come back in the spring when the dogwood blooms but even now, in this brisk weather, there’s plenty blooming–pansies, some azaleas, grasses and herbs. And camellias.
My teenage grandchildren discovered a badminton set and, as if we were at a country estate in England, lobbed a few birdies on the lawn. And then my granddaughter took over my camera and snapped better photos than I took (see the white camellia above).
I’m glad my son discovered this not-really-secret garden because it’s open to the public. It’s free and open on weekends. The address is 1006 Government Street. Listen for the quiet spot and look for the small sign. It’s not hard to find.
Each Christmas season someone decorates a pine sapling as a Christmas tree along a stretch of Highway 98 in the Naval Live Oaks, a federally protected forest near my home. I’ve watched the sapling double in size the last few years, supporting heavier ornaments each year. And every year I wonder why someone decorates that particular tree in that particular spot. Did someone die there? Is it a shrine like the white crosses along so many highways?
Each year someone decorates this pine sapling along Highway 98 in the Naval Live Oaks, Gulf Breeze, Florida.
I’m fascinated with holy wells, retablos, grottoes and roadside shrines. It’s a morbid interest, I know. But viewing symbolic objects on display in a special place entrances me. My curiosity has led me to research state laws and white cross guidelines for memorializing highway deaths. I keep an eye out for roadside shrines and on a recent trip to verify a historical marker for my book, I found a fascinating one.
The historical marker I was searching for is the third in the Pensacola area honoring Colonial-era botanist William Bartram. This one is located on the same Highway 98, about 25 miles northwest of the Christmas tree. It’s at the Florida entrance to the Lillian Bridge which crosses Perdido Bay at the state line. On my roadtrip to find the marker, I missed it on my initial approach and was forced to make a u-turn in Alabama. I crossed back into Florida, quickly veered off the road to park and barely avoided a construction ditch. Traffic flew by.
I inched out of my car, camera in hand, watching for oncoming vehicles zooming off the bridge like downhill racers. The historical marker by the bridge’s guard rail is on tricky terrain — a steep drop off.
To my surprise, the beautiful gold-embossed William Bartram Trail marker established by the National Council of Garden Clubs had been vandalized with spray paint. Of the many markers I have verified for my book, this is the first to be defaced. Only after I discovered the roadside shrine did I realize the graffiti read R.I.P.I had stepped into another world – a shrine on the highway of the dead.
Three people – two 19-year-olds and a 48-year-old truck driver delivering lumber, died on this spot in a traffic accident around 5:00 a.m. the morning of October 10, 2019. The car crossed the center lane, caused a head-on collision, and the 18-wheeler overturned, resulting in a fiery crash and fuel spill. All three men — Russell Drummond, Christian Beech and Sheldon Ray Liddell — died on the scene. All three lived within 15 miles of the bridge.
The southside shrine to the two younger men is enclosed by a tiny decorative white fence. Inside the fence are silk flowers, trinkets and tokens, and an autograph bench. There’s evidence of recent visitors who wrote messages and left Halloween memorabilia. Or perhaps it was Día de Muertos and they brought mementos of the deceased. Across Highway 98 I saw a second shrine, but I couldn’t reach it due to traffic. There, on the opposite guard rail, Sheldon Ray Liddell, a father and grandfather, is remembered with a “Drive Safely” highway sign, photographs and flowers. I learned more about him reading online tributes from his family and members of his church.
I learned about the two younger men from the messages of remembrance written on the small bench at the shrine. Sharpie pens remained as if I, a roadside visitor, might wish to add to the tributes for Russell and Christian. Yet I felt like I shouldn’t touch the shrine out of respect for the dead.
I wonder why those mourners didn’t feel the same way about the tribute to William Bartram. Why mar a beautiful historic marker of the first botanist to explore and write about this area? What good does spray painting R.I.P. do for Christian and Russell? ATTENTION TAGGERS: show some respect for all of the dead, William Bartram included! He didn’t die here, but he made history here.
I’m glad I stopped at the shrine because it gave me a chance to think about the wilds William Bartram encountered in 1775 before the United States even existed. Today there’s no need to take a boat across the bay like Bartram but I still dodged palmettos, watched for snakes, and avoided the dagger-like Spanish Bayonet yucca, just like Bartram. Dangers are still here. Oncoming vehicles are the deadliest.
The Air Force Armament Museum at Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, is a free treasure trove of stories for writers of fiction and nonfiction alike.
Not every road trip produces an entry for my upcoming book A Literary Traveler’s Guide to the Gulf South. A November jaunt to the U.S. Air Force Armament Museum on Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach was one of those trips. I had hoped to see display cases on gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who covered sports for the Eglin Air Force Base newspaper. No luck. The museum displays exactly what its name implies: weapons, missiles, planes.
But this small museum is a writer’s mecca filled with stories waiting to be written, and not just on museum placards. It holds artifacts and relics that breathe stories of war, heroism, adventure, intrigue, creativity and survival, man and beast alike (I’ll get to the beasts in a bit).
After peeking inside a recreated prisoner of war cell, I went upstairs to see the exhibit about Ernest Shipman, an Air Force Major and pilot, held POW by the Germans in World War II. His story fascinated me. He was shot down near Hungary, ironically, by an American Air Force P-38. He remained a POW until the end of the war. After the war, he went on to earn an MFA in art and teach but left teaching to build model planes. Much of the collection is on display at the museum. The tiny planes are 1/72 to scale and researched in great detail. I learned more about him online at the American Air Museum in Britain, which is part of the Imperial War Museum in London.
If I were casting a movie about Shipman, I’d cast Leonardo DiCaprio.
Enter the Shipman model airplane collection through a portal to a man’s passion.
Back downstairs, I watched a seven-minute film of how a special operations unit built a complete air strip in 24-hours 200 miles behind Japanese lines in Burma during World War II. The Japanese never knew what was happening as Americans flew in C-47s towing gliders with heavy equipment like bulldozers, horses and troops. Simultaneously, they flew out those wounded during the landing. The mission, Operation Thursday, was the birth of the “air commandos.”
Around the corner, a small circular room was filled with displays on the history of Special Operations Command (Special Ops) and their fascinating missions, many which were secret at the time. It appears there are still plenty of secrets because I couldn’t find much about drones though Eglin is known for its drone research.
The Gun Vault is like a giant bank vault that can be locked at night.
There is a small WAC (Women’s Air Corps) exhibit in the back. I wish it were larger and closer to the front. Ironically, when I went for information about entering the closed museum library, I learned the person I needed to see was on maternity leave (an officer and a lady!).
The Korean Conflict isn’t forgotten at this museum with impressive photos on the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. I also enjoyed a closeup look at night vision goggles – I can see why contemporary writers of “military romance” visit this museum. Studying the artifacts can help describe characters and situations accurately.
I could spin a hundred fictional tales about the weapons housed behind glass in gleaming wooden display cases in the Gun Vault, a long gallery room. Many are on loan from larger museums and collectively tell the story of weapon development.
Many nonfiction stories are present though unwritten. The display “The Cost of Freedom” covers Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom campaigns in the Middle East. Photos of those military personnel lost and injured are a stark reminder that everyone has a story to tell. Six thousand seven hundred and eight American soldiers will never get the chance to tell their story – 362 were from Florida.
Outside the museum, on the walkway to tour the static display of aircraft (helicopters, planes, missiles and jets), there’ a statue of a German Shepherd honoring K-9 companions for their service. Everybody likes a good dog story – think Rin Tin Tin.
This free, small museum is popular with military families stationed in the area. The day I was there, I watched one of those families visiting for the first time. I listened as a young girl asked, “Daddy, why do you jump out of planes?” The father paused and prefaced his long explanation simply with, “To go where others can’t go.”
UFOs at the historical society? Why not? As my cousin Susan Pierce pointed out, UFOs are part of the legend of a community. I had discounted including the books written about the Pascagoula UFO abductions in my upcoming book until she sent me a recent article from Country Roads Magazine. Reading it altered my perspective, but her remark about UFO events being part of the legend of a community intrigued me.
My manuscript includes the books written about the UFO sightings in Gulf Breeze, Florida, where I now live. Was I trying to protect the reputation of my hometown, Pascagoula, by leaving out its UFO books? Had I purposely ignored one sighting while accepting the other?
CAPTION: A sampling of at least six books written about UFO encounters in Pascagoula and Gulf Breeze.
I went to the Gulf Breeze Area Historical Society meeting on October 21, 2021, searching for answers. The program topic: “The Gulf Breeze UFO Story.” In 1987, hundreds and thousands of news media and UFO aficionados came to Gulf Breeze after the Gulf Breeze Sentinel published Ed Walters’ Polaroid photos of his UFO sighting.
Art Hufford wearing an unidentifiable tie, perhaps space rocks.
Speaker Art Hufford, a retired technology supervisor for Monsanto and a Pensacola native with two college degrees, also saw the UFO in 1987 while driving on Bayou Blvd. in Pensacola. He then extensively researched the phenomenon, participating with Skywatch groups, photographing unidentified flying objects, and being on hand when television and international film crews came to Pensacola. In his research, he interviewed both abductees and witnesses of sightings. Ironically, his presentation to the historical society was limited by technology – but the images on the wide-screen laptop were still effective.
Hufford’s talk opened with a photo from the Hubbell Space Telescope and a speculation on the number of galaxies in the universe, leading to the question: Are We Alone?
CAPTION: The Gulf Breeze Community Center, less than a mile from where several UFO sightings occurred, was packed for the Gulf Breeze Area Historical Society program on UFOs. (Ignore the unidentified head in the photo on the right).
I came away from his talk convinced of two things: 1) debunkers had sabotaged Ed Walters’ accounts of the Gulf Breeze sightings and 2) believers live amongst us. One of them wore beads in her hair and held up a registered photo she’d taken of UFOs. Another left early, after telling the crowd that 17 years ago she moved to Gulf Breeze to see the UFOs. She proclaimed his presentation wasn’t providing the answers to her questions.
When it came to debunking Walters, the speaker cited, first, that the local newspaper editor ran the photographs of the UFO after the editor’s parents said they, too, had seen the object. The biggest debunk attempt, though, came with discrediting a UFO model. People claimed Walters had used a model to stage the photos. According to Hufford, the model was found a year after Walters moved out of his Gulf Breeze residence (where it was found in the attic). Hufford explained the model was constructed from house plans that Walters didn’t even create until 1989, making it impossible for it to be a model filmed in 1987.
The program continued with rich details explaining how Gulf Breeze became an international hot spot for UFOS with at least 177 sightings by Skywatchers, coverage in Life magazine, a segment on TV’s Unsolved Mysteries and as many as 150 people gathering for sky-watching events. Watch events waned and after five-months with no sightings, sky-watch gatherings dwindled. Visible UFO activity ceased around 1993.
The closing question-and-answer session elicited some lively remarks, personal experiences from audience members, and a tidbit that caused me to travel to Pensacola Beach after the meeting. The Ed Walters “hoax UFO model” is on display at UFOs Miniature Golf on the beach, on loan from University of West Florida Historic Trust.
CAPTION: The model is constructed of used drafting paper and Styrofoam plates.
Learning that a university historic trust owned the model answered my historic legitimacy question. That plus the fact Pascagoula has erected a historic marker on the site where Calvin Parker and Charles Hickson saw their UFO in 1973. The books on Pascagoula’s UFO sighting will be included in A Literary Traveler’s Guide to the Gulf South.
CAPTION: The plaque, sponsored by the City of Pascagoula, The Jackson County Historical and Genealogical Society, and Main Street USA, describes the Pascagoula abduction as the “best documented case of alien abduction.” It’s located near the spot on the Pascagoula River where fishermen Charles Hickson and Calvin Parker say they were abducted. Parker, after 30 years of silence, published a book in 2021. Hickson published his story in 1983.
For the recent Holden Hartman documentary, “Revisiting The Gulf Breeze UFO Sightings: A You Tube Documentary” on Gulf Breeze sightings, visit https://youtu.be/pJzLKIqp-3w