-or- The Idiot of Pensacola Beach
By mid-March 1993, the storms occurring all over the Eastern half of the US lined up perfectly with those occurring in my body, mind and soul. It was a time when every part of my being was railing against the abuse I was inflicting upon it, just as the winds, ice and snow battered communities already preparing for a change of season. I had undertaken the impossible four years earlier, and had poured all of myself into creating a miracle for which I, in my own mind, would be solely responsible. The storms were relentless, however, and my body and mind were beginning to snap like the heavily ice laden power lines in the coastal south.
Flashback to 1989, four intrepid entrepreneurs, quite possibly the dream team of skills for their particular niche, bought into a dream of saving a company that greed had destroyed. Signs of opulent indulgence still lingered after the former owner was backed into a corner to sell – signs of the almost fatal milking of the cash cow. Wolves, in the form of creditors and governments, were clawing through the doors but, with four strokes of a pen and an indebtedness that seemed bigger than all creation, they became pussy cats. Everyone loves a rags-to-riches story – it brings hope to otherwise endlessly dull lives.
Two years forward, with one of the four gone and another a wolf in sheep’s clothing, the doors were trembling yet again. Not to be undone by the insurmountable, a plot is hatched to make the Board of Directors resign (it’s amazing what a little information sharing will do) and, then, depose the now entrenched king of graft and deceit. With the backing of attorneys and CPA’s, we sweep clean the ivory towers still corrupted by greed and self-service. Then, and only then, it becomes my turn to tremble – to quake at the enormity of what we had undertaken.
And quake I do. Depression, a constant companion, becomes relentless. Functioning by day, vegetating in a ball by night, the battle with creditors ensues and is won. It becomes incredibly easy, using that word very lightly, when the only value you have is in the future operations – the only hope for repayment is yet-to-be-realized sales.
Two more years, and we’re winning, but at a huge price. My psyche is tormented, as is my body. Eighty hour weeks have pushed me to the brink of mortality – my heart rebelling against the constant drum of stress. My body is so full of chemicals that I fear walking beside an open flame, except of course for my cigarette lighter which is my constant companion. Collapse looms imminently and constantly, in sharp contrast to the state of the company. The emotional and physical ache is now inseparable and indistinguishable except, of course, that I can point a finger to the physical pain. “Rest”, my doctor says, as if rest is what brought the company back from the brink of extinction.
By March, choice is on hiatus. Necessity becomes the motivator of self-kindness – less kind than self-serving. I wanted to live, even this existence that barely passed for life. There is no comfort in having more money than the time it would take to spend it. There is no comfort, anymore, in the two hundred saved jobs, nor the docile venders and taxing authorities who are enjoying the brief heyday of profit. There is no comfort to be had.
I land in Pensacola on the night of March 10th, rent a vehicle and wind my way to the small, non-descript cottage on the beach that my in-laws rented for me. Once inside, I convince myself, over several hours and not just a couple of beers, to lock the door against the wolves. I sleep the sleep of the just, even it was for just a few hours. Nothing could wake me until I was ready to get up, as was proven in fairly short order.
The first thing that got my attention was that the temperature had dropped considerably inside the house. Looking outside, I realized that the coolness inside was the least of my worries. The pure white sands of Pensacola beach looked as if they had decided in one accord to obscure any human artifact in their path. Upon close inspection, it dawned on me that sand doesn’t shine – this was ice, several inches of it. Icicles, some three feet long, hung from the few remaining phone and power wires I could see.
Having left my winter coat at the Columbus airport, I donned as many layers of clothes that I could fit. Now the spitting image of the Pillsbury doughboy with exceedingly poor sartorial sense, I ventured out to the garage to pry the door open. Thankfully, because of the roof overhang, the door barely cleared the four inches of accumulated ice on the driveway. Outside was a wilderness of quiet, with not a soul of the human or feathered kinds to be seen or heard.
Driving very slowly into the usually bustling retail area, no change was apparent. No-one, not one living thing, was visible. No cars, running or parked, were on the streets. I was alone – desolately alone with the howling winds and raging sea. Hmmm.
“Fight back the panic,” I told myself, “this could be alright, so long as you get off the island.” Pensacola Beach is on Santa Rosa Island, off the gulf coast at Gulf Breeze. Gulf Breeze itself is a peninsula separated by Pensacola Bay from the city proper. The bridge across to Gulf Breeze looked like a difficult crossing at best. The long, very high bridge connecting the peninsula with the mainland must have been a nightmare, if it was open at all. I thought better of making an escape attempt.
I ventured a little further along the island. I finally found two cars parked outside of a bar. Upon entering, I wondered if my second head was showing. The looks on the faces of the two men inside was almost priceless.
“What on earth are you doing here?” asked the first man asked aggressively.
“Looking for food right at the moment,” I answered making sure I knew the location of the exit.
“No! On the island. What are you doing on the island? We evacuated everyone last night because of this storm. Why are you still here?”
“I evidently slept through it.”
“Him, too! He’s got an excuse – he’s deaf. So now I gotta take care of both of you. You’re gonna be stranded here at least four days. You’ll be lucky if the big bridge thaws by then. Course, you wouldn’t be goin’ anywhere’s, anyway. There’s not an airport open on the whole east coast.”
“It doesn’t look like you have any power. Is there anyway I can get something to eat,” at which point George, as I soon found out he was called, graced me with the best looking plate of breakfast I’d seen in years.
“This may not be bad, after all,” I thought.
“By the way,” George said, “what is your excuse? Were you drunk last night?”
“Nope! I guess I’m just an idiot.”
“Oh. Alright then.” he said. “You’re going to need a winter coat, idiot.”
I decided I wanted to do something a little adventurous with the opportunity presented. At the southwest end of Santa Rosa Island is Fort Pickens. It is interesting, from a historical point of view, but hardly scenic. The usual 10 minute drive stretched to almost an hour, but eventually I saw the ice sculptures that one day earlier had been wood and stone. It was here that the thought first struck my mind. My life is like this icy wilderness landscape at this very moment. It was too uncomfortable to bear at that time.
Still adventurous, I decided to give the bridge to Gulf Breeze a shot. For at least a third of the trip I was looking directly at the side rail, but moving sideways down the bridge in exactly the right direction. Only once was I looking directly behind me, which I thought was pretty good on bald Florida tires. I seemed to be staying relaxed, which was a good sign for me. That changed on the other side of the waterway.
I’d never seen Gulf Breeze quiet, never mind comatose. It was sleeping, lying still as a hibernating bear and, from my perspective, it was just as unnerving. It would be two more days before I saw a moving car in this normally agitated little city. Making my way northeast, I pulled into the Naval Live Oaks Park and slowly drove to the visitor’s center. Two sets of eyes watched me come up the driveway, and I could see the faces they belonged to laughing hysterically as I parked the car. One of rangers went to the door, unlocked it and forced it open against the built up ice. He never said a word, but while looking at my docksiders and still laughing, he handed me a trail map, a pair of his boots and proceeded to beath the snot out of the door that goes out to the woods.
Standing amid the massive and deformed bodies that were naval live oaks, themselves nestled freely in between the largest southern magnolias I have ever seen, I again caught sight of my life. Cold, wind-whipped, devoid of any warmth or color, these trees stood as prosecution witnesses in my trial. The overriding sense I had was that the verdict was guilty of all charges. Perhaps the most heinous crime of which I was guilty, however, was my abject fear of being poor if I extricated myself from my own living hell. My being had become solely about profit and success, but I realized how much I was failing at life.
Then, as I was feeling totally defeated and unworthy, I saw it. It was on the tip of a branch that was hiding behind the massive trunk to which it belonged. A little bit of pink amid a blanket of white, peeking at me, taunting me with its stubborn refusal to be enveloped and die. A just opened magnolia blossom, the only one in sight, told me there was hope.
I often though, when and if I would see God, it would either be in something akin to a monster electrical storm or in the face of a small child. I was not prepared to glimpse God in the soft, delicate petals of a magnolia. But then, I guess, that is where God always becomes visible – right where you don’t expect it.
It was three years before I actually lived into that vision and flowered as a free and fully developed person. Three years preparing for my departure. I never thought I’d do it without taking a penny with me, but I did. All I carried out of the office was a huge smile and my Bible – oh, and the Holy Spirit, I think. I’ve never looked back from that moment of freedom, even in the times I was almost destitute. God has kept up the bargain we seemed to have drawn that day – the ride has been oh so much more exciting than that drive across the bridge. And life makes the magnolia blossom pale by comparison.