The white sands of Okaloosa Island encompass only 875 acres, a narrow, three-mile stretch of land between Fort Walton Beach and Destin in the Florida Panhandle. Although part of the larger Santa Rosa Island, reaching forty miles to Navarre Beach, Okaloosa Island remains isolated from the larger area, a military training ground reserved by the United States Air Force.
(pictured, Okaloosa Island, 2011, an original silkscreen collage, combining photography, drawing, and paint by George Rodrigue, 16×38 inches, edition 90; click photo to enlarge)
As a child I walked often to the edge of the island and peered through the fence at the mysterious deserted beach on the other side. In the other direction, I walked a mile to the pier, a giant dock stretching ¼ mile into the Gulf of Mexico, surrounded by hotels and tourists on the most populated part of the beach (the area pictured in George’s print).
We moved to the island in 1977, trading our neighborhood house and yard across town for a condo and a view. From our front door and balcony at Emerald Isle, I looked both directions, staring every day of my childhood up and down the oft-deserted coastline surrounding our building. Even then I tried, much like today as I watch George paint in his studio, to concentrate on the moment, the rare experience of living on one of America’s most beautiful beaches, or of watching one of America’s greatest artists at work.
(George Rodrigue paints cats in his Carmel studio)
Dolores Pepper, my wild side, was born on this beach. But that’s another story, and I’ve already covered it in detail here. My mother recalled my teenage years as me waving hello or good-bye to the boys, visiting on spring break or family vacations.
It was on this beach that I first met a Cajun, an Hebert from Lafayette, introducing him as He-burt to my mother, until he corrected me with ‘A Bear.’ We dated for a week each summer for years, despite the fact that my lanky 5’ 10” frame towered over his stocky 5’ 5” one. Each year he dug a hole in that sugary, soft, cool sand, where I stood while we kissed in the moonlight, the waves breaking behind us.
(pictured, Hebert, Yes; A Bear, No, from Rodrigue’s Saga of the Acadians, now on view at the LSU Museum of Art – see the bottom of this post)
This was my beach, and I felt responsible for it. At night I warned tourists of the dangers of sharks swimming close to the shore. Early morning, my sister Heather and I collected beer cans and cigarette butts, cleaning up after the spring breakers. We protested as people uprooted sea oats to decorate their sand castles, and we walked, every day, up and down, taking it all in.
I lived on this beach for eight years, and my mom for another ten. She always knew where to find me. Heather and I wore our bathing suits under our school clothes from March through May, running straight to the beach from the bus, rather than miss one minute of sun to change.
I grew up holding my mom’s hand as we jumped the waves; ignoring her call as I swam into deep water to the sandbar; watching her, dressed for work, as she stood at the end of the boardwalk hollering “Wendy Anne!,” because the dishwasher remained full and the living room dusty. She patched my jellyfish stings with meat tenderizer and lectured me endlessly on the dangers of sun exposure.
Heather and I dove for sand dollars, swimming all the way back to the beach just to show our mom, and then all the way back to the sandbar, returning them home. We slid on homemade cardboard sleds with our dad on the mountainous dunes, now mostly swept away.
Despite all of those years and memories, Heather and I can’t find a single picture from the beach. We didn’t own a camera, a float, or a beach ball. I don’t think we took anything to the beach but a towel. Once a week I carried my allowance, a dollar in quarters, walking up from the beach to the nearby Tom Thumb for an icy and a few turns at Pac Man.
(pictured, ‘The Next Generation,’ nephews William and Wyatt)
George Rodrigue created the silkscreen Okaloosa Island for me. My dad still has a place there, and we visit every few years.
This year, September 28 – October 2, we make a special visit to the Miracle Strip, when the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts teams up with the Mattie Kelly Arts Foundation for a series of school visits, workshops, and fundraisers, all benefiting the arts in education on the Florida Gulf Coast and throughout Louisiana. (We’ll post a list of events with details at www.georgerodrigue.com next month).
Such visits are par for the course in George’s home state, particularly in south Louisiana, such as the events surrounding the current exhibition at the LSU Museum of Art in Baton Rouge. At last I have a chance to give back to my hometown, to a place that gave me so much, a place I never once took for granted.
For more information on the silkscreen Okaloosa Island, including pricing and availability, contact Rodrigue Studio
For a related post I hope you enjoy “Remembering Old Biloxi,” in this week’s Gambit’s Blog of New Orleans
We’re in Baton Rouge this weekend for the opening of “Blue Dogs and Cajuns on the River,” a collection of eighty-five original Rodrigue paintings at the Louisiana State University Museum of Art, July 23rd to September 18th, 2011. For a list of related events with George Rodrigue, visit here.