Sunday, August 5, 2018

Welcome to the Panhandle




I remember my first political rally.  It was for Bob Sikes.  He was your quintessential Southern Democrat, representing our district in Northwest Florida in the US Congress.  Our high school was pretty small.  The rally was in an old gym, which sat maybe 500 persons in the fold-out wood bleachers.  There was a stage recessed into the opposite wall, the curtain drawn over it to hide all the weights and other gym equipment.  Mr. Sikes spoke from the floor of the gym.  We all were impressed, lined up to shake hands with him afterward.

That's as close as we came to our representatives.  What we saw of them was mostly on television, which was only four channels at the time.  The PBS station out of Pensacola was usually "snow," no matter how much my mother tried to adjust the aerial. 

I asked my father if he was going to vote for him.  He said, no.  Typical Democrat, although it was pretty hard to tell Southern Democrats and Republicans apart, not that he had much choice.  My father constantly complained there was no one to vote for in the Republican primaries, as the politicians all ran as Democrats.  Eventually, he bit the bullet and registered as a Democrat so he could vote in primaries.

Things were pretty simple then.  When my mother wanted to clarify something she saw on the news, she would pull down a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica to read more about it.  She didn't like the World Book Encyclopedia because she felt it was dumbed down like the new Bibles.  She preferred the King James edition.

In this day and age, it is hard to believe we consulted encyclopedias.  These heavy tomes are still around, but now sell for a fraction of their original cost on ebay.  No one wants them except as an odd piece of nostalgia.  You can find everything you need at your fingertips on the Internet, but it takes a little effort to sort out fact from fiction.  What was nice about the Britannica is that it was irrefutable, at least in my mother's eyes.

The biggest worries came with hurricane season when the waters got churned up in the Gulf of Mexico.  My mother tracked the storms on the map she cut out of the newspaper.  More than once we had to evacuate.  We went up to the armory in DeFuniak Springs one year, as Eloise bored its path through Walton County in 1975.  We expected the worse when we drove back but our concrete-block house was still in tact.  There was grime to clean off the floors as water had seeped in through the sliding glass windows, but judging by the mark on the baseboards, it was no more than two or three inches.

Dad kept talking about building a second story above the block house and turning the lower portion into a garage and storage area, but that never happened.  These houses were pretty typical along the beachfront.  Many of them built by retired officers who had last served at Eglin Air Force Base.  We were surrounded by generals and colonels who served in Europe during World War II, my uncle included.  My father always felt odd man out, not having been in the military, but reminded everyone he was part of the Marshall Aid Plan.

The biggest issue that I recall was busing.  There weren't very many black kids in our school.  Two families as I recall.  All along the panhandle of Florida the small towns were either black or white, very little integration between them.   We accepted the status quo.  It was enough to just play each other in basketball and football, shake hands afterward, and go our separate ways, but now we were being forced to think about integration.  Busing never came to Northwest Florida and we all breathed a sigh of relief.

Bob Sikes may have brought it up at his political rally.  I can't recall anything he said at the time.  He served in office for 16 years before scandals began to swirl around him.  According to Wikipedia, he believed "flaming liberals" were conspiring against him, although the House vote to censure him was 381-3.  He retired rather than face re-election in 1978.  A local newscaster, Earl Hutto, became our new Democratic representative, no less conservative than Sikes, but considered to be a clean, no-nonsense type of guy.

The Reagan Revolution would come in 1980 with many Democrats turning Republican over the next eight years, an irony not lost on my father.  Today, the panhandle is as red as you can get in Florida. It's had a Republican serving my district since 1990, when Hutto chose to retire rather than switch parties.  We got a young guy from Pensacola named Joe Scarborough, who is now a popular MSNBC talking head, deeply worried that the Republican Party has been taken over by Trumpkins.

It didn't take much to turn Northwest Florida.  No Democratic President had won the panhandle as far back as I can remember.  When George Wallace ran for President in 1968, he drew most of votes in the district, as this was considered Lower Alabama.  So, you can say that Panhandlers were primed for Donald J. Trump.  Our current US Representative, Matt Gaetz, has been called the Trumpiest Congressman in Trump's Washington.

There are some gripes over the new law privatizing beach front all the way to the water line, but otherwise nothing has changed much over the last 50 years.  Some liberalism has crept into the area, but not enough to turn any election.  Panhandlers will go on voting for their conservative candidates, be they Democrat or Republican, come hell or high water.

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