Nine years ago last month, we packed everything (that we hadn't thrown away) into a moving van and left Colorado. Our destination: Fort Walton Beach, in the Florida Panhandle.
So much green, so much sun, so much emerald water — and so much incredibly white sand. If you've never been there to see it, there's simply no way you can fully grasp how breathtaking that sand truly is ... and how it affects you.
I found out in a personal way. My parents had visited that area on their honeymoon — in 1949. More than a half-century later, they knew exactly how we felt, blown away simply by that irrepressible sand.
Sadly, though, my father was in failing health during the summer of 2001. He wanted to see Northwest Florida one more time. But soon it became evident he'd never make it.
So I took the sand to him. I walked out onto the beach, filled a glass jar with the purest white sand I could find, closed it up and took it to Arkansas. He only had a few weeks to live, but when he opened that jar and ran his fingers through the sand, all he could do was smile.
"It hasn't changed," he said. "It's exactly the same."
Something tells me that Bill Routon wouldn't be so happy now, if he could see what's happening in the Gulf of Mexico. He would not have any patience with British Petroleum, or with the government for allowing shoddy practices with no accountability at offshore oil rigs.
I thought of my father the other night when the networks showed crews of workers, covered in protective clear plastic, shoveling the globs and balls of oil from that same remarkable sand on an Alabama beach, only about 60 miles west of Fort Walton Beach. Now, that same mess has arrived at what's known as the Emerald Coast. We're hearing that the gooey gunk, besides soiling the beaches, also brings with it a repulsive stench.
It's already having a detrimental impact on the huge Gulf fishing industry. And now it's likely to mean a disastrous summer for tourism, which also drives much of the economy in that part of the world.
Sure, we have our own problems here, about 1,500 miles away. But this spreading ecological disaster is worse than a nightmare. It's causing damage that might never be fully overcome.
And I haven't even mentioned the birds.
Again, you have to live or at least visit there to know, but the innumerable species of shore birds that thrive in and around the Gulf of Mexico are a spectacle unto themselves. Just sit on any beach, and you'll invariably see even the tiniest of birds, trotting around in the sand, plucking out their next meal from what the waves bring in. The larger fowl have their own routines, searching for sustenance. It's spellbinding, just to watch them.
Except now, untold thousands of those birds across the Gulf are innocently landing into the oil globs, which cover them in thick, slimy muck that won't wash away. And eventually, the birds die.
So inexcusable. So ... despicable.
You see people there being interviewed on TV, and they say it's worse than a hurricane. Storms come and go, even the worst ones, and everyone simply cleans up and deals with it. But this is different. Someday, hopefully this year, the broken well can be sealed. But the billions of gallons of spilled oil will remain, destroying plant and animal life, causing destruction that will last for decades.
That's why I care. And why those of us with any attachment to the Gulf Coast — including many Air Force people in our midst who've been stationed at the sprawling Eglin Air Force Base there — share the loss now.
We still have another jar of that white sand, which has stayed with us since our journey took us away from Northwest Florida and eventually back here. I look at that jar almost every day now. Sometimes I reach in and caress the sand, wondering how far the Gulf damage will spread in weeks and months to come. How long it might take for that region to recover. In fact, we're going back there ourselves, in about two months, to see it firsthand.
My guess is, this time I'll be glad my father won't be there to see it.