Here's the unedited version of my story from the 2013 JANUARY/FEBRUARY issue of PANAMA CITY LIVING magazine
THE WAYSIDE PARK
by Robert RegisterOne afternoon after school my Daddy came home early from work and asked me this question,
"Bob, how'd you like to go to the picture show with me tonight?"
"Yes,sir,Daddy!" I exclaimed.
"Well, get your toothbrush. Tell Mommy to pack you some warm clothes and bring some books and toys to keep you busy."
"To go to the picture show?" I asked.
"We're going to the Martin Theatre in Panama City, son."
"Hot dog! So we're not coming home tonight?"
"No, Bob, we'll be staying at the Dixie Sherman Hotel in downtown Panama City tonight."
"What about school tomorrow?"
"Tell Ms. Odum you were sick."
"Daddy, won't that be telling a story?"
"You're sick, aren't you?"
"Aw, I bet you're sick. Sick of school."
"Oh boy!" I ran down the hall screaming, "Mommy, Mommy, Daddy's taking me to the beach!"
There is no doubt in my mind that on that winter afternoon in 1958 I was the happiest eight year old boy in Alabama. Even after over 50 years, the memories are so sweet that they bring tears of joy to my eyes. My most vivid childhood memories are of my father, Earl Register. He was loud and he was strong and he loved his little boy. He'll always be my best buddy. Neither time nor the unspeakable tragedy of his death, nor anything else can take that man's love away from me.
That is my inheritance. (Thank you, Daddy, I love you.)
When it came to going to the beach, it didn't take me long to pack my satchel.
Mommy took care of my clothing and I gathered up Dr. Zim's Insect Book,
my color crayons, my tablet and my shovel.
I've always been ready to get sand in my shoes!
My mother, Kate, hugged my neck in the driveway and told me to "be good" and next thing you know we're heading for Panama City. Our house in Dothan was on Gaines Street and it was located one door down from the intersection with South Oates which was U.S. 231 South, the Panama City Highway. Being eight-years old, I was very concerned about getting to the beach as quickly as possible so I was a little worried when Daddy hung a quick left onto the Hodgesville Highway.
"Hey, Daddy. Where are we going?"
"To P.C., son. Why?"
"But this ain't the road to Panama City."
"What have I told you about saying the word 'ain't'?"
"I'm sorry. But this isn't the way to Panama City."
"Sure it is. Hodgesville is due south of town and from there we can cut over to Graceville or maybe Campbellton or maybe even Grangerburg."
"Daddy, why do you always go a different way every time you go somewhere? You even do it when we drive over to Grandma's house and it's just across town."
"Bob, I'm not like a cow. I don't go down the same trail back to the barn every evening."
"I just don't want us to be late. What time is it, anyway?"
"Confucius say, 'He who work by the hands of a clock will always be a hand.' "
Daddy had already handed me a strongly worded explanation of that little saying before, so I decided to climb over into the back seat of the company car and take a nap.
The next thing I knew Daddy was yelling, "Wake up, Bob. We're about to cross the Lynn Haven Bridge!"
I loved Lynn Haven with its pink houses and views of North Bay.
"Are we stopping by Aunt Estelle's house?" I asked.
"Nope. We're heading straight for downtown. We'll check in and then eat supper at Angelo's."
To this day, I always think of Daddy's Aunt Estelle whenever I eat fried scallops. That woman could cook the steam out of a mess of scallops. Every time we went to Aunt Estelle's house in Lynn Haven, she fried scallops. If she didn't have any, she'd send out for some.
The last time I saw Aunt Estelle was in the late 70s at the insane asylum at Chattahoochee.
Old age had caught up with her and she didn't know where she was from the man in the moon, but she remembered me though. She told me,"Bob, let me go get out of these clothes and put on my apron and I'll fry you up some scallops." That's the last thing Aunt Estelle said to me as the nurse led her back to the ward.
I never saw her again.
Daddy and I checked into a great room on the top floor of the Dixie Sherman.
That hotel was Panama City's tallest building and it wasn't a skyscraper but as far as Bob Register was concerned, we had a penthouse suite in the Empire State Building.
image courtesy ofhttp://www.beaconlearningcenter.com/weblessons/bayhistory/bhis29.htm
I turned on the TV and opened the curtains so I could see the sun going down over St. Andrews Bay.
"Get away from that window and get ready for supper, son. Go wash your face and hands. We're going to Angelo's."
It didn't take me long to follow directions. I laced up my paratrooper's boots and I was ready for action. Everything we needed was right there around the block from the Dixie Sherman. Restaurants, movie theatres, newstands, soda fountains- downtown Panama City had it all.
Soon we were seated at a shiny formica table beside a plate glass window inside Angelo's Steak Pit. We watched the traffic and the people on the sidewalk as we waited for our steaks. Angelo Butchikas was the owner and he knew Daddy real well because Panama City was on Earl's territory route with Goodrich. My Daddy was one of Mr. Angelo's favorite customers.
When we were through eating, Mr. Angelo came to our table. He treated us like we were royalty. I really liked him a lot.
"How was your steak, Bob?" he asked.
"Real good, Mr. Angelo," I replied.
"I noticed that you didn't touch your black olives."
"I eat green olives, but I don't like black olives."
"Please, Bob, try one of these," said Mr. Angelo.
I tried one of Mr. Angelo's ripe olives. It tasted real strong but it went down all right. Just like eating fried bay scallops reminds me of Aunt Estelle, black olives always remind me of the nice man who had the great steak house in downtown Panama City, Angelo Butchikas.
& many times, when I try something new, I think of Mr. Angelo and his winning smile.
After Daddy paid our check, we walked down Harrison Avenue to the Martin Theatre. We took our seats and sat down to watch Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in what was probably the most exciting Western filmed up to that time, "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral."
image courtesy ofhttp://www.panamacitydowntown.com/play.php
image courtesy of http://www.martintheatre.com/history.html
It may have been a great movie but it was too long for this little eight-year old from Dothan. I fell asleep but I didn't miss the good part. All that gunfire at the end woke me up so even though I felt guilty and disappointed for falling asleep and missing the movie, I was sure happy about seeing that gunfight at the end.
When I woke up in the morning, Daddy had already gone to work. The night before he'd told me not to worry, that he would leave early and not wake me up. He told me to hang around the room, draw and color and watch TV so I did. I stared out the window at the beautiful bay. I watched a little TV. I drew insects out of my Dr. Zim book and colored cartoons I copied out of the News-Herald. Before noon Daddy was back and we were checking out of the hotel.
Now came the good part. We were going to Panama City Beach!
It was raining cats and dogs plus it was freezing but that didn't matter to us. We were heading for the beach! As we drove over Hathaway Bridge the weather began to break and the rain slacked up a little, but it was still bitter cold. I had on a couple of sweaters, my windbreaker and my toboggan. [Yankees call them "stocking caps"]
Panama City Beach was a ghost town. Nothing was open except a little grocery store across from Wayside Park. There were no cars on Front Beach Road. No lights were on in any of the motels or in any of the other businesses and not a soul was down toward the Y at the Wayside Park. We had the beach to ourselves. Miles and miles of snow-white dunes & crashing waves abandoned for Bob & Earl's day at the beach.
At Wayside Park, I jumped out of the car and ran straight for the sand dunes. The sand around the concrete foundations for the picnic tables were riddled with ghost crab dens and I immediately began to terrorize those little critters. Down by the water we found plenty of big cockle shells that the storm had washed up on the beach. When we got tired of picking up shells, Daddy chased me down the beach so far that I collapsed in the sand from fatigue. We laughed and walked back to the picnic tables to seek shelter from a fresh rain cloud blowing in from the Gulf.
We sat silently on top of the picnic table & watched the storm come in.
Daddy said, "Son, God knows this is the prettiest beach on the face of the Earth."
"Well, Daddy, you ought to know. You saw lots of different beaches during the war."
"Some of the best. The islands of the Caribbean, the coast of Brazil, North Africa, the islands of the Mediterranean, the French Riviera, Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily and the Adriatic Coast.
But I still like Panama City best."
Years later, when I was first out of college, I went back to Panama City Beach for a weekend with our family. Daddy was a little mad at me because I'd showed up a day late(blame Tuscaloosa for that), but he forgave me.
(He always forgave us children, but he never forgot.)
At night, Daddy and I buried a light pole in the sand at the edge of the surf behind the Admiral Imperial. This light attracted skates & rays to the shore and we celebrated the excitement of resting our lawn chairs in sting-ray infested waters by toasting each other.
We were having a lot of fun when Daddy made a very serious statement.
He said,"Bob, you've always obeyed me with the exception of three times.
THREE TIMES YOU WENT AGAINST ME!"silence
I was scared to death.
Believe it or not, I was speechless. (quite an accomplishment for someone who's Cloverdale neighborhood nickname was "LUNGZZZ" )"Three times you went against my advice & each time you were right."
"I'm sorry, Daddy, but what times are you talking about?"
"Three times. When you changed your major;
when you dropped out of ROTC;
& when you let your hair grow out.
Three times you went against me and every time you were right.
I was wrong."
OK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!I had no idea this would be my last conversation with my father but I'm glad it happened at the beach.
Panama City Beach always brings back memories of my Daddy.
For that reason alone,
Bay County, Florida,
will always be THE HOME OF THE WORLD'S MOST BEAUTIFUL BEACHES.