"Everybody knows a little place like Kokomo," sang the Beach Boys in 1988. "Now if you wanna go and get away from it all...go down to Kokomo." I wonder if the Beach Boys knew that the only Kokomo in the world is in fact not on a tropical island, but rather, a city in Howard County, Indiana. The word sounds kind of exotic, though, like it could be some sort of Hawaiian coconut, so I guess they hijacked its meaning for their song. And because they were talking about a dreamy vacation spot, nobody seemed to mind...or realize it, for that matter.
If one's own little "Kokomo" is a specific location, then mine existed once, and still does, though not as concretely in my mind as it once did. Years and years of family vacations to Panama City Beach, FL during my growing-up years (and my husband's as well) have made it our Kokomo by default. But the face of the beach has changed. What used to be a strip of two-story mom-and-pop motels has turned into a long line of hulking, monolithic condominiums that cast long shadows across the land.
When I was a kid, my Kokomo was the Wave Crest Motel. It was a modest structure, brown and tan with turquoise-blue doors on the rooms, no carpet inside, bare necessities in the kitchenette, and the softest old white sheets I ever slept on, thanks to countless washings over their decades of life. Each room had its own enormous screened-in porch attached, overlooking the Gulf, perfect for dumping all my toys and floats. It was nothing like the cramped, closet-size obligatory balconies on modern condos.
My parents vacationed at the Wave Crest long before I was born. My dad says that the owner of the place, a kindly older gentleman, let him mail in a check once when he and mom stayed there as a young couple and came up short on what they owed. Tragically, that man lost his life years later when the small cottage he lived in across the street from the motel burned down. His ashes were scattered in the small garden of periwinkles in the motel courtyard, and then his son took over the operation of the business. One summer vacation, my mother created a stunning pastel chalk drawing of that courtyard, featuring the periwinkle garden as the focal point. She gave it to the son, and to our surprise upon returning the following year, we saw the drawing framed and hung in the motel office.
Below is an example of one of mom's "Wave Crest Series" pastels that hangs in my bedroom. This was the view from one of the motel's beachfront gazebos.
Another year, my mother engineered the sand sculpting of a nine-foot Gulliver lying spread-eagle on the beach, as if he had just washed up on shore, complete with 1700's-style sand-clothing and longish-hair spread out around his head. My 9-year-old cousin and I were proud to be assigned the task of combining water and sand in buckets during the construction process. Beachcombers came from miles around to get a look. Naturally, he didn't last very long.
Now the Wave Crest stands no longer. After it was battered by a hurricane, it was bulldozed, and the property now lies barren, literally gone with the wind. Driving past that spot is always a bit surreal. It is a sobering reminder to me about how time works...that a place that encompassed so many happy memories for me could just be...gone. Like Gulliver. Like the old Miracle Strip Amusement Park a few miles away from the motel - once bright, lively, and part of my childhood - now scary, old, and decrepit. Boarded up and shut down. Nature has taken over. Weeds and vines are winding their way over the old rides. I would rather see the place leveled than looking like a horror movie set.
But even with the disintegration of the Wave Crest and the amusement park, that beach itself remains my Kokomo. It's the place where I experienced a concussion, a marriage proposal, and a spiritual awakening, though not all at the same time. (Let it be noted that the concussion did not consitute a happy beach memory, but it's a memory nevertheless, and maybe a story for another day.)
Now that I have a family of my own, we still vacation in Panama City Beach, but we haven't found a spot to call our own yet. We are condo and motel-hopping each year, not loyal anywhere. We are Kokomo-seekers, confident that one of these days, we'll find what we are looking for. I can't help but wonder if we'll even have the chance this year.
I see the oil spill as a creature from the black lagoon that is extending its tentacles closer and closer to the shores...my shores...and I am heavy-hearted. Of course I realize that the disaster is much bigger than me. It's about an entire ecosystem stretching across several states that is hanging in the balance. But still, I feel a sense of ownership for this coast. As I have explained above, I have a history with it. I am sickened by the thought a black plague of oil lurking out there in the deep. A man-made disaster that man can't seem to fix. It is puzzling to me that the best and brightest minds on the planet can send people to space, invent iPhones and cochlear implants, but are unable to plug a hole in the ocean floor. The damage already done is tragic enough. I pray that it will be contained soon. Not just for my own little Kokomo, but for Louisiana all the way to Florida, and all the Kokomo's in-between.