March is always one of my favorite months. I was born in March. Spring comes in March, daylight lengthens and the sun glows longer and brighter.
And I moved to Pensacola in a March — March 1978, to be precise.
Say, Uncle Mark, what was Pensacola like in those long-ago days?
I’m glad you asked.
Passengers had to walk outdoors to board or disembark aircraft at Pensacola Municipal Airport, its old name long before it became Pensacola Intergalactic Airport. On the plus side, you could double-park outside the terminal and no one would think anything of it.
Our rental car was a yellow Ford Pinto with a CB radio (handy for calling for help since Pintos tended to catch fire in collisions.)
The area around then-Pensacola Junior College flooded at the first hint of rain, and the University of West Florida accepted only juniors and seniors. UWF was so lame in those days that its bookstore sold The National Enquirer, hardly a hefty academic tome.
The Driftwood was the classiest restaurant in town, ideal for celebrating special events like anniversaries. Or the departure of guests who stayed too long.
Palafox Street was fading fast. It was home to old-time establishments like The Child Restaurant, Albert Klein Jewelers, and Trader Jon’s, a bar full of Navy memorabilia, tipsy lawyers and judges, and strippers.
No one could imagine how fabulous downtown Pensacola would become; consumers were all bound for University Mall, then the hottest shopping spot in town, ahead of Cordova and Westwood malls.
The King’s Inn on Gregory Street and the Sheraton Inn, both long-gone, were the places where middle-aged people hung out. McGuire’s was a new place in town, located on Fairfield Drive, trying to make a name for itself with good food and a celebration for something called St. Patrick’s Day.
Lawyers couldn’t advertise then, not the way they can now. Can you imagine today’s media without the drumbeat of LevinKerriganShunnarah advertising?
Cigarette smoke filled the air in every restaurant, workplace and public area. Almost all bosses were white guys and all employers expected outsiders to take a pay cut to move here because “Pensacola is cheaper.” (Some things never change.) They still call it the Bermuda Triangle, but the intersections of Ninth, Tippin and Langley avenues was a major Malfunction Junction in 1978, with no traffic lights. It was every driver for herself.
Gulf Breeze was just a sleepy place you drove through on the way to Pensacola Beach, not the thriving community it is now.
Pensacola Beach had lots of little cottages that would blow away in Hurricane Frederic later in 1978, opening the way for the first round of bigbucks development.
One of the beach’s hot spots was the lounge at the Holiday Inn, which also was home to Sunday Mass for Catholics.
Neither Pensacola Beach nor Perdido Key had yet discovered the value of “shoulder season” — spring and fall — and snowbirds in winter. Their economies rode on summer alone.
Times then were good, but overall they’re much better now, so Uncle Mark plans to stay here another 37 years.