A Town to Smile About
birds and a grandmother
New Smyrna Beach, Florida
February 3, 2019
New Smyrna Beach
What kind of town do you like? It’s one of those questions that the more you think about it, the harder it gets to answer. I think about it often as I explore a new town every few days. I've decided that the best towns are the ones that make me smile.
New Smyrna Beach, Florida made me smile a lot. It has a good town owned marina, an historical downtown dating to its settlement in 1768 as well as a much newer beach version across the causeway on the Atlantic. It has numerous strolling, play and historical parks, many with public bathrooms, a convenience I appreciate the older I get.
Canal Street has been the heart of town for over two centuries. Today’s version is a reminder of the typical Main Street before interstates, strip malls and suburbia made them obsolete. But this one is still a prestige address, alive with numerous and diverse shops, bars, lawyers, and good local restaurants where service delightfully comes before tips.
The most fun was the Little Drug Co. It’s the oldest independent, full service pharmacy in the county with a soda fountain and restaurant featuring old style U shaped counters and sassy waitresses who have a cup of coffee in front of you before you even sit down. It brought back a fond memory/life lesson from the 1950s of my Mom taking me to a very similar place near where she worked for lunch. “Mom, how does she remember what I want without writing it down?” “That’s her job.” Mom said simply. “And she’s very good at it.”
NSB, as the locals call it, like all of Florida, has flown four national flags: Spanish, English, America and Confederate. The town embraces its founding in 1768 by an intrepid group of indentured Mediterranean colonists under the leadership of Scottish physician and diplomat, Dr. Andrew Turnbull. That and the rest of the town’s 250 year history is well documented by the local Museum of History in an impressive timeline history. The names of those who survived the first year are engraved on monuments in Riverside along side numerous tributes to veterans from all wars, including local Medal of Honor recipient Emory L. Bennett who died holding off two battalions so his company could escape during the Korean War. Anyone who truly wants to understand sacrifice should read Medal of Honor citations: spur of the moment sacrifices not for country, but for the soldiers beside them.
Spain, as an ally of France, came out on the short end of the Seven Year’s War, known as the French and Indian War in the colonies and perhaps the first true World War among western powers. Spain lost Havana, its principal seaport and administrative headquarters of Spanish Main and traded Florida and the Bahamas to the British to get it back. After losing the Revolutionary War, the British gave Florida back to Spain, most simply explained as being too much of a pain to keep. The United States finally bought “the 14th colony” in 1819.
On the beach side of town there are trendier (younger) bars and restaurants with assorted food and music. It has typical resort traffic and maybe a few too many motorcycles, but still a welcoming and relaxed feel. People at the town shuffleboard court were cheering on a player with CP doing his best to keep his disk in his lane.
The residential area of the beach is primarily single family, starting with 1920s-30s era two story at the core and various decade’s cottages, bungalows, split levels as you move outward. Most have been remodeled instead of replaced; a potpourri of color and tastes makes you smile. The furthest north and south reaches have our modern contribution: high rise condos.
Only a tourist would appreciate the novelty of riding a bike on the beach; after all, nearby Daytona Beach featured a 4.2 mile Beach and Road Course for car races from the 1930s until NASCAR civilized it with 2.5 mile tarmac course in 1959. There were other bikes on the beach, but I’m pretty sure I had the only mountain bike on my 3 mile ride north to Ponce DeLeon Inlet. I got a kick out of passing the motorcycles and muscle cars staying in the red coned lanes and pretty much obeying the 10 mph posted speed limit.
There was a wonderful diversity of people and activity: young and old; black, brown and white, joggers and beer bellies, kids chasing the waves, older couples tailgating, volleyball, Frisbee and games I didn’t even recognize. There was a girl in a bikini standing on her head yoga style, pedaling the air; the female form loses no interest to me upside down.
The best was a slim grand mother with ram rod posture and coiffured hair walking toward me with a dozen or more birds circling her and occasionally landing in her hair. I was too mesmerized to come up with any appropriate greeting, much less take a picture, and passed her without comment. What do you say to a lady with a bird in her bouffant?
With the birds still circling, it wasn’t hard to find her again on my way back sitting with her family and grandchildren. She laughed easily as I blurted that I just had to know about the birds. She called them laughing gulls, named for the racket they (continued to) make. She explained they nest in North Carolina in the summer and she looks forward every winter to their return Florida. One landed in her hair four or five years ago. She named it Bob and insists that he’s the only one with a landing permit and that he’s polite enough to not poop in the coiffure. I’m not making this up.
I couldn’t bring myself to ask why ‘Bob’, but I did ask her to point him out. She admitted she couldn’t which begged the question of landing permits, but who am I to question a grandmother?
Other towns have made me smile: the artists’ community and cottage houses of Cedar Key, FL; the free town dock (with electricity!) and Heritage Museum with a curator with nearly encyclopedic knowledge of south Florida history in LaBelle, FL; the well done industrial level tourism in St. Augustine, FL; the innovative town dock, welcoming Main St. and unique Rice Museum with gifted tour guide Natalie Daise in Georgetown, SC; the wonderfully friendly small towns of Swansboro and Oriental, NC., where if you’re not born here, you’re a “come here” as I was informed by a spry 80 year old at the local coffee shop.
But none of them featured a grandmother with a bird in her bouffant.