Pensacola Then & Then

The original inhabitants of Pensacola Bay was a tribe of Native Americans known as Pensacola. Recorded history begins for the area when the first European explorers arrived in 1528 with the expedition of Panfilo de Narvaez and the 1539 expedition of Hernando de Soto. The first attempt at settlement came in 1559, but ended in disaster due to a hurricane, famine, and Indian attacks. The survivors deemed the site too dangerous to live there and returned to Mexico, leaving the area to the Indians for the next 139 years.

In 1698, the Spanish sent an expedition which built a presidio, Fort San Carlos de Austria (located a little east of present day site of Fort Barrancas). In 1722, another Spanish expedition came and built Presidio Isla de Santa Rosa (close to the current site of Fort Pickens). And in 1754, the 3rd and last settlement, Presidio San Miguel de Panzacola, was built where the current downtown historic district is located.

Sailboat in Pensacola Bay
For the next 217 years, other boring historical stuff happened, but then in 1971, the United States Navy sent me to live in Pensacola! White sand beaches to relax and play on every weekend, plenty of night life to be shared with friends, watching the Navy's Blue Angels practicing in the sky overhead while sitting on a patch of grass eating lunch several days each week, attending the Naval School of Photography (which I actually enjoyed), spending too little time with my wife and baby son and too much time carousing with my buddies. Lots of memories, lots of them good along with some regrets earned while growing up. I was young, full of energy, doing and seeing things I had never experienced before and so dumb I didn't know I was dumb. It was a sad day when I had to leave a year after arriving, but when you are a sailor and the Navy says go, you go.

Twenty years later and no longer married, my girlfriend and future new wife and I made a trip back. We didn't take the time to visit all the places of my memories. The beaches were still just as white and beautiful, the night life with attendant adult beverages was just as plentiful, and we were too busy making more good memories.

Flash forward to 1999 and once again I was in Pensacola, this time along with a wife and toddler daughter. As always, the beaches were still beautiful, the water was clear, and we had a very good time - different, but still good. There were sand castles to teach my youngest daughter to build, sea gulls to teach her to feed, sea shells to teach her to find. The strolls on the beach were much more leisurely due to waiting on tiny legs to walk or, most often, a squirming, laughing little girl to carry in Daddy's arms. And the rowdy night life and adult beverages were replaced with sitting on the dark, quiet beach watching the moon on the water.

Of course a lot of things had changed about Pensacola too. Time doesn't stand still. The population had doubled. There were many more hotels on the beach fronts and a lot more tall buildings in the city. Places I remembered as open fields were filled with homes. The trailer park with the single-wides for rent where I lived with my little family those many years ago was gone, replaced by an already aging used car lot, pawn shop, bail bond service, and a fast-food chicken place. None of the numerous bars and billiard places where I misspent some youth was still in business. The navy base now had a McDonalds and the old WWII wooden barracks my buddies had called home had been replaced with a modern, brick dormitory. One excellent change was the building of the Naval Air Museum on base, a most enjoyable and interesting addition.

Naval Air Museum
I was surprised by how much had changed over the years; so much change that I had a hard time recognizing much of anything. I didn't expect everything to be the same and we still had a great time even though it kind of bothered me to see such big changes. But then, I had changed a lot myself.