To me, the state line that runs between Alabama and the Florida Panhandle has always been blurred.
Being born just about on top of the state line in Florala, Ala. and raised in Pensacola, Fla., I have family on both sides of the line. My folks in the Sunshine State started out in Alabama, but when faced with having to purchase school books for their thirteen children, relocated the family farm to just over the state line in the Oak Grove community to take advantage of Florida’s free books and tuition. The family grew and is spread over the entire panhandle, or as we have come to call it recently, ground zero for hurricane Michael.
The Panhandle residents, who have more in common with Alabamians than they do with those in the Southern part of their own state, have spoken of how they survived the horrible storm and how they’ll rebuild. But even when empty-handed, homeless, hungry and broken hearted, they’ve also talked about how they will help each other. That’s where the overlap of the two states comes together. Determination, love of place, loyalty that can sometimes be mistaken for stubbornness, and overflowing generosity are characteristics of both Alabamians and North Floridians. It isn’t just a shared geographical location, but also a shared belief system.
Almost every one of my fifth grade classmates had grandparents who lived in Alabama. Many families had relocated to Northwest Florida for jobs connected to military bases or Monsanto. It wasn’t unusual to run into friends at the Stuckey’s on I-65 during the holiday breaks as we headed over the river and through the woods. We’d fill their Alabama houses at Christmas, and they’d visit our Florida homes during peak beach months.
In the Panhandle, we’d sit in the boat on Saturday and in a church pew on Sunday. We fed ourselves with seafood we caught and vegetables we’d grown. We were Jimmy Buffett with a side of Bill Gaither. We were pirates and preachers, beach bums and farmers. We owned family beach shacks and small ranch houses in town. Our neighbors were hardworking and wore air brushed T-shirts and flip flops, overalls, or crisp military uniforms and our entertainment was Friday night high school football or watching a squad of F-14s fly-over our own backyards.
It’s no surprise that much of the help pouring into the devastated area is from neighboring Alabama churches, families and civic groups. In my own city about 30 miles from the state line, as soon as roads were cleared, the people of Alabama were on the move with trucks loaded with supplies, headed to Florida and like me, many of them had relatives they were going to check on.
Good people live everywhere, and help will surely come from all over the country, but there’s an undeniable connection between Alabama and the Panhandle. Old maps show unrealized plans for joining the two areas into a new state but it never happened. Even if it was never made official, the drawl of Alabama and the twang of North Florida still meld and you can’t tell the difference amongst friends, family and neighbors.
The similarities that bind us transcend lines on maps, race, religion and (almost) team loyalties. Our families and friendships blend into both states and we are blessed with the ties that bind our hearts in love and healing.
See and share this story on AL.com HERE.