By Samantha Lambert
In July of 1969, my father was transferred to Fort Walton Beach. I was 12 years old, getting ready to start junior high school. My family stayed at the old Coronado Motel on Okaloosa Island while my parents looked for a house. We then moved into a house on Hawthorne Circle off of South Avenue. There, my brothers and I started friendships that have lasted a lifetime.
I attended Pryor Junior High for grades 7-9 and then went on to Choctawhatchee High School. I graduated from Choctaw in 1975 and was accepted to Auburn University. I graduated from Auburn in 1979 with a degree in secondary education and moved to the state of Virginia. My parents were in the middle of a divorce, so I decided to head to Virginia where I had relatives. I started teaching high school there in 1980 and retired recently.
My husband and I decided to move back to Fort Walton Beach after an extremely rough winter in Virginia. We sold our house and bought one in FWB. Many of the wonderful aspects of FWB still remain, though others have changed quite a bit since the 1970s.
The powdery white beaches of the Emerald Coast and the sparkling clear water of the Gulf of Mexico have not changed. After living on the Atlantic Coast for so many years, I had forgotten just how beautiful the beaches here are. Plus there are no sunrises and sunsets anywhere like the ones in this area. Just gorgeous. Coming over the Destin Bridge toward Fort Walton Beach in the early evening is mesmerizing.
When I left here in 1979, Destin was still a fairly sleepy fishing village with some growth east of Holiday Isle. We could drive down Highway 98, park on the side of the road, and walk out to the Gulf. If we wanted to drive to Panama City, we would take the two-lane 98 all the way there with trees on each side of the road. Not so anymore.
The ride between Destin and Fort Walton Beach is still as beautiful as ever. The sand dunes are not as tall as back in the ‘70s, but I know Mother Nature has had her way with them. I have enjoyed the Boardwalk and its fine businesses—I just wish the actual boardwalk went further down the beach. I especially enjoy being able to park free at locations on the island to enjoy the beaches.
In Fort Walton Beach, Beal Parkway and the downtown area by the Brooks Bridge seem to have major traffic issues. I definitely don’t remember the Brooks Bridge being jammed up to go over to Okaloosa Island back in the ‘70s. The original Hog’s Breath Saloon, the Sand Flea, Barnacle Bill’s, and the Robert E. Lee were just to the left as you went over the bridge. All were very popular and always crowded. None of the four are there now. Today, motorists cannot turn left as they go over the Brooks Bridge heading east.
Traversing Beal Parkway is horrendous now. Why isn’t it a six-lane road like Eglin Parkway? Turning off of Beal onto Mary Esther Cutoff has not changed at all. It still backs up.
Back in the day, downtown Fort Walton Beach was not a very populated place except for tourists. Of course, we went to movies at the Tringas Theatre and ate at Joe and Eddie’s. I am impressed by the city’s plans to revitalize the downtown area of FWB. They definitely seem to be drawing locals back down there.
I was able to attend the last Concert at the Landing when I moved down this summer and thoroughly enjoyed it. My husband and I have been on a Pub Crawl and tried many of the outstanding downtown restaurants. Locals—if you haven’t been down there in a while, you need to check it out.
One thing that has bothered me since I returned to the area is the amount of abandoned and dilapidated buildings in Fort Walton Beach. Where are the owners of these places? Where is the city code enforcement? It makes this beautiful place look trashy, for lack of a better word. Many of my friends who have moved back here feel the same as I do. We love this city and want it to shine and sparkle like our beautiful beaches. How about a Beautify Fort Walton Day?
It’s so nice to be back. The people here are friendly and kind. I have renewed old friendships and made new ones. I have enjoyed introducing my husband and family to the many parts of the area that make it the magnificent place that it is. Who says you can’t go home again?