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May 2004 / expatriates :: email this story to a friend

Museum Man Seeks Southern Heritage
By Matt Brinkmann

It seems that no matter what the attempted justifications, no amount of explanation can convince folks that relocating to Florida in November is really about a career move. To those left behind to fend off St. Louis winter, it can mean only one thing — you bailed out.

Such was my audience's response four months ago when I announced my new employer, the Heritage Museum of Northwest Florida. It didn't help that my new home would be near the "Emerald Coast," the popular Destin vacation area known to many a Midwesterner for its beautiful white sand beaches. Attempting to justify such a move on the basis of career enhancement and professional development was a lost cause.

But I kept trying.

Sure, my family also vacationed here when I was but a young, sunburned beach boy. Yes, those memories and subsequent visits did influence my thinking. Naturally it would have been a tougher decision had it been North Dakota.

But this was also exactly the type of job I was looking for. After twelve years in a variety of positions at the St. Louis Science Center, I was ready to put all that experience to good use in a smaller setting. And I would be the Director, the first job I ever had that seemed to truly justify capitalization.

Still, any time I attempted to explain my professional rationale for the decision, I was met with an all-knowing, "Yeah, sure, whatever you say" look. It was hard to convince anyone that this was about a career ladder and not simple latitude. As a result, there were few questions about my plans for the museum, but quite a lot about my plans for a spare bedroom for visitors.

So there I was, the week after Thanksgiving, following the Canadian geese and Canadian RVs south. And now here it is, the end of February and I have my windows open on a beautiful evening.

My new hometown of Valparaiso is an interesting assortment of contradictions. It's just far enough from the coast to miss out on most of the tourism development. In fact, many folks here wish the tourists would all go away, and they avoid Destin as much as possible. The old-timers refer to the time "B.C." as in "Before the Condos." Snowbirds seem to be held in slightly higher regard than the younger tourists, if only because they, like most of the nearby residents, are retired folks and they stay more than a week.

Valparaiso is a modest bedroom community geographically isolated from the nearby development boom by the Choctawhatchee Bay and Eglin Air Force Base. Living less than a mile from the country's largest Air Force Base takes a little getting used to, especially when it's serving in one of its primary roles — as a bombing range. The locals have become experts on "the sounds of freedom," differentiating between the thump of mortars versus missiles versus whatever all the other stuff is. The fighter planes take off and land in various assortments throughout the day. I've begun to suspect they're commuting, because for a small town the place has surprisingly horrendous rush hours.

Outsiders are tolerated, since many people here were once outsiders themselves, but it definitely helps to learn how to pronounce things correctly. Valparaiso is val-pa-RYE-zo (not RAYzo). Choctawhatchee Bay is chok-ta-HATCH-ee, (not WATCHee, yankee).

Fortunately a Southern drawl is not required, as it seems to be a hit-or-miss phenomenon among locals, based on what criteria exactly I have yet to discern. But this is definitely the South, confirming an old adage that to go to The South in Florida, you go north. The panhandle in particular seems to serve a dual role as lower Alabama, and one can't help but wonder how this L-shaped stretch of land ever became all one state. Actually, as the director of a Heritage Museum, I'm supposed to know things like that.

When I tell people where I' m from, the most common responses are:

  1. Me, too.
  2. I was in Missouri once. It's cold there.
  3. I was in Missouri once. It was even hotter there than it was here.
  4. Do you miss the winter?

I haven't missed the winter. We have had an occasional frost, but the camellia in my yard has continued blooming right through them. Some people complain when it gets below forty. They say after you've lived here a few years you have a hard time if you go north in the winter. I've always felt if you grew up in the weather extremes of the Midwest, you're prepared to live almost anywhere in the world, whereas if you grow up somewhere like Hawaii you must be practically useless in a lot of locales.

As part of my initial exercises in stupidity, I've questioned some folks about why it's a heritage museum and not a history museum. It seems to me that "heritage" is a more personal concept of history, and that it reflects the southern sense of tradition. After all, genealogy is big here. I wondered aloud whether they felt the heritage concept was a "Southern thing," as I suspected.

Don't ask questions like that in the South. You might as well say ChoctaWATCHee.

Matt Brinkmann has a spare bedroom in sunny Florida. (You caught that part, didn't you?)

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