Beneath The Sand
The Beachside Resident - Febuary 2009
Our Legend begins around the turn of the century, before the barrier island was moored to the mainland by bridges. We are told of intrepid fishermen and adventurers who boated across the Banana River to a place they called “Oceanus,” a stretch of beach in the vicinity of the modern-day Driftwood House. There was something special about this place…
In those frontier days, the river was as clear as glass, and when the winds were calm you could see for miles across the flats — sixty-pound redfish in schools of a hundred or more, sleek pods of mermaid-like dolphins, their coats all a healthy sheen of silver, and great flocks of birds, each taller than a man, who sailed across the sky like so many angels. It was a pristine beauty, untouched by civilization.
Perhaps the Legend is older than that… some say Ponce de León made his first mainland landfall on this same beach, where he encountered the Ais Indians, who spoke of a fountain with magical powers and stoked the fire of the Spaniard’s imagination. The Ais were an ancient people living among the white mangroves, cultivating a mystical energy, an energy that lives beneath the very sands upon which Cocoa Beach is built.
People came and went, but the energy remained. During the Depression years it might be said that the Legend was in remission, a dormant root system waiting below ground for the right moment to sprout to life once again. All such energy works in cycles, retreating, then advancing again like the tides. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, the Legend emerged again in the form of the Mercury Program. Fighter jocks, cowboy heroes of the New Age, came here to push the barrier of what was possible, virtually daring the heavens to stop them. Trailing them like a comet’s tail was an influx of bright, energetic faces, people from all over the country: New York, California, Nevada, Texas, Virginia… the population boom was like a giant swell pushing over the dunes, washing over the stony-faced Baptist settlers and bringing this tiny seaside town to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. It was the dawn of a new era, the era of the hot rod, of drive-in movies, of free love. And towns like Cocoa Beach, low-lying strip towns with walk-right-in-your-room motels, did more to usher in the sexual revolution –– as Tom Wolfe put it –– than the pill.
And yes, on many summer nights in the early ’60s, there was more sex and more love in this little beach village than anywhere else in the country. The Legend was here all right, with rock-star astronauts like Al Shepherd and Gus Grissom sipping cocktails in Ramon’s Rainbow Room with the prettiest young girls, buxom movie starlet-types, draped over their laps. Ramon’s Rainbow Room sat atop the Glass Bank, that now-broken-down symbol of a bygone age. But she was quite a building in her time, the Glass Bank. On some nights you could even see her lights from across the river. Ah, the energy was here, for a hot blink in American history, shining like a beacon.
But after every surge, there is a pulling back. The Ais knew this instinctively. One of their long-forgotten Legends told of a time when the Banana and Indian Rivers flowed with fresh water, before the ocean rose up and washed over the whole of the island, spilling salt water into the lagoon. When the flood waters receded, the island was a different place, a land of magic, and of secrets usually hidden away under the ocean.
In the ’70s and ’80s, the allure of the space program met the fate of all things beachside, even those things once thought untarnishable: it began to rust. A tornado ripped through town, screaming down A1A, taking out many of the motels, and doing serious damage to the Glass Bank as well. But Cocoa Beach continued its ramshackle, love-making ways. Glory-boys pounded drinks at the Holiday Inn or Tinker-by-the-Sea, and parties raged late into the night at the Thirsty Turtle, with the girls from the Inner Room frolicking in after work to drink fresh-squeezed orange juice and vodka. But the town was not the same as it was in the ’60’s; it just wasn’t as electric. Then, in 1986, the Challenger explosion brought the eyes of the nation upon this tiny town yet again.
But the energy was still at work. Soon the Legend would rise again, only it would be a Legend of a different sort. When he was growing up here in the ’80s, Kelly Slater channeled this same energy, although he might not have known it at the time. How else could the boy learn to do things on mushy waist-high waves that nobody had ever done or even tried before? As Kelly’s mother says, “He could surf on nothing because he knew how to make his own power.” Sure, he had help. Guys like Matt Kechele were there to show him a thing or two when he was coming up, but what elevated Slater to the stuff of Legend? From where did he draw such power?
For a town of about 12,000 people — a town the same size as Leeds, Alabama, or, to put it in a better perspective, only 1/10th the size of Olathe, Kansas — the amount of sheer greatness that comes out of here is remarkable. It seems that the Legend rises out of this tiny strip of sand at least once every generation; taking off from out of nowhere, like a rocket launching into the night sky.
Local wizards and sages know the energy well, and they can tap into it. Al Neuharth sits in his treehouse behind the Pumpkin Center, typing away madly, overlooking the sea as glistening, hollow A-frames pound away under the full moon.
There is something special about this place…
The “I Dream of Jeannie” days are long gone, and our world’s greatest surfer has become a consummate traveler, spending precious little time in these beach breaks... but the energy remains, driving the Legend onward. What will come next? What world conquerer will be next to rise from these sands? Just wait and see.