Right in Their Own Backyard


It’s amazing what you can discover close to home, especially when you live in Florida

People who live in Panama City, Florida, have two things right in their own backyard. One is the beach, locally touted as the purest, whitest, softest sand this side of Waikiki. The other is the Gulf of Mexico, bright and clear and azure blue.

For young Latter-day Saints who live in Panama City and nearby Mexico Beach, such a setting makes it easy to enjoy activities close to home. Brother Austin Davis is always willing to invite them out on his company’s fishing boat, and there are lots of places nearby that are just plain beautiful to see. The sunshine beckons, the water is warm, and there are clams and scallops aplenty if you know how to find them.

Now mind you, Brother Davis isn’t sponsoring a yacht party. The Randy F. is an honest old craft that creaks and sputters and somehow plows ahead. It may take half an hour or so just to get the engine fired up.

And even though Panama City is gorgeous, with its fair share of tourist hotels and professional beachcombers, the young Latter-day Saints who live in the city know that there’s more to do here than just loll around catching rays. At a ward activity, they expect to work a little, talk a lot, swim around, dive off the rigging, eat well, and come home knowing their friends, their quorum and class members, their leaders and themselves just a little bit better.

The day starts early. Everyone meets in the parking lot of a conveniently located, no-longer-in-business shopping center. The on-timers chastise the late-comers, the leaders gather everyone together for prayer, they all debate about who’s riding in which car, and pretty soon the parking lot is vacant once more.

Next stop is the commercial fishing dock at Port St. Joe where Brother Davis ties up the Randy F. And of course, before anyone heads out to sea, he’ll lecture them—just a little—about safety, good conduct, and the fine arts of clamming and scalloping.

“Ya’ll reach down there with your toes in the mud,” he says, his hands outstretched and his fingers wriggling ecstatically. “Nudge around till you feel somethin’ solid. Then catch yourself a good lung full o’ air, dive down and snatch it.”

“How do you tell if it’s a rock or a scallop?” inquires Dan Stone, second counselor in the Marianna Florida Stake presidency, who is not a Florida native.

“There are no rocks in Florida,” chimes one of the youth, and everyone laughs. It’s nearly true. Miles inland or miles out to sea, everything is sand, mud, or pebbles. Roads are paved with red clay from Georgia.

Brother Davis mixes humor and instruction well. Every person present is a strong swimmer, but there are still reminders about using the buddy system. “When one of you is under, one of you stays up. Then if there’s trouble you can holler.” There are reminders about staying with the group, staying close to the boat, about remembering that everybody has to help catch the food. “You don’t work, you don’t eat.”

And, of course, a mild reminder about appropriate conduct. “Ah ketch any of y’all misbehavin’, and ah’ll rip your limbs off.”

By the time other precautions (like making sure to wear T-shirts and to use sun screen to keep from burning) are issued, and farewells are said to a stray dog on the pier, a horn is blasting to warn that the drawbridge is being raised, and the good ship Randy F. is chugging out into the bay. “Can’t you go faster?” someone yells.

“Cain’t do,” Brother Davis replies. “It’s full throttle now, and we got 47 younguns aboard.”

Past a paper mill on the near side of Cape San Blas, past fishermen casting from the shallows, past a pelican perched on a piling, the boat lumbers through still, smooth water toward an obscure little lump of palm trees known as Black’s Island.

On the way, there’s a perfect chance to talk about life as a Latter-day Saint.

“I love living in Florida,” says Erin Mitchell, 13, one of three Beehives in the Panama City First Ward. “It hardly ever gets cold. And because it’s a tourist area, we get lots of visitors at church.”

Erin was “born and raised here. I’ve been a member for four years. Baptized April 27.” She rolls off the date like a great anniversary or a birthday, because for her it is both.

“I was in third grade. Our baby-sitter’s son’s friend, Lisa, started talking to me about the Church, and she asked me to go with her. I introduced my mom to her mom, and my mom joined the Church.” That was April 6. Then Erin was baptized. Then her father on June 21, and her brother James on February 25 the following year.

“I’m sure glad Lisa talked to me,” Erin says. “She brought our whole family into the Church.”

Kevin Davis, 15, feels compelled to outline his genealogy.

“Okay,” he says. “Austin Davis, he’s the one who got this boat out of the fish house. He’s my uncle. Karen and Randy are his kids. Gerald Davis, he’s my uncle too. He’s the bishop. Troy, the kid with the blond hair, is his son. So is Wesley. Phil and Shirley are my parents. They’re converts. My older sister Kelly was already born when they joined the Church. I have two other sisters, Kaye and Kim, and a brother, Kegan.”

Not quite as clear as the water in the bay, but an adequate warning that when you ask for Brother or Sister Davis around here, you’d better be specific. There are some 30 Davises in the ward.

“It’s good to have my family around me,” Kevin continues. “It keeps me from doin’ evil; cussing, swearing, things like that.”

Kevin plans a lot for the future.

“I know I’m going on a mission,” he says. “And I’m going to get married in the temple. Everybody I know that’s LDS has gotten married in the temple.”

He says the Church has helped him in other ways, too. “The priesthood is important. It means we don’t do some of the things others do, like staying out late at night partying on the beach. We like to have fun, but we don’t need to get wild or do something at someone else’s expense.”

Thea Dampier, 16, the Laurel president, agrees. “Lots of people like to go out on the beach and party, and it’s tempting sometimes. But we can go out on the beach and party too. We just don’t have the same kind of party.”

Robert Stone, 13, first counselor in the deacons quorum, says he thinks Florida “is an easy place to gain a testimony. There may be a few raised eyebrows now and then when you tell people you’re LDS, but most people don’t bug you about it. And there are enough Church members around that you have a good camaraderie.

“The adults always like to join us, and it’s good to see that they like to have fun. I love having my father here. The other kids like him, too. We’re going clamming together; then I’m going scalloping with somebody else.”

The constant throbbing of the engine stops. The boat staggers, like an out-of-shape runner stumbling over the finish line. Something whirs, chains clank, and the anchor splashes into the sea.

“The water’s deep here, so be careful,” Brother Davis says. “You can dive off the boat, but then make for the shallows over there. That’s where the clams are.” The bishop watches from a small four-man boat nearby, just to make sure everyone gets there safely.

It isn’t long before the whole group makes it out of the deep water into the chest-deep water covering a sandy shelf. It’s warm, like a swimming pool. Clear, like a swimming pool. Ripple-free, like a swimming pool. But boy is it salty!

“It tastes nasty,” says Kathy Shuler, 13. “And it stings your eyes.”

Soon there are buckets full of clams, and everyone moves on to the waist-deep water, where scallops hide in the sea grass.

“If you don’t have a mask or a snorkel, then you feel with your feet or watch to see them clapping their shells together,” Robert explains. “I only caught three by watching for them. Feet are more reliable.”

Troy Davis, 18, who has worked on fishing boats for about six summers, agrees. “Clamming is the same way. You bump something with your foot, then dig around and catch it before it tunnels any deeper. Clams won’t bite you. Every once in a while a scallop will give your toe a pinch, but it doesn’t hurt.”

Troy says he’s glad he came, that it’s fun to teach the younger kids about shellfishing. He’s graduated from Mosley High and from four years of seminary, and will soon be leaving on a mission. It isn’t hard to get him to talk about it, even standing out in the water.

“If they told me to go today, I’d go home now and pack my bags,” he says. “I know the Church is true. I’d do or give anything in the world for it. Ever since I was a little boy, every time I’ve gone out the door my parents have said, ‘Remember you’re going on a mission.’ That reminds me to be good.”

Troy may not be totally aware of it right now, but by example he’s passing on a lot more to the younger kids than lessons on how to dig for clams.

A few at a time, the fishermen return to the Randy F. They take a few minutes to recuperate, then the clams and scallops have to be shucked; stoves heated up; cake, beans, soda, and salads unpacked and set out; seafood cooked; hushpuppies fried, and a heartfelt blessing said.

And then, of course, it’s time to eat.

Jeff Clark, 17, watches the hush puppies bobbing up and down in the hot oil, the corn meal turning from pale yellow to golden brown. “I usually go scalloping about twice a year,” he says. “But this is my first time to go clamming, and my legs are sore! I’m not used to digging holes with my feet.”

He and Troy talk a little about working on the seine boats, catching mullet and bluefish, sardines and herring. Then they talk a bit about Troy’s mission and wonder when his call might come. They remember the fun they’ve had on other youth outings, like the canoe trip on the Blackwater River.

“That’s legendary,” Jeff says.

“You know,” Troy says, “these other kids, these younger kids, they need to realize that the years they’re living now can be some of the best years of their life. They need to get the most out of these years that they can.”

Austin Davis, talking with someone else on the other side of the boat, is saying much the same thing.

“Six or seven years ago we went out and had a day like this on a shrimp boat,” he says. “Those kids are married now and have families of their own, but they still remember things like this. I’ve talked to kids who’ve served missions and come back, and they still remember doing things like this.

“It’s the same way for these kids. For some of them it’s their first time on the water. A lot of things in life they won’t remember, but these sorts of things, being out with their friends doing good things, that’s something they won’t ever forget.

“And I like these kids. I’d do whatever I could to help them. We’ve really got some jam-up kids.”

The conversations are interrupted for a short awards ceremony. Prizes are given for the worst sunburn, smallest scallop, biggest scallop, most scallops, biggest clam, smallest clam, and most clams. Winners receive sunburn lotion, lollipops, and leftover bottles of soft drinks. And everybody’s a winner, because everybody shares.

On the way home, it’s impossible to resist making one more stop. Not too far from Black’s Island, there’s an island so small it doesn’t even have a name. It’s more like a pile of sand. You can walk around it completely in five minutes.

Again the sand is white. It’s hot on your feet, but not hot enough to burn. An abandoned boat rests like a black skeleton on the beach. Horseshoe crabs scrabble for cover among the shells and sand dollars that nature has spread out like an exhibit in a design gallery. Sea oats, tall and green with golden tassles, bend in the wind as if waving in greeting—or in farewell.

Not everyone comes to this island. Some spend a few final moments diving off the boat again. Others, tired, rest eyes that are weary of salt water and sea spray. It isn’t long before the leaders are calling the adventurers back on board. It’s time to go home.

The next morning, in the foyer before priesthood meeting starts, three 12-year-old deacons are talking. They’ve already had their presidency meeting, made their assignments for passing the sacrament, even had a reminder from their adviser about being reverent and remembering the sacredness of helping people renew their covenants.

But now, for a minute, they remember yesterday.

Dale Estey brags about the sea urchin he caught in a net.

“But somebody threw it back in,” he says.

Wesley Davis says the favorite thing for him was diving off the boat, and seeing the leaders do the same.

Richard Stemphoski says that now if he’s ever lost, he at least knows how to find clams and scallops. “And I already know how to make a fire without matches, so I could cook them,” he says.

Over in another hallway, outside the room where the Young Women meet, Lacrisa Laster, Angela Pierce, and Karen Davis, all 16, and Michelle Laster, 14, complain—just a little—about how stiff their sunburn makes them feel. And they laugh—just a little—about how funny one of the leaders looked trying to breathe through a snorkel tube.

“We really had a great time,” Michelle says. “When can we go again?”

Austin Davis was right. The memories are already starting to build.

EDITOR’S NOTE: What’s going on in your own backyard? We’d love to hear about the things you do in your ward or branch. Write to us at: New Era Editorial Offices, 50 East North Temple, Salt Lake City, Utah 84150.

[photos] Photography by Richard M. Romney

[photos] Like some magic world where diamonds grow on water, Florida’s west coast showers its treasures on young Saints who live nearby. They don’t have to plan exotic trips to faraway locations. They’ve mastered the art of discovering all that’s beautiful close to home.

[photos] Come on in, the water’s fine! Warmed by constant sunshine, the shallow, sandy bay maintains a perfect temperature for swimming or wading. In deeper water, with lifeguards standing ready, highdive enthusiasts make their big splash, plunging from the deck or rigging.

[photos] Scallops and clams abound in the inlets, and even a beginner can reap an abundant harvest in an hour or two. But the greatest harvest from time spent together is the closeness that develops between youth and leaders, a closeness that will last for years.