This article is from the summer edition of Mobile Baykeeper’s print quarterly, CURRENTS. The magazine is mailed to active members who have given more than $50 in 2023. To get on the magazine’s mailing list, donate here.
by Caine O’Rear | photos by Gwen O’Rear
Point Clear was a special place in the 1980s. It was a kids’ paradise. It’s where you learned to ski, pop a wheelie, and fight without really hurting your opponent. It is where you learned to operate a Stauter. You wore Jams shorts and carried Throwing Stars in your pocket and you knew for a stone-cold certainty that the Soviets were your enemy.
I remember the unmistakable scents of honeysuckle and wisteria, Capri-Suns and Hawaiian Tropic suntan oil. The town dripped with atmosphere, and the damp air wrapped around you like a blanket. The live oaks that lined the Bay — writhing, ancient grotesques with arms that twisted and dipped over the boardwalk, nearly touching the sand — we scrambled barefoot over, like spider monkeys crazed on sugar. They are the best trees in the world for climbing and the Bay opened up to the sky with its promise of a never-ending day.
In those long, amphibious summers we spent as much time in the water as on land. No one would have been surprised if one of us had sprouted fins. On some instinctive level the water represented freedom and a sense of possibility that you did not have in Mobile. Even as kids of six or seven, we understood the significance of what we had.
The Bay was still the color of chocolate milk along the boardwalk in Point Clear. I don’t remember any talk from the parents about the Bay being unhealthy. Swimming with cuts on your knee — a near constant — was never cause for concern. But I do recall the dads wearing T-shirts that read “Mobile Bay: Together We Can Keep It Alive.” And the Bay was alive. That it could be otherwise was an ominous impossibility, edged far on the periphery, along with the sense that something precious could be lost.
Learning to ski was a rite of passage that dominated the agenda in the early days of summer. Ski school started early and the moms were the instructors. They ran a tight ship. Every kid had to learn to ski and there was no such thing as a pass. Tubing had not yet entered the picture and though hydro-sliding was popular it was very much on the side stage. When it came to skiing, there was definitely a sense of competition over who could get up first.
We learned on four-foot, yellow Cypress Garden trainer skis that were fastened together with a rope. One of the moms, the one not on boat duty, was positioned in the water to hold you steady and give you an extra shove. When you gave her the go-ahead she’d yell “hit it” and the driver would floor the Stauter.
Once you got up on trainers, it was difficult to dart in and out of the wake, and there was not a lot of opportunity for showing off. You mostly just glided along with your thoughts and waved to idlers on their wharves until your arms got tired and you finally quit. Once we learned on real skis, we were certain it would be a different story.
Fishing off the wharf was a daily enterprise. For bait we used mussels we’d managed to dig out from beneath the surface of the Bay, cracking them open with a hammer to get to the meat. We fished with brightly colored Zebcos purchased at the mini-mart down the road. Spinning rods and reels were reserved for the dads. We dared not use those and risk getting the lines all tangled and cattywampus, which would have incurred their wrath.
We mostly caught catfish in those summers. There was a section near the end of the wharf — the wharves were rickety and weathered then and not like the showpieces you see today — which we named Catfish Pond. You would catch one there every time. One night my granddad stepped on one and got an infection in his foot from where it finned him. Naturally, we vowed revenge. From then on any catfish we caught was summarily bludgeoned and used as bait for the crab-traps. Beaver, the family golden retriever, looked on with bemusement. Our methods were wantonly cruel, but it seemed right at the time, convinced as we were of the collective guilt of catfish.
I don’t recall any redfish being caught. Occasionally one of the kids would snag a speckled trout, and once someone caught a flounder with a grape. The incident bloomed into a folk legend that continues to this day.
I remember hearing the bells at dawn, heralding a jubilee, something I’d long heard about. A few hours later the Igloos were running over with crabs and flounder. What the hell did we do with all that food, I wonder? The anticipation of the bells was like listening for the sound of reindeer hooves the night before Christmas.
Keys to the Boardwalk
When we were not on the water, we were on our bikes. Our turf stretched along the boardwalk from the Grand Hotel all the way to the Punta Clara Kitchen candy-store (where, we were convinced, there lived a witch). I don’t remember ever having to check in except for lunch and dinner. These were not the days of helicopter parents. I don’t think anyone ever got hurt or lost, and the ice-cream man was not someone to be feared.
The movie Rad had done for kid bike-culture what Karate Kid had done for the martial arts. I rode a candy-red Mongoose, my prized possession. Not the fastest ride on the street but it got the job done. It was decked out with pegs and wheel-spokes the color of Skittles. I rode it proudly, without a helmet of course.
We rode to the gas station next to the Grand Hotel to buy baseball cards, the coin of the realm back then. At the time a pack of cards (15 cards, 55 cents) came with a stick of pink gum that tasted like cardboard. You traded cards constantly, carefully weighing each negotiation and never entering into a trade without anxiety. There were a few instances of alleged theft, including one involving the then-coveted 1987 Topps rookie card of Andre Thomas, a now-forgotten Braves shortstop.
May the Best One Win
It was not all about the kids. The parents had their share of fun, to be sure. And the fun was not always rated PG. At some point in every summer, a group of moms, sporting short hair and the oversized, tinted sunglasses that were fashionable at the time, took part in a competition known as “The Boob Contest.”
This atavistic ritual involved the contestants standing up and performing gyrations while balancing on a black inner tube, Miller Lites and cigarettes in hand, topless as Woodstock in the pagan days of yore. This was not something we kids witnessed, but being kids, we had caught wind of it. Although it may have been hidden from our sight it did take place in the bright light of day under the watchful eye of God. Not sure if there was a single presiding judge or if a committee was appointed, but the winner was awarded a plastic gold trophy of a single, naked boob.
Adventures in Babysitting
The teenage baby-sitter was an important personae in this drama. Casting usually involved a girl of 12 or 13 — cheap labor for the parents. The babysitters, for the most part, were generally cool and not strict disciplinarians. They taught us jokes above our reading-level and gave us lessons on gender-bending by way of Boy George’s music. There was one bad apple in the mix, however. He was a guy of about 15 who drank Budweiser longnecks in tandem on the wharf while we slurped Kool-Aid and cannonballed into the water throughout the hot afternoon. We were quite disturbed by his prodigious beer consumption. When we asked him how old he was he just replied “old enough.” He was fired but no charges were pressed.
The Fry House
One summer my family stayed at the Fry House. I’ve been told that it served as an ad-hoc hospital for soldiers during the Civil War. It stood on the boardwalk about 13 houses down from the Grand Hotel and at the time it was one of the more decrepit edifices facing the Bay — a planter’s version of the Boo Radley dwelling. There was no air-conditioning that summer. I recall the whir of enormous ceiling fans, endless PB and Js, the flare of heat lightning over the Bay, and a black-and-white television playing Braves games and the videos of George Michael and Crowded House on constant rotation.
Summers die, but the memories don’t. I’m grateful for my child- hood summers spent in Point Clear. To this day they come back in the Technicolor of my imagination, clear as the jubilee bells at dawn.
Wes O’Rear and Beaver
(Left to right) Howell O’Rear, PJ Waters, Caine O’Rear, Wes O’Rear
(Left to right) Michael Phillips, Brevard Dukes Hinton, Howell O’Rear, Ann Chandler Dukes Shuleva, Wes O’Rear, Stacie Newman Frischkorn
(Left to right) Charles Cox, Chris Cox, Michael Phillips