As a child we often vacationed on Pensacola Beach and usually spent part of the time camping at the national park located at the western side of the island. Many days and nights were spent running up and down the shoreline on both the harbor side and gulf side of the island. We did the gulf side during the day and at night typically walked harbor side to Ft. Pickens to sit on the old stone wall surrounding it. We would watch meteor showers, crab hunt, and explore as much as possible in the moonlight that always seemed to be present casting an erie glow on the fort and surrounding ranger cabins.
One night there was a small campfire light just past the entrance of the fort and several park rangers where going to tell stories. I was immediately entralled and found a seat on the front bench with my Dad and brother trailing behind me wondering what I was up to. The story began and the ranger asked if any of us had noticed the explosion site near the front of the fort. We stated we had, and then he asked if there was anything particular we noticed about it.
I stared at the gapping whole in the fort trying to make a pattern or distinction from the crumbling brick and rubble. As the light from the Pensacola lighthouse flashed across the harbor and illuminated the damaged portion of the fort, we were suddenly able to see the siloiete of a person’s profile. I shot a look back at the ranger wide eyed with anticipation to find out who this person, forever memorialized in this old fort, really was.
He began to tell us of a part of American history I knew very little of, the fate of the Apache warriors. As the American nation began to spread west ward the Apaches and many other Native Americans were forced to give up land, innocently killed, and treated deplorably. Geronimo and his band of warriors were knowns as some of the most fierce warriors of their time and eventually were captured and transported by train to be held captive at Ft. Pickens in Pensacola Beach, FL.
Geronimo spent years as a captive to the American government, but according to the history the rangers gave, remained a good man at heart. It was said that he helped others when they were sick, taught skills and other survival techniques that were unknown to the soldiers gaurding them, and learned to write his name to sell autographs to visitors the American Government paraded to the fort by farey for daily tours.
The Apache warriors were forced to live in squalor and worked a rigorous manual labor schedule removing catci from the sandy island ground. Two years into the sentence between the Government and the treaty Geronimo agreed to, he and his warriors were relocated to Alabama. In 1899 an accidental explosion happened at Ft. Pickens in the area that Geronimo and his warriors were imprissoned. Ammunition had been stored in the area since the warriors had been relocated and when some ordance was accidentally ignited, it blew bricks and other debris from the fort a mile and a half away. The remaining structure of the fort was left in the same damaged state after the explosion as the military had began to depend on other measures for defence and remains to this day.
When the lighthouse sweeps the fort at night and illuminates the siloette it is the profile of Geronimo that can be seen. As if he wanted it known that the Government had wrongfully imprisoned and captured his people. I never thought about the fort in the same way after learning that story and always admired Geronimo for doing everything he could to fight an oppressive regime that was destined to eradicate him and others because they were different.
I wish that lesson had remained with me when I joined the military, however many years passed between that childhood campfire story at the fort and my patriotism to defend the Constitution after the attacks of September 11 and I was terribly disillusioned about the things my government were going to have me doing. When I left the island as a child I always left wanting more, I just couldn’t get enough of that tiny island and it’s inhabits. By the time I graduated A-school and was getting ready to transfer, I could not get away from the island fast enough. I never understood the disconnect until possibly even today, but after the military, Pensacola aroused unpleasant emotions I had never experienced before.
One remarkable aspect I forgot about from my lesson on Geronimo was that he stated “I should have never surrendered. I should have fought until I was the last man alive.” As a whimsical little girl I can see why I did not grasp that part of the lesson, but as the adult typing this today, I feel almost sheepish that it was ever forgotten. I wish that I had the strength this man had to face and stand up to my oppressors that kept me confined and isolated in horror. I wish I would have stood up to my superiors when my instincts told me to and done the right thing instead of set ideally by in numerous occasions.
There were many times during military service in which I did surrender, and those were the times that almost killed me. I fight daily now to not surrender to the depths of my brain that are the hell of living with PTSD. It took me a long time to decide to keep fighting. I drank it away and denied it all for many years. I could not understand why I could not find happiness when I visited my favorite old spots in childhood, especially when I visited Pensacola.
On vacation last year, as I strolled along the top of Ft. Pickens and stared across the harbor at what was my old life the wind began to pick up from across the gulf. I lifted my head to the warm sun glaring overhead and my eyes rest on the old crumbling bits of the fort that once imprissoned Geronimo and a smile crossed my lips. As the unmistakable noise of an F-18 flew overhead and snapped me back to reality, I suddenly remembered Geronimo’s lesson; Never surrender. My heart felt at peace and for the first time since leaving the beach as a scared young airman starting my life in the Navy, and I felt like the carefree little girl that grew up exploring and loving that island for all of the lessons it had and continues to give me. That day I felt a renewed love for my beautiful Santa Rosa Island and felt the desire to share my knowledge with my husband and family. Pride swelled as we entered the tiny museum and walked along the harbor walls as I had when I was a child.
I was able to look at the base and remember that it was not all bad. I remembered my friends that I made when I was there and the fun things I had done. I got to see an old squadron mate that I love with all my heart and instead of dreading any possible intrusive thoughts, I was able to embrace the occasion and be present in our conversation. For the first time since leaving the beach in 2002, I finally felt as if I had no more unfinished business in Pensacola. I did not surrender to the irrational thoughts and beliefs I had attached to my favorite place on earth and instead was able to fall even deeper in love with the beauty and mystique that is Santa Rosa Island, and for that I will always thank Geronimo.