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‘To everything there is a season’

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Gulf Shores

Amanda St. John, 13, front, feeds seagulls with her family in Gulf Shores, Ala.

In most parts of this country of ours, folks are content with four seasons: summer, fall, winter, spring. Each defined by changes in temperature and such.

However, down along the Gulf Coast, from Panama City to Mobile Bay, seasons are defined by who shows up.

What is summer to most Americans is tourist season down there. It unofficially begins with the Mullet Toss at the FloraBama in Orange Beach, an event created to give folks something to do on the last weekend in April.

Yet, in reality, tourist season begins when Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and even Georgia schools disgorge their students and families come down to crowd the beaches. It continues, unabated or restrained, until the students return to the classrooms. Once this was after Labor Day. Today, thanks to educational bureaucrats who believe learning is directly related to the number of hours kids spend in their desks, the school year begins in August.

When learning begins is debatable.

Once tourist season was done, the coast was clear.

Or at least it used to be.

Beach entrepreneurs, their attention firmly fixed on the bottom line, saw no profit in closing down and relaxing for a few months, so they began touting the advantages of coming to the coast in September, October and even November — months when the air and water were still warm, the beach wasn’t crowded and there were no long waits at your favorite restaurant.

Chambers of commerce and tourism development councils targeted likely visitors, and a second tourist season was born, albeit with more adults and fewer teenagers.

Meanwhile, up in the states that sent students to the coast in summer, the same educational planners who decided the school year should be longer also discovered that instead of improving those all important test scores, the longer year simply wore out students and teachers alike. So they created fall break — an October week away from studies.

Beach businesses loved the idea and supported it so enthusiastically that it was rumored that the holiday was created for the economy of the coast instead of the education of the young.

Promoters played down the fact that fall break season coincided with hurricane season, only noting in their promotions that during those bucolic days, a “weather event” was a remote possibility.

Football coaches hated fall break, for it messed up schedules, so their teams stayed close to home and the practice fields. This also kept other students — bands, cheerleaders and such — from traveling, which put a dent in the tourist market.

Parents whose jobs did not accommodate (or pay for) a week off in the fall scrambled to find ways to occupy their children’s time. Children watched TV and got bored.

To no one’s surprise, slowly but surely fall break was reduced to a long weekend or abandoned entirely. Coastal shopkeepers pouted.

Meanwhile, tourism development councils found a whole new market to be tapped. While coastal communities were settling into the chilly doldrums of winter, up north, where snow was piling up, sunny days with highs in the 60s and lows still above freezing sounded like paradise.

Now, Yankees had long been coming south for the winter. The affluent usually went farther south — Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, the Keys. So many retirees wintered in Sarasota that it became known as “God’s Waiting Room.” There were bundles of the less-affluent playing shuffleboard at visitor centers, inland in places like pre-Disney Orlando. However, along the upper Gulf, after the first of December, there were few to be found.

They were up in Des Moines, Detroit, Chicago and Cincinnati, retirees with good union pensions and paid-for houses, shivering in the snow and yearning for spring.

Coastal promoters tapped into this yearning and from their efforts a new season was born — snowbird season.

It began fitfully, with many locals less-than welcoming to outsiders who seemed to believe Southerners should take their advice and follow their example. A bumper sticker — “If this is Snowbird Season, why can’t I shoot one?” — captured that reaction. However, as time passed and the winter economy grew, Southern hospitality won out. Though there is still the occasional complaint, most snowbirds are welcomed. They flock to friendly churches, recreation centers and restaurants with all-you-can-eat buffets. Seldom do you hear the derisive joke about the Canadian who came down with a white shirt and a $20 bill and did not change either. On the whole, they fit right in.

As I write, snowbird season is in full swing and it will be so until March or April when the weather warms back home. Then it will be college spring break season. After that, mullets will be tossed at the FloraBama and summer tourists will start arriving.

Like it says in the Good Book, “To everything there is a season.”

Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and occasional feature/op-ed writer for The Star. Email: