On any given Saturday during the summer months, sections of I-65 south of Birmingham slow to a crawl as vacationers make their way to the Gulf of Mexico. This year I discovered that the sound of kids trapped in a car for several hours isn’t so bad when they ride with their grandparents in another vehicle. We arrived at the beach with sleepy boys as the moonlight danced across the waves.

Every time I see the white sands and smell the salt in the air, my soul soars like a seagull on the wind. It’s more than a beach; those emerald waves measure the passage of time.

As children, my siblings and I would literally climb over each other to be the first one to set eyes on the water. When the car finally stopped, my parents would chase us with sunscreen as we ran to the beach shedding our clothes along the way.

It didn’t matter what obstacles we needed to navigate. We couldn’t wait to feel the salt, sand, and surf on our skin. We’d make sandcastles, bury dad, ride the waves, and head out for the sandbar that wasn’t ever where we thought it would be. We only had to call the Coast Guard the one time dad just went a little too far chasing a wind-swept float.

My family walked the beach at night, chased ghost crabs and occasionally caught a blue one in the surf. We’d put them in our plastic beach buckets and then let them go all at once. The kids squealed in delight as we ran from the crabs skittering across our toes.

As a teenager, I couldn’t wait to get back to the Gulf each year. I came of age on those beaches with some gas station cigars and a little country music. I remember piling in a big pickup truck and cruising the strip in Panama City. I’m not sure what we were doing, but man, we thought we were cool.

If my buddies and I thought the Gulf sun was hot, the sun-tanned ladies walking our way gave it a run for its money. The guys would throw the football, wrestle around or get beaten up by the waves just hoping one of them would notice us. For their part, the ladies seemed determined to act like we didn’t exist.

For a few years, I didn’t make it back as much. Life had other plans. You might have caught me sneaking a few moments if I ever got too close on a work trip and heard the call of the ocean. I was that guy at sunset with his wingtips on the beach and suit pants rolled up to his knees. I probably looked like I’d lost my mind, but I couldn’t have been happier.

Now my bride and I have three boys of our own racing for the surf. So much life has happened since I first saw the Gulf of Mexico. I just blinked, and now I’m here.

My oldest wasn’t sure about the waves, so I headed out with him. I’d take the brunt of the wave like my dad did for me. It wasn’t too long until he was howling in laughter as the waves tossed him like a rag doll towards the beach. It was like he was wrestling one of his brothers–a favorite activity in our house.

At night, we went out on the beach like I had years before. I taught them about the tides, the patterns in the waves and how to catch crabs with their hands. Nothing makes a little boy feel quite as tough as bare-handing a cranky, armor-plated, pinching machine.

We discussed the power of the ocean, navigating a rip current and always leaving God’s creation better than we found it. It’s strange to feel such a responsibility to care for something that renders us so small and insignificant. They seemed to understand–as if they knew it all along. Maybe they just wanted me to stop talking, so they could focus on the crabs.

Even though we’ve left the beach, I still hear my boys squawking at my wife lathering them up with sunscreen. I’ll be back soon. I’ll enjoy each high tide, low tide and every moment in between. At some point, the waves will keep going, but I won’t. Whenever that happens, bury my heart in the Gulf of Mexico.

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