From here to fraternity

Longing for the college revelry he never had, a young man goes undercover in the land of spring break.


Rolf Potts
February 26, 1999 2:28PM (UTC)

A couple was writhing in the surf about 15 yards down the beach from me.
The guy appeared to have his pants around his ankles, but it was too
dark to tell whether he and the girl were actually having sex in the
Clintonian sense of the word.

Given the fact that there were about 30 other people in the immediate
vicinity, all semblance of "From Here to Eternity" romance was pretty
much lost.

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The Panama City Beach police officer who was with me at the time didn't
seem at all fazed by the spectacle of public fornication. "Spring
break," he said, giving the couple a cursory glance as he wrote me up
for carrying an open bottle of beer. "It's a different set of rules
here." He handed me my warning citation. "If you're gonna drink on the
beach, buy cans. Right now you'd better take those bottles back to your
hotel room before I give you a real ticket."

I thanked the officer and took off up the beach.

The fact was, I didn't have a hotel room. And -- since I'd graduated
from college a few years earlier -- I wasn't even there for spring
break. Technically, I was in the process of delivering a Ford Taurus
from Kansas City to Key West. I'd only stopped at Panama City Beach
late that evening out of voyeuristic curiosity. After all, MTV (which
has developed into a kind of youth-culture Vatican) had decreed Panama
City Beach to be America's spring break destination of choice, and I was
dying to see what all the fuss was about.

Since I'd gone to college in the Pacific Northwest, all my personal
memories of spring break were fraught with Dionysian inadequacy. While
the hipsters of my generation were out venting their bacchanalian urges
on the MTV-approved beaches of Florida, Texas and Mexico, I shivered
away my spring breaks backpacking in the Oregon Cascades. I always
enjoyed myself, but I secretly longed for a spring break that more
closely resembled the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, a rap video or
a cable-TV movie about an endearingly wacky fraternity vacation.

This auto-delivery stop-off in Panama City, I figured, was the perfect
chance to redeem myself.

Unfortunately, it's hard to be a loner in the land of spring break.
When I'd first arrived that evening, I'd made the mistake of bar-hopping
along the main highway. Every single beer hall felt like a starter
culture for middle-aged barflies -- each catered to the ideal of
sunset-hued cocktails, superficial camaraderie and the suggestion of
anonymous sex in sandy-floored hotel rooms. I sat alone with my beer at
a succession of bars and watched tables full of beefy, sunburned college
boys suck down drinks, whoop at each other and peer around at the token
females. I tried to strike up a few conversations, but the guys stuck
to their groups and the girls seemed preoccupied with glancing around
and sizing up other possibilities.

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It was a Tuesday, the fourth night of a cycle that begins each Saturday
when a new wave of tour-package charter buses roll in from places like
Wisconsin and Georgia. Already, the storied drinking-holes of Panama
City Beach were exuding a bored, vaguely desperate atmosphere of grim
hedonism. Everyone I talked to, it seemed, was merely looking for
something tangible and meaningless to happen -- something to recall
years later, perhaps, when they could look back on it and call it their
youth.

Stymied by both the bars and the police of Panama City Beach, I
determined that my only hope in chalking up a classic spring break
experience would be to pose as a college student and infiltrate some
hotel parties.

Figuring it as good a place as any, I hiked to the Holiday Inn high-rise
at the far end of the beach, sauntered into the hotel courtyard, shucked
my shirt and shoes, and plopped into the whirlpool. Across the bubbling
water from me, a short, burly guy from Michigan immediately declared
that he was there to protect me. He was nearly too drunk to speak, but
I was encouraged by his friendliness.

"I'm big," he said. He must have been a full half-foot shorter than I.
"I'm an ass-kicker. Stick with me and nobody'll mess with you. I won't
let anyone steal your clothes." He babbled along on this theme for
about five minutes. Not sure how to respond, I threw in an occasional
"thank you."

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He eventually left to look for some cigarettes and vomit into a hedge.
This left me with his friend, a very pale and tubby Michigander named
Tad. "Don't worry about him," Tad said. "He just wants to be
somebody's hero after humiliating himself last night."

"What did he do last night?"

"He passed out in the hot tub, and somebody stole his clothes. I say
that isn't so bad. It gives him a story to tell. That has to count for
something, since all anyone's been doing since we got on the bus in
Michigan is drinking. There are only so many variations on getting
drunk."

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"This may be a dumb question, but why are you here if you're so
skeptical about drinking? Isn't that like going to the Super Bowl when
you don't like football?"

Tad frowned amiably and splashed his hands in the water. "Look around,
man! The trim here is incredible. Any size or shape is fine for the
Tadster. Except the ones who've been spending their Indiana winters
popping tanning pills. They look like carrots. I don't do orange
women." He paused for a second and looked agonizingly at a long-legged
girl getting out of the swimming pool. "Except her. I'd take her if
she was lime green."

"How's your luck been?"

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"Actually, I don't think I've even talked to any. But I promised myself
I'd cheat on my girlfriend at least once while I was here."

"Revenge?"

"No, she's too romantic and loyal and all that crap. She'd never do
anything on purpose to make me mad, and that pisses me off. She gets
sentimental about everything. There were two letters from her waiting
for me at the hotel when I got here, both talking about how she wishes
she was with me. Shit, man! She had to be with me still when she wrote
those letters. That means she was getting sentimental in advance. That
girl's so sentimental she couldn't go to a funeral without wishing she
was the dead person."

I laughed. "So you want to give her the boot?"

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"Heck no. I just want to cheat on her, is all."

"Won't that be kind of strange when you get back, I mean, with the guilt
and all?"

"Look. My psychosexual world hasn't been the same since I found out
that Princess Leia is a lesbian."

"What do you mean?"

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"Just like I said it. I read a couple months ago that the actress who
played Princess Leia on 'Star Wars' is a lesbian. I haven't been the
same since. Can you believe it? She was the first woman I ever felt
lust for! Look what it's done to me."

Tad got up to leave after a while, and when I jokingly suggested that he
was leaving to call his girlfriend, his face turned red. He returned 30
minutes later with news of a party on the fifth floor of the Holiday
Inn. Since the whirlpool was beginning to lose its novelty, I followed
him up.

The door was open when we arrived, like an uncertain invitation to go in
or get out. Inside, spring break was starting to unravel. A generally
good indicator of party vitality is male/female ratio, and at this point
the party was limping along. The only females present were a couple of
tired-looking, chubby-faced girls who obviously didn't know any of the
males very well and sat on the floor by the wall, uncertainly clutching
slushy red rum drinks. About 10 guys were present, all valiantly
trying to keep one step ahead of boredom. Apparently having given up on
the chubby-faced girls, they had turned on the television and were
offering sluggish analysis of everything they saw.

"Whatever happened to Macaulay Culkin?" one of them said, peering at a
movie preview. "He was the cutest kid ever in 'Home Alone,' but now
he's just another pubescent shit."

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"Who does he think he is?" another guy yelled. "Let's go kill the
little bastard." All of them jumped up like they were going to find
rakes and hoes and hunt down the child actor -- but they were quickly
distracted by something else and went rushing out to the balcony. I
followed them outside, where they cheered as a drunken kid a couple
stories down made a big show of throwing things off his balcony.
Everyone whooped heartily when the kid landed a thermos in the swimming
pool.

When this form of entertainment lost its charm, the focus of the party
switched over to the task of stealing a water-bong, which sat out on the
table of an adjacent balcony. Working together like they were trying to
save a baby from an artesian well, a couple guys tied some towels
together and tried to snag the bong in a makeshift lariat. "It's gonna be
spring bake!" one cowboy yelled over and over as they tossed their soggy
lasso at the other balcony. They succeeded only in knocking a couple
beer bottles off the balcony onto the courtyard revelers below and
finally gave up on the bong.

Everyone filed back into the room to discover that someone had passed
out on one of the beds. Nobody knew who he was; he had apparently
wandered in by accident. A heated argument ensued over what to do with
the unconscious fellow, who lay open-mouthed and slobbering on the bed.
One of the group, a gnomish drunk with a nasally laugh, suggested that
we all write messages on the stranger's skin with a felt pen. "My
brother was in a frat, and they did that to a freshman pledge once," he
said, giggling through his nose. "Then they shoved a carrot up his
ass." A couple of vaguely sober souls checked the stranger to make sure
he was still alive. Some other guys went down the walkway, checking
rooms to see who the unconscious reveler belonged to.

This fragmented the party, and I ended up sitting in the bathroom
talking with Tad, the chubby-faced girls, and a big mustachioed blond
named Dan. After a while, Dan started to entertain the rest of us by
presenting us with math riddles and story problems, writing out his
equations on the mirror with a piece of soap.

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Four nights of spring break, and the Michiganders had gravitated back to
academics.

I spent the remainder of the night sipping a rum drink and making grand
guesses at Dan's math riddles, secretly wistful for the chilly
peacefulness of the Oregon Cascades.


Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts' Vagabonding column appears every other Tuesday in Salon Travel. For more columns by Potts, visit his column archive.

MORE FROM Rolf Potts

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