When I was a kid we would drive to the bluff and watch the fireworks. The bluff, back then, was a verdant expanse of sloping grass. Two statues stood sentinel: The Spirit of the American Navy and The Spirit of the American Doughboy. On July 4th they watched families crowd their tri-fold beach chairs and aluminum-framed redwood chairs side by side and wait for the fireworks. Kids ran through the crowd with sparklers.
That was my sole interaction with the bluff, although I drove by it on the regular on my way to the beach. When the city of Clearwater started talk of changes downtown and a new bridge, I privately grieved for the loss of that stretch land that gave all of us not lucky enough to live on the water public access to one of the most stunning waterfront vistas in the city.
The Doughboy and the Navy took a vacation south to Sarasota to get some restoration work done, sort of a spa for statues. The construction began, and life downtown changed forever. The bluff surrendered its scratchy rough blades of grass for smooth, clay-colored ribbons of road leading to a massive bridge that better connected the beach with the mainland. I assumed the bluff was gone forever.
Today, though, for some reason a patch of malachite catches my eye as my vermilion Volkwagen rolls down the bridge and onto the mainland. I hit the brakes and smash the clutch just in time to make a sharp right turn into the parking lot of the Oaks. I pick my way through landscaping and find myself amidst an albeit far tinier but still lush bluff. It still affords a breathtaking panorama of the bay, the bridge and the beach. I can still look down and see the deceptively soothing froth of the whitecaps on the water; I can still stretch my neck to see the upright soldiers of development over on Sand Key. I can still hear the distant rumble of traffic over the bridge, although the distinctive tinny rattle as cars grate over the midsection is now gone, as is the metallic center span that held me up so many times.
The bluff is still there. It is smaller, less accessible, and a little sadder for its new neighbors. The tree at the bluff’s edge stands alone against the silhouette of the new bridge, the reason for the bluff’s demise.
That doesn’t make this little patch of public paradise any less sweet. If anything, it evokes happy memories and reminds me that no matter how much things change, there is always a small part of them that remain the same. I run my fingers over the itchy green grass and get into my almost-certainly illegally parked car and drive towards downtown.
As I go, the doughboy waves me on.