In March 1999, my editors at The Times gave me an interesting assignment to research, all about our sister cities to our Region's own familiar destination Valparaiso, Ind.
Their idea at the time of this story assignment came from award-winning novelist-turned-playwright Don DeLillo, now 66, who was commissioned to write a play for the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. He said he intended to craft something with mystery and intrigue and he called the new play "Valparaiso."
The play is the story of Michael Majeski, a hapless traveler intending to fly to Valparaiso, Ind., but is mistakenly misrouted to Valparaiso, Fla., then mis-directed a second time to Valparaiso, Chile. Majeski's travel mix-up attracts the attention of the news media, which has a field day playing up what they find to be an ideal "human interest" feature story. Before long, Majeski finds himself retelling the story over and over, sharing every detail of his life.
David Wheeler, the director for the original run of "Valparaiso," told me he wasn't completely sure why DeLillo selected "Valparaiso" for the title. But he did reveal the playwright once said to him: "You know David, the word 'Valparaiso' means 'Vale of Paradise.' "
While I was in Destin, Fla. over the weekend, I was excited to be flying into the Fort Walton/Valparaiso, Florida Airport to finally get a glimpse at this area I wrote about nearly 15 years earlier. For that 1999 piece, I called and spoke to Armand Coutu, drama teacher at Okaloosa-Walton Community College, which serves Valparaiso, Fla.
"People have a hard time finding us here near Valparaiso, with a population just more than 4,000," he told me in 1999.
"We're located up near north near the Alabama state line on the panhandle. There are a lot of times when mapmakers even leave our part of the state off of maps completely. I hate to call Valparaiso a 'cow town,' but it is. It's just this little fishing village. There is a post office and a museum with a rocking chair in it, from one of the town's founding fathers, but not much else."
But Armand left out some of the best details and selling points from the area, which is back in the news, along with Louisiana, because of this week's trial about the BP 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Henderson Beach State Park in neighboring Destin, offers famed white sand beaches along the more than 6,000 feet of scenic shoreline bordering the emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The coastal dunes are fragile, and wild sea oats are planted to help ward off erosion and protect nesting sea turtles. (Only one out of every 1,000 sea turtles born survive to reach adulthood.) This is also the same landscape of wind-twisted pines that served the vital industry a century ago for harvesting the resin used to make turpentine, the same precious oil still used today in everything from cleaning supplies to the added ingredient in Vick's Vapor Chest Rub. (FYI: floridastateparks.org or 850-837-7550)
While attending Mass Sunday morning at Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Destin, Rev. Robert Morris said after the 2010 oil spill, his parish suffered a loss that year of more than $50,000 because weekly offerings disappeared after tourists and residents fled. "I was told to file paperwork to BP to obtain reimbursement for the loss," he said. "But I didn't want to. We handled it, and we are still here."