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George Washington breaks for spring break

JoyHall
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Dad and brother Tim beside George Washington in Melbourne, Florida in 1973.

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Sunday, March 24, 2019

There comes a time of year when one lets one’s thoughts drift out of classrooms to the sunny shores of spring break. And no place is more synonymous with epic spring breaks than Florida, be it the crunch of calcite shells underfoot, or the sandy curls of George Washington on the beach.

Florida is a flatbed of hot sand. If Kansas is flatter than a pancake, and a 2003 study in the Annals of Improbable Research tested it against a genuine International House Of Pancakes pancake and found it to be so, then Florida must be flatter than spilled milk. The Kansas research incited a rivalry among states even flatter than Kansas, which was resolved in a 2014 study in Geographical Review that found Florida to be the flattest of the flat. Pancakes, by the way, are surprisingly mountainous: if the IHOP pancake were stretched to the width of Kansas, its nooks and crannies would be the size of the Himalayas! Florida’s highest peak, Sugarloaf Mountain, is barely three times taller than a sand dune at Jockey’s Ridge State Park near Nags Head, (which, one must point out, is two times higher than Greenville).

Florida’s flatness flows from forming the foundation of a fluctuating flood.

Five hundred million years ago, Florida was a fingerling of volcanic rock fringing the coast of Africa, far from the rest of ancient North America which was stuck to Greenland and creeping along the equator. It wasn’t until 300 million years later, when Africa wrinkled up the Appalachians as the continents collided, that Florida was sandwiched into its current position, and it then spent a good part of the next thousands of millennia submerged.

When ice ages took hold of the planet, ocean water was locked away from the oceans and was spread over the continents as glaciers, reducing the volume of the oceans and lowering sea level, fully exposing the Florida thumb on the North American continent. When the glaciers melted, water flowed back into the world ocean, filling it and raising sea level, and flooding Florida. During the flood times, Florida disappeared beneath the Atlantic, collecting plankton and seashells and coral reefs, and washed flat. During cold periods, when ice drew down the seas, Florida grew to twice its current size, sweeping westward an additional hundred miles to the Gulf of Mexico, flattening further from the wearing effects of exposure to weather.

All that plankton and coral and shallow shell shedding built up a large limestone bedrock that at today’s sea volume barely protrudes from the ocean waves. The limestone is porous, pocked with cavities and crannies like petrified pancakes. The solid calcite stone has been dissolved away by groundwater made acidic during the decay of plants and animals. The holes link seawater to Florida’s freshwater, sometimes intruding into municipal water systems. Ravages, wrought as rain and river, have loosed the limestone, making it susceptible to collapse as sinkholes. Sinkholes, and quarries of excavated stone, have filled with water to dapple the landscape with lakes.

Far inland, upstream rocks break apart on their way to the sea, wafting shells and shatters to the sandy sediments of Florida beaches. It was on one of these beaches, in Melbourne, Florida, in 1973, that Dad began dredging his own little dappled quarry.

“Watcha doing, Dad?” my brother Tim and I asked. But he worked in silence, digging a sand hole the size of a beach umbrella with his arms and feet, and built up the edges like a giant pie crust. The excavated sand he mounded back in in deliberate lumps, molding extra features atop the curve. In an age before sand sculpture was a phenomenon, we were clueless. We left Dad to his strewn and hewn sands and went into the surf.

When we returned, we were stunned to find George Washington’s face peering up at us out of Dad’s sand pit, like a U.S. beach dollar. It impressed a toddler, who ran over to pat her shovel against it. Dogwalkers noticed, too, as their dogs sniffed it curiously. Startled strangers clutching coolers and towels veered around it. It is possible that astronauts flying overhead in Skylab might have buzzed closer to see it. Even the tide stayed out for a few hours. Dad spent the rest of 1973 building sand sculptures on every beach we visited (perhaps three) including likenesses of a Chincoteague pony and a Native American warrior.

Then, as the fad caught on and moved into shopping malls and city squares, he retired from such artistry. Spring break was over.

Follow @jmoseshall on Facebook. Joy Moses-Hall teaches physics and astronomy at Pitt Community College. She has a PhD in oceanography and is the author of the novel Wretched Refuge.

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