The first bar opened at 10 a.m. The first fish flew at noon. Both events were well attended.
I am standing on a scalding white beach, one foot in Alabama, the other in Florida. Behind me is The Flora-Bama Lounge, an iconic beach bar on Perdido Key, a long and skinny barrier island in the Northern Gulf of Mexico, smack dab on the Alabama-Florida border. This is Friday, April 27 — Day 1 of a three-day booze-and-bare-skin-fest that is exactly what it sounds like: contestants throw a dead fish (the aforementioned mullet) from Florida into Alabama.
Longest throw wins. That’s it.
To understand the origins of the Mullet Toss you need to know about the Flora-Bama. A lounge and package store built on a lonely beach road in 1964 before tourists and developers discovered the area, it quickly grew into what one magazine described as the best beach bar in the World, a no- shoes sort of place which once had different drinking hours depending on whether you were on the Alabama or Florida end of the bar (a post-hurricane rebuild eliminated the Alabama side). It also featured some rebellious ex-Nashville musicians who on a drunken July 4 in the mid-80s decided to have some fun by throwing dead fish across the state llne to win a round of beers. When a few years later CNN happened to film local resident and NFL Hall of Famer Kenny Stabler throwing a mullet during the contest it quickly grew into one of the biggest events on the North Florida Calendar. (For a more complete narrative history of the Flora-Bama, I recommend Bushwhacked at the Flora-Bama by local writer Chris Warner).
The 33rd annual version of the Mullet Toss held this past weekend (it is always the last weekend in April), might seem like a strange place to write about culture, at least any sort of culture worth recording. When we use the word culture, at least in the popular media, it is usually in terms of high or hip. Here at Ground Zero of the Redneck Riviera, as locals call it with affection (be careful using the term if you aren’t), the culture lends itself to whiskey shots, Harleys, tattoos, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Pretty low by most people’s. But to paraphrase Randy Newman’s lyric in Good Old Boys, if you think you’re better than them you’re wrong.
Culture is where you find it, and assigning moral superiority to some and denying it to others is a dangerous process. Ask Hillary Clinton. And there is something about this event on a barrier island in the Northern Gulf, populated by a strange brew of millionaire retirees, Iraq war veterans, muscle builders, CEOs, swimsuit models, gay couples, ex-cons and drifters that provides an oasis of humanity in these days of atomized individualized existence.
A really big oasis of humanity. Literally tens of thousands of persons are crammed on top of each other by the middle of the afternoon (there is a daily bikini contest at 3PM) carrying on as though the World will end Monday morning (some of the worst hung-over probably will wish it had). But there are few if any fights and the Escambia County cops, although armed as though North Korea were readying an amphibious assault, show great restraint. Maybe they know they are one shift away from joining in.
Randy Witherspoon, a veteran police officer was once asked by the Birmingham News to describe the beach scene: “I’m trying to think of words to describe it,” Witherspoon said. “It’s just awe. There are so many people here and it’s such a diverse group of people.” He seemed in a good mood, adding: “Normally I’d be arresting these people. But this is Mullet Toss.”
Now that is culturally significant.
For the record, I threw a mullet. I didn’t win.
Dan Bowling is a professor of labor law at Duke Law School.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.