© St. Petersburg Times, published June 21, 2002
FORT DE SOTO -- The debate began in the supermarket.
"Fat free or regular hot dogs?" I asked my friend.
"Get fat free and the girls will say we think they're fat," he said.
Buy fat-filled franks, however, and our wives wouldn't eat them. Either way we lost.
What was supposed to be a nice, relaxing, family day at the beach already had begun to deteriorate.
Thinking back to my childhood, family outings were never easy.
Nevertheless, I had been given the task to write a story about a great family beach. I'm a new dad, so I called my friend Casey LaLomia, a veteran father with a daughter and son, ages 3 years and 8 months.
Picking the destination was easy. Fort De Soto Park, with its 19th century fort, twin fishing piers, sheltered lagoon and miles of unspoiled beach, has enough activities to keep an entire boy scout troop busy.
I had been there a hundred times before, often with children, but they never were my own. Taking my son on his first big day at the beach was a tremendous responsibility. I wanted to make sure it went just right.
I felt confident that I had chosen the right place. But I did make one error: We planned to go on Mother's Day. So instead of breakfast in bed or brunch at a fancy restaurant, my wife would be eating hot dogs at a picnic table.
"How about Kosher?" I asked Casey. "They have to be inspected by a rabbi."
If they passed the rabbi's test, we figured, then surely our wives would approve. Running down the aisles, jamming soft drinks and snack foods into our shopping cart, I thought about the trips I had made to the same supermarket over the years to stock up for overnight camping trips to the barrier island that guards the mouth of Tampa Bay.
The 900-acre park actually is made up of five interconnected islands. Previously only accessible by boat, the park opened to the public in December 1962 when the state toll road called the Pinellas Bay Way opened.
Boaters love Fort De Soto because of its 800-foot-long launching facility and five floating docks. Anglers love Fort De Soto because of the twin fishing piers -- on Tampa Bay (500 feet long) and on the Gulf of Mexico (1,000 feet long) -- each with a bait and concession stand. Community groups love Fort De Soto because of its 14 "large group" picnic sites and 20 storm-resistant restrooms.
But I always have loved Fort De Soto for the campground and the beach. Over the years, I probably had taken a dozen nephews and nieces to the county park for their first camping trip. The 235-site campground is clean, well-shaded and has all the amenities you need for camping with kids -- grills, picnic tables, water, restrooms, even a camp store.
After a night sleeping alongside the water, it's always fun to take the kids down to the fort and let them play on the cannons, then swim in the sheltered lagoon on North Beach. If that doesn't wear them out, try canoeing through the mangroves or let them run like dogs down the rollerblade trail. There is enough to keep even the most active child occupied.
But who was I kidding? My boy Kai was just a year old, far too young to enjoy most of what makes Fort De Soto a wonderland for the 8- to 12-year-old set. No. I'd be lucky if I got him home without any major injuries.
Should we picnic near the piers, I asked myself as we drove out to the beach? You always see dolphins chasing baitfish through the pilings. Nah, the kids would probably fall in, or at least get hooked, then we'd be picnicking at the emergency room.
So we continued down the old beach road, our vehicles crammed with coolers, rafts, boogie boards and folding chairs. Cruising through the parking lot we searched for a picnic site that would suit our families' needs -- shade, table, grill, close to the bathrooms/beach and not too far from the cars.
The search went on for 20 minutes. Eventually, I abandoned the thought of being near the beach and settled on shade, table, grill and car. Four out of five ain't bad. Our picnic site, nestled under some pine trees, was cool and comfortable. But the ground was a little rough for toddlers. So we spread out some blankets and let them play.
"What's he got in his mouth," my wife asked.
Probably a pine cone or maybe dirt. My son is known to dine on both.
"You need to watch him," Kanika warned. Fort De Soto might be kid-friendly, I thought to myself, but there's no place on earth, outside of a padded room, I'd call Kai-friendly.
"Don't eat dirt," I scolded the boy. He laughed. "Eat this cookie instead."
He sucked on it for a few seconds, then threw it on the ground. I picked it up, cleaned it off, and handed it back to him. Every dad knows that if you pick up something just seconds after it falls it's like it never hit the ground. We call it the "five-second rule."
After lunch, we piled the kids and gear into strollers and headed off toward the North Beach Lagoon, a favorite spot for families.
The water is calm and shallow, free of the waves and boat wakes that can knock a little one off his feet. There are lifeguards, which always is reassuring, even though it is every parent's responsibility to watch his own child.
"What's he got in his mouth," my wife asked.
Probably a seashell or maybe just a handful of sand.
"Don't eat sand," I told my son. He laughed and rolled in the sand, which stuck to his sunscreen-smothered skin like cornmeal on a piece of fish.
Time for a dip. Like a good dad, I had started my son in swimming lessons at an early age. But down at the water, I realized I was a little unprepared.
Casey, however, had an assortment of rafts, tubes, floats, etc. Live and learn. But it's not like I never had given it thought. In fact, months before my son was born, I ran out and bought him a 7-foot-2 surfboard.
"He'll grow into it," I told my wife. But she thought the longboard might be a little long for a newborn. So I ran out and bought a second surfboard, this one a 4-footer made of soft, kid-friendly foam.
At first I tried to teach him to stand on it, but since he still couldn't walk, I met with little success. So I tried to show him how to knee paddle, an old-school skill few surfers take time to learn.
Perched on his hands and knees like a dog, Kai giggled as I pushed him through the calf-deep water and sang the Hawaii 5-O theme song.
"Hey mom, look!" I yelled, trying to get my wife's attention. I had turned my head for just a second, but that was all it took. Splash!
"Wipe out!" I said, hoping my son would find the unexpected dunking amusing. He didn't.
"It's okay," I said, rubbing his back. "It's okay."
I looked up the beach to see if my wife had been watching. She was still calm and collected, so my transgression apparently had gone unnoticed.
"Good thing your wife didn't see that," said Andrea, Casey's wife.
So I carried the baby back to his mom.
"What happened?" she asked. "He swallowed a little water," I confessed. "Just a little."
My baby boy had had enough. I watched him snuggle with his mom beneath the sun shade. His next surf lesson would have to wait. But Fort De Soto would always be there. For him and player(s) to be named later.