Taking it Personally
For the past 84 days, the summer sun has risen on the Gulf of Mexico and its vast coastline; each of these days, some 50,000-100,000 barrels of BP oil have been vomited into the Gulf through a man-made freak until an estimated million-plus barrels have decimated a natural wonder, The Beach.
Inlet Beach, east of Seagrove, FL in June 2010. Friends have passed along their recent photos.
Some photos have been scanned from 30-year-old negatives.
This plane flying over Inlet Beach Memorial Day weekend was searching for oil from the BP spill.
The oil mixed dispersant creates a foul substance, and it has finally invaded the marshlands – breeding grounds and nurseries for Gulf wildlife and sea creatures; it has poisoned pristine beaches for hundreds and hundreds of miles.
The constancy of The Beach is broken.
Another plane, flying over the Florida coast east of Seaside, looked for oil spewed into the Gulf and heading for Florida's coast.
Generations of people, families, children, teenagers, grandparents, have lived, worked, visited, and vacationed at The Beach. Livelihoods are wrecked; vacation traditions that brought families together are ruined. The wonder of the entire ecosystem is razed.
Privately I grieve and cry for this unimaginable loss. Silently I beg for the news that the Navy is scheduled to bomb this nasty site to finally stop the spewing. I am not able to keep looking at the images of what is happening daily.
And I’m repulsed at its being called a spill.
Childhoods in the Sand
As a child, I understood the entirety of the Gulf Coast as The Beach. Like all the children I’ve seen first encounter the sand’s texture, first gaze out at the endless water -- to the waves, the breakers, the surf -- first put their toe, then their foot, then their tummy into the warmth, I responded instinctively to the primal nature of The Beach.
Infants being held by a grownup float and bob in the gentle waters. Babies have their arms held up to their mother’s or father’s hands as they venture slowly to the water’s edge, where the breakers have subsided and are simply rolling in and lolling back out. Toddlers stand and look to the horizon as they find the courage to enter the water by themselves, their parents close behind to grab them up when the undertow and shifting sand take their feet out from under them. They go under. They cry. But they always want to return to the water.
To be submerged up to your shoulders is like being in a mother’s arms – gentleness, softness, comfort.
To drift off to sleep by the natural rocking of the tide’s coming in and returning to the deep waters is a gift of sound.
A Dot in the Sand
For me, life at The Beach began nearly 60 years ago, when I was about 8, at the Eglin A.F.B. Officer’s Beach Club on Santa Rosa Island. Those days on The Beach were days of childhood wonder; the sand and breakers and surf were always changing. I learned about the undertow and currents, sometimes the hard way. I learned about the stinging jellyfish that could ruin the day. I learned about the biting flies that would invade in late summer if the breeze came from inland. I learned how to maneuver the breaking waves, finding out that for some, you just needed to dive and swim under.
I learned that you will begin to smell the salty Gulf waters brought in on southerly breezes a good distance away before you get there, maybe as much as five or ten miles out.
I learned about sunburn. And Noxema. And how the salt waters taste and how it stings when you get it up your nose.
Eglin proper is on the northern shore of Choctawhatchee Bay. If you stood on the right spot, – at least in 1953 – you could look across the bay and see the eastern bridge that connected Santa Rosa Island to the small fishing village of Destin. To get to the Beach Club, our family of five had to load up in the old Woody, leave Eglin, go through Shalimar and Ft. Walton, get onto Highway 98 and cross the western bridge onto Santa Rosa Island; then head for the long stretch of federal land that takes up the eastern half of the island all the way to the bridge into Destin.
Santa Rosa Island was pretty bare in those days. There was no Alvin’s-of-a-jillion bathing suits and beach balls; across the two-lane Highway 98 there was no Fax Pas bar. That would come later.
At the Officer’s Beach Club, a mere speck on the Gulf Coast, we stayed literally all day, basking on that white hot sand in the twice-shining Sun – down from the sky and, in turn, up from its reflection off the sand. I don’t think I have pictures of those early sun days, even though my father was a fairly good photographer. Taking pictures on that sand has always been nearly impossible for all but the savviest photographer.
The sand is not beige. It is not ecru or eggshell or “sand” or cream or butter. It is the color and consistency of granulated, refined, white sugar. It’s one of maybe only five places on Earth with sand like that.
The water’s color can range from a minty, sea-foam green, to the lightest robin’s egg blue to a dark turquoise to a darker still midnight blue-black. It could be still, like glass, or rocking gently enough to float on, or great fun to look the breakers in the eye and meet them head on, or mean and angry, daring swimmers to enter the water.
The last time I was in Destin, the water was still like that, but it won’t be that way for long now.
I don’t remember how we picnicked at the Beach Club, but we did. We went crabbing when the surf allowed and took the blue crabs home for mama to toss into boiling water. It was before Crab Boil, I think. Even as an 8-year-old, I intuited that those creatures were defined by a word I didn’t yet know – delicacy.
Then, the sunsets, magnifi-cent sunsets. . .
A winter sunset at Destin, Florida
As the sun falls into the horizon, the air cools almost instantly and colors from their own private world appear. People come silently through the sand to watch.
Below is a video I shot in about 2002 and recently edited for YouTube.
Beach for Generations
I didn’t realize it then, but there was more and more to The Beach. The Beach I now know and love stretches from just this side of New Orleans, through Mississippi and Alabama, continuing from Perdido Bridge into Florida at Pensacola; then Navarre, Santa Rosa, Destin, Grayton Beach, Seaside, Seagrove, Water Sound, Water Color, Rosemary Beach; then over to the bridge into Laguna and Panama City Beach, to St. Andrews Bay, Apalachicola, around the curve and south to St. Petersburg.
What I have learned in my 60 years at The Beach is that the entire Gulf Coast was a delicacy, a place of comfort and solace, a place that changed from morning to evening but remained constant generation after generation. It was so for my grandparents, who were early visitors to Gulf Shores, to my parents who took me and my brother and sister to the Officer’s Beach Club, to me and my generation of friends who grew older and had our own children, to those children whom we take to The Beach.
Among the long list of tragic consequences from this environmental disaster is that our grandchildren, those children who have just now begun their initiation into the fold of The Beach, will not have the choice to pass this delicacy on to their children and grandchildren.
NOTE: Requiem for The Beach will continue in the next post.