IT SEEMED LIKE A HOMECOMING WHEN I SAW THE COCKROACH. I had felt the familiar rush when the car reached the spot on the drive’s last leg, where the land narrows suddenly and one can see both the choppy, translucent gray-green of Mobile Bay on the right and, on the left, the Gulf of Mexico’s myriad shades of turquoise, both glittering under a relentless sun. The deep green of the lush vegetation between the road and water, gradually giving way to bright pinks and oranges and yellows of houses on sand, faded as always, lifting my spirit into a vast but welcoming blue and white world.
Beachside West, half of a large duplex with a private pool, is the unit we had rented on our last family vacation at Fort Morgan six years before. The rusting charcoal grill, coated with the residue of many years’ cooking, was still there, and, when on the first stair landing, I spotted the dead cockroach, ubiquitous inhabitant of southern homes, lowly and luxurious, its legs turned up to heaven, it seemed I had been away only a few hours. I heard my son Clay’s family arrive, and very soon we had allotted bedrooms and unloaded two cars of clothes, beach supplies, and several bags of fresh farm produce from Burris’ Market in Loxley.
For fifteen consecutive years, my husband, Tom, and I ended our summers at one of several houses on the stretch of beach between the five and four-mile markers between Highway 59 in Gulf Shores, Alabama, and the ferry to Dauphin Island. But much had changed in our family since we gathered here last. Tom, already disabled by Parkinson’s disease when we were last here, had died in 2005, followed our oldest son the next year. They accompanied me this time in two ugly, metal urns behind beach umbrellas and plastic floats in the trunk of my car.
And in spite of its seemingly unchanged beauty, our little piece of paradise was in the throes of trauma. On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded off the Louisiana coast, killing eleven crew members and creating a reported spill of approximately five thousand barrels of crude each day that was still continuing unabated when we arrived at the beach forty-six days later. I had followed the daily reports of expanding damage with growing anxiety, but our family history on this mile of beach was so important, and my excitement that we might finally recreate a bit of it so great, that I never considered accepting the leasing agent’s offer to return our deposit, abandon the plan and stay home.
A BEACH VACATION in Gulf Shores was an annual event throughout our three sons’ childhoods, but the family trips became sporadic as the boys started college. Their father had taken their serial disappearances from home as a personal affront. Tired of his annual carping about how uncooperative they had become, I suggested that we rent a beach house and invite them months in advance to come with whomever they chose.
Despite our long, happy association with it, “downtown” Gulf Shores did not seem like the best place to strengthen family ties. I knew that I could not compete with the Pink Pony Pub and mullet tosses at the Flora-Bama Lounge for the attentions of what might turn out to be a house full of young adults, mostly males. Hoping for a little quality time with a few of them made me think of Fort Morgan, an unincorporated community built along both sides of Alabama 180, which runs through the center of a narrow peninsula extending approximately twenty-two miles from the town of Gulf Shores to the eastern edge of the mouth of Mobile Bay. In 1990 it was sparsely developed with single-family houses and had almost no commercial services.
During one of those long-ago Gulf Shores visits, we drove the length of the Fort Morgan Road to its end, where a small, state historical park encompasses the remains of the actual Fort. I recall a broiling, windless summer afternoon on a point occupied only by sinking gray brick structures and oleander bushes. All three boys’ initial interest wilted quickly in the heat, and they were soon as miserable as I. Only their father wanted to explore the gun mounts and the latrines. At some point in every subsequent trip to Gulf Shores, he would shout with a grin, “Who’s up for the Fort?” Or, if he was feeling especially mischievous, he might ask solemnly on our first evening, “Which day is Fort day?” “The Fort” soon became a euphemism for any experience to be avoided at all costs. Our sons may have recoiled, then, when I invited them to a house at Fort Morgan, but that first year they all appeared with friends, girlfriends, roommates.
I turned onto the well-maintained two-lane on the third Sunday of August, 1990, with an excited curiosity, remembering nothing of it from that one drive to the Fort years before. On the first mile or so, houses and other buildings were close to the road and clearly visible, but soon the car began to wind through low but heavy beach scrub growing close to narrow shoulders. At about the ten-mile marker the peninsula suddenly eclipsed into a short neck between the Gulf and Mobile Bay and, even though it widened again to allow houses on both sides, the large bodies of water on either side were visible from that point on. Soon nothing obstructed the meeting of water and sky in any direction except the path straight ahead. Approaching land’s end on all sides that day was the closest I have ever come to a feeling of being adrift in unlimited space.
Turning into the rough, rutted drive to the beach house anchored me to Earth but did not shrink the new universe. The lots on both sides of our rental were vacant, and the houses in both directions along the beach were scattered in a sparse, irregular pattern. Between the houses and the ocean, rippled sand dunes, topped by sea oats, gradually gave way to white beach. The water, colorless and transparent at its edge, moved through shades of green and blue-green like bands of a color wheel. In the bright afternoon sun, the soft gray horizon was barely discernable. Sitting on that horizon, directly opposite the deck on which I stood was a solitary natural gas well.
The new school year having begun the previous week, there were no immediate neighbors. Against the regular sound of a gentle surf, a gull might scream, or a plastic bottle caught on a breeze might rattle down the boardwalk across the dunes, but each sound was encased by a silence so deep, I felt all talk should be whisper. That first impression of solitude and silence continues to be the essence of that bit of beach for me.
Night settled slowly and became as soft and black as the day was brittle and bright. Stars appeared to shine from deep holes. The dark hugged the moon’s rim. Only its reflection on the water was allowed to puddle. The gas well was lit on all corners. The lights of an occasional shrimp boat, nets down, outlined its awkward shape, which, on subsequent foggy evenings, faded and reappeared like the Ancient Mariner’s ghost ship. Even on cloudless nights, lightning might split the dark and bounce off the horizon.
Every day started with a dolphin watch from the screened porch. A heron patrolled our beach, occasionally interrupting his slow constitutional to stand patiently at water’s edge, waiting for dinner to swim by. A particular delight was to see him arrive in flight, hesitate with wings at full spread, and drop suddenly but with grace to a standing position. Brown pelicans glided barely above the water in formations of five or more, swooping to the surface to catch a meal or plopping lightly to ride the waves; red-winged blackbirds thronged the sea oats.
Even the weak swimmers among us and those somewhat squeamish about sharing space with sea critters fell in love with the water. Although it changed daily with the tides, shallow water extended for an appreciable distance, and even at waist-depth one could see the sand floor and everything scuttling there or bumping softly against knees. Schools of silvery minnows parted for us, and we detoured around the jellyfish.
The scene remained largely the same over the next fourteen years, except that new houses filled once empty lots each year, and by 2000 we could probably count twenty gas wells. Some years held lovely surprises; after Hurricane Andrew devastated south Florida in 1992, our mile was littered with hundreds, maybe thousands, of sand dollars. There were a few unpleasant events as well. In the month after Hurricane Danny came ashore, our road was littered with piles of debris from ruined houses, and the seaweed-clogged water smelled like a sea of rotting, pureed spinach.
The household changed from year to year. Tom and I invited our own friends, creating more intergenerational communion. Carefree students turned into men with jobs, then wives. The noisy horseplay of young adults was supplanted by the whining and chatter of their young children. We moved slowly westward to houses with more bedrooms to accommodate family units and then to ones with swimming pools to avoid constant traipsing back and forth to the beach with toddlers.
Life within the group was not always smooth. An old grievance or something as ordinary as an expression of a dinner preference could explode into shouting and tears like an afternoon thunderstorm, and subside just as quickly. But days of early morning walks and afternoon naps, bird and dolphin watching, reading on a sunny beach or a breezy porch, and opening new jigsaw puzzles when it rained are a balm for tired spirits. Fort Morgan became a place of declaring and being ourselves, sharing confidences, healing wounds, and renewing and cementing friendships.
I WAS EAGER TO LOOK for evidence of the spill, especially tar balls, which were reported to have been washed ashore at the tip of the peninsula four days earlier, so I set off alone for my first beach walk. The sand seemed whiter than usual, and there was no debris. Had those scouting for signs of oil cleared the tide trash? There was a hint of petroleum in the usual shore odor, but the water was shallow and crystalline as far as I could see. A few houses west I spotted one, then several, foreign objects in the shape of thick discs. Covered in loosely adhering sand, they looked at first like gray beach rocks, flattened and rounded by moving water. So that’s a tar ball, I thought. I turned back.
My son Noel and family arrived early on Monday, completing our group of nine. All of us had agreed to abide by an advisory from the state department of health not to swim in any of the Alabama coastal waters, but we could not stay away from the beach, and we packed water and beer and sunscreen and all the paraphernalia small children need or want on a beach and trudged with it to a point where the dry, soft sand dropped sharply to the wet, hard-packed area in the tide’s reach. Noel and Clay put up a canvas cabana with net sides. I had never seen the water as clear and beautiful. Shallow as far as we could see, it was especially tempting. This would be a hard week.
Almost all the eastern Gulf had been closed to fishing for six weeks, but what is a beach vacation without fresh seafood? I drove into town to Gulf Shores Sea Foods on Tuesday hoping for the best. The counterman’s solemn nod in response to my “Good morning” was six beats late. The reason for the tepid welcome, unheard of in this community that depends on tourism, was plain. Three large bins usually reserved for shrimp now held nothing but ice; a fourth contained a pound or two of medium grays – not even enough for appetizers for my crowd. A single grouper filet occupied the fish bin that in prior years would have held rows of grouper, snapper, scamp, and sometimes – oh, happy day – a whole pompano or two.
I could not bear for his sake or mine to walk out empty-handed, so I bought the shrimp and the grouper fillet for gumbo and emptied his freezer of large, deep-sea scallops, local but collected and frozen over the winter, and king crab legs from Alaska.
On Wednesday the sea was even more clear and sparkling. The children were too pitiful; the mothers relented! Everyone swam and rode the waves.
The New York Times reported on Thursday that initial estimates of the oil escaping the Horizon were much too low; they cited new estimates of twenty-five to thirty thousand barrels per day, seeping, leaking, gushing into the Gulf. Our beach was still clean.
Another glorious morning broke on Friday with no sign of oil. Spurred by the increasingly bad reports about the spill, Noel had made an overnight trip to his home in Pensacola and returned about noon with steak for an army. “When anxious, have something good to eat!” was a family motto. With everyone else at the beach, I spent a solitary afternoon considering the two urns in the trunk of my car. For five years my husband’s ashes had occupied a corner of a closet shelf, kept company for all but the first eight months by those of our son, also named Tom. Husband Tom had always been happy at Fort Morgan, planning the days, supervising everybody, and ignoring the fact that everyone did as they pleased in spite of him. The place was not as special to our son, but I was unwilling to separate the two of them now. I had consulted both Noel and Clay weeks before about scattering some ashes on the shore and in the Gulf that year. Both had agreed, but we had not discussed it since our arrival. I decided to leave it to Sunday morning, a last rite before driving away.
On Saturday, our last full day, we ate a big breakfast, and I arranged all the remaining food in the refrigerator into an all-day buffet while the rest of the party enjoyed a final beach morning before taking down the cabana. The adults had agreed to shifts of supervising the children in the pool while the others watched soccer after lunch. Soon after the TV was turned on, we became aware of a hubbub outside. People had appeared out of nowhere and were now assembling on the beach. National Guard jeeps carrying uniformed personnel rolled down the hard sand. Our household hurried to the beach and joined the crowd looking eastward.
And it came. Long, viscous ribbons of a sick, electric shade of red merging into orange merging into yellow came into view and undulated slowly toward us. They might have oozed from a chasm in my childhood idea of hell. Some traveled singly; others slow-danced three abreast in the shallows where children had waded hours before. Small waves washed oil ashore, leaving a continuous line of black residue, snaking along the sand. The crowd watched in silence, heads moving as one and, when the flotilla had disappeared, turned, still silent, and walked away. I stayed behind, alone, looking out over the again clear, turquoise water, recalling the summer hours I had spent in it with one or another of my women friends. Would I ever wade into it again? If I did, would I feel those hellish ribbons winding between my thighs, leaving their slick behind?
The Mobile Register reported on Sunday that “the worst day” since the spill had left the beaches of Gulf Shores black with oil. We packed and drove away without the little bit of regret that often characterizes the end of a good time. The two Toms went home to Birmingham with me.
THE DEEPWATER HORIZON well was cemented shut on July 15, 2010. Estimates vary, but at least 176 million gallons of oil probably flowed into the surrounding water during the eighty-seven days of the spill. In spite of this near “worst case scenario” spill, the Birmingham News reported as early as May, 2012, that the tourism industry on Alabama’s coast had made a complete recovery but that the seafood industry was still struggling. The next day the same newspaper carried a full-page notice of the main terms of the “Economic and Property Damages Settlement of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill” and instructions for filing a claim. Among the damages to be compensated were loss of subsistence, vessel damage, real property damage, and real property sales damage – the usual stuff. No mention was made of memories besmirched, nightmares induced, or scattering of cremains deferred. O
Ina Leonard is an Orion reader and workshop alum, having attended both Breadloaf Orion and the Orion Environment Writers’ Workshop at the Omega Institute. She has an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts, where she studied with Pam Houston. She lives in Birmingham, Alabama.