'The Lost

An excerpt from Rick Bragg’s new collection of essays, ‘My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South.’

Photo: The sun rises over the Gulf of Mexico, as seen from St. George Island. Contributed by Blake Guthrie.

Everybody feels something when they look at it, unless they are hollow. Standing in that sand, looking into that blue-green, liquid forever, I felt relieved.

It was 40 years ago this summer. I was going on 12, a boy from the red dirt, what people call the Alabama highlands. My leather work boots, my future, lay under my bed in Calhoun County, 300 miles away. I didn't need shoes here. I felt the sand pulled from beneath my toes, felt clean water rush around legs as pale as bone, because a serious man, a working man, did not strut around in short pants. My bathing suit was a pair of cutoff jeans, and when I turned the pockets out I found a handful of sand, white as a wedding dress, pure as salt. For some reason, a reason my grown-up mind cannot see, I laughed out loud.

What I do recall, more than the lovely dunes and raucous seabirds and tiny fish that rode the waves straight into my cupped hands, was a feeling that I stood at the edge of something, not a place to fall off but to float away. The Gulf of Mexico, so vast, was just the beginning of a big world that did not end at the terminus of a dirt road, or a mill gate, or a bald hill stripped clean of pulpwood. From here, why, a fellow could go almost anywhere.

And my mama thought she was just taking me to Pensacola.

Photo: The white sand beaches of Orange Beach, Ala. Contributed by Blake Guthrie

People seemed happy here — sun blasted and smelling of squid bait and fried fish and maybe a little drunk, but happy — or at least that was how it appeared in the summer of 1971. Their pockets were picked clean by overpriced seafood joints and souvenir shops, but they would wear that T-shirt into rags when they got home, to brag that they had been to Panama City, or Gulf Shores. For generations of Southerners, this was the most escape they ever got, as if a five-night stay in the Castaway Cottages was a hole cut in a fence. It broke a lot of hearts, of course, because it was just a feeling, and a feeling can't save you, really. It can only give you, as it gave a 12-year-old boy, a cool taste of hope.

I have felt it all my life, though now walking in the shifting sand hurts my hips, and the sunlight bouncing off the water hurts my eyes. I did see the world, as it turned out, or at least the dark side of it, but looking at this water always made me feel better, somehow, like a laying on of hands.

And now they have fouled it. The oil giant BP and its contractors built a rig in water too deep for common sense, too deep to repair if it all went bad. With some Americans slobbering "Drill, baby, drill," the worst happened. Eleven people died on the rig Deepwater Horizon as a fireball climbed into the sky, the rig sank beneath the waves and oil jetted into the Gulf and the life within. The oil company, it would turn out, had no workable plan to plug a leak 5,000 feet down, at least none that did not take months to accomplish. The failures mounted and the oil billowed from the sand as April faded into May and May into June.

They have left us haunted, and guessing.

How bad?

How long?

Photo: Sunset in Pensacola Beach. Contributed by Wesley K.H. Teo.

My whole life has been bathed in these waters. I lived through a thousand undertows, ten thousand hush puppies, two honeymoons, five hurricanes, a never-ending sunburn, untold jellyfish stings, a dozen excellent drunks, two Coast Guard interventions, a hammerhead as long as a Boston Whaler and one unfortunate misunderstanding in the Breaker's Lounge. Here I saw the most beautiful mermaids God ever constructed, the ugliest oyster I ever ate, and a hermit crab with a Rebel flag painted on its back. As a child I moved ten tons of sand, one plastic bucket at a time, and as a grown man I waited two hours outside Captain Anderson's in Panama City for a piece of grouper and some French fried potatoes.

Now I wonder. I wonder if the only way I will see my Gulf in the future is through the open window of a dented Chevrolet Biscayne, Porter Wagoner on the radio, vinyl seats crammed with cousins, beach balls, fried chicken, cold biscuits and a Coleman thermos full of sweet iced tea. We rush to it, slipping through speed traps, watching for the shrouds of Spanish moss, the first long bridge. And then there it is, the sand white, the water clean. I can keep it that way. I have the power, as long as memory holds.

The first time I saw it was 1965. My mother was convinced the sharks could crawl on shore and snatch us, so we darted in and out of the water like magpies, my brothers, my cousins and me. My grandmother wandered the shoreline, talking to herself and her dead husband under the brim of her bonnet, filling an apron pocket with shells. They found, him and her, some pretty ones. My mother and Aunt Juanita rolled up their blue jeans as if they might wade in, but just stood on the sand, looking. They rode a full day, changed a fan belt and a radiator hose, just to come down here and look. My big brother, Sam, unafraid of bull sharks or sea monsters, waded in chest deep and did not cry when he stuck his hand in a jellyfish, a creature not of this world. We saw the remnants of sand castles, eroded ruins, but the bedtime stories our mother told did not involve keeps or castles, so we did not know for sure what they were. But we understood moving earth. The descendants of well diggers, we dug a hole almost 5 feet deep, buried Sam up to his neck, and caused my mother a small heart seizure, because she was convinced every trickling wave was the incoming tide. At dusk we sent cannonballs pounding into a swimming pool the size of a stock trough, the water spiked with so much chlorine it turned our hair green and our eyes the color of cherry cough drops. That night we wandered aisles of coconut monkey heads, embalmed baby sharks and plastic grapefruit spoons, putted golf balls through the legs of a cement dinosaur, and begged to stay just one more day. Later, our sunburn slathered in Avon lotion, we ate tomato sandwiches and barbecued potato chips by a rolling television screen. Matt Dillon had yet to make an honest woman of Miss Kitty, and paradise cost $14 a night, if you remembered to drop off your key.

Photo: The Municipal Pier on Mobile Bay in Fairhope, Alabama, is where Bragg’s pal Spencer Johnson, owner of the Fairhope Fly Shop, said a man could catch “all the speckled trout he could stand” in this vicinity. Andrea Sachs © 2011, The Washington Post

In one awful moment, an oil company accomplished what a drumbeat of hurricanes, pollution and insane overdevelopment had been unable to do. It threatened the sanctity of the Gulf in a way most of us could not even imagine, sending a stain from horizon to horizon across the surface, and giant plumes of oil, miles long and miles deep, drifting through its depths.

The oil came first to Louisiana, to the marshes, bays and delicate ecosystems that are the Gulf's cradle of life, as people elsewhere on the coast just waited, waited, for their bad dreams to drift ashore. In Mobile, across the bay from my home, it first slid into Mobile Bay on the oil-slimed hull of a giant freighter, peeling away at the impossible dream that, somehow, all this might pass us by.

In the fifth week, Spencer Johnson sat behind the counter of his Fairhope Fly Shop, looking at a chart of the tides, talking about how a man could catch all the speckled trout he could stand if he cast not from the Fairhope pier but at it, at just the right time in the evening, with just the right fly or bait, and only if the pier lights were shining, and ... and then he began to think of the oil. The lovely way he talked of fishing seemed to grow dull, as if the colors had been bleached away, and he began to wonder if he would recognize his Gulf and its sisters, the bays, as the oil drifted closer and closer.

"I'm 67," he said. "I won't enjoy the bay again in my lifetime."

Now, suddenly, every big one that got away is suddenly bigger, more important.

"It was three years ago this June, in the Gulf on the Lady Ann, four miles southwest of an oil rig called the Beer Can," he said, thinking back. It was deep water, and something — he thinks probably a wahoo but maybe a shark — took off with his fly, fought, ran, then took it down to coral, "and cut me off." Now he wonders if there will be another fight,
another chance.

The island was called Anna Maria, on the west coast of Florida where the Gulf swirls into Tampa Bay. The captain's name was Joe Romeo and I was his third mate, behind a grandson who was in grammar school and whoever else was in the boat. The truth was I was such a poor seaman that I would have been third mate to a tackling dummy or a mannequin at JCPenney. But Lord I did love to go fish with that man. He knew where the specks lived on the flats, and if we caught enough — and we always did — his wife fried 'em up and we had fresh trout and grits and it was a reason to live. In the early evening, a bad time to swim, I would choke down my fear of sharks and wade out to my neck, hugging close to a circle of old ladies who waded out there every evening to do exercises. I learned a good bit about burial plans and assisted living, bobbing in their orbit. They say Ponce de León believed the fountain of youth was here somewhere, but I don't know about that. But I can tell you where to find a good early bird special, or a comfortable shoe.

Photo: Tar balls litter the beach along the Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola in June 2010, following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill two months earlier. Bob Andres bandres@ajc.com

It may be it will not be as bad as we fear. Some places will be poisoned, some begrimed, some spared. But by summer, even as the bulk of the oil still rolled offshore, people along the Gulf began to speak of their way of life here as something lost, something ripped from them. They began a massive cleanup and animal rescue in Louisiana in what would be called the greatest ecological catastrophe of its kind in U.S. history, and the hateful thing was the oil still poured.

All this misery, because our government believed an oil company — an oil company — when it said, Trust us, we got this, it'll all be fine. Republicans called it Obama's Katrina, and Democrats blamed a culture of greed and collusion in the past administration that set the stage for a disaster. Meanwhile, BP gouged at the leak with robots, tried to cap it with a big mixing bowl, shot trash and golf balls and mud into the breach, and generally flopped and floundered until it became clear to the people of the Gulf Coast that the oil company did not have the smarts or skill to repair such a snafu, and no solution — no timely one — had ever really existed. They made jokes about it on "Saturday Night Live," about the hapless oil company, as the stain spread, but it wasn't all that funny.

Smart people, people with doctorates and others with decades of experience in the oil fields, worked for a solution, thought hard, thought long, but eventually, every time people onshore heard the term "brain trust" at a press conference, their hopes sank a little lower, and they ground their teeth.

My daddy loved to drink and he loved to fish, and though he took me with him drinking a dozen times, he never took me fishing. I never had a boy of my own. But when I married Dianne in 2005, I inherited a 10-year-old boy, Jake. He can whup a guitar like it's going out of style, and sing like a fallen angel, and I am glad that he is mine, at least part of the time. I took him fishing in the Gulf because that is what a good man does, or at least a man trying to be. We left from Orange Beach and went out in the blue with a friend of his we called Taco, because he likes tacos, and we caught fish after fish, red snapper and mackerel and fish I had never seen, and I would have liked it if the boy and I could have talked about life a little bit, or adventures, or maybe even dreams. But instead he and his buddy just hooted and giggled and acted like the dumbasses little boys are as the spray from the speeding boat drenched them on every bounce, and they laughed out loud.

At first, people just wanted the comfort of numbers, how long their Gulf would be fouled, how many fish or birds or turtles would die, how many shrimpers, oystermen, fishermen, hotel maids, short-order cooks and all the rest would be wiped out, run off, how many families who made their living here for generations would be ruined, or just leave. Then, as attempt after attempt failed, they began to imagine the unimaginable, that the whole damn thing would become a dead zone, a kind of poisoned lake, leaching into the Atlantic and beyond.

The skeptics and the old salts said such people were just a bunch of Chicken Littles, said there was just too much water out there to worry about doomsday, that the Gulf would cleanse itself, even as the oil rolled into balls of tar in the waves. It was just thin oil, they said, not thick crude, and chemical dispersants would break it up so that the microorganisms in the Gulf could just gobble it up. When it did not immediately foul all the beaches, bays, and estuaries of states east of Louisiana, indignant, desperate sea captains and chamber of commerce officials said it was just a scare, that it was environmental types who were really putting them out of business, with rumors and lies.

And then came the pitiful proof. Oil-slimed pelicans struggled to lift off the glistening water and just hung there in the mess, confused, beaten. Tar balls rolled in the dingy surf, gummed up the beaches. The fish and the shrimp and the turtles and the crabs ingested the toxins, and began to die.

People strung booms, built berms, prayed.

In June, the oil rolled just offshore in Baldwin County. We went, my family and I, to wade and bob in the water and just look at it, before the oil crept in. But it was no good. Every cool wave just reminded me of what would be lost. I thought of that line from Tennyson, about casting a shade, a shadow, on such a delightful thing as this, and I wanted to beat the water with my fists.

Excerpted from "My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South" by Rick Bragg. Copyright © 2015 Rick Bragg. Reprinted with permission from Oxmoor House, an imprint of Time Inc. Books and from Garden & Gun magazine where the piece, "The Lost Gulf" originally appeared. All rights reserved.

On April 20, 2010, an explosion occurred on the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil drill 40 miles from the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven people were killed and a massive oil spill ensued, dumping 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf and causing the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history. Rick Bragg wrote this moving lament for the Gulf of his youth in a 2010 issue of Garden & Gun magazine.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor

Rick Bragg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "All Over But the Shoutin'," "Ava's Man" and "The Prince of Frogtown." Bragg has contributed to the numerous magazines and newspapers over the past two decades and has won more than 50 significant writing awards. Bragg is currently a professor of writing in the University of Alabama's journalism department and lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Rick Bragg
Reading and signing. 7 p.m. Sept. 28. Free. Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, 441 Freedom Parkway, Atlanta. www.acappellabooks.com.