We who have ever lived near the Gulf of Mexico are in real grief right now. Although a world away, I think of it constantly and know that we are just a couple of hurricanes away from a disaster of far greater magnitude than we now envision. And, as one who lived there for many years, I am well aware that those hurricanes will come before the end of August and suspect it unlikely that the oil spill will be contained before then.
The beaches meant a lot to us in south Alabama. This is what I wrote in my book The Fair Hope of Heaven about the little beach in my home town:
You can see the old pictures all over Fairhope today – ladies in their modest bathing suits, gentlemen wearing neckties and straw boaters, gleeful children leaping into the warm unpolluted waters of Mobile Bay. Before 1928 the only way to arrive in Fairhope was by bay boat from Mobile…surely those were the days Fairhope was a paradise of summer joy, centered on the bay with its public pier, its sandy beach, its casino (not, as some would have it today, a gambling house, but a barn of a building with a big dance floor and showers and changing rooms for bathers), its little wharf restaurant, and its inns on the bluff overlooking the water -- with wide porches to catch the breeze.
There were once dance pavilions scattered along the beach front. Local bands played music you could dance to – the baker who moonlighted as a bandleader was dubbed “Buns Lombardo” by his buddies who wanted to capture all his talents with one moniker. The first ice cream factory in the state was at the north end of the beach, where the duck park now is. There were sliding boards off the pier; there was a track that took the “People’s Railway” up the hill – uptown to the center of business. Fairhope was a town of talk in the winter – of ideas, meetings, forums, plans, and visions – but summers belonged to the beach.
By the 1950’s, when I was a teenager, there was as yet little air conditioning in our world. Our bodies adjusted to climate changes. We played outdoors all year long and found no displeasure in being hot in the summer, because, after all, summertime was when you got to go outside, climb trees, explore gullies, and swim in the bay every single day. Most everybody went to the Yacht Club to learn to sail and to win races. The public tennis courts were near the gully’s edge across from the University of South Alabama theater (at that time St. James Episcopal Church). Now there is a parking lot where the courts were. One of those early dance pavilions, Burkel’s, had become a roller rink by the 1940’s and was a popular place until it was destroyed by fire in the early 1950’s. Burkel’s was located on the beach at the foot of Pier Street
Even with excessive heat and humidity, we went to the beach. We didn’t perceive the heavy air as a sweltering damp blanket, but as a comforting mist-forest that reminded us that it was summer in the most wonderful life we could imagine.
The town today is working to mitigate the coming disaster. Above is a demonstration called "Hands Across the Sand" extending on Fairhope's beaches and beaches all across the Gulf Coast. So far Mobile Bay has not gotten much of the damage, but Fairhope and outlying communities, aware of the coming hurricane season, know that it is coming sooner or later. Work is being done, but nobody knows if anything will succeed. Diehard haters of the government, not expecting the president to come through, implore him to send out the military. Lovers of big companies are loath to see them as villains, even in this catastrophe. We would all love to know whom to blame and see them suffer, but the Republican South is challenged to accept that it might have been their own short-sightedness in seeking profit at the price of regulation.
The well will be stopped in time; some of the suffering will be alleviated; but it will never be the same in the beach communities that were seen as pristine, perfect little towns. How the ecology will work its way out cannot be known. We have hurricanes and more failures to cap the well to live through. It is difficult to be optimistic, but I am, at least at some level. Mankind is resilient, and nature is too. The best that can come of this tragedy is a new way of looking at our natural resources. Our children and grandchildren will deal with everything in a new way. I continue to have hope that they'll come closer to getting it right than we did.