They say our stretch of beach was named for the Satsuma oranges that used to grow meekly there until the two consecutive winters of 1927-28 when massive frosts killed them off for good. Now long stretches of the formerly-white sands, which could reflect the sun so brightly they would burn your corneas if you weren’t careful, are marinated in oil. The orange-tinged granules spread like spilled Tang from the entrance of Perdido Bay, ringed off with long lines of floating boom, through Gulf State Park, past Gulf Shores and the stacked rows of new condos and beach homes rebuilt defiantly in the aftermath of Ivan and Katrina’s twin ravagings, and on to Fort Morgan.
And so, to this day, Orange Beach, Alabama remains appropriately named.
Many have hesitated to make their annual pilgrimages to the Gulf Coast in the wake of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill. That much is evident on the first day as we cruise down a practically deserted Perdido Beach Boulevard around 4:00PM and gaze slack-jawed at the nearly-empty condominium and restaurant parking lots, normally overflowing in the middle of July. The missing masses are like the reluctant captains of Admiral David Farragut’s Union fleet as they encountered Confederate mines near Fort Morgan during the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864. “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” Farragut purportedly yelled, urging his frightened flotilla on to victory.
The quote is most likely apocryphal, but we decide to co-opt it anyway. “Darn the oil, full speed ahead!” is our motto, toned down and euphemized a bit to conform to our more clean-cut Church of Christ proclivities. We could have called and threatened to cancel, and they would have immediately offered us a 30% discount. But that didn’t seem fair to mess with those decent, hard-working, put-upon people like that, given the troubles they already had. It would have felt a little like the kind of price gouging that often occurs after a natural disaster, only in reverse.
No, an annual beach trip is like a marriage; it’s on, for better or for worse, through patches of thick, metallic sheen and thin, non-metallic slicks, in both streaming, “rainbow” ribbons and frothy, sunset-red mousse.
Those are the types of descriptors coined by the pilots and crews of the helicopters and blimps that fly in grid-like patterns a few hundred yards off the coast and used in the “Oil Spill Updates” posted daily on the Orange Beach city website. But as I walk out onto my balcony on the first morning, coffee in hand, and scan up and down the coast while squinting against the rising sun, I don’t make those kind of distinctions right away. Oil blends covertly with blue-green surf, and the only thing I know for sure is that “something ain’t right.”
But as my eyes adjust to the light (a good pair of polarized sunglasses helps considerably) and start to observe the morning ritual of “skimming,” I quickly become an expert “spotter” myself. The key is to watch the commercial and charter fishing boats, along with the pleasure craft of various sizes and shapes, all part of a new navy, commandeered now for a different purpose. They move out from Perdido Bay and cruise in tandems and trios, while overhead the pilots continue to swoop and dive, sometimes slowing down and hovering over an area of greater interest.
Signals are no doubt passed, and soon the fleet spreads out and gets to work, lowering their flexible boom, strings of blue and green link sausages that encircle the slick patches and ribbons, corralling them like calves in some kind of maritime rodeo. Sometimes they drag the oil to waiting skimmers, and at other times the skimmers themselves swoop in, flatter ones resembling “mini-tankers” along with converted fishing boats and recreational cruisers carrying rows of cylindrical containers on their decks, lined up like vertebrae in a supportive spine.
They form a formidable flotilla, one that resembles those black and white pictures from World War II of the Dunkirk “mini ships” and the allied armada anchored offshore at D-Day Plus 1. A dirigible buzzes my balcony, complementing the effect.
A walk along the beach magnifies the visuals and adds the smell and feel of the Great Oil Spill of 2010, mixing all the ingredients together into a sensory soup. The infamous tar balls line my walk like decorative, black onyx stones, glistening from the combination of surf and sun. Embedded with tiny shells and grains of sand, they squish like miniature cow patties beneath my bare feet. I’m surrounded by an ocean of orange and fields of tar, thinly-coated patches of blackened seagrass which the local cleanup crews skim with squeegees and shovel into plastic bags for “proper disposal.” They’re all dressed in BP-issued rubber boots and Hazmat gear and work just a few feet from young girls in skimpy bikinis and small children coated in SP50 and clad in colorful rash guards frolicking in the foamy surf, “Double Red” flag notwithstanding. Footprints of various sizes and shapes mingle with the crisscrossing tracks of tractors, four-wheel drive pickups and John Deere “Gators,” spreading the Gulf’s bloody discharge in a multitude of directions.
The water leaves a sticky residue on my skin, reminiscent of the tanning oil we “young gods” used in the 1980s as we slathered ourselves and tilted our chins skyward in search of bronzed immortality. Ironically, our efforts left us with only wrinkled, leathery integuments mottled with freckles and pockmarked with scaly actinic keratoses that lie dormant during winter but darken and flake in the summer heat, small scale skirmishes that portend the battle to come.
Authorities assure us the air quality is good and safe, but every now and then as the breeze rolls in and the winds shift, I catch a whiff of it, the “crude vapors.” The smell is far from overwhelming, and disappears just as quickly as it comes, but it is reminiscent of the pungent, tarry odor of freshly-laid asphalt.
I take all of this in just as a pair of college students, spying my Alabama Crimson Tide t-shirt, low-slung ball cap and sunglasses, attempt to proselytize me. They’re from Kansas and have been in the area for several weeks. The older, more experienced leader nudges the rookie who tells me that he wants to share “The 12 Most Important Things In The Bible.” He pauses and they both grin, waiting in great expectation for their partner, the Holy Spirit, to step in any second and do His part.
I think they’ve mistaken me for another college student, perhaps an easy mark, and now they’re a little surprised, realizing they’ve instead reeled in a cranky, middle-aged man old enough to be their dad. I politely decline, explaining to them that since I’m already a Christian, the exercise would probably be a little redundant. I marvel at their naiveté and youthful zeal and wish them a sincere “Roll Tide.” As I walk on, I figure that particular colloquial farewell will give them something to laugh about as they continue to troll the beach, searching for their morning catch.
I walk back to the boardwalk leading to our condo and begin to wash my feet with soap and water. It occurs to me that “The 12 Most Important Things In The Bible” could probably be summarized more succinctly; that we are basically a selfish people, still struggling in our relations with our neighbor and the mother who birthed us and sustains our fleeting and beautiful lives.