The Eternal Gulf

As the crisis creeps further into our past, let us never forget the precarious beauty of the place we almost lost
Article: Rick Bragg

To pick one day on this water, one above all the rest, is like trying to hold on to the white sand with your scrunched-up toes as the receding waves pull it from beneath your feet. The Gulf occupies a shining place in our memories, of rushing, crashing blues and greens against a shore so white it hurts our eyes, of flashes of silver through shallows clear as branch water, of pink babies screaming with laughter as they outrun an inch-deep wave onto safe, dry sand, as if winning that race was the most important thing in their lives, till the next one. And when they are old it will still be that way, because waves are always waiting, one more summer, to race again.

I wondered if we would lose it all that spring and summer of 2010. Some old men, who know things like tides and the habits of fish, told me not to fret, that there was too much water out there to be killed by even such a gout of oil. Other old men, tears in their eyes, told me the Gulf only seemed eternal, that mankind could kill it like any other living thing. Now, two summers after, the crisis fades in our memories: The highways south are busier, the waits for a shrimp platter drag on a little more. And it is easy to believe again that it will always be there, a cradle for the fish, or just a place to ease our souls.

I will never forget the hopelessness of 2010, because little has been done to ensure it will not happen again. But it is not what I choose to remember.

I will remember a day when I was a young man in a small boat, drifting on the currents where the flats of Tampa Bay flow into the Gulf, water changing to a deeper blue, shadows of sharks in the shallows, me cursing at cormorants who snatch my bait as it hits the water. The Captain, Joe Romeo, told me fish stories as rays glided like flying saucers across the bottom, till it was time to unwrap a Cuban sandwich and open a freezing can of Coke. I could stay, I remember thinking, stay and fish and tell stories and live on speckled trout and grits. But I would not. I would give in to ambition, and give this up. But before we quit that good day, I hooked something different, a glittering silver torpedo that, even now, remains one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. "Lady Fish," Joe Romeo said matter-of-factly, as if some other fool had caught a fish this pretty and it had not made the newspaper. We let it go, but I never let go of it. I catch it, in my memory, over and over again.

Or maybe I will remember the day my mother, aunts, and little brother came to see me in Clearwater, bringing fried chicken cooked in an iron skillet and homegrown tomatoes and five plastic Purex jugs of water from Germania Springs, because everyone knows Florida water is not fit to drink. They got up the next day before dawn because they just do things like that, and we drove to a deserted beach. A pod of dolphins arced through the calm, flat water, and my mother hollered for me to get back because she believed them to be sharks and believes that to this day. When I told her they would not stroll ashore and get me even if they were sharks, she told me I might not ought to be so full of my little self. I watched my family drive away, waving from a butternut-colored Chevelle.

Or maybe I will not remember a day at all, but a night in Pensacola. After hours wide awake in a hotel bed, I dragged the bedclothes out on the balcony where the Gulf wind rattled the palm fronds and shifted the patio chairs. I made a bed from a comforter and a 99-cent air mattress, wrapped up in a giant beach towel, and let the rhythm and rush of that water, invisible in the dark, sing me to sleep.