Black oil and white sand

Published 2:55 pm Tuesday, May 4, 2010

I couldn’t see the beaches or the water as I came in last night. The fog was so thick you would have thought I was in Boston instead of Panama City.

I awoke this morning to a thunderous downpour. There just a hint of blue sky as I sit on my mother’s patio overlooking the water on the 8th hole at Bay Point.

The birds are flying in and out of the pond just as quiet and peaceful as you can imagine. I wonder if they know of the huge oil slick lingering off the coast that could threaten their very existence.

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Panama City Beach has always been part of my life. As kids, our parents would take us down for the day to play in the waves, marvel at the brilliantly white sand, and finally to complain about the sticky salt on our skin. We would then go back to Compass Lake, jump in the fresh spring water, and somehow feel cleansed as the salt washed away from our skin.

There were a lot of firsts for me in Panama City, some of which I can’t discuss here. Among the more stupid things I did was stay in the sun all day without any sunscreen to make my dark tan darker. To show off my swimming prowess, I would swim to the second sand bar at night.

I would do that foolish deed until I came across a man cleaning a shark’s jaw on Shell Island. He would put a bloody fish on a chain, attached to a ski rope and stake it in the ground on shore. He would paddle the bloody fish out about 200 years on a surfboard before returning to land. Usually by morning he had pulled a shark to shore. His wall was full of clean but menacing shark jaws and teeth.

I occasionally would sleep in the white dunes along what is now Thomas Drive. With nothing but a blanket, you could often see the crab tracks on either side of where I laid, with no tracks on the sand where they had crawled over my body as I slept.

It was where I caught the most fish in my life after my father put us on a sunken ship tens of miles out in the ocean that red snapper swarmed around. It was the only time in my life I caught more than one fish on the same line at the same time. We had to stop occasionally just to take a break from pulling them in.

I see the pictures of college kids on television during Spring Break at Panama City and wonder if they could possibly be having as much fun as we did. There were no huge organized parties or lewd contests. We congregated at an old motel near Sunnyside called the Wavecrest.

The owner was an old SAE from Auburn and gave us preferential treatment. He owned a few cabins in front of the motel. If you had a cabin it was an indication of either how early in the week you left school or how good of a regular customer you were. I was guilty of both.

The old Kiska Court was across the street and consisted of two bedroom cottages that were built sturdy enough to hold a dozen poor students. We would cook out and hopefully have enough money to eat out one night during the weekend.

We played cards on the beach until we cooked ourselves and very seldom had a beer before noon. It is where Mary Lou and I discovered we were really meant to be together, traveling to the Wavecrest after our one and only breakup before we got married.

Years later, it was torn down to be replaced by yet another tall, expensive condo project. We stopped and took a picture with only the rubble and the sign remaining. We sent it to all our college friends. We really didn’t have to say anything because we all had our own good memories of those times.

Our children came along and by then their grandparents lived here at Bay Point. My kids viewed Shell Island as their private retreat. They thought the sand was this beautiful all over the world. As they began to travel, they always compared other beaches to Panama City and they always came up short.

They got to see the ocean from my parent’s big boat and would fish for hours for choafers from the sea wall at their home as my Dad patiently baited their hooks. We cooked fresh fish we caught, barbecued ribs on the deck, and tried the new restaurants as they would come and go. Life seemed to revolve around naps, games and food.

Today I see this beautiful sand in a more fearful light. The oil spill that is dominating our news has inched ever closer to this part of paradise. Five-thousand barrels a day continue to pour into the Gulf of Mexico with no definite end in sight. The leak is nearly a mile below the surface of the ocean and is 40 miles offshore. However, with strong winds and ocean currents, its potential landfall could be most anywhere.

The cost of the rehabilitation of the seafood and wildlife, not to mention the economic impact will be in the billions of dollars. Some of the wildlife returned to its normal state after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. Some have made a partial recovery. Some did not return at all.

Shimmering black oil on brilliant white sand. It is a picture I shudder to think about. There are men and women putting their lives on the line to help make sure that doesn’t happen. You should pray from them, their work and for God’s intervention in preserving one of His masterpieces.

There are all sorts of environmental disasters caused by man that can make a top 10 list: Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Exxon Valdez and the Love Canal. There is the dead zone that periodically appears in the Gulf of Mexico caused by fertilizer and animal waste runoff. It is the size of New Jersey.

There is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch swirling in the North Central Pacific Ocean. It contains more than 100 million tons of garbage, mostly plastic, in an area nearly the size of the United States.

We can only hope and pray that this ecological disaster so near our homes can be contained before it can make such a list so my grandchildren can enjoy some of the same memories I have of this place.