Dispatch from the Gulf

August 12th, 2010

My son, Josh, was thrilled for me to finally experience Panama City, Florida, to throw a football on its white beaches, to gaze into its clear Gulf water, to wear flip-flops even to the nicest of restaurants. Josh’s first encounter with Florida came a few years back when he traveled from Nebraska to meet his girlfriend’s family in this sun-soaked panhandle town. Panama City was why he first fell in love with Florida, long before he discovered the disappointment of repetitive strip malls and endless suburbs one finds in places such as Orlando. Although I can’t swim, I’m always on board for a trip to the beach. Besides, I figured, a respite on the Gulf might be just what the doctor ordered to get away from the stress of daily newspaper deadlines.

As it turns out, however, it’s sometimes difficult to turn off the cartooning part of my brain, especially when coming to a place that recently has so prominently figured in the news. It also didn’t help matters that a few remaining BP workers continued to patrol the beach, keeping an eye out for anything suspicious, not to mention that President Obama had just announced plans to return to the area in a few days. Surely, there had to be a cartoon idea lurking here somewhere. At the very least, I figured, it would be interesting to see a tar ball up close. As it turned out, the water was murky and thick with debris, the sand not faring much better—not, however, with any remnants from the oil spill, but with algae.

“Worst I’ve seen in the thirty-one years I’ve lived here,” one local told me, disappointed in her hometown beach, practically apologizing.

One sunburned BP worker also seemed perplexed as to why the water was so green and soupy. When I asked him what might be the cause, he just shrugged.

Were these high-levels of algae the result of nothing more than several days’ worth of high temperatures along the Gulf? Or more disconcerting, the result of long-term climate change? Was it possible that all the oil disbursement work somehow stirred things up? Whatever the cause, as Josh and I hesitantly waded into the opaque water, with those BP workers lingering on the hazy beach behind us, I couldn’t help but feel that I had entered some dystopian world.

To add to the science fiction eeriness, since arriving in Florida a few days before, we’d caught several episodes of Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week,” including some featuring shark attacks in the very waters where we were now submerged, chest-deep. A slight panic came over me. The seaweed clinging to my legs seemed like just the kind of place a menacing shark might like to lie in wait.

That’s when Josh asked if he could teach me how to swim.


It’s not that I haven’t taken swimming lessons in the past, and I certainly understand the basic mechanics. For whatever reason, however, I’ve always struggled with the letting go part of swimming, trusting I won’t sink to the bottom. Maybe it’s because I grew up hearing stories from my mother about how she nearly drowned in a lake when she was a teenager.

Josh exudes confidence. And he’s patient. For his sake, I gave floating a try. I took a deep breath, and lowering myself into the green sludge, I leaned back, catching myself at the last moment, desperately searching for the bottom with my feet, flailing, going under for just a moment, taking in a healthy dose of saltwater.

I shook it off and tried again. This time I floated for a few seconds. On my back, my face to the sky, I squinted against the hot Florida sun, forgetting for a moment about cartoons and sharks, oil and algae.