I’d lived in Alaska for thirteen years before the Exxon Valdez oil spill and for about twelve years after so I can’t claim it was the reason I left. Looking back on it now, though, I can honestly say that it made it possible to leave. I can only explain that by telling you why I went there in the first place.
The America of the mid-seventies was depressing. Vietnam had ended, but badly. Unemployment was high and inflation higher. A few years later President Carter summed it up pretty well during the Arab Oil Embargo in the famous speech in which he cited our national malaise. Malaise was right. The highways were long litter buckets. Lake Erie was dead. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland was so polluted that one fine day it caught on fire. Our President, Ford, had not been elected but appointed by a disgraced Richard Nixon. “Rubber Ducky You’re So Fine” was on the Hit Parade.
That was what I left to go to Alaska. When I first set foot there as a twenty-one-year-old pilgrim it represented all that was pure and right. Even the summer wind smelled of crisp ice. Everything-- the people, the forests, the weather and the endless days -- were a force of nature to be reckoned with. It did not suffer fools. Hard work paid premiums. Carelessness did not. The ground shook, the mountains smoked. There were moose in the yard and bears in the woods and a glacier it seemed in every valley. Pure, white and innocent. Not innocent like a puppy. More like a polar bear – beautiful, indomitable, and alluring -- and it would kill you without malice or pause. I loved that place. I wouldn’t have known how to leave it if I’d wanted to.
Something of that purity and innocence and allure was gone after the spill. So was the indomitableness of it. The oil cleanup was only successful in that Exxon successfully convinced the distant American public that it had done its job. It had not and the 900 miles of oiled shoreline in Alaska are unrecovered to this day. We’d been greased. Like the Gulf of Mexico is being greased right now.
The pictures and news reports and press statements from the oil company and the government over the last many weeks has brought all of this back to me again. Some of you reminded me of a story I’d done a long time ago featuring the Alaska spill.
When the Exxon Valdez went aground in Prince William Sound I was doing a radio program called “The End of the Road”, which featured a variety of characters not unlike many of my friends and neighbors in and around Homer, Alaska. Not being in possession of an oversupply of imagination, most of what happened in the world around me ended up happening to my make believe characters. The following is the story I told on one of those radio shows in that ugly spring of 1989.
I dedicate this story to the people of the Gulf coast whose hearts are being broken and futures rewritten. All I can say is that you don’t get over something like this, but you do get through it.
Fritz Ferguson leaned against his rusted half-ton in the turnout at the top of the hill and looked one last time at the tranquil bay that stretched before him.
It was a flat gray day. Not the most flattering light for this parting shot. The overcast was high, but it still clipped the tops off his mountains across the water. It was a level cloud line so clean you wouldn’t believe the mountains even had tops if you didn’t know better.
Fritz knew better. He’d been to the tops of more than a few of them. And he’d skied the glaciers, hunted the hills, fished the bays, clammed the coves, and so much more in his fifty-three intimate years with this magnificent country.
When he’d come, there was nothing here but this. The fine little town that now lay below him had been only a wish and a prayer for himself and a few others to come – Argus Winslow, Bud Koenig, Ruby McClay. Good friends and good people. Oh, he’d known the best of people here.
He thought of Meredith, his native wife of fifty years, only two years gone now. His gaze found their holy place, Eden Cove, where they’d met and where they’d eventually fallen in love. He closed his eyes to blink back tears and a much younger Fritz Ferguson stepped onto a quiet little beach.
He’d rowed his dory to the far side of the bay to get a little distance from his homestead with all its endless improvements, and the other homesteaders with all their endless impoverishments. He’d lain back in the sand and gravel, still breathing hard, and looked up to the spruce trees towering around. Listening to the silence. Smelling the sweet air, he’d dug his fingers into the rocky sand.
What he’d felt in his hands shot him up as if given an electric shock. In each of his sandy palms he held a half dozen sweet little butter clams, the cuisine supreme of the low-tide larder. He dug his hands in again and came up with a dozen more. They virtually boiled from the sand. Fritz had seen some pretty darn nice clamming beaches, but he’d never seen anything like this.
He was soon on his knees digging like a gold-struck prospector, and laughing like one too, dredging what would come to be several buckets full of steamers . That’s when he heard a small sound from the woods.
He stopped his digging, tensed, and listened. This seemed to make the noise even louder. A noise he couldn’t identify until he looked up and saw the refreshing, round, and giggling brown face of a young native woman just inside the tree line. She had a pail of fresh blueberries on her arm, and the smile that remained on her face even after her laughter had stopped is what captured Fritz’s heart and what would prove to hold it for five decades to come.
Fritz opened his eyes to shake off the memory and looked across the bay once more for Eden Cove. His eyes weren’t as good as they used to be, so it was hard to tell from this distance, but it looked like Eden Cove lay just about where the group of boats was centered out on the dark water. They were oil-skimmer boats, a common sight lately, and they looked to be working his cove over.
A bitter rage all too common in these days since the oil spill swelled again in his three-quarters of a century old frame and he forced himself to look away. He looked to that quiet little town and thought of the others, those who would stay to help clean this up and who would live here happily – as he no longer could. And he remembered back to that meeting, the first one, the one that changed everything and everybody. The one that let all of us know why Fritz Ferguson couldn’t live here anymore.
It was at the big town meeting about a month ago. The oil company had put it together to the let the local people have their say. The spill was three weeks old, and not only had very little of it been recovered, but nobody really seemed to know where it all was. All anybody knew for sure was that it was starting to show up here. The townspeople themselves, tired of waiting for the officials to do anything, had started the construction of emergency protection booms all on their own. The arrival of these officials did little to calm anyone’s anxieties and only seemed to raise the hackles of most.
The visiting experts sat at long folding tables in the front. There was a coast guard officer, looking solemn and competent. There were two bearded biologists from state and federal wildlife agencies. There were open-collared representatives from the DEC, EPA, DOT, and every other jumbled combination of three-letter agencies they could find.
But all the real attention was focused on one hangdog and nervous-looking oil company representative in the middle. There was no doubt he was tired. He’d just arrived from similar town meetings farther up the coast, and Fritz could tell he pretty much knew what he was in for.
The room was full of many dozens of deadly serious people. In the front row with Fritz was Lars Luger, his meaty fisherman’s hands working their palms together in his lap. Emily Flannigan sat beside him literally huffing as she continually blew a strand of loose hair out of her face. Argus Winslow was there, his big junk dealer arms folded across his barrel chest, looking more unpleasant than usual. He was looking to fight with someone. Fritz had seen Argus look that way too many times. Ruby McClay was with Argus, looking every bit as ornery as he.
Tamara Dupree sat next to Fritz, and when she made eye contact with the oilman, he saw a shiver go through the poor man’s frame. Bud Koenig sat on the outside chatting amiably with Pastor Frank. Bud never seemed to get rattled by anything, and Fritz was glad to see him here. It calmed him and made him feel better about what he was there to do.
The oilman began the meeting by introducing all the agency people, and they in turn gave reports on the cleanup operations – where the slick had been last sighted, where the skimmer boats were, the bird, otter, seal, bear, deer, and fish reports, and generally detailed everything they were preparing to do.
It all appeared so feeble in the massive face of this disaster that it only seemed to rile everybody even further. Finally, the oilman sensed the right thing to do and stopped talking. He took a long, deep breath and asked for public comment.
Lars Luger was the first to jump to his feet. “I’m Lars Luger and I’m a fisherman. At least I used to be. The oil company sent me a check to pay for all the fish I ain’t catchin’ ‘cause o’ their darn big mess. Now, what I want to know is what I’m supposed to do with myself. I’ve been a fisherman all my life. I fish!”
Lars sat down and a rumble went through the crowd. The oilman may have been trying to come up with a response, but Emily Flannigan didn’t give him the chance.
“I’m Emily Flannigan,” she said. “I’m a mother.” She blew the strand out of her face again and addressed everyone at the table: “When the pipeline was built, the oil companies and environmental agencies assured the people of Alaska that a catastrophe like this could not happen. And that if a spill occurred, it could be contained before any damage was done. It is obvious we were lied to and that lies are still being told about the size and impact of this spill. What I want to know is how do we teach our children responsibility and integrity when the very leaders of our free market have no more integrity than snakes!”
The oilman seemed to get shorter in his chair, and Argus Winslow decided to enter the fray, but from a new position. He stood up, turning his back on the experts, to talk to the audience directly.
“You crybabies drive me nuts! You’ve been livin’ off this oil money for ten years. What do you think paid for that new school and hospital and all these roads you drive around on, burnin’ gas like a bunch of happy fools. If you’re gonna play with this messy stuff, sooner or later you’re going to get some on ya’!”
There might have been a riot over that had not Tamara Dupree shot right up, “I can see how a mess like this wouldn’t bother a man who lives in a junkyard!” She was cheered by the crowd into her own tirade. A tirade that lasted some fifteen minutes, outlining in excrutiating detail the long-tern environmental consequences not only of the present oil spill but of the manufacture and use of fossil fuels in general. She called for the oil companies involved to be forced to devote all of their profits to the research and development of clean energy alternatives until such time as the oil wells can be shut down for good.
Tamara was applauded long and loud mostly for sitting down again. Argus tried to get back up to say something, but Ruby McClay pulled him down on her own way up. Ruby gave a dry report on the impact of this spill on the tourist industry and how did the oil companies expect to calculate reimbursement for those businesses who suffer? She might have gotten an answer too, but she ended her talk by pointing a finger directly at the oilman and spitting, “You, mister, are going to pay for this!”
The oilman looked more than sufficiently beaten, and while he tried to think of something to say Bud Koenig stood up to save him.
“Ruby, let’s not be so nasty. Everybody, look, there’s no doubt the oil company has made a lot of mistakes here lately. But this man is here to help. Insulting or threatening isn’t going to do anything but hurt people’s feelings. This mess is bigger than any of us. It’s bigger than all of us. We can’t afford to be choosing up sides right now. We gotta work this out together because nobody wants that oil left in the water. Not you, not him, not anybody.”
Bud sat down, and what he said seemed to hang like a new thought over the room. It was this quiet moment that Fritz seized for what he had to say. He stood up slowly, showing his years, nodded politely to the oilman, then while fingering his hat, turned to his friend and neighbors.
“You all know me. I’ve lived here a long time and saw most of you come to town. As you know, I sold the newspaper last year after Meredith passed away. I figured I’d retire and live out my last few years just enjoying the scenery. It’s a little lonely without Meredith, but her memory was everyplace I looked, so that was okay.
“There’s this clam beach over across the way you might know in Eden Cove. That’s where Meri and I met and courted, and it’s still the most amazing little butter-clam beach I’ve ever seen.”
People looked at each other and nodded in agreement.
“We went over to Eden a lot, and always on our anniversary. We’d build a fire and eat clams until we couldn’t anymore.”
Some folks laughed nervously wondering what he was getting to here.
“Our anniversary was last week and I took the skiff over there by myself just to reminisce and such. When I come onto the beach everything seemed the same, then I started seeing all the blobs of oil stuck around on the rocks and everyplace. I reached my hands down into our beach and came up with nothing but stinky, black, sticky goo. Everyplace I dug it was the same, and what happened scared me.
“This rage built inside me that made me almost blind. It pounded in my chest and squeezed water out of my eyes, because I realized that no part of Meredith was left there anymore. She was gone. It was all gone. I’ve waited a week and it won’t go away. Every time I look over, it happens again.
“That’s why I come up in front of you tonight, to tell you I’m leaving town.” Fritz stopped, and a mumble of wonder when through the room as he tried to think of a way to finish.
“I’m not blaming anyone so much as just taking care of myself. I’m an old man and I can’t live out my last few years being this mad. I’m going back to family in Illinois where I might die of boredom, but at least I won’t leave this world full of bitterness.”
Fritz looked one last time across to Eden Cove but couldn’t see it. The memory of his farewell had clouded his eyes once again and all he could do was wipe his face and get in the truck. He drove along the coast and couldn’t help even after all these years but marvel at the seductive beauty of this land. His heart broke again recalling the prayer Pastor Frank had tried to offer up that same night.
Fritz’s announcement had been pretty much the showstopper. Nobody wanted to hand this poor man any more grief, and everyone grew silent. Even the panel of experts and the oilman seemed mired in solemn thought.
Pastor Frank stood and politely cleared his throat. Addressing himself to no one in particular, he referred to some notes in his hand. “If I might leave us with a benediction,” he began, and they all bowed their heads.
“Dear Lord, you have created for us a near-perfect world -- one of wonder and bounty, security and beauty. You have crafted a delicate ornament that shines in your firmament like a jewel in your holy crown. And you saved your best work for what we know as Alaska. The Great Land, and a land like no other. From the highest of our mountains and glaciers to the bottom of our abundant seas there is richness. In our carelessness and lust for worldly desires, Lord, we have tarnished this treasure. We have killed your creatures, and fouled your golden shores and it appears to be larger than we are…”
The pastor stopped for more than a pause and many people raised their heads to look at him. They saw his hand reach across to Fritz Ferguson’s shoulder and tears running down his puffy cheeks. He looked to his notes, more for strength than for words, then stuffed them back in a pocket as he tried to clear the emotion from his throat to go on.
And at that moment there were no oilmen in the room. Or agency experts or environmentalists or fishermen or mothers. There were only some small and worried human beings who felt with all their hearts the only words that the pastor could find to finish his prayer: “Oh, dear God,” he said. “We are so sorry.”
And after Fritz Ferguson took a last look at his home ground and turned his attention to the road, out across the bay the clouds were breaking up and a yellow sun pounded through to the sea turning it that mysterious and heavenly color of glacial aqua he would miss so much. A light as warm and bright as forgiveness. As if a penitent prayer from one little town were being taken into consideration.
“Give Me some time to fix this,” It seemed to say. “And don’t let it happen again.”
First broadcast on The End of the Road radio show, Spring 1989. Published in the collection The Big Garage On Clear Shot by William Morrow&Co. October 1990. All Rights Reserved by Tom Bodett.