A year after BP oil spill, Apalachicola oysterman keeps business going

APALACHICOLA

Tommy Ward stood on his dock and looked out at the green water. He took off his ball cap and ran a huge hand through thinning red hair. He was thinking about oysters. They're fat right now. They're plentiful right now. But business isn't as good as it should be. The oil never quite reached Apalachicola Bay last year. But some oystermen, who took money from BP to look for the oil that never arrived, stopped fishing anyway. Seafood businesses such as the one he operates no longer could supply their customers with oysters. Like scows that had lost their anchors, old clients drifted away. "So now we're starting over," Ward said. "We're going to be smaller. It ain't easy." From the dock he peered across the bay and saw oyster skiffs bobbing on the waves. He watched the oystermen lean over the water and pick up oysters with long wooden tongs. "So we're getting oysters now," Tommy said. "It's pretty good for oysters right now. But listen. It's a hard business. I'm telling you, it's real hard." Commercial fishers are superstitious souls. When something good happens they automatically want to knock on wood. They are always waiting for the other rubber boot to drop. Luck is too much like the tide, here today and gone tomorrow. Like most commercial fishermen, Tommy Ward knows about hard times. He knows about death and disaster and finding a reason to believe.

• • •

He's 50 now. With his brother Dakie, he runs the business his daddy started more than half a century ago, Buddy Ward and Sons 13 Mile Seafood and Trucking Company. In northwest Florida's Franklin County, population 11,000, Buddy Ward's name is probably better known than the governor's. More than 1,000 residents have oyster licenses. Apalachicola oysters are justly famous all over the world.

Both Ward boys grew up on a salt marsh where Daddy built an oyster processing plant exactly 13 miles from Apalachicola. The Wards have had to repair or replace the building a half dozen times following tropical weather. At present, it's a small white and green structure with a tin roof and guarded by Rufus, a stray pit bull who apparently has never missed a meal.

As boys the Ward brothers found Indian arrowheads in the marsh, jumped rattlesnakes in the palmettos and played hide-and-go-seek in the slash pines across Highway 30C. Mostly they worked. Their daddy believed that idle hands bred weak boys, and that weak boys became weak men.

Buddy's boys swept and hosed, fished and shucked oysters, woke up early and went to bed late. When Tommy got his driver's license, he hauled shrimp in a semi from Daddy's business to customers at night. This was after putting in a full day's work at the oyster processing plant. His daddy once fired him for oversleeping.

A tough old cob, Buddy stood 6 feet 4 and was famous for his powerful handshake and the piercing way he looked people in the eye. Customers who paid for 60 pounds of oysters never needed to double-check the scale. If Buddy said a bag weighed 60 pounds, take it as gospel.

"Buddy was all about hard work," Martha Pearl Ward, his wife, said recently. They met at a beach cookout when she was a teen and married before they turned 20. They had five strapping sons.

Tommy was the biggest. The fish scale at the market once recorded his weight at more than 300 pounds, though he's down to a relatively svelte 265 now. Like his daddy before him, he is also 6 feet 4. Even with a bad shoulder he can swing a 60-pound oyster sack onto the dock as if it were a feather pillow.

"You done good today," he told an oysterman named Ricky Long, who had tied his skiff to the dock the other day. Long is 52, though he looks older after spending four decades doing backbreaking work under a broiling sun.

"It's a hard way to make a living," Long said.

Oystermen get anywhere from $10 to $20 for a 60-pound bag of oysters. A good day might add up to a dozen bags. Of course, most fishers remain in port during bad weather unless they are desperate for money, which often they are. Every year someone who tempts fate gets zapped by lightning or drowns in a squall.

Most oystermen build their own skiffs, buy their own gas and provide their own food. Some have lost their teeth. Many smoke or chew and eat badly. Few have medical insurance. Some are functionally illiterate.

Like old-time cowboys, they're mostly self-employed, free to come and go and live on the edge of poverty. In Apalachicola, some families have harvested oysters going back to the Civil War.

"The thing of it is, it's a free life," Long said after throwing another bag on a scale. "You're your own boss. You don't have to answer to nobody." If he doesn't work, he doesn't get paid. If he wants tomorrow off, he takes tomorrow off.

For some oystermen, the oil spill turned into a bonanza when BP began putting checks, some as big as $5,000, into their calloused palms. Some earned their money by looking for oil in the gulf on BP's behalf. Others towed oil-stopping booms into vulnerable spots up and down the coast. Some banked the money, some spent it on booze, some bought clothes for their children, and some frittered their cash away on big-screen televisions and Wave-Runners.

"It was hard to watch," said Lynn Martina, Tommy's friend and owner of a seafood business down the coast. "We had plenty of oysters to harvest, but we didn't have enough men to harvest them. It was brutal."

Martina's oystermen are mostly working again. But not Tommy Ward's. He no longer buys from oystermen who left him dangling last summer. "I'm only buying from the men who never stopped fishing," he said recently. "I believe in loyalty."

He remembers last year as one of the worst of his life. Not the worst — death haunts him — but plenty bad. Sometimes he broke down and wept with frustration. Some nights, as he tossed and turned, he wondered if he was going to have to close his daddy's business.

Then the experts figured out how to shut down the leaking well.

• • •

Tommy almost never takes a real vacation. For fun, he sails the family trawler, Buddy's Boys, into the Gulf of Mexico. He relaxes by netting shrimp for the market and thinking about his big brother, Olan, who was the best fisherman in the family. In 1978, Olan died in Apalachicola Bay of exposure after his boat went down in a winter storm. Olan was 23 and left behind a wife and three kids. Tommy sometimes tells people, "I wish Olan was here so we could talk over things."

He also wishes he could talk to his daddy. They sometimes rubbed each other wrong, but loved each other in a rough country way.

In 1986, Buddy developed a sore throat that turned out to be cancer.

Between treatments, he was known to sneak Lucky Strikes under the trees outside the hospital. It's the only time anyone can remember him acting in the slightest way dishonest. When Martha Pearl found out about the cigarettes, she wanted to take a switch to him.

But the sick old man fooled them all. He lived another two decades, saw grandchildren come into the world, ate a gazillion oysters and watched the 2005 hurricane, Dennis, blow away his seafood business for the umpteenth time.

He died nine months later. Apalachicola threw what was considered the biggest funeral in the history of the town in his honor.

His boys rebuilt after the hurricane.

• • •

The other day a black snake crossed the road near a sign that warned motorists about black bears. Pelicans flew over a tin roof, and laughing gulls pecked at a pile of discarded oyster shells. An old man in overalls carried a flat of plum-sized strawberries into Tommy Ward's office. "Mister Cliff," Tommy said to white-haired Clifford Sanborn, "what do I owe you? They look great."

"Nuthin'," grunted Mister Cliff. "They ain't worth a damn. Too much rain lately. But I hope you like 'em." Mister Cliff is famous for always being disappointed with the year's eye-popping crop. He always shares his delicious bounty with Tommy.

Folks like Buddy Ward's boy. Tommy does good things for the community. When the town needs something, Tommy drives to Tallahassee and asks the legislators for help. When someone dies, he attends the funeral. When folks up the Apalachicola River dump sewage that can ruin the oyster beds in Apalachicola Bay, Tommy speaks up. "I know it ain't an easy issue," he explains patiently, "but we're at the end of the river down here. Pollution will put us out of business."

Twice Apalachicola has named him the "King" of its famous annual seafood festival. The Southern Foodways Alliance, a University of Mississippi-based organization that celebrates Southern cuisine, once gave him the prestigious "Keeper of the Flame" award for his determination to keep seafood culture alive in Florida's most important little seafood town.

He likes to eat oysters. He likes them any way he can get them. As a young man, he once finished second in an oyster-eating contest, downing 12 dozen and four more. He didn't get sick. He got a trophy.

He is sick now. About a decade ago, during the period his daddy was battling cancer, he suddenly felt weak all over. "I thought I was ate up with the cancer myself," he said recently. It turned out to be something else. Every day he shoots himself with insulin to keep at bay a serious case of diabetes.

With his weakened immunity, he has been ordered to avoid eating raw oysters. His daddy's son, he occasional ignores the doctor's advice and eats them anyway. Sometimes he gets away with it, but last time he felt his throat swelling shut so he stopped after a few.

• • •

These days Tommy thinks of slowing down and sometimes even thinks about flat retiring. Often he thinks about what will become of the family business if he quits.

He also thinks about the oil. He is no expert, but he wonders if the bottom of the gulf is coated by it. He doesn't trust the scientists, he doesn't trust the doomsayers, he doesn't trust people who say everything is okay. "I've lost my innocence,'' he said.

He wonders if a bad hurricane might churn up the oil and commence another crisis. If that happens, what will happen to Buddy Ward and Sons 13 Mile Seafood and Trucking Company?

His daughter, Sara, a sophomore at the University of Central Florida, is studying hospitality and hopes one day to harvest not oysters but tourists. So Tommy has placed his hopes in his son, T.J., who is 22.

"T.J. reminds me of me," Tommy tells people. T.J. is serious, a straight shooter, stubborn. T.J. was especially close to his grandfather. A family story: When T.J. was 10, Grandpa Buddy hired him to paint the front porch. Grandpa provided him with a ridiculously small paint brush that made the job last forever.

"Why did Grandpa make it so hard?" T.J. asked his grandmother.

Martha Pearl answered. "Honey, he's teaching you character."

Sometimes T.J. and Tommy rub each other wrong. T.J. says, "Buddy wouldn't have done it that way" when he disagrees with his father. Tommy pretends to be insulted, but is secretly proud of his boy's steel backbone.

The other day Tommy stood on the dock and watched for T.J's oyster boat. In late afternoon T.J. came in — with the day's biggest harvest, 20 bags of plump Apalachicola oysters. Tommy carefully avoided complimenting his son on his catch. He didn't want a compliment to go to his boy's head. Do good work because work is good.

Tommy knows about work, of course. And he knows better than most about hard times.

For many years, his company delivered seafood throughout the South. Now, following the oil crisis and company downsizing, he delivers mostly in northwest Florida. He still has a few trucks, though not as many as he once did.

In 2008, a mentally ill employee who had just lost a fight with a girlfriend stole Tommy's brand-new Peterbilt semi, headed up Highway 98 and crashed into the Apalachicola State Bank in a suicide attempt.

The thief survived. Tommy's truck was totaled. So was the bank.

"It was a bad string of luck," Tommy was telling a man in that understated way of his. "First the hurricane flooded out my business, then my daddy died. And somehow my truck destroyed the bank."

The bank is supposed to open soon. Buddy Ward's son is still standing.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8727.

A year after BP oil spill, Apalachicola oysterman keeps business going 04/21/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 21, 2011 4:06pm]

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