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Apalachicola, an oyster capital, braces for oil

APALACHICOLA — The black cloud blew out of the gulf and over the city while sheets of rain hammered down hard enough to leave bruises. The fishermen went out anyway, in little skiffs and shrimp boats, to look for anything that might be oil. Thunder rolled, lightning crashed, but it didn't matter. They dressed in yellow slickers and headed out into the gloom.

They found nothing. The oil is still west of here, apparently. But that didn't matter either. Spirits in this Franklin County town of 2,000 were as black as the weather, black as the crude boiling up a mile deep from Deepwater Horizon.

One day the oil slides toward the bay, sometimes called the Gulf of Mexico's cradle of life because of its seafood production. But then the wind shifts and the oil retreats. Everybody takes a deep breath until the next tide or next squall, when the oil again starts moving toward the bay. In neatly kept double-wide trailers and in shotgun shacks with peeling white paint, hands are folded and prayers offered. In St. Patrick's Catholic Church, somebody lights a candle.

The oil is like a hurricane that never leaves. It waxes and wanes but remains just offshore, waiting and waiting, as if directed by the Prince of Darkness himself. He must enjoy toying with the anxious motel owners, shopkeepers and restaurateurs — who, by the way, are never reduced to serving king crab from Alaska, sea bass from Chile or shrimp from a farm pond.

In Apalachicola, they serve seafood from the gulf, caught by folks who know no other life and don't want to know. Ten percent of America's oysters are harvested from the nearby bay.

• • •

Tommy Whiddon blinked his eyes behind glasses.

"Everybody — every one of us — has the same look on our face right now," he said. He's 54, a moon-faced man with blues in his voice. "We all look like we're waiting to be executed."

Four decades ago Whiddon oystered with his daddy for the first time. Whiddon's daddy had learned from his daddy, who had learned oystering from previous generations going back to the Civil War.

Lately Tommy Whiddon says it feels like his head is going to explode from the stress. The other day, his ears got stuffy, like somebody was holding hands over them, only he could feel his heart pumping like a hydraulic hammer through those blocked-up ears. His wife, Elaine, went with him to the emergency room, where Whiddon's blood pressure was recorded as an unsettling 165 over 110. Normal blood pressure is anything lower than 120 over 80.

The hospital wanted to keep him overnight. He said, "I don't have insurance." He went home with medicine.

Whiddon wants to be on the water, but recently he drove to Panama City and took a four-hour course to learn how to handle hazardous materials. If the oil comes into Apalachicola Bay and ruins the oysters that sustained his family for 150 years, he hopes he can make a few dollars cleaning up the mess.

"I quit school when I was in sixth grade," he said. "So I never got a diploma."

Now he has one. It's the diploma from the Hazmat course.

• • •

Apalachicola, like Tommy Whiddon, has the blues.

Over at the Owl Cafe, where the dinner special was soft-shell crab with a bacon sauce over pasta, server Deanna Wright, 38, wondered about the future. She comes here every summer from Plant City and stays with her folks, takes her kids scalloping in the morning, then goes to the restaurant at night.

"This isn't just about me,'' she said. "If oil comes in here it will have an impact on my kids and one day their own kids.''

Usually Wright serves tourists, but now she carries plates of raw oysters to folks who have come to sop up oil. They already have placed six miles of boom in the bay and in the gulf.

Motels normally clogged with tourists were busy with emergency workers, though Lisa Grider and her toddler, Nathan, had found a room. "I'm from Atlanta," Grider said, eating a shrimp salad at the Place Off 98 Restaurant, "but I've been watching the oil spill and I wanted to visit down here while it's still nice."

At his art studio around the corner, photographer Richard Bickel displayed his enormous black-and-white portraits of life in Apalachicola. Bickel, 59, has traveled throughout the world to make pictures for National Geographic, Travel + Leisure and the New York Times Magazine. Sixteen years ago, he was passing through Apalachicola on the way to somewhere else. He never left.

"This place is special,'' he said, "and I love the people. There's a dignity to them. They like to work. They're unhappy if they can't be on the water. I can't help but be worried about them if the worst happens.''

His photographs hang in restaurants and gift shops, in museums and at the chamber of commerce office — photographs of grizzled shrimpers with tattoos, oyster-shucking queens in hair nets and weather-beaten oystermen who look like they might beat the odds and live forever.

• • •

Inside a mobile home parked on a weedy lot a dozen feet from a forlorn weeping willow, Elaine Whiddon got out the blood pressure cuff. This time her husband's reading was 200 over 120. "I'm calling the doctor," she said.

She didn't scold Tommy even though he probably deserved it. Even with his blood pressure and broken-down body, he had launched his boat that day and headed out for the oyster beds. You don't work, you don't get paid. The weather drove him back to shore. He didn't get paid.

Oystering has damaged two shoulders, an elbow and maybe his heart. "I'm as worn out as an old lead pencil," he likes to say. "But this is my life."

The old oysterman talked about better days. He talked about the time he and Elaine took their first vacation. That was just a few months ago, before the oil accident. They drove through Georgia, passed through Great Smoky Mountains National Park and stopped in Tennessee. They loved Dollywood, Dolly Parton's amusement park in Pigeon Forge. Even better was Gatlinburg, a tourist town with fudge stores and mom-and-pop shops that sell moccasins, tomahawks and fake Indian arrowheads.

"I could breathe there," Tommy was saying. "My body didn't hurt. If we win the lottery, we're going back to Gatlinburg."

The daydream ended. Elaine got ready to call the doctor. In the northern gulf, oil was gushing from a broken pipe.

Staff photographer Kathleen Flynn contributed to this report.

Apalachicola, an oyster capital, braces for oil 06/30/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 1, 2010 3:11pm]
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