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Bill Maxwell

Memories of Old Florida and tar balls

I'm one of those native Floridians who was born on the coast. I was born in Fort Lauderdale, less than 2 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. I was born in 1945, two years before the weather people started naming hurricanes.

My playgrounds were the Atlantic and the New River in downtown Fort Lauderdale, which flows into the ocean through Port Everglades. I fished and swam on the ocean and crabbed and daydreamed about the yachts on the river.

Whenever a major storm approached, I went to the ocean, against my mother's wishes, to watch the huge waves and whitecaps crash onto shore. I wouldn't be alone. Teenage boys on strange-looking boards would be there riding the waves. Without knowing it, I was witnessing the birth of the surfing craze in South Florida.

A few surfers often complained about tar on their boards. Several tar balls sometimes speckled portions of the white sandy shore. At home, I often had to wash tar off my swimsuit. One time I got tar on the couch, infuriating my saintly calm mother.

Most of us Florida-born folks always have taken tar balls for granted, just as we have taken for granted extreme heat, humidity, rainstorms, hurricanes, mosquitoes, no-see-ums and sandspurs.

They're the natural nuisances of coastal life.

From 1978 to 1979, I had the privilege of teaching at Florida Keys Community College in Key West. I lived in a modest conch house on Stock Island. On my left, my neighbors were Cubans who didn't speak much English. The men were landscapers and the women were maids. To my right lived the toughest, most lovable bunch of mullet fishermen I've ever encountered. We all lived in harmony, frying or boiling our catch together, sharing Stock Island's benign chaos.

Then, there were the tar balls, not every day, but a lot of days. We didn't complain. Instead, in one of our backyards, with music blasting and after a few rounds of rum and cokes and margaritas, we made fun of the tourists who uttered profanity-laced tirades after tar smudged their diving masks and fins and fishing gear.

At least three afternoons a week, I fished for hog snapper around coral heads north of Stock Island. I loved fishing, but nothing was more satisfying than just swimming over the coral and observing dozens of species of colorful fish and crustacean. Once in a while, I would see tar balls floating below the surface near a coral head.

Back then, I didn't think much about the tar. I assumed that a passing freighter had leaked some oil somewhere out there, and the stuff had come to shore.

One of my most memorable tar-ball experiences occurred at the community college. One morning, a student came into my classroom wearing a strangely fitting baseball cap. She had lovely long hair, and she had never worn a cap to class. She sat in a back row, which she had never done. Usually vivacious, she seemed to avoid everyone that morning.

She came by my office after class to discuss a graded essay. Before we began the session, I asked about the cap. She and her boyfriend had gone snorkeling, and she had gotten tar in her hair. Instead of using soap and water, she had dunked her locks in kerosene, which made a mess to say the least. She wound up cutting off too much hair. By the end of the semester, she had recovered her dignity and had gotten rid of the baseball cap.

These memories are not intended to minimize the concern about the millions of barrels of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. As the oil gets into the loop current, the impact on people, flora and fauna and Florida's economy could be devastating.

This old Florida native already is having a hard time imagining thousands of tar balls and plumes in our mangrove stands and on our shores. This will be an intolerable man-made tragedy, an unnatural part of coastal life.

Memories of Old Florida and tar balls 05/22/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 6:43pm]
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