Summering Worries

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul’s idyllic memories of “summering” are threatened by the oil spill.

JP and sister Pam beachside at Grand Hotel

“Summering” has been on my mind a lot lately.  One of my favorite passages I’ve been reading out loud on book tour is from Alphabet City’s Episode 3:

Until I moved to the Big Apple, I had never heard the word “summer” used as a verb.  But from what I could tell, the entire society stratus of New York City greeted summer with a mass exodus.  For those that could afford it, summering meant scheduling into two-day weekends all the things we took for granted on a weekly basis in Texas—swimming, tanning, boating, golfing…Summering ensnared all kinds—Fags to Fire Island, Snobs to Southampton, Monied to Martha’s Vineyard.  New Yorkers returned after Labor Day bronzed and exhausted.  In Dallas, we just went to Lake Texhoma and returned leathery and pickled.

For the most part, summering for my family meant visiting my grandmother in her mobile home trailer in the piney woods of East Texas near a Dairy Queen and catfish pond.  But every other year, my father loaded us up in our diesel-powered Mercedes sedan and drove from Dallas to Pt. Clear, Alabama to the Grand Hotel just outside Mobile.  Car trips with my father were lessons in endurance—bathroom breaks were limited and replaced by mandatory singing of odd German folksongs, Ray Charles ballads, and an occasional showstopper from Cabaret.  One time Dad ran the car off the road and into a ditch filled with Mississippi kudzu because he was reading—while driving.

But making it to the Grand Hotel meant a fortnight of frolicking.  I began by drinking copious amounts of Shirley Temples concocted by legendary bartender Bucky who called me Mr. Buchmeyer!  Afternoons were spent precariously riding a bicycle built for two with Dad, scoping out the twisted arbor for the annual awarding of the “Gnarliest Tree Award” complete with blue ribbon.  And off course, there was lots of time reading on the beach—scanning out across the murky waters of Mobile Bay and seeing a few oil drilling platforms on the horizon.

At the time, those rigs were nothing more than a curiosity.  As a young kid from the Lone Star State that was fueled by a powerful oil addiction, it never occurred to me that there was anything particularly dangerous happening offshore.  My uncle was in the oil business and my cousins even spent a few summers working on Gulf Coast rigs.  But when I returned a few years back with Chef for a story about the area for Condé Nast Traveler, I saw those platforms in a much different way—as a menacing encroachment on the area’s natural beauty.

On that trip, I experienced the towns scattered along the Gulf Coast in a much different way than the hurried road trips of my youth.  This time, my traveling companion Chef actually encouraged multiple detours and roadside stops on our sweep around the Florida Panhandle in a souped up Mercedes.  When we weren’t stopping for roadside Hot Nuts, we were delighting in the succulent (and cheap) oysters of charming Apalachicola.  Here’s how I describe it in CNT’s June 2008 issue:

Today, Apalachicola is a delicately balanced blend of Old and New Florida—historic buildings and houses mixed with funky boutiques and numerous cafés. I’m completely charmed by the place, but Chef withholds judgment until he tastes the local fare.

Oysters have provided stability to this region for years. Ten percent of the country’s supply comes from this bay, and they are some of the biggest, juiciest, meatiest, saltiest—and cheapest—oysters we’ve had the pleasure of tasting. At 25 cents each, compared to about four dollars a pop in New York City, Chef and I literally can’t get enough—we eat them morning, noon, and night. We eat them roasted, baked, and in shooter cocktails with peppered vodka and horseradish, not to mention in oyster po’boys for lunch, and served with eggs (and grits) for breakfast.

…we drive on to St. Joe Beach along a road that’s among the prettiest on this trip—baby palm trees dwarfed by giant cedars. Out of the car, we trudge up stairs over mountains of sand, and at the summit, take pause at the view: miles and miles of nearly empty snowy beaches lapped by clear turquoise water. We head down to splash in the warm water, agreeing that we will come back and bring friends: Oysters and beaches this delicious deserve to be shared.

If you’re still not sure of how much natural beauty is in danger of destruction from the country’s worst environmental catastrophe, I encourage you to read the full CNT story for just a taste of my own humble perspective.

Lil JP stealing one of my Dad's books at The Grand Hotel

For hundreds of years, the Grand Hotel and the citizens of the Gulf Coast have shown remarkable resilience bouncing back from a series of natural disasters.  But as oil from the raging spill begins lapping at the shores of nearby pristine Dauphin Island, I have to be honest and say I’m worried for the hardworking laborers who trawl for the delicious oysters and succulent shrimp.  And I’m sad that the lazy, almost idyllic setting might be in danger for future generations of kids who might not experience Bucky’s charming hospitality or the thrill of tacking a ribbon to “The Gnarliest Tree.”

Summering used to be so much simpler.

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