Friday, June 25, 2010

Remembrance of Things Past

You can’t think of Fairhope today without grieving. The oil slick lies ominously close; a tropical storm is churning in the southern Gulf; hurricane season will begin in a matter of weeks, and the town is working feverishly in 95 degree heat to ward off the almost certain effects of the gushing spill. Will boom work, will barges, fences, and committed citizens be able to keep the oil from Fairhope’s precious resource—Mobile Bay? We who live afar watch in horror and fear for the outcome.

If you’ve never visited Fairhope, you may not comprehend fully the enormity of the disaster, no matter what is done. In my book, The Fair Hope of Heaven, I wrote this of the beach in Fairhope:

You can see the old pictures all over Fairhope today – ladies in their modest bathing suits, gentlemen wearing neckties and straw boaters, gleeful children leaping into the warm unpolluted waters of Mobile Bay. Before 1928 the only way to arrive in Fairhope was by bay boat from Mobile…surely those were the days Fairhope was a paradise of summer joy, centered on the bay with its public pier, its sandy beach, its casino (not, as some would have it today, a gambling house, but a barn of a building with a big dance floor and showers and changing rooms for bathers), its little wharf restaurant, and its inns on the bluff overlooking the water -- with wide porches to catch the breeze.

There were once dance pavilions scattered along the beach front. Local bands played music you could dance to – the baker who moonlighted as a bandleader was dubbed “Buns Lombardo” by his buddies who wanted to capture all his talents with one moniker. The first ice cream factory in the state was at the north end of the beach, where the duck park now is. There were sliding boards off the pier; there was a track that took the “People’s Railway” up the hill – uptown to the center of business. Fairhope was a town of talk in the winter – of ideas, meetings, forums, plans, and visions – but summers belonged to the beach.

By the 1950’s, when I was a teenager, there was as yet little air conditioning in our world. Our bodies adjusted to climate changes. We played outdoors all year long and found no displeasure in being hot in the summer, because, after all, summertime was when you got to go outside, climb trees, explore gullies, and swim in the bay every single day. Most everybody went to the Yacht Club to learn to sail and to win races. The public tennis courts were near the gully’s edge across from the University of South Alabama theater (at that time St. James Episcopal Church). Now there is a parking lot where the courts were. One of those early dance pavilions, Burkel’s, had become a roller rink by the 1940’s and was a popular place until it was destroyed by fire in the early 1950’s. Burkel’s was located on the beach at the foot of Pier Street.

Even with excessive heat and humidity, we went to the beach. We didn’t perceive the heavy air as a sweltering damp blanket, but as a comforting mist-forest that reminded us that it was summer in the most wonderful life we could imagine.

Citizens of Fairhope are bracing today--and have been for weeks--for what is to come from the leaking geyser of oil off the coast of Louisiana. Here they are demonstrating "Hands Across the Sand" to protest further deepwater drilling. Diehard opponents of government intervention are begging the president to do something to help, not trusting that he is certainly doing all in his power. Lovers of the profit motive and the large corporations who fought for and achieved lack of oversight and cost-cutting that led to the spill are hard put to defend them at this point. But most of all they are working through the grief process and its five inevitable steps: Denial, anger, bargaining, sorrow, and acceptance. Things will never be the same.

Some, mostly those who moved to Fairhope because of what they describe as its pristine perfection or its storybook charm, will choose to leave as suddenly as they came. But those who stay will discover the real Fairhope, the soul of the brave little settlement which was founded on an idea of perfecting the human race, and not just providing comfort and aesthetic charm for it. Fairhope will survive and come out a strong and fine place, the place it always was. Much will be different, but a great deal will be the same and perhaps better.