Toby Hemingway 15

Toby formed a team: teachers in elementary, middle and high school; a local independent news agency journalist; artists and videographer; fundraiser, and one very successful community organizer listened to by both sides of the aisle. She would engage the West Florida Literary Federation to sponsor contests for writers and poets and publish in their professional journal and online. Finally, the local League of Women Voters would be asked to train the public to write effective Letters to the Editor about conserving the Gulf.

She would bring a similar team of youth together after fielding recommendations from her leadership team. The youth team would be supported by the adult team. She wished to have structure but not too much of it to allow the millenials and younger generations creative room. They would lead.

Molly St. John agreed to serve as a science advisor.

###

https://www.fishinchix.com/

The Fishin’ Chix, Bream Fishermen Association, Pensacola Canoe Club, and the Surfrider Foundation would participate in collecting and submitting data to the Marine Mammal Institute. University of West Florida Environmental Studies majors would be invited to join in.

At a meeting in the Community Center with about 50 adults and youths, Toby suggested a plan that would allow all the groups to work independently, during the normal course of their activities. In this way, no one carried a huge administrative load and any costs incurred would be covered by the groups. Meetings would be minimal.

Developing a crack team of writers would be hers alone. She knew how to turn out solid writers. No one understood the power of the written word more than Toby Hemingway. It had made the world throughout  history. This would be no exception in the Magical Kingdom of the Gulf.

On a clear Fall night she assembled the writing team for a potluck and planning. Among them was a golden-haired lad with green eyes full of excitement.

 

Toby Hemingway 14

“Anchors aweigh!” Columbus squawked as the living room emptied of women.

This was the grey parrot’s usual utterance when he sensed a departure. How he knew it Toby’s family had never discerned, but perhaps there was a change in activity or tone of voices unnoticed by them. Or, could the intelligent bird understand their conversation?

Columbus had come into their lives when a marina owner on a Caribbean island had asked them to adopt a young parrot he was unable to care for. The man had named it Columbus. The bird was obtained from a small village on the Ivory Coast ending up in the ownership of the marina owner six years later. He’d had the bird for four years. By ten years of age, Columbus had acquired several hundred words in three languages. He understood numbers of things and possessed a fondness for wine corks and legos. The Toby and Ron’s boys taught Columbus to sing ‘ooh, it makes me wonder‘ from Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven–guaranteed to bring down the house.

When Ron passed away, Columbus turned 20.

A few mornings after the funeral, when Toby fed him pieces of mango, he’d stopped eating, cocked his head at her, staring with one luminous yellow eye.

“Anchors aweigh,” he’d said.

Toby was silent, stunned. “Yes, anchors aweigh.”

###

Marsh biked over to the local skate park. It was really cool. Brand new and not far from his house. He didn’t own a board himself but there was always an extra that other skaters brought along.

“Hey, man!” Sky shouted.

A blond, super-tanned boy waved to Marsh from the top of a shoot. He jumped on his board and rode it to the lip, rocketed into the air and executed a high ollie, clapped down with arms spread like wings on the concrete runway and skated to where Marsh stood. They high fived. Sky’s t-shirt and face were dripping with the sweat of exertion.

“Got a board yet?” he asked.

“Nope,” Marsh said faking a grin. “I haven’t got over to Waterboyz,” he fibbed.

He’d been there looking at the skate and surf boards and all the bright t-shirts and gear he could not afford to buy. Waterboyz was a great store started by a veteran surfer who loved youth. The owner had all kinds of classes going for kids. In an adjoining warehouse, a small skateboard course was frequented by neighborhood kids. It was always packed and the music great. Marsh so far was just an observer.

Sky skated to the other side of the park motioning for Marsh to follow him. He pulled an old skateboard from his backpack.

“Here, this is the board I learned on. Keep it until you get your own,” Sky said.

“Really?” Marsh said, thrilled. “I’ll take great care of it, man, ’till I get my own.”

“I know bro. Come on, let’s get rollin’.”

Marsh was a natural athlete. He got right in the thick of the action, made a few spectacular wipeouts but got right back at it, learning from Sky and other boys who were happy to lend advice to an initiate. Sky showed him “the ollie.”

“You have to learn the basic motion. Step on the tail to raise the nose, slide your foot toward the nose but over the bolts, jump, then come down over both sets of bolts.”

At one point Marsh achieved a little hop with the board under him.

“Sick, man,” Sky said.

“Hey! Give me a break, bro,” Marsh said, frustrated.

“No, man, that means cool!”

Skateboarding came with its own language and rules.

“You should come to the tournament next Saturday. A bunch of us are competing with boarders from all around the South. You learn a lot. And there are girls.”

“Yeah, I’ll drop by. Thanks, Sky.”

He strapped his borrowed board to his bike and headed for home. He was starving.

 

 

 

 

Toby Hemingway 13

Marsh and Shaundra sat shoulder to shoulder in front of her computer screen. Mr Paine had guided them to write to the local U.S. Fish and Wildlife office. They composed an email to a contact he provided them, and attached the photos Shaundra had taken. Paine had frozen the fish carcass. They offered to deliver it to the office figuring Mr. Paine or Shaundra’s mother would provide transportation. The friends had downed chocolate milkshakes, a bag of Fritos, and couple of apples in Shaundra’s bedroom where they left the door open as required by Mrs. Williams, her mother. Their email was the leading edge of a wave that would grow over time. But for now, the friends just attended to the matter at hand.

Shaundra’s home was palatial compared to Marsh’s house. Her father was a Colonel at the Naval base, conferring beautiful housing for their family. The living room was filled with family photos, a piano, and comfortable furniture. In the family room a gigantic smart screen TV spanned one wall with a semi-circular couch in front of it for viewing movies together. Marsh suddenly understood his poverty.

“What’s wrong,” Shaundra said, looking at his facial expression. Like turning off the lights in a dark room, a shadow had passed over Marsh’s face.

“Nothing. Just thinking.”

Marsh had Shaundra’s mother drop him off at DeLuna Plaza downtown. After they were out of sight, he walked the two miles to his Uncle’s house.

###

City Hall sat behind the dias in the public meeting room. His gut felt tight and his heart raced again. His doctor had just warned him he was under too much stress and needed to drop the thirty pounds he had acquired over the last ten years as a public servant.  It was all too depressing.  Every move to improve his city was opposed by a fierce minority who though few absorbed a great deal of his time.

“Thank you for your presence here today,” he lied as he stood to respond to the 3-minute public comments. “I appreciate your concerns but as I’ve presented before, the city engineers assure me that widening the overpass will not affect the bayou.”

A tall woman dressed in outdoor clothing stood and shouted, “And we are supposed to believe in engineers that work for development?” Sneers from the audience.

City Hall was a short man with a round belly and skinny legs. His hair was balding so he brushed it over the bare spots making him look ethereal when the lights shone overhead. Yet inside that lit up head storms raged and dark clouds flew across his mind. He had grown to hate the public, at least the ones that continued to poke at him and his fellow council members whenever a development project was proposed. They represented everything he loathed: left-wing socialists, god damn preservationists. If they had it their way, the city would be a hamlet.

 

Toby Hemingway 12

From U.S. Fish and Wildlife service

A student intern led Toby around the Institute research and rehabilitation area.

“These are Kemp’s Ridleys,” Molly St. John explained.  Several small sea turtles swam around a large tank.

“I see these frequently from my boat,” Toby said.

” It is one of the smallest of the seven turtle species found in the Gulf of Mexico. It is endangered,” Molly said.

Toby studied the young graduate student. It was obvious she was perfectly placed in her chosen life’s work. She was a graduate student focused on marine ecology at University of South Alabama.

Sea turtles, dolphins, and a small whale were being cared for in large tanks and pool at the Institute. They had been injured by boats, or caught in fishing nets or floating debris, and others suffered from a weakened immune system.

U.S. Energy Administration

Toby and Molly had just left a meeting with an Institute scientist about the dolphin Toby and Marsha had reported to the refuge. He had suggested that Holly and Toby discuss ways Toby’s community could assist the Institute in tracking the bottlenose dolphin population near their city.

The scientist confirmed Toby’s suspicions that the impacts of the oil spill continued in the Gulf ecosystems. But, it wasn’t only the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. It was the combined impact of 4,000 oil wells in the Gulf.

“That, plus the fact that the Gulf leaks oil from cracks in its underlying bedrock. That’s what we call a natural baseline of this particular marine ecosystem, ” Molly explained as they walked to her office. “It’s a combination of forces that are changing the Gulf ecosystem. Climate change is not easily visible to the eye. Warmer temperatures shift the chemistry of the air and water interface, and microbial communities at the base of the food chain are also changing.”

“So, how do ordinary citizen make sense of it? This requires more scientific literacy than most citizens possess, I’m afraid.”

Toby plopped herself in front of Molly’s disheveled desk. Molly put on a pot of coffee and offered Toby a powerbar.

“I am impressed you sailed here on your own,” Molly said sitting at her desk and flinging her long tanned legs on the desk. Her golden hair swung above her sun-burned shoulders, and her bronzed face and warm brown eyes shown with youth’s radiance.

“Me too.” Toby laughed. “This is a first for me . . . to solo such a distance.”

Toby shared a short biography with Molly who seemed engrossed in her story.

“We can build on your writing classes and experience in schools. I gotta meet the Fishin’ Chix, too,” Molly said. “I think I might like those girls.” Shifting to the issue at hand and mindful that Toby had to get back on the water, she explained how Toby’s community could help her with her research. “Adults and teens can submit data using a survey tool that we provide to monitor a particular area on a regular basis. And, you can use your experience as a writing teacher to get folks writing about the Gulf and advocating for conservation and rehabilitation. That,” she emphasized, “could be more powerful. Raise awareness, send folks to City Hall.”

“Could you meet with a group of us if I prepare them ahead of time so we don’t waste your time?” Toby’s mind was racing ahead with a plan to engage her peers and through them multiple groups of stakeholders.

###

It was dark when Toby arrived at a dock on a small inlet in Mobile, Alabama. She motored in slowly and tied up near the Banana Docks Café, famous for its Cajun cuisine and one of Toby and Ron’s haunts. She would stay overnight in the small hotel on the harbor, then resume her trip at dawn.

After a dish of blackened grouper finished off with bread pudding and praline sauce, she would sleep like a baby. Before she dove into bed, Toby called Marsha to let her know her location. Her dear friend had insisted when she learned of Toby’s solo sail. At that point in the trip it still seemed like a good idea. She’d overestimated her progress tacking-back against a steady SW current and offshore breeze. It was okay with her. She needed the time to mentally plan how to mobilize her community, and move City Hall in the right direction.

That night she dreamed of Ron. On waking it occurred to her that their relationship had been defined by the Gulf of Mexico. She loved that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Toby Hemingway 11

KINGFISH

Marsh gutted and cleaned his catch on the picnic table in the backyard. It was late afternoon on Sunday. He was feeling weak from the intense sun while fishing on the pier and the arduous bike ride from the trolley with two King Mackerel packed in ice, strapped to the seat rack. They were both about 30 inches long and weighed over 35 pounds together.

Uncle Albert surprisingly offered to start a fire in the bar-b-que. Then, he sat down across from Marsh and began gutting a mackerel. He was an expert. A deep cut along the long belly, pulled the gills up and cut them from the body, and with one hand grabbed the gills and gut and pulled the whole of it out. Then he cut along the spine to drain the blood. He was a master.

“What the f— is that?” Uncle Albert was staring at a dark mass in the gut tissues.

Marsh cut the strange growth from the enveloping mesentery. He poked it with his knife, then his finger. It felt gummy. He picked it up and gave it a sniff. It smelled like something familiar but he could not recall what that was.

Uncle Albert followed Marsh’s observations with keen interest. “I’ve never seen a thing like that,” he said. Then, he disappeared through the back door for a beer.

That was the extent of his Uncle’s attention. Marsh was left to finish the cleaning and grill the fish. He put aside the odd mackerel with disappointment. It would have provided many steaks and fish tacos. But, he was smart enough not to eat it. Instead, Marsh planned to take it to his biology teacher.

###

Before school started, Marsh and Shaundra delivered the deformed mackerel to Mr. Paine. It was smelling ripe by then. Shaundra took photos on her smartphone.

“This is strange, indeed.” Mr. Paine examined the black clump of tissue through his bifocals. “Perhaps this could be a project for the two of you” he said as he laid the black mass underneath a dissecting scope and leaned down for a closer look.

“Whoah,” he leaned back suddenly.

“What is it?” Shaundra said.

“I got a strong whiff of petroleum,” he said placing the specimen in a collecting jar.

“That’s it!” Marsh recalled that odor. “I couldn’t place it yesterday, but that’s right!”

The bell rang for first period. The teacher promised they could discuss the fish in science class later in the day. After the teens left, Paine wrapped the carcass and stored it in a cooler. It was probably too toxic for his students to work with, but he could point them toward reporting the find to the proper authorities.

 

Toby Hemingway 10

As The Clean Line entered Pensacola Bay pass, a few young dolphins swam alongside before rejoining their pod heading into the bay. Toby loved the species’ spirit of play, and their sheer exuberance as they rode the bow waves. The winds were not particularly strong yet it was hard to tell when running before the wind. On a run, a sailor worries about jibing–a sudden collapse of the sail. With the sails full out, and the jib and mainsail wing-on-wing, it was difficult to see ahead. She studied the coastal waterway map to make sure not to stray into the shallows. The sun beat down; she lathered up with sunscreen and entered a state of alert meditation.

Alone, in silence, on a sparkling, translucent-green ocean, Toby studied the landscape–white sand beaches lined by oak forests, little bayous and inlets, and the horizon dark blue against an azure sky. Tears welled in her eyes in moments like this when all the elements of place, heart, and circumstance converge to a perfect moment. Then it vanished, just-like-that, the gods teasing with a taste of heaven.

She noticed an excursion boat with tourists straining to haul in a good-sized catch. Was it drum? She found her binoculars. It was Wahoo. Rows of sharp teeth, long dorsal spines, big bifurcated tails, blue/gold scales, and a tenacious spirit, the fish had spurred the local baseball team adoption. The Blue Wahoos were an up and coming regional team and national talent incubator. The Gulf was reflected in the cities along its edge with images, architecture, cuisine, fashion, and mascots.

Brown Pelican

As Toby headed downwind, she anticipated her meeting at the Institute, and reviewed what she hoped to learn. She pulled her pink hat low over her blue eyes, tightened the jib and let out the mainsail. A long train of brown pelicans flew at her side, broad wings arched for lift, eyes scanning the waves for the dark shapes of mullet that were running out from the bays and bayous to the shoreline to dine on shellfish.

Toby Hemingway 9

On The Clean Line Toby stowed away her gear and tied down the cooler in which she had packed sandwiches, fruit, soda and plenty of water. She consulted the local NOAA station for conditions on the Gulf. Today there would be a steady SW breeze and, with the normal near shore current that ran west along coastal communities, Toby knew she would be running before the wind going but tacking to the wind on her return which would double the return time. She figured she could make it to the Institute for Marine Mammal Research by 10 am, stay until 1, and then get home right at nightfall, barring any changes in the weather. She checked the bow, stern, and mainsail lights and radio batteries. Stowed on board was a dry box with sleeping bag, foam liner and blankets, rain gear, and a first aid kit and flares. She felt prepared.

Toby had been taking longer and longer excursions on the Gulf to harden up her courage and to make sure she could handle the lines and sheets in strong winds or inclement weather. But until today, she’d never tried a solo venture this far from her home port. She could have driven but Toby sought the solace of the sea.

###

The pod moved through warm waters along the coastline. A calf was jumping and playing up ahead. She chased after him. He was coming along in his knowledge of the sea and pod life. Since losing her own baby, she had adopted the little orphan. The youngster was curious and quick to investigate a new situation – too quick.

It was July and the fishing had become more difficult along the Gulf shores. In fact it had been harder for the pod to find food. The elders in the pod decided to join a group hunt farther out to sea. Larger fish swam there in abundance.

This would be the little dolphin’s first experience in deeper waters away from the coastal shallows where he was born. She signaled to him to stay near her.

As days passed, more and more pods joined together until there was a dolphin herd. Together they swam out over the Continental Shelf. The flat sandy bottom gave way to deep canyons in the sea. Using sonar the herd located a school of red snapper which would provide good protein for hungry dolphins.

The pod formed a ring of bubbles around the school of snapper, a living net. In turn each dolphin plunged amidst the swirl of snapper to grab a meal while others maintained the net. Red snapper bared rows of teeth like saws–powerful predators and fast swimmers they made the hunt more fun. Life quickened in the face of death.

She had seen a bull shark feeding among the snapper. A fury of predators churned the water: sharks, dolphins, and red snappers rocketed across the conflagration. Size and speed made the difference in who lived or died. The infant dolphin used no caution. She swam to him and they left together for the surface where she kept him safe until the pod had satisfied its hunger.

 

Toby Hemingway 8

Toby sat on her couch taking in the scene. All her girlfriends had responded to her invitation to brunch and to learn more about the encounter with the mother dolphin and her dead calf. She loved them all: fisherwomen, sailors, mothers and wives, and retired teachers—a formidable, comedic, colorful army of capable women.

The story touched their hearts like Toby and Marsha. There is nothing more tragic than the loss of a child. When young die it is contrary to what we know, what we expect. Generative, renewing, freshly-made with all the vigor and hope for the future, a newborn makes us feel more alive and grateful for life itself. We pour our hopes and dreams into them. Why should it not be the same for the dolphin mothers?

“There are actually scientists all along the Gulf coast who are monitoring bottlenose dolphins,” Toby explained. “So far there have been nearly 100 dolphin deaths and these are just the ones that wash ashore.”

The sheer number drew outrage.

“How come we don’t know about this?” someone shouted. It was Shirley a retired teacher and long-time friend of Ron and Toby. Her husband Vern and she had sailed with their young families on trips along the upper Gulf. Shirley was a Fishin Chix of long-standing.

Toby explained the implicit gag on reporting the science that the refuge scientist cautiously shared with her. Heavy influence from tourism and the business sector sought to prevent tourists from going elsewhere out of fear.

“That’s tantamount to murder,” another exclaimed. “If it’s too bad to report, it’s not safe for families.”

Each woman began to comprehend the implications. Not only were they concerned for the dolphins but each realized whatever was affecting them could be affecting  their own family’s health as well. They ate from the Gulf and their children played in its waters. The authorities had assured the public that the beaches were safe for swimming. But, the fact of Toby and Marsha’s encounter with the dolphin mother and her stillborn baby drove home the implications more deeply. They were being lied to.

Their discussion went into the early evening with a plan to spread the word to friends and networks they each kept. They agreed to meet again in a month. Toby and Marsha could feel a united spirit among them. Nothing was more awesome than women defending their young. Nothing.

 

 

 

Toby Hemingway 7

Bakers Market

“Ain’t got no work for a kid,” Mr. Baker said, unloading boxes of Alabama sweet potatoes from an old green truck.

“I ain’t a kid. I’m thirteen years old and I can work circles around the best you have,” Marshall said blowing himself up as tall as he could.

Something about this kids’ spunk made old man Baker laugh inside. But the boy was under age and he couldn’t take on any more risks than he already had with his fresh market. Still he wished he had just one kid in his own family with as much ambition as this little guy.

“I’ll work for food…and I won’t tell a soul that I am working here.”

Marsh was desperate, and the man could hear that but didn’t let on.

For the first year Marsh took home a box of produce, dozen eggs and a carton of milk each Saturday. Many of the laborers were from the same neighborhood as Marsh and knew his uncle to be a bum. They played the game, too, and sometimes they invited the boy to their homes for a meal or to join their congregation on a Wednesday night potluck.

The second year, old-man Baker put a ten-dollar bill in the box of produce with a don’t-you-dare-tell look.

At home Uncle Albert, who spent most of his money on booze, raided his nephew’s hard earned store without any remorse. Yet the boy remained grateful that his otherwise disgusting uncle kept social service at bay.

School offered its own challenges. There Marsh faced the true reality of his life: he didn’t belong anywhere. He was too brown to be accepted by the lily-white crowd who no matter the rhetoric still considered blacks second-class citizens. And, he was not black enough, nor did he know the ways of black folks on his side of town. He was what people called “blended”. He’d lived in a middle-class white neighborhood with his mother in a more tolerant town before he landed in the  Florida Panhandle.

But there was this one girl at school who drew Marshall’s attention. Shaundra Williams.  A military brat, tall and willowy, with a great smile and ready laugh.

“I’m a chameleon!” she said once when they were discussing frequent moves, being “strangers in a strange land”.

“I blend perfectly in any environment.”

Marsh had laughed. But he understood the skill and its underbelly. A person survived by fitting into the local beat, whatever it was.  The trade-off survival.

 

 

 

 

Toby Hemingway 6

Red Drum. Florida Fish & Wildlife

Marsh survived the first year at Uncle Albert’s with a cobbled strategy. He was not eligible for free breakfast and lunch at school due to Uncle Albert’s salary being above poverty income. But one thing old Al did right was teach him to fish.  There was plenty of fishing tackle and poles in the storage shed. On his recycled bike Marsh met up with the trolley to Casino Beach and the Pensacola Pier where fishermen gathered to harvest the Gulf.

At first his attempts at fishing from the high pier were fruitless. But, being a good study, he noticed a veteran fisherman and copied his techniques. After the muscled elder pulled in a big red drum–enough steaks for Marsh and his uncle for a week–the boy ventured to talk to him directly.

Vern was impressed from the first moment he met the tanned, green-eyed boy with a golden cap of tightly curled hair.  The boy curiously exuded an air of assurance.

“What you need is a Gotcha! Lure,” Vern said. He held out a shiny lure with a cubicle head. “Here, try it.”

Gotcha! Lure

Marshall detected a slight smile under Vern’s silver mustache. The boy removed the old lure and tied on the new one as Vern watched.  Marsh drew the pole to the side and back in a big arch and let it fly far out into the Gulf.

“Capital!” Vern shouted.  He couldn’t believe how quickly the boy had learned.

Vern demonstrated how to move the bait through the water so that it “swam” in spurts on top of the waves.

“If you want to pull in the big guys, you’ll need different gear. But for now, this will attract mackerel and Pompano just fine.”

With that Marshall felt a tug and his line went down. He pulled back strong, reeling in the line, released then pulled again. As he wound up his catch, he was surrounded by a fellowship of men, women and kids at-the-ready to celebrate the young fisherman’s victory. He yanked a sparkling Spanish mackerel out of the Gulf’s aquamarine waters.

That was how Marshall and Vern met. Their odd alliance remained like that from the beginning: good things always happened when they were together. Vern kept a regular pattern of fishing on Sunday morning, rain or shine.  It was the same rise-early-regimen he’d kept for 30 years in the Navy. After retiring, he took up fishing and tinkering in his garage, and lived in utter contentment in a little beachside cottage on Santa Rosa Island. He had a wife named Shirley who, by looking at Vern’s gut, Marsh thought must be a terrific cook.

Vern was curious about the boy. He talked often about Marshall with his wife as the unlikely friendship deepened over time. Neither Vern nor Marshall ventured to extend the relationship beyond the pier. They implicitly understood that it was defined by the Gulf waters that surrounded them, unique and particular to that location. Weekend fishing in rain, sun, and surf provided a sustaining force for Marsh and a steady source of protein for a growing teenager.