Grandpa named her the Leilani. She was a forty-four foot, sport fisher. Wasn’t much to look at but she provided for our family’s livelihood for as long as I remember.
We fish the bountiful and beautiful Gulf of Mexico.
A tributary of the Picayune River curls around our house and dock, which leads a twenty minute cruise to the open waters of the Gulf.
Last year on my sixteenth birthday, Dad gave me the lecture about college and made the case for earning a living outside fishing but I cut him off. Told him this is the life for me. Dad quickly looked away but I caught his smile.
Cancer took Mom and Grandpa moved into the city after he fell and busted-up his hip. Dad and I live the good bachelor life, two fishermen whose only love is the memory of Mom, the sea, Leilani, and Maggie.
Maggie, she’s our mascot, a big ‘ol pelican that knows a good home when she finds one. Maggie’s been coming around for months now. She’s more loyal than a hound and twice as smart. Maggie’s got a white battle scar across the very top of her beak so we knew that it’s the same bird returning. She begins each morning perched on the the dock, waiting for breakfast. As I approach, she spreads her massive wings and stretches that spiny neck skyward. Keep forgetting my camera—want a picture of that morning greeting for the family album.
Hot dogs. Maggie loves hot dogs. Throw two toward her bucket-sized beak and the third just out of reach so she’d have to go fish for the last one. After a few days, she began jumping into the water before I tossed the last dog. Like I said smart bird.
Sky’s dark this morning. Flags flapping straight out. Funeral weather. Won’t be going out today so I’ll finish reading Moby-Dick.
Tomorrow, the weather’s supposed to break. Hope so. Four oil rig guys have chartered the Leilani for a night run.
Promptly at seven, the oilmen drove up to our dock. They spilled out of the truck laughing, joking while pulling on their cans of Bud.
Dad fired up the twin-Chryslers, I cast off the lines, and we chugged away.
After passing under Interstate 10 and clearing the marshes we made our heading south by southwest. Twenty miles out a dim light appeared over the port bow horizon. The image of a luminous, man-made island against a darkened world grew larger and brighter as we neared. Dad slowed down and shouted from the bridge for me to help bait and cast the lines.
After an hour of crisscrossing a four mile area without luck, the oilmen asked Dad to go closer to the oil platform. With the lines in, Dad throttled up and Leilani rose on plane with a jolt. We neared within a few hundred yards of the rig.
The flash blinded me. Night turned day. Cannons roared. The blast knocked me on my ass. Dad screamed. He’d fallen next to me, his arm twisted unnaturally behind him. He checked each oilman then climbed back up to the helm.
Flames leaped sixty-feet into the blackness. A huge plume of smoke drifted toward us. It covered the Leilani in a putrid-smelling, eye-burning fog. I couldn’t breathe.
Dad steered from the cloud. When our sight cleared, all eyes turned to the battered rig. Life boats dropped off. Abandoned workers jumped into the sea. I couldn’t turn away— mesmerized by the horror. Dad was yelling at me, my ears ringing from the explosion. I couldn’t make out his words. He motioned for me to unpack the life jackets and headed for the burning rig.
The oilmen stared. Shocked look of combat on faces that glowed pale orange from reflections of the furious fire.
We circled the platform, threw life jackets at anything bobbing in the sea. We pulled out the bloodied, the wounded, the already dead and the dying. Hours blended into a numbing blur.
With fuel low, Dad steered for shore. The radio screeched with excited voices—some issued instructions while others screamed for help.
Two hours later we maneuvered to a New Orleans pier. Our oilmen helped with the injured. I tied Leilani down and went to the hospital with Dad as he needed his shoulder attended.
* * *
Back home, we waited for Dad’s shoulder to heal, watched cable news. It was constant, confusing and conflicted. Some said the spill affects would be minimal. Other reports declared it the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.
At least Maggie came back for her breakfast every morning. One day I noticed her feet appeared brownish. That was the same day a foul odor flared our nostrils and the water surface took on a purplish sheen. Maggie stopped coming around.
Weeks turned into months. Still the oil pours out of the well. Even the president’s command to, “Stop the damn leak!” could not be obeyed. With our business shut down and the likelihood of fishing along the Gulf over for perhaps years. I wondered if our life here had ended.
Then, on the TV, I watched a man walking the beach. He paused and picked up a tar ball. Behind him, over his shoulder, in a half-foot of water was a pelican, smeared in oil. The bird’s breathing labored, was unable to even lift its big ‘ol head.
It was Maggie.
I recognized the scar. My chest tightened. I dropped to my knees.
Next day, Maggie’s picture appeared everywhere – USA Today, Times Picayune – shown on every news channel. Not the picture I had in mind for the family album.
That was the day when I knew I’d be moving on.
I finished reading Melville’s classic. Captain Ahab went down with the ship … which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her….”
Giving up is the ultimate tragedy—Robert J. Donovan
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