Sunday, June 25, 2006

Safe Haven on Ship Island

I choose to believe that my parents were brave and wise, not just naive. For example, I think of the time they allowed me to camp on Ship Island with my friend Tom. Tom was 18 and I was 17. We drove a few hours from New Orleans to Biloxi in a car full of camping gear plus snorkeling and scuba equipment. There was a tour boat that took folks on an hour or so cruise into the Gulf of Mexico to Ship Island, the site of an old brick fort. Also a gift shop, snack stand, and residence were housed in a single building perched atop wooden pilings that reached at least 10 feet above the sand below. Other than the fort, sand is what constituted Ship Island. Sand, grass, vast swarms of mosquitoes, the fort, a dock and the tourist trap on a couple of square miles of island that was periodically washed clean by storm surge.

We laboriously hauled our gear from the dock to a spot half a mile or so along the beach facing the mainland. The boat operator just shook his head at the two skinny teens hauling boxes, bags, and even a metal garbage can filled with scuba gear. Apparently very few folks camped on Ship Island.

It was boy heaven. We had a tiny pup tent. We cooked on a camp stove and a driftwood fire. We swam with fins and snorkels for hours and hours in the relatively warm waters of the gulf. Small reefs were just offshore and swarmed with lots of interesting fish. The scuba tank allowed us to marvel at the sensation of breathing while several feet below the surface. At night we fished off the dock while the mosquitoes enjoyed a hearty meal on our bare torsos. When we bedded down, so many mosquitoes had joined us in our screened in pup tent that we decided on a radical course of action. We sprayed the tiny interior of the tent full of Black Flag flying insect poison. We even sprayed it into our palms and coated our bodies with it. The mosquitoes promptly died, apparently it is taking a while longer for Tom and I.

I don’t know how many nights we stayed. I do remember the huge black squall line that filled the sky as a big storm headed our way. The owner of the gift shop etcetera was kind enough to walk down the beach to let us know that the storm was a big one. He told us we were welcome to come up under his house and cling to the wood pilings if things got too hairy. However, we figured we were safe one or two feet above sea level in a pup tent that was anchored to the sand dunes with long pieces of driftwood. I imagine we might have died had we chosen to camp on the windward side of the island, just a few hundred yards away. Even on the lee side the storm howled and ripped at the tent. One year after we camped there, hurricane Camille cut the island in half. Last year Katrina widened the gap so much that only two small islands are left and all human construction other than the massive fort was swept away.

We awoke to an eerie quiet the next morning after sleeping soundly through much of the storm. We spied the gift shop empresario walking quickly to our tent. Breathlessly he asked if we were o.k. The storms winds were so strong that his building swayed badly on its wooden stilts. The family finally fled to the refuge of the old fort to wait out the storm. After he left, we congratulated ourselves on our cunning resourcefulness in the face of nature’s fury. I had not yet realized that fools bed down where angels fear to camp.
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