Vexations and Conundrums – November 2021

Vexations and Conundrums

By Katina Pontikes

Tar Balls

Katina Article LOGO art


When I was a little girl, we had a secret swimming hole, a spring, secluded and shady under a grove of trees. My granddad had located it and when it was hot, we would load into the back of his black, rounded-front pickup truck, and jump off the back into the welcoming cool, clear water. 

One hot day I asked my Poppy if we could go swimming. 

“Not anymore,” he replied somberly. “Someone threw a dead hog in the water, and it is no longer safe.”

Our hideaway was sullied. Who would do something so careless, ruining such a natural delight? I felt like the person should be in jail.

Years later, as a teenager, I’d spend summers with my cousins. They were older by a few years, popular and fun. And they had a boat! We would water ski in the lake, escorted by teen boys volunteering to work for the privilege of participating in the sport. I thought this was paradise.

Some days we would even climb an oil storage tank and jump about twenty feet down into the water. We had a personal amusement park.

I bought a new white bikini and was thrilled to show it off. One day I was the last person to ski. I took my turn and skied until I was tired. As I climbed back into the boat, I looked down at my swimsuit in horror. My prized new swimsuit was spotted with tiny black, grimy balls. There was a rainbow hue to the stains as I turned in the late day sun. What was this? That was the last time I skied in the lake, as I realized there was now unseen pollution, and it couldn’t possibly be healthy to be swimming in this water anymore.

Later, I moved from Louisiana to Texas. I planned a fun weekend getaway with a boyfriend in Galveston, staying at a fancy hotel facing the sea wall. The beach beckoned us to stroll, running our bare toes through the sand and enjoying the sunset. Shangri-La!

After our first stroll, I donned my flip-flops and went back to the room. I was preparing to shower for dinner when I noticed black smears on the bottom of my feet. I tried removing them with soap and water, but it wasn’t effective. Then I noticed some white packets on the vanity: Tar Removal Wipes. In this fanciest of hotels, on beautiful waters, one needed tar removal wipes to erase the ugly black stains picked up on the bottom of feet at the edge of the water. Not Shangri-La.

A couple of years ago my husband and I were guests at a condo facing the Galveston port where ships lined up to offload products. One night we were on the balcony and noticed a commotion on a jutting finger of land at the bay. First police cars came and cleared the area of sightseers.  Lights flashing, sirens off, they blocked the road with multiple vehicles. Then the fire department hazardous waste team showed up, again silently. There was a clandestine quality to what we were witnessing. The next day we learned a barge loaded with oil hit another barge and there was a leak. How much oil had spilled?

At breakfast, I mentioned the event to our diner waitress.  Her smile faded and her expression fell. The hand holding her order pad dropped down to her waist. “Not again!” she said despondently, as though this happened all the time.

Now we are experiencing dramatic increases in natural disasters. Opposing viewpoints on how we remedy this danger to our continued existence are raging. Clean energy movements form and face the wrath of the fossil fuels industry.

One friend asked me incredulously, “You actually think that man can control the weather?!” I thought before I answered. “Well, if for every action there is a reaction, then yes.” According to NASA, 97% of actively publishing scientists the world over believe that man has contributed to a global emergency.  This is a consensus.

My husband and I debate making the move to a hybrid electric car.  I know that petroleum products are used to make life-saving things like blood storage bags. One can’t just stop an industry on a dime. But I am ready to sacrifice to try and save our waterways, to return to a planet not plagued by ever-fiercer hurricanes and fires, destroying the lives of so many people.

Our species has cavalierly put our waste in the planet’s waters, using them as toilets. We continue to rely on fossil fuels, raising the earth’s temperature. I remain perplexed by our lack of foresight, which has brought us to this critical juncture.


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