Clad in her Hello Kitty pajamas and carrying a pink plastic beach pail, the retired schoolteacher hauled bucket after bucket of sand-dollar-sized globs of oil off the beaches of Gulf Shores Sunday afternoon.
"I thought that if each one of us got one bag of oil off the beach, it'd be gone before you know it," said Akin, a Hokes Bluff resident who taught kindergarten in Anniston for 30 years. "I'm sure we could do it. But I don't think I've inspired anybody yet."
Akin's dream might not be as unrealistic as it sounds. On Sunday afternoon, tourists were back on the beaches at Gulf Shores — and back in force — despite the town's recent brush with the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Alabama beach town made nationwide headlines late last week, when the first balls of tar from the oil spill washed up on its famously white sands. Locals told reporters of a jet-fuel-like smell wafting off the ocean. Rumors circulated that the beaches had been closed.
By Sunday afternoon, the ocean smelled like ocean again. Sunbathers lay in rows in front of looming high-rise hotels. And, yes, people were in the water, swimming, sometimes with their children.
The beach even looked normal — provided you could ignore the tiny tar balls that gleamed underfoot like the shards of 10,000 broken beer bottles. Most beachgoers had learned to skip right around them.
"You get more gunk on you if you stay on the beach than if you go in the water," reasoned Tracy Smith, 47, a Pearl, Miss., resident who was here with his family for nearly a week of vacation. "The water's fine except for the seaweed."
By Sunday, the Smiths were old hands at dodging tar balls. When they arrived on Friday, the beach was pristine. By Saturday morning, the beach was littered with globs of tar the size of dinner plates. Smith said he was surprised at the textures of the oil globs. Some of them shone like glass. Others, he said, looked like chunks of asphalt.
Where did those globs go? Ask around, and you'll hear that "they" came and cleaned the beach one morning, though it's a little unclear who "they" are. Locals say appearances by BP workers are rare, and brief, and don't amount to much. Locals will also tell you that federal workers gather by the hundreds every morning in Gulf Shores State Park, though their movements are a mystery to both locals and beachgoers.
Ask Smith who cleaned his particular patch of beach, and he'll point you to a lanky, bearded young man reclining under an umbrella.
"That guy is the only person I've seen cleaning anything," Smith said. "He rents beach chairs, so he's got an interest in keeping the beach clean."
Ben George admits to spending a lot of time behind a shovel in the past few days.
"When they first washed up, I picked up a whole bag full of them," said George, who works for a company called Perdido Beach Services. "The second day they hit, they were a lot smaller, but there were just too many to get. I tried to clean, but after about an hour, I got about 20 feet."
George said he called for help, and was told a federal or BP cleanup team was on the way. If a team came, he never saw it, and he is pretty sure that recent rains covered up much of the remaining oil with sand.Ê
You won't find many fans of BP on the beach these days. But George's co-worker, Zach Bingham, is almost as hacked off at the media as he is at the oil giant.
"You'd think that before you report that a beach is closed and covered in tar, you'd come out and see for yourself," Bingham said.
He pointed to mats of orange seaweed floating just offshore. "I've heard people on the news, saying that this stuff is oil coming on shore," he said. "It's just infuriating."
Other locals echo the same theme. There is a palpable anxiety about the spill lurking off the coast, which could come ashore at some point and blanket the beach with black goo. But there's also a lot of disappointment with the widespread belief that the beaches are already ruined.
"While the spill was spreading, we've had six weeks of beautiful weather," said Lee Bozeman, a retired high school band director who now airbrushes T-shirts at Alvin's Island, a souvenir megastore. "The media could have said, the beaches are good so far, so come on down, and we would have had at least the start of a good season. Instead, they wrote us off from the beginning."
Bozeman is his own boss, working from rented space in the store, and he works 80-hour weeks. He's not just a workaholic. Like other local business owners, he has about 100 days — from Memorial Day to Labor Day — to make most of his annual income. Figure in natural disasters like hurricanes, and there's even less time.
Bozeman tried to make up some of his losses by printing an "I beat the Oil Spill to Gulf Shores" T-Shirt. Other stores have gone further, producing shirts with goop-covered pelicans that read "Got Oil?" and images of fish taking up arms against BP.
Bozeman said his shirt hasn't sold well. Nothing has.
"You see a lot of people out there, but it's not as busy as it should be this time of year," he said. "The national media are really hurting us."
Michael Lochrico started feeling the bite only after the tar balls came ashore. He owns Crico's, a popular deli and sub shop.
One night last week, two of Lochricho's employees heard the rumor that the beaches had been closed because tar balls had washed ashore. The pair rushed out to the beach with a flashlight to see what was going on. When they got back, their shoes were covered in icky tar.Ê
It was almost as if the tar brought a curse with it. Sales started dropping almost immediately.
"I've got to admit, I'm starting to worry," he said.
Lochrico is skeptical of reporters, too. He's noticed that a lot of folks have been showing up lately and asking probing questions about the oil spill, without bothering to give their names. He's pretty sure some of those people are from BP.
"If you did this horrible thing, wouldn't you want to know what people are thinking?" he chuckled. He said he hasn't seen any BP cleanup workers, though a few executives of the company have come through.
He thinks BP should spend less time spinning and more time thinking.
"You'd think that with all the engineers and scientists they have working on this plan to drill holes 5,000 feet under the ocean, somebody would have come up with a backup plan," he said.
On the whole, however, Lochrico is an optimist. He thinks the Alabama coast — and his business — can still be saved if the well is plugged soon. Somehow.
But everyone is aware that a big monster has been awakened in the gulf. And for many locals, those first few tar balls were like the first ominous cello strains from the movie "Jaws."
"I actually enjoy hurricane season," said Linda Krzyzsewski, who moved to Gulf Shores from Guntersville two years ago. "I guess the coast just attracts people who like a little excitement. But when I look at the tar out there and I think about what's coming, it makes me want to cry."
Krzyzsewski works the sales desk at Surf Style, a giant souvenir shop where, among other things, you can buy a peace-sign flag, a wind-up car with a surfboard on top, or a pirate-themed beach towel that reads "surrender the booty." She says she loves her job, and at 55, she can't afford to lose it.
"I'm on medication I can't live without, and if I lose my job, I lose benefits," she said. "I think there are going to be a lot of people hurting — a lot of restaurants closing, a lot of people laying off."
But what really chokes her up is the thought of the crabs she saw on the beach the first day tar balls came on shore. It won't be long, she thinks, before most beach wildlife is dead, or homeless.
"I've got half a mind to go down to the state park and rescue some of those crabs tonight," she said.
A similar thought has occurred to Hayden Dunlap, who works at Crico's Pizza & Subs. Dunlap was one of the employees who came back with oil-blackened shoes on the night the first tar balls landed. Now she's planning to take a course that will prepare her to become a cleanup worker.
Crico's customers grumble that the training is run by BP, and they share stories of people who were trained but never employed, or let go for no reason.
But Dunlap doesn't see any other option.
"If this job goes away, cleanup may be the only job available," she said.
By Monday morning, there was already new work to be done on the beach. Green-and-brown mats of seaweed lay in heaps all along the shoreline. At first glance, the vegetation looked like a natural phenomenon. But inside, these clumps were held together with globs of black goo.
A few hours later, a tractor-towed beach-cleaning machine came along and scooped up the seaweed. Workers associated with the cleanup, who asked not to be named, said the tractor was hired by Gulf Shores city government. City leaders, the workers said, had grown frustrated with the federal cleanup effort and decided to take matters into their own hands.
Ellen Akin, the retired Anniston schoolteacher, thinks there's still time to try her approach to cleanup: an army of tourists, each armed with a bucket and shovel.
"There's still oil in Alaska after 20 years," she said. "If we, the people, don't clean this one up, then who will?"