The charter boat captain they called Rookie made his home back where the oak and pine woods humming with cicadas meet the Bon Secour River and where the asphalt peters out into a dead end.
This is where friends came to ask how William Allen “Rookie” Kruse was doing, back in April, when the Gulf of Mexico oil spill ended his $5,000 fishing trips for marlin and red snapper and put a crimp in his wife Tracy’s seafood business.
Fine, he said.
They asked again after the man who earned his nickname working fishing boats in the 1960s became frustrated with the hoops BP representatives kept making him jump through to get work on the cleanup.
Still fine, Kruse said.
On Wednesday morning, Kruse reported as usual to the Gulf Shores marina to work for the company that had ruined his fishing. His two deck hands said that when he sent them on an errand before 7:30 a.m., he seemed fine.
But shortly afterward, Kruse climbed up to the wheelhouse of the Rookie, retrieved a Glock handgun he kept for protection and apparently shot himself in the head.
His family and friends say he is the 12th victim of the April 20 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, which killed 11 crew members. And they worry that there will be more among the captains idled by the worst spill in U.S. history.
“But for the oil spill, I don’t think he would have done this,” said his identical twin brother, Frank Kruse.
Families here are not apt to call out captains who withdraw or put on a brave front. The Kruse family is counting on the close-knit community of fishing captains to care for its own.
“Somebody’s got to get past that ‘I’m fine’,” Frank Kruse said.
Rookie Kruse, 55, did not leave a note, only questions.
Tracy Kruse, 41, noticed that her sturdy husband had started to lose weight and was having trouble sleeping. He usually spent at least $30,000 outfitting his two boats for what he had thought would be a bountiful summer guiding his loyal clientele to the best fishing the rich gulf waters had to offer, said brother Marc Kruse, 52, who works for a corporate manufacturer in Mobile, Ala.
Two weeks ago, Kruse went to work for BP, turning his 50- and 40-foot boats, the Rookie and the Rookie II, into what the oil giant calls Vessels of Opportunity. He was never given a day off.
“He told me he hated it,” said his 12-year-old stepson, Ryan Mistrot. “He hated going out for BP.” Marc Kruse said his brother thought the Vessels of Opportunity were just BP window-dressing.
His mother recalled the day last week that Kruse told her his chickens were hungry.
“They always are,” Ryan said, as he played with Kruse’s Jack Russell terrier, Isabel.
“Yes, but what he was saying was, ‘I don’t have food for them’.”
Frank Kruse, who lives in nearby Fairhope, Ala., said he watched his brother’s spirit shaved down by the relentless bureaucracy of BP, heaping concerns on a man who for years had never worried about much except the weather.
“Every time they got over one hurdle, there was another,” Kruse said of his brother. “I guess he looked long-term and saw what’s going to happen when this is all over and the gulf is dead.”
“My question,” says Ryan, sitting tan, shirtless and barefoot on the tile porch floor, “is why did the Rookie never get a day off?”
What scares those who have gravitated to Kruse’s house in the wake of his death — family and the captains and their wives and girlfriends — is that Kruse was, by most of their measures, doing pretty well. He was a middle-class fisherman with a dedicated customers. If someone who seemed as financially and emotionally stable as Rookie could develop the black tunnel-vision of suicide, how many more are in peril?
“His wife knew he was depressed, his family knew he was depressed, but he wouldn’t reach out for help,” said Frank Kruse, general administrator in nearby Mobile County. “He kept saying he was fine. He was hiding things.”
Last Friday, Rookie Kruse told his elderly mother he had no money coming in, but he expected to get paid in a few weeks.
“He said, ‘Don’t worry about me mother. I’ll be fine,’ ” Marolyn Kruse said, stifling tears. “That was the last thing.”
Kruse filed a 52-page claim for lost income to BP on Monday. The company also owed him for two weeks’ work — about $4,700. He half-expected BP would reject it. By then, he was down to 185 pounds, from 219, his brothers said. He had to pay for the house, his Ford F-250 pickup, the boats and an 80-acre hunting camp near Pensacola, Fla., where he and other captains hunted white-tail deer.
“In a few weeks, the repo man’s at your house,” Marc Kruse said."That’s a very scary situation.”
Rookie Kruse knew about running a business. A University of South Alabama graduate, he had majored in business and worked for more than a decade for UPS, rising to a supervisor before buying his first boat 24 years ago.
On Wednesday, several fellow captains stopped by Kruse’s modest single-story ranch house. The captain’s widow welcomed them. They were his second family, a society in which Kruse was considered a big name. She withdrew from the crowd, preferring the deck that overlooks a river that translates as “good comfort.”
“It’s not like he was broke or destitute,” Frank Kruse said. His thoughts turned to others who may be in the same position his brother was in. “I can’t imagine what some of these people are doing. They’re mortgaged up to the hilt.”
Linda Abston, a friend of the family, also came to the house. She has seen business plummet at her hair salon, Cut N Up, next door to a Winn Dixie supermarket on Perdido Beach Boulevard in Orange Beach. After the spill, her five employees fled to sell T-shirts or cut hair in Pensacola and Tuscaloosa, Ala. Now Abston, a perky blond, is stuck with $6,000 monthly overhead.
On Monday, she said, she tried to file a claim with BP for $5,000 but was referred to a succession of claims agents.
“I’m thinking they’re going to do the right thing. By Friday, I’m at my wits end. That’s when I get the call about Rookie,” Abston said. She stood on the Kruses’ enclosed porch and cried. Kruse relatives soon surrounded her.
“I can absolutely understand how he felt,” Abston said. “Because it is so much pressure, trying to manage with this cesspool and the uncertainty of it all.”
On June 12, Abston attended a protest at Perdido Pass in nearby Orange Beach toting a sign, “God help us.”
There she met Riki Ott, the Alaskan marine biologist and commercial fisherman who became an environmental activist after responding to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Ott recalled how, in the wake of that spill, fishermen in the town of Cordova, Alaska, turned against one another instead of working together to overcome surging anxiety, post-traumatic stress, domestic violence and alcoholism. There was one high-profile suicide, she said, with a note that attributed the death to the stress of dealing with Exxon.
It is not clear whether people here could turn on one another as they did in Cordova, or turn a gun on themselves, as Kruse did. Tensions ebb and flow like the tides.
On the Kruse porch, a fishing pole was propped in the corner. Ryan said the last time he saw his stepfather was Tuesday night when Kruse lay in bed, despondent. Ryan said he did the only thing he could do — told his stepdad he loved him and gave him a hug.
Now Abston was leaning down and folding Ryan’s skinny frame into her arms.
“We had to do it,” she said of turning to BP for help.
It was also not clear what the family will do now to make ends meet.
“There’s things you guys are going to need, but right now is not a good time to sell the boat,” Marc Kruse told Ryan. He said other captains would probably lease the boats. Ryan nodded as though he understood.
“Y’all don’t have to worry about nothing,” Marc Kruse said. “Just take care of your mama.”
BP offered to pay for the funeral, and Kruse’s family accepted. His body was released by the coroner Thursday, and they are searching for a church big enough to contain the expected crowd.
A BP official came to the house Wednesday to offer counseling, and later sent a chaplain. “We all need counseling. I feel like I do,” Ryan said as he stood up.
Use your punching bag, one of his uncles said.
“I did,” Ryan said as he walked out into the darkness and toward the water. “I knocked it over.”
At the Gulf Shores marina where Kruse reported for work in recent weeks, owner Billy Parks talked about a shrimper who is among those waiting at home for a call from BP offering work.
“Those are the guys I worry about,” he said. “It don’t seem fair.”
Parks stood on a deck above the marina, staring at the gulf. It was a brilliant day, blue skies full of puffy clouds and sun dancing on the emerald waves. The marina was nearly empty. Kruse’s two boats were still moored where he left them.
In the distance, six oil rigs rose from the waves, and nearby floated a few barges, supply boats, a fleet of BP Vessels of Opportunity doing boom training, and one lone shrimp trawler, nets extended at its side like outstretched arms.