Savannah Morning News column
Oct. 25, 2015
Try talking to Cletus Bergen without getting a story or a story about a boat. Not going to happen. Sometimes you get both. That’s what happened last weekend when Cletus was helping ferry people back and forth to Ossabaw Island for the annual Ossabaw Island Foundation Pig Roast fundraiser. This story was about Clean Coast Savannah and its beginnings some 30 years ago.
“We were sailing out to Ossabaw in a 28-foot Catalina like I’ve done all my life,” Cletus, 68, started, his expressive eyebrows leading the way. “We got to Bradley Point, anchored the boat, swam in to shore, and started walking the beach. That’s when I saw two or three low riding black colored boats in the Sound. Not too far away was a big pile of something I couldn’t make out. My first thought was, uh oh, I’d walked into a drug deal.
“Then I saw someone in a floppy hat and khakis. It was Larry Shaffield, I learned later. He was a SCAD photographer. He had a couple of kids with him. I asked what they were doing.”
“’Cleaning the beach’,” he said. “’Wanna help?’”
“’What’s the point?’ I said. “’It’s just going to come back in a week.’”
“’Wanna help?’” he asked again. So I did.”
And that, says Cletus, is the essence of Clean Coast, a nonprofit organization that visits and cleans up different islands nearly every month.
“It’s the most successful grassroots organization and there’s a reason for that,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun. You get to go in a boat to an island where we give you three bags to fill. We serve lunch. Then we take you home.”
Cletus, who was on the sailing team at the Citadel, and his wife Deanne host a fund-raising oyster roast nearly every year for Clean Coast at their home in Coffee Bluff. That’s another story. Cletus’ father, William, who died at 50, designed the family house, which sits close to the Carmelite Monastery. He was also the architect behind Drayton Tower and the Asa Gordon library at Savannah State University. Not to make things too confusing, Cletus’ grandfather was also a renowned architect, responsible for Bergen Hall, the Catholic Diocese (formerly St. Mary’s) and the building housing the Savannah Arts Academy.
Cletus was six when his family moved. There were five homes at the time. The road was dirt. His father played half-rubber in the streets.
At 15, Cletus worked with crabber Abraham Mack, “who had the last crabbing rig in Rose Dhu. He made nets with A.S. Yarn. We’d leave early in the morning when it was dark, throttle down to a canal. We baited with hog nose from the nearby abattoir. I had 30 or 40 nets, Abraham had 60. One day when inky black clouds came up I said to Abie, ‘What we gonna do?’ He answered, ‘Get wet.’” I told that at his funeral through tears.”
As a youth Cletus worked as a bait fisherman for Jackson Fish Camp off Rose Dhu Road.
“I’d go out in the shrimp gator hole on the north side of White Bluff in a three horse power bateau with a British Seagull engine. I’d tow another bateau behind me with the portion of the bottom cut out so the shrimp could stay wet.”
Cletus got a bit of pressure to become an architect, “but I was never good at math,” he said, “and I like people too much. You find your aptitude.”
With a law degree he tried living away from Savannah for a while but in Marietta or Brunswick, where he worked as an assistant district attorney, “I couldn’t catch any crabs. I couldn’t smell the marsh. I could sail on a lake but it wasn’t salty.”
These days he’s got a fourth interest in a Catalina and a third interest in another Catalina. But in the yard at his house you’re likely to see a beat-up powerboat next to a small sunfish and a 14-foot bateau, boats people have left there.
“Boats get abandoned,” he said, which reminded him of another story. About a boat. “Clean Coast has got to decide how to deal with all the fiberglass hull boats that get abandoned. They don’t rot. Once I went out with someone and we had to take a saw to some boat run aground in the march. Sawed it to pieces but then what?”
Bergen practices law from his office on West York Street.
“There’s a story behind that,” he said. “I once had a client 15 years ago. When we started to go to the second floor, I said, ‘Be careful of those steps. They’re steep.’ That’s when he said, ‘I know those steps. This building used to be in the red light district.’ We left it at that.”