Cletus, bots and Clean Coast

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.”






















A conversation at Kayton Homes

Savannah Morning News

Sun, Oct. 11, 2015

Ten to one, no candidate for office is knocking on Malcolm Chaplin’s door, trying to court his vote. No one is flapping his or her jaw or running on at the mouth about crime, about jobs, about education. Malcolm’s just an ordinary guy. He takes the bus to work. Sometimes he walks; it clears his mind. He’s trying to save up for his upcoming wedding. He wants to do right for his future wife. He makes $10 an hour as a cook and is happy to have worked his way up to that point. He has insurance. When he goes to the dentist he likes paying $100 instead of $2,000.

But he’s got some views.

From his modest porch at Kayton Homes, he can see the big red brick building on Martin Luther King, Jr., Blvd that once carried so much promise, that was going to bring a grocery store to a part of town some people call the food dessert. Food Lion. Lasted less than a year. Closed its doors when the profit line wasn’t reached. Shut it down.

“In my opinion, Food Lion didn’t have what the people in this neighborhood needed. No Pampers. No deli. Meat was too high.”

No one asked his opinion about that. Or about other things.

“In my opinion government housing should only be a stepping stone,” he said. “You know, if you have children or you’re struggling.”

Malcolm, who is 34, says his high school, Sol C. Johnson, did him right. He has no complaints. After graduating he got a CNA from Savannah Tech. But the work wasn’t for him. His heart wasn’t in it. Then he got a culinary certificate from Savannah Tech. That he liked. You know you did a good job when people clean their plate and they smile, he said. He worked for Vic’s on the River for a while but got laid off when business slowed down.

That’s the time he headed for the library at the West Broad YMCA. That’s when he saw a flyer for the Chatham Apprentice Program, an offshoot of Step Up Savannah. Something told him to apply. It changed his life, he said. He learned how to prepare a resume. He learned about going to a supervisor to resolve a conflict with a fellow employee instead of quitting. The program led him through several mock interviews.

“That’s when I learned maybe I should have more eye contact,” he said.

His instructor, Isaac Felton, seemed to care about the students.

“He’s my friend,” Malcolm said. “He went as far as he could for me.”

Malcolm knows something about living in a part of town that doesn’t see many politicians.

“I believe if you’re standing at the bus stop and someone robbed a liquor store and three or four police officers appear in a circle around you, like they did me, more than once, like I was going to run, that’s not right,” he said. “I try to look at both views. If I’m a cop I want to make it home to my family. But like I said to the officer, ‘Not to be disrespectful but if I robbed a store I wouldn’t be standing at a bus stop.’”

He knows something about loan sharks.

“I did that once to buy some furniture. I borrowed $100 but ended up paying $30 a month for six months. That doesn’t help your credit score. Since then I have learned from a credit counselor to pay my bills.”

He knows something about “ladies, weed and drinking” (which he’s replaced with “God, work and home”) and he knows folks who have prison records (he doesn’t). He understands gangs. They have problems at home, he said. The gang is like a family to them.

“They go to prison for 10 years and get out and don’t have a family. They can’t get a job. If you’ve done your time you should be given a chance. But once you get out you have no support. Who you going to put down as references, your correction officer? Georgia Corrections? Guys go to prison for holding over an ounce. That should be a citation. But there ain’t no love in prison.

“It’s like they don’t have them to progress. If you get the door closed behind you no matter how hard you jiggle the doorknob it won’t turn if it’s locked.”

Malcolm – “the first on my daddy’s side to graduate high school and get a college certificate” – likes his neighborhood. It’s a safe neighborhood. You can make conversation with people. He’s familiar with his neighbors. There’s a childcare program. He lives with his mother who is diabetic so it’s hard for her to work. But when he gets married he and his bride plan to move to a two-bedroom apartment in Garden City where the rent will be $450. They’re hoping to honeymoon somewhere in the country.

“But I know we have to be wise with our money. You eat fish and grits, not steak and potatoes. If all you can afford is a Pinto you don’t go and get a Buick.”

I know a few politicians who could use that advise.