The Gulf of Love

A Rick Beck Story

quillswritersrealm@Yahoo.com

Editor: Jerry W.

Chapter 15
Walking on Eggshells

 

Harry returned to D.C. without a face to face meeting. I was left to stew in my own juices. I'd have to wait to find out what a sudden impulse had me doing. 

He didn't stop by the lab to see my notes and talk, as he said he would do. He didn't stop to say goodbye. He always said goodbye.

He wasn't due back until April, but Harry might fly in unexpectedly at any time if something came up he needed to attend to at home. He'd have a lot of time to think about my assault on his sensibilities.

What was I thinking? 

I wasn't quite as uneasy about where I stood with Harry. That didn't mean he wouldn't be reconsidering where I fit into the future of the conservancy.

By March I was too busy to worry about the plight of others. Term papers and exams became the order of the day at school, work was predictable. Dylan wasn't.

Ivan continued to call me Sunday before noon. He was hopeful. He was learning more about the men who Boris fought with. He was moving faster now.

He'd been gone a long time. I hoped he'd be home soon. 

*****

 

My relationship with Lucy was far more complex than one might expect. Lucy didn't mind taking a backseat to me. She'd go along with me because I was her big brother. There were times when she refused to yield. She told me her feelings on the matter, which usually made sense. I didn't know why I hadn't thought of it.

My sister continued to help in the lab, organizing notes, keeping things filed, and sitting in on most of Bill Payne's lectures. Lucy didn't dive but she took a great deal of interest in what went on in my lab.  

I don't think Lucy was different than most women. She allowed me to think I was in charge, until there was something she couldn't go along with. If it wasn't in her best interest, she said so and told me why. We always got along and it was the case as 1970 took hold.

In the beginning it was a better year than the last one, but that wasn't much of a reach. Rock & roll took a hit when both the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel announced breakups. If it hadn't been a big buzz at school, I might not have noticed, but it didn't sit well with people who loved the music they made.

Pop music lost headliners in 1970. They retired permanently.

 

*****

 

Early in April Harry flew in for meetings with his campaign staff and donors. I'd heard he was flying in Friday night and returning to Washington early Tuesday.

I spent a few hours Saturday morning reading from one of my text books. When something caught my eye, I looked up and found Harry standing in the doorway. I figured it was after nine since Harry didn't land until late Friday evening.

 

“I've got a few minutes. I thought I'd take a look at the notes I haven't seen in a while, Clay,” he said, sounding like normal. “I don't want to disturb you if you're busy.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, remembering I said way too much in February.

Standing at the file cabinet, I immediately saw a divider Lucy put in place separating the 1969 files and notes from those I'd made in 1970. It was the holidays the last time Harry had looked at them.

'Thank you, Luce,' I thought, coming up with more than a handful of files and notes that were filed after the first of the year.

I collected January through March and set them on my desk next to the notes I'd made the day before, but Lucy hadn't rewritten them yet. I wouldn't show them to Harry. Three months was a big bite of information. My note taking had become far more comprehensive as I knew more about what I was doing.

My handwriting was improving but not enough for anyone but Lucy and me to read it.

“These are for January, February, and March. That gets us up to this past week, Harry,” I said, trying to sound normal too.

“OK,” he said, slipping his glasses out of his pocket.

“Coffee, Harry?” I asked.

“No, thanks, Clay. I've got a meeting at eleven. It will probably take all afternoon. The fewer pee breaks I need the faster it'll go. You go ahead. Go on with what you're doing while I catch up.”

Harry had January's file open on his desk and he turned the papers as he read what I'd written.

Without saying anything he went to the February folder. It wasn't as thick because several storms limited my dives that month. I checked from time to time, looking over the top of my text book when he moved or changed folders. There were no questions.

After forty-five minutes, he neatly arranged the March folder, stacked the three together and put them in the center of my desk. Taking off his glasses, he returned them to his pocket.

“Your note keeping has improved. Tell Lucy she's making it easy to know what I'm looking at. When will she graduate from high school, Clay?”

“1972,” I said.

“I guess she'll want to go to college?” Harry asked.

“Yes, there's no doubt about it. She'll probably run the college before she's done,” I said.

Harry chuckled at the remark.

“Sorry I don't have more time so we can talk. I didn't realize there was so much I'd missed. There has been a lot to do this year, and I've got to get out of here. I'll be home for longer in May. I'll do a fair bit of campaigning in June, so I'll be at the conservancy more often. We'll have plenty of time to talk then. Keep up the good work, Clay.”

“OK, Harry. Good luck with your meeting,” I said.

Harry left and no mention was made of past conversations.

It wasn't the friendliest meeting we ever had but I was still working for the man. I took it as a good sign. He was investing a lot of money in my future.

 

*****

 

President John F. Kennedy told us, 'By the end of the decade we shall send a man to the moon and return him safely to the earth.' It was accomplished in 1969. Three definitely was not a charm for moon landings. Apollo 13 became stranded in space and flew on a wing and a prayer. It got the world's attention in April.

Holding our breath, we watched the LEM shelter our astronauts as they circumnavigated the moon, coming back toward the earth. If everything went flawlessly, after two destructive explosions disabled the Apollo 13, it would still be able to bring them back to earth, but there were no guarantees the crew would survive reentry in the damaged space craft.

Oxygen was running dangerously low and they had to depend on the damaged space craft to furnish enough oxygen to keep them alive. No one knew if the capsule could support life long enough to get them back into earth's atmosphere and safely land.

Once again a space mission got the nation's complete attention. This was a matter of life and death for men whose names we all knew. For an agonizingly long time, Apollo 13 lost its ability to communicate while reentering the atmosphere. Long after when communications should have been reestablished, there was nothing but silence. Houston kept calling Apollo 13.

There was no answer.

Static broke into the dead air. More static followed.

Then the lost astronauts were found.

“Houston, this is Apollo 13. Houston, this is Apollo 13.”

The nation could breathe again.

A television I'd never seen before appeared on the table in Pop's shop. Whenever the people at the conservancy had a few minutes, they stood in front of the TV, watching reports on our astronauts.

I found it difficult to take my eyes off the drama while I was at work. The television would be back out in May and once again my eyes would be glued to it.

 

*****

 

My relationship with Lucy was one of equals, because Lucy allowed me to feel equal to her by 1970. I say this knowing few people were my sister's equal. She'd always impressed me as being far more intuitive than I was.

While I read comic books and watched Leave It to Beaver, cavorting with my friends back  in Tulsa, Lucy read novels. She took botany at summer school for her summer fun, engaging my older brothers in intellectual discussions; not Brian.

Few things stumped Lucy for long. If she crossed paths with something she wasn't sure about, she investigated it.

When Lucy learned that Ivan and I were in love, during a period when we were more passionate than smart a couple of years before, Lucy was initially disappointed. She wasn't disturbed by walking in on us in the middle of a passionate kiss. Seeing us together, she reasoned her plan to marry Ivan might not be possible if her big brother was in love with him. 

Her sorrow was short lived. By the next day she decided to marry Boris instead of Ivan. They were a lot a like.

Lucy had hardly reached her teens.

“Love is a good thing, Clay,” she told me one day as we rocked on my porch.

Then she gave me a warning.

“Don't ever stop loving Ivan, Clay. If you do, I'll divorce Boris and marry Ivan.”

At thirteen Lucy had a grasp on her world.

 

*****

 

My classes were coming to a close by the first of May in 1970. It would leave me with work, diving, and taking care of Dylan, as major consumers of my time over the summer.

It would be almost like a vacation once I finished final exams and handed in all my papers. I was looking forward to it. 

*****

 

I wasn't paying much attention to Vietnam in April. Nixon had been in office for over a year and the stream of boxes with our boys bodies in them continued to flow home. I didn't need to know more than that. The waste was far too massive for me to ponder or understand.  

I was safe and it was selfish, but as I closed in on twenty, death and dying wasn't on my mind. I kept busy and I rationalized it wasn't my concern. I was a kid going to school and that meant I was safe. My plus three hundred draft number made me feel safer.

I thought of Teddy and wondered where he was and how he was doing. He'd disappeared from our lives and started over somewhere new. Canada was popular with draft resisters. It was safe, friendly, and not as far as Europe.

At times I wondered what it would be like to be on the run from a government that wanted you to go to another country and fight the people who lived there. What would be our reaction if the Vietnamese came over here and decided our government wasn't one they liked?

I didn't have a lot of time to let my mind wander, but when it did, it always wandered to Ivan.

He'd been in Seattle and when he left Seattle, he went to San Francisco. He met with a soldier who served with Boris and Ivan got his story. While in Seattle, he met another soldier who came home on emergency leave.

Cousin Carl didn't return to his unit, going underground instead. Ivan, circulating among the anti war protesters, met cousin Carl and they decided Berkely was where it was happening.

Berkeley was at the center of anti war protests. I'd never heard of Berkeley before. We were all about to find out about Berkeley. A lot of things were about to change concerning the Vietnam War, and Berkeley would be at the center of the storm.  

Ivan told me he was safe and in a place where he could get information about Boris, the battle where he was wounded, and the men who fought the battle with him. He no longer depended on one man to lead him to the next. Ivan had a list of the men in Boris' company on the day of the battle.

I don't know why that bothered me, but it did. I didn't know how anti war protesters got information like that. I had no idea there were men in the military who were against the war too. They were inside the military and had other means of displaying their anti war credentials.

Ivan had kept in touch with me and at least I knew where he was. He told me what he was doing, but I didn't know if he told me everything. He didn't want me to worry about him, so I suspect anything dangerous he did, he didn't mention to me.

As soon as I hung up from a call from Berkeley, California, something I'm certain the FBI knew, because we'd always suspected our phone was tapped, but I never thought about it because I was talking to Ivan. The FBI weren't looking for him, were they?

I had no way of knowing. Teddy was a draft resister and the FBI wanted him. After they gave up following us, expecting us to meet him somewhere, we were sure they bugged our phones so if Teddy phoned home, they could trace the call back to him.

Teddy never phoned home and who ever the contact was that kept Pop informed about Teddy, I never knew and Pop never said, but he always knew if Teddy was safe or not.

 

*****

President Nixon had a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam in 1968, while he ran for president. The war droned on into 1969 and little changed. It dragged on into 1970 and a thousand American soldiers died each month while Nixon was in office. The secret that was so secret he couldn't tell anyone. The war droned on.

Since I didn't believe anything politicians said, Nixon's promise didn't impress me at the time he made it. Once it was forgotten, it fit right in with most promises politicians made. I went about my business.

I heard of the shooting the day before. Everyone on a college campus knew about it by the time I reached the gate at school on Tuesday morning. My schedule was changed by a cop.

This was my wake up call.

“National Guard troops gunned down war protesters on an Ohio campus,” was how it was reported. 'Details on the evening news.' 

The usual comments, 'Commie sympathizers' and 'Dirty hippie trash' hardly registered. It was how people opposed to the war were described. Anyone who disagreed with our government was automatically a commie traitor. There was nothing new. War protesters were seen as the country's rabble. Boys refusing to go to Vietnam were cowards. No one got an opinion but the government.

War protesters were kids. Most kids were smart enough to know that this government intended to send them to Vietnam to be the next to die. Instead of standing in line like sheep to the slaughter, some young men refused the president's invitation to go to war.

I knew because I'd gone to one of the early marches. I saw the age of the protesters. I heard them say that the Vietnamese didn't do anything to them.  

By Tuesday morning, May 5, 1970, the story began to change.

“Four students at Kent State University in Ohio were gunned down during a protest of the troops being on Kent State's campus. This was their reaction to news that Nixon had expanded the Vietnam War into Cambodia.”

The Vietnam War had come home to America in 1970. The war protests had been gaining momentum for several years and “Hell no, we won't go,” replaced, “Hey, hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” as the chant for Richard M. Nixon.

No one could explain why we were in Vietnam, besides the usual, 'We're fighting the commie hordes and protecting America.” Commies looked like Russians and Chinese all my life. Now they looked like Vietnamese. It was a difficult change to understand. 

All I'd heard initially was four killed by troops somewhere or other. Like most things that year, it hadn't registered with me. I had finals to worry about and Dylan was having a rough time. I spent a lot of nights walking and rocking my son.

I didn't have classes on Monday. The magnitude of what took place at Kent State University hadn't gotten through to me. No one at the house was aware of it either.

I drove to Fort Myers on Tuesday for my nine o'clock English class. I didn't turn on the radio on the way to school. I'd found some unusual specimens on my last dive and I was anticipating consulting the biology section of the university library to place them.

The world for the most part was moving on without me paying much attention. The depressing body count from Vietnam had me changing the station any time it was mentioned on the car radio. There comes a times when the news  reaches you even when you don't pay attention. I had a cop deliver it to me at the entrance to my college.

“Go home, kid. Schools out. Call before you come back. The schools closed until further notice.”

I was already a semester behind on a five year degree. If he hadn't been a cop, I might have argued the point. I was too tired to argue with anyone. I did wonder what was going on.

I'd learn later that students who lived a lot closer to campus than I did took over the administration building the day before. The cop was right. School was out and it was out for the summer.

As I drove away from school, I tuned on my car radio until I heard people talking in severe voices. There was campus unrest. Schools were closing all over the country from Columbia University in New York to UCLA in California. Students were told to stay home.

What they weren't saying was that students had already taken over the administration buildings on most major campuses. The people running the Vietnam war had collided head on with the people expected to fight it. There was an explosion of anger no one could have predicted.

If there was no school, I'd go to work. The idea that the U.S. military gunned down unarmed college students on campus began to sink in. I got angrier as I drove. They'd gone too far this time. I was a college student.

The usual suspects came to mind, Nixon, Kissinger, and the Masters of War. What would make them think killing students was the way to go to make the war more popular? I may not have known much, but I didn't think this was going to go over too well.

I went into Pop's shop expecting business as usual. I was even going to ask Pop if he'd heard about Kent State and did he know what would make soldiers fire on students. I wanted to make sense of it.

Much to my surprise, I found the television back on the table in Pop's shop. It was broadcasting responses to the killings at Kent State. Everyone who worked at the conservancy stood watching.

The news shifted from campus to campus as reporters announced,  “Classes are canceled here too, Walter. Students have taken over the school's administration buildings. The buildings have been surrounded by the police, but so far they're keeping their distance. It's the kind of standoff I never thought I'd see here.”

The students had decided the killing had come too close to home. They weren't taking any more. If the leaders of America thought that killing a few students would silence them, they were sadly mistaken.

War protesters were everywhere. If students were going to die here, they intended to die stopping the war machine. They were ordered to come out of the buildings if they wanted to avoid arrest.  The students stayed put. 

By Tuesday morning students everywhere were joining the protest. It wasn't simply university students. Reports of high school students walking out of school began coming in. From high school to Vietnam wasn't unusual for thousands of high school boys. Not everyone was willing to go because politicians said it was a good idea.

In some places cops were photographed dragging students out of administration buildings. Even more students rushed in to replace the ones dragged away. These kids barricaded the doors. There weren't enough police to clear the buildings and keep them clear.

The students weren't armed but the cops were. No one knew what came next. It was televised chaos as the world watched.

If the military got away with killing students, students weren't safe anywhere. As I stood in Pop's shop with the people who worked there, we watched them replay the tape of the National Guard troops shooting thirteen unarmed students, none closer than twenty-five yards away. If the students were throwing bottles and rocks, why not fall back before you fire into a group of kids? Who shot kids and why?

Was this how the military operated? Who sent troops onto a college campus? Someone was responsible.

Walter Cronkite gave the toll, “Four were dead and nine were wounded.”

As the day progressed new details were released about the campus shootings. Two of the dead were doing nothing more subversive than changing class. A long way from where the troops made their stand. No one could spin this into something worthwhile.

“Who puts armed troops on a college campus?”

That was the question being asked.      

Kent State wasn't just a school. It became a battle cry.

An angry man's face appeared in front of an Ohio camera, and he barked, “They should have killed more of those commie sons-of-bitches. They're all traitors.”

No attempt was made to override the profanity. Something about shooting children made the truth more important than the facade of politeness Americans liked to project.

I could see the mouths of my fellow employees fall open. This kind of comment was repeated over and over, especially supporters of Gov. Rhodes decision to send the National Guard onto the already angry campus. It was the reaction of the 'America, love it or leave it,' crowd. Men who probably had school age kids were delighted war protesters were being shot. “They got what they deserved.”

I was horrified.

Is this what America had become? The killing had come home.

 

*****

 

There was no peace in America's heartland that week. The  killings put everyone on edge. Kent State wasn't ten thousand miles away. There were four dead in Ohio.

“What are we doing to our kids?” one woman asked as we watched smoke rising from the soldiers rifles again and again as newsman showed maps of where the troops were, where the students were, and where the dead fell. It was full time coverage and there were no troops in sight.

The Sanibel Island conservancy wasn't a hotbed of liberalism. It wasn't American kids facing the Vietnamese. These were our kids facing our military and some didn’t survive the encounter.

Instead of calling in the troops, why not close the school if things were that out of control?

 

*****

 

Seeing those guns firing on the students, I saw the end of the Vietnam war. I didn't think Nixon and Kissinger could keep the war going now. They'd be forced to bring the troops home. The people who liked the shooting were seen first, expressing approval.

The rest of America was in shock over what their government had done. They'd have more to say in due time. 

The bombing didn't stop, even after Kent State. The dying didn't stop, but the strategy changed and our troops began coming home.

Once the news began repeating itself on Tuesday, everyone went back to work. There was a pervasive sadness hanging over the conservancy that day. What we'd seen was impossible to comprehend. There was no reason people with guns shot people without guns, except they could.

Were we still in America? What had we become? Isn't this what they did to their people in East Germany?

 

*****

 

Mama called about the time I settled down enough to get some work done. It was Lucy's day to help in the lab. I was picking her up once school was out.

Mama had me paged just before noon.

“There's trouble at the high school, Clay. Go get Lucy. Don't say anything to your father. Just say I'm sending you on an errand.”

“Yes, ma'am,” I said, heading for the exit.  

There were no troops in southwest Florida but there were plenty of cops. I'd rest easier once Lucy was in the car. It looked like it was going to be a long hot summer.

Madison High was fairly conservative in my day. I couldn't imagine Lucy being able to stir up much trouble in that atmosphere. Mama may be exaggerating but I wasted no time. I didn't see a single cop car, until I turned on the school road.

The biggest trouble our local sheriff faced was on weekends when folks tended to drink too much. In such case our sheriff drove them home for safety's sake.

As I approached the student parking lot a dozen police cars were parked along the shoulder. There was the sheriff's car, his two deputies car, four state troopers, and six county police cars. I had butterflies in my stomach. What was going on?

It was too late to turn back now. Whatever was going on, I had driven into it.

I turned into the entrance of the student parking lot.

I didn't see a single uniformed officer as I parked behind the rows and rows of student's cars. 

There was no visible disturbance or any sign of violence. There were no ambulances or flashing lights on emergency vehicles.

Where was everyone?

I was still a hundred yards from the school. I opened the Chevy's door.

Where were the cops from all those cop cars? 

 

                                           *****

NEXT CHAPTER