The Gulf of Love
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Jerry W.
War, Peace, & Love
I drove right into the student parking lot at Madison high without encountering a single cop. There were no police cars on school grounds I saw. I felt it was a good sign. I had a hard time seeing Madison high school becoming an anti war haven. It was a rural area with conservative values.
In front of the school were the three hundred students. In the windows and doors were most of the teachers and the administrators.
I also saw a big cop with a huge gun on his hip ambling toward me. If not for the uniform, he'd look like any cowboy in a John Wayne movie.
“Clay Olson,” the cop said as if he knew me.
Then he pushed his hat away from his eyes.
“John Foley, Teddy's buddy from the A&P?” I asked.
“One and the same, pilgrim,” he said. “I graduated with Teddy. I used to ride around in this buggy with him. I knew it as soon as I saw you turn into the parking lot.”
“He left it with me,” I said.
“Nice wheels. This car is a classic. He OK?” John asked. “I hear stuff. Never figured your brother for a draft dodger.”
“Draft resister, John,” I corrected. “I don't know where he is. The last time I saw him he was fine.”
We leaned on the hood of the car, watching the students stand around. People in the school watched from the windows and doors.
“Nasty business, this war,” John reflected. “You're after someone? Class officers were speaking a minute ago. Nothing rowdy. The speakers have been subdued. No rebel rousing. No one is very happy about the Kent State deal, Clay. Can't say I understand it. Killing kids to prove a point? That's bogus. They fired on school kids. The people who run this country shot children.”
“Does it surprise you, John? These kids represent the next cannon fodder politicians intend to send to Vietnam. They aren't stupid,” I said. “Some of these kids are destined to die because of what? What do we hope to accomplish over there?”
“You're with Teddy on this one. I can tell. I do my job. They tell me to fire on school kids, that's the day I quit. They could pay me enough to kill a kid.”
“I'm for no more killing of anyone. I'm here after my sister,” I said. “She knows the car. Maybe she'll come over if she sees it.”
“The kids walked out at noon. Teachers forbid it but at noon the school emptied into the parking lot.”
“I guess they don't like the idea of going to Vietnam and they like being shot at school even less,” I said. “We are taught to obey, but there comes a time when obedience goes against your instincts.”
“Tell me about it. They called us saying there was a riot at the high school. The chief called the county. Everyone's on edge after the Kent State deal went down. The county boys called in the state boys for backup, and here we are.”
“A bit of over kill. It's Madison High School for Pete sake.”
“Yeah, we should have come out to take a look see first, but what's done is done. This is what we found when we got here. Mad kids. Hell, I'm mad. Killing gook over in Vietnam is one thing. Killing American kids is bogus, man.”
“You remember what Teddy used to call gooks, John?”
“No, can say as I do.”
“Vietnamese. You know, the folks who live in Vietnam.”
John looked me over for a second before he continued.
“My chief told us to stand down once he knew the situation. The county boys and staties agreed not to go charging in with lights and sirens. A good way to start a riot where none exists.”
“Glad someone has some common sense,” I said. “Someone put the National Guard troops on that campus. They either had no sense, or they knew what might happen and then let it happen,” I said.
“Who would want soldiers to kill kids?” John challenged.
“That's a question that should be answered, John.”
“My chief said to watch and keep order without starting a riot. Nothing has happened for us to do anything about. What we have here are a few hundred truants. We won't get our panties in a twist over it. Not me anyway. ”
“I want to get my sister out of here. No telling what might set these kids off. Would you walk with me while I look for her? You can part the seas so to speak.”
“Sure. Nothing going on. Kids are talking to each other. It's been like this since I got here. It's like a fire drill. Come on, I'll take you to where the only action is. Maybe they'll give a holler for your sister.”
I followed John into the crowd. There were students standing on the bed of a pickup truck. I heard a familiar voice as we waded through the students. I looked up to see Lucy beginning to speak.
“I'm Lucy Olson, president of the sophomore class. I'm here representing the class of '72. I'm happy to be part of this protest. We can't allow this war to continue. The killing in Vietnam is out of control. Now they're killing students for protesting the killing in Vietnam and Cambodia. When did the government declare us the enemy? We aren't the enemy. We are the people. Our government is out of control. When it aims its rifles at school kids, they're aiming at us. If we let them get away with training their rifles on us, we deserve what we get.”
There was a mixture of applause and shouts from the crowd. The teachers inside the school had gone pale. This was anarchy to them. “I've only got one thing to add to what the other class officers have said here today,” Lucy said loud enough for me to hear her.
“I think you found your sister,” John said. “Lucille sure grew up well,” John said.
“Oh, don't call her that if you know what's good for you. She's Lucy,” I warned.
“I'll remember that.”
“I came to rescue her,” I said. “She seems to have her own ideas.”
“Doesn't sound like she needs much rescuing,” John said, watching Lucy scan the students below her. “I'll hang around to see you two get to your car safely.”
“Thanks, John. I appreciate that,” I said.
I was worried. I didn't like crowds and I didn’t know what could set this one off.
“When I was a little girl, my brother told me something about this war and the day he graduated from Madison High School.”
I found her comment a bit inaccurate. Lucy was never a little girl and I'd only graduated two years before.
“You going to get a trip down memory lane, Clay?” John asked.
“Hard to say. Lucy has a mind of her own. She's got something on it.”
“My brother, Clay, told me that on his graduation day, he didn't look at any of the senior boy's faces. This is for you, senior boys, listen up, and the girls who love senior boys, this is for you. My brother told me that the day he graduated, he didn't look at any senior boy's face. He feared seeing their names on a list of war dead one day. He didn't want his last memory of them to be at graduation. He wanted graduation day to be about hopes and dreams. The possibilities for the future being endless.”
“He didn't want to remember the last time he saw one of those boys who ended up on a list of war dead was at his graduation. A day when they all had their entire lives ahead of them. If we don't stop this war, one day some of your names will be on one of those lists.
“If that is the case, and a few of your names end up on a list of the war dead, I want my last memory of you to be of us standing here together today. Standing up against killing.”
Lucy was silent for a few seconds. Once more she scanned the faces of the people in front of her.
“There's been enough killing. We need to put a stop to it now. Whatever it takes, we need to stop the killing. Thank you. School's out. Have a nice summer,” Lucy declared. “See you in the fall.”
John put out his hand to shake mine.
“Pretty powerful stuff, Clay,” he said. “I think your sister just closed this school for the summer.”
“She did,” I said.
“This war protest deal must run in the family,” he said. “Come on. I'll get you to your sister. You can get her out of here while it's still peaceful. No telling what those teachers might do. Kids taking over the school won't set well with the authoritarian types.”
When Lucy saw me, she came over and gave me a hug.
“I was just thinking about you,” she said.
“I heard,” I said.
We made our way to the car, leaving John to watch the kids.
“Why don't we get out of here before the mood changes. Is it OK to go to the conservancy?”
“Fine with me,” Lucy said. “My work here is done.”
“You're something,” I said, as I turned onto the highway. “You make me proud to be your brother, Luce.”
“That's a nice thing to say. Isn't it terrible,” Lucy said. “Look at all the police cars. Are these for us?”
“Kent State has everyone on edge,” I said.
“I would hope so,” she said. “They've brought the war home.”
“The reaction by students is amazing. Colleges and schools are in the hands of students all over the country,” I said.
“We aren't going back to class. We voted on it right after we walked out. We aren't important. The statement we make is.”
When we arrived back at the conservancy, a couple of people watched the television set. I stopped to look at hundreds of students sitting in the middle of a highway somewhere.
“This is Route 1, a man commuter route between Washington and Baltimore. At a little past noon, students left their classes at Maryland University and sat in the middle of Route 1, Walter.”
“Any trouble?” Walter asked.
“No, they're just sitting on the highway. The police are keeping their distance so far.”
The camera scanned one side of the crowd where the street was lined with police cars parked sideways. It was Maryland State Troopers. Two dozen troopers stood, arms across their chest, leaning against their cars.
The camera scanned to the other side of the students where more troopers stood watching.
“Walter, here's the captain of the state police. I'll see if he won't talk to me. Excuse me, can you tell me what's happening.”
A man in uniform stepped up to the reporter. He towered over him with his state trooper hat making him look even taller. He looked into the camera.
“I've just spoken with Gov. Mandel and explained the situation. I told him Maryland students were sitting down in the middle of Route 1. The governor said, 'Let them sit there. Keep your distance. When they get hungry or need to pee... excuse me, can I say that?”
I'm sure the trooper was blushing.
“Under the circumstances a direct quote is OK by me. Right, Walter.”
“Tell it like it is,” Walter replied.
“'When they get hungry or have to pee, they'll leave,'” the trooper finished.
Once again common sense prevailed. When the kids got hungry or needed to pee, they got up and left Route 1. By five that afternoon, traffic was moving fine.
Each day until school closed for the summer, students left their classes shortly after noon, went and sat in the middle of Route 1, and by five they'd all gone. They made their point and the state police redirected traffic while they did.
Not every school erupted in violence, but most schools had students who made a statement about what had been done at Kent State.
After the Kent State massacre people began to get angry. It wasn't merely students any more. The country had tired of constant war. The stream of bodies coming back from Vietnam represented thousands of families and friends left to mourn.
Few places escaped burying war dead. The 'America, love it or leave it' crowd,' who once drowned out voices of reason, began to lose control of the media after Kent State.
Why are we over there?
Kent State was a catalyst for change. The people had awakened.
“There was light at the end of the tunnel,” Kissinger said.
War protests became huge.
They paralyzed Washington D.C.
The country was split over the war in 1970, but voters agreed, if you're old enough to die for your country, you're old enough to vote.
“If politicians wanted everyone to vote,” Ivan told me. “You'd be registered to vote before you leave high school. If there was an election your senior year, you'd get a student ballot and vote. High school students know more about the country than their parents do.”
That was Ivan's opinion at fourteen.
A constitutional amendment passed allowing an eighteen year old to vote. No registration of high school students was mentioned. The most important issue to a boy of eighteen was the draft. It took longer to end the draft. It didn't end registration, which meant the draft can be brought back at any time.
Most boys did what they were indoctrinated to do. They did their duty. I remembered unruly boys from high school. The idea of giving these boys automatic weapons and teaching them to kill was insane.
The handwriting was on the wall. Opposition to the draft was growing along with the war protests.
Peace with honor became Nixon's position on the war. He continued bombing the North Vietnamese and Cambodians. Vietnamization was the policy. The South Vietnamese needed to fight their own battles now.
What a novel idea.
America's troops began to come home.
“Declare victory and come home,” politicians said.
A little over a week after Kent State, two students were shot by police at Jackson State in Mississippi. It was unclear why unarmed students needed to be shot. A lot of things were unclear in Mississippi.
I was in no danger of being drafted. Harry told me that in 1968. He intended to protect me. My college was paid for by the Sanibel Island Conservancy. My benefactor was a United States Congressman.
Kids not as lucky as me would be subject to punishment if they stepped out of line in the future. The new face of higher education was one of conformity. if you knew what was good for you, you'd keep a low profile.
The adults intended to regain control of schools and students.
In 1960 the young were invisible and voiceless. No one asked what they thought about anything. They were just kids. By 1970 the kids were driving the bus and they drove it out of Vietnam.
The politicians would take the wheel once again. They'd do the driving from now on. Kids would sit in the back of the bus, quietly, if they knew what was good for them.
I knew where I was going. I was halfway to a degree. I had Harry keeping me informed on official Washington. Ivan kept me posted on what soldiers and anti war protesters were saying.
Harry knew about politicians cutting the funding to education.
“They think maybe today's students are too well educated,” Harry said. “Free education means students with time on their hands. Time to protest things they don't like. Make students pay for their own college costs. Threaten to expel students who cause trouble. Students who are expelled forfeit their tuition. You have some serious penalties in place to restrain future protests. That's their thinking.”
By May of 1970 Ivan identified another tactic being used to silence anti war protesters. Cops were infiltrating and closing safe houses where anti war protesters ate, slept, and planned.
Marijuana was made a schedule one drug and possession would mean long jail sentences. War protesters were known to smoke a lot of grass. If caught with it their war protest days were over.
“Hey, Babe,” Ivan said one Sunday.
“What's up, Ivan?”
“The safe house I lived in while I was in Seattle?”
“It was raided and closed. Everyone in the house was charged with possession of marijuana. Even the guy who owned the house, he wasn't there during the raid, but he was arrested later on drug charges. He's a freaking attorney. They won't let him in his house.”
“Sounds serious,” I said.
“Yeah, sources say there was a guy that came to the house and they took him in. He was a real hard charger. He wanted to burn things down and shoot the pigs. He was a narc. He was working with the police. The first time grass came out of someone's pocket, the place was raided.”
“Sounds like dirty pool,” I said.
“It does,” Ivan said.
A couple of weeks later I told Harry about Ivan's call.
“I'll look into it,” Harry said.
“It's what Nixon is calling his war on drugs,” Harry told me when he came home in August. “They've revised the penalty on schedule one drugs. You can go to jail for life if convicted of trafficking marijuana.”
“Can he do that?” I asked.
“He's the president. Wrap it in the flag and he can do most anything. Scuttlebutt has it, he's after war protesters and African- Americans. It's obvious why he wants to take war protesters down. The African-American component is called the Southern Strategy. It's a Lee Atwater construct. He plans for keeping Republicans in power.”
“They play politics with people's lives? Who does that?”
“Power is money, Clayton. Some men will do anything for either.”
“Is this America? It goes against what I've been taught.”
“I'll tell you what I know. Figuring out what's in the heart of men who do things like this is beyond my pay grade. By catering to the Jim Crow South, Nixon makes sure the GOP wins those states as a block for as long as the bigots stay in control.
“LBJ, a Democrat, passed voting rights and civil rights legislation. Not popular in the South. Nixon gives the Jim Crow South a tool to nullify black voters.”
“By locking them up?”
“I'd say that's what they have in mind.”
“Black folks aren't the ones who need to be locked up,” I said.
Bill and I were studying a reef we'd discovered during one of our exploratory dives. We were keeping records on the types of sea creatures, their condition and numbers. We discussed what we found once the two of us got back to my lab.
Bill always concluded a day when we did a dive with his hypothesis on the current conditions. Conditions being a predictor of things to come for this reef and the Gulf.
This was the world I inhabited for much of my time each week. It was a peaceful place I wished everyone could enjoy, but if everyone did, there wouldn't be much left that was peaceful.
Some days I wished I could just stay underwater or take a walk on my beach and never stop walking.
Harry's schedule wasn't any different than most congressman. He listened to voters, met with donors, and he did the things to prove he was the best man for the job.
Harry was at the conservancy a lot while he campaigned. On his first day home as his campaign went into high gear. Much to my surprise, Harry came to the lab to see me. He usually saw donors first and if he had time to talk, he left a message for me.
Harry knew colleges closed early. He knew about the goings on at Madison High School but it didn't come up. He came to the lab to talk and it took me by surprise.
“I see Lucy hasn't been here,” Harry said, looking at my desk full of papers as he sat in the chair next to it. “I'm free for two hours. Tell me everything I need to know, Clayton.”
When I looked up, I'm sure he saw the horror on my face. Where would I start? Where was Lucy when I needed her? Where did all the paper come from?
I was screwed.
“Actually, I'm hiding out. The phone hasn't stopped ringing and my campaign manager won't come to work until tomorrow. I have two meetings this afternoon. I need time to gather my thoughts. How about lunch, Clayton? You look hungry.”
“Sure,” I said, relieved he didn't want to know everything right away.
“Have I ever taken you to the Gulf Club, Clay?” Harry asked.
“No, sir,” I said, as Reginald closed the door for me.
I was in the plush backseat of the gleaming black stretch limo.
“This impresses the donors,” Harry said. “It belonged to Daddy. Reginald keeps it like Daddy might ask him to bring it around at any time. He was waxing it yesterday. I decided, to use it.”
“It's beautiful, Harry,” I said.
“There's a matter I need to discuss with you, Clay,” he said. “I do need to relax, but we can talk a little shop concerning you.”
“OK,” I said apprehensive.
Was this to be my last meal?
“Is the boat OK? Not giving you any trouble?”
“Fine. I don't have much time to use it. I mostly go on Bill's boat,” I said. “If I have time to do a dive alone, I take the fourteen footer. Maybe once or twice a month. It runs fine. Your man at the marina keeps it running.”
“My man at the marina tells me the hull is more sealant than wood. I want to have it restored to its original condition. The original wood was gorgeous. It'll impress donors too. I don't want you in the Gulf and have it sink on you.”
“I've never seen a sign of water inside the boat,” I said.
“I've been shopping for a replacement. I'm buying an eighteen foot Seaswirl. Bill's familiar with them. It'll be a good diving platform for you, Clay. Bill is buying one too.”
“I'm happy I have a boat to dive off of, Harry. Whatever you buy will be fine,” I said.
“Once you finish school, you'll be diving a lot. That's still a couple of years but I want to get a boat with that in mind. The Seaswirl will belong to the lab. It's your boat, Clay. You'll keep the keys.”
“I will? You know what you want, Harry. My job is to get the degree so I'm qualified to do it. Glad your plans for the future have me in them.”
“Clay, you are the future of the conservancy,” he said.
“August, when I'm home for recess, you'll go with us to get the new boat. You can pick the color you like.”
“Sounds good,” I said.
“That's when the campaigning starts. We'll have more time to talk then.”
“You going to win, Harry?”
“I'm in Daddy's seat. He had it for over twenty years. I was elected to it after he died. It's not easy to defeat a sitting congressman, Clay, and name recognition is half the battle. The voters know my name.”
Reginald opened the door for Harry before coming around to open mine.
The Gulf Club sat on a dune a few dozen yards above the Gulf of Mexico. There was a heavy duty pier behind the restaurant. It stretched out into the emerald green water a couple of hundred feet.
We were greeted by a man in a tuxedo. He called Harry by name, shook his hand, and escorted us across the restaurant with heads turning. We were seated a big windows that looked out on the dunes, oat grass, and the Gulf of Mexico.
“What a view,” I said.
“Thought you'd like it. We'll go out on the pier after we eat. I haven't made time to bring you here,” Harry said. “The food is good.”
I was in jeans. My tee-shirt had Flower Power written across my chest and flowers all over it. Most male patrons had on three piece suits, like Harry. I only saw two women.
“I feel out of place, Harry,” I said.
“You're never out of place when you're with Congressman Harry McCallister, Clay. You see the heads turn as we passed? They're all wondering who I've brought to lunch. They want to know who you are and why you're with me.”
Harry's head never turned as we crossed the restaurant. I didn't think he noticed the people looking at us.
“We're here for the lobster and the view,” Harry said.
“I've never had lobster,” I said.
“It's like crab, a sweeter richer flavor. You'll like it,” he said. “They fly it in fresh from Maine each morning.”
“We live in Florida and we're going to eat Maine seafood?”
“It's where you get lobster. I love Maine lobster. You'll like it.”
“Come on,” Harry said, dropping a ten dollar bill on the table.
We walked to the end of the pier. The salty sea air furnished an intoxicating fragrance I loved.
“This is what it's all about, Clay. Look at that water, this view, the smell. I sit in my office in Washington and smell this. This is home.”
I was sure Harry and I were OK. I didn't know that until he talked about the new boat and took me to the Gulf Club. Standing with him on that pier made me feel closer to him than ever before.
I wanted to be a marine biologist more than I wanted anything. It's what he was paying me to do. I'd get my degree and I would make a difference one day.
“How'd you do at school?” Harry asked, once we were back in the car. “Grades.”
“I aced Bill's classes,” I said, knowing he knew that. “I average a B on the academic side. B in English, A in philosophy and ancient history. School closed early but they gave me my grades.”
“Good show. Bill says you're way ahead of his other students. He spends twice as much time with you too. I figured the lab would entice Bill to spend more time here, Clay. Bill likes working there. I furnish things his school won't buy.”
“I dive alone with Bill Wednesdays. After the dive we discuss what we've seen in the lab. He's a smart man, Harry.”
“Yes, he is. That's why I put you with him. Biology, botany, ecology, Bill knows his business. Not many marine biologist spend the time he does in Florida's waters.”
“The other students are in a more general program. Bill spoke of getting me into the Atlantic soon. The Gulf is my baby. Diving in the Atlantic will give me something to compare the Gulf with.”
“You keep doing what you're doing, Clay. I'll do my best to make some waves in D.C. After this election I'm no longer a freshman. I'll have more to say. I met Nixon, Clayton.”
“Nixon! Politics do make strange bedfellows, congressman.”
“He's partial to Florida. He wanted to know about the Gulf and the conservancy's work. He knew my father. He's a powerful ally.”
“Now if he could stop killing people,” I said.
Harry ignored the comment, knowing where I stood on the war.
“With the time you lost, when do you graduate? Bill says he'll certify you in the spring of 1972. You get the degree at graduation. The degree makes you a marine biologist.”
“I complete the academic credits in December 1973. I'm a semester behind on a five year degree. We stretched out my academic load so I completed Bill's courses first.”
“That's OK, I won't be able to use you in D.C. until you have the degree. I'll have plenty for you to do once Bill certifies you. You get a certain gravitas with Bill's endorsement, not to mention your association with the conservancy and a certain congressman. You have a rare combination of experiences that makes you an authority in your field, Clay.”
“Time has moved so fast, I hardly remember fishing, Harry.”
“There's something I'm going to let you in on. You can't tell anyone. Bill already knows. Nixon will establish the EPA soon.”
“EPA?” I asked.
“Environmental Protection Agency,” Harry said. “Nixon asked me to promote it. He knows my first interest is the environment.”
“Who won't vote to protect the environment?” I asked.
“You'd be surprised, Clay,” Harry said. “I want you to realize that our future, yours and mine, are tied to Dick Nixon on this project.”
“I'll pretend he's a regular guy, congressman,” I said stone faced.
My teen years ended a few weeks later. I was twenty. I felt forty. Hopes that 1970 would be a better year weren't realized. Half the year was over.
Ivan had said nothing about being home for good soon.
Ivan came home on my birthday without telling me. It was a great surprise. He wasn't sure when he'd be back. He would stay on the West Coast. He was plugged into the anti war movement and getting access to soldiers as they came off the plane. There were three from Boris' unit coming home the following week.
He wanted to be home for my birthday. It was always one of my best days when Ivan came home. He still needed to make sure I was still here.
On my birthday we were able to renew our love making with gusto. The sorrows and sadness had passed and Ivan filled my heart and my life. The first night he was there, we kept at each other until dawn, with a break when Dylan needed a dry diaper and a bottle.
Ivan put his hands over his ears as soon as Dylan screamed.
As dawn came along, Lucy came up to take Dylan. Somehow Lucy always knew when Ivan was there. I didn't ask her how, but she liked taking Dylan to give us more time.
When Ivan finally came down to dinner, we got a nice reception. Everyone was all smiles, except for Dylan. who stared at this new face at the Olson table. Almost a year old, Dylan was very aware of his little slice of the world. He knew Ivan was someone new.
Until I took Dylan's bottle and him upstairs, he watched Ivan. Everyone was talking to Ivan at the same time, asking him questions. This was a mystery for my son.
Ivan stayed two days and after I'd been up tending to Dylan, coming back to collapse into Ivan's arms on the third night, Ivan didn't go back to sleep. When I woke up, he was gone.
It was easier for both of us when he came in the night and I woke up in his arms, and after he'd been there for a time, I woke up one morning and I was alone again.
He never said I'm leaving tonight. He simply wasn't there when I woke up. I was accustomed to him not being there. I was never sorry when he came home.
It almost didn't hurt any more when I woke up to find him gone.