The Gulf of Love
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Jerry W.
The Buck Stops
Harry came home for the August recess in late July. He told me they ran out of work on The Hill. I wasn't surprised to see a parking lot full of cars on his second day back.
“Everybody wants something, Clayton,” he told me.
Everyone wanted a favor from Congressman Harry McCallister during the election cycle in 1970. Few people had the gravitas to reach Harry's ear.
I was surprised when Harry was waiting for me to come to work on Monday the first week of August. He hadn't mentioned taking me anywhere. His overalls and baseball cap looked strange.
I didn't recognize him at first, when he waved me over to the conservancy pickup truck.
“Get in,” he said without explaining.
This wasn't like Harry. I'd been at his house over the weekend for a conservancy picnic. He'd been home all week the week before and nothing unusual went on that I was aware of anyway.
Harry was in good spirits and meeting with his campaign people.
“What's up, Harry?” I asked. “I didn't know you could drive.”
“Just a short ride. There's a little project I want you to see. There's a coffee and one of those jelly things you fancy in that bag.”
“Hey, breakfast! You're a regular guy, congressman.”
Harry was about to prove just how regular he could be. I was going on a journey that had begun six months before. Harry could keep a secret and not just the ones he picked up on Capitol Hill.
As we reached the other side of town, Harry waited to take the turnoff to the left that led to Twila's. A layer of gravel had been laid down on top of the dirt road. Someone had ironed out the ruts too.
“They'll asphalt this when we're done. It'll be easier to get in and out all year around.”
I sat forward in my seat as we passed a dozen flatbed trucks loaded with building materials. There was Sheetrock, roofing materials, two by fours, plywood, all the building materials you'd need to repair or replace things in a hundred rundown houses. There were carpenters, painters, plumbers, and electricians in smaller trucks that waited at the head of the line.
I was speechless. A chill ran through me.
“I moved Twila and her kids to our guest house yesterday. I'm in charge of the work at her house. You won't need to drive her while the work is going on. Reginald will take her where she needs to be until we finish. I'll be arranging a suitable car for her. She should have a car.”
What could I say? I wanted Harry to do something. I didn't have any idea what. He never said anything as he did what was needed.
“I know you thought I didn't hear you, Clay. I told you once, 'Things take time.' This was one of those things. Arrangements had to be made. Contractors needed to agree on a date. The laborers had to be available to do the work. Then there were electricians, plumbers, painters to hire. Once that was done, we needed to make sure there was a plan, people needed to make living arrangements while the work is being done. It took six months to get the pieces in place and the money to pay the bills, which brings us to today. The work begins at nine this morning.”
“Congressman, you amaze me,” I said, feeling a weakness in the pit of my stomach.
“The day you brought me up here, I was ashamed of myself, Clayton. I knew this place existed. I knew it wasn't very nice, but I'd never come up here to see it. When you made me look at it, I felt sick. You told me I needed to do something. Well, Clay, I've done it.”
“Yes, you have, Harry. My father is the best man I know. You've just about pulled even with him. You make me proud to be associated with you, even though you're a politician.”
Harry laughed. His eyes sparkled when he looked at me.
“The wheels turn slowly, Clay. I talked to my donors and I told them we needed to assist our black citizens. There was some resistance, as you might expect, but people began calling me wanting to help. People who I didn't expect to step up did.
“Then there were the black leaders to talk to. It took a bit of doing to get them to meet with us. When we told them what we had in mind, they came on board. Before this, when white men called for black men to meet with them, it often meant trouble. Knowing we wanted to help changed the atmosphere. We were able to exchange ideas and hear their suggestions,” Harry said.
“This is only the start. We'll asphalt this road once the construction is done and the big trucks are gone. We'll put a new roof on each house. We'll expand the floor plan if they need more room. We can easily add two bedrooms to each house, replace the roof, and put on a nice front porch for good measure. There will be sidewalks going to the front porch and the roads in the village will be asphalt with curbing and sidewalks.
“Then we'll do the inside work. New doors, windows, and floors where needed. We'll bring in the electricity and make sure the electric and plumbing systems are up to code. Electric lines are coming next week. In short this village will become a nice place to live. I do expect to pick up a considerable number of black voters, I might add.”
“I bet you will, congressman. Thanks. I didn't want to mention it again. I thought I probably shot my mouth off in a way that was less than respectful. You are my boss, Harry. I do respect you and I know you're a good man. I wasn't sure how good, until now.”
“Yes, that may well be true but politicians are an unscrupulous lot. You, Clayton, know my heart. You'll find no politics there. Few people can get my attention the way you do. In you I see the future. In you I see the conscience of the conservancy. Maybe my conscience too. One thing is for sure, I know you speak up when you have something on your mind, Clay.”
“You've got my vote, Harry McCallister,” I said, as proud of him as I'd ever been of anyone. “As well as my admiration.”
“A gift I'm grateful to have.”
Harry looked at me carefully. I could see that powerful mind working on who I was and where we were going. I had no doubt his vision was better than mine and he could see further than I could see.
“I'll tell you this, Clay, if you do what you love, you'll never work a day in your life. I've been lucky enough to do what I love. What we're doing today, helping people, it's what makes life worth living,” he said thoughtfully
“You reminded me of that, Clayton. Being in Washington with the power and the wealth, a congressman can lose sight of what's truly important. Why he went to Washington in the first place,” Harry said. “I don't want that to happen to me. I want to keep my passion for the environment and the joy I get from making my constituents smile.”
“I see this in you, Clay. Your love and passion for the Gulf and what's in it. Your desire to make it better. Captain Aleksa told me about the kid who examined the things that came out of the sea. Then I found out you were an Olson. Your father told me the same thing Mr. Aleksa said. You were passionate about sea creatures. I saw that you loved it and if I could capture that and put it to work, you'd never need to look for work. We've come along way and the Gulf isn't the only thing you're passionate about. It's been fun watching you grow, Clay.
“You've opened my eyes to more than what's in the Gulf. I try to imagine what it is you see when you look at things. I know we don't see the same things, but what you see intrigues me.”
“You've given me the chance to do what I think I'm meant to do. It's what I want to do. I don't know what I'd be doing if I wasn't at the conservancy. I feel immersed in everything about the Gulf. I'm living and breathing the Gulf. It's become part of me.”
“It's the kind of thing I hoped to find in you. I haven't been disappointed. You'll earn your place as our marine biologist by the time you've got the paper to prove you are one. I hope we're in time. There are times I feel like we started too late.”
I suppose I'd had some sense that Harry approved of how I was doing and what Bill Payne was telling him. I liked hearing it from him and I knew a lot of what he was telling me is what Bill Payne told him.
“Who is paying for all this, Harry?” I asked. “If you don't mind me asking you.”
“Ah, Mr. Olson, never underestimate the power of a politician to raise funds and whatever else is required. Most of these people were more than happy to do something for their congressman. Everyone wants something from their congressman sooner or later. The most prosperous folks want the most, and they are betting I won't forget that they were there when I asked for a favor.”
“You milked the rich folks,” I said. “Got them to pony up.”
“Exactly,” he said. “I went where the money is.”
“Now you owe all these people something?”
“No, they have my ear. The only promise I make is to listen and consider what they want. Don't get me wrong, most people don't get that close to me in an official capacity. So in a manner of speaking, they do buy access, but there are no politics without money and access. In every case, I listen and do what's right for my district, which is what I'm elected to do.”
As Harry got out of the pickup at the crest of the hill, he tossed me the keys.
“Here,” Harry said. “You have work to do. Reginald will come for me when I'm ready to go. I wanted you to see this before we started. It all takes time, Clayton. It all takes time.”
He walked toward the gathering of what looked like contractors and builders. Backs were slapped. Smiles covered the faces. These were no doubt his donors too, and they agreed it was time to bring the colored town into the twentieth century.
I stayed to watch the roofers and carpenters move down the hill into the village. The residents voted on the new name of the village. Harry didn't want it named after him but the people had spoken and New McCallister became a nice place to live in the fall of 1970.
Once the work was completed, Harry cut the ribbon at the crest of the hill as the residents applauded him and the builders who came to watch and were treated to a community picnic.
I felt like I was walking on air the day Harry took me to see what they'd accomplished before Thanksgiving that year. The only thing I could do to create change was run my mouth. This time I'd gone to the right man. I felt some responsibility for the change. It had me feeling quite good about myself. Things could get better.
Congressman Harry McCallister came through for his constituents and he made me proud to work for him.
Harry was reelected in November of 1970. He won reelection without breaking a sweat. He got virtually every black vote in his district. That was twenty percent of the electorate at the time.
Doing what he'd done for the black community didn't sit well with everyone. Harry lost votes because he rebuilt the black village, but those opposed to it didn't call it the black village.
“If doing the right thing costs me votes, Clayton,” Harry said. “I can live with that. I don't want those votes.”
Harry believed in the proposition, 'All men are created equal,' even when they were women, poor, or people of color.
There were a lot of butt heads around. I knew this because of the condition of the world. I was lucky not to know any in 1970.
Ivan had been home for my birthday in 1970.
He stopped in the middle of the night one night in July. I'm not sure when it was. We spent the night making love and I never did ask where he was coming from or going to.
His visits were like that.
Ivan was back at Christmas. He was full of stories and exciting chatter about the men he'd met. It was over Christmas that we talked about us, but we ended up talking about what it was like going from town to town, dealing with so many new people.
Ivan felt like he was getting closer to Boris by talking to the men who served with him. I liked hearing his stories. We were OK. I knew this because from the time he came, until he left, we were making love, just finished making love, or we were eyeballing each other across the table as we ate, thinking about making love.
If I'd had plans before he arrived at the conservancy house, I don't remember. Nothing got done while he was home. Well, one thing got done and done and done, and it was done quite well, thank you.
Before his trek began we lived together on our beach for years.
I was concerned about the places Ivan went. He'd been on the West Coast for several months. His second year on the road had become the third and it was about to become 1971.
He'd been given the names of boys who lived in Georgia and Alabama. They'd come home since Ivan went west. It was close enough for him to make it home each time he came to see one of the boys in nearby states.
“Why the West Coast? It puts you a long way away, Ivan.”
“It's where it's happening, Clay,” he said. “Out there I can see the way the wind blows before it blows this way. People are friendly. People flip you the peace sign while you walk down the street.”
“The peace sign?” I asked.
He flipped up his index finger and the finger next to it in a V.
I listened because he was telling me his story. I understood every word but that didn't mean I always liked what I heard. Some soldiers, like Cousin Carl, Ivan talked about more than others. Ivan was fond of them. I could tell which ones he liked best. There was nothing sexual, because he told me everything about those boys.
I wondered if he liked one too much would visits home stop.
Ivan was walking close to the edge. The earth was shifting under him and the anti war protesters he'd associated himself with.
I didn't need to go to the West Coast to know which way the wind blew. I asked a certain congressman. Harry told me what he knew, when I asked. He knew plenty about the Masters of War.
The powerful intended to keep power no matter what it took. The wind blew east from California and that's where the trouble would start, but it always ended up coming east. You could only go so far.
While change should make things better, I wanted to wait and see for myself. As much as I thought we needed to change, I didn't see how the people Ivan was talking to would stay out of jail.
If Ivan could find the center of the counterculture, so could people less friendly to them than Ivan. It was too simple to be able to go from protest directly to change that would make things better. I hoped I was wrong.
I wanted Ivan's search to be easy so he could return home soon.
I didn't get a feeling of well being from the information Ivan was giving me. He was excited by talking to men who served with Boris. I'm sure hearing stories about Boris made him feel close to him.
Ivan found the movement's underground. It's where draft resisters and war protesters met and planned. Cousin Carl Kilgore led Ivan there, after they met in the Seattle U. District, next to the University of Washington.
Carl came home on leave from Vietnam for his father's funeral. He didn't go back when his emergency leave expired. Carl went underground in Seattle, taking Ivan with him, after Ivan told him what he was doing.
Between safe houses you hitchhiked, which was the safest way to travel if you were on the run. Cousin Carl was given a clean I.D., once he stopped looking like he just stepped out of a uniform. He got instructions where to go next.
Local police weren't interested in people passing through, as long as they kept moving. The highways were filled with hippies who were on the move. The housing and feeding of hippies were in few towns' budget.
Federal authorities watched planes, trains, and bus stations for AWOL soldiers. Most knew to lay low until their hair grew out. Then they moved along the highways between safe houses. Once you reached a safe house, they were told where to go to get their needs met.
Once the underground knew what Ivan was doing, they sent him to a dude in a uniform who he met on a park bench in San Francisco.
“I eat my lunch here most days,” the man told Ivan. “I need the unit and date of the action where your brother went MIA. I'll take a look at it. I'll get a copy of the official report. Come back in one week. I'll have the information I can get. I'll leave it on the bench when I'm done eating. Wait on the grass under that tree until I've gone. Then get up, sit down on the bench, and when you leave, take the papers with you. Do not read them here. Do not speak to me or act like you know me. You don't. This will be our only conversation.”
The list Ivan ended up with included the names of the soldiers in Boris' unit and where they'd enlisted. Those still on active duty had their discharge date next to their names. Those already discharged had that date next to their name. There was KIA marked next to the names of the men who wouldn't be returning home.
Boris was the only soldier on the list designated MIA.
Ivan felt safe with the counterculture. He described it as feeling like he was in a movie about the underground in World War II.
He saw a far larger flow of hippies up and down the Route 5 corridor than anywhere he'd been since leaving our beach. Ivan heard talk of communes and farms off the beaten path where hippies were welcome in Northern California and in Oregon. These were destinations for those who took Dr. Leary's advice, “Turn on, tune-in, drop out.”
The counterculture was a mixed bag. Some folks were all in and wanted as little to do with a society that sanctioned war. Some people stayed in place and worked to change the culture away from war.
Ivan liked Berkeley because of the free flow of information available to him there. People with names like Moonbeam, Gray Ghost, and Jester had him wondering who they really were and why new names replaced the ones their parents gave to them.
Cousin Carl and Ivan stuck together. Carl was being counseled to make a new start in Canada. The need to look over his shoulder would be removed if he relocated to Canada. There was an underground network there that advised men like Carl and Teddy.
Ivan asked Carl why he decided to desert but Carl only said, “I might tell you one day but not today.”
Ivan sounded better than he had in some time at Christmas. The hope of getting some comprehensive information on the battle where Boris was lost excited him. Having the names of the soldiers who were in the battle with Boris made his search easier to plan.
I made a point of remembering the things Ivan told me. I intended to talk to Harry about it. I was scared by some of what Ivan told me. The people he was associating with had to be on someone's list of subversives. I didn't want Ivan on that list.
I wanted Harry's reaction to the information I was getting. Ivan had a link to the people working against the government. Harry was inside that government and he knew what they were up to. I was certain he'd tell me if Ivan was in jeopardy.
Every step Ivan took carried him farther from me. The phone calls were fewer as were his visits by 1971. He'd warned me the year before that this was going to happen.
I loved Ivan no less but I couldn't help but worry about him and for myself. Was I inviting him to leave and never come back?
I thought Congressman Harry McCallister could and would help Ivan in a pinch. I intended to keep him in the loop for that reason. Harry had said nothing that indicated he wouldn't help Ivan if the situation required it.
One of the greatest moments of my life came a month after Ivan's last visit in 1970 and before I had a chance to talk to Harry in more depth to get his read on Ivan's activities.
One day while disposing of one of Dylan's toxic diapers, Dylan was cooperating as much as infants do, he absolutely shook my world.
Once I had him spic and span, I began bolting on a freshly laundered diaper, courtesy of Mama. My son picked that minute to surprise me by making his first speech.
“Mama,” Dylan said as plain as you please.
“Are you ever off base,” I said, giving him a little tickle as a reward for the effort.
“Mama,” he blurted again, as he giggled and twisted, expecting another tickle.
“You have it your way, but you've got a lot to learn,” I told him.
As the final pin went into what must have been one of the finest diapering jobs ever, I gave him a tickle and hoisted him straight up over my head, which always pleased him.
“Dada,” he said, as he looked down at my face.
What a kid!
I hugged him to me and said, “You are a quick learner, Dylan. I'm your Daddy, kiddo, and I'll be here for you until you outgrow me.”
Mama was probably the most used word in Dylan's world. He'd call Mama Mama too. I did my best to get him to add grand to it. He didn't like such restrictions. Mama was Mama to everyone and he refused to be discriminated against.
I was the only one distressed by this breach with convention.
Daddy was who I was. No matter what he learned or what I told him, I was Daddy. Dylan knew who took care of him and who kept him safe from the things in the shadows.
When he was fussy, I took him. When he had nightmares, I rescued him from them.
In many ways Dylan rescued me. Sunshine had been right in saying that having Dylan was the best thing she'd ever done. The best thing I'd done was marrying Sunshine, making Dylan my son.
I'd begun picking Twila up and dropping her off at her new house, shortly after the holidays. I would always remember the first time I drove her to the usual spot where she got out of my car.
Twila was strangely silent the first time I took her home after work on New McCallister was completed. She never mentioned the work going on where she lived and she was at my house every morning. I didn't bring the subject up. It was none of my business.
It's the way I felt about it.
As far as Twila knew, I knew nothing about the work. Then I turned to the left off the highway to go to the colored section of town. The gravel road had been turned into a silk ribbon of asphalt.
“Nice,” I said, feeling the smoothness under my tires.
“It is,” she said.
I stopped at the usual spot where Twila got out and was ready to say goodbye. Twila sat firm.
“You aren't going to take a lady to her door? Mr. Clay, I'm disappointed in you. I thought you were a gentleman.”
“I'd be honored,” I said, feeling a weakness in my stomach.
I drove over the hill to get my first look at New McCallister with the residents back home.
Every dwelling had fresh paint and looked nice. Flowers were growing around some houses. Grass was turning green as lawns took hold.
“Turn right here. My house is the second on the right,” Twila said.
I stopped where she indicated. It was a small place with two children sitting on the front porch. The door was open and an older girl stood behind the screen door. The white paint gleamed.
“Mr. Clay,” Twila said softly, putting her hand on my forearm. “I know who did this. They voted to name it McCallister, after Mr. Harry. It'll always be Clayton to me. Thank you,” Twila said. “Miss Sunshine would be very proud of you.”
Twila slid out of the car.
The two kids ran down the steps to greet their mama.
I wiped tears from my eyes as I drove home.
It was a beautiful day.
Wasn't life wonderful?