The Gulf of Love
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Jerry W.
I dove with Bill and his students twice a week until the holidays. Bill and I dove alone on Wednesday afternoons as often as he was available. We went to my lab to discuss the dive afterward.
I'd give my impressions first. Then Bill told me about his observations and what they meant. The repetition of these Wednesday dives sealed Bill's words in my brain. It was the most valuable study time I got.
On the rare occasions when I dove with Harry, I updated him on what Bill was teaching me. This constant exchange of facts gave me more confidence in the story I told. I tailored what I told Harry to be more like what I'd say to people who came to my lab to talk shop.
By the beginning of 1971 they had begun to come to my lab to talk. Some were donors, some marine biologists, and students involved in the same search for facts as me. In those days these people didn't stumble upon the conservancy lab and its marine biologist in training, they ran into Bill or Harry and were sent to review what I knew, comparing it with what they knew.
I had to keep my facts straight and ready at a moments notice if I didn't want to sound like a fool.
When I dove, no matter the circumstances, I was one with the sea. I knew no greater peace than while I swam with the fish.
Before Harry left for Washington, after another successful election, we sat with drinks at the Gulf Club, waiting for the lobster to reach our table from Maine. I drank ice tea. Harry drank bourbon and branch water.
He wore a three piece suit. I kept a nice shirt and jacket in the lab for when Harry said, 'Let's go to lunch.'
I didn't give up my jeans but I felt less out of place with my tee-shirt under a nice button up shirt with a jacket on top. The man with the tuxedo met us at the door and guided us to Harry's table. The heads turned as we passed the other diners.
“I was as shocked as you, Clay. Kent State is a turning point. Unfortunately it takes an event such as that to wake us up. Times are changing but they change faster when voters get angry. It's the anger that gets them into the voting booth.”
“We don't intend to keep dying for Washington's stupidity. This isn't W.W.II. It's a pissing contest with the commies and their laughing at us for spending the treasury on a senseless war. They know all anyone has to do is point and say there's a commie and we start wetting our pants. What happened to thought and reason, Harry?”
“A bit harsh, Clayton. I think they get that students aren't dying to get to Vietnam. I don't see congressman volunteering their sons. Most younger members get what's going on. The Pentagon runs the show and they are requesting an increase in troop strength again. They won't get it this time.”
Harry was forty. I was twenty. Seeing him as one of the younger members helped to explain the problem. I saw the government imparting its wisdom to the peasants and they spent a lot of time writing self-serving legislation to help themselves and their friends. “You guys live well on our dime, Harry.”
“Younger men are getting elected. We hear what the people are saying, but there is a lot of resistance to the idea of pulling back from Vietnam. We've never lost a war and the old guard doesn't want to lose this one.”
“You don't think there's going to be a serious reaction if we don't make a serious effort to achieve peace? The Kent State unrest is going to be a picnic compared to what happens if we don't get serious about leaving those people be, Harry.”
“Yes, well, I'm sure arrangements are being made to avoid a repeat of those unfortunate demonstrations. Kids can't be allowed to run the colleges. Peace and Love isn't how you win a war.”
“Ivan says they're going to do sit-ins at recruiting offices and military installations.”
“I thought Ivan was searching for his brother. What's he doing out there? He really doesn't want to get in too deep with this anti war crowd. The people running the show intend to fight.”
“It's where the anti war protests started. He's getting information from people inside the government. They're helping the anti war protesters. Everyone isn't out to rule the world.”
“That’s a scary thought. Ivan doesn't want to get in too deep. Those groups are being watched. The universities are getting ready for trouble.”
“Reagan calls them brats and cowardly fascists. He wants to take them by the scruff of the neck and throw them off campus for good.”
“You get that from Ivan?” Harry asked, taking a long pull on his bourbon.
“Yes, he calls to tell me what's going on. He's been out there for a while.”
“I take it Gov. Reagan has little use for anti war protesters,” Harry said. “I remember him as a B actor in Santa Fee Trail. He did advertising for Borax on television and General Electric. We shouldn't forget GE. They're heavily invested in the countries defense contracting. They don't simply make your mama's toaster any more. He's acting like governor and opposing student revolts sounds like the roll of a lifetime for a man who starred in Bedtime for Bonzo. Bonzo being a monkey and that's what Reagan is making out of voters. I didn’t take him seriously as an actor. In spite of that tell Ivan he should be careful not to get too close to the anti war movement. It isn't healthy and don't ask me how I know that.”
“Reagan's a perfect example of how men in power are disconnected from the people. They think they are given some higher power to speak for us and when they spout the kind of threats that Reagan does, people began to think he is dangerous to living things.”
“I wouldn't take him that seriously, Clay. He's been on every side of every issue. He is acting like a tough guy. See some of his movies. You'll understand where I'm coming from.”
“Kids who refuse to go over there to die for the glory of old men listen to his words and come to their own conclusions about what they mean. No Vietnamese did anything to us, Harry. Reagan is a voice for the powerful. He's too tough to listen to the people he wants to fight his wars. We need to learn to talk and listen before we start shooting.”
“I doubt he knows anything about the war. He doesn't like kids opposing him. In his generation kids obeyed their elders. Rowdy students creates a bad image for California,” Harry said.
“Ivan is out there and he thinks trouble is coming.”
“There's been talk on the floor of ending the draft, you know? I think it's coming,” Harry said. “I'll support it but it'll come slowly. The war hawks will fight it.”
“What would make them end the draft?”
“Ah, sweet politics! If you can't take the heat, you get out of the kitchen. The draft is the irritant. It's driving the kids into the street. The idea of dying for your country isn't that appealing. Believe me when I say, the Vietnam war may be ending soon, but their figuring out how to avoid this reaction before they start the next war.”
“It takes a considerable effort to grow up, Harry. Dying once you do seems wasteful,” I said, “The other half of this story, there are real people under Nixon's bombs. They may look a little different but they're just people who want to be left alone to live in peace. I'll bet on it. Men who start wars are the enemy. They are murderers, no matter what they call it.”
“I'm sending you to college to educate you, Clay. The draft can't get you. I've seen to that. The members of the local draft board know you're my man in the event all else fails, but don't thank me too fast. Your draft number makes the draft unlikely in your case. I play every angle, leaving nothing to chance.”
“I know that and I appreciate it. If I hadn't had such a high draft number, if you hadn't come along to offer me a career, I'd be with Teddy now. He believes in what he's doing. He'd rather be home but sacrifices must be made to achieve the peace. Most people want peace.”
Harry looked at my face.
The lobster showed up. He didn't tell me what he was thinking.
Things moved too fast for me to figure out what the meaning was. Maybe I'd know more the next time Harry and I talked. I wanted what I said to interest him and not sound like the same tired old complaints about the powerful and the powerless.
Harry had become one of the powerful but I trusted his judgment. I wanted to let him know what was being said in Ivan's end of the world, because he wouldn't hear it in Washington, unless he hung around with the anti war protesters.
On Dylan's first birthday, a half year before we found Millie, I took my son swimming behind the conservancy house. He didn't mind the warm water on his legs but when the water was deeper, he was fine as long as I held him close.
After a few minutes an unexpected swell came along, washing over my shoulder and Dylan. This upset him. I wiped the water out of his eyes and held him up over my head to get a giggle out of him.
He was fine after that. By the time he met Millie, he could let go of me while in the water, dog paddle, and he liked to float on his back, which I didn't teach him to do. He discovered floating on his own. As long as he could see his daddy, Dylan was fine.
My son never feared the water. He lived on a beach. Mama lived on a beach. She never went near the water. Seated in her beach chair with an outrageous broad brim hat on her head and big Marilyn Monroe sunglasses on her eyes, Mama watched her grandson and me whenever we went into the water, unless she was too busy in the kitchen and didn't see us slip out to go swimming.
I slipped out that first time and introduced my son to the Gulf I loved. On July 17th, the water was as warm as his bath water. Mama wasn't going to transfer her fear of the water to Dylan.
When Dylan was able to walk with less wobble by early 1971, I took him with me when I walked to Ivan's to check on his house. At first I carried him most of the way, but as time went on, he wanted to explore this entirely new universe he'd discovered beyond the conservancy house.
Dylan had a weird lateral motion, going from the treeline, where he'd pick up a coconut and try to carry it back to me. Tripping over said coconut as he saw the finish line coming close. He'd lie on his back crying, until daddy picked him up.
In a minute he wanted down again. He'd go for the water, running into the small ripples up to his ankles, making a sudden stop. He'd look at his feet for a minute and run back to me. Then it was off to retrieve another coconut. I wondered if his memory hadn’t fully developed yet. He kept repeating this pattern.
The first time I took Dylan over to the river's edge, he was more mobile and didn't need to be carried as much. Once he saw the water, he took off. I ran after him, grabbing his diaper as he was ready to wade into the water.
I remembered the swift currents at the mouth of the river. We were both startled, my heart was already pounding, when I stared at the shadow in the water. Something was looking back. Dylan got down on all fours when he saw it too. He wanted a closer look.
He came face to face with his first sea creature. He didn't react at all like I would expect.
As he looked in, I realized a manatee was looking out. Neither moved. It was pure fascination. The two faces were a foot apart. I kept a grip on Dylan's diaper. I looked at the submerged face.
'Was it Millie?'
I hadn't seen Millie the Manatee since I was seventeen. I would get out of bed while Ivan slept. It's when I'd go to the river to spend time with the curious manatee. Ivan didn't share my affection for Millie or believe we communicated.
Ivan was my best friend but Millie was my first Florida friend. Before i knew anyone Millie kept me company when I was barely fourteen. I'd been uprooted from Tulsa and replanted onto a beach on the Gulf of Mexico. Millie helped me to understand where I was.
I extended my hand into the water. The manatee backed away by an extra foot. She was now focused on the hand in the water. It was like she was thinking. She'd known someone who once did that.
I checked her back and there was the propeller scar that was on Millie's back. It was Millie.
She didn't leave or show any fear, but then, while checking for that scar, I felt her face against my hand. I took this to be a manatee hug. She recognized me too. The sea creature remembered me. I was filled with feelings of joy. Millie was still alive.
I rested my hand on the side of her face and she allowed this contact. Her bovine eyes were on me. My eyes were on her eyes. We could still communicate.
Dylan watched in little boy wonder. Giggling, he applauded, sort of. Mostly he missed the connection between his hands, but he tried. Pulling him to me, I held my arm around the tiny boy. Millie looked from me to Dylan and back. Did Millie understand?
It was one of those moments when the world is perfect.
We returned to the river a couple of times a week after that. Some days Millie was waiting for us but more often than not she was off doing manatee things. My hope was she'd bring a little manatee with her one day, but she always came alone, and when she did come, I was always with Dylan.
Dylan was fearless. Millie let him touch her after a while. He put his hands on her nose and from time to time he pulled her whiskers. My son could be a pain in the butt but Millie took it in stride, and somehow Dylan never fell into the drink.
I stayed close enough to grab him if he did.
Ivan's house was a reminder of my lover's absence. I waited for him to give up his search and return home to me and our beach. I still believed he'd tire of the search, recognize its futility, and come home to resume the life he left.
Ivan did come home in the early seventies. A few times he stayed a couple of days or more. At other times he came and went during the night.
When I woke up with him in my bed, I didn't know what kind of visit it was, I stayed in the dark about where he'd been and where he was going, because we spent all our time making love after the one sabbatical we took from love making in 1969.
Ivan was there when I turned twenty-one. He hadn't said he would be but I knew he would. It wasn't a stay of any duration, even if we spent the night making love, proving I was a man.
There was no doubt in my mind Ivan had always been one.
At Christmas that year Dylan was in his highchair for meals when Ivan came to eat at our table. He was a big hit with everyone and Dylan didn't miss this. He'd stared at Ivan before but there was no sign he recognized him from an earlier visit.
At twenty-two I got the ultimate birthday visit. Ivan came during the night on my birthday and we made love until dawn. Mama helped us celebrate with sausage, eggs, and hot cakes before I had to drag myself to work to finish doing some work on the newly found specimens I was still researching. If I waited I'd forget something. Ivan went with me to the lab.
At noon we decided to go diving. We went out a ways, used up all the air in our tanks on a pleasant dive, and then we made love in the bottom of the Seaswirl until my ass was so sunburned I couldn't sit on it without squirming.
I squirmed as we made our way back to the cove.
Love was great but I took a beating when Ivan did come home to stay a few days. If we weren't going at each other we were trying to get away to have a go at each other. The shower was no exception.
I was invited to dinner at Harry's on my birthday that year. Of course I took Ivan along. Nothing Harry and I talked about was top secret and Harry asked about Ivan all the time.
I was curious about what they might say to each other.
We had New York strip steaks, asparagus, baked potatoes, and a salad. The man knew how to eat.
“Clay's been telling me you're knee deep in the anti war movement,” Harry said with no particular idea in mind.
“Yes, I find the people refreshing. They have access to some interesting information.”
“Such as?” Harry asked.
“I received information on the battle where Boris went MIA. A list of men who were in my brother's unit. A map of the area.”
“That's not information you should have,” Harry said with concern in his voice. “Where do anti war people get sensitive military information.”
“I met with a captain on a park bench. I put in my order. He delivered the names and the map a week later,” Ivan said.
“Where was this?” Harry asked.
“I'd rather not say. You are the establishment. I can say that the movement has sympathetic people inside the military.”
“You do know you're playing with fire, Ivan.” Harry said.
“This is America, congressman. Home of the free. We enjoy free speech and all. We have the right to protest when our country is slaughtering innocent people who are no threat to America. There has to be a name for that.”
“That's the harshest possible view of what's going on.”
“The truth is harsh when you're murdering a generation of Vietnamese.”
“I'm not fond of the war but the men involved are honorable men,” Harry said.
“I'm sure, and why is the FBI following Lennon, congressman?” Ivan asked, shooting straight over my head.
“He's playing with some dangerous people. The FBI keeps an eye on dangerous people,” Harry said, sipping his bourbon and branch water.
“Which friends are those? He's a Beatle singing about love and he does mention giving peace a chance. I'm sure politicians see that as subversive, but a lot of parents of dead soldiers might have liked peace to have been given a chance. Politicians may have other ideas.”
“Singing isn't the problem, Ivan. Jerry Rubin, Abby Hoffman, and Bobby Seale are problems,” Harry said. “They're hard core political operatives.”
“Wait! Hold up a minute,” I said. “The Beatle, John Lennon, is being watched by the FBI? Why?”
“Yeah, the Beatle. He lives in New York City. Nixon is trying to have him deported as undesirable. Lennon has been holding anti war concerts and Nixon doesn't like it. Lennon isn't a citizen of the U.S.”
“Love, love, love, John Lennon?” I asked. “Give Peace A Chance John Lennon. Why would a man dropping bombs all over Southeast Asia have to fear from a singer?” I asked. “They're the Masters of War. He's a Beatle. They fear him? Who are those guys?”
“Men who deal in death are threatened by the idea of love and peace,” Ivan said. “A message like that could catch on. What if Americans stopped seeing the Vietnamese as slopes and gooks and began to see them as... well... maybe as people. How do the Masters of War sell all you need is death in that atmosphere?”
“I don't see this conversation as breaking any new ground. I don't like war any more than you boys. It's our reality at present. I'm afraid a large number of people who have control in this country deal in death. We aren't going to change that.”
“The FBI shouldn't be following John Lennon,” I said.
“There is no money in peace, Clay. No power in loving your fellow man,” Ivan said. “The FBI works for the Masters of War.”
“The way you've been squirming, Clayton, I thought you put Ivan up to this to get my goat. I can't remember the last time we sat down to talk. You OK?”
“Oh, that. I got a little sunburned while diving today,” I said bashfully.
“You've been diving for five years and you found a way to get sunburned doing it? I guess I've never done it that way,” Harry said.
“Sorry about your goat, congressman. It wasn't my intention to be a drag on the celebration. I don't ever get to talk to the people who run the show. I get carried away with things that concern me, and I realize you're interested in making peace with our environment and not this war.”
Harry looked at Ivan and then he looked at me.
“You two take the cake. All I can say to you, Ivan, is the company Lennon is keeping is not good company to keep in times of war. The powers that be still think they can win this thing. I work up there. I hear the scuttlebutt. I agree with little of it but I'm a little cog in a massive machine. I like hearing what you have to say and I want you to keep me informed. If I can do something to expedite the end of the Vietnam War, I'll be on it. Just keep that in mind as you travel.”
“Best watch your step, congressman. Men like John Mitchell shouldn't be running the justice department. The justice apartment should be putting handcuffs on him for having his secret police bird dogging a good man like John Lennon. It could backfire on the establishment. They have everything under control right now, but people do wake up and smell the coffee from time to time.”
“I shall keep it in mind,” Harry replied.
“They're pulling out troops,” I said. “What the hell is going on?”
“Don't be distracted by shiny objects. They've dropped more bombs on Southeast Asia than were dropped on Japan and Germany during all of WWII. They intend to win this war, Clayton,” Harry said.
“They kick Lennon out of the country, congressman, and you haven't seen a protest march yet. The kids will fill the streets of D.C. so no one can move in that city. They clog the wheels of government.”
Harry looked at Ivan thorughtfully but he had no answer.
I squirmed and wanted to scratch my ass but didn't.
By Christmas of 1972 Dylan was sitting on two phone books that were put on one of the chairs at the table beside me. I dished up a little of each item he wanted and cut it small enough for him to eat.
Ivan came to stay three days, while the guys he wanted to talk to were with their families. We'd become Ivan's family, when he wanted one. No one went away from Mama's table hungry.
Ivan sat next to me which put him across from Dylan. As Dylan ate he stared. This time I was sure he remembered Ivan but he didn't say so. He didn't say much of anything in front of Ivan.
Dylan could talk a blue streak, when he the mood struck him, but he said little in front of Ivan. We had few visitors to our table in those days.
Ivan bought Dylan a fire truck in Fort Myers for Christmas. We stopped at the shop in Fort Myers where I got his boots, but Breeze and Penny Wise were gone. Hawkeye still in the back working with leather. I introduced them and I told Ivan Hawkeye made his boots.
Even while in the middle of working, Hawkeye came to talk. He wanted to know how well the boots wore. Ivan said he wore them when he was on the road. He'd left them out west.
Ivan was heading west again before New Years. We had a good visit.
Ivan was about to break with the anti war movement to go to Southeast Asia. He didn't tell me because it was Christmas. He didn't tell me because he didn't want me to worry as !973 approached.
Dylan asked me once, as I was tucking him into bed, “Doesn't that man have a place to eat?”
“Yes, but he likes Mama's cooking,” I said.
“Me too,” Dylan said satisfied.
Ivan had questions about Dylan too.
“Doesn't that kid know where he sleeps?” Ivan asked, about the fourth or fifth time he took Dylan out of my bed, carrying him to his own bed.
“He sleeps where he wants. He gets lonely. He has nightmares. Some nights we fall asleep while I read to him. I'm all he's got, Ivan. If being close to me makes him feel more secure, so be it.”
“You're spoiling that kid, Clay. I predict he'll never leave home.”
“I hope I'm spoiling him,” I said. “I try.”
“He's getting big.”
“He's a growing boy. I can't believe how fast he's growing.”
These were the things Ivan said about Dylan when he was home.
During 1972, Lucy started her freshman year at Florida State in Tallahassee. She had decided on law as a career that could make a difference.
With Lucy only home during holidays, I had to hone my handwriting skills. With this eventuality in mind, I'd been working on it for some time. I was able to keep my own notes and do my filing without needing to ask for a secretary. Harry paid me enough to do my job and do it well. By the time Bill certified me, my notes and files were in order and under my control.
Lucy stayed home the summer of 72. She spent time with Mama, Dylan, Pop, and me. I took her to J.K.'s a couple of times and we went out on the Seaswirl once. Lucy loved the water but not being on it. She didn't complain but she didn't want to do it twice, or go giving when I mentioned that as an option.
One thing Dylan spent a lot of time doing that summer with Aunt Lucy, listen to her read to him. I didn't catch on right away. I'd come in and Lucy and Dylan would be in the foyer. Lucy would be reading from a novel I rarely recognized.
I did recognize Browning's verse when I heard it.
One afternoon, when I came in just before dinner, Lucy was reading an expressively elegant poem as Dylan sat mesmerized.
“Who wrote that?” I asked, after she finished the poem.
“That's from Edna St. Vincent Millay.”
“Do you like her poems, Dylan?” I asked, not knowing what to expect.
“I like the way she makes the words sound, Daddy. It makes me feel good.”
“Me too, kiddo.”
As the summer wore on, I'd find Dylan leaning against Lucy as she read Great Expectations. My son sat absolutely motionless. I was amazed that he could follow what I regarded as some pretty involved literature. I didn't know he did follow it but he did listen to it.
There were some children's books but Lucy liked novels and she told me she simply read aloud whatever novel she was reading.
Dylan loved being read to.
I knew that once Lucy left, I'd pick up where she left off. My taste in literature wasn't as well developed as Lucy's, but I figured I could find some children's books that Dylan would sit still for.
The EPA(Environmental Protection Agency) came to pass before I got my degree. Harry became a force in environmental circles. He added his voice to those advocating Clean Water Act.
Nixon's new agency would make sure that rivers like the Cuyahoga in Cleveland would no longer catch fire. Companies located next to rivers to use the water to carry away the garbage, chemicals, and pollution it costs money to clean up.
As I was finishing the final months of school, working toward my degree, Harry was anxious for me to get my feet wet as the conservancy's representative and spokesman in Tallahassee. He was leading the charge in Washington.
Tallahassee wasn't being kept up to date on the latest findings and proposals to keep the Gulf of Mexico a healthy and economically viable as one of Florida's major source of commerce.
Harry told me, “Each day we waste allows polluters to gain a bigger foothold and damage the Gulf's waters and the things in them.”
Now that Harry was making progress, he wanted to double down on the plans he had for me. Harry's star was rising as he appeared beside President Nixon as the president explained the importance of the EPA. He thanked Harry for being an ally in this endeavor.
“America will have clean air and clean water,” Nixon proclaimed, as he signed the Clean Water Act into law.
Who could argue with that? I didn't trust Nixon. He was on our side concerning the environment. I'd support him when I could. My job was to keep the Gulf of Mexico clean and if President Nixon wanted to help me, I wouldn't turn him down.
As laws protecting bodies of water were passed, Florida's economy was becoming more dependent on fishing, water sports, and the growing interest in the Sunshine State by tourists who were snatching up air condition hotel rooms in record numbers by 1971.
Commercial fishing thrived in the 50s and 60s. It was an industry that depended on the Gulf and the Atlantic to keep the fish on the dinner plates of America.
Sports fishing had been a minor economic contributor for decades but as boats became nicer and the interest increased, sports fishing enterprises were opening up businesses in large coastal cities. Anyone who had a few hundred dollars could go on a half day fishing trip out into the Atlantic or the Gulf. For enough money you could fish until your hearts content.
Because the fishing fleet worked out of the cove, no one was allowed to move into those waters with a sports fishing enterprise. Tourist avoided small coastal areas with limited resources in the way of creature comforts as the 70s began.
As 1972 was coming to an end at an astronomical pace, Harry was up for reelection again. I was entertaining marine biologists from far and wide in my lab, and Dylan was growing like a weed.
Our reading wasn't going as well as I might have expected.