The Gulf of Love
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Jerry W.
Sassy in Tallahassee
Before I drove Lucy to Florida State for her freshman year of college, I made a stop by the book store. I brought home all the Dr. Seuss they had, five books.
“Are these for you or Dylan?” Lucy asked.
“What's that crack mean?” I asked, thinking my conference with the woman behind the counter covered reading to a three year old.
“Oh, nothing,” she said, sensing this was a sensitive topic a daddy wanted to handle.
It took time for me to catch on at twenty-two. I hadn't been a father before, although I did read to Dylan at times. I decided to read to him at bedtime. It would soothe him and he'd go right to sleep. He'd been sleeping through the night most nights for a while. Reading books geared to his age group would be new for both of us. I'd never read Dr. Seuss as a boy and I was glad to be having the experience with my son.
I liked The Cat in the Hat right off the bat. I was certain Dylan liked it to. He sat and listened as I read and when I tucked him in, he was usually half asleep and he dropped right off to sleep.
By October Dylan had begun to squirm and wiggle his way through my readings. What had begun with hope and enthusiasm had turned to a struggle to keep a three year old under control.
I enjoyed Dr. Seuss. He was no Elizabeth Barrett Browning but he made me smile.
I persisted because I didn't know what else to do. Lucy would be home at Thanksgiving and I'd ask her advice. Maybe a little boy likes a female's voice better than a male's.
I thought about how Dylan watched Ivan. He could talk plenty. He didn't speak in front of Ivan. He stared. The thought came to mind that Dylan might be slow for his age. Maybe he needed to be exposed to life beyond the conservancy house.
I wondered if maybe Dylan wasn't as smart as I always thought he was.
I didn't discuss it with Mama. She'd have only worried. Pop was too busy to worry with my worries. I'd talk to Lucy and see what she had to say about it.
In the meantime I continued reading Dr. Seuss. I hadn't read them all for a second time. The squirming and wiggling continued.
I didn't know why. Did he have trouble paying attention?
When I began The Cat in the Hat the third time, I was in for a surprise.
Dylan began reciting the rhyme, saying each word just before I said it. I continued reading to see what he'd do. He climbed, squirmed, and recited The Cat in the Hat. He knew every word. I went to the next book, and as he climbed and wiggled all over me, he recited the second book word for word.
I didn't need Lucy's advice. I needed more interesting books. By Christmas I replaced Dr. Seuss with the Hardy Boys. As soon as I began reading the first Joe and Frank Hardy adventure, Dylan was tucked up beside me, waiting for the words.
Dylan wasn't slow and he didn't have trouble paying attention. The same couldn't be said of his Daddy.
Until the beginning of fall semester at Florida State in 1973, my pronouncements remained local. Marine biologists came to my lab to meet me and confer on what we were finding in the water. They were mostly there to check out the new marine biologist on the block and see if I'd found the water yet.
It was the name Bill Payne linked with Clayton Olson's name that gave me more gravitas than I'd earned, and it turned out the marine biologists weren't the only ones interested in what I had to say for myself. The conservancy's biology laboratory was on the cutting edge on studying the Gulf and offering solutions to keep it in good health.
Once I passed muster and took the visiting biologists through my findings and my extensive collection of specimens, they shared their opinions with me.
The locations were different but our findings were similar, no matter the body of water. Having an in depth discussion of the subject might keep us engaged for hours.
Some marine biologists, like me, were in their twenties. We were the new breed, 'Bill Payne's boys.' The most respected scientists were middle aged and older. They looked skeptically at me through bifocals, doubting my limited years added up to an opinion they wanted to hear. My excitement over the things I'd seen was a deterrent to educated men.
Taking the word of a fresh pair of eyes wasn't their style. The elders in my field didn't dive. They sent assistants out to use the SCUBA gear and report back what they observed.
Most assistants weren't trained as marine biologists. They lacked the critical skills that gave them insights into the more minute aspects of the underwater world they visited.
Taking back partially developed facts to marine biologists benefited no one. It ended with educated men working with incomplete facts.
Bill Payne's boys were eyes on and hands on. We were coming.
None of the older marine biologists came to the conservancy but the young guns came to my lab to compare notes. I was the Gulf of Mexico specialist and the next generation of scientists wanted to know what that meant. Some stayed to go diving with me and others were content to talk and look over my files.
Bill was the end all and be all in our field. If he sent you to meet someone, you went, establishing bonds with men who were trained in the science of saving today's waterways. It wasn't work for any of us. It was our calling. It was our occupation and preoccupation.
Seeing us in SCUBA gear with our waterproof Nikons got a lot of laughs when we went to scientific gatherings at first. As with all sciences, voices of reason began to listen and learn the science of underwater biological investigation, putting the marine in marine biology.
At first we told our stories to each other. It was a less intense version of being grilled by Bill. It was the same information being exchanged and discussed. We learned to tell our stories while learning our stories were essential to the survival of a healthy environment.
Talking to other marine biologists made me feel more like one. There was a lot we didn't know but we were learning and teaching at the same time. When I was the youngest one in the bunch, I mostly listened, but as time went on, I found my voice.
Being Harry's boy, I met with local business groups who were concerned with the health of the Gulf as related to tourism and pleasure activities. I got invitations from as far as Fort Myers and even one from a ladies group in Clearwater.
These were meetings with Harry's donors and fellow businessman. They didn't want to know the nuts and bolts of marine biology, but they did want reassurance that the water was clean.
Harry was making sure I was getting my feet wet. Once Bill certified me, I'd be one of the main cogs in Harry's reelection campaigns. The conservancy and its marine biologist was what it was all about for Harry.
Until 1973 I didn't need to travel out of my comfort zone to speak. No matter where I went, it didn't change what I had to say and by that time my story was second nature.
Everyone who knew Harry, knew that I came from the conservancy. No one questioned my credentials between the time when Bill certified me and when I got my degree, because they knew who I worked for and they wanted to hear what I had to say about the work I was doing.
After being certified by Bill Payne in 1972, I still had three semesters of academic credits to earn before I got my degree. On local fronts, being Harry’s boy, and having Bill's seal of approval, meant I was as qualified as anyone most businessmen were going to talk to on the subject of the Gulf.
The local nature of my dissertations was consistent by 1972 and throughout 1973. This was the time frame in which Bill Payne certified me as a marine biologist and when my academic credits added up to a degree.
This had been the plan all along. The main portion of my degree would come first. Bill deliberately spent far more time with me than he did with the other students he was instructing.
That's not to say the instructions stopped after he certified me but once I was certified our time together was less structured.
I'd fallen behind in my academic credits in the spring of 1969. That meant I'd have enough credits for my degree in December of 1973 instead of in June. Other than that I was on schedule.
It was with these facts in hand, I took Lucy to Florida State in Tallahassee for the beginning of her sophomore year. Harry arranged for me to appear before Florida's state environmental committee since they were meeting the same day.
This would be a different kind of exposure than I was accustomed to but one that would prepare me for an appearance in front of Harry's committee in Washington D.C. We both agreed that going to Tallahassee would be good preparation.
Harry had seen to it that I got my feet wet the year before, during his reelection campaign. He was sure that I'd have no difficulty testifying about what I was seeing in the Gulf of Mexico. It was a story I told frequently to different audiences.
As confident as I was with telling my story, the idea of going to Tallahassee made me nervous. I'd seen enough hearings to know legislators had a habit of going off the tracks and complicating simple issues. They had points they wanted to make no matter the topic. They were politicians after all and not my favorite species, even if Harry was one.
What could go wrong?
I was prepared. I knew the facts. I knew how to present them in a cogent manner.
The first time you do something, it never goes the way you see it going. I'd been trained to tell a story and it didn't really matter who I told it to. The story was the story. The facts did not change, but politicians didn't always follow the facts well.
My sister Lucy boosted my confidence when she agreed to go with me. She knew almost as much as I did about my notes and the story they told. She'd heard me present my case a half dozen times during Harry's campaign the year before. If I faltered Lucy was going to be at my side to whisper advice.
Lucy had grown into a beautiful young woman. She was poised, self-confident, and one of the smartest people I knew. She'd make me look good and I was ready for whatever they threw at me. Studying to be a lawyer, she talked the same language as politicians.
It was a five hour drive and we were scheduled to be in front of the committee at eleven. I had directions to the chairman of the committee's office. Once there, I decided to decline an offer of coffee.
I wasn't getting in front of those people and need to pee.
They ignored Lucy. No coffee for her. I was the only one listed to appear. I told them Lucy was my aid.
They said my testimony would last no more than an hour.
“The legislators don't like being late for lunch. They go at noon.”
I didn't like missing lunch either but I wasn't running Florida.
We were escorted into the committee chamber. I eyed the pitcher of water. I decided against it. Lucy sat beside me. We'd go to lunch after I finished testifying.
“So far so good,” she said.
People began coming in right away. The room was more than three quarters filled by the time the chairman got things rolling.
Lucy leaned to say, “They're all old dudes.”
“Lucy!” I said, eyeballing the microphone in front of me.
“I checked. It's off,” she said, seeing my concern. “I don't even think mine's real. Just a prop.”
It was more like being surrounded. The long desk where the legislators sat wrapped around the table where we sat.
“Good morning ladies and gentlemen. I'm Chairman Stillson. This is a meeting of the environmental committee. We'll be speaking with the marine biologist, Mr. Clayton Olson of the Sanibel Island Conservancy. Good morning Mr. Olson. Thanks for appearing before us today.”
“Morning,” I said, leaning into the microphone and creating a feedback that got the legislators scowling right off the bat.
There was a titter from the gallery of maybe fifty people, not including the ten legislators and Chairman Stillson, who stayed silent. I wasn't expecting an audience.
My knees were already shaking. I hoped they were hungry.
Chairman Stillson began, “Mr. Olson, this is an informal fact finding hearing and we are here to listen to what you have to say about the condition of the Gulf of Mexico. I see you've had a considerable amount of training with that body of water at the center of your education.”
All eyes were on me now.
“Yes, sir,” I said. “That would be accurate.”
“You are the marine biologist with the Sanibel Island Conservancy? You'd describe the condition of the Gulf of Mexico as...?”
He started off with an easy one and I jumped right on it.
“Fair to good,” I said. “That's comparative considering the six years I've been diving in that body of water.”
“I see here, you're a certified marine biologist. When were you certified?”
“I was certified by Bill Payne in May of 1972 after I finished his four year program. I began with Mr. Payne in 1968. We still consult and share information. He's the best marine biologist and environmentalist in Florida today.”
“Yes, we know Mr. Payne,” Chairman Stillson said.
“I'm sure he appreciates your endorsement. You must have started his program at an early age, Mr. Olson,” a man named Schmidt offered.
“I was seventeen,” I said. “I worked on the Gulf as a fisherman for several years before I began at the conservancy and entered Bill Payne's program.”
“That's a lot of experience for someone your age. You were a fisherman at fifteen?” Chairman Stillson asked. “That's impressive. You must be an ambitious young man.”
“It was good experience for someone going into marine biology. I was fortunate enough to live next to a fisherman. I was friends with his son. We started helping his father on his fishing boat when we turned fifteen. We were on the Gulf three days a week back then.”
“Did that have anything to do with your becoming a marine biologist?” Mr. Watson asked. “I'm impressed. You aren't very old.”
“Yes, I became fascinated by things coming out of the fishing nets,” I said. “When I was asked to consider marine biology as a career, I didn't need to think about it. It was the perfect profession for me.”
“Asked by who?” Schmidt asked.
“Harry McCallister. It's his conservancy. I run the biology lab for him. He heard about me from my father and Mr. Aleksa, the captain of the fishing boat I worked on. Harry wanted me to train as a marine biologist and run the biology lab at the conservancy. I said, 'Yes.'”
“You mean Congressman Harry McCallister?” Chairman Stillson asked in an official voice.
“Yes, sir. I knew Harry before he was elected to congress,” I said. “I've always called him Harry. He told me that shouldn't change.”
“He's Harry's boy,” Mr. Thomas offered as he smiled and looked at his fellow legislators. “I don't need to know any more than that. If Harry sent him to us, he knows his stuff.”
The legislators were amused by this comment. The truth was out. This was easy. These guys weren't so bad. I wasn't going to need Lucy to bail me out.
“Where did you get your degree?” Schmidt asked in a sudden change of direction.
“Ops!” I said. “I'll get my degree in December 1973. I take classes in Fort Myers. I have my certification but not my degree.”
“It's September 1973?” Watson said in an astute observation.
“That's correct,” I said.
It sounded like a question to me.
The gallery laughed. Watson's face changed colors. I'm sure mine did too. I didn't think it was all that funny.
The chairman banged his gavel lightly to get us back on track.
My first appearance in front of Florida's environmental committee started out well. For politicians the members of the committee seemed fairly reasonable fellows, but it didn't take long for us to hit a snag, which moved me off the environment and onto my education.
“You don't have a degree in marine biology but you call yourself a marine biologist?” Bowyer asked, leaning into his microphone but not getting any feedback.
“I'm certified as a marine biologist. The degree includes academic credits, which I'm behind on because of personal issues in 1969. I'm four and a half years into a five year degree. I'll get my degree this December.”
That explained it.
“What courses do you lack?” Chairman Stillson asked.
“English and I”m taking psychology to get the credits I need. I'm also taking a class on government.”
“Psychology? You going to psychoanalyze the fish?” Schmidt asked, amused with himself and laughing too loud.
The gallery laughed again. The gavel banged impatiently as Chairman Stillson glared at Schmidt.
“Order!” Chairman Stillson ordered and the laughter subsided.
“Why psychology?” Schmidt asked. “I'd like to know.”
“Harry told me I'd be dealing with all kinds of people. He said psychology would help me deal with the more eccentric ones.”
The laughter got louder. The legislators were stone faced. It's what Harry said.
“You got your certification so much earlier than you will get your degree. How is that?” Chairman Stillson inquired. “Since you're here and we're taking your testimony, I'd like to know.”
“Bill... Mr. Payne gave me extra time. He used my lab, the conservancy laboratory. He did a lot of his work there. He conducted classes there. It gave us more time together in learning situations. It was easier to learn one on one. He certified me after four years. I had personal difficulties which forced me to leave school for a semester in the spring of 1969. I had to repeat those classes. I'll have my degree in December this year.”
“Personal difficulties sounds mysterious?” Schmidt questioned. “Do you care to elaborate.”
“Family issues. I couldn't be as far away from home as Fort Myers.”
“What kind of issues?” Schmidt persisted, leaning into the microphone like he thought he was uncovering something.
“The personal kind,” I persisted right back.
Suddenly Lucy was leaning toward the microphone. The legislature would never be the same.
I couldn't get my hand on the microphone fast enough to intercept my sister. I cringed.
“His wife died. He had a new born son to take care of,” Lucy declared in a booming voice. “That kind of personal.”
Maybe bringing Lucy wasn't such a good idea after all.
The gavel sounded even though the room was totally silent.
No one said anything for a minute and Chairmen Stillson looked at his gavel like it banged all on its own.
“I'm certified as a marine biologist by one of the most respected biologists in Florida. I need the English credit to graduate. We're studying literature this semester. While it will expand my knowledge on that subject, it's hardly essential to being a marine biologist. We've already discussed my psychology elective and government should be self explanatory in this venue.”
“But by your own admission, you don't have your degree?” Mr. Watson stated. “I mean if Harry sent you and Bill certified you, I don't need to know any more. It's a technicality but we do have standards.”
“I'll have the credits for my degree in three months. I'll come back then if you like. I do have work to do. I came up here as a favor to Harry. My testimony in December won't change because I ace my English exam and get the credit I need in psychology. The facts concerning the condition of the Gulf of Mexico, what you asked me about, won't change in three months.”
“Why did we call him?” Schmidt asked. “He doesn't have his degree. I mean he should have a degree.”
People in the gallery moaned at Schmidt's inability to move on.
“Lighten up, Barney,” Watson said. “He's Harry's boy. You really want to piss Harry off? He says his testimony won't change in December. Let's save a lot of time and listen while he's here.”
“I don’t care who sent him. He isn't qualified,” Schmidt said. “He's wasting our time. He needs to have a degree to officially be a marine biologist recognized by the state of Florida.”
Another moan was louder than the first. I had fans already.
“Harry sent him. If Bill Payne certified him, that's good enough for me,” Chairman Stillson said. “I want to hear what he has to say. I don't know that a degree is required to give testimony in an informal hearing. I'm sure it isn't. There are a couple of questions I have for you, Mr. Olson. If we can get back on topic. If you don't mind?”
“Yes, sir,” I said, starting to squirm.
“In a word, what is your biggest concern in the Gulf of Mexico today, Mr. Olson?” Chairman Stillson asked. “Right now.”
“Plastic,” I said in a word.
As soon as I said it, I knew who was going to comment.
“Plastic! Plastic!” Schmidt roared. “Give me a break. Call someone who's qualified. Harry's pulling our leg sending this kid. It must be time for lunch recess by now.”
“What about plastic, Mr. Olson?” Stillson asked, “I'd like to hear what he has to say, Barney. Shut up.”
There was applause for the chairman. He almost smiled. He had hit a home run.
“When I made my first dive six years ago, there was no plastic evident in the water. Now, when I dive, I bring up a dozen or more pieces of plastic. In time plastic breaks down into particles. Little fish eat them. Big fish eat little fish. Plastic is now in the food chain. At this time the use of plastic seems to be on the rise. It's alarming to me. There are many sources of pollution but the introduction of plastics is disturbing.”
“Plastic?” Schmidt said. “You can't say that about Florida's fish. I object. Get this guy out of here.”
“Not yet I can't,” I said. “That's what's coming to a fish market near you, Mr. Schmidt. Runoff, common garbage, and chemicals have been problems for years. Plastic is fast becoming one of the worst.”
“How old are you, son?” Schmidt asked, almost growling the question.
I leaned into the microphone so he was certain to hear me.
“Old enough to know plastic when I see it,” I shot back.
He looked confused.
There was laughter and some applause. I tried not to smile.
“How old are you, Mr Olson,” Chairman Stillson asked. “For the record.”
“I'm twenty-three, Mr. Chairman,” I said. “It doesn't matter how old I am. The problems in the Gulf of Mexico are real. If steps aren't taken to slow the sources of pollution, the Gulf will suffer.”
“When did you make your first observations about the conditions in the Gulf?” Chairman Stillson asked.
“I've been on the Gulf or in it on most days since 1965. I've been learning about it for nine years. It's an ongoing education. I won't stop learning when they hand me my degree. I didn't stop learning when Mr. Payne certified me. I'm qualified is what they tell you.”
“Yes, what have you learned about the tooth fairy?” Schmidt said in a mocking voice. “He's wasting our time, Stilly. Gavel an adjournment and let's go to lunch.”
“I'm not up on my fairies. Perhaps you can fill me in on that later,” I said and the audience kept laughing.
The gavel banged for order by the chairman didn't say anything.
“What I can tell you, plastic is becoming a problem. Petroleum products polluting waterways is nothing new,” I said. “We're only beginning to see the results of this kind of pollution. The fact is, we don't need to add new sources of pollution to our waterways. For Florida anything that harms fishing grounds or beaches damages tourism and the economy. We all want to avoid that.”
“This is a news flash?” Schmidt asked.
“It's a warning.”
“Thank you. Now can we go to lunch?” Schmidt quipped.
The audience moaned.
I was annoyed by Schmidt's antics and telling that committee what our work was about made me feel better. Schmidt seemed to be the only one who wasn't listening.
I thought of when I was reading Dr. Seuss to Dylan.
“Order! Order!” Chairman Stillman ordered without much success. The audience began to buzz.
Lucy leaned to whisper in my ear, placing her hand on the microphone so it was private.
“That's the jerk who called me a communist dupe,” Lucy said. “He doesn't know how he scarred me for life.”
I laughed. Schmidt was no match for Lucy's quick wit. I wasn't expecting my sister to get an opportunity to prove it.
“Lucy, do not hurt that man. He's an asshole,” I said, thinking too late to put my hand on the microphone after I began speaking. “But he's a legislator.”
“Excuse me,” Schmidt said, honing in on Lucy. “Who is the young lady sitting next to you, Mr. Olson?”
“This is my sister, Lucy. She keeps my notes and she knows almost as much about my work as I do,” I said.
“Lucile Olson. Lucille Olson. Young lady where do I know you from?”
“Lucy! Lucy! You don't know me from anywhere, and my name is Lucy Olson,” Lucy shot back.
There was more laughter and more banging of the chairman's gavel.
I cringed. This was not why Harry sent me here.
“Lucille Olson,” Schmidt muttered to himself, searching his memory banks for a connection.
“Is she accredited?” someone asked from the gallery.
Everyone laughed but the legislators. This was no laughing matter.
The gavel banged some more without a serious purpose.
“No, Lucy isn't accredited in anything in particular. I can vouch for her. She's almost always the smartest person in whatever room she happens to be in at any given time,” I said.
Schmidt leaned into his microphone as if he might take a bite. He was studying Lucy and the wheels were turning. He looked fatigued.
“Where do I know that name from?” he asked louder than he intended.
“There's a Lucy in the Peanuts comic strip,” Lucy said. “That's probably what you're thinking about.”
There wasn't any give in Lucy's voice. She remembered Schmidt and he'd insulted her. I hoped he didn't remember her.
“No,” Schmidt mumbled. “That's not it?”
A reporter from the Tallahassee paper began taking pictures of the scene from behind the gallery. He knew who Lucy was. It was obvious he had the answer Schmidt wanted. He also sensed a story.
“Excuse me. Gregor Carmen, Tallahassee Democrat. I believe Lucille Olson closed Madison High School during the Kent State insurrection. That may be what you're trying to remember.”
Schmidt poured the gasoline. The reporter lit the match.
I was certain it was lunch time.