The Gulf of Love
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Jerry W.
The War Is Over
My first appearance before the Florida legislature's environmental committee had been overcome by minutia concerning my knowledge on the subject versus the date on my degree.
To complicate our surrender to unimportant details, my sister Lucy, who had come along for moral support and because she knew so much about the workings of my lab, jumped to my defense in an attempt to distract the legislator who persisted in his desire to know a history I wasn't about to give him.
A reporter had taken the floor and revived my sister's past brush with notoriety. That's how the established saw her role in speaking out against her country's propensity for shooting first and asking questions later.
I was never prouder of my sister than the day she closed Madison High School. This, however, wasn't the place I'd stand up and cheer in defense of her first amendment rights.
As with most things, I didn't get to choose when or where Lucy would need to defend her right to protest her government. Had it been me, I wouldn't have made my second stand in front of the Florida Legislature, but Lucy knew where she stood and my sister was a lot less likely to give into a bully than I was.
Committee member Schmidt, having lost interest in me, was focused on Lucy.
“Yes, that's it. You a commie Miss Olson? I bet you're a woman's libber. I object to this woman sitting in front of this committee,” Schmidt barked. “She's a communist. We have standards. Sgt. at Arms, remove this woman from the chamber.”
“At ease, Barney,” Chairman Stillson interjected. “I think I'm the chairman. Back off. This hearing is adjourned,” Stillson said, rapping his gavel and gathering his papers.
He knew when it was time for lunch. It might have worked before the reporter got involved.
“She's a communist, Stilly. She shouldn't be in front of this committee,” Schmidt said. “I want it on the record. Now unadjourn us so the minutes reflect that Barney Schmidt won't tolerate a commie in front of this committee. Lucille's a commie, worse.”
“My name is Lucy Olson. I'm a free thinking American and I'm not afraid to exercise my first amendment rights, sir.”
Hitting him with the Constitution hardly seemed fair. Barney Schmidt was staggered by the force of Lucy's argument, but he wouldn't be denied by reason.
“You are a commie,” Schmidt rebutted.
“Actually, I'm Presbyterian.”
The gallery laughed.
“You deny you were at Madison High in 1970 when the school closed because of the action of a few disruptive students?”
“I was present the day the students walked out of Madison High School. It was hardly my idea and it was hardly the action of a few. We all walked out. We all voted on whether or not to return.”
“Our schools are places for learning, Lucille. How dare you bring disorder into our schools. How dare you question your government. Who do you think you are?”
“When my government starts shooting students, I question that. You'll find students do.”
“Schools aren't democracies. You're there to learn. It's not for someone like you, Lucille, a commie sympathizer, to defy authority.”
“Lucy! I knew when I started going to school, I wouldn't like being shot.”
The gallery laughed and the environmental committee watched like they were center court at Wimbledon.
“You're exaggerating. Commies often do. Only four students were killed at Kent State.”
“In the Soviet Union, where communists abound, it wouldn't surprise me if troops shot protesters. I don't live in the Soviet Union.”
“As someone of your ilk would say,” Schmidt said.
Wasn't it lunch time?
“Which ilk might that be, sir?” Lucy asked politely.
“You know what ilk. The commie ilk. We're the government. We write the rules. You have nothing to say about it. How dare you take your political perversion into our good American schools.”
“Thomas Jefferson might lift an eyebrow over that idea. After considering the source, he'd ignore the remark,” Lucy said.
The gallery laughed.
“Barney, might I remind you that this is the state's environmental committee. Maybe you'd be better served on the foreign relations committee,” Chairman Stillson said, having given up on his gavel.
“We don't have a foreign relations committee,” Schmidt said.
“You noticed. Perhaps we can get on with environmental considerations. We are on a schedule and you're way off base.”
“I want to expose Lucille for what she really is,” Schmidt revealed.
“I'm surprised at you,” Lucy said indignantly. “What kind of gentlemen speaks of exposing a young woman? You should know better.”
The gallery laughed louder at Lucy's fake indignity.
“It's people like her who threaten to destroy the fabric of American life,” Schmidt answered.
“People like her cost us that war. She wanted the commies to win,” a voice in the gallery offered.
The gavel banged and the argument continued over Chairman Stillson’s call for order.
“See, Stilly, the people know which one of us has his finger on the pulse of America. We hate commies and Lucille certainly passes for one.”
“You may remove your finger, sir. The patient has died. He was a student at Kent State. Students everywhere saw him die. They know who killed him and they know it could happen to them if they don't speak up.”
“They were asking for it,” another voice from the gallery said.
“When the government begins shooting students in the name of politics, 'it's time to water the tree of Liberty with the blood of tyrants and patriots,' Tom Jefferson said. The government thinks it's in control, until the people decide differently.”
“Lucille, do you have the Little Red Book next to your bed?”
“Lucy! I was a camp fire girl. I had their handbook once. Will that do?”
The room erupted with laughter. Schmidt turned red and said something that no one heard.
Lucy was suddenly polite and she looked angelic.
“She is a commie,” someone added. “Our boys were dying over there and she danced on their graves.”
The gavel banged.
“That's quite enough,” Chairman Stillson said, rapping his gavel.
“You tell 'em, Stilly,” someone said loudly.
No one was ready to walk away from the debate yet.
“We'll have order,” Chairman Stillson persisted.
The Vietnam War was over but not the battle raging around Chairman Stillson.
“We're adjourned, Stilly. Go to lunch. I'm not done with Lucille,” Schmidt said. “You a dancer, Lucille? You dance on our brave boy's graves?”
“Lucy! That war killed a lot of kids my age, American kids and Vietnamese kids. It needed to be stopped. We stopped it. The Vietnamese run Vietnam now,” Lucy summarized. “It's a better arrangement, don't you think?”
“Do you think those commies can run a country better than Americans?” Schmidt bellowed, looking a bit out of control when he realized his microphone had been turned off.
“It's not a question of better. It's a question of who. The Vietnamese running Vietnam, deciding what's best for them, is how the world is supposed to work.”
“The world works the way we say it works. We're the United States of America,” Schmidt said as if he was leading a parade.
I expected a John Philip Sousa march to begin playing.
“I don't think people dying because other people think it's a good idea is American. We brought our troops home because they didn't belong in Vietnam. Most of us have moved on. We're hoping our leaders can resist the impulse to invade more countries in the future.”
“It was people like you ruined that war for us, Lucille,” Schmidt said. “We'd still be fighting there if it wasn't for people like you.”
“Thank you. I do my best,” Lucy said politely.
There was laughter followed by a small amount of applause.
The applause started in the rear of the chamber and grew louder, until it was loud enough no one could be heard.
The battle for Florida's environmental committee had ended. The legislators all stood to leave, except for one.
Schmidt was talking but couldn't be heard and no one was listening. I was ready to split.
There was a rumble of conversation that followed the applause.
“This committee has been adjourned,” the chairman yelled, standing to prove it. Schmidt was the only one still seated.
Fifty people were on their way out of the chamber. Several made a point of walking past Lucy to shake her hand. My sister was a hit. What was I doing there? I could have just sent Lucy.
I could read the headlines: “Marine Biologist starts riot in Tallahassee.”
I was glad Harry was in Washington.
“Let's get out of here. I think we've done enough damage for one day,” I said.
“I was only answering his inquiries,” Lucy defended.
“Pardon me for not applauding you, Lucy, but I will need to appear here again at some point. They'll forget me in no time. You, however, have left an indelible imprint on the state legislature.”
Lucy smiled as we mingled with the crowd leaving the chamber. There was safety in numbers. Schmidt was still lurking.
What would I say when Harry asked me about my appearance?
I stopped to use the little boys room and Lucy waited outside. When I came out, Lucy was gone. I was sure Schmidt had her arrested and he was searching for a firing squad.
There was a circle of people where I'd left Lucy.
“Ms. Olson, would you sign this?” I heard someone say.
“Sure,” I heard an invisible Lucy say. “Aren't there any young legislators? We need young blood with fresh new ideas if we want the country to prosper.”
Half the people surrounding Lucy raised their hands.
“We're the new guard. It's difficult getting a good committee assignment your first year,” a young man said.
“I'm glad to see younger people are involved.”
“You'd make a good legislator, Lucy,” a young woman said. “When are you going to run?”
“I better finish school first.”
“Keep your options open. We could use more strong women,” a woman said.
“Sure,” Lucy said. “I can do that. I don't see myself as a politician, but I'll go where I think I can do the most good.”
“We'd pay you to move into Schmidt's district to run against him,” a young lady said.
“I wouldn't want to be responsible for the man losing his job,” Lucy said.
“I'm delighted to know there are younger members. I was afraid the entire government was run by old men.”
“Lucy, will you sign this?”
“Sure, but I see my brother. He'll be wanting to leave. Thank you for making me feel welcome in Tallahassee. After facing off with Mr. Schmidt, I was worried about getting out of here alive. Nice meeting you. My brother will be back. I expect you to take good care of him.”
Why did I come?
“Move,” the reporter from the chamber said. “Let me get a picture of Ms. Olson. Smile, Ms. Olson. Your public loves you and your voice has grow louder.”
Lucy hardly looked up when the flash blinded her. There was another flash with her looking directly into the camera.
“I've got to go. My brother is waiting,” Lucy said.
“Bye,” they said in unison.
Times they were a changing.
The younger generation had its own idea about foreign entanglements and the masters of war. We weren't angry with anyone and we felt no obligation to tell other people what kind of government they should have.
Lucy's picture ended up on the front of the inside section of the Tallahassee Democrat the next day. The caption read:
Lucy Closes Legislative Hearing!
Kids at her school showed Lucy the article. She didn't mention it to me. She felt embarrassed for taking the spotlight off me. It was something Lucy wouldn't do but she would take on someone trying to bully me. She was determined to protect her big brother.
Schmidt was roadkill for my little sister.
My sister couldn't pass for a polite young lady who knew her place. She hadn't decided where her place was yet. Where ever it was, Lucy was a star in the making. That was apparent after my appearance before the state's environmental committee.
Thankfully, as with her closing Madison High, Harry was in Washington when I appeared in Tallahassee. When he did come home, the subject didn't come up.
Harry was busy with donors and supporters of the conservancy and I had school, dives, and I was at the conservancy about half the time on work days. Our schedules weren't favorable for an in depth meeting and I was certain I'd dodged a bullet.
Through October Harry was in motion when he wasn't in Washington. Since being certified by Bill Payne, my work for the conservancy involved an increasing amount of public speaking, which kept me out of the lab on many days.
I was now listed on all the official Sanibel Island Conservancy literature as the conservancy's marine biologist. It didn't mention, 'Degree to follow,' but it did and on schedule.
It was one of the technical changes in my status at the conservancy. A big raise came without warning, after Bill Payne signed my certification papers. An additional raise came upon receiving enough academic credits for my degree.
Professionally I had arrived even when nothing changed. I was doing the same work with far less pressure. It was easier to become lost in my underwater world and enjoy every minute of it.
Over the years my curiosity about the Gulf of Mexico had only grown.
It was just before Thanksgiving in 1973 when Harry paged me to come to his office. I didn't know he'd flown in the night before. I never thought about the schedule that had congress taking weeks off over designated holidays when most people got a day or two. So I was never ready when Harry came home a week before and stayed a week after such holidays.
And we really hadn't talked business in months and more likely than not, he'd suggest we go to eat, which was part of his routine right after he got home. He liked talking to me in an informal setting.
We exchanged our usual hello hug and he was all smiles as he sat self-satisfied behind his neat desk. I'd rarely seen him so pleased with himself. He looked relaxed and happy.
I was happy too, until Harry started talking.
“We've never talked about your trip to Tallahassee,” he said with interest in his voice. “I guess you know how busy I've been now that I'm chairman of the environmental committee in Washington? My work in D.C. is in concert with you and the conservancy's goals. I've established many new contacts who are as concerned with the state of the environment as we are, Clayton. We have valuable allies.”
“We seem to be running opposite each other, Harry. When I'm here, you're not. When you're here, I'm not,” I observed.
“We'll be more in sync from now on. There is reelection next year but we'll be traveling together during part of that period. I've planned a series of appearances featuring you as one of the main speakers, so even during reelection we'll be seeing each other.”
“Whatever I can do, Harry,” I said. “You know where I work.”
“So, I've been dying to ask how that hearing went, Clayton? Tell me all about it,” Harry said with enthusiasm in his voice.
I could fudge on the facts if he didn't pin me down.
“I can't say there was much opportunity to sway anyone's thinking, Harry. They aren't very receptive to new ideas or young talent,” I said. “They were hung up on my certification and the date when I'd have my degree.”
“I see you took Lucy,” he said, as if he knew she was at the hearing with me.
Maybe he talked to Pop, but Pop had been out all morning and Harry came in late last night.
“I did,” I said. “How'd you know?”
The section of the paper with Lucy's picture appeared out of Harry's top desk drawer. He held it up for me.
“Your sister has grown into a lovely young woman, don't you think? Nice picture.”
“Yes, she has,” I said, reading the caption over the picture.
“She made quite a hit. You do know I was a member of the state legislature before I ran for Daddy's seat in congress? I gave my seat up the year Daddy got sick. I needed to be educated on the workings of the conservancy and on his estate. It was a full time job. Daddy had his fingers in everything.”
“I don't remember you mentioning that, Harry,” I said.
“Yeah, the people I know couldn't wait to tell me about your visit,” Harry said. “I knew I wanted to talk to you about it but there just hasn't been time to sit down and have a conversation until now.”
“One of the legislators recognized Lucy from when Madison High closed after Kent State,” Harry said, pulling a smaller article about Lucy out of his desk.
Lucy's high school picture was on top of the three paragraphs quoting from her words the day the kids walked out.
“I didn't see the article. Mama sent me to pick Lucy up. I heard what she had to say.”
“The hearing?” Harry asked without a hint about his thoughts.
“I took Lucy for moral support. She reads all my notes. They became hung up on why I was behind on my academics. It was none of their business. Lucy, however, decided to tell them why. You could say she was a tad miffed at the intrusion into my privacy. Lucy's always been protective of me.”
“There was some conversation about her closing Madison?”
“There was an exchange where Schmidt accused Lucy of being a communist. It went down hill from there.”
“Barney Schmidt, champion butt head and certain to get wedged into the gears of government without trying.”
“You know Schmidt?”
“Yes. The article doesn't make him sound like a man who should be holding office. Unfortunately the voters in his district aspire to attain his level of ignorance and keep electing him.”
“Sounds like the guy,” I said.
“I can get a few copies of the paper sent to your house if you like? Your parents would like how Lucy's portrayed,” Harry offered.
“Yes, I'd like to hang this in the lab, if you don't mind” I said. “It's a great picture and a reminder of my first trip to Tallahassee.”
“Yes, but you were sent to Tallahassee to woo the legislators. Get them thinking about protecting the environment,” Harry reminded me.
“Yes, but if you've read the article, you know they weren't interested in hearing from a wonder boy biologist,” I said.
“I'll be more impressive after I get my degree apparently. They don't seem to grasp that English and Psychology don't involve the health of the Gulf of Mexico.”
“That wasn't in the article. In fact, you are referred to as 'the boy accompanying Ms. Olson.' I got a copy of the transcript from Stillson. You stayed on point. Not easy with the Florida boys.”
“I got in a few good points before they got sidetracked.”
“I sent you to shake things up. You got your feet wet, Clay. They're state legislators. The members turnover fairly fast. You won't be a rookie next time. The younger members will be more receptive. There had to be a first time. You did fine.”
“So you know those guys. I wasn't impressed, Harry. Stillson sounded intelligent. He asked pertinent questions. The rest seemed satisfied giving me a pass because, 'He's Harry's boy,' and then there was Schmidt. The man gives new meaning to dense.”
“Lucy and you will be on the cutting edge of the future of Florida, Clayton,” Harry said. “Being known is an advantage. The new generation, your generation, is about change and more equality than mine has known,” Harry said.
“There may be some resistance to that idea,” I said.
“As we speak, younger legislators are gaining a foothold in Tallahassee. A new day is coming. You'll be a familiar face when you go back to suggest legislation to solve the problems. You will be an advocate for the Gulf of Mexico. They won't question your credentials again.”
“Once you tell them what's coming, they'll fall in line and pass the laws you tell them must be passed to preserve the Gulf. Florida's economy depends on clean water,” Harry explained.
“It becomes the legislature's responsibility to pass those laws, not tomorrow, today. Heaven help them if Florida's waterways spoil because they failed to act promptly, once you sound the alarm.”
“How do you know they'll be that willing to cooperate?” I asked with skepticism.
“They're legislators. When you tell them what will happen if they don't do their jobs, they'll respond.”
“I don't get that feeling after going there.”
“You'll tell them tourism will suffer and there will be no fish left to catch, they'll listen, Clay, and they'll also take credit for saving the Gulf. We aren't in the credit business. We're in the action business,” Harry said.
“They're legislators. It's a limiting profession. Just remember, when you appear, you know more about the Gulf of Mexico than anyone in the room, unless Bill Payne happens to be with you,” Harry said. “They call you to appear. They need to know what you know.”
“You make it sound easy. I'll need to get used to the idea.”
“Remember, Clay, you are the boss. If you don't like what they have to say, you call a news conference. You tell the press what you told the legislators. Let them know that you control this conversation.”
“I guess I'll grow into that frame of mind,” I said.
“I have no doubt about it. Maybe leave Lucy at home next time. She took the legislators by storm this time. Next time you two might end up peeking out from behind bars. I've seen you talk about your work. You don't need Lucy. You are an inspired speaker.”
“She's the only reason we can find things in the lab, and, oh by the way, she does it for fun in her spare time. Lucy makes me look good, Harry.”
“She's a smart cookie,” Harry agreed. “Maybe I'll need an attorney in D.C. by the time she graduates. I think Lucy would be an asset on my staff. You might float that idea to her. See what she says. I'm ready to talk to her about a future with the conservancy.”
“If you're not careful you'll have all the Olsons but Mama and Dylan working for you,” I said.
“I could do worse,” Harry said. “You spoke up and didn't take any guff off the Florida boys, and I loved your line, 'I'm old enough to know plastic when I see it.' That's a classic, Clay. I chuckle every time I think about it. You're going to be fine. You're fast on your feet.”
We laughed on the way to the Gulf Club, where we talked over lobster. I drank iced tea and Harry drank bourbon and branch water.
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 same night. Never knowing what kind of visit it was, I stayed in the dark about where he'd been and where he was going.
Dylan was in his highchair at the table in 1971. He spent less time eating than examining the face of the interloper across the table on days when Ivan came and stayed a few days.
I don't recall Dylan having much to say to Ivan but his visits were abbreviated affairs and Ivan was gone before Dylan got accustomed to him being around. Ivan and I managed to get off by ourselves most of the time he was at home.
My son could talk up a storm by 1972, when the mood struck him. Mostly he watched Ivan and said little. I didn't ask him what was on his mind and he didn't say.
After Ivan had been there a couple of days, Dylan asked me once, while I was tucking him into bed, “Doesn't that man have a place to eat, Daddy?”
“Yes, but he likes Mama's cooking,” I said.
“Me too,” Dylan said satisfied.
“He stops to say hello when he gets time.”
Ivan had questions about Dylan too. His were more annoying.
“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, so he could come back and get into mine.
“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 when he came home.
Now Ivan had come home to tell me he'd be going to Vietnam. He prepared me for it, if you can prepare your lover for your disappearance into places where no one could follow. I wasn't prepared for it .
Since he left, I'd believed Ivan would tire of the road and come home to me. I was wrong. He was moving farther and farther away each year. It's what came next in the evolution of Ivan Aleksa.
He told me in the beginning that he was going to get Boris, but I didn't see how he could. Now he was taking the final step.
After my birthday in 1973, I didn't know if Ivan was alive or not. I got one aborted phone call from Phnom Penh and a scratchy call from Bangkok, proving he was over there somewhere and trying to reach me.
I couldn't be certain what any of it meant. I didn't know if I'd see Ivan again.
The stories coming out of Southeast Asia were frightening and the man i loved was right in the middle of it.
Once more, Ivan managed to surprise me at Christmas. After all his abortive attempts to communicate with me since my birthday from Southeast Asia, I hardly expected him to be home for Christmas, but he was home.
No matter what he said or how long he stayed, I wouldn't be able to rest easy as long as he was over there and he did intend to go back. I would enjoy his presence and do my best to ignore his absence, once he did go back over there.
Dylan still had nothing to say to Ivan. I'm not sure what Ivan saw when he looked at Dylan, but it didn't inspire him to speak. They wee still seated across from each other at the table. Dylan was down to one phone book that allowed him to be in easy reach of the food.
The one departure at Christmas in 1973, Ivan bought my son a fire truck for Christmas. It wasn't big and outrageous. It was hand painted and less than a foot long.
Dylan did like the present and he thanked Ivan. He was far friendlier with Harry and Popov. Of course they came and went on a regular basis. By that time Dylan saw Harry at the conservancy and Popov at J.K.'s. We took semi-annual fishing trips with Popov in February and July.
Ivan went to his mother's for the same reason he came to see me. I don't know he knew if he'd be back. If I lived on a beach in Florida and I knew Southeast Asia was an insanely violent place, I was sure Ivan recognized he was skating close to the edge.
We spent as much time together as he made available. Lucy was more than happy to take care of Dylan and spend the holidays in his company. Ivan was home long enough for everyone to get the idea we might not see him for a while.
I suppose, of all of his visits, Christmas 1973 was the one I liked least. We didn't talk about anything in particular. Being serious at such a dangerous time in our lives was merely a way to drag everyone down at Christmas.
So we did happy and we made love and then Ivan did what he'd done so ofter in the past five years, he left me.
After Ivan complained about Dylan being all arms and legs, weighing a ton, when he moved him out of my bed that final night he was home, I asked, “Did you take a good look at him? Have you ever looked closely at my son?”
I knew the answer.
I knew it was our final night together during that visit and I was waiting for the man I loved to recognize his son.