The Gulf of Love
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Jerry W.
My professional life went into high gear in 1974, once I had my degree.
My schedule no longer required me to drive to For Myers two days a week. Now, I had six additional hours to devote to work on Tuesday and Thursday. The best part was arriving home for dinner and not being worn to a frazzle on those days.
There wasn't much I did differently. I had time to do more of it. The one change was the number of offers for speaking engagements coming my way. During 1974, people who heard my story wanted me to talk to biologists, students, and environmentalists.
Common sense said they'd heard about me from Bill Payne. Most of the offers came from colleges and institutions located close to the Gulf of Mexico.
Being the conservancy's marine biologist created an interest in my work at a time when the study of the Gulf was going into high gear. Congressman Harry McCallister, chairman of the environmental committee on Capitol Hill, spoke often about his conservancy and the work his marine biologist did.
It was an election year and when I spoke to an audience familiar with what was going on in the Gulf, I was telling the story I'd be telling for Harry on the campaign trail later in the year.
The more I told my story, the better I told it.
I gained confidence as the year took hold and I spoke in places that allowed me to be home to tuck Dylan in at night. That didn't mean I wouldn't accept a speaking engagement from one of the more distant Gulf states but I wasn't ready to do it yet.
I was confident that I'd never again appear before men responsible for the health of the Gulf of Mexico and hear them quibble over my credentials or the information I provided.
As Harry told me after my appearance in Tallahassee, “Clayton, remember these words. 'Do you want to appear with me at my press conference to explain your position to the voters?' You'll find politicians becoming very pliable once you speak them.”
Perhaps I lacked the cajones to say such a thing to legislators my first time around. That wasn't true any longer. I knew my business and I took the time to be sure of what I said before saying it.
The Florida boys, as Harry called them, were more worried about my credentials than the truth I spoke.
While I wouldn't trade the experience of sitting before that Florida committee, it demonstrated the mountain environmentalists had to climb to get the attention of people who were responsible to pass the laws that would preserve a healthier environment.
I didn't realize that this was such a bee in my bonnet, until it came to pass that Marvin Clayton Olson had his diploma in hand. It didn't change the truth of the story I told but it would please law makers no end.
I was back in the Gulf in January. It was bright, sunny, and a little on the cool side, but once I was underwater, I was in my element. This was my world. It's where my work was done.
By 1974 I knew the men who came to my lab to compare notes. Some wanted to dive with me but they all wanted to look at my notes, my files, and the shelves of specimens I'd gathered over the years.
Most of the marine biologists who came to chat were involved with other bodies of water. The problems they encountered were similar to the ones found in the Gulf.
There was a similarity to how pollution impacted the organisms no matter the waterway.
1974 was an election year. Harry came in during April and he took me to the Gulf Club one day for lunch. The campaign was about to begin. He was about to organize his campaign staff.
“I'll want you to make more campaign stops with me this year. Being the chairman of the environmental committee means getting my ducks in a row. We're making progress, Clayton.”
“I'm ready, Harry. Whatever you need. You know where to find me.”
By that time I knew the routine and there was no reason for Harry to be reluctant to use me to tell the story he wanted told. It's why I was hired. It's why he sent me to school. I was Harry's man.
I was ready to rock and roll.
I wasn't ready for Ivan to come calling late in the night as my twenty-fourth birthday arrived. I didn't expect him.
By 1974 Dylan was far more aware of the world around him.
I hadn't paid much attention to Ivan's annoyance over Dylan being in my bed. It was nothing new. He often fell asleep while I read to him. Sometimes he fell asleep there after I fell asleep.
This time it was different. This time Dylan noticed when he was moved out of my bed to his own bed. He hadn't said anything because it created a problem for him.
Dylan was old enough to remember when he came face to face with something that didn't make sense to him. He came face to face with Ivan. Something happened that Dylan didn't understand. That was the problem. He'd work on it a while before bringing it to me.
“That kid's all arms and legs,” Ivan said, as he slid into bed beside me, wrapping his strong arms around me.
Already angry, this wasn't the best way to win me over, after a longer absence than usual. It was the first time I knew he was alive for sure. Making mean comments about my son was a bad plan.
By then Ivan had finished becoming a man and he was all man. His voice was deep and he'd added muscle as his body thickened. We weren't boys any more. He had been changing since he left our beach at eighteen. Changes came in big gulps when we didn't see each other for a year.
Before Dylan woke up Ivan was gone. He didn't come to wish me happy birthday. I don't remember him mentioning it. It was no coincidence it was the day he picked to come home and the present came in the form of goodbye.
Ivan was home.
He was alive.
I was as mad as a hornet but his kisses took the sting out of me. We were soon locked together in a loving embrace. It was intense. It was the natural thing to do. Our love making hadn't been a problem. We were men, loving as lustily as men love.
At twenty-four our passion could still override our reason.
By June of 1974 I knew that making love was a futile exercise if my lover was always absent. This time he wasn't going to kiss and run. I wasn't going to let that happen again.
At twenty-four my reason was going to overcome my lust. I would pin him down. I wanted the truth, whatever it was. He wasn't leaving until I got it.
Being determined merely made me sound psychopathic when Ivan volunteered to tell me what he was doing and why. He told me what I wanted to know and I was even more pissed off.
Ivan came home to reassure me. It would take more than a roll in the hay to prove we were still lovers. The fog created by making love cleared away once we went as far as we were able to go.
We retreated back to a peaceful repose on my bed.
There was no making sense of Ivan's arrival but I would have the answers I wanted before he left. There is something to be said for being careful what you wished for.
His passion made me believe he did love me. Sex was not love but I couldn't imagine that intensity was possible without a hint of love being involved. We'd known each other for ten years.
Ivan loved me. He knew how to make love to me. Once we got going, we weren’t going to take an intermission for chit chat, but on this night, because we both made up our mind to talk, we talked.
He knew the questions.
I knew the answers.
I asked anyway. His answers aggravated me more than usual.
“When are you coming home, Ivan?” I was just warming up.
“I am home,” Ivan said. “I was sure you noticed. It felt like you noticed me. babe. Can't you be happy when I'm here? I need you to be here for me so I can stay strong.”
“But you aren't home, Ivan. Do you care what you're doing to me? It's been long enough. Making love isn't being in love. Stopping by when you're in the neighborhood isn't a relationship.”
“I know, babe. I wish it was almost over. It isn't. I came home so you'd know what I'm about to do.”
“I have a life. I need to know if you're in it or if I'm on my own. Is this how it's going to be from now on? Give me a date when I can expect you to come home to stay. Give me something. Anything!”
“You can't tell how much I love you?”
“That's wearing thin, huh? I came home because you need to know what I'm about to do. It's not what I'd do if I had a choice. I had to fight to make this trip home. They didn't want to allow me to leave, but I wasn't signing up for their program without letting you know what's going on. That's why I'm home.”
“They who, Ivan? You're looking for your brother. Find him and come home,” I said. “How long is it going to take? Is Boris alive?”
“I've gotten myself involved in something ...and I won't be home for two years,” he said.
“I can't tell you what. I ran into a... situation, while i was trying to get into Vietnam. It's against the law to do that. I'm going back over there and I won't be able to come home until this time in 1976.”
“People who know what I'm doing and instead of sending me to prison, they're letting me work off my sentence. I'm not able to say much about who they are. They are Americans. They are government people.”
“Two years? Where's Boris in all this? You're looking for Boris, remember?”
“If I do what I've said I'll do, I'll get a free pass into Vietnam. It's the deal I've made. It was that or jail. While I do the work for them, they're keep their eyes open for any information on Boris. These people deal in information. It's possible they'll hear something.”
“I don't understand, Ivan. You were over there looking for your brother and people are going to use that against you? Our people?”
“It's not something I can explain. I'm obligated to work for them for two years. I do that and I'll get into Vietnam. Then I'll find Boris.”
“When does all this happen, Ivan?”
“In a few minutes. I've got to be in Miami later this morning. They gave me the time it took to come home and make things right.”
I got quiet. I was holding onto him as if I might be able to keep him from going. We kissed and held each other for a few minutes.
What could I say? I wanted to talk about us. There was no us. Ivan was off on some wild goose chase and I had a life to attend to. He wasn't turning my life inside out any longer.
I would let go of him and hope that one day he'd come home.
I suppose I could have handled it with more grace but mad beat the hell out of graceful. He was going to do what he was going to do and I was getting on with my life. I was still mad.
If I'd known I wouldn't see Ivan again until he showed up on the Sea Lab a lifetime later, I might have talked more, made love longer, but mostly I was mad.
I was angry with him when he showed up. I was angry with him when he left, and I'd still be angry with him the next time I saw him.
It wasn't a good way to be but love can do that to you.
Dylan would soon be five. I didn't mention Ivan being there. By the time Dylan got up the next morning, Ivan was long gone.
I'd been waiting for an opportunity to put all the cards on the table while Ivan was there. It would be at least two more years before Dylan and I could sit down with his father to explain who Dylan was.
A week after my birthday I came in from work and found Dylan sitting on the edge of my bed. He had the picture of Ivan and me in his lap. His face was close to the glass.
He didn't hear me come in.
“What's up, kiddo,” I asked.
He didn't change his position and I was about to speak again when he spoke.
“He was here,” Dylan said.
“He's been here a few times since you were born,” I said, not catching what he meant.
“Just now he was here,” Dylan said.
“What do you mean?”
“A few days ago. I woke up and he had me in his arms. He put me in bed and tucked me in. He didn't know I was awake. I looked at his face. He said, 'Sleep tight, baby blue' and kissed my forehead. Why did he call me that, Daddy.”
“His grandfather called his brother baby blue when he first saw him, when he was a little baby.”
“I'm not a baby. Why did he say that?”
“Compared to Ivan, you're a baby, Dylan. He associated you with his brother is all.”
“I don't know,” Dylan said. “I knew who he was.”
“You did?” I asked, not sure where we were going.
“He's in the picture. He's your best friend. He was here.”
“A couple of years ago he sat across from you at the dinner table. He did that a few times when he was still coming home.”
“No, I don't remember that but he was here.”
“He was here on my birthday but he didn't stay.”
Dylan put the picture back on the nightstand.
Each time I thought, 'This is the time I've got to explain who Ivan is,' but he let me off the hook.
It wouldn't be long now. The evidence had begun to appear on Dylan's face.
Dylan didn't question who he was or why he was in the conservancy house with his daddy. He wasn't sure how it got the way it was. He was an Olson, like his mother and father.
He knew the people he lived with loved him.
On Dylan's first birthday I took him swimming. On his fifth birthday, I took him on the Seaswirl for the first time and we went snorkeling.
It gave him a new perspective on what was in the water where we swam. Snorkeling would satisfy Dylan for a couple of years, but that's when I made the mistake of taking him with me when I made a dive to take some pictures.
I loaded my SCUBA gear and my son on the Seaswirl. It would only take a few minutes. I had Pop make a cylinder with a glass in the end of it. Dylan could watch me underwater. It seemed like a great idea at the time.
I intended for my son to be fascinated by another aspect of his daddy's work. As he grew, I wanted to make him aware of the environment and how to protect it. I wanted Dylan to appreciate the beauty of where we lived and the need to preserve it.
Dylan stayed in the boat as I went down in my SCUBA gear. We were only a few miles from the cove. He watched me through the cylinder. I waved at him as I took the pictures.
Dylan's reaction wasn't what I expected.
“I want SCUBA gear, Daddy. I want to dive with you.”
I explained he couldn't get SCUBA gear until he was big enough for the equipment to fit him properly. That started a battle that lasted over two years. It was a matter of safety, but try to explain that to a seven year old that sees something he wants to do.
Dylan loved Teddy's car. I began taking him to J.K's Kitchen about the time he turned five. It was filled with the textures of life, unique sounds, and people I knew and wanted Dylan to know about. These were people who lived their lives beyond the conservancy house but influenced my life in ways I still hadn't realized.
There was sawdust on the floor now and most patrons were in tee-shirts and bare feet at noon. It was an earthy place where characters you might meet in a Robert Lewis Stevenson novel might congregate.
I'd been absent from J.K.'s Kitchen since Dylan was a baby. His first year we'd gone a half dozen times and the fisherman were all pleased with my son's progress, but I was so busy all the time, my fisherman's roots hardly came to mind.
My work and my dives were connected to the Gulf and the people who depended on it. The fishermen were part of who I was and what I did and giving Dylan a glimpse of this part of my life as he grew up would help to complete his picture of me.
I remembered how well I'd been treated back when times were toughest and I decided it was time to take Dylan back to J.K.'s so they could get a look at him and he of them.
I'd been too busy until then to make J.K.'s a regular stop.
As I settled into a booth with my son, People came in and stood at the counter for takeout. Old fisherman, some I recognized, sat at the tables spinning yarns about the sea. Dylan sat wide eyed and took in the pictures, the nets, the trophy fish, some new and some I remembered.
I left work early on Wednesdays and picked Dylan up from kindergarten. Instead of taking him home, we went to J.K.'s. I'd take Dylan home before meeting Bill Payne for our dive at three o'clock. We dove maybe once a month in 1974. Bill liked to keep in touch and we both loved diving.
Dylan sat kicking his feet and looking around. It wasn't busy just after lunch time. People came and went and some nodded, but most didn't recognize me at twenty-four.
“I've been here?” Dylan asked as he sat across from me.
“Yes, you have. You were a baby. It's been three years since I last brought you.”
“The smell. It doesn't smell like anything Mama cooks.”
“Grand Mama,” I reminded him for the umpteenth time.
“I know. You call her Mama,” he said. “Everyone calls her Mama.”
“She's my mother. She is your grand mother,” I tried again.
“She's Mama to everyone. I'm not hurting anything, am I, Daddy?”
“No, kiddo, you're not hurting anything. What you're smelling is deep fried seafood. Your grandmother, Mama, doesn't deep fry. It's a southern thing.”
“I remember that smell,” he said, banging his feet against the booth as he spoke.
“Dylan, you were a little baby the last time you were here.”
“Little babies don't come with noses? I smelled that smell, Daddy.”
“OK,” was all I could say.
The fishing fleet went out late Sunday night and came in later on Wednesday. They weren't back yet but I saw the boats when Bill and I left the cove when we did a Wednesday dive.
I'd bring Dylan when the fleet was in but this time I wanted him to get a feeling for J.K.'s.
“This is the baby? I'm Chico from Captain Popov's crew,” he said with a sandpaper whisper. “I'll tell the captain you was here.”
“I thought I recognized you,” I said, glancing at his half hand.
“Caught it in the winch. Twisted them fingers right off,” he said. “Not much use for a one handed fisherman.”
“That's tough. I'm sorry to hear that,” I said.
“You fish all your life?” Dylan asked. “I'm Dylan.”
Dylan offered his hand and let the man grasp it with the half hand. My son was better at not noticing the deformity than I was.
“I remember you when you was a a little bitty fellow. Your daddy brung yeah here. You grew a mite. Talk a mite more too. I fished all my life. 'Til now. Captain Popov sees to me and the Mrs.”
The following Wednesday we waited for the fleet to be in before going back to J.K.'s. We met both Captain Popov and Captain Tito there. They still came into J.K.'s once they tended to the fish.
Popov was expressive and you knew he was the captain of a fishing boat by looking at him. I could picture him playing Long John Silver in a realistic version of Treasure Island.
Dylan was captivated by Popov and even tolerated sitting on the man's knee. Dylan sat on no one's knee and he couldn't tolerate people fawning over him, but in all honesty, Popov didn't fawn.
Dylan was fascinated by the man's presence. I was too.
Captain Popov was a bigger than life character.
Captain Tito still called me, 'The charmer of the fish,' and Dylan gave me a curious look the first time he heard it. I didn't talk about being a fisherman. It didn't come up. I'd lived so much life since I fished for Mr. Aleksa, what happened since overshadowed that portion of my life.
My son's eyes opened wide as Popov agreed to tell him a story about when his father was a fisherman in Popov's fleet.
“Your father, when he wasn't much older than you, came to sea with us. He is the charmer of the fish, you know?” Popov said in an enchanting voice.
Dylan was mesmerized.
“The first day your papa, he fished with us, we caught more fish than Popov ever saw. Your father brought the fish to our boats. They were so anxious to be caught, the fish they tried to jump onto our decks. We filled our holds and came home a day early. Your papa, he is a great fisherman.”
Dylan looked me over. He didn't know I fished when I was a boy. Popov remembered. He still believed it was me that brought the fish to their boats that day. I'd become part of the fishing fleet's lore.
Before Popov finished the story a dozen fishermen stood around nodding to verify Popov's account.
Later that week, as I read from David Copperfield, Dylan asked, “Can we read Robinson Crusoe next, Daddy?”
“Sure,” I said. “Where'd you hear about Robinson Crusoe?”
“School. I was asking about sea stories. The librarian said it was fine for someone my age. She first said, 'Treasure Island,' but changed it. I think I want to read Treasure Island too, if we can.”
“Did you tell her no one is your age?”
“No,” he said, embarrassed by talk of him being smart.
“We'll get Robinson Crusoe next and then we'll read Treasure Island. It's OK for you. A boy about your age is in the story, Jim Hawkins. I liked that book.”
“You think Captain Popov has read those books?”
“I'd bet on it. There's something we need to talk about, kiddo.”
“What did I do now?” he asked.
The last time Ivan was home, Dylan had been awake when he was carried from my bed to his. He'd mentioned this. He'd looked into Ivan's face. He told me he recognized him.
He knew who he was.
I, being slow on the uptake, assumed he meant that he recognized Ivan from the picture of us on the nightstand.
Dylan had seen something in Ivan's face I didn't want to know about. It was too soon. He was too young. I wasn't ready, and Dylan let the subject drop.
It had been picked up.
I knew we were going to have the conversation about Ivan being Dylan's father.
Dylan wasn't going to let me put it off any longer. He needed to hear his daddy tell him who he really was.
“It's not what you did. You're so smart your daddy doesn't know what to say to you sometimes,” I said.
“You do OK,” he said, cocking his head to look at me.
“You stopped asking question about Ivan last summer after he was here. I see there's been an addition to the picture on my night stand.”
Dylan glanced at the picture he'd spent a lot of time looking into over the past year. It was as if he was looking to see what I might be talking about.
I had a chill. The time of innocence was about to end and I didn't know what came next.
In the corner of the picture frame next to Ivan's face was Dylan's tiny first grade school picture. It was just his face. It was just big enough to unlock what Dylan had suspected for some time.
“You never asked the question you want to ask. Is that a hint?” I asked, looking at the picture on the night stand.
“Not really. I mean I look a little like him. Don't I, Daddy?”
I sat closer to my son, putting my arm around him as we sat on the edge of my bed.
“You look a lot like Ivan, Dylan. I've got something to tell you and it won't be easy on your daddy. It won't be easy on you but it's time you hear it. I'm going to tell you the last words your mother spoke to me.”
He looked confused. How'd we get from Ivan to Sunshine?
“It'll answer the question you haven't been able to ask. I've never told anyone this. I saved her last words for you. I knew that's what she wanted me to do.”
“OK,” he said uncertain.
“Your mother;s last words were, 'Dylan is Ivan's son.'”
Dylan tightened his grip on me. He started to cry.
I started to cry.
I'd finally said it and there was nothing else to say.
I remember the day I met Boris. He was an older, more mature version of Ivan. They looked like twins. When Lucy discovered Ivan and I were lovers, within a day, she'd gone from disappointment over being unable to marry Ivan, to deciding she'd marry Boris.
That's how much they looked alike. Lucy decided they were interchangeable in this case. It was a thirteen year old girl's logic.
When Dylan turned five, he already resembled Ivan. By the time his school picture was taken, the resemblance was unmistakable.
His face next to Ivan's face left no doubt who Dylan was.
I'd seen the picture he put next to Ivan's face to compare them. I didn't get close enough to see what Dylan saw. I wasn't ready.
I didn't want to see the evidence that would become apparent to everyone in time.
Did all the Aleksa's look alike? There was no doubt in my mind.
As we sat down to read the next evening, Dylan asked, “Where is he, Daddy. Where's my father?”
“You know where he is. I told you. He left here to find his brother.”
“He doesn't care about me? Why isn't he here? Why has he never made an effort to talk to me? Doesn't he think I deserve it?”
“He doesn't know you're his son. I didn't know who your father was when I married your mother. It wasn't important. I wanted to marry your mother. It made you my son. It made you both Olsons. That's what was important.”
“Cool!” he said, satisfied.
As with wanting to know why he looked like Ivan, there was no way to know what other questions Dylan wanted to ask. He took his time and digested the facts as they became clear. Then he'd begin to work on his next question.
“I won't tell Ivan unless you tell me I've got to tell him. I won't have him doing to you what he's done to me, Dylan. I tell him that and he doesn't make an effort to get to know you, and you'll never forgive him. You look more and more like him as you grow. He'll figure it out without being told. It's up to him to recognize you.”
“But you're my daddy,” he said with misty eyes.
“I married your mother to be your daddy. I'll always be your daddy. Don't you ever forget that. It's the law. It's on your birth certificate.”
“You married my mother so I'd belong to you?”
“Yes, I married Sunshine because I wanted you to be my son.”
“Cool!” Dylan said, and he hugged me tightly.
“I love you, Daddy.”
“I love you, son.”
Dylan wasn't the only one to notice that he resembled Ivan.
Mama watched Dylan growing as 1974 became 1975 and he went from five to six. She fed him breakfast each morning and sat next to him at the dinner table each night as the days passed.
I wasn't there the exact moment the tumblers fell into place and Mama's hand went to her mouth and she said, “Oh my God,” as she saw Ivan in her grandson the first time. She may have been seeing it but didn't recognize what she was seeing, until she did.
By this time I'm sure she'd done double taken a few times, trying to figure out who Dylan resembled. Before long Mama mentioned her discovery, sounding unusually contrite.
Mama discovered she'd been wrong about me.
Mama wasn't one to keep her feelings to herself.
“You know, Clay, I've never been more proud of you than I am right this minute. Seeing you with Dylan tells me what a good man you are and what a foolish woman your mother is.”
“Well thank you, Mama,” I said, kissing her cheek. “I love you too. Can I give you a refill on that coffee?”
“I... said things to you that should never have been said. I didn't know and I should have known better. You should have put me in my place, Clay. Why didn't you say something?”
That's how I knew the connection had been made.
“You're in your place, Mama. You're here taking care of your family and wanting us to do the best we can. That is your place.”
“You should have told me how wrong I was?”
“And miss this, Mama. No, I knew you'd figure it out soon enough. It was easier just to let it be. I knew you loved me. That's what was important to me. No one is perfect.”
“And Ivan?” Mama asked, watching my face closely.
“I love him, Mama. I can't depend on him any more but love isn't something that goes away. If he comes back we'll make a life with Dylan or he won't want that responsibility. I'll deal with it when the time comes. Dylan always comes first in this equation, Mama.”
“You know, I shouldn't approve of you and Ivan, Clay, but your mother made a fool of herself by trying to get you to live according to my beliefs once. I am not so old I can not learn my lesson. Being a fool one time is enough. The only important thing to me is that you're happy.”
Mama smiled, patting the back of my hand. There was no telling how long she'd known Ivan and I were lovers, but she knew now and there was hardly a howl.
So far her God hadn't become unhinged and sent Florida spinning off into the bottom of the sea.
“Does Dylan know, Clayton?” Mama asked.
“For a while now. He figured it out. When I saw his school picture in the corner of the picture on my night stand, next to Ivan's face, the jig was up. He said, 'I look a little like him, Daddy.'”
Her grandson did not miss much.