The Gulf of Love
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Jerry W.
Chiefs & Indians
With 1975 moving right along, after a dinner for donors and staff at Harry's, I ended up with him in the study at his home. I drank iced tea. Harry worked on a second bourbon and branch water.
It was a catch up conversation. We hadn't been in the same place much since early 1974, when the winds of change began to blow. They didn't let up until the August recess of 1975.
The invitation read, 'For dinner and a chat.'
I recognized Harry's handwriting. He'd written the note himself at the bottom of an embossed invitation that came from a Washington D.C. return address.
I suspected he was fattening the calf for his first appearance in front of Harry's environmental committee. I'd have appeared long ago if it hadn't been for the trouble in Washington.
Nixon resigned before the 1974 midterm elections. Everyone in Washington was scrambling to steer clear of the turmoil surrounding the executive branch and Nixon's inner circle. Many of them were under indictment and heading for prison if if they weren't already there.
Anyone who was close to Nixon kept his head down and a “No comment” comment ready should the army of reporters assigned to cover the fall of the president show up.
If Harry called me in front of his committee last year or this, no one would have noticed. Washington was consumed by the drama that cost Nixon his job. The town was abuzz about the affair.
It wasn't much of an affair. There wasn't even a woman involved, but everyone wanted to know what the president knew and when he knew it. My opinion of politicians wasn't high enough to make me curious about what any of them knew, except for Harry.
Nixon claimed, “The American people have to know their president is not a crook.”
I doubted anything Nixon said was true. The idea he'd begin telling the truth during his Watergate affair was farfetched.
I had my degree and I was ready to rock and roll when 1974 began. The call never came from Harry and I went about my business in the Gulf of Mexico and at the conservancy laboratory. I was more at ease on both fronts while I waited.
Many politicians headed for cover. A scandal anywhere in government reminded the voters how little they liked the people who claimed to represent them, although they kept voting the same people into office, being at a loss for what else to do. Politicians who kept a low profile were more likely to be reelected in 1974.
I hardly saw Harry during the campaign of 1974. He was reelected for the third time but my contribution was minimal. When he came to the conservancy, he didn't stay long, and we rarely spoke for more than a few minutes at a time.
I had plenty to do and I wasn't paid enough to worry about Harry's schedule. I'd heard about the trouble in Washington and it had tied the city in knots. No one could talk about anything else. For the first time in American history a president resigned.
Harry finally made it home during August recess in 1975. Things in Washington had begun to calm down in early 1975. The new president didn't require as much attention as Nixon did.
Harry's number one reason for going to Washington was the environment. The Florida voters knew he wasn't simply a politician but his conservancy was working to keep Florida's environment clean.
Harry Ushered in a renaissance in thinking in the area of environmental protection on Capitol Hill. Nixon had taken an interest in Harry's environmental concerns, and the two appeared together when environmental issues were involved. When Nixon signed major environmental legislation, Harry was often at his side.
Republicans who wanted to be seen with Nixon, jumped on board Harry's environmental train, riding it to the White House. Those same politicians were now busy distancing themselves from the president. The best move was to move as far away as possible from the embattled president.
Harry stood on solid environmental ground and his history and accomplishments spoke for themselves. He'd been able to produce major environmental legislation. Nixon signing that legislation was seen as a feather in Harry's cap and a win for the environment and the people.
By 1974, if you hadn't made it to Nixon's enemies list, you weren't trying. When Nixon began struggling to keep his head above water in the Watergate scandal, no one made any effort to throw him a life preserver. He was on his own and he knew it.
Nixon footprint would be left right in the middle of America's future. The war on drugs he orchestrated to punish blacks and anti-war protesters, would rage on without interruption. He not only left us with the EPA, but for profit healthcare, and peace with honor in Vietnam, even though we withdrew and Vietnam reunited in spite of our effort to stop it.
When Harry returned to Washington after being elected to his fourth term, Ford was president.
He'd been a popular congressman.
America was hopeful.
President Ford fell down a lot, especially when he pardoned Nixon. He told us, “America's long national nightmare is over.”
The pardon meant we'd never hear from Nixon in a court of law.
Ehrlichman, Halderman, Mitchell, and Dean, the men closest to Nixon, went to prison.
(A decade after resigning in shame, Nixon returned to American politics as the Republican's elder statesman.)
He had more lives than a cat.
Only in America!
When the smoke cleared, Harry was known as the standard-bearer for the environmental movement on Capitol Hill. This kept him out of the line of fire. Being a committee chairman meant he was well known and respected.
Harry held typical Democratic views. He was an FDR Democrat, believing that people should share in the wealth their labor created. People who made that contribution should earn a decent standard of living. It was people's labor that created the prosperity that made America great.
The original plan was for me to come to Washington and appear in front of Harry's committee early in 1975. At August recess that year I got the only invitation I'd received from my mentor and boss.
“Come for dinner and a chat at the house Saturday evening.”
There was a lot to talk about. A year after Nixon's resignation and the government was still regrouping. Gerald Ford was no Richard Nixon, but it remained to be seen what kind of president he'd be.
I knew what was going on and why I wasn't likely to appear in front of Harry's committee in 1975. What I didn't expect was a private meeting with Harry ending up with us talking about Ivan.
There were ten people at dinner. I'd seen most of them at one time or another. After drinks were poured and cigars were lit, Harry made the rounds, speaking to each of his guests. When he got to me he took me by the arm, escorting me into his inner sanctum.
“I'm sorry, Clayton. Washington has been a madhouse for the last year. I'm sure you've heard about it in the news. It's going to be 1976 before I call you before my committee. This isn't how I planned it but politics are never predictable.”
“I'm not going anywhere, Harry. I'll be here when you need me. Don't know if the old Chevy will get me there.”
“Good Lord, Clayton. Why don't you loosen up and buy a new car? I pay you enough to buy something expensive. Why don't you pamper yourself?”
“I told Teddy I'd look after his Chevy. That's what I'm doing,” I said.
“I'll fly home to get you. I'll put you up in the Mayflower. One of the benefits of being at your congressman's beck and call. People I don't like or criminal types we've got to coerce into appearing we stash at the Chastleton. It's up on 16th Street. No room service.”
“That must be close to 15th Street,” I said. “I really don't want to take up residence, Harry. Just give you what you want. I think of you more as my boss and less as my congressman.”
“That is one way of looking at it,” Harry said, sipping from his drink.
“Staying in D.C. a couple of nights won't hurt me. You are there all the time and. you're still almost normal.”
“I enjoyed the duck,” I said. “It's nice to see you, Harry. I'd begun to worry if they were holding you hostage.”
“Don't even joke about that. You don't know how close I came.”
“Do tell,” I said.
“Before we go into my brush with the underbelly of our government agencies, let's talk shop.”
The other guests, donors and his campaign chairman, raved about the cuisine. They didn't make it into Harry's inner sanctum to refuse his bourbon and snacks. I did. I felt special.
Whatever we talked about, I knew we'd be caught up by the time I left, after midnight if the past meant anything.
Harry and I were on the same page and at times like these we started where we left off. He liked keeping with it until we were caught up.
There had been an election since we'd last met for a talk. I saw Harry on the campaign trail, speaking right after he did in most instances, but there was no time for small talk. Harry spent so little time in his district that when he was there, he always had another campaign stop, another meeting with donors, and a late night dinner at the house of one of Harry's supporters, once the day was done.
My casualness around here caught some of his donors and staff off guard, but when I saw Harry, even in a gaggle of patrons, I was going to say hello.
At one spot the year before, when I was to speak right after Harry, I saw him standing with his handlers before he went on.
At one event, after not seeing Harry close up for a while, I was anxious to talk to him. As a speaker warmed up the crowd, Harry stood waiting to speak.
“Harry!” I yelled enthusiastically, wanting to at least say hello.
A mousy man intercepted me ten feet from where Harry stood. He walked into my path, forcing me to come up short.
I wasn't accustomed to being touched the way he touched me and I didn't like it.
“The congressman is busy,” he said authoritatively. I ended up grabbing both of his wrists in my hands to shed him.
Harry was there and between us before I got a good look at the man's face. The heat from my anger burned my face.
“Stanley, this is Clay. He's like a son to me,” Harry said sternly. “Don't you have some managing to do, Stanley? I'm capable of protecting my own honor.”
Harry hugged me warmly, standing back to look at me. It wasn't our usual greeting in public but my anger subsided as fast as it flared. I didn't like being manhandled.
“I'm sorry, Clay. He's new. I'm not neglecting you on purpose. D.C. has been a zoo. You may have heard. I don't have any free time. I've got to leave before sunup in the morning to get back for more meetings.”
“That's why I wasn't letting you get away without saying hello to you, Harry. You look tired. You might want to take a day off,” I said.
“I'd take a week off if I could get away with it but I can't. They're playing my song. Great to see you, Clay. I leave as soon as I'm done speaking. I'll let you know when I'm going to be in town with time on my hands,” Harry said, going up the steps to the platform.
Of the three campaign appearances I was asked to make in '74, this was the most time I spent with Harry. In another minute his voice was penetrating the hall.
A short time later he introduced me and dashed past as I started up the steps. I don't remember what I said but I told my story and I went home.
I worried Harry was working too hard. Was he becoming too Washington? These were extraordinary times but Harry no longer looked like he was enjoying what he did.
We'd talked plenty and I knew I'd get time when he had time. He was doing what politicians did to stay in good standing with their voters. It put a strain on the reason why I was doing what I did.
I went about my business as 1975 took hold and the government went back to reorganizing what they intended to get done under Ford.
The collapse of South Vietnam a few months into the new year sent the U.S. position into turmoil.
The world watched as million dollar helicopters were pushed off aircraft carriers into the sea, once the fleeing Vietnamese who made America's occupation possible got to safety.
Men who would have won the election the U.S. canceled in the 50s, after we took over, now ran their country.
The Vietnamese truly ran Vietnam now.
One of the darker chapters in American history came to a close.
The Masters of War had some explaining to do and the U.S. government was scrambling to justify the dead and the expense of fighting the Vietnam War.
The Masters of War got very quiet. They worked on how to have their wars and not get flack from the American people. It would be over a decade before they felt comfortable bombing people again.
For the second time in eight months the government went into a tizzy. What do you tell the people after you loose a war?
“We achieved peace with honor!”
Then we pushed our helicopters into the sea and split.
Harry had specific concerns and interests. I had no restrictions on where my interests took me. I was a marine biologist who believed in what I was doing. Harry believed in me. I wondered if he continued to believe he could actually get change in Washington.
Even at twenty-five, knowing I was sequestered with a very powerful man, I didn't pull my punches. I knew Harry before he was a powerful man. That was the Harry I knew. I think he liked that I wasn't impressed with power or his wealth.
I was impressed with the sea and the things in it.
“Anything new in Washington?” I asked to lighten the mood.
Harry began to laugh heartily.
“I've been using you all wrong, Clayton. I should let you warm up the crowd for me. You are a funny man,” Harry said.
“I think I am fine telling the story I tell. Comedy has never been my forte.”
“No, you're a serious man. I once thought I was. I'm beginning to doubt I'm doing serious work. Our country is not being run by men with good hearts. They are not there with the best of intentions for the American people. Mostly they're there for the power and where it will take them,” Harry said, looking into his glass.
“And you know why I don't want to spend a lot of time there being interviewed by such men. I might be able to do some good in the Gulf. I'm not deluded enough to think I can change the minds of the men you just described, Harry.”
“I hope you don't include me in that indictment, Clayton.”
“Our understanding is, I knew you way back when. I see no reason to change it. You take care of my needs. What you do to get where you're going is your business. It's none of mine.”
“Except what you do allows me to do what I do, or try to do. The Florida boys are one thing. The Washington boys are on an entirely different level. They have ulterior motives for everything. If I want to get something done, I need to help them get what they want.”
“Speaking of getting things done, how'd that whole Vietnam thing turn out?”
Harry laughed so hard he had to put his drink down before he spilled it.
“When are you going to call me to testify? I'd like to know that.”
“Next year, Clay. We're still disorganized. The last year has been no picnic up there. What you hear here, magnify it a hundred times, and that's the pressure that's on us. Nothing will get done on the environment before next year. We'll keep our powder dry until then. I want to apologize again for our lack of communication. You didn't want to know what I was doing. It's been hectic to say the least.”
There was no ceremony that kept me from speaking openly to my boss. What I didn't expect was for the conversation to turn to the Aleksa's, which inevitably led to Ivan.
“I don't understand why the man would leave prime fishing grounds to fish for Chile,” Harry said.
He waited for Henry to refill his glass. He'd just brought us a tray of eatables and put it between us.
Henry took care to add ice cubes to Harry's glass before pouring equal amounts of branch water and bourbon on top of the cubes.
“You're American, Harry. Mr. Aleksa is naturalized. He's Lithuanian. His country betrayed him. Not Lithuania. He lost his son in a needless war. He decided he couldn't live in a country that did that. I believe Mr. Aleksa sees us as little better than the Soviets he escaped when he was a teen.”
“Still, his life was here. I know your father was offended by his leaving. There was no conversation. He simply left the cove and didn't come back.”
“I understood it. Like you, my father is old school. Being patriotic is ingrained in you. My generation doesn’t see going to someone else's country to kill the people there as noble. While we have done noble things, Harry, we are not doing them now. We are ruling the world. Vietnam is an example of what happens if you don't play ball.”
“As always, harsh, Clayton. I wouldn't be a party to us doing that.”
“You voted against funding the war? You voted not to keep sending more and more troops to Vietnam?”
“Speaking of Mr. Aleksa, you don't think he's coming back?”
“If Boris is found and comes home, his father might come home.”
“The fishing can't be that much better in Chile,” Harry said. “He might come home. He's been gone a long time.”
“Captain Popov said he's well respected and highly thought of in the fishing circles of South America.”
We hadn't talked about fishing before. The Aleksas rarely came up in our conversations, except to ask about Ivan. He hadn't done that in a while. Harry knew I got angry when ever Ivan came up. That didn't mean he didn't come up.
“And Ivan, I understand he thinks he's the only one who can find his brother, but after so long, I rarely hear from him. He might consider coming home to have a life,” I said, anger flaring.
“It's not like there's a phone booth on every corner in Southeast Asia, Clayton,” Harry said, taking a gulp of his drink. “You might want to cut him a little slack. It's a noble gesture, almost biblical in nature. I must say I've grown to admire Ivan's pluck.”
I watched Harry drink more bourbon. I watched him look at me. The silence gave me an indication that he realized he'd said too much.
“And you, congressman, sound like you know what you're talking about,” I said surprised.
“Are you asking me how I know what I'm talking about? I understand your anger more than you think. What I'm saying is, if you back off a bit, I think the situation will work out in your favor.”
“Do tell,” I said, listening.
“Ivan's doing the best he can to find Boris. I advised him to stay out of Southeast Asia. You know how well he listened? He doesn't think anyone cares enough about Boris to find him.”
Looking at Harry, I thought he may have had too much bourbon, but I'd never seen him drink too much. He was a measured man who stayed in control. The conversation turned to Ivan because he guided it onto the subject, letting me think it was my doing.
I forgot who I was talking to for only a minute. There was something Harry wanted to say if I let him.
“Harry, I am angry at Ivan. You say I shouldn't be because he's doing something honorable. I'm not angry about that. What angers me is how long he's been gone. Even when he does come home, he says little about what he's up to. The longer he's been out there, the more evasive he's gotten.”
Harry waited for me to finish. He considered what he would say.
“Sometimes there is nothing to say. I mean things move at a snails pace, the governments for instance. Nixon resigned a year ago and no one can tell you about the direction of the ship of state. Nixon controlled everything, Ford, not so much.”
“Why bring this up now, Harry? I mean the Aleksa's. Fishing? You know that takes me to Ivan. What's on your mind? I'm listening. I want to know what you're trying to tell me.”
“You go to the head of the class. I didn't come home to talk shop. I came home to talk to you. Yes, I'm on recess, but for the last year, we can't afford to stray far from Washington.”
“I get the idea,” I said.
“It's all part of the insanity going on in D.C.”
“You do have me confused now. What's Ivan got to do with it.”
“I should have talked to you about Ivan last year. Now it's this year. It's not something to talk about on the phone. Phones are not secure. Being too busy means I've let this go too long without having a sit down with you.”
“I have a little trouble when you know more about what's going on with Ivan than I do, and I have the feeling you do, Harry. What do you have to do with Ivan? A straight answer would work nicely here.”
“I'm asking you to lighten up so when Ivan comes home, there is a chance you two can recover what's been lost. I know certain things that make me think he deserves that.”
“What I know is, the last time I saw Ivan was on my twenty-fourth birthday. He came in the middle of the night. He left before dawn. Not what I call an informative visit. What do you know that I don't know?”
“I know why he can't be informative or home,” Harry said with certainty in his voice.
“He'd gotten into what he called a situation and I haven't seen him since. He told me he'd be out of touch for two years, until 1976, Harry. He's been true to his word. Do you know something?”
“I'm a United States Congressman. I know everything. The question is not, what do I know? The question is, what do I know that I can tell you?”
“You sound like Ivan. How do you know what Ivan Aleksa is up to? We can start there.”
“As I said, a congressman knows many things. We hear things.”
”That's isn't how you know where Ivan Aleksa is, is it, Harry? You've talked to him. He's got himself involved with someone over there and you know who it is, don't you? You going to lie to me about it or are you going to tell me what you have on your mind?”
“I've never lied to you, Clay. I'm prohibited from telling you certain things,” he said.
“Do you remember my card Ivan carries?”
“Being a congressman offers me some latitude in many things. Say someone sees a card like that in the possession of someone they have in custody. It makes them wonder. They have no idea why this particular person has that particular card on them, but it presents a lot of possibilities.”
“Go on,” I said.
“I can tell you that he's safe. Yes, I have talked to him. I've had occasion to talk to the people who he's ...doing business with. I talked to the people over there who by chance found my card on Ivan. I have a general knowledge of his situation. He's working for his government. He isn't in danger. I know that's little consolation, but that's what I can tell you.”
“Let me get this straight. We pushed those helicopters off those aircraft carriers and those aircraft carriers left Vietnam in April, right?”
“That would be the official version of events.”
“But Ivan has fallen into the hands of Americans who caught him breaking into Vietnam?”
“A war zone. There are laws forbidding it.”
“We're still over there messing in those people's business?”
“Your description of Ivan's situation is accurate. Draw your own conclusions about the rest of it. He's doing work for your government. I can't discuss whether we do or don't don't have a presence there.”
“Didn't we learn anything? Why don't we mind our own business?”
“It is our business. Hasn't anyone told you?”
“Right!” I answered. “I keep coming back to the helicopters.”
“Unfortunate it got such wide coverage.”
“He's searching for Boris, right?” I asked.
Harry looked at me. He didn't want to lie and he didn't want to answer. \He was thinking as he shook the ice cubes in his otherwise empty glass.
“I can't tell you anything specific but I can describe a possible scenario that might be true of Ivan. There are things I know that I can't tell you, Clay. Deciding what to say to clarify your understanding of the situation is tricky. I'll ask you not to repeat any of this conversation to anyone.”
“I understand, congressman.”
“It's not the details of his circumstances that are important. I know who he is working for and he's safe. His search for Boris is on hold, but he is advantaged by working for these particular people.”
“Advantaged!” I said.
“I've talked to Ivan recently. Knowing his feelings has me searching for a way to reassure you that while his situation sounds desperate, he's probably in the best hands for him to get done what he went over there to do. He gives them a little of his time and he gets a little of their help.”
“A little time?”
“I will say that it's known that a congressman has Ivan's back. This provides him a layer of protection most people in his circumstances wouldn't have. While your feelings for Ivan run deeper than I can understand, I am trying to set you at ease about his prospects.”
“My feelings?” I said.
“It's obvious you and Ivan are close. I've understood this for a while, Clay. Most childhood friends gradually go their separate ways. You and Ivan haven't done that. I don't get the impression you will go your separate ways if there is a way to avoid it.”
“Thanks, Harry. I think. It's not easy staying friends with someone who is never around.”
My anger was in every word.
“And your feelings for Ivan still run deep in spite of it? You can't deny it, Clay. It's why you're so angry with him.”
“Why am I suddenly uncomfortable with you, congressman?”
“If we can get through this next few minutes, you'll feel better. It's no picnic for me. I have an advantage. I intend to make you smile before the evening ends.”
“You sound like a man who knows what he's talking about. I've dealt with this for next to forever. I believed he'd tire of the search and come home. I don't believe it any more. Now, you're the believer and I'm in the dark.”
“That's where you have the advantage over me. You speak from your heart. You have a belief in the goodness of man. It's your innocence, Clayton. It always shines through. I depend on you for that. I know your truth is as pure as any truth I'll know. I'm jaded by wealth and power. That doesn't mean I don't try to do the right thing.”
“A little truth would work right now, congressman. I've stretched my faith in Ivan as far as it's going. He needs to meet me half way. If you have something to say about that, I'd like to hear it.”
Harry squirmed. He had more to say but didn't say it. Squirming was easier. He was made uncomfortable with what he knew.
I calculated what had been said and what Ivan might have said.
“He told you? I'll be a son of a bitch,” I said abruptly. “When did he tell you? When did you talk?” I asked.
I felt betrayed by both of them.
“Clayton, calm down. In case you haven't noticed, I'm not a Troglodyte. The idea that people are different isn't a news flash. I'm on your side. If you love Ivan, I'm in your corner. I'm invested in your future and the brighter it is, the happier you are, the happier I am. You can't doubt that.”
“I don't doubt that, Harry. That's not the point. I live in the Troglodyte capitol of the world. Ivan had no right telling you.”
“Ivan sees me as playing a roll in reassuring you. He understands your anger and he thinks hearing about what's going on from me might help you accept his predicament.”
“Predicament?” I blurted.
“He broke a law. They could send him to jail. The deal he made keeps him out of jail.”
“You couldn't do anything?”
“He asked for my help. He told me it involved you. I resisted that idea and asked him how it could possibly involve you. He told me you were lovers and he wanted me to reassure you. He worries about you worrying about him, and he knows you do. If you know the situation, he was sure you'd feel a little better about his... predicament. There was no one else, Clayton.”
“He had no right telling you about my love life. You couldn't help him without getting into our relationship? What did that have to do with it?”
“Until he told me, I wasn't going to tell you anything. I'm a sitting member of congress, Clay. Any time I make an inquiry, it can upset someone's applecart. I can't jump into the middle of another government agencies business. It's not done. I wouldn't have done what I did for Ivan if you hadn't been involved.”
“He shouldn't have told you,” I said, holding firm.
“He wasn't in a position to consult you. What surprised me is that I didn't see it before. When I met you, Ivan and you were inseparable. Everyone told me you two were inseparable. Your father. His father. I was surprised that I wasn't surprised when Ivan said it.”
“You don't need to know. It's none of your business, Harry. It's a private affair. You're my boss. You're the guy that runs the show. I don't ask about your love life. It's none of my business. You don't get that?”
“Would you be bored if you did. I'm a politician. I run the conservancy. I don't have a love life.”
Harry took a deep breath, wanting to get off the spot he was on. He stood, emptying his melted ice cubes at the bar. He added more cubes and poured Canada Dry ginger ale on top. He held out the container of tea. I nodded I needed a refill. My mouth was dry and my glass was empty.
He came to get my glass, added ice cubes, filled it with tea, returning it to me. He went back for his drink and sat across from me. It was after eleven.
We sat silent as he considered how to say what came next. There was obviously more. I didn't know if would hear any more. The longer we sat, the less I expected to hear anything else.
I was worn out by what had already been said but I wanted to hear it all. If anyone knew who Ivan had gotten himself involved with, it was Harry.