The Gulf of Love
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Jerry W.
Talkers and Listeners
Harry scheduled me to appear in front of his committee early in April. He flew home to fly me to Washington. I'd take a commercial flight home. I'd stay two nights. He wanted me to stay three.
Harry landed on the field behind his house before eleven in the morning. Reginald brought him to the conservancy house to pick me up for lunch at the Gulf Club.
Harry spent most of the time reassuring me about my appearance in front of his committee. He told me that most of the two days would be spent seeing the sights and enjoying Washington's best features. While we talked, Harry relaxed after the morning trip home.
We dropped Harry off to sleep while the plane was refueled and serviced for the flight back to D.C. We'd leave that night, landing at Hyde field, a few miles outside of D.C., and I'd be at the hotel before morning rush hour started.
I'd never flown before the trip to Washington in April 1976.
As we sat at the end of the runway between the conservancy and Harry's house, he revved the engines before letting the plane loose to move down the runway and leap into the clear evening air.
With a full moon I could see the water below as Harry went straight west and flew out over the Gulf.
Setting his course for north northeast, the hum of the engines became relaxing as Harry checked all the gauges before he left his local airspace. We were six hours from setting down at Hyde Field in Maryland. We took off and landed on grass.
I was too excited to sleep. We stayed over the water for some time. When we crossed the coastline of Florida to the north, we were where the panhandle joins the peninsula of the state and still moving north northeast. We still had four hours left in the air.
We landed next to a new Lincoln Mark IV. I regarded it a beautiful car. I'd entertained the idea of buying one and giving Teddy's Chevy to Lucy. Harry's Lincoln was dark green with tan leather interior. It was a sweet ride.
We drove around the Capitol and down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Mayflower Hotel. It was just beginning to be daylight as Harry handed his keys to the man on duty at the front door.
“I'll be having breakfast with Mr. Olson. I'll need my car in about an hour. Don't bury it, son,” Harry said, handing him a twenty.
“No, sir,” the man said with a smile. “Enjoy your breakfast, sir. Your car will be ready two minutes after you come out that door.”
We went inside before Harry told me the plan.
“I'll order for both of us and have it delivered to your room, Clay. We'll eat there. I have a few things to tell you and since I'm changing your room, we can be free to talk.”
“OK, Harry, whatever you say. I hope I've got time for a nap.”
“Plenty of time. I have a little business this morning. I'll pick you up and we'll see the city and have dinner at the Flagship on Main Avenue. Seafood. You'll love it. Anything special for breakfast. I'll order when I tell them to change your room.”
“Plenty of coffee. Pancakes maybe and some fruit.”
Harry spoke with the man at the desk and brought back the key. We went to the tenth floor and entered my room. I was glad I wasn't paying for it. It was a nice room.
“Ivan!” Harry said.
“You're way ahead of me. I haven't heard a word. You said to expect none.”
“I talked to the man who runs the agency where Ivan is doing his work. He's safe and not doing anything dangerous. They don't use amateurs for anything difficult. Ivan simply has a good profile for what they need. There is news on Boris I wanted to give you. I'm told there is verification that he is alive in in Southeast Asia.”
“After all this time, Harry. Are you sure?”
“I'm not sure but the man I spoke with is sure and he says they've discovered men who know where he is. Ivan's work requires him to be in one place for some time. Since he will be in the same place, they've been poking around trying to find Boris for Ivan. They're in the business of information and finding a missing U.S. serviceman isn't out of their bailiwick if doing so scores them some points with someone.”
This was as close to a confirmation as had come my way. Ivan held out the hope his brother was still alive. Someone had told Harry he likely was. Maybe Ivan would bring Boris home after all.
I didn't know how to feel. Could this be coming to an end at last?
“Why are you telling me this? Why would someone tell you that?”
“For one thing, I wasn't told not to tell you, but as you see, I wasn't about to tell you until I was in a spot I knew hadn't been bugged.”
“Harry, why would someone bug you. You're a congressman.”
“The people I'm dealing with take secrecy very seriously. I know enough to know they don't take chances. I have information they gave me and told not to give to anyone. That gives them a reason to listen to my conversations.”
“Someone who should know what's going on told you Boris was alive?”
“He's alive and living over there somewhere. They are satisfied it is Boris.”
“Oh my God! Ivan doesn't know?”
“No! I get the impression that in order for him to find out there will be more wheeling and dealing. Ivan will need to give something to get something.”
“To get Boris?”
“Those bastards. Hasn’t he been through enough? They can make a family whole again and instead of doing it they want to deal.”
“I can't tell you what I don't know. Boris is alive and they will eventually tell Ivan where he is. I don't know what they'll want from him for the information. I was not told I couldn't tell anyone this, but you can't tell anyone. Not only will Ivan lose the chance to find his brother but he might be in danger if someone thinks their secrets aren't secret any more. I can't prove that's true. I suspect it's true. Especially you can't tell Ivan if he should contact you.”
“The plane? The car? You couldn't talk then?”
“No. I don't trust my phones. I know too much about the people Ivan is dealing with to trust them. I don't trust anything that sits unattended for long periods. I do a lot of business walking the halls of the Capitol. People who talk too much tend to disappear in this town. I'm careful. I don't talk turkey anywhere that may not be secure.”
“A U.S. Congressman can just disappear?”
“Not likely, but there's a first time for everything. There are other ways to let a congressman know they're on someone's radar screen. I've played nice and told Ivan to cooperate. Do what he agreed to do. I had no way of knowing that they'd actively put feelers out for information on Boris,” he said.
“I'm assuming they told me about Boris as an act of good faith. They want me to know Ivan is in good hands. Ivan has the kind of appearance that allows him to blend in. Just a face in the crowd.”
“You believe this? He's just sitting around listening to what other people have to say?”
“It's what I was told and it's consistent with what these people do. They didn't need to tell me anything. I thought it might let you rest easier. Don't expect me to put you up in the Mayflower every time I want to talk to you.”
“OK, Harry. Whatever you say.”
Harry planned my testimony for April. He wanted me to see the cherry blossoms, especially surrounding the Tidal Basin. We drove out to Haines Point and he showed me the spot where his clandestine meeting with the man who had no name took place.
The weather was warm for Washington but a bit cool for my taste. Harry explained the plan to take me to Mt. Vernon, Fort Washington, and Great Falls. He'd give me a tour of the Capitol and the Sam Rayburn Building.
The trip to the White House to meet President Nixon was off. Harry knew President Ford from the House of Representatives. They weren't close and Ford wasn't as keen on the environment.
I enjoyed the insider's tour of D.C. I would have several hours to explore the Mall and the museums once I gave my testimony. I'd speak first after lunch and Harry would be involved with the committee and other witnesses until late in the day.
He would make sure I would be done within an hour.
Harry had orchestrated my career. He couldn't orchestrate the goings on in Washington and so my testimony came about a year after he originally planned it. It was a year when I became seasoned and poised in front of an audience.
A year before I'd have been a lot more apprehensive than I was by April of 1976.
We spent the following morning in Harry's office and he took me through the Capitol. He explained what he'd say before he introduced me. No one was going to question my credentials or if what I had to say had credence. It was choreographed like a dance.
I'd been well prepared for my testimony by years of conversation with Harry and Bill Payne. I'd done appearances before businessmen and donors for several years. I knew the Gulf and the things in it.
Harry took me through the Capitol on the way to lunch. We ate in the congressional lunchroom before my testimony. As thirsty as I was, I didn't drink anything with my meal.
By the time I sat in front of the environmental committee, I still had to pee. I wondered if if it might be a nervous reaction to my stress.
That wasn't the half of it. As Harry was calling the committee to order, there was a disturbance in back of the room. I looked back to see Bill Payne speaking with the Sgt. At Arms.
So much for my expertise. I'd just been trumped. I had that sinking feeling in my stomach. Everything I knew flashed through my brain all at once. I needed to be on my game.
“It's OK, Barry. He's safe. I know him.”
Bill came to the table and I stood and shook his hand. He hugged me in front of every one. We hadn't seen each other in 1976. He'd been in the South Atlantic since New Years.
“Excuse me, Mr. Chairman, my plane got delayed at Kennedy. I'm sorry.”
“No problem, Bill. Welcome back. Glad you could make it,” Harry said, sounding delighted.
I was always happy to see Bill but now I was a redundancy. There's nothing I could say he wouldn't say first and with more authority.
I didn't feel nervous until Bill showed up and then I feared making a fool out of myself. Harry didn't warn me.
“Thank you for attending this session of the environmental committee. We're going to hear from Clayton Olson, marine biologist from the Sanibel Island Conservancy first.”
Everyone smiled and nodded pleasantly at Harry mentioning his conservancy like it wasn't his.
“Mr. Olson, you've been in the Gulf for a long time. Can you give us a rundown on your experience and then give us a bird's eye view on your opinion of the general health and welfare of the environment you're involved with.”
It was a lot of words to ask me to tell my story. I began at the beginning. I talked for well over a half an hour and no one interrupted me. It was far easier than dealing with the Florida Boys. The mention of plastic and petroleum being a problem didn't stir this committee.
“Thank you very much. Since you work for me, Clay, I know your story. Every time I hear it, I realize how lucky the conservancy is to have you looking after the Gulf of Mexico. Mr. Olson will take questions for a few minutes and then Bill Payne will share a little bit of his wisdom with us.”
I still had to pee but I listened to the questions carefully and answered to the best of my ability..
Appearing in front of a congressional committee, even one run by Harry, was different from anything else I'd done. These were some serious folks with serious questions. They weren't all friendly.
Harry had explained that morning, 'Some members feel that the environment has done fine before you arrived and they're sure it will be fine long after you've gone. It's why passing legislation to protect the environment is such a challenge.'
When there were no more questions, I relaxed, but I still had to pee.
I'd heard Bill speak before and it would be a while. I hadn't said anything too outrageous. I was hoping not to be corrected.
“I've been on an extended expedition exploring the bottom of the South Atlantic. Since Clay Olson was my student, there's little he said I don't agree with. He's keenly aware of the condition of the Gulf of Mexico,” Bill said in his easy going style.
“As a student, Clay's intuitive observations often gave me better insights concerning my own conclusions. As my student, Clay worked beside me as an equal when we went into the Gulf. We taught each other in those years and we still dive together and meet in his laboratory at the Sanibel Island Conservancy as often as I'm available. I'm always anxious to get Clay's opinion on my findings and discuss his discoveries.
“There's little I can add to what's he's told you. When you want to discuss the South Atlantic, I've got several notebooks full of my impressions of the condition of that wide open body of water. What I'm currently examining is the condition of the shipwrecks sunk during World War II. That's another story for another time. That's all I have for you today. Thank you. It's always a pleasure to speak with you.”
I was surprised at the brevity of Bill's comments. Then I realized why Bill had been invited to appear along side me. It was what Harry described to me the year before.
Harry's comment about me being a made man made sense now. Congressman Harry McCallister, the voice of reason for the environment in congress, introduced me as his marine biologist. Bill Payne, a respected authority on pollution's effect on the environment, endorsed me. My reputation had expanded out of Florida.
A five minute recess was called and Bill and I left together.
“Clay, so nice to see you. I don't have any time to chat. I'm on my way for a conference at Princeton this evening. I could pass up an opportunity to talk about you first.”
“Thanks, Bill. You're too kind. I don't know if I deserve the things you said about me.”
“Most people consider my word as good as gold. That's because I tell the truth, Clay. Your at the top of your game and I'm proud of you,” he said, shaking my hand. “I've got to get moving. I have a car waiting to take me to National Airport for a three o'clock flight.”
Standing on the top of the steps at the Capitol, looking out at the Mall and the Washington Monument, I was immediately drawn to the Lincoln Memorial at the far end of the Reflecting Pool.
It was just after two and Harry would meet me in front of the Supreme Court at six to go for dinner and a stroll in Georgetown. Until then I'd spend hours in the Smithsonian Museum, after a trip to the Jefferson Memorial, after I spent time with Abe.
The next morning we ate breakfast at the Mayflower and were off for a morning of sightseeing before I flew back to Florida.
I was startled by how wonderful Mount Vernon was. Harry, being a congressman meant a private tour. We were taken through the residence, over to the fields, and down to the boat landing on the Potomac River.
It was impressive.
When we drove around the Tidal Basin, the cherry blossoms were a burst of pink surrounding the water.
On the way to Washington I had taken the controls while Harry explained the operation of the plane. He'd wait until August recess and he'd give me instructions on takeoff and landing. It wasn't quite as easy as operating the Seaswirl. It was quite exciting.
The American Airlines pilot didn't offer to teach me to fly the jet plane but the stewardess gave me a bag of peanuts. I passed on a soda and slept the last hour into Orlando.
Harry hired a private service to fly me to the airfield between his house and the conservancy and Reginald drove me home in time for dinner.
It was an exciting trip and I was glad it was over. Store bought food was fine but nothing beat one of Mama's meals. Everyone was excited about my trip to D.C. and my appearance in front of a congressional committee.
Flying back home gave me a great deal of peaceful thinking time. The constant noise in the plane's cabin couldn't stop my mind from wandering.
I'd reached a milestone in my life. I was a marine biologist. I had something to say and people were listening to me. I'd spent nine years working toward the moment I sat in front of Congress.
Whether or not I made a difference wasn't up to me. I would do my job, offer educated opinions, and hope people wanted to protect their environment so it continued offering comfort to all of us.
I feared the people with the power weren't listening. There was something more important to them than clean water and fresh air.
There were people every bit as educated as I was and even more respected, but they would lie for a price. They were paid to put doubt in people's minds about the people who polluted. Making a company clean up after itself meant taking away from its profits. If you could lie and cheat to avoid that, why not? Who could say we weren't wrong about the damage they were doing to the environment?
Greed was far more powerful than the truth.
I had no idea what would happen if my warnings weren't heeded. No one did. I strongly suspected the consequences would be cumulative and the health of many environmental systems depended on the health of all of them. Once the environment began to decay, it would, in time, lead to a collapse.
This was what Bill Payne and environmentalists theorized and were doing their best to prevent. They were involved in collecting evidence in long term studies to document pollution's impact.
Denials proved nothing. They prevented passage of regulations that would stop the worst polluters.
Once we'd gone beyond any reasonable hope that we could stop the pollution and repair the damage done, I'd seriously consider leaving the field. I wasn't making a futile attempt to reason with people who didn't care if there was clean water to drink or clean air to breathe.
It was up to the American people to decide that the destruction of the environment had to stop.
I still believed in keeping the Gulf of Mexico as clean as possible for as long as possible. Most people weren't going to listen or do anything to help accomplish this. Biologists and environmentalists were only able to sound the warning.
I'd be dedicated to doing all I could for as long as I could. It wasn't a lifetime commitment for me and I'd know when it was time to get out.
1976 was one of those years. It had amazing highs and heartbreaking lows. After appearing in Washington, my career was on the fast track.
I accepted invitations to compare notes with professors at the biology wing at the University of Texas and at the biology lab at the University of Louisiana in 1976.
Comparing notes with marine biologists living in states on the Gulf was a good opportunity to see what other scientists saw. When I met with marine biologist now, my age wasn't the first topic of conversation.
Bill Payne warned me to beware of the scientists in the oil patch states who had great sounding arguments why oil wasn't damaging the Gulf of Mexico. Having a discussion with men paid to deny reality wasn't productive. They were paid far more than we were paid to deny the strongest evidence of oil's ability to damage the Gulf of Mexico.
When I got home, I was there for my son and my parents. Lucy was still at college but not for long. By the time I returned from Washington in 1976, Lucy was about to graduate. She'd return to the conservancy house to teach at the local elementary school. This excited my sister.
Ivan came to mind frequently once I'd met with Harry at the Mayflower and was told what I was told. If Boris was alive, and Ivan was eventually told where he was, the long wait might be over.
I couldn't tell anyone, because I wouldn't know what to tell them. I could see raised eyebrows if I told them what Harry told me. It did change things. I felt better about the prospect of Ivan returning to me.
It seemed more possible than it had seemed in years. I was hopeful.
Dylan sulked because he couldn't go to Washington with me. He wanted to see me testify, but more importantly, he wanted to see what Harry did and what a government did. We'd read the books Harry gave Dylan at Christmas and my son was curious about the way things were today. I told him if I was called to Washington again, he'd go with me.
I promised to take Dylan snorkeling on the Sea Swirl Thursday after school.
I'd been busy with some experiments I was doing at the laboratory and I began picking Dylan up after school twice a week, taking him to the lab. This increased our time together.
Dylan loved my laboratory. Especially he loved the jars of specimens.
“What's this, Daddy?” he'd ask, pointing at a specimen.
I began referencing each specimens to its place in the library of biology books Harry purchased for the lab. I sat with Dylan and a biology book until we located the specimen he asked about. I began cross referencing each specimen with what was written in the books and what I'd written in my notes about it because of Dylan's curiosity.
On the Thursday after returning from Washington, I picked Dylan up after school and we headed for the marina.
As I cast off the Sea Swirl's lines, Dylan got into his bathing suit. I started the dual Evinrudes and we began to ease toward the mouth of the cove.
“Can I drive?” Dylan asked.
“There was a marine police boat at the opening to the Gulf when I went out last time. Let's wait until we clear the cove and you can drive.”
As we reached the end of the speed restricted zone, I moved out of the driver's seat and Dylan sat behind the wheel.
“OK?” he asked.
“OK,” I said.
He moved the throttle forward. The bow of the boat lifted and the power pressed us back into our seats.
The fresh air felt nice. It was unusually hot and humid for April. Except for a short period in December and a shorter one in February, it had been far warmer than was typical for that time of year.
When we left the cove we headed straight west until we were out of sight of land. Then I signaled Dylan to steer directly south so we'd follow the the now invisible coastline. I liked this route because so few boats came this way.
Once we were heading south, Dylan looked at me. My son had the same need for speed as me. He couldn't wait to push the throttle all the way forward.
His small hand eased the long slender throttle as far forward as it would go, making the nose of the boat raise up precipitously. Dylan could hardly see over the dash from the driver's seat. I could. Nothing was in our way.
It wasn't what was in front of us that most excited Dylan. He looked back over his shoulder at the rooster tail we kicked up as we flew over the water. It was magnificent, shooting twenty to thirty feet high as the twin 40 hp Evinrudes absolutely screamed.
This was quality time. I wasn't on the Sea Swirl to study anything. This was what we did for fun. Dylan shared my love for the water and the things in it. While I knew Dylan was still a kid, he didn’t. He thought of himself as a vertically challenged adult. He refused to be discounted because of his lack of height.
As wonderful as speed could be, the sun was relentless. I'd begun to sweat profusely. I needed to cool off in the water. This was the first time I'd taken Dylan snorkeling this far off shore. I usually didn't have the time to make an afternoon of it and we stayed closer in.
Dylan was still fascinated by everything he saw underwater, we didn't need to go far to get there, but I set aside plenty of time today. I planned to stop at J.K.'s once we docked, and Dylan would get his favorites, clams and hush puppies.
I tapped his shoulder and signaled for him to cut the engines. He'd done the speed thing and now we'd do the snorkeling thing. As he eased back on the throttles, allowing the engines to adapt to the lower speed, the spot where we ended up was totally random, like life itself.
While this was a pleasure trip, I was always at work when I was on the Gulf. I kept my eyes open for new discoveries and for places with potential. I never knew when something might turn up.
I tossed the anchor into the water and I hung the ladder over the side. When I had my snorkeling gear on, I sat beside the ladder and fell backward into the water and I fell right on top of a reef.
Luckily it was ten feet below the surface, but as soon as I rolled onto my stomach, I saw the most pristine reef I'd ever seen.
Dylan dropped in beside me. I pointed straight down.
This was quite a find. The rich variety of life on the reef was spectacular and brightly colored. Dylan was enthralled.
By sheer accident we'd dropped on top of a reef I'd be studying for years to come. No one else knew the reef was here. It wasn't difficult to see that the condition of the reef and the variety of life meant man hadn't been here yet.
My goal would be to keep it this way.
I checked my compass points before we left to make sure I'd be able to find the reef again.
As we tied up the Seaswirl, Dylan was a chatterbox over what he saw under the Gulf. Even I was impressed by our find. It was Dylan's find. He took us right to it.
By the time we arrived at J.K.'s Kitchen in our bare feet, swim suits, and expressive tee-shirts, Dylan was starved. We'd be sitting down for dinner in a couple hours, which meant restricting him to one order of fried clams with hush puppies, which I helped him eat.
Once the food came, Dylan stopped talking long enough to gobble down the clams. He offered me some clams but I opted for a couple of hush puppies. They were exceptionally good. I didn't know what the secret ingredient was, but it had us hooked.
Just as we were cleaning up our plates, Popov walked in, coming directly over to our table.
“Clay, Dylan, it's nice to be seeing you,” Popov said, giving us a warm smile.
We exchanged greetings and Popov sat next to Dylan, because my son scooted over to leave room for the substantial man.
“And when is Dylan coming to work for Popov?” He asked my son in a serious voice. “Your father was no older than you are when he came to bring the fish to Popov.”
Dylan looked at me. He was at a loss for words, a rare event.
“What grade are you in, Dylan?” I asked, playing along.
“I'll finish second grade next month. I'll be in the third grade.”
“I don't know, Popov. I think he should graduate elementary school before we put him to work,” I said.
“Yes, one should finish the elementary school,” Popov agreed.
“How's the fishing?” I asked.
“The fish they are not biting,” Popov lamented.
“Fish bite on hooks, Popov. You use nets,” I said.
“If Popov was using the hooks, no fish would be on them,” he said solemnly.
“How serious is it?” I asked as a reference point for my marine biologist mind.
“Our holds are half full since March, Popov, he will not be paying the bills if the fish they do not bite soon.”
“You do know that you're talking to a marine biologist, Popov. I study these waters and keep records on significant trends. If there's no improvement by June, drop by the lab. We should talk. You do know you can drop by any time you like,” I said, eating a hush puppy and licking my fingers, pondering Popov's problem.
“You go out with Popov and bring back fish, Clay?”
“We'll talk. I'll do whatever it takes. I might go out with you,” I said thoughtfully. “I need to give it some thought. See if other areas are having the same problem.”
“Everything is fine then. We'll be in the fish when you come again to fish on Popov's boat, Clay.”
I wish I had his confidence.
Where could the fish have gone?