The Gulf of Love
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Jerry W.
“Happy birthday, Clay. I brought you a gift,” Harry said, coming into my office with a package under his arm.
It was bigger than a breadbox.
“I don't even know your birthday,” I said. “You don't need to buy me gifts.”
“Sure I do. In particular I needed to buy you this gift. It's a fish finder,” Harry announced.
He sat across from me after setting the package down and taking off his jacket.
“Fish finder? What do you need me for?”
“Jacques Cousteau has one just like it on his research vessel.”
“He's one up on me,” I said.
“Have your pop take a look at it. He might be able to hook it up on the Seaswirl. It's as close to a research vessel as I can get at the moment. It can help you find out where the fish are. If there are less than usual, maybe you can find out why that is.”
“Pop's plenty busy with conservancy business, Harry. He looks tired all the time these days. I'll put Taggart on it. He'll figure it out. Maybe I'll have him hook it up on Popov's boat. I'm planning to go out with him to take a look at his fishing grounds. This gismo might help.”
“Taggart? Twila's Tag?”
“Yeah, boy's a whiz with electrical gadgets. He's like Pop. Give him something you can't figure out and he'll sit with it until he makes it work. I'll wait until I go out with Popov, hook it to his boat. I want to check his fishing grounds and see if anything stands out. Take water samples and see what I can see.”
“Bill isn't sure what to tell you. He's out past Guam since he left the South Atlantic. He won't be back until August. I told him what you told me. He told me you were on the right track. Stop fishing. Give the fish time to replenish their numbers.”
“Why aren't men smart enough to know the resources will run out one day if you don't preserve something for future generations?”
“So many fish! So little time! They're too dumb to think, Clayton. You haven't figured that out yet? The more they catch the more money they make, the more they catch, etc., etc., etc.”
“Congressman, I'm surprised at you. Talking about your constituents that way. What's a voter to do?”
“My voters aren't the ones depleting the fish. They've got better sense. Popov isn't going to over fish his fishing grounds. He's a smart fisherman. He listened to reason. Something else is going on in the Gulf. Something we can't see.”
“He thinks I'll bring back the fish,” I said. “I didn't know he believed that charm story. I know now. I'm afraid I'm going to disappoint him.”
“Or you'll figure it out and bring back the fish, just as he believes you will. You'll do it scientifically. Popov can go on believing you're the charmer of the fish.” Harry said. “I believe it.”
“He's a good man, Harry. I wouldn't be here if Popov hadn't come to the cove. I was a kid who got to go fishing because my best friend's father was a captain on a fishing boat. How cool is that? Popov made me feel like I was important to his fleet.”
“You were important than and you're more important to him now, Clay. You'll bring the fish back one way or another,” Harry said confidently.
“I wish I was as confident as you, congressman. Did you know Zane Grey was a naturalist, Harry?”
“My father loved his books,” Harry said wistfully.
“Over at the college someone in one of my English classes told me that. I told him I was studying to be a marine biologist. The next day he brought in a book of Zane Grey's photographs. There was a series taken in Monterrey Bay. The fishing boats were all at the mouth of the bay within a mile of the shoreline. People stood all along the docks watching these boats.”
“What was the attraction?”
“Tuna! They were catching these huge tuna in their nets. The pictures showed how massive the tuna were. Way bigger than the men trying to catch them. Grey estimated they averaged between one half and three quarters of a ton each.”
“Tuna! I thought half a ton was rare as hen's teeth,” Harry said.
“They are. Everyone of these fish were more than half a ton. There were five fishing boats in the photos and you could see the fisherman struggling to get the fish on the deck. Then they did something curious. Grey describes how they began cutting the nets to sink to the bottom of the bay with all those tuna in them.”
“You could see the boats beginning to sink because of the weight of the nets. There were so many tuna on deck the fishermen could hardly move. If they didn't cut the weight away from the stern of the boat the tuna would have dragged the fishing boats under.”
“That sounds incredible,” Harry said, trying to picture it.
“Today a five hundred pound tuna is really big,” I said.
“What happened?” Harry asked. “They tuna shrunk?”
“To grow to a half ton a tuna needs three to five years. To grow to full size a tuna needs more than ten years. There is so much tuna fishing today that it's rare to catch a tuna more than three years old. They don't have time to mature because we all want a tuna sandwich.”
“So if they cut back on tuna fishing, they'd get big again,” Harry asked.
“I don't know. It would be nice to find out. I've never seen one more than two or three hundred pounds. You'd be surprised how few tuna there are in Tulsa. My best guess is, if we gave tuna enough time to mature, they'd be huge. No one is going to give them the time. they'll fish them until the biggest is is two hundred and then one hundred pounds. Once the tuna a gone, they'll fish for something else and no one will get his tuna sandwich.”
“Ivan?” I asked.
“No. They gave me all they intend to give me, Clay. They wanted me to know they'd received information on Boris' whereabouts. They showed me their hole card, Clay. Knowing that meant I knew Ivan would do what ever it takes to get that information.”
“It's been two years since he told me it would be two years,” I said.
“I expect, and this is merely going on the notion that these fellows stay true to form, they'll ask him to continue his work for two more years and if he does that, they'll give him what they have on Boris.”
“1978,” I said.
“Don't quote me on that. It's my best guess.”
It had all begun in 1968. A boy from the beach where I lived went in search of his brother. It had been eight years.
The hope he'd return to me one day had dwindled.
On Friday afternoon July 16 we sailed out of the cove on Popov's trawler. He set course for the farthest of his fishing grounds.
Dylan had been excited all week, after Popov asked me to bring him along. Popov brought ten of his usual crew of twenty. It was enough men to do the work we needed to do.
As we sailed out of the cove, I had no feeling about the likelihood the fish were back in similar numbers as before. I could ask Popov for more time, depending on what we found, but he and his men were anxious to get back to work.
Dylan and I stood with Popov on the bridge and looked out at a beautiful clear day. There was no doubt who was the captain of this ship. Popov couldn't be anything else. He belonged on that bridge.
The fluffy white clouds moved lazily across the sky west on the horizon as we maintained a steady speed, sailing toward them. It was warm but not hot. It was hotter in April and May than it was in July. Usually in mid July the sun could be torturous if you were out in it for any length of time.
It was after ten that night when the nets went into the water. For the first time the trawler slowed to an idle. Dylan was dozing in Popov's chair when we reached the eastern most point of the fishing grounds. He became alert as soon as Popov began yelling orders and his crew scurried on the deck below.
By the way they moved they were delighted to be working. They began singing sea faring songs. Popov stood outside the bridge and sang louder than anyone, until the nets were in the water.
I checked the fish finder and showed Popov the shadows. He was amazed by what the small screen showed him. He asked questions I couldn't answer and we checked the depth of the water and I took water samples and measure the temperature.
“A bit warm,” I said, looking at the gauge. “I'd think it would be cooler this far out.”
“It means something?” Popov asked.
“If the water Warms too much, it isn't good for the fish. There is a level where they populate and reproduce best. I'll need to do some research. I want to study what makes fish migrate. Go to cooler waters. We'll keep a record on the water temperatures each time you go out. I'm learning as I go, Popov. I'll see what I can find.”
After an hour, the nets came up and the contents were deposited in the hold. The nets were put away.
“Half?” Popov said sadly.
“Half what you usually net here?” I asked.
“Half. Maybe a bit better than last time.”
Once everything was stowed away, we moved toward the southwest.
“Let me show you Popov's cabin. You can sleep there if you like. Popov will stay on bridge tonight. We keep moving.”
Dylan was too excited to go to sleep. He wanted to watch the operation of the nets and supervised the fish being brought on board. The crew knew Dylan and could go about their business without him being in the way.
I couldn't sleep. We were working a gigantic puzzle and I had to see the pieces as they were set into place. As we moved southwest for another few hours, Popov began to talk. He talked about fishing in Russia and his escape across the North Atlantic to America.
I remembered Ivan's Pop Pop and how he'd escaped the Soviets, sailing out of Vilnius and finding his way to the same cove where Popov ended up.
It was well after midnight when the nets went back into the Gulf again. Once again the trawler idled along. The nets were allowed to stay in a little longer this time. I stood beside Dylan as the nets came back on board.
It looked better than when the nets came in the first time. The fish wiggled and squirmed as the net swung over the main hold and opened to deposit the catch below deck.
Popov waded into the wriggling mass.
“Better, Clay. This is better. Not good but better,” Popov said.
“It's a start,” I said.
Popov was happier. He thought the fish were making a comeback. For the sake of the fishermen and the cove, I hoped that was true. Both of us knew that a couple of nets full of fish didn't do much but give you an indication of how many fish were in the water when the nets went in.
It was getting daylight as we moved northeast. Dylan hadn't missed anything so far. He was too excited to sleep. At seven this was the adventure of a lifetime. He'd been able to see fishermen at work and sail as far into the Gulf as I'd ever been.
I was still apprehensive. What had I proven by getting the fishing fleet to take six weeks off? Were the fish increasing in numbers or was there something else going on? I didn't know the answer.
The sun was ready to pop up over the horizon when the nets went in for the third and final time. Dylan spent a lot of time looking into the Gulf he could see now. He watched the seamen take care of the chores to get ready to hoist the nets back onto the deck.
Dylan had seen all these men at J.K.'s and most of them knew Dylan from when he was tiny. There was a kinship there that was hard for me to explain.
The closest fishing grounds to the cove yielded more fish than the other two closer fishing grounds. The nets didn't come in full of fish but by far it was the most we'd caught that night.
Popov was delighted as he waded through the fish one last time.
“Fish Warehouse will be happy to see us. Popov tell them he bring fish.”
We laughed. It was impossible not to laugh when Popov laughed.
It was another perfect day as the sun moved higher in the sky. I liked feeling the breeze in my face as the boat sailed for the cove. We moved far faster that the Vilnius Two could go. Ivan's grandfather had his boat built to hold a lot of fish and not to move fast.
“Come! We go to galley and see what's cooking,” Popov said, gathering Dylan and me in his arms to usher us off the bridge. The decks were all but empty. What had been a madhouse of activity a few hours before, was quiet now. We were about to find out why.
As we entered the galley in front of Popov, the men were all there and broke into song, “Harry birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday dear, Dylan. Happy birthday to you.”
A big chocolate cake was in the center of the table with a tub of ice cream next to it. Dylan cocked his head, looking back at me and then at the cake with seven full size candles on top.
I'd mentioned off hand that this would be a nice birthday present for Dylan, getting out deep into the Gulf. Popov did the rest.
Everyone got a big chunk of cake and a bowl of ice cream.
Dylan was as happy as a lamb. It was his favorite breakfast ever.
Dylan got another cake and ice cream when we got home. Seven had started off as a fine year for my son. His excitement level wasn't what it usually would have been, after being up all night.
He fell asleep before our usual reading time arrived and waking him to find out what happens to Gulliver wasn't necessary.
I met Popov at J.K.'s for lunch on Monday.
“What are you thinking, Clay,” he asked.
“Thanks for the birthday cake. Dylan felt at home with your crew.”
“Their memory of him runs far longer than his memory of them,” Popov said.
“Can I talk you out of going to the western fishing grounds for the rest of the year?”
“What of the other two?” Popov asked.
“Mid August. One trip a week. No more than four days. Both are closer to the cove. That'll cut your expenses considerably. I'm going to ask the fish warehouse for the weight of your catches for the past two years.”
“Is fine with Popov. You boss.”
“This is new, Popov, but I intend to keep records to indicate the trends. Maybe we'll talk about taking one month in the winter and a month in the summer when your fleet stays anchored each year. We'll know a lot more once you start fishing on a regular schedule next month.”
“We're OK so far, Clay. Is good plan. I am thinking you know plenty. Fishing with us those years is good thing now.”
“Yes it is. I know people are depending on the things we decide to do. I'd like to think we're making sure that there will always be fish to catch.”
1976 was the first year I worked at being a marine biologist. For the first time people I knew depended on me to come up with answers that would make it possible for them to continue making a living while living near the cove.
While Bill Payne came and sat in my office at the end of July, while Popov's fishing fleet was still at anchored in the cove, he didn't have much to say. He listened to me tell him about what I'd seen and done.
“When do you let them go back to being fishermen, Clay?” Bill asked, looking at the weight of the fish Popov's fleet had caught over the past two years.
“Except for the day in July when I went out with him, they'll stay in the cove for two more weeks. Then the plan is for them to go our once a week instead of twice, fish four days a week instead of six, and they don't fish the western most grounds until early next year.”
“You will keep me informed. I'm due back out in the South Pacific at the end of the week. We've been using under water technology to examine the bottom there. It's huge and we're finding creatures we didn't know existed. They live where men don't come in contact with them.”
New technology was making it possible for marine biologists to go where they'd never been able to go before. Diving bells and underwater cameras were bringing what was on the floor of the seas into view. It was one of those events words can't describe. An entirely unknown world came into view. There were creatures no man had seen before.
I had no urge to leave where I lived. There may have been a bigger world out there but I liked where I was. I could accomplish what I wanted to do while living on my beach.
Popov went on the reduced schedule I'd come up with a month after I went out with him. I knew when the fleet would return to the cove and I was there an hour early to be sure I was first to get word on how the fishing went. Men had put their livelihood in my hands. I wanted to face them over the results of my planning.
It was a grand site to see the fleet returning to the cove, lining up to leave the fish at the fish warehouse. No one at the warehouse acted like they wanted to do me harm, but I'd put them out of work too. I hoped things would return to normal so we could avoid more long shutdowns.
Popov was all smiles when he came to greet me. I waited for him to tell me how he'd done.
“Is better. Not good. Not bad, but better than in the spring.”
“The key is the western grounds. We leave them alone for the entire six months. That will tell us if we need to fish less to keep the fish population plentiful.”
“We are fine with holds three quarters full,” Popov said.
In September and October, I went diving frequently on the new reef that was twenty-five minutes from the mouth of the cove. The more I studied it, the more I found to study. The dives were easy with the reef that close to the surface.
I got excited before I anchored a hundred or more feet to the west of the reef. I didn't want to disturb what ever activity was going on or announce that company was coming. Making an underwater approach gave me the best results.
I had two file cabinet drawers full of pictures and notes in short order. I kept a journal and I made entries describing each dive on my new reef. It dominated my time at the conservancy.
I scheduled two dives a week on that reef. I had my eye on something new I spotted each time I ran out of air. It was a treasure trove of organisms in an unmolested habitat. Finding a place where man hadn't left his impact wasn't easy.
The amount of information one spot yielded was beyond my wildest dreams. I was always anxious to get back to see what else I might find on the next dive. It was a marine biologists' version of heaven.
I didn't take Dylan back to the reef he discovered. I didn't tell him it was a shipwreck or that there were an immense number of species inhabiting that single coral reef. While I took him snorkeling from time to time, usually at his request, because I was too busy to think of it most days. My son still had SCUBA gear on his mind. He was still too small for the gear. It was a matter of safety.
When things went wrong underwater, you had seconds, maybe a minute to surface once your air ran out.
The reef had been there hundreds of years and there was no reason it wouldn't be there hundreds more. Once Dylan was nine or ten, I'd find equipment that fit him and introduce him to the reef.
He bugged me about getting SCUBA gear every chance he got.
With September being the fist full month of fishing for Popov's fleet, I was anxious to see the numbers. It turned out to be one of the better months in a year and that was using the two closest fishing grounds. I was pleased and Popov was delighted. He wasn't going to go bankrupt and the fish warehouse found a way to keep most of their employees working.
The cove was back in business and I took Dylan snorkeling the day after we got the numbers for October. It was a better month for fishing than September. Two fairly good months in a row and this called for clams and hush puppies at J.K.'s after two hours of snorkeling. We could snorkel and didn't need to worry about running out of air.
J.K. came out to serve us. He too was all smiles. I assumed his business was doing better once the fishing fleet went back to fishing. We were there in between lunch and dinner, so it wasn't crowded. The fleet was out that day and Popov didn't know his October results were better than September yet, or, knowing Popov, he probably figured it out without me telling him.
I was the guy who came up with the bright ideas. Popov caught the fish.
“J.K., how much do I owe you,” I said, taking my wallet out of my jacket.
“On the house, Clay. You owe me nothing. Popov said you don't pay for meals at J.K.'s. You're his guest and I'm delighted to serve you. Thank you, Clay.”
“Why don't you pay for our food, Daddy,” Dylan asked as we walked to the car.
“What I did for the fishing fleet worked out and now Popov won't let me pay for anything at J.K.'s.”
“That means he's happy with you?” Dylan asked.
“I'd say. He's a good man, Dylan.”
“I like him,” Dylan said.
It was a testimonial from my son few people received.
Being made happy by an act of generosity from a man I did my best to help gave me a good feeling. Being appreciated in such a way was nice. It's why I had no desire to leave the cove. I was at home here and doing what I set out to do.
Some parts of 1976 turned out just fine. I'd had some adventures, some successes, and the pristine reef anchored my world of research. Whenever I needed a lift, I went diving all day on Dylan's reef.
I had three sets of SCUBA tanks I could use, counting Harry's and Ivan's. On the days I wanted to spend most of the day underwater, I'd load those tanks up on the Seaswirl at nine in the morning and I'd be in my own world until late in the afternoon.
There was no rush and no rooster tail. Just me, the Gulf, and the reef on a lazy cool November day. I often lost track of time and sat between dives making notes of my newest finds.
This was my world and I loved it.
I don't remember what day of the week it was. I don't remember much about it. This was one of those days in 1976 that wasn't OK.
Nothing was going to turn out fine. I only thought my life was good and my future great as I did what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it.
Seemingly nice days can go down hill fast.
I knew nothing about where Ivan was or even if he was alive, but he was on my mind that day. He was on my mind most days..
I'd stayed longer than usual on the reef. I came up to deposit an empty air tank on the Sea Swirl, jot notes, eat one of the sandwiches Mama packed for dive days. An hour would pass before I strapped on a fresh tank and went back into the Gulf.
On the way back to the cove, I decided I'd talk to the man who ran the bait shop and make arrangements to supply him with an air compressor to fill SCUBA tanks. I was sure this was the way to go in the cove. As more and more people took an interest in our out of the way paradise, we needed something to attract them and get them to leave a few of their dollars with us.
Not everyone wanted to go at full tilt mode all the time. Some folks would enjoy our slow and easy pace of living.
I didn't want to go to J.K.'s to eat, but I felt starved as I brought in the anchor and started back for the cove. I checked the bag for another sandwich, but it was empty. Maybe Mama would have something out that I could pinch to tide me over until dinner.
I slid into my slip like a pro. I was tired and hungry and a bit sunburned. I wanted to get home and jump into the shower before dinner.
That's when my thoughts and my world were interrupted by the new dock man. He appeared from nowhere and jumped on the deck of the Seaswirl to secure the line.
It was like he was waiting for me to show up.
“Thanks,” I said, unaccustomed to him helping.
I had no money in my swimming suit, but I'd tip him later. When he gathered my tanks to set them on the dock, I was perplexed. I didn't need any help doing my joy. It was a nice gesture but he was slowing me down and I wanted that shower.
I thought I'd stop and get the tanks filled on my way to the conservancy in the next morning.
“Mr. Harry's been waiting' an hour for you, sir. I told him you was never gone this long.”
“Harry? He's not supposed to be home until late,” I said more to myself than to the dock man.
It was curious but after election day, Harry was usually gone until Thanksgiving.
I had my double tanks in one hand and the two singles in the other as I turned to go to my car.
When I looked up, Harry was there. His tie was hanging loose and the top buttons on his shirt were unbuttoned. He looked terrible.
“Harry! Are you OK?”
Reginald appeared at Harry's side. What was going on?
“What's wrong,” I said, having reality hit me all at once. “Not Dylan. Please tell me it isn't Dylan.”
“Your father,” Harry said. “Heart attack. He's in a coma. Your mother and Lucy are with him in Fort Myers. Where have you been? No one knew where you had gone.”
“Pop knew. I told him I was diving on the reef all day today.”
Before Harry returned to Washington, the Seaswirl was equipped with a radio.
“Dylan's home. I sent Twila over to keep him busy. He doesn't know about your father. You need to get home and take care of your son. There's nothing you can do for your father right now. It's wait and see right now, Clay.”
“He's alive,” I asked, my mind swirling.
“He's alive,” Harry said. “Where have you been, Clayton?”
“Diving my reef. Taking my time,” I said, angry with myself for being out of contact all day.
“We'll take those,” Harry said, relieving me of the air tanks.
He took one and Reginald took the other two. I walked down the dock behind them, having failed in my attempt to get at least one of the tanks back.
I'd never seen Harry more pale or more agitated as we moved toward the parking lot.
“Let me put them in my trunk, Reginald,” I said, dodging ahead of them to get the weight off the man.
I opened the trunk and he set the tanks inside one at a time.
“I hope you Pa, he be OK, Mr. Clay,” Reginald said softly.
“Thank you, Reginald. That's kind of you.”
I grabbed my jeans from the trunk and pulled them on over my bathing suit. I sat in the back of Harry's car, once he made it clear he wasn't letting me drive myself home.”
“Harry, you didn't need to....”
“Yes I did. You and your father are the heard of the conservancy, Clay. When there's trouble, I want to be here. When I go to Washington, I know the conservancy is in good hands. It's you and your father who make sure the conservancy business is done. We depend on him for so much. Wouldn't know what to do without him making sure everything was running properly,” he said, not looking at me as he spoke. “No, I couldn't sit up there and wait. Waiting is easier here.”
Harry and I had been together much of October. This was the year I campaigned with him full time. I spoke where he spoke and went where he went. The conservancy and its marine biologist were essential parts of Harry's work in Washington.
Every one knew Harry and I was Harry's man in the Gulf of Mexico. I told my story to the people that came to hear Harry talk.
Most jobs in the area were related to tourism, water sports, and pleasure crafts. I'd replaced Bill Payne as Harry's spokesman on the environment, but only because Bill had moved on to other things, leaving the Gulf in my trusted hands.
As we drove toward the conservancy house, I thought back to when Sunshine died and how Harry had been there through it all. He was like a second father to me. I had no way to repay him for that.
One thing was for certain, I wasn't done with my first father yet.
As with the day Sunshine died, I didn't know there were days like that until the day came.
The same was true with Pop's heart attack.
For the first time I realized my father was mortal. One day Pop wouldn't be around any longer. I hoped this wasn't that day.
I don't know if I prayed to Mama's God or not but I prayed big time.
'Please don't let him die.'