The Gulf of Love
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Jerry W.
Pop's recovery and Teddy's visit to the conservancy house made 1977 a banner year. I was back at work in January and happy for what I had.
Harry didn't make his first trip home until a month after the new session of congress started and the 39th President's Inauguration.
While Washington was rolling along, my Nikon didn't have time to cool off. The new reef was yielding a unique opportunity to hone my photographic skills. Each dive provided a new experience, which kept me captivated until my air ran low.
Each time I left my reef, I started planning my next dive. I approached from a different angle on each dive. The life on the west side of the reef was somewhat different from the life on the other three sides.
Bill Payne's first trips to the conservancy that year came during February. While going through a pile of new pictures I'd taken during the new year, he discovered a fresh water fish native to Asia. He also found two species he'd never seen before. This kept Bill there until we could make a dive to see the reef for himself.
Bill became the first person I took there. Until then Dylan was the only other person who knew it was there, but he didn't know how important it had become to my work.
The crisp bright richness of the colors and the many species caught Bill's attention. The less prominent pastel colored sea creatures came in a variety of shapes and designs. It made for a successful dive.
Bill had been diving in the Pacific where they discovered new species on every dive. The research was the first to document the many strange life forms in Pacific waters a mile deep. With all that on his mind, he still thought my reef was a major find.
“Clay, I can't tell you how impressive your reef is. Are you keeping it to yourself,” Bill asked, after getting out of his gear.
“I've told no one but Pop and Harry. You're the first person to dive here with me.”
“I'd suggest you keep it to yourself. As soon as someone else finds out it's here, well, no one will take care of it the way you can.”
We went to J.K.'s for fried clams to complete the afternoon.
Bill and I talked about Harry's reelection. I told him that our exuberance over Harry's victory was short lived, because of Pop's heart attack.
The 1976 election had been the first time I campaigned with Harry full time in October. He received his first substantial challenge for his seat by a Republican candidate.
I went where Harry went, spoke where he spoke, and I met the big donors who wanted him reelected. I went to campaign stops in the back of the limo with Harry. This meant I left with him and accompanied him to most functions.
It was difficult not to let the way these people lived affect me. It was impressive. We ate at restaurants with special rooms arranged by a donor. The all male gathering drank very old booze, smoked Cuban cigars, sitting in tight little circles to speak in low voices as cigar smoke encircled them.
I only once questioned Harry about my presence at such affairs.
“Harry, Reginald can drive me home and come back for you. I don't belong here. I'm no more than window dressing.”
“Don't be silly. You belong with me. You're a major part of what I do. You're my adviser and the man responsible for the conservancy's reputation. When I speak at an event, I'm the person they come to hear, Clay. You're the person they listen to. Why do you think I want you with me. I want my donors to know who you are.”
The men at these gatherings filled Harry's campaign war chest with green backs. He knew them, their desires, and nodded when a donor told him what he wanted.
Some nights dinner was at the home of one of these men. There would be a dozen men at dinner. Harry fit right in with them. You got to their house on a private road. In front of the house was a horseshoe driveway. The car stopped at the front entrance. If you were chauffeured by someone like Reginald, you got out and he knew where to park. If the arriving party didn't have someone like Reginald driving, a man took the car keys and parked it after they went inside, bringing it back for them once the owner appeared on the front stairway.
A few times the houses were larger than the conservancy house and three or four men met with Harry in a private room deep in the bowels of the house. I went where Harry went and no one blinked twice. I was seeing how the other half lived.
Black men in white coats with white gloves on their hands came and went silently. No one but me seemed to see them. I ate from the silver trays with eatables they left behind. One of them stood outside the circle, reaching in for a glass, renew the ice, and pouring more booze on top. In a minute or two they were gone.
The conversation was serious and involved. Many times I had little idea what was being discussed. Harry knew what each word meant. He knew what each man wanted. He knew the odds on whether or not they'd get what they wanted.
After an hour or maybe two, the butler would swing open the doors wide, announcing, “Gentlemen, dinner is served.”
You couldn't confuse one of these dinners with one of Mama's. No one hurried to the table. No one took their drink or cigar.
I could see the men cleaning up after the men went to eat. They'd be enjoying long puffs on cigars and downing what was left of booze so smooth you didn't feel it going down.
Mama had dinner ready at seven most evenings, because working men got home after six and they needed to relax before coming to the table. It's how it had always been at my house.
At these sumptuous late night dinners, we might not sit down until after eleven. I got the impression this is what these men called their work. This is where tings were decided.
I could picture the large swimming pool behind the house. It's where the real labor was done. Once they got out of bed, they sat by the pool signing their dividend checks and eating breakfast.
Some seemed like regular guys, like Harry, but most of them earned their wealth the old fashion way, they inherited it. There was something to be said for being born to well-to-do parents.
If I hadn't been with Harry, I'd never gotten a look at those houses. Inside the houses were men willing to pay big bucks to have a congressman's ear.
Even with a challenge from Harry's right, he won in a walk.
The only celebrating I did with Harry was at his house the night he was reelected. There were other celebrations planned, but Pop fell ill before they were scheduled to take place.
I didn't get to ask Harry about being allowed to see inside the mechanism that kept him in power. I hadn't asked him how I made it into his inner sanctum at his house the year before. None of the other guests did that night.
I took note of what was said. I learned from the help, who came and went silently, saying nothing unless I was spoken to. I acted like I wasn't really there.
What was most apparent inside those massive homes I followed Harry into, it felt formal and the houses were cold. The conservancy house was warm. As big as it was, it was cozy within. The people inside the conservancy house provided it with warmth and it extended to all who came there, except for maybe Brian.
Harry inherited his wealth just like his rich donors. He had a job before he ran for his father's seat in congress. I'd seen how Harry lived. It was comfortable. There was a lot of living done inside his home. It was rarely silent for long.
I learned a lot from Harry. Whatever he did was fine with me. He'd given me a shot at a career. Nothing I did before that added up to a career.
Then, Bill Payne, soon to be my professor, showed me the underwater world. It was a life altering event.
Now, I told my story and I made sure people knew Harry was responsible for what I did and my ability to do it. Harry saw the future and I was the tool that would make it possible.
People knew me because I told a story about being a marine biologist. I became more than an employee and his donors met, Harry's man in the Gulf, Clayton Olson.
It was hard to separate me from Harry, even though I'd have felt more comfortable with the chauffeurs in the back of the kitchen.
Harry presented me to the men in those houses and they greeted me warmly. Once that was over, I stayed close to Harry, and when Harry was in the middle of a meeting, I stayed to one side.
Pop's heart attack yanked me back to the here and now.
As good as things were, and professionally things couldn't have been better, Pop's heart attack reminded me of what was important.
I loved where I lived and I loved what I did. I wouldn't take all the money Harry's donors had in exchange for what I had.
Pop being ill reminded me how things could turn on a dime. The summer Boris went missing, my life was wonderful. One minute in Ivan's kitchen with his mother and father changed our lives forever.
Nothing I was or did was as important as my father.
There were good days while Pop was sick. I got to see my brothers. I hadn't seen them in years. I was glad they showed Pop the respect he'd earned. They came to lift his spirits and that made life at the conservancy house better for a time.
We got the gift we all wanted at Christmas 1976.
Ivan came to mind for the first time in a while the last week of 1976. There was a good reason for that.
The last time I saw Ivan, my twenty-fourth birthday, he said he'd be gone for two years. As the holidays rolled around that year, it had been over two and a half years and I hadn't had much time to think about him.
While Ivan could upset my life faster than any one, I was getting beyond that. As time went on, he was irrelevant to who I'd become as a man. Ivan and I lived different lives in different places.
That didn't mean the first phone call to the conservancy house in three years didn't catch me off guard. Three phone calls threw me off balance. He wasn't going to do it to me again. I wouldn't sit next to the phone waiting.
Ivan was alive. I had proof. Mama heard his voice.
She got the first two phone calls the week between Christmas and New Years. I wasn't home either time. He had perfect timing. I hardly left the house between Christmas and New Years.
He'd call back New Years Eve, according to Mama.
He didn't say I should be next to the phone on New Years Eve. He knew right where I'd be.
While Pop was recovering during the holidays, we were all content to stay close to home. None of us needed to be anywhere as much as we needed to be at the house.
The first time Ivan called I'd gone to Piggly Wiggly for yeast, grits, and potatoes. When he called the second time, I'd gone to the lab for five minutes to check on what I'd written about a new species of fish that had appeared on my reef.
I didn't go out the rest of the week but it was New Years Eve when Ivan called next. I wanted to hear his voice.
It was almost eight by the time Mama and Lucy began clearing the table. Dylan and I were taking our pie upstairs where we'd continue reading Twain's Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
Dylan carried the two glasses of milk and I carried the pie. As my foot hit the first step on my way upstairs, the phone rang. I raced to the phone, put down the pie, and picked up the receiver.
“Hello,” I yelled into the phone, figuring it was Ivan.
I yelled because he was half way around the world. It made sense at the time.
“Hey, babe, nice to hear you yelling at me again,” he said.
I could see the smile on a youthful Ivan's face.
“Ivan, how are you?” I yelled. “Where are you?”
There was no reply.
The phone had gone dead.
I listened to the dial tone buzzing in my ear. I hung up, staring at the phone, willing it to ring and I waited.
“Ivan?” Mama asked, taking the pie so Dylan didn't need to wait for me to deliver it. “He said he was calling by short wave when he called before. He was in... something with a land at the end.”
“Thailand. That's where he said he was,” Mama said.
“He's supposed to be in Cambodia. What's he doing in Thailand?”
“It's the holidays. You said he was working. Maybe he got time off. Do they have holidays over there?” Mama asked.
I didn’t think so, but why not. He was having a gay old time in Thailand and I was... waiting for him to call back.
“Mama, leave my pie here. It might take him time to get another call through. Tell Dylan I'll be up in a few minutes. Don't tell him I'm waiting for Ivan to call.”
And so I spent New Year's Eve beside the phone.
Mama brought down my glass of milk. I'd lost my appetite.
“Dylan says he'll wait for you,” Mama said. “He'll read another book until you come upstairs. He's in his room.”
Dylan was going to be allowed to see in the New Year with the adults this year. My bet was he'd fall asleep before we rang in New Years, but he had permission to stay up if he wanted.
Pop passed behind me to go to bed at nine. He patted my back but didn't say anything.
“Dylan's waiting for you to read to him. I'll stay by the phone,” Lucy offered. “Don't make your son wait for you. You've been waiting half your life for Ivan, Clay.”
“I got two lines out of him. It's not enough after two and half years. I want to answer it in case we only have a minute,” I said, thinking I'd waste twenty seconds getting down to the phone, if I didn't trip and break my neck doing it.
“Thanks, Luce,” I said, realizing my sister was trying to help. “You want to read to him?”
“Not on your life. That's the book you're reading together. He's adamant about which book he reads with whom, in case you haven't noticed.”
Dylan came out on the third floor landing and looked down at me after nine and again at ten. The phone hadn't rung and it wasn't going to ring.
After Dylan's second visit to the landing, I got up and went upstairs. I didn't ask Lucy to stay by the phone. He wasn't calling back and I'd been waiting for Ivan for next to forever.
We read in my bedroom. It was too cool to read on the porch.
Dylan was reading a book in his bedroom when he heard me. He came into my bedroom.
Dylan was growing but he had a thin frame. He could fit in the same rocking chair with me if I gave him enough room. I did when he stood in front of me waiting for me to move over.
He wrapped his arms around my arm as I began to read. This was unusually affectionate for Dylan. He didn't need to be as close to me the way he once did. I put my arm over his shoulder, feeling lucky to have my son.
I'd read several pages and it was nearly ten thirty.
“My father?” Dylan asked in a tone I couldn't identify.
I stopped reading and looked at him for some sign of his mood.
“Yeah. How do you know when I'm thinking about him?”
“You get very quiet, Daddy. Is he ever going to come home to us? I mean, am I ever going to know my father?”
“I wish I knew, kiddo. I wish I knew.”
“I won't be like you. He can't just walk in and out of my life any time he feels like. He gets one shot, Daddy. If he blows it, he's done as far as I'm concerned. I've got one Daddy. I don't really need two.”
It was about as much as Dylan said on the subject.
I began to read again. He never asked for a turn and reading helped to keep my mind off Ivan.
I carried Dylan into his room and tucked him in at eleven and I went downstairs.
I sat with Mama and Lucy as we waited to welcome 1977 to the conservancy house.
What kind of year would this one be?
Would Ivan finally come home?
Would Ivan ever come home?
As the first few months of 1977 clicked off, my twenty-seventh birthday was fast approaching. Growing older, I realized my life was in my own hands now. I had a great son, a wonderful family, and my work continued to excite me.
Once I might have let events or people throw me for a loop. I no longer let that happen. I was secure enough with who I was to stick to my guns when I was pressured. I couldn't be rushed. What I needed to do I'd do in my own time.
As environmentalism became more popular, my work became more informative. At first requests for me to speak were mostly local.
When I spoke, I spoke as an advocate for the environment. At the end of a talk, I told my audience, 'We can't have a healthy environment if we don't all make an effort to keep it clean. Each of you can do your part by cleaning up after yourself and never dump anything into our waterways.”
These words always inspired applause.
I knew how lucky I was to be asked to speak to school kids, local groups, and businessmen. With news articles that were written about Harry's campaign often included a paragraph about my presentation at campaign events.
This inspired invitations to speak on behalf of the environment.
My popularity and the adventure that was my career was about to undergo an unexpected change. This change would also track back to my place in Harry's campaign.
It took until late February for Harry to make it home long enough for us to have lunch at the Gulf Club and talk turkey over lobster.
“With a new president in town we're staying busy. How's the Seaswirl, Clayton. It holding up? Running OK?”
“Sure,” I said. “Runs like a top. You were right. I spend a lot of time on that boat, Harry. It was a smart buy.”
“I have a new fish finder for you,” Harry said thoughtfully.
“I don't use the one we have. I play with it to see what's in the water under me. Don't waste your money on another one.”
“I'm afraid you'll need to take it,” he said. “It's on your new boat.”
“Yeah, it's a package deal. The fish finder comes with it.”
“The Seaswirl is fine. I don't need a new boat. Harry. This doesn't sound like you. What's up?”
“It's not what you'd call a boat. Not really. Not like the Seaswirl is a boat anyway. This is... bigger, as in very big. It has to be to accommodate the things we want it to do.”
“Big?” I said, baffled by talk of a boat I didn't need or want.
“Big as in over 35 feet but not quite 40 feet.”
“What do I need with a boat that size? I dive. I take water samples, and I measure sea currents. Eighteen feet of boat is fine.”
“It's more than a diving platform,” Harry explained, sipping his drink as he watched my face. “It'll be a copy of the research vessels Bill goes out on. Not as big as those but the Gulf of Mexico doesn't require the size boat you want under you in the Pacific or Atlantic,” Harry said.
“Bill will be ordering the state of the art equipment for your laboratories on the boat. You're about to become the man everyone wants to talk to about the Gulf of Mexico, Clayton. You'll be able to do things no other marine biologist on the Gulf Coast can do and you'll do it faster.”
“Laboratories? I'm lost, Harry. What are you talking about?”
“Three laboratories actually. Bill Payne is using the research vessels he's worked on as a model to set up our research vessel.”
I was still lost and trying to imagine a boat with laboratories.
“I call it the Sea Lab. It'll be your sea going laboratory. You'll be the envy among marine biologists. Few boats in the world will have the capability yours will have. This will be the direction marine biologists will be going in next.”
“Harry, you can't afford what your describing,” I said, laughing at the idea of sea going laboratories. “You've been drinking too much bourbon. I'm no Jacques Cousteau.”
“No, not yet you aren't,” Harry said confidently. “You are Clayton Olson and every environmentalist is going to know your name.”
“This is twice you've made me feel uncomfortable, congressman. I know a thing like this would cost way more than you're willing to spend, and so ask again, what's up?”
“No, I can't afford sea going laboratory. Luckily, I'm not buying the boat. One of my donors is, Mr. Mosby. You've met him a few times at campaign related events. Here's our lobster. We'll talk more later. I'll be home a few days this time.”
“Harry! Don't leave me hanging,” I protested.
“Let's enjoy our lobster,” he said, having my full attention. “I've been waiting for this since I left in January. They don't make lobster like this in D.C.”
A yacht the size of the one my laboratories would go into didn't simply pop up in a yacht yard. When Harry took me to see it the first time, the boat was mostly a rear quarter deck area with a lot of framing where the labs would go. Nothing was enclosed above the main deck. The engines were in place. The fiberglass haul was thirteen of my paces long. The engines were in place.
The equipment needed to be installed in the laboratories before the structure could be completed. Some of the gadgets Harry ordered for the boat hadn't arrived yet.
“You can do anything on this boat that you can do in your lab and much more.
I was impressed and more than a little excited once I saw it. If this was the direction marine biology was going in, I didn't mind going along.
It was difficult for me to take work in stride after Harry's February trip home. I got calls from Bill Payne asking me to check out one piece of equipment as opposed to another. I got calls from Harry asking me for suggestions for the colors on the Sea Lab.
Harry, actually the conservancy, was paying for the equipment on the Sea Lab. Everything to do with the boat, Mr. Mosby was paying for.
Harry came home for a week in May. Bill Payne returned from the South China Sea at the same time. We were going on a three day shakedown cruise. It was the three of us, the Sea Lab, and the Sea.
Between the three of us, we figured out the gear. Bill was a veteran on several research vessels. He'd used most of the equipment he ordered for the Sea Lab.
We made a stop at my reef and used up all the air in the SCUBA tanks before returning to the cove.
If the Sea Lab looked big at the ship builders, it looked massive in its slip. It was an impressive craft.
There was no way for me to process everything I found out about the Sea Lab. I'd become more familiar with it once I was using each day. A lot of the equipment was similar to equipment I used in the conservancy lab.
I had a new respect for Harry's donors once the Sea Lab was parked in the conservancy's slip. Not only was I becoming known but the range of my operation was increased remarkably with the Sea Lab under me.
Nothing could have prepared me for the Sea Lab.
Until the Sea Lab was brought into the cove and anchored near the fishing fleet, I didn't tell any one about it. I'd believe it when I saw it. Even after I saw it and went out on it, I didn't believe it.
I turned twenty-seven the week after we took our cruise on the Sea Lab. I really didn't need anything else. Once you have a Sea Lab, what else could you possibly want?
I could only think of one thing I wanted and didn't get.
The Sea Lab was an all-purpose research vessel that made the conservancy lab tame by comparison. I would do my work on the Sea Lab and use the conservancy lab to keep my records and specimens. .
The Sea Lab was equipped with short wave radio and a two way radio that connected me to Pop's shop and Harry's office at the conservancy. The only time I couldn't be reached was when I was underwater.
Dylan wasn't allowed to go with me on the three day cruise. I told him I was going away on business. Since it was his first week on summer vacation, he wanted to go and he sulked when I said no.
The day after we returned from our three days in the Gulf of Mexico, I told Dylan I had work to do at the marina and he go if he wanted. I hadn't mentioned the Sea Lab to him.
Dylan saw the Sea Lab from where I parked the Chevy. He knew it was in the Seaswirl's slip. He cocked his head the way he did when he knew I was up to something. He waited until I went ahead of him down the dock, stopping behind the Sea Lab.
The name was stenciled on the stern in six inch letters.
I was advised to back the boat into the slip. This way, when I was leaving the slip, I wouldn't back into something.
“Sea Lab,” Dylan read, looking up across the stern to the first deck. His eyes moved up to the second deck, offset by a few feet from the first deck. Then he looked up at the bridge.
“Harry bought you this?” Dylan asked.
“A donor of Harry's. He backs Harry in his campaigns. He's one of the men who fund the conservancy's work. He wants us to be out front in the Gulf of Mexico.”
“Damn, Daddy. It's a floating palace.”
“Damn if it isn't. Wait until you see what's inside. It has three labs. The main lab is on this level. Some magnifying equipment and analytical equipment is in the lab on the second deck, along with a small photographic lab where I can develop my pictures. The refrigeration is under this deck in front of two huge Detroit diesels,” I said proudly
“The monitors for the cameras around the boat are on each deck. While I'm in one of the labs or on the bridge, I can see around the boat. I imagine it'll take you a couple of hours to figure it all out and then you can explain it to me,” I said.
“Oh, Daddy!” Dylan said, and then he laughed.
It was true. Dylan had a quick mind and he could use most of the equipment at the conservancy. He liked doing the things i did.
Dylan was impressed and not much impressed my son.
“I want to see everything, Daddy,” he said.
“That's why we started right after breakfast. We have the whole day, kiddo.”
The first lab was where I'd spend most of my time. That's where the equipment I used most was installed. It was narrow but everything was easy to reach and bolted in place. My office was across from that lab and the lounge in front of my office opened onto the stern deck creating a large space so passengers got the feel of being part of the great outdoors while seated inside.
The second lab had some refined microscopes and other magnification equipment. It's where I made my slides for the microscopes. It had six monitors on one wall to give me a view around the ship and in the water under the boat. There were duplicate monitors on the bridge close to where I steered the boat.
After giving Dylan a tour of the Sea Lab, he untied us the way he did with the Seaswirl only there were twice as many lines.
I started the engines, checking gauges while they warmed up.
As I was checking the cove in front of us, Dylan yelled, “Ropes secured, Captain.”
I smiled at the sound of his voice.
Easing the throttle forward to idle, there was a distinctive clunk as the Detroit power took hold. It moved smoothly out of the slip at idling speed.
I didn't need to touch the controls. It idled at 5 mph. We'd filled the tanks after returning from the Sea Lab's first cruise. We were ready to go for as long as we wanted.
“You can feel the power, Daddy,” Dylan said after climbing onto the enclosed bridge.
“Each engine is about half the size of the Chevy.”
“Man, I bet this sucker can fly, Daddy!”
“We'll never know, kiddo. This is too much boat to worry about how fast it can go,” I said.
“Why have all that power if you don't use it?”
“Check the size of this boat. It takes power to get the weight moving. it's built to cruise efficiently at fifteen to twenty mph.”
“I suppose. I'd sure like to see what it will do. Just once. Check to see if we can outrun any pirates around.”
Once we cleared the cove I pushed the throttle to three quarters speed. Harry had it up to twenty-five without using all the throttle. On smooth water you could hardly tell you were moving. It would be a while before I'd be comfortable moving the throttles farther forward.
One thing was for sure, when I was on board the Sea Lab, I was in no hurry.