The Gulf of Love
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Jerry W.
Dylan turned nine and on his birthday I gave him the SCUBA gear he'd been waiting for since he was seven. I wanted to wait until he was ten but he reached five feet in March. At ninety-five pounds, considering how fast he was growing, there was no point in making him wait any longer.
The SCUBA gear was in the trunk of the Chevy when I took Dylan to get hush puppies and fried clams at J.K.'s on his birthday. He consumed a double order and drank two root beers. We ate early enough that he'd have room for dinner and the cake and ice cream that came after.
“When are you going to get me the SCUBA gear?” He asked on the way back to the house.
“You know the rule, Dylan,” I said to aggravate him a little before he got what he wanted.
“Daddy, I passed the line months ago. I made you come and look. Don't you remember?”
“Oh, yeah, you did. I've been busy, kiddo.”
“Me too. I've been growing as fast as I can, Daddy. You promised.”
“Let me think about it,” I said.
“Daddy!” he said indignant. “You promised!”
I drove down the driveway, moving to the right so I was out of the way.
“Hey, kiddo, I've got some things in the trunk. You want to get them for me?” I asked, tossing him the keys from the ignition.
Still sulking, he walked to the rear of the car and popped open the trunk.
“Daddy,” he squealed like a little boy.
His reaction made me smile.
He so seldom acted like a kid, I worked to make him feel like one from time to time.
The SCUBA gear was the hit of 1978. If I didn't give my son anything else the SCUBA gear made up for it and all my shortcomings over the years.
By the time I stood with him behind the car, he had on the mask and was putting on the tanks. They weren't too big and he managed them just fine. I worried he couldn't muscle the gear in a pinch.
“Now I have two meetings in the morning and it's too late today. We've got Popov at noon tomorrow. We won't be back until dinner time Wednesday. It's going to be Thursday before I can take you diving with me, kiddo.”
“I know. We're cool, Daddy. You got me the SCUBA gear. I can wait to go diving with you, but don't think you're going to sneak out and go diving without me on Thursday.”
“Not a chance. I've been looking forward to taking you, son. It's one of those special times that means you are growing up. It's something we'll both remember.”
Dylan almost missed our trip with Popov.
It could have been the third piece of cake or the midnight bowl of Cherry Royale ice cream with chocolate sauce, after we were done with Moby Dick for the night.
Popov was surprised that on the way back to the cove, when the ice cream and cake came out to celebrate Dylan's birthday, he didn't dive right in and try to out eat the crew this time.
Popov knew of my apprehension about taking Dylan diving. I'd told him I was buying the SCUBA gear. He bought an expensive regulator with an alarm system that warned when you had five minutes of air left.
Popov whispered to me, “It'll keep our Dylan safe.”
Popov was a good and considerate man. Our lives wouldn't have been nearly as exciting without him.
The fishing continued to be fairly good. The four day weeks were continued. Even the fish warehouse adjusted to the fishing fleet's schedule. The four day work week became the norm.
Following the four day week cut the fleet's expenses enough that the men only took a slight cut in pay and they were home two extra days a week. Ingenuity and creativity made a problem all but disappear by 1978. By cooperating with the plan everyone involved was left smiling and the cove could still depend on the fishing fleet to support the fish warehouse, J.K.'s, and the Bait Shop.
Conserving a resource meant that resource would still be there far into the future.
As a hit and miss marine biologist, looking for answers, I'd lucked out and there was never another year as bad as 1975. The bad year made change possible.
On the Thursday after Dylan's birthday, I took him with me on my dive. I fired up the Sea Lab as Dylan took care of the ropes. He came to the bridge to stand beside me.
“Take the helm, sailor,” I said. “Use idle until we leave the cove.”
“Are you serious?”
“We're going to dive together. You need to be able to drive the Sea Lab from slip to dive site and back to the slip. I'll back it in once we get back, but you do the driving today.”
“All right!” Dylan said, dropping the throttle into idle.
“Always check for smaller boats and people in the water. I you see something in conflict with us, move the throttle to neutral. At this speed we'll drift forward but not with any force.”
He'd already turned toward the cove entrance nearly a mile away. In ten minutes we passed the final 5 mph sign and a minute later we reach the big green sign that told us to get up to Gulf speed.
Dylan moved the throttle to the halfway mark and watched ahead as he held the wheel.
I remembered the first time I was on the Sea Lab. I had no idea how big it was. It simply looked huge.
Then Harry said, “Take us out, captain. This is your boat.”
At twenty-seven, I was petrified. What if I hit something? What if I couldn't drive it? What if...?
I wanted Dylan to be at home in the water and on any boat he went out on.
When Harry took the Sea Lab out with donors on board. I was at the helm. The salon was set up with a bar and sliding glass doors that made the small space part of the rear deck. While I guided us into the Gulf, Harry served drinks and snacks. I figured it was Harry treating me the way I was treating Dylan.
I watched Dylan and marveled at his lack of fear.
I remember when I first met Ivan. He was fearless too. I'd never done anything with any danger in it until I met Ivan. Then there was risk in almost everything we did. We weren't insane but we did push the outside of the envelope if having fun required it.
As long as I was with Ivan, I knew I'd be fine.
The most dangerous thing we did as boys was to love each other. I didn't know how risky that was as a teenager. No one had to tell me how risky it was now that I was a man.
As a boy you could slip out of the compromise you make when you love another boy. When you're a man, it's best to keep it secret. There are people who think it's their job to ferret out homosexuals.
I never could figure out why that was. Loving Ivan was about the best thing I ever did. I was good at it. With the shape the world was in, wouldn't people be better served trying to bring peace and harmony to it, instead of condemning the love I felt?
Everything I was and everything I'd achieved would have been destroyed if it became know that I loved Ivan. It wouldn't do to let that get around.
I didn't have much to worry about since Ivan had been gone for my entire adult life. How it was my feelings for him were so strong, it was difficult to tell.
I didn't know if Ivan was dead or alive but I knew I loved him.
I set the compass so Dylan would take us directly to the reef he discovered over two years before. It was a similar clear hot day without a breeze to cool us.
I hadn't taken Dylan back to the reef after we snorkeled that day. He'd have bugged me to death for diving equipment if he knew the magnitude of what we found.
Today he'd find out.
“Drop it back to idle. Once the momentum is gone, put it in neutral and drop the anchor. Let the engine run a couple of minutes before shutting it down,” I instructed him.
“Where are we going diving?” Dylan asked.
“Fifty feet off port. I don't anchor too close. Coral is fragile and we don't want to spook the sea life.”
We stood on deck near the ladder and I checked Dylan out on the SCUBA gear.
“The alarm is set. When it sounds, you have five minutes of air. You immediately begin to surface the way I told you. Come up ten feet and wait a minute and go up another ten feet until you reach the surface. I'll surface with you the first time, but I have fifty minutes more air than you do.”
“Why's that?” he asked, looking at me through his face mask.
“Size of the tanks. That's a relatively small tank. I've got two big tanks. I'll come up when you do this time.”
“I can do it,” Dylan assured me.
“I know you can, but I'm your father and I worry about you. Let me do it this once and then you'll be fine if you feel comfortable doing it from start to finish.”
“Cool,” he said, smiling at me.
I went down about twenty feet, keeping one eye on him. When I rolled onto my stomach and began working my way toward the reef, he followed right behind me.
We stopped at a spot twenty-five feet off starboard from where a new sliver of reef had begun to extend outward from the main reef about twenty feet or so. Once there I indicated for Dylan to remain still.
There was a small indention in the floor of the Gulf with some debris that hid us nicely. In a few minutes life on the reef began to appear. There were two yellow and a red fish and several tiny fish swimming in and out of the reef.
Needless to say, Dylan was blown away by what he saw his first time underwater. He was still as a mouse and his eyes stayed wide open and focused on any motion he saw.
After forty minutes, the alarm on the regulator went off. Dylan immediately indicated with his thumb that he was going to surface. I had him move back from the reef and then followed ten feet behind him monitoring his progress. Dylan did fine He was too enraptured to have any fear.
“Daddy, the colors are incredible. Where does a reef like this come from anyway?”
“It grows,” I said. “Something sinks to the bottom and the coral begins to form. It's a slow process but the reef attracts life forms that are mostly native to these waters. It's part of the ecosystem.”
“When can I come back, Daddy?”
“I have nothing on for Sunday. Want to go diving?”
“Yes! I can't wait.”
Being another election year, I'd begun early with Harry's donors. I strutted my stuff, told stories, and schmoozed with the high rollers. It was no longer a challenge. These were the people who paid the freight to make me a force in the Gulf of Mexico. They loved hearing stories about the important work I was doing.
Harry didn't get home for the August recess until a week into August. It was all systems go when he did. The next few months, up until the election, time flew. We were in constant motion. Most of my talks were local but we did speak in Tampa once, which was more about the conservancy than Harry's run for congress.
At twenty-eight and confident, campaigning with Harry was a blast. It was old hat. I knew what to do and say. To most of Harry's campaign workers and donors, I was simply Clay.
Getting out of the lab and away from my routine was refreshing. Telling people about my work gave me a new depth of appreciation for it. Even if they called me, 'Harry's boy,' I had my story to tell. It was evolving. Harry's boy told stories about the Sea Lab and what it was like diving into the Gulf to study the sea life.
The shy young Clay had given away to a better prepared version. Everything I knew was no longer things I had been taught. By using what I was taught, I learned things no one told me about.
Harry had gone as far as he could as the chairman of the environmental committee. Everything he could get done was done. Carter was more interested in the environment than Ford, but Carters problem was with fossil fuel.
The country was dependent on it when Carter took office and in the middle seventies finding a gas station with gas was the great American pass time.
Carter put something called 'solar panels' on the roof of the White House. By the year 2000 he promised we'd get twenty percent of our power from renewable sources.
OPEC would no longer be able to cripple us again by cutting off our oil if we followed Carter's plan.
No one ran against Harry in 1978. The campaign was fun and everyone was having a good time.
The talk of a Senator McCallister had begun. Harry's time was coming and where Harry went, I wasn't far behind.
I hadn't guessed how powerful Harry was, until he let other powerful people know that he had Ivan's back and one eye on them.
I knew senators were far more powerful than congressman.
Until I was handed the keys to the Sea Lab, I felt as though I walked in the shadow of other men. I knew my business. I didn't need to be told what to do or what to say.
Most of what I did was a routine developed under Bill Payne's supervision. My original speeches were developed with Harry.
The first time I took the Sea Lab out alone, I began to develop a new approach to my audiences. Little of it came from Harry, save the appeals for the audience to help keep the Gulf clean and for donors to do their part in keeping Harry in office, the conservancy running, and me in business.
The Sea Lab provided me with a photographic lab. I'd discovered the art of creating my own slides by reading the manuals that came with the photographic equipment. I would show people what my underwater world looked like.
I began producing a slide-show to go with my talk. This added a dimension to my story and it allowed me to share my reef without putting it at risk. I would take the audience into my underwater world.
I took pictures of the Sea Lab inside and out. I closed my slide-show by taking the audience on a tour of the research vessel that allowed me to do the work I described.
The Sea Lab was the star of the show and it got the biggest applause.
Harry and Bill still came by my laboratory to read my notes and look into my files. They were no longer looking over my shoulder to help refine my work. They were reading what I had to say about my work, because we were all in the same business.
I took the slide projector out of the photographic lab and I installed it on a shelf inside Harry's bar in the salon on the Sea Lab. I had a picture of a substantial mako shark blown up and I hung it opposite the bar in the salon. When I turned the picture around, the back became the screen to see the slides on.
I didn't tell any one about the slide-show, until I sprung it on Harry and a couple of donors he wanted me to drive around one evening. I waited until I could get down to the salon, letting the Sea Lab idle ten miles off the coastline.
When I shut off the lights, except for two red running lights, I turned the projector on and began talking as it automatically clicked from one slide to the next. I'd only loaded twenty slides, because I didn't know what the reaction would be.
After some initial grousing about being left in the dark, the room went silent, except for me and the click of the projector when the slides changed.
“Next time, I'll fill your glasses before the shew starts. Damn, Clayton, you didn't tell me you had gone into show business. That was an impressive presentation.”
I knew that Harry's donors were a tough audience. If they'd sit through a slide-show, regular people probably would too.
The Sea Lab was mine and only during election time did Harry request I take his donors out for a cruise. Donors were impressed by the craft and Harry requested the slide-show on each cruise.
Mr. Mosby, father of the Sea Lab, was almost always on board for the campaign events, admiring what he'd made possible.
When Harry first described the Sea Lab to me, I had trouble picturing it and where it would fit into a simple marine biologists life. Now I was getting the best pictures I'd ever taken. Specimens were preserved within an hour after they came out of the water and my work expanded beyond what I was originally doing.
I'd built a collection of two thousand slides by the summer of 1978. It was election time again and I'd have different slides for each cruise donors went on, I could last for two hours before running out of steam, but even I knew that was too long to hold an audience.
This was how my life went until election time 1978. I spent more time on the Sea Lab than I spent at the conservancy lab. There was so much to see and do the year flew past.
1978 was a very good year in a string of good years. I was enjoying my work more than ever.
It was shortly after Harry's reelection that year, and I was glad it was over, and I got to go back to a more enjoyable routine.
Once I began diving on the reef after being away from it for nearly two months, I got a big idea. I was finally going to take something away from the shipwreck.
The two coconuts I used to hold open the double doors to the porch outside my bedroom had rotted and smelled. Two bricks from the ones scattered on the floor of the Gulf near the reef would do the job and never rot.
I had been super careful so I wasn't caught. Not that any one had ever come around when I parked the Sea Lab there. I was five miles off the coast and it was too close in for deep sea fishing, and tour boats traveled within sight of the coast.
Once I decided to bring up two of the bricks I'd discovered after a storm that year. I hooked up a basket, went down and swam to the bricks, bringing two back to the basket.
I secured them and used up the rest of my air surveying the reef. When I had five minutes of air left, I surfaced and prepared to pull up my booty.
I looked all around understanding that what I was doing was technically criminal, but as usual the sea was empty and I pulled the basket up and deposited the two brinks on the Sea Lab's deck.
I was engrossed by the barnacle-covered ballast I'd recovered from the floor of the Gulf. Seeing it out of the water made it more remarkable than when it was among hundreds of bricks just like it.
I knew I was alone. Only Pop knew where I was diving.
So I was comfortable my crime had gone undetected. There was something exciting about having something from the reef where I spent the lions share of my time. They'd work to hold my doors open.
Probably because I wasn't supposed to be liberating anything off a salvage site, I kept feeling like I wasn't alone with my larceny.
I was ready to secure my gear and I'd head back to the cove.
A routine can lull you into a false sense of security. It did me.
Ivan got the location of my dive from Pop. Harry's man at the marina was happy to drive Ivan to my location. He came on board while I was underwater. I didn't notice the boat coming or going.
As I lollygagged over my bricks, Ivan drew me back to reality.
Nude, standing in the salon's sliding glass doors, he hailed me.
“Hey good looking. Want a date?”
I nearly jumped out of my skin. It was easy to see how many years had passed since I'd had a good look at my lover. It's not something I wanted to rush.
He was a full grown man carrying fifteen or twenty more pounds, which added definition to what had always been an impressive build to me. Seeing him was a shock. We were both 28 and far beyond the exciting days of our youth.
Ivan was very much alive, or maybe I surfaced too fast and was just seeing what I dreamed of seeing so often.
He proved it was no dream and I wasn't hallucinating. Ivan knew what I liked and he wasted no time seeing I got it. Resistance was futile. It was also something that didn't interest me.
After some initial anger, I shut up to concentrate on making love. My lust proved more powerful than my anger.
Who knew if I'd see him again.
Making love seemed to be the thing to do at a time like that. Seeing him left me speechless anyway.
Once I parked the Sea Lab, he carried my air tanks for me. I remembered him carrying my books at school after Sunshine died. We were still teenagers then.
Ivan stood with his big hands on my car door after telling me he had to go. I was barely able to hold back the tears.
Ivan had come home and I had to get away from him now.
He had to move back when I started backing up. He stood watching me through the windshield as I turned on the highway toward home.
I drove away so he didn't see me crying. I wasn't going to let him see me cry over him.
Ivan told me, “The search is over. The Russians will take me to Boris. Once they do that, I'll bring him home. Then I'll come home.”
I pulled onto the shoulder of the road out of sight of the marina. It was ten minutes to home. It would take most of an hour to get there. It would take that long to be able to see through my tears. I cried ten years worth. It all flowed out of me. I couldn't stop it.
The son of a bitch did it to me again.
He kept me hanging on all these years.
Ivan had come home for the first time in years.
He left me again.
I was late for dinner.
Ivan's appearance and disappearance left me dazed and more angry at him than usual. He was never coming home.
I wanted him to leave me alone.
I went upstairs to wash my face before going to the table.
“Clayton, what's wrong with your eyes?” Mama asked immediately.
I'd prepared for the question.
“Oh, I got water in my face mask, Mama. You know how salty that water is.”
Pop looked across the table at me. Lucy patted the back of my hand. Dylan studied my face.
Mama had never been any closer to the Gulf than on the beach chair she put out behind the house when Dylan went swimming alone.
“I'll get the eye drops. You look awful,” Mama said.
“After dinner,” I said. “They're fine.”
“You've got good eyes, Clay. Olsons are blessed with good eyes. You need to protect them,” Mama said.
“You should keep eye drops on that floating palace of yours,” Pop said, not looking at me as he spoke.
I laughed uncomfortably. Pop was the weak link in my story.
“You were late,” Pop said. “Someone keep you?”
“No one I care to talk about, Pop,” I said, cringing.
My father saw Ivan at the conservancy before he came out to the Sea Lab. He saw my eyes. My father wasn't a stupid man. He dished up peas and he had no more to say.
I made it through dinner acting cheerful. As soon as I finished, I excused myself without eating my dessert. I went upstairs to lie on my bed. I cried again. I don't know why.
I needed to wipe my eyes when Mama came in with the eye drops. I don't think she was fooled. She put the eye drops next to the picture on my nightstand.
“You'll want to use those right away. Put them in every two hours until you go to bed. Put them in your eyes in the morning.”
“Yes, ma'am,” I said.
“You look tired, Clayton. You need to get more sleep.”
“Yes, ma'am. I should,” I said as Mama left me alone.
Crying does wear a guy out.
I woke up with Dylan sitting on the edge of my bed next to me.
“Was my father here?” Dylan asked, an accusation in his words.
“My father. You know, the guy in the picture with you.”
“You couldn't possibly know that,” I said.
“Every time you talk to him, he upsets you, Daddy. I'd like to belt him.”
“We're civilized, Dylan. Civilized people don't belt each other.”
“Yeah, well I'd like to belt him for what he does to you. Why doesn't he just leave you alone?”
“For the same reason it upsets me to hear from him. There's no way you know he was here. Tell me the truth.”
“I heard Grandpop tell Lucy that Ivan had been at the conservancy. Why didn't he stop to see his kid?”
“He was passing through, Dylan. He came out to the Sea Lab where I was diving.”
“Then he left.”
“Then he left,” I confirmed.
“And you're crying over him? I won't cry over him. I promise you that. I don't like my father very much.”
“You don't know your father, Dylan. He says he knows where your uncle is. He's going to get him. Then, he says he's coming home.”
“You believe him? I don't like what he does to you, Daddy.”
“We'll see, kiddo. We'll see.”
In April of 1979 Popov came into my office one day shortly before noon. He'd mentioned going to lunch together on one of his days in port. I enjoyed his company and J.K.'s had a couple of items I loved, so I was glad to see him.
Popov was unusually pleased with himself. I'd never seen him happier. Only his fleet with full holds made him happier. He chortled as he sat down next to my desk.
“Popov, what are you so happy about? You didn't catch any fish today,” I said, smiling at my guest.
“I spoke to the friend of yours today, Clay,” he said, absolutely effervescent. “The friend is my friend too.”
I made some final entries on a specimen I'd collected the day before. Popov didn't usually talk in riddles. I sat back to think about it.
'The friend of mine who is the friend of yours,' I thought.
“Captain Tito meeting us for lunch?” I asked without solving the riddle.
My mind was still in marine biology mode. It made no sense.
“Yes, he is. Someone else too,” he said, not telling me.
“You got me,” I said. “I'm ready any time you are. I'm starved.”
“It is going to be surprising, Clay,” Popov said, standing as I stood.
“I'm surprised you're playing twenty questions,” I said. “You look like that cat who just ate the canary,” I said, Popov laughed loudly. “You drive. Nicky will need a ride back to the marina,” Popov said.
“Nicky? Mr. Aleksa is here?” I asked, unsure I'd heard him correctly.
He'd been gone so long I didn't think I'd see him again. When I entered J.K.'s, I was immediately searching for Ivan's father.
I was blindsided. Mr. Aleksa almost knocked me down, hugging me and laughing loudly. My feet were off the floor. I'd never heard the man laugh so powerfully. My subdued boss had come to life.
I'd never seen a happier man. He hugged me again and we went in circles, almost dancing on J.K.'s floor.
He kept saying my name, “Clay, Clay, Clay. You are a man.”
What had gotten into the man.
“You are a man, Clay,” he said again. “You grew up.”
“Popov tells me you have a Sea Lab and you're as wise as Neptune himself. You were always the charm who brought the fish,” he said, sitting down at the table full of food.
“I ordered one of everything. Sit! Sit! Eat! Eat!.”
“Nicky, a welcome sight you are to Popov. You are staying to fish with him?”
“I am, my friend. We are fishing with my sons. They'll be home soon.”
Stunned, I leaned forward to touch his hands.
“He found him?” I asked, hearing the words as though they came from someone else.
Mr. Aleksa's eyes met mine. His were filled with tears.
“He found him. My Boris will soon be home,” Mr. Aleksa said. “Boris, he is alive. He's coming home. Ivan said he'd find him. He has found him. My sons are coming home.”
I felt light headed. My mind whirled. Was it finally over?
I saw Ivan standing in the doorway on the Sea Lab.
“I'm going to meet the Russians. They'll take me to Boris. After I get Boris, I'll be home as soon as I can get here.”
Spring 1979 was in its early stages. It hadn't been that long since Ivan appeared on the Sea Lab.
I was happy because Ivan found Boris. I was happy he'd bring his brother home.
I was anxious after ten years of waiting. I no longer knew Ivan.
I feared he wouldn't come home to stay.
He'd been gone for a long time.
More than that, I feared Ivan might hurt his son.