The Gulf Between Us
by Rick Beck
Whatever Floats Your Tube
I was smart enough to wear one of my flannel shirts and old jeans, determined to blaze a trail through the forest to civilization. Florida, already having been discovered, left me to search for a housing subdivision.
I wanted to go up the river bank, following it until I came to someone. I was sure someone would have built something next to the river to attract people and their money. It sounded logical. I'd learned most big cities were built on rivers.
While the idea was good, the river bank wasn't having any of it. The bushes and brambles created an impasse a few minutes after I dove into the brush. The third time I thrust forward, I became entangled and unable to go forward, I retreated sweaty and befuddled.
Why can't anything be easy? Why was I the guy who had to blaze the trail to the outside world?
There was no reason I shouldn't be able to walk through those woods, except it was a jungle undergrowth that must have been growing since the Jurassic period. I sat on the edge of the forest in the shade, after heat and exhaustion forced me back to the beach. I wasn't giving up, but I needed to cool down and wait for my second wind.
I spent the rest of the morning attempting to make inroads into the forest and get beyond the obstacles that covered the forest floor. By noon I was hungry, hot, and mad. I hadn't gotten more than a hundred feet beyond the beach.
I was soaked in sweat and I undressed on the point. Being clever enough to wear my cutoffs under my jeans, not realize how hot that was going to make things, but did furnish me with swimming wear when needed it most.
I used the water to undo what the heat and humidity did. In no time I was cool and I forgot about how totally unsuccessful my foray into the undergrowth went. Trying to find people through those woods was futile. I was too worn out to care. As soon as I got a burst of energy, I'd go eat.
Millie had been there or came to where I soothed my weary body. She tickled me with her whiskers and made me laugh. I held onto the beach with one hand, so I didn't float away, and rested for a few minutes. The water was perfect.
It was then I had a big idea. Actually, I didn't so much have it as Millie gave it to me. I don't know if she sensed what I was up to, but a few minutes after I got into the water beside her, she was swimming against the current and going up the river. When she got to the forest, she swam out of sight.
I looked at where she disappeared. If I was a manatee, I'd swim up the river, avoiding the jungle. Using the water would be far easier on me. There might be a way to get up the river without getting in the river the way Millie did it.
Not being able to swim meant I needed something that floated. While the riverbank impasse stymied my first incursion, the river still beckoned to me. I needed to sleep on it. I was going up the river and finding people. That's all there was to it and I wasn't letting a few shrubs stop me.
I took my quandary to my father that evening. He was a problem solver. He liked nothing more than coming up with a solution to overcome a problem. I didn't need him on the river with me, but he might have a suggestion of how I could stay on the river without ending up in it and thus get to where I was going.
" I don't know where the river goes, Clay," he said, standing beside the conservancy truck. "There's a map at the conservancy. I'll look at it tomorrow."
" I want to go up the river to find out what's there. You know, explore, Pop."
" How stiff is the current?"
" Kind of squirrely at the mouth but it moves slower as you get away from the gulf."
" You know you don't know how to swim. I don't want you taking any risks on that water."
" I'm fine, Pop. I'm not afraid of the water. I won't panic and drown myself."
" See that you don't. Your mother wouldn't like it if you did. Let me give it some thought and you stay out of the river. I'll come up with something for you."
" Yes, sir," I said, as he walked toward the house.
I'd put the bee in Pop's bonnet. He wasn't a big talker, but give him a problem and he'd work on it until he came up with something. Taking it to him gave me way more brain power. It allowed me to let go of my frustration at failing in my search for people.
I walked up to the river the next morning, pondering what size boat would work on the river and how much it was going to cost. I'd have to grow up, get a job, and buy a small motorboat before I got up that river. I'd never been in a boat. My job as built-in babysitter kept me close to the house, but I didn't earn enough to buy the rope to tie up a boat with. My younger sister was only a little more mature than me, but no one noticed yet. Any mention of Lucy being smarter than me would be seen as self-serving, even if it was true.
Lucy was the only siblings I got along with. We could keep each other entertained for hours. By the last week in June I could only spend so much time with Millie and babysitting kept me at the house, thinking of better days.
I loved being in the water, but I had premature wrinkling from being in it so much. One day soon they'd be calling me prune-face. The condition didn't seem to be permanent, but how could a kid be sure about a thing like that? I stayed home in the morning with Lucy and it began to lightning and thunder in the afternoon. I wasn't scared of it. I just didn't want to be out in it.
By July I'd been everywhere I could get without parental assistance and my parents had plenty to do without me bothering them. The river continued to bother me. Talking to Millie was getting old. What do you say to a manatee? She wasn't much of a conversationalist and I'd run out of questions for her. We met at the point the next few days but I didn't stay because it looked like rain.
I wondered if Millie might let me hold on to her when she swam up river. I told Pop I wouldn't drown if it could be helped. The best I could do was stare at the river and wish a friend would come floating my way. Dreams could come true.
After first arriving in Florida, I was distracted by the beauty and the dazzling treasures I found on the beach. I'd given thought to enjoying it more if my friends were with me, but it was best to push those thoughts away. Daydreaming about them made it worse. Because it wasn't going to happen.
As my efforts to find new friends were thwarted by the isolation of our location, the old friends came to mind more often. The idea of being with them became more powerful as the days passed. My daydreams were frequently about the things we did together. Laying on the point, my mind wandered back to Tulsa.
Why did I lose my friends? If there was a God, I didn't like him. What I wanted was simple enough. Everyone should have a friend, and I'd settle for one friend to replace the three I lost.
I'd been best friends with Calvin and Russell all my life. Their friendship was at the center of my life. When I was six and in the first grade, Bart showed up. He wasn't particularly remarkable at first. 'Too smart for his own good,' I'd thought. I'd have ignored him under ordinary circumstances.
Calvin, Russel, and I were in an exclusive club of three. We weren't taking applications, and even if we were, Bart was an unlikely candidate. The only fly in that ointment, Bart moved into the house directly behind mine. My mother made me invite him over to play with us. Who likes a parental arranged play date?
We held our nose and did what we were told. Bart turned out to be funny. He told us stories about Vermont. In no time it was time for my friends to go home. When Mama sent Bart home, she told him, 'Open the gate in the backyard. It opens into your backyard. Just leave it open if you want.'
The gate was never closed again. Bart was always the first one at my house when there was something to do, even walk to school. With no noticeable brains in our outfit, Bart furnished his. He thought of things we didn't consider when we were about to charge headlong into difficulty.
That's how Bart joined Calvin and Russell as my best friends. Calvin had personality. Russell had charm. And Bart was the brains. I never needed to look for a friend before. I was born on a block where we all lived and played.
Having built in friends was a super idea. I wish my friends lived on my beach. We'd have torn the place up and never stopped having fun, except to eat. We'd need to keep an eye on Russ so he didn't drown himself.
I sat watching Millie a few days later, as she swam against the current, letting it carry her back to the gulf, and doing it again. She was funny and fun to watch, and still my only friend. I wondered if she was having fun.
The sun was hot and I eased myself into the water, keeping one hand firmly planted on the shore. I needed to learn to swim. The cool water washing over me was refreshing. On the hottest day, this was the best spot to keep cool.
Now I didn't know anyone but the people at my house, and sometimes I wished I was an only child. Even in that big house, old family squabbles closed in on us. My brothers ruled the roost. I wasn't big enough to do anything about it. Except for the dinner table, we went our separate ways.
In the evening I went to my room, closed the door, and I wrote to one of my friends. I sent each letter to a different one with the three names on it. I pictured them sitting under our tree, while Bart, our official reader, read anything that concerned all of us. Even when one of us was no longer there.
Now we were reduced to the occasional almost literate letter. They wouldn't be enough to keep our friendship going, but we didn't know that then. Being lonely was becoming painful made worse by the strange people living at my house. My sisters treated me like a baby and my brothers treated me like a punching bag. It was nothing to write home about.
One day, after my babysitting chore was completed, I found a large inner tube leaning against the shed at the side of the house. It was fully inflated and no one needed to explain it to me. My father had solved my dilemma. I thought he'd forgotten. The conservancy did keep him busy.
Carrying it up the riverbank, until I reached the place where the undergrowth stopped my progress, I put the tube in the water there. The current wasn't as noticeable away from the mouth of the river. Sitting down in the center of the tube, it required a modest effort to overcome the slow moving water.
I used my hands to propel me, but by the time I got a hundred yards, I thought a paddle was in order if I wanted to get anywhere. Remembering the pile of boards behind the shed, one was surely suitable to be made into a paddle.
After an hour on the river, I was worn out but hopeful. I let the river take me back to the gulf. It took about two minutes. Carrying the tube home, I went to the shed to select an appropriate board. Using a hatchet to shape a handle, I wrapped it with tape so it would be easier on my hands.
I was done for the day, but my new rig excited me. Lonely days would soon be gone. Babysitting became an obstacle for a few days. Mama came home for lunch but had to go back to work in the afternoon for a couple of days.
July took hold that week. The heat and humidity went up in the afternoon, until the rains came and cooled it off. Not being on the river sweating in the midst of swarms of bugs didn't bother me so much. The comfort of the big house, nestled back in the trees, kept it cool until late on the hottest days.
The first chance I got, I grabbed the tube and paddle, heading for the river. This was the day I'd see what was up that river. Determination propelled me. The moment of truth was at hand. I was going to row until I found people.
Millie was lollygagging along the shore as I placed the tube in the water. She came over to investigate, lumbering along with me as I paddled up river. I wondered if Millie was looking for a friend too? She was so homely, I figured making friends wasn't easy for a manatee. I was sure I had a better shot.
While bird dogging Millie, after she got tired of my slow pace, she waited for me by a bend in the river. We were well into the heavy duty forest. Even in the bright Florida sun, the river was deep in the shadows. The only sound was that of my paddle dipping into the water and the crickets and the frogs. I'd been paddling for most of an hour and my hands were beginning to blister.
" Okay," I said. "I know I'm slow. I've gone as far as I want to go today. I need to get used to rowing," I explained, as her bovine eyes studied me like she understood every word.
That's when I first heard the noise. It wasn't civilization as I envisioned it. It was loud and unruly. It's why Millie stopped. She wasn't going around the bend. I couldn't be sure what the ruckus was and I didn't want to charge into trouble. I eased over to the riverbank, using the bushes to get a view of the disturbance.
I didn't want to be seen, while I got a look at what was going on. The noise rose and fell. It was loud and then it was quiet and then loud again. Using a particularly bushy bush, I saw a half dozen or more boys standing together.
I couldn't be sure these were the boys I wanted to know. Maybe they weren't as noisy as they sounded, but they were loud. My friends didn't make much noise and we always wore clothes. The loudness deal bothered me, but the boys being naked deal shocked me. It was obviously they were older than me.
I was inexperienced at finding friends. Maybe there were quieter boys in swim suits farther along. To get there I had to pass here. How particular did I want to be? The being loud wasn't so bad. The being naked worried me some.
I hadn't talked to anyone close to my age in a while. Was I going to pass up this chance because they screamed? No, that didn't worry me. I could adapt to boys being loud. On my first time on the river, I'd found what I was looking for. Here were boys I could make friends with.
They were likely not the only boys who swam in the river and I wasn't sure what to do. Being lonely was no advantage at a time like this. I wanted to charge right up in my tube and introduce myself. I needed to approach in a way that wouldn't put them off or make me look foolish.
If a boy needed a friend as badly as I did, how anxious would I be to be his friend? I thought of new kids who came to school in Tulsa. My friends and I should have been nicer. It didn't cost a thing to be nice. The shoe was on the other foot. I wished I'd been nice to new kids. Realizing what a butt-head I'd been didn't help me feel better about needing a friend. I was the outsider wanting to find a way in.
I wanted to be careful once I heard the yelling and screams. Millie voted on this group of boys by turning tail to run, or swim, once bodies started hitting the river. I peeked from under my confidential bush to see what was going on.
There was a rope hanging from a thick branch on a wide tree. The branch had grown out over the water. One end of the rope had been tied to the branch. The other end of the rope was tied to a tire. It was like no swing I'd ever seen. The boys swung over the river one or two at a time, dropping into the water. Along with the swinging activity went screaming and yelling, as their bodies fell. Boys stood in line yelling encouragement and insults at the boy on the swing.
Each time a boy let go of the tire and hit the water, he clambered back up the bank and got back in line. There was a substantial amount of chatter and laughter that went with the activity, which better explained the noise.
I'd have been more anxious to join them if water wasn't involved. To be one of the guys, I was going to be expected to swing out on that tire and drop into the river. This wasn't high on my to-do list, but these guys were delighted to do it.
The question came to mind, 'when I sank, would one of them pull me out?'
As I hid in that bush, pondering my future, a rather handsome boy came strolling out of the woods. He made nine guys at the rope swing. He shifted the balance of power to the naked dudes, five to four.
What struck me right off the bat, he showed up naked. Where did he come from without clothes? There were piles of clothes in several spots. He may have been there before and was out of sight when I got there.
Being naked, like falling out of a tree, wasn't my thing, but I wasn't from here. If that's what it took to make friends, I'd probably go for it, but I wanted to avoid it if possible. Being picky didn't seem like a good plan, but these boys were way different from my friends.
If they knew they were going swimming, why not bring a swimming suit? I didn't get it. The guys who weren't naked swam in underwear. No one wore cutoffs. We all wore cutoffs in Tulsa during the summer. Everyone had worn out jeans and they made perfect shorts. They dried fast if you went swimming.
The new boy got my attention right away. He was taller, while being thinner with a pretty good build on him. He looked closer to my age and he looked younger than most of the other boys, who were noticing him for the first time.
He hadn't been there before. The other boys circled him and this created new chatter around the latest arrival. I couldn't tell if it was good or bad. I couldn't see what was going on in the middle of their circle.
The swing was quiet while the new boy was interviewed by the other boys. I hoped there wasn't going to be trouble. Then everyone laughed and they acted happy to see him. He was a hit with these guys. I would soon find out why.
When the gathering around him broke up, the new kid went to the swing. When he showed up, there was a line, but they all stepped aside to let the new kid take a turn. I found that curious. How did he rate going to the front of the line?
The new boy walked the tire back a bit farther than anyone else. Even then the line didn't form behind him. The boys stretched out along the riverbank so they could see what they knew was about to happen. What was he going to do?
The new kid took off with the tire in hand, swinging out over the water. It looked different from how the other boys did it. He was moving faster and he went higher. Someone moving that fast and going that high was going to come down hard. I cringed when I thought of my prospective friend hurting himself.
When he let go of the tire, he continued upward. He was soaring over the center of the river. When his momentum stopped, he began to twist and turn his body, suspend in air for long enough to be coming down head first. When he hit the water, there was hardly a ripple.
I was flabbergasted. No one could do that, but I'd seen him do it.
The watchers cheered and yelled his name, "Ivan."
That was cool!
That explained the greeting he got. He hadn't been there before today but he'd been there before and these boys had seen him do that dive. He was good.
Coming out of the water, he was met with requests to do it again. The other boys were excited by his performance and gathered around him. They patted his back and told him about the dive.
" Come on, Ivan, do it again," a boy said.
" Yeah," other boys agreed.
I'd nearly let go of the branch holding me in place, while watching Ivan dive. I rearranged myself so I was looking directly up the middle of the river, where I'd be able to see better. I held tight, waiting for a repeat performance.
Ivan went to the tire, walking it back that little extra, and he took off again. The cheers were even louder the second time he performed. He was the most graceful boy I'd ever seen. It was like gravity didn't apply to him. Ivan could fly, and when he landed, it was as gentle as a butterfly landing on a leaf.
These boys showing appreciation for what he did was encouraging. They weren't so bad. Climbing out of the water, Ivan was surrounded by boys. They spoke in loud happy voices. They saw what I saw. No one could do it like Ivan.
This was the guy I wanted for a friend. I wanted to know him. Ivan would make a good friend. Everyone liked him. That made him okay. Besides, he could do that dive. I wanted Ivan to be my friend and to teach me that dive.
I waited for a chance to float up and introduce myself. I was excited now. I'd found a suitable boy and I was ready to take a shot. I wasn't going to let the older boys intimidate me. If only things were that easy.
I didn't notice Ivan leave, but I didn't see him again. He was easy to spot. He was taller than the other boys and his skin was more evenly tanned. Ivan couldn't have been wearing a suit and gotten that all over tan.
Boys trying to duplicate Ivan's dive fell like Kamikaze birds, bent on self-destructing. No one came close to getting their bodies to turn in the air. I thought it was interesting that about half of them tried the dive once Ivan left. Failures were met with laughter and insults. They were having a good time, but I lost interest.
It's difficult to say why I thought a boy as clever as Ivan might want to be my friend. The decision was made and no one else interested me. Once I saw Ivan, self-assured and poised, I liked him. Now that he was gone, I might not see him again, but we were going to be friends. I could feel it.
Where did he go? I hadn't seen him leave, but when the boys surrounding him broke up to reform their line, there was no Ivan.
The other boys were too loud and uncoordinated. When the time was right, I'd meet Ivan. I didn't need to hurry. My mind was made up. I'd figure out a way.
Some boys stood in line. Some boys were talking, while watching boys swing. None acted as if he had anywhere to be. Why had Ivan been the one to leave? Why come to that spot, do two dives, and leave? There were questions. He gave me a lot to think about.
I let go of the branch that held me in place. The river carried me toward home. My mind was filled with images of Ivan. It was an image I wouldn't soon forget. I saw him at his best and he wasn't hiding anything.
I was excited but cautious. I'd be seen as a duffus if I showed up and begged off the tire swing, because I couldn't swim. It was Florida. I had to be ready before I made myself known.
I'd return and hope Ivan was there when I did. If he wasn't, I'd ask questions about him and I'd find out where he lived. I was going to meet him.
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