The Gulf Between Us
by Rick Beck
The Future Is Now
After working for Pop a few days, I'd met everyone at the conservancy but the big cheese. He didn't come every day and Pop kept saying he wanted me to meet him. I was referred to most often as John's final son. All the rest of the Olson boys had been this way. It put things into perspective.
I was polite and smiled a lot. They were polite and smiled back. I kept telling myself I could do this in spite of all the people.
It was frequently mentioned that I was filling John-Henry's shoes, when I wasn't in school, or fishing, or fooling around with Ivan, only I didn't bother to mention Ivan to people I hardly knew. After I settled in, he'd come to work with me after school.
One day Pop showed me something that got my attention. He'd waited until Harry was there to show me. Harry hadn't been there the first week I worked at the conservancy.
Harry brought resources with him. I brought desire with me. This was the day the his resources met my desire. It began a relationship that spanned the rest of Harry's life and much of mine. On the first day it was a matter of figuring out where I stood.
At the time Pop opened the door to the biology laboratory, it surprised me. I didn't know why he hadn't shown it to me before. He didn't try to explain what Harry had in mind. He showed me the lab and intended to let Harry explain it to me.
There were shelves with jars that contained specimens of sea life. Empty jars were in boxes along one wall. Beside the boxes were five gallon containers of formaldehyde. I didn't see it as a biology laboratory, but I did see a hint of my future.
"I thought you'd like to spend some time in here. I don't know what any of these things are, Clay. John-Henry collected them. Harry, he's in charge. He presides over the board of directors and he's interested in the specimens. He labeled the ones he could identify. Harry's an amateur environmentalist among other things. He told me after seeing this room, 'A conservancy should conserve something, John. Tell John-Henry to keep collecting these. I'll figure out what to do with them.'"
"Cool," I said, having too little information to see a role for me.
"What I'm getting to, Harry has books. The sea life from hereabouts are in those books, Clay."
"Why didn't you show me this stuff before, Pop? You know I'm interested in the stuff we catch in the nets on the boat. I spend about half my time on the gulf. I see things a lot more amazing than the local sea life. I can tell you what most of these are. I've seen these in biology class at school."
"I know that, Clay. John-Henry was the first one interested in bringing the things he found on the beaches back here. He suggested jars and formaldehyde to preserve them. I think he got that from his biology classes. John-Henry was first fascinated by the remarkable colors when they washed up. You'll come upon them in your travels if you walk along the water."
"The stuff I see on the decks of the Vilnius Two are way more colorful than these. These are fairly typical."
"John-Henry got the idea to collect them and bring them here last summer. When Harry got wind of it, he took an interest. He bought books so he could identify what John-Henry found. Harry put the labels on the jars. After John-Henry was drafted, the idea of a biology lab was put on the shelf."
"How many times have I been here? You could have opened the door, Pop."
"I just did, Clay. Harry knows about you. We talked about involving you in the collecting and identification. Until the idea of hiring you to replace John-Henry, there was no plan. Harry will decide what he wants. There was no point telling you until he was here."
"I didn't know John-Henry cared about the sea life," I said. "We could have talked about that. He never mentioned it."
"You have a job. You're maturing. This is a good place to work if you're interested in what's happening here. Harry can explain it better than I can. He wants to talk to you about it."
I took jars off the shelves and examined them.
"I've seen most of these. I can identify some of them without a book. I'd like a look at the books you mentioned," I said. "Most of these are common species in the gulf."
"I brought Nick, Mr. Aleksa, back here last month. He comes by for coffee once in a while. The first thing he said when he saw the jars, 'You know, Clay can't get enough of stuff like this. He's mesmerized by anything new that comes out of our nets.' He'd told me about how marine life fascinated you before."
"The fact I've never seen anything like them before has me wanting to know more about what they are, Pop. It's not like there were any large bodies of water in Tulsa."
"After Nick's visit, I told Harry what he'd said. Harry was sad to see John-Henry go. Then he suggested I hire you to replace him."
"To replace John-Henry or to collect more of these things?"
"It didn't take a genius to figure out where it was going. Later he called me to his office to talk about making what we have in here into a working biology laboratory. To preserve the island's habitat."
"I've looked some of these up in the marine biology books at school, Pop. The things that come out of the nets in the gulf aren't in those books. I'd like a gander at a better set of books on marine life. When do I meet this guy?"
"Come with me. He's supposed to be in today. He likes to get here in time to go to lunch," Pop said chuckling.
He lead me into the conservancy offices. We went down the hall on the opposite side of the building. Pop stopped to knock before opening the last doors.
"Hey, Harry. Keeping off that foot?" Pop asked.
"Yeah, damn gout is killing me, John. Who have we here? This is the last son, I presume? Not hard to see the resemblance."
"This is my boy, Clay. He's helping us out a few days a week. I told you he fishes with Nick. I showed him the collection. Clay knows a lot about things that come out of the gulf, Harry."
"Good! Good! I'm still trying to figure out a way to get that lab working for us, John. I'm not talking about a rinky dink place filled with jars and specimens. That will be where we start."
"I told Clay about your books. He's anxious to take a look at them. I think he'd be willing to identify what's in those jars."
"The biology class has books on marine life. I've read about the most common species. Your jars are mostly in that class," I said.
I had Harry's attention.
"That it?" Harry asked, still watching me.
"The books at school are limited. With a good set of marine biology books, I can identify most things that come out of the gulf."
Harry was either thinking about what I said, or he was thinking about what he'd say. He said nothing for a minute. I was done.
"That would be a big help to me, John. I don't have the time to give it the attention it needs. Why haven't I met Clay before?"
"He's been here. He works for Nick. He's on the gulf a lot, and he's a senior in high school, but you just haven't been here when he came by. You aren't here most of the time when I'm here, Harry."
Harry laughed, pushing back from his desk. Wincing, he grabbed at his lower leg.
"This damn gout! Excuse my French, son. I don't do pain well."
Harry looked me over as I stood next to Pop. For the first time I could see the dozen books behind his desk. My eyes widened as I thought of the things I'd seen on the Vilnius Two.
"Clay, would you be interested in helping us with our growing collection of sea life? I labeled what I could. You sound like this is right up your alley."
"Sure," I said, not wanting to sound too anxious. "I can identify what you have back there."
"We'll find a way to make it worth your while if you're interested. John-Henry was quite helpful to me. We talked about where he found what is in those jars. I was quite disappointed when he left us."
"I work on the gulf. I see the things that come out of it. I'm more than a little curious about the more mysterious creatures I see," I said. "If I can use your books, I can find a few of those too."
"Tell you what, John. The little biology department you built me, I'm seeing The Sanibel Island Conservancy Biological Laboratories? I don't see any pay yet, but plenty of appreciation from moi," Harry said, leaning back as he kept an eye on me as he thought.
He wanted to see how I reacted.
I laughed. Ivan used the French word moi, meaning me. Harry realized I understood him. He smiled. He wanted to understand me.
"If young Olson here agrees to head the department, and he shows me something I can take to the board, we're in business. The board isn't big on things in jars. We'll need to bring them along with us slowly. Science isn't one of their strengths."
"I've never headed anything. If you appreciate what I do, all the better," I said, more excited by the set of books stretching out behind Harry's desk than some made-up title.
He saw where my eyes went as I read from the backs of the books. He was a curious fellow. He didn't miss much.
"Tell you what. I stay pretty busy what with reading Field & Stream and Hot Rod while I'm here. Can I trust you to keep the books in the laboratory and not spill formaldehyde on them? If we're going to build on that lab, having a first class set of marine biology books will be important."
"You got it," I said, wanting to get started.
"You identify and label the specimens in the lab, Clay, and I'll get money for equipment and for collecting specimens. I've talked about this for years. It could be an idea whose time has come if you're up to this."
"If a specimen is in those books, I'll find it."
"I like your spirit, son. I can tell this is the start of something good, John. I can't promise to pay Clay what he's worth to me, but I'll make his involvement worth his while. When we talked about establishing the laboratory, it included talk of a salary. I'll work those details into a discussion once I have some results to show off. Clay's age will be a factor. Results will overcome any resistance. I generally get my way is what I'm saying. I just needed the right motivation. I think with Clay's involvement, we can grow our laboratory into an important part of the conservancy."
"I have the authorization for John-Henry's salary. I'll pay Clay out of that. The biology thing can be voluntary for the time being if that's OK," Pop said. "We'll grow the lab the way you want it."
"Sounds like a plan, John," Harry said happily.
My mind was working overtime. I saw an opportunity to do something in an organized fashioned that I'd only been haphazardly before. Harry was excited by something that excited me. So far he had a kid fascinated by sea life. I decided to sweeten the deal.
"I see stuff on Mr. Aleksa's boat. Creatures come out of his nets. Things I saw once on his deck, I've never seen again. He allows me to get a good look at them. I remember what they look like. If I could bring those here, I could identify them. They come out of the gulf too. With your books, I can find the ones I remember and include them in any comprehensive record of what's in the Gulf of Mexico."
"You'd do that for us? We're collecting the specimens that wash up on Sanibel's beaches. My eventual plan is to identify everything that's native to the waters of the Gulf of Mexico."
"That's a job I want," I said with as much self assurance as I could gather.
"As I see it, Clay, one day it'll be important to know all the species in these waters. I've got a board to convince how important this is. I tell them a conservancy should be involved in conserving. Before we can do that, we've got to know what's here."
"It would be a logical place to start," I agreed.
"Logic isn't their best thing either. Tell you what, I'd like to see anything you bring back from Nick's boat, Clay. See them before they go into preservative when possible. You'll have my numbers and I want to know when you make an unusual find."
"I'll take some bottles with me. I'll keep the specimens I find in sea water. We have refrigeration and that will keep them fresh. We'll need a good refrigerator for the lab. Some specimens will barely fit in a gallon jar. We'll need some bigger jars. I'll work it out with Mr. Aleksa to keep them safe until we get back to the cove."
"I'll get to work on that. This island is a natural laboratory. Having a man with your enthusiasm will be a big help to me."
The man was talking my language. I think we understood each other.
"Thanks, Harry. I knew you'd get along with Clay. I didn't expect you to build the lab around him, but I can tell you Nick thinks he's the cat's meow. His old man thinks he's a good man too, if that means anything to you."
Harry had gone a long way for a first meeting. He was a serious man. You can't fake his kind of sincerity. It was Harry's dream long before I showed up. I was anxious to see how far we might go.
"We don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves. There are hurdles to clear. I was a good hurdler in high school. I want the lab running by October," He said, calculating the steps in front of him.
"It sounds exciting. I'll hang around to get your lab off the ground. It's where my interests are."
"I want you to meet Bill Payne, Clay. He's an environmentalist at the university. He has many ideas about conservation on the island. He'll like having someone serious to discuss his ideas with."
"Cool," I said, thinking I sounded too casual.
I worried he'd see me as an immature kid. I worried I was an immature kid. The more I heard the more I wanted to be involved. I didn't know what else to say, so I shut up.
"A time will come when an increasing population will strain the resources of the island. They'll threaten our pristine environment and we need to protect what we have. You strike me as a serious young man who can add his insight to reaching the goal."
"I love the gulf," I said. "I never want to live anywhere else. If I can help keep it the way it is right now, I'll do whatever it takes."
"Do what you can for your father. I'll get to work on creating a real laboratory before this damn gout kills me," he said, leaning to rub a foot wrapped in cloth.
"You better catch up with your father. I need a stiff drink. I don't like being a bad influence on young people," Harry said as he rubbed one ugly looking foot. "Too swollen to get into my shoe. Don't get old, son. That's my advice to you. It's not for sissies."
Pop was back in his shop loading supplies into the back of his truck for trash collection.
"I'll do that, Pop. I need lots of fresh air if I'm going to work here. That Harry is a character. I like him," I said, not liking most adults. "I'll need the chart to find all the cans."
"It's in the top drawer of my desk. Put it back when you come back. Just so you know, Harry is Judge Harry Nathan McCallister III. He's likely to be the next congressman from this district. His grandfather was Broadmore's attorney. He created the conservancy according to Mr. Broadmore's wishes, after his death."
"Does Mama know where Broadmore died," I asked.
I pictured the chandelier in the foyer at the conservancy house minus Mr. Broadmore.
"No, and I didn't know you knew. I have no plans to discuss it with your mother," Pop said. "The grandfather headed the conservancy first. Harry Jr. headed it once senior passed, and Harry III took over in the 50s, after his father died. III's father was a judge too. Harry's a good man to have on your side, Clay. You impressed him. You have that ability with adults, son. You were too young to be around all this before now. A lot of wheeling and dealing is done here. Powerful people come here wanting Harry's blessing."
"You know how I feel about politicians?" I said disapproving of the man's profession.
"You can't judge a book, or a judge, by his cover. A man like Harry will stop this war if given the chance. When the FBI came to put the word out that I was a subversive, Harry asked them to leave. He told them, 'You should hope to be the patriot this man is.'
"He did that?" I asked, quickly rethinking my blanket condemnation of all living politicians.
"He did and he knows about Teddy. Harry has five sons. Three are in college and two are in high school. He's sending them to college to keep them out of the war. Harry's a good man."
"Ivan told me that's how it works," I said. "The poor dumb kids go to war. The rich kids chase girls on campus. It's bogus, Pop!"
I spent hours gazing into Harry's books. I promised myself I wasn't going to let my life be taken over by my desire to learn more about the gulf. It was a promise I couldn't keep.
Even while I had new specimens to label, I found myself going through the volumes searching for the one of a kind creatures I'd seen over the years. I could still picture them in my mind. I examined every picture for some sign of one of those.
Once I figured out how the books were arranged, labeling my newer finds from the beaches of Sanibel wasn't that hard. I walked the beaches each time I emptied the trash cans nearby.
I was a beach comber again. It was my specialty when I first arrived in Florida. I began finding beautiful shells I kept at the lab.
It didn't take long for equipment to start arriving. Harry was doing what he said he'd do. I don't know why that surprised me, but it did. Words were cheap but he was a man of his. At first we didn't talk much. He knew what he wanted and he went about setting up the laboratory of his dreams and no one came to move me out of it.
Then Harry brought Bill Payne to explain the first microscope to me. A man of Mr. Payne's stature taking time to teach me how to use the instrument and take accurate notes on what I saw got my attention. It was a lesson I wanted to learn.
Mr. Payne was smart, dedicated, and he knew how to teach his subject. He spoke to me like I was learning something important. When we were all in the lab together, he spent more time with me than he did with Harry. He knew which one of us was going to be doing the work.
Harry was often sitting in the lab when I came back from collecting trash. He made a point of knowing my schedule. After I identified a dozen or so specimens, Harry came to read the names and the notes I'd taken.
"Show me where you found this one in the books," Harry said, examining one of the new jars.
I'd grab the proper book and turn to the spot that usually included a picture. I'd made notes on what the book said about it and kept them in my files. I examined the specimen I had, and made notes peculiar to it.
He had me read the name on the jar. He'd correct me, making sure I could say the name properly. Once he was satisfied, we moved to the next specimen if there was another new one.
No one had to tell me, 'This is a test,' but there was more to it than that. Harry watched me like a hawk and he studied each picture like it was a Renoir or a Van Gogh.
If there was something unusual about a specimen, he'd read it to me from the book. Later he'd give me the name and ask me what was unusual about it. When I was less intimidated by Harry, I'd go to my files and read to him what was unusual about one of our specimen, after he read from the book.
Harry was never condescending. He didn't treat me like I was a kid or his employee. I was being educated by an educated man. He wanted me to know the business that had become my business before it became our business.
I liked the pace of learning. I liked the attention I was given.
Even in those first few months at the conservancy, being both laborer and scientist, I felt good when I was there. I loved what I was doing and what I was doing benefited the place I loved; the Gulf of Mexico and the things in it.
It was best when Ivan was with me. We drove Teddy's car to school and to the conservancy Monday through Thursday afternoon. Some days Ivan went to the house to read, but two or three days a week he went with me. We didn't like being away from each other.
If I found a specimen on the beach, after we returned to the conservancy, I was in my lab searching for what it was, looking at it through the microscope, and taking notes.
Ivan drove home and Pop insisted I go home when he left, even if I hadn't finished what I was doing.
While Ivan approved of what I decided to do, it meant we were away from each other more than usual. On Friday we went out with Ivan's father. We weren't out of each other's sight until Sunday and we were together every night after dinner. When we were together, we couldn't keep our hands off each other.
Time was flying by. I couldn't find anything to complain or worry about. Ivan and I were about as good as we could be. I loved him and he loved me. Life may have been coming for us, but we were avoiding it. We'd need to acknowledge the world did exist soon.
In spite of all my new responsibilities, life was still simple then. What we liked most of all was being together in a place where we could get our hands on each other. I was expert at getting him alone in a private place. I looked for places that offered privacy.
Ivan once needed to get the ball rolling. He'd taught me well, and I was always on the lookout for an opportunity to jump his bones when we were together. In an effort to be as good as I could be, I needed practice. I wanted practice, and Ivan was more than happy to give it to me.
I knew every sand dune with enough uniola paniculata, Sea Oats, to hide two lovers in love, and I didn't hesitate to drag Ivan into the weeds when we had time. Sand could be distracting, but the way we did it, sand was a magic carpet to love.
I collected samples of all the grasses and plants on the island. The books in the biology laboratory had an excellent flora and fauna section. It was no trouble identifying the island life I found.
Ivan enjoyed reading and while I worked in the lab, he drove home to read Time , Newsweek , and the best newspaper available that day. It was usually the Miami Herald . When he found a Washington Post , because, 'That's where it was all happening,' he got that. When I got home, he'd read me the articles he'd marked.
There wasn't much extra time in those days. I'd have given up school to do more of the things I loved doing, but that wasn't bright as close as I was to graduation.
As fast as time was passing, I wouldn't remember much about my senior year. I could see where graduating could come in handy one day, but most of what I was doing didn't require me to show anyone a diploma.
Not having Mama disown me was a good reason to graduate too.
One morning in early October, Pop came into my lab to get me to go to breakfast with him on a day I was out of school.
"Where we going?" I asked, putting a marker in the book that held the description of the latest specimen I'd found.
"It's a little place I found on the way to Fort Myers," Pop said.
Work was work and we rarely had time to take lunch. Taking off to go to Fort Myers was a couple of hours if we ate.
What did I know? Pop was the boss and he wanted breakfast. I was always hungry.
We parked in front of a silver railway car. The sign said 'Diner.' It was about fifty feet off the highway.
I followed Pop inside. We went to the last booth near the kitchen.
There was suddenly a fellow in a coat and one of those 1940s detective hats Bogey wore in his Sam Spade movies. Bogey jumped up and embraced Pop before I got a look at him.
This was strange behavior, even if you were really hungry.
Looking past the hat, baggy clothes, and scruffy red beard, my brother Teddy was about to grab hold of me, pushing Pop to the side.
"Teddy! Teddy! Teddy," was all I could say, as he hugged me.
He held onto me for several seconds before saying, "I love you too, Clay. I miss you."
"Is this safe?" I asked, worried about him being overexposed.
Star was sitting in the booth in a hat and coat that was as baggy as Teddy's. She smiled, I nodded, Teddy introduced her to Pop. I could tell he immediately knew who she was.
Teddy had a girlfriend.
As Teddy sat down and pushed the hat back on his head, I found myself looking at someone who had aged. Maybe it was the beard or the months in the Glades. Teddy looked like a grown man now.
"Couldn't think of anything to write. Figured this would do. We're going to D. C. on the weekend of the 21 st ," he said. "We march on Saturday."
He sat across from Pop and me. Coffee was delivered without anyone asking for it. There was no mention of food.
Pop said nothing. He kept his big hands on top of Teddy's hands.
"We'll meet near here. Don't bring my car. There are rumors the FBI is all over the war-protesters," Teddy said. "Thursday at three in the afternoon. We won't be waiting around, Clay. You need to pass here by three on Thursday. We'll see you."
"Is it safe for you to go?" I asked, alarmed by the mention of the FBI.
"It's why I'm doing what I'm doing. I don't matter, Clay. I'm part of a movement to stop the war. The more of us there are the bigger impact we make. They'd give anything to take us down. People see the protest. They realize we don't all support what the leaders of this country are doing. Some will join us. The movement grows."
"I want to go but I've got school," I said.
"I'll take care of school," Pop said without hesitation.
"Mama?" I asked, knowing where the trouble would be.
"Let me take care of your mother," Pop said. "You'll be with Teddy. She'll like that."
"We'll have five cars, twenty three people counting you and Ivan. Ivan is going?"
"Yeah, Ivan's more gung ho than me. John-Henry is over there Teddy," I said, raising my only objection.
"John-Henry approves of the march," Pop said. "He isn't against the war, Clay, but he thinks someone should be. I think more people need to be. Another of my sons isn't going. They'll need to put me in prison before they get another of my sons."
"OK, Pop," I said. "That's my only worry."
"Do you oppose the war, Clay?" Teddy asked.
"Yes," I said.
"We'll meet you on this highway Thursday at three. We'll take you back to the house. Not me but one of the cars will drop you and Ivan off. It's going to be a hard four days."
"I'll bring them to meet you," Pop said. "Are you going to be with them the entire time?" Pop asked.
"I'll be with them from the time you drop them off until we drop them off. I'm looking forward to being with Clay. My group will be sticking together," Teddy said, finally smiling.
I was always glad to see Teddy. He'd changed, matured, and he'd gained a little weight. He was more sure of himself too.
There were tears when it was time to say goodbye.
After the hugs and wiping my own tears, Teddy said, "You've grown up, Clay. You're a man now. I wish I'd been around more."
When I reached the door to leave, I turned back to get a last look at my brother. He was gone. Only four coffee cups remained as evidence of our meeting.
I felt like I was in a movie. I knew the plot. I knew the hopelessness of what needed to be done, but we had to do it. The power of the forces aligned against my family were immense.
Except it wasn't the people's government any longer. It had been taken over by men who had their own ideas about how to use American power and the people's resources. Instead of a government of the people, it had become a government of the few, for the few.
I knew America did good in the world. We stood for freedom in the beginning. There were a lot of good people in the country who still believed in freedom.
Why were we involve with so much death?
If fewer people were armed, fewer people would die. While I wasn't that good at math, this seemed obvious to me.
If a kid in Florida figured it out, why couldn't my government?
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