The Gulf Between Us
by Rick Beck
Tick in Time
The room in the corner of Pop's shop was my responsibility. What went on there would become an integral part of the conservancy. The biology lab was going to be an important source of information concerning life on and around Sanibel Island.
At first it was things in jars that I matched to pictures in books. How difficult was that? Harry was careful not to introduce me to too much too soon. Hiring a qualified scientist was out of the question. Developing one to be responsive to this specific environment wasn't.
Training someone to do the things he had in mind would take time. Convincing the board of directors to fund the project would take more time. Harry wanted the conservancy to eventually become a respected source of knowledge on life in the Gulf of Mexico.
Up until now the conservancy hadn't conserved anything. Harry was going to change that. He took the first steps once he concluded that I was capable of doing what he had in mind.
Until I met Harry, the word leadership meant the ability of self-important people to insert themselves in front of the progress people needed to make in order to have a decent life and slow it down.
Harry's leadership was unobtrusive, but he was doing what was necessary to make the conservancy live up to its name. The people closest to the operation didn't notice anything happening. I didn't notice, but I just got there.
I looked into the books Harry bought. I took notes on what I read and what I discovered as I compared the specimen in front of me with the pictures in the book, noting peculiarities I found.
In the early days of identifying the few dozen lab specimens, Harry came to the lab to talk over their names. For the most part names I couldn't pronounce but I carefully copied the name in the book onto the label I put on the jar.
Harry was a stickler for those names. We'd go over a dozen and we'd have a cup of coffee, chat, and then he'd ask me the names again, until I pronounced them to his liking.
What was Greek to me was Latin to Harry. He knew the fastest way to aggravate a real marine biologist, or any scientist for that matter, was to butcher names during a discussion.
1 Bill Payne came to supervise how information was collected and filed. If I was going to take notes, he thought it would be useful to be able to locate them. He helped me set up a filing system to keep track of the information on each of the lab's specimens.
In a few weeks I could say the names of the specimens and located the notes I'd copied from the book and the notes I'd taken on each. It didn't just simplify things, it saved me a lot of time.
These were educated men. I was a dumb kid. I might have been a man doing a man's job on the Vilnius Two, but at the conservancy I was just a kid. I felt like a kid. The men tutoring me didn't treated me like I was a kid.
I could see where finding notes on specimens long ago recorded was a good idea. What good were lost notes? They were keeping an eye on me as I felt my way along the mysterious biological trail.
Fishing with Mr. Aleksa gave me access to a wide ranging variety of specimens. They were coming from farther out in the gulf than most biologists were going back then. These were the specimens that created the most interest in our lab. One of the most asked questions when someone who knew the Gulf of Mexico dropped by the lab, "Where did you get this one and how did you identify it?"
I kept good notes on where each specimen was found. Mr. Aleksa taught me how to use the boat's navigational devices. I was able to map the location of each find. My maps were unique too.
At first Harry called what I was doing a conservancy project. As time went on, I became part of the biological division of the conservancy. Then we became the Sanibel Island Biological Laboratory. By that time the board had changed.
Harry was replacing the older board members who resisted change with younger and more progressive men. What was left of the older board began voting wholeheartedly with anything Harry wanted. No more changes were necessary.
Politics was the same at all levels. You voted to protect your job, not do what was right. Harry knew how the game was played. By the time Harry got the board he wanted, the new biology lab went from a modest sized building to one half the size of the original conservancy after Harry decided on a walk-in refrigerator for our specimens.
When I stood watching the construction, I saw many men in white lab coats roaming the building. I heard one of them ask, "Clayton, who?" I didn't mind. It was way bigger than I was.
There was no way to know I was looking at my life's work. I had no way of seeing into Harry's mind and he told me only what I needed to know then. He was growing the conservancy to meet the need. I was the man he'd picked to run his biology lab. He knew I'd do a good job, because he was training me.
When someone called me Clayton Olson, they weren't about to bawl me out. If an unusual sea creature washed up in the area, I became the man to call. I'd go to collect it and investigate.
The reaction was always the same when I showed up with my bottles to collect whatever it was.
"You're the Clayton Olson from the conservancy?" the smiling caller would ask.
"That's me. Your neighborhood disposal personage," I joked.
"How old are you?" was always the second question.
At first I was kind of young.
People began bringing unusual finds from other areas, once our reputation began to grow. Harry spread the word as he campaigned for congress. This was the place where such finds could be identified and preserved.
Anyone could walk into my lab for a chat. Most asked about what was being done to preserve the Island and the Gulf of Mexico. I called them friends of the conservancy. Harry called them donors.
The most concerned citizens often had money and lived on Sanibel. Once I addressed their questions, I directed them to Harry. He was better at telling the story about the conservancy preserving the island environment. He knew how to get money out of people.
The lab's library grew substantially. If there was a new book on marine biology, Harry brought it to me for our library.
Nothing happened in a hurry. Preservation was a marathon, not a sprint. We gradually grew. It was nothing alarming or intimidating. Even the building going up next to Pop's shop meant little to me. I kept collecting and identifying new specimens. It's what I liked to do when I wasn't collecting the trash.
This is what had been put into motion when we left to go to the march in Washington D.C. I didn't tell anyone where I was going, because I didn't want anyone to know. Pop knew and that covered my butt. I was going but I hadn't made up my mind how best to show my dislike for the people sponsoring the Vietnam war yet.
No one had to tell me I wouldn't enjoy the march. There were too many people, too much noise, and too little room, but it wasn't about me. This was about being somewhere I needed to be to make that statement I wanted to make.
I was standing up to be counted. I'd never stood up before.
Depending on who was doing the counting, we were somewhere between 50,000 and a 100,000. The march was angry. Mostly we were young men of a certain age. Too many men our age were coming home in boxes. We couldn't vote. We couldn't drink, but we could go to Vietnam to kill and be killed and we didn't like it.
I was with Teddy and Ivan, so the experience was fine. I knew why I was there. I knew what made me reluctant to come. I was completely against the war. I wasn't sure how marching and making a lot of noise would stop the masters of war.
The most vivid moment of the march was when we were chanting in front of the White House. I'd heard the chant before, but it meant more when we stood in front of the house of the man who was responsible for the war.
"Hey, hey, hey, L. B. J., how many kids did you kill today?"
We repeated it over and over again.
It was cruel. I wasn't cruel. It was loud and I chanted as loudly as anyone. I was as angry as anyone else. I left no doubt how I felt about his war.
I didn't feel very good about it. I didn't like how enthusiastically I became part of the crowd. I wondered when a march became a mob.
This was my first and last anti-war protest march. They wouldn't miss me. Each march grew larger as the number of boxes increased. A lot of sons and brothers weren't coming home.
The L. B. J. chant was soon replaced with, "Hell no, we won't go!"
Young men resented being told they had to die because some old goat said so. No matter how loud we screamed, the masters of war would keep sending teenage boys to die. We were the boys who weren't going and the ones who had been and were still pissed off.
There were speeches at the Lincoln Memorial. I was mesmerized by the Washington Mall. I'd never seen anything like it. Washington D. C. had to be one of the most majestic cities in the world. Between the Washington Monument and the Capitol were the museums. As impressive as that was. The view from the Monument back toward the Lincoln Memorial was inspiring.
It was a great city befitting the architects of a great nation. I doubt those men would approved of the masters of war. George Washington warned against foreign entanglements in his farewell address. Eisenhower warned of the military industrial complex in his. Were these leaders somehow smarter than today's leaders?
I'd done what I came to do. I'd seen what I came to see. I was ready to go home. By the middle of the speeches I was yawning.
I knew nothing about war protesting or war. I didn't seen the end to a means. It took six months for L. B. J. to announce he wouldn't be running for reelection. His presidency was over. It had been ruined by his war. No matter how much good Johnson did, he was known for the war that would kill in excess of thirty-six thousand eighteen year old boys. While no man who goes to war is a boy, that's what they were before the old goats sent them to the jungles of Vietnam.
At least Johnson had a conscience. He head the voice of the people and he responded. The next president had no conscience whatsoever. His way of achieving peace was to bomb the Vietnamese into submission. When we marched in 1967, there were twenty thousand dead Americans. By the time Nixon was done, over fifty-eight thousand had died. Nixon called this, "Peace with Honor."
There was something terribly wrong with our leaders.
I was exhausted by the time we got back to the car. I'd never been so happy to be on my way home.
We didn't talk about the march. I sat between Teddy and Ivan on the way back. There was plenty of time for me to be with Teddy. We'd never spent that much time that close in our entire lives.
"I'm glad you came, Clay. Being with you means a great deal to me now. I'm sorry I didn't spend more time with you when I could have."
"Thanks for taking us. I'm glad we stand together on something," I said.
I was happy to be with Teddy too. We shared a bond we hadn't shared before, or we didn't realized that we shared.
I didn't realize it would be close to ten years before I'd see Teddy again. I'm sure he knew he'd be in the wind soon. He didn't tell me.
As we left D. C. he wanted to see the peace symbol I'd given Ivan. He turned it over and read the inscription.
"Ivan loves Clay. Clay loves Ivan," he read with his eyes growing moist. "You two promise me you'll take care of each other. You know I won't be around to help."
I wasn't surprised much by Teddy's reaction. We assured him we planned to take care of each other for a long long time. I don't think Teddy saw enough of Ivan and me to realize we were lovers, but to me that necklace left no doubt how I felt about Ivan.
The next time I saw Teddy, I wouldn't know him. I'd gone to my father's hospital room after Pop's first heart attack. The man holding Pop's hand was a stranger to me. Not only had it been nearly ten years, this guy had gone out of his way not to look like Teddy.
His elegantly styled wavy blond hair, a color Teddy's had never been, put me off him. The suit cost more than my entire wardrobe. It was tailored for a snug fit. The Italian leather loafers were polished to a high gloss. I'd never seen silk socks before. His were black. I had a pair of loafers, American made, that had never seen polished.
The hand holding my father's was manicured with polished nails.
This was a successful man, probably European; French or Italian.
The baffling part was, why was he holding Pop's hand? I knew everyone in Pop's life. I'd never seen this fellow. I didn't like him.
There was something about the middle-aged man's face that got my attention. Then it made sense. I realized who the stranger was.
"Teddy?" I asked in a less than convincing voice.
"No. I'm Bill Carson," the thirty year old man said, with the look on his face leaving no doubt he knew me.
"Bill Carson," I said, as he stood to face me.
After ten years I knew the game. He was a wanted man.
Taking a wallet out of his inside pocket, he opened it to show me a picture I. D. It said he was Bill Carson.
The picture looked more like Teddy than the man did. He'd done such a good job of changing his appearance, his own brother didn't know him, not right away.
It was difficult to find Teddy Olson in Bill Carson. His eyes showed none of Teddy's warmth. Being on the run for so long had taken its toll. His posture, even his voice was different. You had to work to make yourself into a different person. It was more than the hair and the clothes.
The handshake was firm. Our eyes met for an instant.
While he stood his ground, I was having none of it. Before he knew it I had my arms around him and I put my cheek against his.
I whispered, "Teddy, what have you done to yourself?"
He gave in to the hug for a second. It took another second for him to back away. He looked at his loafers when he did.
He smelled sweet. I'd never smelled a cologne as powerful as his, but my cologne was salt water and sea air. I wanted to hold my brother, but I didn't. There was a reason for what he was doing.
Otherwise I went along with the charade. I didn't know where he'd come from or how he knew Pop was ill, but here he was. He'd gone far away from us. He'd obviously been successful.
Teddy Olson was a fugitive. Bill Carson no doubt was an upstanding citizen somewhere. Teddy was the most industrious Olson boy. He was on the run and still found a way to thrive.
When Pop opened his eyes, he knew his son when he saw him. I hadn't seen Pop smile like that in years. No disguise could fool Pop. As sick as he was, his smite told the tale.
Teddy patted my father's hand and said, "I love you, Pop."
For a minute the youthful light returned to Teddy's eyes. Neither of them spoke after that. Teddy was there and nothing else mattered. It was the best medicine for Pop. He was sitting up by the next day.
Teddy disappeared back to his new life once Pop was out of the woods. I think he did more to accomplish that than the doctors did.
I didn't expect to see Teddy again. He had a life somewhere else. I'd heard the amnesty mentioned but with the anger in the country over losing our first war, I didn't expect amnesty to be possible.
Right after Pop came back to work from his heart attack, President Carter signed the amnesty.
"All is forgiven. Come home," was the message he sent.
To heal the nation after the war required forgiveness. It brought home long ago exiled sons who refused to go to the old goat's war.
Families of the nearly fifty-nine thousand dead weren't thrilled with Carter. The masters of war, who could have helped heal the nation, opposed amnesty. There was no forgiveness for those who refused an invitation to the war.
The split created by a senseless war is made permanent by the masters of war. War was their business and business had been good.
Teddy Olson was no longer a fugitive. He could return to the conservancy house to visit Mama and his very grown up little sister. He endured nearly ten years of being wanted. He was a man of peace.
The Vietnam war was finally over for the Olson clan.
Once we got back and sat on Ivan's deck, after we got out of bed Monday afternoon, there was no talk of war.
Ivan began to changed after Boris enlisted in the army. I was the worrywart and didn't mind saying so. Ivan kept his feelings to himself. I didn't ask. I knew how I felt about my brother being over there. It was obvious to me that Ivan liked it even less than I did, but Boris was his only brother. Next to me, Boris was closest to Ivan.
First it was Time and Newsweek left unread, once news of the war went bad. Ivan no longer stopped for the Miami Herald . Instead he went with me to the conservancy and read biology books.
It didn't change anything. We had more time to make love but we talked less. I spent more time at work, but the war was never far away no matter where I was.
The pile of letters on the bedside table from Boris grew, which surprised me. There were fifteen when I last counted. Ivan began to check to see if there was a letter from John-Henry before he sat down. If there was one, Ivan excused himself and went home.
There was no doubt why he didn't want to hear about Vietnam.
At seventeen, fast approaching eighteenth, we too were entering the danger zone. My beach was my sanctuary. My work at the conservancy kept my mind off the things I worried about.
I got lost in my work in the growing biology laboratory. When Ivan didn't come to the lab with me after school, and there was nothing to do, I read and reread the labels on the jars.
I preferred to chase Ivan across the Sanibel Island dunes.
They could come and get me once I was eighteen. I wouldn't go willingly. I wouldn't go to war. I wasn't going to commit violence against anyone anywhere at any time. I wouldn't run when they came for me. I'd face whatever my government had in store for me.
What was the punishment if you refused to be a killer? Once you were one, where did you go to find work after the war was over?
I could always say I was a homosexual. It automatically disqualified you from the culture of death. Homosexuals weren't fit to kill anyone, but I wasn't going to do that. Who I loved had nothing to do with their insanity. I was against violence. That's why I wasn't going to war. That was the statement I was making.
I worried that Ivan would be drafted. I worried he might go. I worried he wouldn't come home. I worried we'd both end up in jail for refusing to follow the masters of war. Ivan wasn't talking.
I'd been given a future by a judge who was going to be a congressmen. He'd win because Harry was a winner. He was committed to making the world a better place, beginning with the Island where he lived.
Harry was committed to me, even if I didn't see it then.
Ivan was on his own long before I came to the beach. He spent years getting me to think for myself, to read, and to pay attention to detail. Ivan created a spot where I fit into his life. He'd yet to discover where he fit into his own life. Since I got to Florida, I saw my future as being on the gulf. Ivan's never was. I just assumed it was.
Learning to think for myself didn't mean I could think for Ivan. Without him I was nothing. Being there for him was where I wanted to be. I'd wait for him to find himself. Even when he looked far away from our beach, I'd wait, and Ivan would always come home.
Love isn't simply holding tightly to each other. Love is sometimes letting go. If you hold a living thing too tightly, it can't breathe. We all need to breathe. Ivan needed to breathe. I gave him as much room as he needed. I would not become impatient.
My job became my life's work, or my passion became my job. I never really done a days work in my life. Even picking up trash was an adventure, especially on the days Ivan went with me.
Ivan was alone more often because I had so much to do. He was smarter and more aware than me. He instinctively understood complicated issues that flummoxed me, but there was surprisingly little opportunity for someone as bright as Ivan. His future wasn't in an office. His career wasn't fishing with his father.
My world was small. My life was simple. I liked it like that. I didn't like being away and getting back home was a relief. It's where I wanted to be with Ivan. It's where I wanted to stay with Ivan.
When I came in from collecting the trash some days, Harry would be sitting in my lab. Our handshake had become a hug. There was small talk for a minute and then he'd get down to business.
"I want to see the new specimens. Do you know which ones I haven't seen?"
"Sure," I said, going to the file cabinet to get Harry's List, where I marked down the names of the specimens Harry hadn't seen.
He made sure I could pronounce all the names and he read my notes to check on the unusual finds. When Harry came to my lab, he didn't leave until I could properly pronounce the new names and after he read every note I'd taken on them. I was sure Hot Rod was more fun.
The letters kept coming from Boris. Before Christmas of 1967 they were coming from Vietnam. I had hoping he'd visit once more. When he was in Tampa, Ivan went to see him for two days.
I let him use Teddy's car so he had a way to get home.
Ivan said Boris was more of a stud than ever and he'd brought two army friends home with him. Ivan told me that one of them was in love with Boris. He wasn't sure about the other one.
Being jealous of my lover's brother wasn't new. I could have gone to Tampa too, but I knew better. Boris visiting the house next to the river meant I could walk home if he got frisky. Walking home from Tampa wasn't quite as easy.
John-Henry said he was fine. We sent him two big packages with all his favorite stuff for Christmas. Mama cooked all the cakes, cookies, and sweets she could fit into one box. The other box was socks, underwear, books, pencils and pads.
The boxes didn't get to him until January, but how Christmasy could Vietnam be? We sent things he'd like and that would help him remember there was a home and people who cared about him.
Ivan stayed with me at the conservancy house on Christmas Eve. We didn't do much sleeping before going down to open presents and to have coffee, cakes, bacon, sausage, and muffins, which held us over until breakfast.
Mama wanted to keep busy so the missing half of her children didn't make her sad. Along with John-Henry, and Teddy, Coleen missed her first Christmas. Word was she was in the Bahamas or Bermuda with her girlfriends.
It left more food for us. Brian had returned from his latest trip to Texas. He was home two or three days a month now. He liked talking about driving a truck. He claimed there was a lot to see out in the country. Brian had never had much to say about anything before.
It was mild weather and while we spent a lot of time at the conservancy house, we were mostly at Ivan's. There was absolutely nothing on our schedule but each other. I was sure Ivan had decided to find out if there was such a thing as too much sex.
We hadn't been able to leave each other alone since returning from D. C. There we were limited to holding hands for four days. I don't think you can make up for lost time, but Ivan wanted to try. We never found out how much sex was too much, but we knew four days without sex was too much.
We hadn't cleared Mama's kitchen before Ivan had a lip lock on me Christmas night. He was taking advantage of me. I had my arms full with bags of food. Twice the week of Christmas, we didn't make it back to his house before desire overtook us. It was what drove us the week between Christmas and New Years. It was a nice drive.
By then we knew we weren't going to make up for lost time, so we decided to work on getting ahead on love making. With that in mind we couldn't keep our hands off each other, but we'd had that problem for a while now.
We swam together each morning right after sunrise. The water hadn't taken on the winter chill yet and therefore I didn't mind. Ivan was pretty devoted to his morning swims.
When I swam with him, knowing I couldn't match his pace, he cut back so we swam together. He swam next to me and some days we even swam to my house and back without stopping to... wrestle or anything.
I'd never been as happy as I was the Christmas of 1967. I had everything I could want. The worries about my future were over. It was when I began to feel like John-Henry was coming home safe, and he did late the following summer, walking up the beach one afternoon to let me know he was home.
I could forget the letter I kept behind a picture frame in my room. It told me what to do if he hadn't made it back alive. I didn't know Teddy had left Florida yet, but I was sure he'd stay a step ahead of the FBI. Teddy was resourceful. Pop wouldn't mention his departure until I asked him.
Even though our Christmas tree wasn't as tall as last years, I still imagined old man Broadmore's feet becoming tangled in the tree's boughs. It was a recurring vision I had, Mr. Broadmore swinging from our chandelier.
These were happy days, even with our missing family members. They could be called the best of times, although my life was mostly good. Getting beyond childhood was an escape I wanted to make. My life was legally my own once I turned eighteen in spite of the hazards that came with it.
I'm sure I gained five pounds over Christmas that year. When we weren't eating at my house, we were eating at Ivan's. Mama cooked enough food for an army and we did our best to eliminate any waste.
The nights were pleasant enough to keep the doors open to let in the fresh gulf air. We even managed a couple of hours of sleep most nights.
I must admit our nights were too good to miss by going to sleep. When you have a lover like Ivan, you need to pay attention, and I did.
I'd accumulated nothing since arriving in Florida. Even my cutoffs were threadbare most of the time. The clothes for school weren't any good on my beach. I had a car, but it wasn't mine. My life was about what I did and who I was with.
For the right person I'd give up those cutoffs.
I'd been perpetually worried about what I would do with the rest of my life. Ivan told me that I had to wait for my life to develop. Ivan taught me tricks about thinking. I had to be there to have thoughts that meant anything. Everything else was noise.
As my life at the conservancy began to develop, being there made all the difference in where I was going when I wasn't going anywhere. I was staying right where I was.
I didn't have to look for the rest of my life. I was living it and I hadn't made it to eighteen yet, but it was coming fast.
Still being young, insanely in love with Ivan, and at the beginning of the rest of my life, wasn't so bad. I didn't know what I was doing at the conservancy I'd still be doing in twenty years. I kept waiting for Harry to bring in a professional to take over the Sanibel Island Biological Laboratories. He never did. I was his man.
From the day I met Harry, I told myself that this was temporary. I wasn't going to get my hopes up about being important to what Harry had in mind for the conservancy. At each step he didn't simply include me, he asked me what I thought. He asked me what I wanted. He asked me what would make my work easier.
After I turned eighteen, Harry came to the lab to seal the deal.
"Young Olson, you've grown up. Time to get you enrolled in a marine biology curriculum. If you're going to become a respect source for information on the gulf, you'll need letters behind your name."
"I will?" I said, uncertain about this news.
"Yes, you will, but not to worry. I happen to know a respected environmentalist who is offering a limited class on marine biology this year. You may have heard of him, Bill Payne."
"He can handle five students. He'll dive in the waters around the island. Your in class time will be limited to two days a week. There are courses you need to pass to get your degree, but ninety percent of it will be with Bill in the local waters and in our wetlands."
"Do I get time to think about it?"
"Actually you don't. I talked to your father and he's all for it. If you're working here, Clay, I've got to protect you from the draft. While your education is well underway already, it doesn't keep you out of the draft. Enrolling you in Bill Payne's program does. It's a done deal."
"That does make a difference. How much is it going to cost me?"
"You're working for the conservancy. You'll go to school on the conservancy dime. I told you I'd make working here worth your while. You may never make a bundle of bucks, but we'll take care of you."
By the time the new building was completed, the older board members were gone and the field had been cleared for Harry to keep the conservancy viable.
The conservancy eventually became the Sanibel Laboratories. As time passed and conserving the island and gulf became a major undertakings, the laboratory was the answer. With donations and our knowledge about the island and its waters, we could do the job.
Harry ran the conservancy. I ran the laboratory.
As Ivan and I kept each other awake at night, little did we know what was in store for us. 1968 was a year we wouldn't soon forget.
It set into motion events in our lives that we couldn't control.
While my life seemed very good, the world around me was about to go very mad.
We were on the verge of turning eighteen and our lives would be our own. In 1968 it was hard to know what kind of lives we'd have by the time that year ended.
Happy New Year!
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