The Gulf Between Us
by Rick Beck
If you were alive in 1968 you remember it.
Ivan and I turned eighteen in 1968. We graduated from high school in 1968. We'd been taught to look forward to those achievements, but they weren't achieved without apprehension. Every eighteen year old boy was apprehensive in 1968.
Registering for college in Bill Payne's program was the plan. Pop said it was a generous offer. He told me how he worried about John-Henry and Teddy. Having me close to home would be a relief.
I wasn't sure how Ivan would take the news. I didn't tell him right away about college. Mama wanted to know what a marine biologist did. Lucy wanted to meet Harry and Bill Payne. She wanted to be a rocket scientist or a brain surgeon, but she thought she might like being a marine biologist in her spare time.
Lucy was already a pistol.
I was safe, but I didn't know what Ivan intended to do. I didn't know if he knew what he was going to do. It worried me.
"You remember Bill Payne?" I asked one day after returning from dinner.
"I met him at the conservancy. He's the environmentalist guy with the white hair and great tan."
"Yeah, that's him. He is a college professor. He teaches a marine biology course."
"He does?" Ivan asked. "That's right up your alley, Clay."
"Harry wants me to attend his program."
"Go to college. That's great," Ivan said, getting up to hug me.
He didn't mention the education deferment.
"What are you going to do, Ivan? We graduate in a few months."
"I don't know what I want to do. I thought I'd know by now. I'm not as sure of myself as I once was."
"I've thought about it. If you want to go to college, I've got all that money on top of my fridge. The conservancy is going to pay my way if I promise to stick with the biology lab."
"I don't want your money, Clay," Ivan said. "I appreciate the offer but I'm really restless now. I can hardly sit still in high school."
"Boris?" I asked.
He turned his head to give me one of his studying stares. He didn't say anything and I didn't say anything else.
I had money. I wasn't beyond buying Ivan a deferment but I couldn't put it to him in those terms.
I'd sensed a change in Ivan after his last visit with Boris. It wasn't long before Boris was on his way to Vietnam and Ivan seemed more unsettled. Any serious talk about the Vietnam War ended.
I signed the card we sent Boris for his twentieth birthday. Ivan mailed it before Christmas. When I wrote my name, I wondered, 'Will he see twenty-one?'
I didn't share the thought.
First Boris left Ivan to go to Tampa. Now he'd gone to war. For the first time Ivan couldn't get to Boris if he wanted to.
My family continued to be a source of comfort for me in 1968. I looked forward to going home with Pop for dinner.
Ivan knew which day John-Henry's letter came each week. He didn't eat with us if there was a letter to be read. He went home to watch the small black and white television he'd taken down from the top of the radio closet.
We both made sure we were in front of the TV for Laugh-In and the Smoothers Brothers. I'd watched TV in Tulsa. Since coming to Florida, I couldn't sit still long enough to watch the tube. Sitting on Ivan's deck, watching the gulf was more relaxing. Being next to Ivan was relaxing. Watching TV made my brain go numb.
I did like Andy Griffith and Gomer Pyle. Barney and Gomer were funny. The Monkees were simply zany. There was no plot, and the story made no sense, but we laughed the entire time.
Watching TV replaced reading. Watching replaced the articles Ivan read to me. Our window on the world had closed. Nothing newsworthy stayed on the screen for long. The deck became a no news zone.
The war in Vietnam started off bad in 1968. It went downhill from there.
We saw Walter Cronkite, "The most trusted man in news," at a time when news was more than opinion, give his opinion on the Vietnam war after a 1968 trip to Vietnam.
Walter Cronkite stood in front of the camera in a flack jacket and helmet. He'd finished his evening news report.
As quick as I spotted Walter, I jumped to change the channel.
"No, let's hear what Uncle Walter has to say," Ivan said.
Before leaving the war zone Cronkite had an opinion he felt obligated to share with the American people. Since crying when he reported the death of John F. Kennedy, Walter was beloved for sharing his grief with us.
For the second time he broke his implacable newsman persona, when he said, 'At best, in this reporter's opinion, the war will end in a stalemate.'
L. B. J. got out of the 1968 presidential race shortly after Cronkite's dictum, saying, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost the country."
I knew what was going on in Vietnam. Anyone at the conservancy with a kid in Vietnam came to Pop's shop to talk to him. Pop didn't like it, but he was a polite man who listened to mothers and fathers questioning their countries wisdom. They'd never express doubt in public, but they knew Pop had a son at war and one in the bush.
For the most part these were intensely patriotic people who were searching for a reason for us to be over there. We all knew our government knew things we'd never know, but the killing seemed to be out of control and the boxes kept coming home.
Tet alarmed everyone that knew anything about Vietnam. This was way beyond anything anyone said was possible. The North Vietnamese offensive went on and on.
The Tet Offensive brought attacks on every city in the South. We'd been at war for three years and these cities were peaceful before. Suddenly the entire country was on fire and North Vietnamese troops were everywhere.
With a half million American troops in the South, how does the North wage all out war in territory we control? The CIA, who knew everything, didn't warn anyone the attack was coming.
Thousands of North Vietnamese troops positioned themselves around major city in the South and no one knew they were there?
In America we watch American troops going house to house trying to dislodge the enemy.
Previously safe cities are occupied by North Vietnamese.
The most vivid pictures came from the American Embassy in Saigon. Marines are filmed fighting back the North Vietnamese soldiers on the embassy grounds.
Gen. Westmoreland says, 'We've won a great victory.'
What else are the masters of war lying about?
Technically the Americans won the Tet Offensive. Thousands of the enemy died. Watching from America, it looked like something other than a great victory. The North Vietnamese soldiers fought to the death and lost the Tet Offensive.
It looked bad on television.
Khe Sahn, a forward marine base in Quang Tri Province, near Laos and the DMZ, is under siege before Tet begins. The base can only be resupplied by air, until that becomes too dangerous.
Two North Vietnamese divisions surround the base along with artillery and armored units. The base is under a constant assault.
The enemy keeps up artillery and mortar fire, charging the perimeter wire in what becomes hand to hand combat.
Resupply is attempted by heroic pilots. The many downed aircraft are testimony to the danger. Even under heavy helicopter attack, the North Vietnamese maintain the siege at a huge cost.
The battle for Khe Sahn goes on from January into July.
Gen. Westmoreland calls this the battle he's been waiting for. His troops going head to head again North Vietnamese troops.
After the bloody battle for Khe Sahn ends, with the marines coming out on top in spite of the cost in casualties, they withdraw. By the middle of July 1968 the North Vietnamese occupy the base.
It looks bad on TV, even when victory is declared.
Gen. Westmoreland is relieved as the commander of American forces in Vietnam, after he requests an additional two hundred thousand more troops.
The question remained, what are we doing in Vietnam?
The North Vietnamese have one way to measure victory. 'If we are still here once you've gone home, we win.'
We did finally come home five years later. The Vietnamese are still there.
each was peaceful. Time was moving right along. With Boris and John-Henry over there, the war didn't come up much. We didn't read the articles or follow the news. It was easier that way.
Ivan and I went dumb in 1968, but it was a year we couldn't ignore. If the war in Vietnam was disturbing, the war on the streets of the U. S. tore the country apart.
A few seconds of madness forever altered our future in 1968.
Those seconds robbed the country of young progressive leaders who didn't believe in the masters of war.
With them dead the masters of war were in the catbird seat.
"How does your family stay so cheerful?" Ivan asked, after we returned from dinner one night.
This required some thought.
"We like being together. I guess we feel lucky to be together, Ivan. I feel safe there. I have a nice family."
"Yes, you do. They're always happy. My family wasn't around much," Ivan said.
"Food is a way of bringing people together," Ivan said. "I didn't get that until I met you. I ate but it wasn't a family affair."
"Food is a spiritual. There's so much love in Mama's meals, you can't help but feel it. I wouldn't call it a religious experience. Mind control isn't my thing. It may be religious for Mama, feeding her family. I didn't feel it until we moved here," I said. "After John-Henry and Teddy were gone, it was dinner that brought our family together."
"You believe in spirits but not Gods?" Ivan asked.
"Mama believes in God. I believe in Mama. I believe in the force that units everything, me, you, the Gulf of Mexico, my family, your family, whatever. Since God doesn't believe in me, I find it difficult to believe in him."
"I see," he said. "Force?"
"Call it energy, karma, or Bugs Bunny. There is a force that runs through all of us."
"Bugs Bunny? I thought you were onto something and then you give me Bugs Bunny."
"I didn't care about anything before I came here. I respect my family. I love and respect you. In the spirit of my life, I want to preserve things. I'm lucky I have so much and to be happy."
"You're beginning to figure it all out?" Ivan asked.
"The world is a mess because there are people who make it that way. They want us to be afraid of how bad it might get if we don't put them in charge. Scare the people and take control."
"My God, along with everything else you do, you're a philosopher too," he said. "The masters of war want us afraid of the bogeyman?"
"Probably. They create the mess and then offer to fix it. If there's a way for me to keep the gulf from becoming a mess, I'll do it. I won't do it because I'll get something out of it. I'll do it to keep one of the most beautiful place on earth beautiful. It deserves to be preserved."
"That's why I love you," Ivan said. "You are a man of conviction, even if you do believe in Bugs Bunny."
"He's as real to me as the masters of war are," I said. "Bugs is way less dangerous."
"I remember the kid I rescued from Purdy at the rope swing. You were wide eyed and closed minded, and a bit on the porky side. Even then I saw the tall smart kid inside the chubby one."
"Do tell," I said. "I wasn't chubby. I still had my baby fat."
"You certainly did. I've never met anyone smarter; maybe me. You listened to everything I said, when I told you what I was taught."
"I listened to you because I was in love with your ass. I wanted to be with you and so I listened."
"You listened and learned. We think differently, Clay. Before, whatever I said was fine. You followed me no matter where I went. Now you lead the way. You have so much going for you. All I've got going for me is you," he said, holding my hand.
"And you'll always have me," I said. "I'm nothing without you, Ivan. Everything I am came from you. I won't forget that. As uncertain as times are, I owe everything I am to you."
"Always? You could find someone. I worry I won't be able to keep up with you. You're moving so fast. I'm sitting still."
"You need to keep up with you, Ivan. I'd never find anyone like you. I have no interest in looking," I said. "We may not be joined at the hip but our lives are. I couldn't function without you."
"I know," he said unconvinced.
"You're going to fish with your father. You'll captain the Vilnius Two in a few years."
"I don't know. Fishing for the rest of my life? I don't know. I feel like I need to be doing something. I don't know what."
"You'll fish with your father and I'll go with you often enough so we don't forget how to do it. The rest will take care of itself."
"I do love you, Clay. What you said about your life, what you do, how you feel about what we have, was smart. The conservancy doesn't have any idea what a find they've made in you."
"They don't??" I said surprised. "That's probably the nicest thing you've ever said to me, Ivan."
"I thought 'I love you' was pretty nice," he said, and our lips met as we hugged.
I loved him so much.
"You'll be fine. We'll be fine. You'll find what you're looking for."
Our talk had helped, but like most of our talks, we ended up in bed. It was hard to talk with our lips together.
We did our best.
Ivan's birthday came first in 1968. We'd party at my house, go to his house for the night, sleep all day, and be ready to go fishing Friday.
On his birthday I took him to Fort Myers to have our portrait taken. I bought a frame that would look good on his bed stand. We went to the jeweler I'd met through Bill Payne.
I ordered matching friendship rings. The jeweler needed Ivan's finger.
Ivan was speechless and the jeweler was cool about it.
After wiping the tears from his eyes, he gave me one wild and crazy kiss. I should have thought of the rings before.
"Will you marry me, Ivan?" I asked, not knowing why.
"I would if I could, Clay. My love for you overwhelms me sometimes. Like today when I realize how lucky I am to have you."
"Me too," I said. "Maybe one day we will get married."
"Maybe one day, Clay," he said without believing it.
Mama smiled when she saw the only piece of jewelry I'd ever owned. When she saw the identical ring on Ivan's finger, her pleasure began to wane, but Lucy immediately went to work.
"Oh, Clay, it's beautiful. I want one just like it."
She'd get one on her birthday.
"That's what I said," Ivan said, relieving Mama of her fear that matching rings on boys might mean the worst sin of all to her God.
Later, when Mama came to understand that Ivan and I were in love, she was our biggest supporter. No matter how long we spent separated, we were back together as soon as we saw each other.
Love is forever and Ivan and I were definitely forever. We couldn't remain mad at each other or stay apart for long. When we were apart, our lives were incomplete.
The evening of his birthday, we had dinner at my house. Mama made his favorite cake and his father brought his favorite fresh churned ice cream. Mr. Aleksa stayed for cake and ice cream.
"There's one thing I wanted for my birthday. I invited Kenny to come over. He wanted to stay on the boat," Ivan said.
"There's plenty of food. I have a container that'll keep ice cream frozen for an hour or more. I'll fix containers and you can take it to the marina," Mama said.
"Swell!" Ivan said. "Mrs. O., you're a peach."
Ivan and I took Kenny dinner. He was surprised to see us.
"I didn't get you anything. I didn't think I'd see you until Friday."
"Cut it out, Kenny. We've never exchanged gifts. We wanted you to have a nice dinner."
"Smells good," he said, peeking into the bag. "Thanks."
Kenny did everything but say, 'All shucks.' He was cute.
Then Arturo came strolling into the galley from the crew quarters. The look on his face said he wasn't expecting company.
"Well, we've got to go," Ivan said. "You boys... have fun."
Arturo was my age and very easy on the eyes. I watched his entire body blushing when he realized Kenny and him weren't alone.
"Kenny is looking good," I said as we walked up the dock.
"Yeah, Arturo ain't looking half bad either. Do you think he gets faint when he Kenny gets him excited?" Ivan asked.
We laughed hysterically.
"Which boat is Arturo on?" I asked.
"Tito's. He's from Argentina. I hope he's legal."
"He went with your father while we were in D. C."
"Yes, he did. Kenny suggested him. I'm seeing a pattern."
"Is Kenny gay, Ivan?" I asked, remembering Kenny with Boris.
"Beats me. I'd ask Arturo if I really wanted to know. He looked hot to trot. I think Kenny would like someone to want him," Ivan said.
"I hope they decide to stick together," I said. "I'd like Kenny to be happy."
"But you are turned on by guys?" Ivan said. "You see Kenny and Arturo as a couple."
"Yes, I do. Mostly I'm turned on by fishermen. Boris, Kenny, Arturo, you. I've had sexual feelings about all of them. I'm happy with you, so I have no interest in seeing what they're like. I dare say I could hold my own with any one of them. I couldn't with a girl."
"You're the only boy I'm attracted to. We're disregarding a brother's love and what that means. I'm not attracted to random boys, not that I'm attracted to random girls. Except for Boris, you're the only guy I find attractive."
"After Boris, who would make the cut?" I asked.
"You," he said, looking at me with no hesitation. "Boris and I were about the curiosity factor. He matured. I was curious. He was horny and I was happy to exploit the possibilities. He didn't pressure me. He didn't need to. He didn't put up much resistance either."
"I bet," I said.
"There was a certain thrilling aspect for me. It was sexual for him. I liked to get him going."
"It makes the scene from Boris' first visit easier to understand," I said, looking over at him while I drove.
"I can't explain that. There were a lot of feelings and they all exploded at the same time. I think it had to do with him being gone for so long and when he comes home, the first thing he does is feels up my lover. Actually we hadn't made love then, but we loved each other. I didn't like what Boris was doing and I went off. I'm not excusing my behavior and I can't explain it. That's not a cop out."
"I'd never had that kind of physical contact with anyone before," I said. "Not in the light of day. I didn't like Boris touching me and at the same time I loved it. If you hadn't thrown me out, I'd have had to leave or get myself in trouble. I wasn't ready for the intensity Boris brought to town. That was our only fight. I have a better sense of myself now. I understand attraction and how love is different."
We looked at each other and smiled.
"How is he?" I asked, wanting to know and taking the risk.
"He's over there. He said to say hi," Ivan confessed. "A couple of times maybe."
"You didn't tell me why?"
"Did I tell you how jealous of my brother I am?"
"You showed me once. I never apologized. I should have," I said. "I didn't understand my feelings. I'm better with that now."
"No, you shouldn't. Boris knew what he was doing. I knew what he was doing. You were just responding to someone getting sexual with you. Boris is very sexual. I probably had a little to do with that, fooling around with him while he was going through puberty."
"I didn't mean to piss you off. You're the one I love, Ivan. You're responsible for everything I know, everything I am. You are my life."
"You're finding yourself, Clay. If I helped I'm happy I did."
"I don't know Boris. I know he's hot. That's all I know."
"He's hotter now. The army has made a man out of him. Do you think seeing my brother as a stud is queer?"
"No," I laughed. "I think it takes more than seeing. What about the guys he brought home from the army with him?" I asked.
"I'm sure one of them was in love with him. I don't know about the other. My brother is such a whore."
"And you know about Boris and Kenny how?" I asked.
"Boris worked for Dad for two years. He was fourteen and fifteen. I went along sometimes. I saw how Kenny was around him."
"Like everyone else?" I asked.
"Yeah, Boris has it. Whatever it is."
"You asked Kenny was he... doing it with your brother?"
"Yeah, I asked him," Ivan confessed.
"He's like a son to your father," I said.
"He's been there for Dad for so long now, I think he's closer to Dad than Boris or me. They both need someone, and I need another turkey sandwich. It is my birthday, you know. We stopping at your house? We fed Kenny. We deserve something for our thoughtfulness."
"Not to mention Arturo," I said. "We've got a half dozen turkey sandwiches Mama put in the bag for us to take home," I said. "There were two bags. Kenny only got one."
"Those are for later, Clayton. You don't want to eat our supply if we can get fresh, do you?"
"I suppose I don't," I said. "You know Mama. She'll fix food as long as someone wants to eat."
"Besides, Lucy wanted to play cards. We can eat and play. We'll just keep each other up all night if we go home now."
"You mean we won't keep each other up all night if we don't go home before sandwiches and cards?" I asked.
"I didn't say that. We'll just start keeping each other up all night later this way," Ivan reasoned.
"I'm fine with it if that's what floats your boat," I said.
"Have I ever told you I love you?" Ivan asked, leaning over to kiss me as I drove.
After we got back home, I gave Ivan the album Bookends by Simon and Garfunkel. I'd heard cuts on the radio. John-Henry wrote, "Every unit has a copy and a good supply of grass in Nam.
Bookends was the soundtrack for the picture, The Graduate .
It was about the young and our times. Ivan liked it.
Bookends was a political statement we embraced.
There was a present I waited to get home to give him, me.
One evening, after March turned to April, I came home from dinner and found Ivan staring into the television. I watched, seeing something burning.
" What is it?" I asked.
"Washington D. C. is on fire," he said.
"On fire?" I asked without understanding.
"Cities are burning all over the country. They murdered Dr. Martin Luther King tonight."
The fire was huge. It spread from block to block as we watched. There was no fire trucks or firemen anywhere to be seen. No one spoke. There was one camera trained in one spot. It was eerie.
When the one camera began to pull back from the conflagration, the Capitol came into view. We'd marched around the Capitol past the area that was on fire a few months ago.
That's when a film of a man standing on a car began to play. He was surrounded by black faces. I knew by the voice it was Robert Kennedy. He told them that Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed. He said, "My brother was killed by a white man. I know how you feel."
His brother was the president of the United States. He was gunned down in Dallas over four years ago. Robert Kennedy asked those people to go home and not contribute to the violence. He was running for president. He promised to end the Vietnam war. He wanted to bring peace back to America.
Later, when reading about Dr. King's assassination, the city where Robert Kennedy spoke, Indianapolis, Indiana, had no violence that night.
There was hope for peace.
Something quite amazing happened the week after they killed Dr. King.
It was on a Wednesday. I found an air tank on the floor of my lab. It looked new. SCUBA was printed across the yellow tank.
There was a mouthpiece, regulator, mask, and flippers with it.
It wasn't long before Harry showed up.
"You know what that is?" he asked.
"SCUBA," I read.
"You know what it means?"
"Sea Hunt," I said.
"Sea Hunt?" he asked.
"TV show. I watched it in Tulsa. The guy goes out in a ski boat, puts on a tank like that, and he goes into the water."
"I was thinking more like Jacques Cousteau," Harry advised.
"Oh yeah, he's the French dude with that big floating lab."
"Think the Sea Hunt boat with the scientific objectives of Cousteau."
"I was afraid of that. One can dream," I said, wondering why the SCUBA gear was on my floor.
"Busy?" he asked.
"North end has a trash pickup today," I said.
"Let your pop do it today. He knows I'm borrowing you."
"OK," I said. "I'm yours."
"Grab the gear and follow me," He said.
We went to the marina, walked to the end of the dock where a sixteen foot Chris Craft and Bill Payne waited.
"He know how to use the gear?" Bill Payne asked.
"I don't think so," Harry said.
"No," I said. "I know what it's for."
"Can you learn?" he asked. "If I show you?"
"Sure," I said, which was my stock answer for such a question.
I had no idea why I was there or what we were going to do.
We headed out of the cove and into the Gulf of Mexico. When Bill got us where he wanted us, he dropped the anchor. Then Bill instructed me on how to use the SCUBA gear.
I followed him down the ladder into the Gulf of Mexico.
Another piece of the puzzle was put into place.
I found myself suspended in a magnificent turquoise world.
Using the flippers, I was able to stay close to Bill, but it wasn't easy while being awestruck by what was swimming around me. The glass part of the mask allowed me to see what was in the remarkable world under the sea that the Vilnius Two had been sailing over, with me on board, for years.
How could I have missed what was below us? Why hadn't anyone shown me before?
Time disappeared. Bill moved easily toward a reef. Some of the most vividly colored creatures I'd ever seen lived there. I couldn't keep up with Bill. I was distracted by everything that moved.
It was incredible.
Bill Payne showed me things I liked. Even twenty feet below the surface, the water was clear. The reef and the creatures were thriving.
It was like being submerged into one big aquarium.
When Bill showed me his watch, pointed at his tank, and signaled it was time to return to the surface, I was disappointed. I wanted to stay longer. I'd never done anything as exciting as that. I couldn't wait to tell Ivan about SCUBA diving. This was a game changer. I couldn't wait to dive again. Was I going to dive again?
As the lab became a bigger and bigger part of my life, diving was one of my responsibilities. Diving was also a big part of Bill Payne's marine biology studies. One of my jobs was to keep an eye on the health and well being of the gulf and the creatures in it.
The freedom I felt underwater beat the freedom of being on land or on the Vilnius Two. The beauty was awesome.
Harry's fourteen foot boat was moved to a slip at the marina. I could dive any time I wasn't working, and before long I knew I'd have Ivan underwater with me.
Bill Payne set up a Wednesday afternoon schedule for us to dive together. After each dive we talked about the species of sea creatures we'd come upon. I was learning from living specimens. It was way more fun.
My college education had begun without anyone saying so.
After our next dive, Bill Payne explained why he did what he did.
"If we don't make sure the gulf stays healthy for sea life and people too, we'll lose it one day. Many bodies of water are so polluted they can't support the life that once thrived there. We need to keep that from happening to the Gulf of Mexico. It's far too essential.
"If we don't allow the fishing fleets to grow too large and the boats too big, there will always be fish to feed the people. If fishing becomes about profit, heaven help us. The fish stocks will be quickly depleted. No one will know how few fish there are, until the fishermen begin coming back with empty holds. We can't allow that, Clay.
"There are industrial forces that wouldn't hesitate to ruin these waters if they can make money doing it. By monitoring the marine life in the gulf, by insisting on laws to protect it, we prevent industry from running wild in their effort to make money.
"The one thing you should remember today, Clay, is people will tell you or sell you anything for money. Before buying anything you need to ask yourself, what's in it for them? If money is the answer, your answer should be no.
"We must be the canaries in the coal mine. We advise people if things are going wrong. Harry and I are middle-aged custodians of the deep. You are the next generation of marine biologist. That's why we spend time with you. You're the future, Clay. You'lll help keep the gulf as incredible as it is today."
After that dive with Bill Payne, I understood my future better. I understood why I was there. I was being made responsible for the Gulf of Mexico and everything in it. I wanted that job.
Ivan and I went diving once I had a few dives under my belt.
"Why didn't you show me this before?" Ivan asked, his manly arms draped over the side of Harry's boat.
"I didn't know about it until a couple of weeks ago. Then I didn't have the boat or the extra tank. Let me take the tank for you," I said, reaching to take the air tank.
"I need help unstrapping this thing," he said. "You mind helping with that?"
"You just want me to get my hands between your legs, and then we'll never get the tank on the boat," I said.
"You found me out. This place is pretty deserted," Ivan said, scanning the horizon. "Plenty of privacy. Kenny can't walk in on us."
"It's not on the bus route if that's what you mean."
"You going to take this?" he asked, handing me the tank. "This could grow on me, you know?"
"It's what I had in mind. I knew you'd like it."
"Down there. Doing this. I can see how I could fall in love all over again. Going with you on my first dive sealed the deal. Thanks, Clay. You want to give me a hand up?"
"A hand? You don't need a hand climbing into a boat," I said.
"I'm weak kneed from the excitement of diving. Besides, I'm not as strong as I look."
"I know where the excitement is," I said.
He got a hold on me as I pulled him into the boat. I was right about where the excitement was. Our lips met and we made love in the bottom of the boat.
"I do love you, Clayton Olson," Ivan said as he fell back against the bottom of the boat out of gas.
"You sure do," I said. "You know exactly how to love me too."
"What I can't figure out is how we're going to make love down there. I want to make love to you underwater," he said. "We've done it everywhere else."
"Our tanks are empty. How long can you hold your breath?" I asked, taking the bait.
"I didn't mean this minute. In case you didn't notice, I just gave my all," he said.
"I'm ready whenever you are," I said, hoping I would be.
I put my arm around him and kissed his chest, while he stared into the clear blue late afternoon sky.
"I haven't felt this at peace in a long time," Ivan said.
"He'll be OK," I said.
His eyes left the sky to look deeply into mine.
Graduating from high school was super cool. It wasn't the pomp or ceremony I liked. It was the fact I was finally done with school.
Then I remembered telling Harry I'd go to college. I wasn't done with school at all. At least I'd be studying something I would use.
At graduation I didn't look into the boys' faces. I didn't want to remember the last time I saw them. I didn't want to be able to picture a boy after coming across his name on a list of war dead.
We went out on the Vilnius Two the afternoon we graduated. Ivan and I wanted to be on the gulf that day. It was on the gulf where our friendship began.
Ivan told his father and Kenny all about SCUBA diving. We'd been diving once a week since Harry put the boat under my care. I was encouraged to dive often. I was encouraged not to dive alone.
Ivan took to diving like a fish takes to water.
It was beautiful on the gulf that day. We were as happy as we'd ever been. We were heading in the right direction and we were together.
The following morning Mr. Aleksa came off the bridge looking white as a sheet. Ivan and I were sitting together waiting to pull the nets. We'd only just put them into the water.
"What's up, Dad?" Ivan asked.
"They killed another Kennedy last night. The president's brother was shot. He won the California primary. He was going to be our next president. He died a few minutes ago. I was sure he'd end the war. This damn war will never end. I want my son to come home."
Robert Kennedy promised to end the war. He promised us peace. We got Richard Nixon and five more years of war instead.
When we marched in Washington D. C. there were nearly twenty thousand American war dead. When the war ended five years later, there were nearly sixty thousand American war dead.
No one bothered to count the Vietnamese dead.
In the 1960s, for all its hope and promise, the most liberal minds of our time were gunned down. They were young men with bold new ideas about America. Once they were out of the way, we were left with the same old men to run things.
I didn't need to ask the masters of war how they felt about that.
We went diving on my birthday. We spent the afternoon underwater. Once we returned to the marina, I fueled the boat and we took the tanks to be filled.
We went to my house where we had my birthday dinner, my favorite cake, chocolate with chocolate icing, and chocolate ice cream, along with presents. Ivan gave me a red bathing suit he knew I'd hardly ware and he gave me a new mask for diving. I'd admired it at the store where we refilled the air tanks. The mask gave me a far better view of things.
We left with enough food to keep us going for another day.
I wanted to get back onto the gulf as soon as we could get there and we'd go the following afternoon. Mama fixed a basket with birthday cake for Kenny and Mr. Aleksa to take with us.
As I turned onto the highway to drive the mile to Ivan's driveway, Ivan leaned over to kiss my cheek. He sat back on his side of the car, looking at me oddly. He leaned over again to kiss my lips.
"Do I distract you, Clayton?" he asked impishly, looking at me with his most beguiling smile.
"Do you ever," I said, pulling over to get my lips on his.
Ivan gave me my best present once we got home, him.
We made love until the first traces of light began to appear around the curtain separating our bedroom from the deck.
We slept into the afternoon.
We got up, drove to the marina, got on the Vilnius Two, and sailed into the Gulf of Mexico.
Ivan and I had turned eighteen and our entire lives were ahead of us.
Thank you Jerry Wesner for hours of editing on The Gulf Between Us.
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