The Gulf and The Cove

by Rick Beck

Chapter 1

Drawing Board

Fall had come to the beach and the cove.

Dylan had reached his final year of elementary school after considering another offer. It was an offer I could and did refuse.

Our son was already a year ahead of kids his age. Adding another year between him and his classmates served no purpose.

Dylan was precocious. Some teachers were at a loss for what to do with him. His first grade teacher handed him off to the second grade teacher. That's how she solved her problem.

Now Dylan was ten and no one remembered he'd skipped a grade and he'd been with the same kids since second grade. He knew them and they knew him. That's the way it was supposed to be.

Ivan was making plans for the Cove Dive, Surf, & Bait Shop. Having dive and surf in the name seemed ambitious to me, but Ivan had traveled while he was away from our beach. He'd seen a future I didn't know about because I rarely left our beach.

Having a house on the Gulf of Mexico, finishing my childhood there, I never wanted to be anywhere else. Ivan was my first Florida friend if you didn't count Millie. She was a manatee. Ivan and I finished growing up together. I was sure we did it in the greatest spot on earth.

Ivan was home. He was sure SCUBA diving and surfing were heading in our direction. He'd be ready when the demand got here. He went into conference with Captain Popov and came away planning to buy the Bait Shop. It was old. It was ugly. It was where Ivan planned to take a foothold on the cove.

I had seen Endless Summer when it played at a theater near school in Fort Myers. The surfers were appealing as they went in search of the perfect wave.

What they thought of as the perfect wave turned out to be a mountain of water crashing down on them. I found the idea less than appealing. No one was going to confuse what was mostly gentle Gulf waves for the perfect wave.

Endless Summer did live up to its name. My friends and I went on Thursday, quarter day for students. The theater was always packed and it was the coolest location in town.

There was one significant difference in the places the surfers went in search of big waves and the Gulf beaches. The waves at Gulf beaches were only big during storms.

Who in their right mind goes into the water during a storm?

I'd get the answer to my question once Ivan went into action. His plan for the cove began to take shape. Ivan wasn't sure how to do what he intended to do yet but he was sure the cove emptied into the Gulf and that meant endless possibilities. He was sure he could capture the imagination of visitors, tourists, and vacationers.

Ivan had been places. He'd seen tiny seaside towns that became the hub of activity for the free spirited and adventurous. Everyone went to the seashore for fun and relaxation. Ivan intended to put his knowledge of such places to work in the cove. Progress was heading in our direction, once Ivan figured out what that would look like.

I told Ivan what I knew about surfing. He was ready for me.

"I would carry skateboards if there was anyplace for kids to skate. Once we turn the cove into a vacation paradise, I'll build a skateboard park for kids. We'll clean up selling skateboards and the kids will go home and tell their friends where to go to skate."

I still thought it was ambitious but everyone needs a dream.

My dream was of saving the Gulf of Mexico from polluters and I'd hit a speed bump along the way. I was still recovering from it.

"Fads begin in California and work their way eastward," Ivan said. "The smaller towns and villages are last to embrace what has already swept through the rest of the country. I plan to skip the wait. I've seen what's coming. I can get a head start in that game."

"Diving and surfing?" I asked. "I get the bait part. You are a fisherman's son."

"Eventually we'll have a thriving business to entertain vacationers. They'll bring their kids. At first they'll want to lounge on our beach. We'll make them comfortable. They watch while our boats take out fishermen and divers going out to dive on one of your reefs," Ivan said. "We'll offer water skiing and lessons for diving and skiing."

"I like the sound of it Ivan," I said. "It's ambitious."

"The boats return to the cove. The beach crowd see the fish. A SCUBA diver tells them what he's seen under the sea. We'll need to fight off the tourists," Ivan said.

"We'll have a couple of boats to take divers out and a boat or two to take tourists into the Gulf of Mexico to have that experience. The only limits are the ones we create by our failure of imagination. You, my lovely, will be part owner in my cove empire."

"It sounds great, but we aren't exactly on the beaten path. Where are these tourists coming from? We would need a beach if vacationers are going to lounge on it."

"You need to start somewhere. We'll start with boats. I'll advertise charter fishing, SCUBA diving, and day trips into the Gulf. They'll come for the peace and quiet and the pleasant waters. That's what I'll sell first. We'll build on that. The word of mouth will bring friends of the people who find us first. Who won't love our peaceful cove?" Ivan said.

"There is no beach at the cove, Ivan. We have a dock, the Fish Warehouse, and a bait shop. Hardly things that will bring tourists. Everything west of the boat ramp is brush and brambles. You can't even walk through it to get to the Gulf and it's over a mile away."

"Right now cities like Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, and Daytona Beach have dozens of new surf and dive shops. Ten years ago there were none. They promote activities we can have here. The only thing you need is water. We have water," Ivan said. "We have something big cities don't have. They won't ever have it," Ivan said.

"Do tell," I said. "What do we have?"

"The idea came to me on Venice Beach in California. I was gone from the States for nearly five years. When I came back everyone was suddenly in a big damn hurry," Ivan said.

"I don't know where they were going. I don't think they knew. They needed to go. Some one said, 'It's a rat race. No one can get enough of anything and they hurry to get more.' That's when it came to me. What we have. Peace and quiet and a slow pace, Clay. Cities and towns have lost control and everyone needs to hurry to keep up with the Jones. We don't have any Joneses. All we have is peace and quiet and a setting out of a Bahamas travel guide," Ivan said.

"What they are selling is carefree days and tropical nights. Each activity they provide is meant to be relaxing and full of fun while guests enjoy the catered drinks served to them seaside," he said.

"What's a beach in California have to do with life in the cove?" I asked, wanting to see what it was Ivan would be selling visitors.

"Venice beach is a place where quirky people of every stripe congregate. There are shops, restaurants, and people, thousands of people mulling about every day," Ivan said.

"You aren't expecting thousands of people to come here?"

"No, Venice Beach started as an offbeat place where Beatniks gathered in the 50s. There were wandering troubadours, poets in coffee houses, and the things associated with the Beat Generation. In some ways it was where the roots of the hippies peace and love counterculture came into being," Ivan said.

"When I was there in the early 70s, the place was jammed. The streets around the beach were filled with cars. It was difficult to move around because of the tourists," Ivan said. "Everyone came there to see what a beatnik looked like and hear what he said. The beatniks headed for the hills when the tourists showed up."

"Since we know that will never happen here, why are you telling me this?" I asked.

"It occurred to me that cities and big towns are becoming a rat race. You need to fight for every inch of space. It gets worse every year. Soon people are going to want to escape the rat race. The cove will become a place where people can go to have a quiet enjoyable visit or vacation," Ivan said.

"The cove is a natural harbor with an entrance to the Gulf of Mexico. It's a perfect place for people to come to for relaxation in picturesque setting," he said.

"OK. Let me know what I can do and I'll do it. I want to be part of your dream. I'll let you make the plans because you know what you want and I want that too," I said.

"As we attract vacationers, we'll build a little more each year with the money vacationers spend here. We can't get too big and we can offer the activities that will keep visitors coming back to see what we've added since their last visit," Ivan said.

"You are beginning to sound like a commercial, Ivan."

"No time like the present. That's how we'll grow. We keep vacationers happy for a few days or a week. They won't want to go anywhere else once they come to the cove."

"Come to the cove," I said. "Has a ring to it."

"You've just written our first ad. Come to the cove. Sounds romantic. I'm not surprised it came from you, hot stuff."

I laughed.

"As time goes on and the kids get bored, we'll offer deep sea fishing, SCUBA diving, and surfing for the adventurous."

"Are we talking about this cove? The one with twelve boat slips, a fishing fleet, an old bait shop, and the Fish Warehouse?"

"You obviously know the place," he said. "That's where I come in. It's a vacation mecca waiting to be created. I intend to see that it is discovered. It will take some advertising and once people begin to visit the new cove, word of mouth will bring more people."

"A lot of advertising," I said, still seeing the old cove.

"We can give tours of the fish warehouse. People can watch the fishing fleet come back and see the fish being unloaded. They can watch how they are prepared for market. They can buy a fish they like for dinner. They'll prepare it at their campsite, using the fire pit we build for them to cook on."

"Fire pit?" I asked.

"On their seaside campsite where people will stay on the beach. I'll build the fire pit," Ivan said. "I know what I want in the way of the fire pit."

"The beach?" I asked.

"I'm still working on it. I'll figure it out as I go," he said. "I'll build what needs to be built. It'll take time to put it all together."

"I'd camp there if I was going camping," I said.

"See, I knew you'd like it," Ivan said. "It will take a lot of work."

"Once our sleepy Gulf village is discovered, word will spread. I'll furnish the things visitors need. Once they arrive, they won't need to leave until it's time to go home. J.K.'s Kitchen will need to expand. We don't want the visitors crossing our busy thoroughfare to eat. I've thought we might convert the old Bait Shop into a satellite for J.K.'s."

"Busy thoroughfare?"

"Yes, they'll want to sample local cuisine," he said. "They'll bring their kids. We'll offer ways to entertain them and keep them out of their parents' hair for hours each day."

"They'll love that," I said. "I might want to vacation here."

"See, you're getting the picture and I just now thought it up. See what a good influence you are on me. I might want to hire you away from Harry."

"Harry doesn't have me at the moment," I said.

"I'll strike while the iron is hot. Come to work for me when you aren't saving the Gulf of Mexico. We're going to need you on that Gulf. You're going to want to be on that Gulf to make sure it stays clean for swimmers, fishermen, and divers."

"Yes," I said. "It will require that."

It was Ivan's dream and I wouldn't rain on his parade, but when I looked at the cove, I didn't see a multiplex of entertainment. I guess my imagination limited me. I was on the pragmatic side.

Ivan had big plans and as long as it kept him close to home, I welcomed his dreams. The size of the cove was prohibitive. I didn't see how it could get out of hand while keeping the ambiance of the old cove.

Ivan's life was on track and heading in a good direction. I would encourage him and do what I could to see that his dreams came true. Along with Dylan, we were Ivan's biggest fans and having him home with us made both our lives better.

As Ivan planned the future of the cove, Lucy planned to make this the last year she taught school. Dylan would move on to junior high next year and she'd no longer be able to keep an eye on him. As much as my sister loved her kids, teaching had been a preliminary event, until it was time to pursue a political career. It was time.

While I vacillated over the direction my life was going to take, Lucy dusted off her law degree and the notes young legislators wrote her after she put the state legislators in their place during my first testimony in front of that body.

I was flummoxed over the decision about where my life would go from here. My son was blazing his own trail. Ivan had plans on top of plans for a postage stamp size cove and its possibilities. Lucy, always a step ahead of me, was planning to go to the state legislature.

I was going nowhere.

Mama may have lost some of the spring in her step over the years, but I still marveled over her ability to get everything done. Raising six kids, Mama made sure we each had a toehold on life. Then with her last two kids at home, she didn't blink twice when I brought Sunshine to the conservancy house.

The following summer Dylan made his debut. The slowly dwindling population at the conservancy house began to grow again.

I was responsible to raise Dylan but if Mama hadn't been there to lend a hand, the road for my son and me would have been far longer and far less hospitable. I don't know I could have made it without Mama's steady hand and guidance, along with her willingness to lend a hand.

Mama had a knack for making a house a home for those of us lucky enough to live there..

Dylan was no picnic after Sunshine died, but we knew he had every right to protest against his early years. He did so loudly and often, but once he was old enough to accept his lot in life, he never ceased to amaze those of us who were sure he was heading for a career in the opera.

From time to time, Dylan got the best of Mama in those early days, but she rebounded fast without so much as a word about how exhausted she'd become.

I'd known for a long time that I had the best parents in the world. Even at fifteen, when I told my parents I was going to be a fisherman for Ivan's father, they didn't forbid it. Instead, Pop became friends with Mr. Aleksa and with his reassurance, I spent most of my time away from home.

It was pleasing for me to watch my parents with Dylan. He was the apple of their eye and neither of them could get enough of my son.

Pop was pacing himself these days, after a heart attack in late '76 nearly took him away from us. He still did everything he once did, but he did it slower now. He no longer hurried anywhere. If there was something he wanted to get done at work, when the clock struck five, Pop put whatever he was working on away. It would be there waiting for him in the morning at nine, when he returned to work.

This gave Pop more time for himself and it allowed him to plan his life and get more enjoyment out of it. He smiled more now than he ever did before. Because of his new attitude, Mama was smiling more often too. Pop looked better and he was way thinner than he'd been in years.

Dylan was the beneficiary of Pop's new approach to life. Pop made a kite with Dylan's assistance, after he was back on his feet in 1977. Some afternoons I'd find Dylan and Pop behind the house looking into the clear blue sky flying that blue and white kite.

It was a nice way to spend an afternoon. I enjoyed sitting in Mama's beach chair watching them laugh and chatter while flying that kite. The year before Pop would never have sat still long enough to do such a thing. Now, beside Dylan, it gave him great joy.

Pop's new schedule gave him plenty of time to fuss with me about the obligation I had to the man who furnished me with the best education available to me at the time. Even Pop couldn't talk me into doing something I wasn't ready to do.

No one had a better work ethic than Pop and he was as loyal an employee as you'd find, but I needed to be sure that my plan for the future was the right plan for me. Pop showed displeasure with me, but for the first time in my life, I stood my ground and didn't take Pop's advice to honor my commitment to Harry.

I'd know when it was time to go back or to move on.

I had no doubt Harry had his own reasons for what he did for me. For over ten years I'd devoted my life to my work in the Gulf of Mexico for the Sanibel Island Conservancy. Congressman Harry McCallister knew if I walked away from it tomorrow, he got his money's worth out of the kid he hired to do the conservancy's work.

Even thinking those words made me uneasy.

Harry was far more than an employer. I didn't want to lose his friendship, guidance, and the experience I got associating with a future senator. I was sure Harry would be unhappy if I decided not to return to the conservancy.

The time we spent together at the conservancy in the past year may have added up to a day. Most of that time we spent together at the Gulf Club. We chatted over lobster and looked at the Gulf of Mexico from our seaside window.

After ten years, I needed time now and I was taking the time it took to make the right decision about what my life would be about for the next fifty years or so. I wanted to make damn sure I loved my work. No matter what I did, it looked to me like the polluters were winning and they had no incentive to clean up their act. It was a daunting task I faced as a marine biologist; for all marine biologists.

I followed Harry's advice. I took a vacation. I was thinking over my future. It would be unfair to him if I returned to work with less than a total commitment to him and the Gulf of Mexico. Until I'd built up a head of steam, I would remain on vacation.

I didn't want the checks Harry sent home with Pop. I hadn't earned them and Pop gave them to me with a lecture attached. Maybe Harry didn't need to call me to ask me to return to work. Pop was a constant reminder of the work that was waiting to be done.

I came to the conclusion, I was a man. I was making a man sized decision. Neither Pop nor Harry could rush me. I didn't know what I was waiting for. I'd know when I came to it.

Disney World had been the perfect place to go to lose myself for a few days while chasing my son from one place to the next. Somewhere between indigestion and exhaustion, I fell into bed each night. It was one way to leave my cares and woes behind. I truly got away from it all. The best part was getting up the next morning and doing it all over again. We did it all over again, result in the same exhaustion each night.

A steady diet of cotton candy and candied apples for breakfast wouldn't do, but one time, after being begged by Dylan, we wore pink and red substances as telltale evidence we were kids and we belonged in the happiest place on earth. As long as Mama didn't find out, I would be OK.

Even Dylan was worn out by the time we left for home. He wouldn't say so but as I drove Ivan's Buick toward home, he slept.

I had fully recovered from our trip to Orlando. The trip kept my mind off work. In those languid days of the waning summer, I didn't think about the Gulf, the conservancy, or my obligation to the man I'd been devoted to since I was seventeen. The problem about what to do was still there when I returned home.

In time I would likely go back and pick up the pieces of my career. My embarrassment over Tampa was a factor. I didn't think I was a fool, but that didn't mean I couldn't make a fool out of myself. No one needed to tell me I'd stepped over the line. Harry wouldn't tell me that but he didn't have to. I was there. I knew better while I was doing it, but I was obsessed with telling everyone about my pain.

I was going to make a new plan. I'd dedicate less time to a single aspect of marine biology. I'd expand to take a larger role deeper in the Gulf of Mexico. I'd do it quietly. I'd write my papers, take my photos, and expand what I knew about the Gulf, but not yet.

Mama was focused on the new school year too. With Lucy teaching class and Dylan attending class, there was a lot of school at our house. I knew what day school started and little else. What did I know about preparations for school? Mama had her routine down by the time Dylan came along. There were certain things that came before the first day of school. Who didn't know that?

As quick as we got to the house the day before school started, Mama was on the way out with Dylan, taking him for a haircut, new shoes, slacks, and shirts.

"You can't go to school looking like that," Mama said.

Dylan's vacation was over.

When she came back from readying Dylan for the first day of school, Mama worked double time to have dinner on the table at the usual time. It amazed me how she got everything done.

When Dylan came downstairs from putting away his new school clothes, he looked different. Who knew he had ears?

Even with several hours away from the house, dinner was served on time and after nearly two weeks of food on the run, it was perfect. No one made food taste better than Mama.

"The school called twice while you were gone. You never contacted them about moving Dylan to junior high school this year," Mama said.

Mama waited until I just sank my teeth into an ear of corn I'd buttered to a fare-thee-well for maximum flavor and enjoyment. I'd been eating fast food and I wanted to eat something slow and flavorful.

Everyone but Ivan was at the table. Mama had served and they looked at me, waiting for my volley.

I wouldn't remain silent on this issue. Mama and I had gone around about the same thing last year. She knew the precise instant to pose the question and not get an immediate balk out of me.

"They bothered us with this last year, Mama. He's with kids he knows. He could probably teach sixth grade," I said. "The answer was no last year and it's still no."

Dylan laughed at his father's confidence in him, or maybe it was the kernels of corn wedged in between my teeth.

"It's nice to hear they think he's smart enough to skip grades," Mama said.

I knew better than to bite into my corn until this conversation was over.

"He has no problem with academics. He'll do whatever he decides he wants to do when he decides to do it. I don't want him separated from the kids he knows. There is a social aspect to school that's as important, if not more important, than academics. I remember how hard it was for me socially after we moved here. My son will stay with the kids he knows and he'll do fine. He'll go to college, graduate with honors, and he'll do something he loves to do."

"I think you're right, Clay. Dylan is as smart as any of the kids and some of the teachers in my opinion. He'll be able to go as far as he decides to go. The teachers like him because he is smart. Why rush him into another school? I don't see the point," Lucy said. "He'll get where he's going and we don't need to rush him."

"Dylan being happy while he is going to school is important. If I allow them to separate him from his friends, it'll change him in ways that won't benefit him. He's a well adjusted self confident kid and I intend to make sure he stays that way."

"Shouldn't we ask Dylan," Mama asked, becoming democratic for the first time I could remember when it came to her kids.

"Dylan, do you want to start junior high school tomorrow or do you want to finish elementary school?" I asked without coaching him. "Mama is right. It's your life. You should have a say in it."

Dylan looked up from the miniature mashed potato volcano he was creating on his plate. He reached for the gravy boat to fill the center with Mama's rich brown gravy. My question didn't disturb his creativity.

"School's school, Daddy. I don't care. Do I know the kids I'm with in elementary school? Sure. I won't know anyone at the junior high. Didn't I skip a grade already?" he asked. "Isn't one enough?"

"They moved you into second grade once your first grade teacher found out you were reading on a fifth grade level. She walked you over to the second grade teacher and said, 'This one is yours.' Mama said. "We didn't know it until we got your first report card. It was too late to object that time. You've been with those kids ever since then."

"Yeah, but I didn't know any of the second grade kids at first. I don't think I liked it. It might have scarred me for life, but when I remembered I didn't know any of the kids in first grade either, I didn't think about it much after that."

Pop and I laughed at my son's ability to adapt to adversity.

"That's my boy," Pop said.

"I'll stick with the sixth grade. It's what comes after fifth grade. I missed your cooking, Mama," Dylan said, still insisting on calling his grandmother Mama, because everyone did. "Pizza and hamburgers are cool but every day is a bit much. No one cooks like you."

I prayed he didn't mention the candied breakfast.

"Stop playing with your food, Dylan. If you like it so much, try eating it," Mama said as the miniature volcano burst through, leaking gravy over the plate and dripping onto the tablecloth.

Dylan, undeterred, stuck a piece of steaming hot bread under the eruption. He folded the bread and ate it.

"Yes, ma'am," Dylan said, mixing the gravy into the potatoes in one pass of his fork.

My son was well grounded. He was ten going on thirty, but no one mentioned it. Being a kid should be a full time job, even after your mother dies and your father is gone for most of the first ten years of your life. Dylan hadn't been slowed by his early misfortune.

"Speaking of what's in Dylan's future, you going to call Harry now that you've been on vacation?" Pop asked, carefully buttering the ear of corn he held in one hand as he spoke.

"What's Dylan's future got to do with me returning to work, Pop?"

"Kids need things. He'll want to go to college. Tuition costs are increasing every year. Everything costs more."

"I haven't decided anything yet, Pop," I said. "If Dylan needs anything, I've got money. Harry sends me checks I don't cash."

"Harry called me," Lucy said, chewing her lima beans while watching my face.

"Smart man," I said. "Come to think of it, you know as much about my business as I do; probably more," I said.

"Once, maybe, but no longer. It wasn't about the conservancy. He wants me to run for his congressional seat, since he's not going to be occupying it any longer," Lucy said.

"Man's got to win an election before he goes anywhere," Pop said. "A man who gets too sure of himself often trips over his ambition. I hope Harry isn't over confident."

"What did you tell him?" Mama asked. "Why didn't you say anything before, Lucy."

"I wanted Clay to hear it when I told you. Harry called while Clay and Dylan were away. I told him it was too big a step to take so soon. I'm going to run for the Florida legislature next year, while Harry runs for the senate. He said he won't endorse anyone for his congressional seat. He'll wait to endorse me, when I'm ready to step up. He said, 'You're my man, Lucy Olson.'"

"All right!" Dylan said. "State Senator Aunt Lucy Olson. Congresswoman Aunt Lucy Olson. I like it, Aunt Lucy. Can I go to see you at the state legislature? We studied it last year."

"I haven't been elected yet, but if I"m elected, sure, Clay will want to come see me in action," Lucy said.

"That's for sure. You'll knock 'em dead in Tallahassee," I said.

Pop smiled.

He was pleased to hear the news from his smartest child. None of us doubted Lucy would leave her mark on the world before she was done and she'd only just begun.

"What brought this on, Lucy?" I asked.

"I've kept in touch with the younger legislators we met when I went to Tallahassee with you. When you appeared in front of the legislators concerning the environment. Two of the women I met came to campus and took me to lunch a couple of times. They knew I had an interest in politics," Lucy said.

"I told them I would teach a few years before making up my mind what to do next. A lot of the geriatric fogies, who thought they were there to stop progress, have retired. They say it's a new breed of younger independent legislators being elected now."

"What did Harry say about that?" I asked.

"He was pleased. He thought it was a good place for me to start. It's where he started."

"He's been very good to the Olsons over the years," Pop said.

"Have more broccoli casserole," Mama said, handing it to Lucy.

"The chicken livers are particularly delicious tonight, mother," Pop said, dishing more onto his plate.

I realized how lucky I was to have a family like mine.

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