The Gulf and The Cove

by Rick Beck

Chapter 3


The working nature of the cove was apparent to me the first day Pop took me to see it. Being from Tulsa, that amount of water was new to us. The fishing fleet was out that day but cars were parked beside the Fish Warehouse and the boats were parked at the marina much the same way as today.

A year later, after meeting Ivan and becoming his best friend, as well as his next door neighbor, and not quite a mile down the beach, the idea of becoming a fisherman at fifteen hadn't entered my mind.

Ivan's friendship, working on his father's fishing boat, I became a hero my first day fishing far out in the Gulf of Mexico. As luck would have it, and nothing else accounts for it, the fishing fleet had one of its best days ever.

Popov brought his fishing fleet from a Russian harbor to the cove ten years before. While looking for an explanation for the abundance of fish, Popov settled on me. He dubbed me the boy angel of the fishing fleet.

We all knew I couldn't find my butt with both hands on a fishing boat, but fishermen are a superstitious lot, and I was revered as the boy who brought the fish to Popov's fishing fleet.

Popov treated me with the kind of respect he reserved for his most loyal fishermen. If I was OK with Popov, I was OK. I'd been baptized into the fellowship of the men of the sea.

Being the only fourth generation American white boy in the fleet, may have been a reason why Popov wanted to approve of me. It took a few years for me to consider this possibility. The fishermen approved of me, angel or not, because Popov did.

For a fifteen year old who worried when he couldn't find land anywhere on the horizon, it was an auspicious beginning. When I couldn't see land, I was scared. Being with Ivan meant the fear couldn't gain a foothold.

It was the kind of thing you dream happens. As unlikely as my acceptance was, I never again feared going to sea. I loved being on the Gulf after that first day. Fishing was hard work that I did.

Fishing until I was seventeen, we were in the Gulf from Friday afternoon until Sunday evening each week. Even in the summer, we were allowed to go on one of the two fishing trips the fleet took each week. We went out Friday afternoon and returned Sunday.

My parents didn't object to my being a fisherman but I wouldn't be allowed to skip school to work on a fishing boat.

My life changed again when I met Harry McCallister. At seventeen my curiosity about the things that came out of the sea was well known. Harry heard the stories from my father, his employee, and then Mr. Aleksa, when Harry went to the source of the stories my father told.

Harry had a plan before he spoke to me the first time. I saw him at the conservancy picnic the first year I lived there. I recognized him when he singled me out for conversation as high school was coming to an end for Ivan and me.

Harry had a plan for me to go to school, while working at the conservancy. I'd become the conservancy's marine biologist. If that wasn't enough to rattle my world, Bill Payne, an eminent marine biologist and college professor, took me diving for the first time.

The deal was sealed before I got out of my SCUBA gear the first time. I was well on my way to the rest of my life. Until now I'd gone to school and then to work every day, except in 1969 when Dylan was on his way to being born. I took time off to attend to my family and help my son gain a foothold on life.

I imagine the last ten years took their toll on me. I kept my head down and was completely wrapped up in my work as a marine biologist. Long before I got my degree, Bill Payne had put his seal of approval on my career. That's all I needed to know. I could do the job according to Bill.

Harry, a good friend of Bill's, needed no more than his word to know I was ready to do the work he'd set his conservancy up to do, even before I got the degree that made me a marine biologist officially.

I had time on my hands and fond memories as far as work was concerned. I loved fishing. Being with Ivan, the boy I loved, made the work enjoyable. I felt like I was living in a fairytale, except we were two boys. Most fairy tales were about princes and princesses.

It didn't hurt my feelings a bit. I wouldn't change anything.

The fairytale ended the year we both turn eighteen. The fairytale turned into an Edgar Allan Poe tale and man mysteries were left unanswered. Ivan promised to clear up the mystery and tell the tale of his years away once he reflected on it for a while.

Ivan was home and going great guns. I was still mystified by him as well as in love with him. We were a long way from eighteen.

Seeing Ivan sprout wings and begin to fly again made me feel like the magic we still there.

Our son was tickled pink to have his father home. I kept pinching myself now that he was home and in my arms most nights. Somehow, through it all, our love survived.

Our love did nothing to solve the problem of my future.

I wasn't dashing back to the conservancy because it offered me security. I'd been swept up by the idea of it at seventeen. At nearly thirty I didn't get swept up any more.

Ivan offered me an option I didn't have before he came home. It was romantic to think of us working side by side and creating a cove empire that offered people something no one else did.

I intended to pace myself. What I did I'd do on my terms and in my time. I was lucky to have my love of the sea tied to my career.

I wasn't sure it was enough to get me to the finish line.

Soon I'd need to tell Harry what I planned to do.

I wasn't ready for that conversation yet.

I avoided looking at Sea Lab when I went to the Bait Shop to see Ivan. It was a symbol of what I was avoiding. I didn't know when or if I'd return to work and I wasn't ready to think about it.

Sea Lab wasn't easy to overlook. By far it was the biggest boat in a slip at the marina. Most places I went the people knew Sea Lab's appearance and that's how they knew the man on the bridge. Sea Lab would forever be associated with the marine biologist Clayton Olson of the Sanibel Island Conservancy.

This had been a source of pride before. Thinking about that part of my work reminded me of why I wasn't on her bridge. I'd already decided it wasn't about Sea Lab. It wasn't about Harry, even if he didn't scold me after my Tampa performance. This was about me and my capabilities.

My life and my profession were like a dream. When I started with Harry, he built the kind of structure for me that was a dream come true. I did what Harry said and I found my way to the career I had.

It was ten years of hard work and learning and there were no regrets. I was living the dream Harry prepared for me. It was time for me to dream my own dream. I'd been put on a path I followed. It didn't require any thought to stay on that path. It followed what seemed like a natural progression, but I'd run into a roadblock.

For the first time I was thinking like Clayton Olson and he wasn't so sure this was what he wanted to spend the rest of his life doing. I wasn't winning. I wasn't even holding my own.

The reef I devoted my work to for over three years was gone. A piece of me went with it. Not only was I losing the battle to preserve the Gulf, I had lost my way and I wasn't sure where I stood.

If I was going back to my life on Sea Lab and in the Gulf, it needed to be after I'd looked at the costs as well as the reward. I needed to go back as Clayton Olson, marine biologist, working with the Sanibel Island Conservancy to preserve a clean Gulf of Mexico.

Going back as Harry's boy or the Sanibel Island Conservancy's marine biologist wasn't accurate. I'd earned my stripes. I'd made mistakes that I compounded in Tampa. I needed to come out of it my own man who didn't need to steal Harry's audience to make my point.

That couldn't happen again.

When Ivan stepped outside the door as I was leaving the shop, I was facing the marina. I found myself looking at Sea Lab. Its high profile made it stand out beside the low houseboats and Mr. Aleksa's long sleek fishing boat, the Boris.

"It's OK if you go back to work. We're fine, Clay. I want your help and especially your ideas, but nothing we do is as important as what you do in the Gulf," Ivan said. He turned to look toward the Sea Lab. Our shoulders were touching and he intertwined his fingers in mine in a way that wasn't obvious to anyone but us.

"I'll probably go back, Ivan, but not yet," I said. "I'm still not ready. At this point I'm not sure if I'll ever be ready."

"Take your time, babe. I'm here for you no matter what you decide."

Up until August, looking at Sea Lab made me want to pinch myself. How had I been so fortunate to rate so much in the way of tools to do my job? People wanted me to have the best of everything to study the Gulf and the things in it. It was overwhelming.

I wasn't thirty and my platform was larger than most much older marine biologists. I was on the cutting edge of a new breed of marine biologist, but hardly the first of the breed. Once Harry was a senator, I wouldn't be speaking for myself, or even for the Sanibel Island Conservancy. I'd be speaking for Senator Harry McCallister of Florida. The first time I was called on to speak for Harry the candidate for the senate, I'd embarrassed myself and Harry. He wouldn't say so because of how much he had invested in me, but if there was an hour in my life I could take back, it would be the hour in Tampa the night Harry announced for the United States Senate.

If I hadn't done that, I could go back. A year ago I was on top of the world in the field of marine biology. Then, Ivan came home. Congressman Harry McCallister would most certainly be elected to the senate. My job would be to stand beside him and support him. At seventeen, when I signed onto Harry's idea for the conservancy, he was a rich guy and my father's boss. It was the kind of thing that could make a boy dream someone else's dream. It seemed perfect at the time. After I took the bait, my father's boss became a congressman.

Once he was elected to congress, I didn't know what to call him. When I tried to call him congressman, he said, 'You came along before I was a congressman. I'm Harry to you, Clay. I'll always be Harry to you."

Harry was smart. He knew what to say to a kid who had taken a bite out of life bigger than he was and so Harry was always Harry.

Once I was done in Tampa, I had to face the music. It wasn't professional. It was downright childish. No matter where I went from now on, they'd point at me and say, 'He's the one who made a fool out of himself when Harry announced for the senate,' and those words haunted me. It was a blunder I might not recover from.

Since we were always on home turf when I was with him, calling him Harry didn't raise any eyebrows. As a senator, I wasn't sure how it would change. I didn't want it to change. I liked our beach and I liked going into the Gulf to do what I did.

Harry's stage was growing. When I stood beside him, I'd be standing in front of the nation and it scared me about as much as that first day I went fishing and when I looked back, the land disappeared.

I didn't know I wanted to be called on to appear in the halls of power. I'd come to a crossroad in my life and the direction I intended to take would be one I was comfortable taking. It wasn't clear what that direction might be. I did have options.

This had me assessing and reassessing what I did. People with means were people of means because they made a point of gathering wealth along the way. Wealth in itself didn't mean much to me but when people used their wealth to help me do what I did, I noticed.

Harry was wealthy and powerful. He didn't need more wealth or more power. What he wanted was to protect the beauty of our picturesque beaches, the cove, and the Gulf of Mexico. I was all in for that mission.

Harry got his wealth the old fashioned way, he inherited it. Along with the wealth he inherited his father's passion to keep our pristine setting pristine. In this day and age, that was a major undertaking.

In the Gulf and the cove, everyone knew me and what I did. I called my own shots and did things my way. Harry was my boss but the only thing he did these days was look at my notes and take me to the Gulf Club for lunch. I was the marine biologist and Harry let me do my job my way.

Being associated with Harry gave me chills when I sat in front of the state legislators or congressmen. The idea of sitting in front of senators, telling the story of the Gulf and the threats to it, was a responsibility I didn't know I wanted.

When Harry brought out the newspapers after my performance in Tampa, I was mortified. My small voice in Tampa grew to a shout with far away echoes. I'd made my case and people reacted from a thousand miles away. I didn't know I could do this.

It scared me. What I'd done in Tampa in August scared me. I got sick at my stomach when the Tampa debacle came to mind. Harry had stepped onto the national stage. I wasn't sure I was cut out to step up on that stage with him.

In some ways I felt like that seventeen year old kid who got swept up in Harry's dream all those years ago. No one but Harry and Bill Payne knew what I had to say or think. Until the last couple of years, I believed Harry knew everything I knew about my work.

Harry brushed it off, reminding me, 'You're on a national stage now, Clayton. Everything a senator does or says is news. Everything his surrogates say and do is capable of making news.'

I cared about my work but I wasn't as sure of myself as I once was. I never trained to be a public speaker. I did it because I was expected to do it, but did I want to say things that would have an impact on Senator McCallister's work and career?

On the days I went to visit Ivan at the Bait Shop, Sea Lab was the most impressive sight in the cove. Its upper decks and bridge towered above the rest of the boats in the slips. You couldn't miss Sea Lab if you were looking toward the cove.

I missed Sea Lab. It had become part of who I was. It represented what I did. It would likely be part of me again, but not yet. Above all, Sea Lab represented the hope and expectations of the Sanibel Island Conservancy and the people there who worked to keep me on top of what I did.

None of that had changed. Harry hadn't changed.

I'd been changed.

Almost as soon as Ivan returned with Boris, my career began to come apart. The work was still waiting to be done but I wasn't there doing it. I'd hit the dividing line between what I could do and what I wanted to do.

It was no one's fault. Maybe it was my fault. Maybe I wasn't ready to go as fast as I'd gone the last ten years. Maybe I wasn't ready for Ivan to return home like a bolt out of the blue. Maybe my life was shaken to the core when Ivan did return.

Maybe I was tired and I needed a break from my passion for the sea. Maybe I didn't have what it took to keep fighting a losing battle. Maybe I could go back refreshed and ready for action, but not yet.

Ivan had a dream and he was making it come true. I was going to help in any way I could, but I needed my own dream.

Something more than Ivan being home and in my arms at night.

Intellectually my dream complimented Ivan's. I once dreamed i would save the Gulf. I was having trouble saving myself these days.

I wondered if saving the Gulf of Mexico for a little while longer would it be enough. If it was enough, could I make the men who would spoil the Gulf pay a high enough price that it made them think about the damage they were doing?

I could if Harry showed the way but Harry was going to be a senator and he hadn't been home since Tampa. He was trying to get the important people to back his run for the United States Senate.

I wasn't ready to swim with sharks. I didn't know if I was cut out to swim in the sea of big fish.

The following Monday I took Ivan meatloaf sandwiches and a Tupperware container of steaming hot mashed potatoes and gravy. We'd eaten all the kale at Sunday dinner and I cut some carrot and celery sticks. When I reached into the pickle jar, I found only pickle juice, I made a mental note to stop at Piggly Wiggly.

When I arrived just before one, Ivan and Taggart were laying bricks. I walked over to watch.

"Taggart, you're skipping school to work on the new shop?"

"Teachers meeting at the high school," Taggart said. "Go ahead and get your lunch, boss. I'll keep going while you eat."

I watched as Taggart slapped mortar on a brick and placed it down on some mortar he put the brick on. He nudged the brick with his trowel handle to be sure it was in place and he did it all over again.

"Yes, well if you go any faster I'll just let you lay the bricks, Tag," Ivan said, watching Taggart's fluid motion.

"It's all in the wrist," Taggart said, showing off his form.

"Yes, it may well be, and I've got wrists, there must be something else to it," Ivan said, as we headed for the Bait Shop.

I didn't stay when Ivan was in the middle of something. I watched him smile as he unloaded the bag. I took one half his first sandwich, our usual routine, and excused myself as I watched Ivan dig into the still steaming mashed potatoes and gravy.

I smiled as I left.

I'd told Mama I'd be back for a glass of iced tea and a chat before I left to pick Dylan up at three. I parked the Chevy and when I opened the front door, a rush of delightful smells met me. Mama was baking apple strudel. That was something she usually made when company was coming.

We'd drink coffee with fresh baked goods. She'd want to know my plans but everything I did by the first day of autumn was predictable.

I knew what Mama wanted to hear was, '...And I'm going back to work tomorrow.'

Mama was more relaxed about my ambition than Pop, but Mama didn't work for Harry and she was worried about her son's well being.

With the light fading earlier each day, Ivan would be at the dinner table every evening, which meant he was in my bed at night. As I sat drinking coffee, I counted my blessings as Mama removed baked goods from the oven. I always got a sample if I was fortunate enough to be in the kitchen at such a time. Having only a half meatloaf sandwich for lunch meant I could eat sweets.

Bill Payne, a marine research biologist these days, and the man who taught me everything I knew about marine biology, qualified as my mentor. Imagine my surprise when I answered a knock on the front door and I found Bill there.

"Bill, come in. Are you ever in luck. Mama just took apple strudel out of the oven," I said.

"I never turn down an offer like that. Call it good planning, Clay. How are you? My you look good."

"How long has it been, Bill? You're certainly looking fit and tanned," I said, leading him through the dining room into the kitchen.

"In front of Harry's committee. I was late and I joined you at the conference table where we testified. We didn't get to chat because Harry grabbed me right after my testimony," Bill said.

"Yes, that was it. Mama, we have a guest. I was bragging about your baking," I said, pulling a chair out at the kitchen table.

"Haven't seen you in ages, Mr. Payne," Mama said.

"Just Bill, Mrs. Olson. It's nice to see you again and that smell could make an addict out of me, I'm afraid."

The three of us sat in the kitchen table eating strudel and drinking coffee.

"I was doing research in the Atlantic when I showed up for that hearing, Clay. Now I've been working in the Pacific the last ten months. It's a remarkable body of water. Every dive is an experience."

Mama got up to remove the lemon drop cookies from the oven. She filled a plate with the cookies and brought it back with her.

"Those smell wonderful," Bill said, closing his eyes to sniff.

Mama left the plate and went back for the coffee pot to refill our coffee cups before she sat back down.

"We've been away on my research vessel for most of the year studying the Great Barrier Reef, where I was nearly scared out of my wits," Bill said, pausing for a sip of coffee. "It was a reminder why a SCUBA diver must always be alert to what's in the water with him. I learned my lesson, I don't mind telling you."

Mama was all ears and I enjoyed Bill's tales. He was a master at spinning yarns about the sea. He kept his students mesmerized with his stories."

"I'd been on a dive. It was time to surface. I long ago stopped tempting fate and when my watch says it's time to go, I surface. I'd been in an outcropping. It hid my presence while offering a fine view of the section of reef with a variety of sea creatures living there. We'd been diving there all week," he said. "It's easy to become complacent when a routine has become routine."

"I kicked off from my perch among the rocks. As I drifted above my hiding place, something caught my eye, or I had caught something's eye. I came face to face with a fifteen foot Great White. They have the biggest blackest eyes you've ever seen, Clay. They propel themselves effortlessly. What do you do when you find yourself looking into the eyes of a great white?"

"Great white?" Mama asked.

"It's a big shark. 'It swims, eats, and makes little sharks,' according to the expert in the movie Jaws, but he also eats large fishing boats in the movie. I'd take its subterfuge with a grain of salt," Bill said.

"What do you do when a great white looks at you?" Bill asked.

"I can think of two things I won't mention in front of my mother," I said.

Bill laughed.

"I was too frightened by his sudden appearance to do either. It gives new meaning to the phrase, scared stiff. In all my years of diving I'd never been in a situation like that before. I've accidentally stumbled onto manta rays a few times and I've been face to face with a hungry looking barracuda, but usually they're as anxious to get clear of me as I am to get clear of them. I make it a point to know what's in the water with me but there are surprises. The great white was on one side of the reef, I was on the other side. After I started to surface, he moved into view. He saw my motion and he swam toward me to see if I might be lunch. That brought us face to face," Bill said, sipping more coffee.

"He obviously didn't eat you, Bill. What did he do?" I asked.

"I was hanging suspended in the water, using up far too much air for my own good. I didn't move. I knew any motion would only focus his attention on me. They don't see well, you know, but as close as he was, he couldn't miss me. He could just as easily have taken off one of my legs as he went past. See if he wanted the rest of me for a noonday snack," Bill said wide eyed.

"I don't know how close he came. I'd swear I could have touched him. He kept moving away. That little diversion meant my air was about to run out. I got to within ten feet of the surface, doing a proper ascent, mind you, when my air ran out. It didn't come as a surprise. I held what air I had in my lungs and surfaced. It was my lucky day." he said, finishing his coffee with a final gulp.

"Marine biology must be quite an occupation," Mama said.

"It's my first love. While I was teaching Clayton what I knew, I knew he was the future of marine biology. The old birds like me began to get wet once Cousteau set the standard for the research biologists. To this day many of the older men of our breed have never been diving. They let assistants collect data for them to study."

When Pop came in from work at three in the afternoon, I didn't think about it being unusual. He was his own boss but he didn't come home for lunch and he left work at five on most days. Pop had learned to pace himself but I'd never known him to come home at three in the afternoon.

"Can I tempt you with a little brandy, Bill?" Pop asked, after kissing Mama's cheek. "Apple strudel."

"That would be a fine way to finish a delightful visit, John," Bill said. "Mrs. Olson, you are no doubt one of the finest cooks it's my pleasure to know. Your delicacies are without equal. Thank you."

Mama blushed.

"Clay, he's your guest. Join us," Pop said. "A taste of brandy with friends in the afternoon is one of life's joys."

I guess I was officially a man. Pop rarely gave me a personal invitation to join in the brandy ritual. When Harry or Captain Popov came during the holidays, I joined in without being asked. Brandy was a rare treat reserved for special occasions."

"Lucy is bringing Dylan home with her. I called and told her you had company," Mama said.

Mama hadn't left the kitchen since I came back from the cove. I only left Mama to answer the door. Strudel. Bill Payne. Pop home early from work. Lucy bringing Dylan home from school. I was beginning to see a larger picture that hadn't developed completely.

"Thanks, Mama. I almost forgot about my son," I said, embarrassed to admit it.

Pop poured three drinks on the tray the brandy decanter stayed on in his study. He took the tray to Bill, then he stood in front of me, and I took a glass. He put the tray back in its place, taking his glass before sitting in his chair.

He offered a toast, raising his glass in my direction.

"To the future."

I was certain my father aimed his toast at me.

I got butterflies.

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