The Gulf and The Cove

by Rick Beck

Chapter 5

Wild Winds Blow

Bill Payne came to the conservancy house on Monday. I went to Dylan's school to speak to his sixth grade class on Wednesday. On Thursday I received another visitor at the conservancy house.

The three events had a common denominator: each reconnected me to my work in the best possible way.

On Thursday I was thinking about running over to the conservancy after another cup of coffee. I needed to copy records for Bill. I didn't want to put it off. As Mama and I sat at the table cleaning our plates, the weather forecast came on the radio. There was talk of a tropical depression moving into the Straits of Florida later that day. It would track nearer to Key West than to Cuba.

Before going to the conservancy laboratory, I decided to go to the marina to make sure Sea Lab was properly tied in case of a big blow. Storms in the Straits usually track far to the west before making a northern turn, but not always. It was better to be safe than sorry.

I'd fasten some extra mooring lines so Sea Lab didn't move around in her slip and damage her hull or possibly take down the dock should she break loose.

Harry knew I would take care of Sea Lab.

I decided before I went to the marina I'd go to Pop's shed at the side of the house and see what might be handy to better secure Sea Lab. There was no sign of a storm yet, so I sat finishing my coffee as Mama began putting out the things she'd need once she began dinner preparations.

I was on my third cup of coffee, lollygagging the day away, when there was a knock at the front door.

Mama said, "Get that, Clay. I'm not expecting anyone."

Neither was I but my hands weren't in the middle of a batch of biscuits dough.

Swinging the big oak door open, a young man in Bermuda shorts, a tank top, and sunglasses was standing there looking at me.

"Good morning. I'm looking for Captain Olson," he said.

I didn't know the guy but I knew the voice.

"Harold, is that you?" I asked, recognizing his voice from the radio on Sea Lab.

"Clay! Yes, it's me. I'm Harold. I need to show you something. I stopped by the conservancy earlier. They said to look for you here, and here you are."

"Yes, here I am. Come on back and get a cup of coffee. Mama's about to pop some biscuits in the oven. If you're as smart as I think you are, you'll make time for one of Mama's biscuits."

"Coffee and fresh biscuits. I'll make time. It's time I set aside for you anyway," Harold said, sitting in the chair I pulled out for him.

"I need to show you something, Clay. Telling you won't do it. You'll understand when you see what I'm talking about. Do you have your SCUBA gear handy?"

"My diving equipment is on the Sea Lab," I said.

"Great. I've got one of our rubber boats parked out back. We can go around to the cove once I have another fantastic biscuit with some more coffee," Harold said.

Mama delivered his order immediately.

"Thank you, Mrs. Olson," Harold said. "These are the finest biscuits I've ever put into my mouth. My mother doesn't bake."

"I put up the strawberry jam last summer. It's a perfect spread for one of my biscuits," Mama said.

"Since we're going around to the Sea Lab, I want to double the lines I have on her. No telling what this storm will do," I said.

"I'll be glad to help. I've got a forty pound anchor we'll put on the bow. It won't move around as much with that sucker holding her," Harold said.

"I checked the forecast," he said. "The storm's top winds are forty-five to fifty miles an hour. It'll turn north by northwest after it brushes Key West. It'll be moving away from land when it is passing here. Thirty to thirty-five mile an hour winds on shore. No telling about the winds in the cove or along the coast but it's not predicted to intensify until it gets farther north and west in the Gulf. It's anyone's guess what it'll do after that. The Gulf waters are still very warm. The warmer the waters the more intense the storm."

We waded out to the rubber boat Harold arrived in and Harold pulled in the anchor before before he fired up the engine and the rubber boat's nose was immediately pointing skyward. I nearly rolled off the round rubber seat.

The rubber boat, powered by a 45 horsepower Evinrude on the back, could almost fly. The boat might have weighed fifty pounds and that was mostly air. U.S. Coast Guard was written down the side of the black boat in big red letters.

In five minutes we were entering the cove and Harold cut the speed to a crawl. He tied off next to the Sea Lab's bow. I climbed onto the deck and fished my keys out of my pocket. I unlocked the sliding glass doors and Harold followed me inside to get the extra ropes.

"I've only seen the Sea Lab from a distance. It's way more impressive up close," Clay," Harold said.

"I'll give you the tour if you have time," I said.

"This is all I have to do until I'm done. I'm on the radio after five tonight. We have extra radio men during storms. No telling who might get into trouble on the Gulf in a storm."

I piled the ropes next to the sliding doors and I took Harold down to see the two big Detroit Diesel engines and I showed him the Sea Lab. We ended up on the bridge, looking out at a crystal clear day.

"We have pictures of the Sea Lab at headquarters. It's a boat everyone recognizes ten miles away. No other boat has a footprint like Sea Lab does."

"You have pictures? When did you take pictures?"

"We've got several shots from the air. Most of the Coast Guard Craft keep photographic records of where they've been and the boats they cross paths with. You're a local boy with a distinctive boat. We all know the Sea Lab when we see it."

I took my air tanks, wet suit, and my underwater camera and placed them on the deck beside the ropes. We tied off the Sea Lab front and rear before loading the Coast Guard boat. Harold took an extra large anchor from under one of the rubber seats. He attached a short line to the front of the Sea Lab, letting the anchor settle on the bottom. He pulled the line tight to eliminate any slack.

"I'd have never thought of anchoring the front of the boat while it's in the slip. I'll need to get an anchor for the bow," I said.

"You can't secure a boat enough in a storm. You never know which way the wild winds will blow," Harold said. "We ready?"

"We are," I said, resting back on the rubber seat.

The Sea Lab was like I left her after I took the final photographs of my reef, after its destruction. Every sailor knew his knots from every other sailors knots. The Sea Lab hadn't left its slip in more than a month. I didn't know who I thought might take her out.

I felt no ill effects from being on board Sea Lab. I was at home there and it didn't feel like I'd been away from her for over a month.

Everything was like I left it.

I locked Sea Lab and climbed back into the rubber boat.

Less than an hour after arriving at the cove, we were charging out of the cove and into the Gulf of Mexico on water as smooth as glass. I didn't know how fast the rubber boat could go but being exposed to the elements made it feel fast. I'd grown accustomed to having a lot more boat around me.

Harold sat with his hand on the throttle at the rear of the boat. The wind and my view were obscured by the front of the boat lifting up as only the last third of the boat was in the water.

We traveled directly west before he turned south by southwest after what felt like an hour. Easing back on the throttle Harold watched his compass. We kept moving for another minute. Harold cut the engine once we drifted to a stop.

"This is the first spot. It's deep at twenty-five miles off shore. There are two more spots I'll show you. They're both on the way back. This is the most impressive of the three. It's in a hundred and fifty feet of water here. Let's go. We'll want to be back before the storm gets here. The southeastern sky is showing signs of the storm. Probably five or six hours before the leading edge reaches here."

We rolled backward into the water off the rubber boat. The last thing Harold did before he went in was pull an anchor from under his seat along with a couple hundred feet of nylon cord. He tossed the anchor into the water and then we went in.

It took a minute for me to be oriented to the environment. The water was fairly clear with the usual particles present as we followed the nylon rope down. I didn't see anything remarkable but I couldn't see the bottom either.

I let Harold show the way. It took a few minutes before I saw the target. It dominated the floor of the Gulf. The closer we got the larger it looked. I'd never seen anything like it.

This rated as one of the deeper dives I'd made and Harold had my full attention.

I remembered the day my reef had been destroyed, Harold told me about the reefs he wanted to show me. They were off the beaten path and few people knew they were there. The first one was a sunken freighter.

Harold told me, 'It went down in a storm.'

I was looking directly at it as I got a hundred feet down. I imagined the freighter was in the bottom of an aquarium. Unlike the eighteenth century Spanish shipwreck, which was totally taken over by my reef, the metal freighter retained its shape.

Coral had taken over the main deck and the structures above it, but the ship still looked like a freighter. The coral had become a decoration on the deck of the sunken vessel and it had just begun climbing down the ship's sides.

Diving that deep gave us less time to see what was there. It took time to come and go. The going required stops on the way to the surface to avoid excess nitrogen in the blood, nitrogen narcosis.

Seeing an entire freighter sitting upright on the bottom of the Gulf was startling. I was free to wonder how it got there. It was still in one piece. I wondered if it was a loaded freighter.

Where was it heading? Where had it been?

I was sure Harold mentioned it went down in a storm. How ironic there was a storm in the news this morning.

The circumstances brought to mind the Edmund Fitzgerald, an ore ship that sank on Lake Superior in the 70s.

The ship was on radar, making headway during a violent storm. The radar man looked away for a few seconds and when he looked back at the radar screen, the Edmund Fitzgerald was no where to be found. It was there one minute and gone the next.

There was a popular song that told the tale, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Gordon Lightfoot. I'd heard it since taking possession of Sea Lab. That made it more personal. The ship on the bottom of the Gulf reminded me of how fragile life could be.

The theory of the sinking centered around the hatch covers that covered the ore compartments. They were to prevent water from coming in on top of huge amounts of ore. If one of the hatch covers came loose during a serious storm, the storm size waves rolling over the ships deck would fill the holds within a minute or two.

Seeing the sunken freighter sitting on the bottom of the Gulf had me humming the song.

This ship was destined to remain like a ship on the bottom of the aquarium, after Harold and I came and went. With a coral reef developing on it, I'd need to return to see the progress it was making and I'd study the types of life that made their home here and keep track of the changes as they took place.

It wasn't how the different species got here that was important. They were here and I wanted to know how many species made the shipwreck their home and how healthy a home it was.

The water was anywhere from fifty to two hundred and fifty feet in that area. I'd been in that location in Popov's trawler and then later in the Sea Lab. I had a record of depths and temperatures I kept. The records told the story that the Gulf was warming and that meant bigger, more destructive storms in the Gulf.

This was one of the deeper dives I'd made. Seeing the ship and the coral from far away gave me a different perspective. I could see the sea creatures from far away but they could also see me coming. The floor of the Gulf was relatively flat, but I'd find a vantage point that allowed me to blend in with the scenery while I watched.

I went to the bottom so I could look up at the freighter. Harold had no plan beyond bringing me to the shipwreck. He stayed a few feet away, watching my reaction to the place he wanted me to see. It was a remarkable sight.

I went completely around the ship before going to the deck to see how well developed the reef was. I moved along the upper portions of the ship. I took mental notes of what I wanted to get a closer look at when I returned. I'd bring my camera and begin a pictorial record of the reef.

My heart was beating fast and I really didn't want to go yet, but Harold was tapping his watch, waiting for me to look his way.

I had plenty of air. Surfacing would use a lot and Harold wanted to show me two more spots.

The visit to the sunken freighter had me making plans for future trips. The only way I could return to keep an eye on this reef was on the Sea Lab and that gave me even more to think about than before. It wasn't like Bill Payne's visit hadn't had me thinking already.

Now, seeing the sunken freighter, I had my usual questions. Those would be the questions a marine biologist would ask and I had a need to answer them.

We stayed together on our journey back to the surface.

There were two other spots Harold showed me. Neither could compare to the reef in progress on the freighter. I could learn a lot. Two smaller reefs showed promise. Smaller meant less activity and it would be easier to follow their progress. The third reef was twelve miles from the cove's entrance. We'd started with the farthest reef from the cove and worked our way back home.

This was how my career started. Bill Payne took me on my first dive. Nothing I'd seen up until then could compare with the beauty I found underwater on that dive. I didn't know there was beauty like that until Bill introduced it to me.

I'd also discovered that learning of beauty the likes of which I'd never seen could be a double edged sword. It was there and you enjoyed it for a while. Then one day it was no more.

Should I stop diving to find the beauty underwater because one day it might be gone? Should I study it and make every effort to preserve it in as pristine a condition as was possible?

There was no need to for an answer to that question. I was a marine biologist because of the beauty and my desire to preserve it.

I might not be able to save the Gulf but I wouldn't stop trying.

We couldn't stay long on the third reef. It wasn't very deep but we'd used too much air on the first dive that we needed to cut the dives on the other two locations short.

The third reef was twelve miles from the cove and easy to get to.

I knew where all three of them were now. Harold had given me the coordinates over the radio the day my reef was destroyed. It seemed so long ago. I hadn't thought of that offer until today.

Harold made good on what he told me he would do.

Was it time for me to get back into the game?

Everything was close to me. The conservancy, the cove, the Gulf, The three new reefs Harold showed me were close enough to have me diving on them often.

I'd made my life in this place for fifteen years. I didn't want to live anywhere else. I wanted to preserve as much of the Gulf as I could for as long as I could and I needed to be on the Gulf to do it.

Why did anything happen the way it did? Was it carefully planned or was everything random happenstance?

Mama would say, 'It's part of God's plan, Clayton."

Where was God when my reef was being blown to kingdom come? I had the answer to that question.

I didn't know why Harold came today. A question about his timing would sound like an accusation. It would be rude.

"Hey, Harold, who put you up to this?"

After Tampa, Ivan didn't mention my meltdown. He was proud of me in all my incarnations but the Tampa deal scared Ivan.

I thought, neither he nor Dylan mentioned diving.

It was something we all loved to do. They didn't want to risk setting me off. I didn't understand why I did what I did in Tampa. How would Ivan understand it. We hadn't been together for ten years. We finished growing up a long way from each other.

Tampa was the dividing line in my life. I was a man. I loved another man and we had a son. The rest of my life was at hand.

I didn't want to do something that might upset the way things were. If change wasn't necessary, I would avoid it.

We got out of our gear and Harold was bringing in the anchor at the final dive site he showed me.

"So Harold, what brought this on?" I asked.

"I'd like to tell you it was all my idea, Clay. It was the right thing to do, but my commander came to me late last week and asked where the Sea Lab was. I told him I didn't know. You hadn't been on the radio in over a month. I realized then that I should have checked on you sooner because you're always in the Gulf."

"Do tell, Harold."

"My commander said, 'We need Clay out here. There are too few of us out there now. We can't afford to lose one as dedicated a scientist as Olson.' You do do us a lot of good, which makes our job easier. By telling the story of the Gulf people are better informed. My commander was in Tampa the night you spoke. He said he was inspired by what you said. He called you, 'A passionate advocate.'"

"I didn't know you guys noticed me that much. You spend your time chasing bad guys. Does the coast guard let you take its boat out any time you want? I can tell you, I was surprised to see you."

"We can use it on business when the commander says so. He said so, after I explained that I'd offered to show you some reefs. He said, 'Find Clay and take him there. He might need a friendly nudge.'"

"I don't know what to tell you, Harold. Tell your commander he's given me a lot to think about. What you showed me today is a start in the right direction."

"Well, I've done what I came to do. We have charts at headquarters marking where shipwrecks are in the Gulf and when each ship went down. I dive, so I've been to most of the sites. Come by while I'm on duty and I'll show you those charts. You've seen the three best reefs I dive on. The freighter is my favorite."

Going east toward the coast, we ran into choppy waters. The wind had begun to blow in our faces. The leading edge of the storm had arrived. The day went from clear to overcast.

Harold left me behind the house and waved as he headed toward Coast Guard headquarters. I'd put my gear in the trunk of the Chevy. I'd take it to the marina when I took Ivan his lunch the next day.

I went up the outside stairs to the third floor, dropping my tanks and wet suit on the porch outside the double doors to my bedroom.

I took a shower and dressed in my blue jeans and a tee-shirt. I went down to the kitchen for a sandwich and a glass of iced tea.

I sat at the table watching Mama preparing dinner. The summer made it easy for Mama to plan and fix her wonderful meals. The Piggly Wiggly was filled with fresh fruits and vegetables and Mama had a dozen ways to present each to a hungry family. It was almost three and I needed to pick Dylan up from school.

"Mama, when I let Dylan off, I'm going out for a while. If I'm not back in time for dinner, don't worry. I've got some thinking to do and I can't do it here."

"Clay, it's starting to rain. The wind is blowing harder than when you came in. Can't you think upstairs?" Mama asked. "I don't like the idea of you being out in a storm."

"My room is like Grand Central Station in the afternoon, Mama. I need some privacy. I'm not going far. I'll be fine," I said, heading for my car.

I turned on the 1956 Chevy's windshield wipers. I might have just as well saved my energy. It was rainy sideways by the time I reached the road.

It was getting darker and I couldn't see if anyone was coming or not at the end of the driveway. I turned on my blinker and I turned right onto the highway. No one was usually coming but there was no way to be sure.

I could see as far as my hood ornament. I pulled in beside the phone booth at J.K.'s Kitchen. I called Lucy at school.

"This is Lucy Olson, how can I help you?" She asked.

"Hey, Luce, I was just leaving to pick up Dylan. It's raining cats and dogs. Can you bring him home with you?"

"Sure. If you see a poodle, pick one up for me," she joked.

"I thought you were a cat person, sis."

"Those too," she said.

"I won't be home for dinner. Just tell Dylan I had something to do," I said, hanging up the phone.

There was a place where my thinking was clearest.

It took fifteen minutes to drive the three miles to the conservancy from the marina. I parked near the dune that towered over my laboratory. I took the path we'd worn to the top and Sunshine's monument overlooked my office and the Gulf of Mexico. From the top of the sand dune I could see neither my lab nor the Gulf. They were lost in the rain and low hanging clouds. It would have seemed eerie if not for the noise the storm kicked up.

This was my calm in a storm. I was at peace here.

The clouds hid the Gulf a few hundred feet away. It wasn't as black as black but it was close. The sound the Gulf made was of a sea in a rage. I had to listen closely to separate the noise the wind made from the sound of the sea.

I was calm in a gale bringing tumult to the Gulf. In spite of the wind, the rain, and the stinging sand, my mind worked on a different level here. It was no different this time. Thoughts of Sunshine made me smile. If she were alive, she'd be sitting here with me, and she'd have no shortage of things to say.

The storm was a metaphor for my life at the moment. I'd had a storm going on inside me for six months. I was pulled in one direction and pushed in another. My life had come apart and I needed to put it back together again. I needed to forget my doubts and slay my fear.

The storm in the Gulf would pass soon. I wanted the storm inside me to subside here and now. People depended on me. I'd never known hardship. My life was better than I had any right to expect.

Sunshine became a stabilizing force in my life the last time my life was in turmoil. She gave me strength while I dealt with Ivan leaving me. I needed to gain strength now that he was home. He was home and we were together. For years I dreamed this.

I'd conducted myself responsibly for the entire time Ivan was gone. At times I became fearful of letting him out of my site. I knew what I expected, but he was home and working on the cove plans. It reassured me when I flashed back on the years he was gone.

I had a life of my own and responsibility. This wasn't a time when I should be away from work. It was time for me to regain control and live the life I'd built for myself. If Ivan was there at my side, it would be wonderful. If he wasn't, my life would still be good.

I was a grown man with a son to raise. He was my number one priority. I had to remain strong for Dylan no matter what Ivan did. I was certain the fear of losing Ivan would subside. He'd been home nearly six months and we were together.

It had been a week of reminders of what I did and who I was. I may have run from my responsibilities, but over a month after I dashed away from work, it surrounded me on all sides, like a storm.

It was a reminder of what I did and why I did it. It was the kids in their classroom that had me rethinking my career. Their questions and interest in what I did were eye opening and a catalyst for me to get busy.

Mrs. Foster put my presentation into context when I was ready to leave her classroom. She stepped into the hall behind me.

"No telling how many marine biologists you created today, Mr. Olson. I suspect more than a few who will be changed by your words. What a fascinating presentation. If I were forty years younger, I'd be ordering SCUBA tanks. You brought our world into focus for them as well as for me," she said. "Thank you."

I felt ashamed of myself.

Dylan had a different take on my appearance in front of his sixth grade class.

"They liked you, Daddy," Dylan said. "When I told them you took me out on Sea Lab, they didn't believe me. When I told them I drove Sea Lab, they laughed."

"You didn't hear a word I said. Your nose stayed stuck in Anna Karenina the entire time I was there," I said.

"I heard every word. Want me to repeat it for you? I'll start with, 'Girls are just as smart as boys.' Quinton is a woman's libber."

I remembered reading Dr. Seuss to him. He was three. He could repeat the words back to me after I'd read a book a second time. if I tried to read one a third time, he'd say the words before I read them. He came by his memory honestly. Ivan could do remarkable things with his mind. He made me smarter while I tried to keep up with him.

In this respect Dylan was very much his father's son. My experience with Dylan and Dr. Seuss told me he had his father's mind. I hoped Dylan didn't inherit his father's restlessness. He seemed content being where he was but Ivan had been content until he discovered a reason to leave.

"They didn't believe I let you take the helm of Sea Lab?" I asked.

"No. They're such children. They imagine nothing happens beyond their own experiences. Have they got a surprise coming."

"Yes they do," I said, thinking how fast my son was growing up.

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