The Gulf and The Cove

by Rick Beck

Chapter 7

On the Job

I don't know what I expected when I went into my conservancy laboratory on Monday. October was at hand. I wouldn't waste another day before I collect the records on Gulf water temperatures and the research papers to copy them for Bill.

Returning for the first time in two months had me admiring the laboratory Harry built around me while I studied in the sea around us. Gathering the knowledge to allow me to make the most of what Harry offered, the new laboratory sat beside the old conservancy building built back in the 1920s.

The buildings, a few feet apart, marked the difference in the age of the structures. The conservancy was wooden and it took my father and two employees to keep it fit to do what it was built to do. The brick structure stood solid. Beyond changing light bulbs and doing maintenance on the plumbing from time to time, it required little in the way of maintenance beyond cleaning and sweeping out the sand.

Harry spared no expense while Bill Payne stocked the new conservancy laboratory with state of the art equipment for the newest breed of marine biologists. Harry's marine biologist would be in the catbird seat in the Gulf of Mexico. He'd need to be if he was to have a fighting chance against the new breed of polluters with their new age pollutants and disregard for the environment.

I was the future and on some level he decided my passion was equal to his passion for the sea. A lanky lad at seventeen, Harry saw beyond my boyish appearance. If given the proper education, he was convinced that I could lead the modern conservancy whose mission was the preservation of the Gulf of Mexico and Florida's waterways.

The stories Harry heard about me convinced him I'd make a fine marine biologist. To me it was a deal to give me an education and go to work for Harry in the same place where Pop worked. I hardly saw myself as the scientific type but I liked seeing the things in the sea.

"Clay, I want you to train to be a marine biologist. I'll send you to school. While you go to school, you'll work at my conservancy. You'll be paid to do both. Once you're a certified marine biologist, you'll continue working for me as long as our arrangement suits you."

Harry's larger plan wasn't apparent to me right away. I was going to school, learning all I possibly could from Bill Payne. We did start the process by working out of a laboratory that was in the rear of Pop's shop. It failed to excite me.

By the time I got my degree, Harry's commitment was the same as mine. My degree said I was officially a marine biologist, but I'd been doing the work of a marine biologist for years. It was Bill Payne's pronouncement that I was a marine biologist that carried the weight with me, but to be respected I needed the degree.

I began my work the day Bill took me on my first dive. He was a master at explaining where I fit into the cosmos.

"The Gulf is a sea, you see, and the seas fill most spaces on earth. We see to it the seas stay healthy and clean."

Yes we did and I do.

Harry never hedged his bet. He Pushed all his conservancy chips into the center of the table, betting his future and the future of the conservancy on a kid who was fascinated by things in the sea.

When I met Harry, he ran the Sanibel Island Conservancy. He was a rich guy with a pedigree.

Harry told me, "I took over the conservancy in 1964. The year my father died."

It was the same year my life was uprooted from Tulsa and planted on a beach on the Gulf of Mexico.

The rich part was obvious. My father worked for Harry. My father wouldn't work for a man who wasn't honorable and that told me a lot.

It was Pop's stories that tipped Harry off to the possibilities. He hoped his passion for the sea could match up with my passion for creatures that came out of the sea.

Maybe it was instinctive. Maybe it was because of Pop, but I trusted Harry to do what he told me he'd do. He was offering me a future on the front end of our deal before he knew I could do the job.

Once I was on board, Harry had time to formulate his plan. The important part was that he would stay in charge while he was in D.C. His secretary called him each morning to update him on what was going on at the conservancy.

As time went on, Harry came to see me as the man who would carry the conservancy into the next decade and beyond. With Bill Payne telling Harry about my progress under his tutelage, Harry knew how Bill felt about my ability and my instinct concerning the sea.

Bill was right, the only work was record keeping and the pesky paperwork that told the story I was there to tell. Without those details I was just a guy who went SCUBA diving a lot.

Telling the story validated my take on things. It allowed me to go back to revise those details to tell about changes I was seeing in the Gulf. It became important to do that as conditions changed and the polluters altered or disguised the damage they were determined to keep out of view of prying eyes.

Once Harry's conservancy had its own marine biologist, he reorganized the employees to be my support staff and be his information arm. They'd continue spreading the word, 'The Sanibel Island Conservancy was on the job and Harry was in Washington writing new legislation that protected the Florida coast and its waterways, which protected all coastline and waterways.

Once I got my degree, the routine didn't change by much. Harry came home on holidays and during recesses. If it wasn't campaign season, he spent hours going over my files and reading what I had to say on my daily log. It was all there once Bill Payne showed me his journal and the meticulous notes he kept.

In 1979 Harry rarely came home, which meant my main source of feedback was in D.C. getting his ducks in a row for his senate run. This complicated my ability to put things into perspective. I went off the deep end and had my meltdown in Tampa. Losing control of my rational side, I wouldn't have done it if Harry had been home for me to consult after my reef was destroyed.

What I knew was, losing my reef wasn't the only thing going on in my life. It was that loss that rattled me as a marine biologist. What I saw was the years I devoted to that place. When it was gone, I had no place to go. I had blinders on and the lesson I learned wasn't apparent in my state of mind. I was angry and I wanted the world to know about my pain.

When the opportunity arose, I didn't tell Harry what I intended to do. He gave me whatever latitude I needed to tell the story about my work. I took advantage of this, startling the political audience.

I saw the error of my ways as soon as I did it. Harry could fire me for what I did. No one needed to say it was a boneheaded stunt.

A temper tantrum is never smart and I was sorry.

What I knew about politics Harry taught me and he knew we would be going back to Tampa in January, 1980. That was when the campaigning would begin. I'd introduce him. Harry would allow me to do the right thing.

My emotions had been less than steady after Ivan came home. I'd let them get out of control. Now I would face the same audience. They witnessed the meltdown in August. I knew what I needed to do. It would be humiliating but I wanted to be Harry's marine biologist. That meant apologizing in Tampa.

I thought a lot about the way it started, while I wasn't working. This is how I rediscovered my enthusiasm. Whatever it was Harry had in mind for me, after my first dive, I was sold. Then he told me he was going to pay me to SCUBA dive. How cool was that?

He let Bill Payne take me SCUBA diving before Harry told me the plan, I would have agreed to anything to go diving one more time.

I was a fisherman for Ivan's father. It's what I wanted to do, because I was doing it with Ivan, until Harry showed me my future. I

It was a lifeline I didn't know I'd need, until Ivan left me. I didn't know what a marine biologist did but it sounded good, after Bill explained it to me.

My life turned on a dime. In one afternoon I discovered a future I didn't know I had. It felt like I was dreaming.

Surfacing from the dive, Bill explained what I'd seen. He told me what it meant. Then, while I talked to Harry, Bill wrote notes on the dive and he gave those to me.

"These are a marine biologist's notes. Look them over, Clay. You can keep them as a sample of good note taking. It will remind you of where you started. It's what your notes should look like. If you get in the habit of writing notes after each dive, you'll be able to use them as reference points on what you are finding. You'll be able to look back when you see things changing. Your notes will reflect what you saw and when you saw it. It's the hardest work we do. The knowledge the notes contain will be stored inside your head. When you realize that's where they are, you'll be a marine biologist."

I could do that.

Bill Payne was a marine biologist, teacher, and researcher who freelanced where his skills were needed most. This year he'd work for Harry to educate me in what a marine biologist did. Teacher doesn't begin to describe how Bill treated me. He was a mentor who taught by showing you what he was talking about. He made it easy for me.

"A marine biologist studies the sea and the things in it. A good marine biologist is passionate about things in the sea, because those things tell him a story. That story is important to the survival of the seas as well as mans. Marine biology is not a job. It's a calling. Learn your lessons well, Clay, and you'll never work a day in your life. That's the good news. The bad news, we're losing the battle. We need to win the war if man is to survive for more than a few more centuries.," Bill told me. "And what conditions will man need to survive?"

I was so amped up I would have agreed to anything Harry or Bill proposed. I'd seen the future and I wanted to be part of it.

Harry was there when we returned from our dive. He was waiting to hear what Bill would say. He watched us come off the dock at the marina. He needed to see my reaction to SCUBA diving.

"Did you like it," he asked.

I was smiling from ear to ear.

"Did I like it? I loved it. It's fantastic. The fish we saw, the color, the water is so clear. It was amazing!"

Harry smiled and twelve years later we were both still passionate about the sea and the things in it.

Nearing thirty, I'd never done a days work. I'd lived a life of wonder. I never took a dive without learning something. My career went full tilt boogie until earlier in 1979.

I wasn't sure the crisis wasn't more personal than career related. Some things we can't know. Ivan being home didn't come without doubts. I could look back and see how long he'd been gone. I'd adapted my life and my career to him being gone.

My life away from my career was an emotional roller coaster. There had been an abrupt stop the day I saw Ivan with my son, his son. I'd merged with the sea and we were one, but I lacked the ability to stay underwater. No matter how wonderful a dive, I had to surface.

I'd been on vacation and I was back. My more steady emotions calmed the turbulence in my mind. I had adapted. I had no choice. I had the rest of my life to live.

I sat beside the laboratory in my Chevy. My life didn't flash in front of me but coming back had me reflecting on how I got here.

I took deep breaths before going inside. I'd make the copies for Bill first thing. I wanted to get him the information he requested.

Once that was done, I would put a schedule together for the rest of the week. I'd take it one step at a time, slow and easy. I'd ease back into my career.

I swept back in to my laboratory convinced I could pick up where I left off. The time was right and I was ready.

Imagine my surprise when a white coated fellow was seated behind my desk, sitting in my chair. I watched as he examined one of my files.

I didn't recall any mention of being replaced.

Harry said, "Take all the time you need, Clayton."

Had my time run out?

So engrossed was he in the file, he didn't notice my arrival. He was caught off guard when he realized Clay Olson was in the house.

"Excuse me. Who are you?" I asked, unable to maintain the calm of a marine biologist secure in his employment.

"I'm the marine biologist if you're looking for one," he said, looking up from the file during his speech.

There was a startled look of recognition in his eyes. He shot up out of my chair. I expected he was about to salute.

Pop goes the weasel, I thought.

"I'm Clayton Olson and you're sitting behind my desk."

The marine biologist wiped his right hand on his white lab coat before offering it to me.

He didn't look threatening when he came at me. I was prepared to stand my ground if it became necessary.

It didn't.

"Mr. Olson, I'm a marine biologist because of you," he said.

I was a marine biologist because of Harry and Bill. I didn't remember having that kind of influence on anyone and I wanted to know how I pulled it off.

"Welcome back, Mr. Olson. Harry said to expect you at any time. I wasn't expecting you this morning."

He wiped his right hand on his lab coat again, extending it to complete the introduction, except for one tiny detail he left out, but he moved right along anyway.

"Harry hired me to assist you," he said.

It cleared the air somewhat. I hadn't been replaced.

"You're referring to Congressman Harry McCallister; soon to be Senator Harry McCallister," I said, not wanting the help to become overly familiar with my boss.

There was a chain of command.

"Yes," he said. "I didn't know what I'd say when we met. I wasn't expecting you today."

"So you said," I said, not knowing what to do with... an assistant.

So much for picking up where I left off.

He was a bit flustered but he was meeting me and I didn't recall a meeting quite like this one.

"You're my assistant?" I asked, being out of the loop on why.

"Yes, Randi's out at the moment."

"Randy? Where is Randy?"

Now I was really confused. The help shouldn't know more than the helped.

"Randi's on a dive," he said. "She dives a couple of times a week. Takes water samples and makes notes on what she sees. She was reading through your files and saw that you kept daily records on water temps and you took water samples."

"Randi is a she? I'm sure I'll know when I see her but it's the kind of thing I should know."

"Yes, she's a she. It's so nice to meet you," he said again. "Randi is our lab tech."

"We have a tech," I said.

"She wants to become a marine biologist. She's smart. This is such an honor for me. I can get you up to speed with what we've been doing if you like. I was told to dig in and update you when you returned."

"Sounds like Harry," I said. "I'm guessing you do have a name."

"Oh," he said. "I'm not usually an airhead. It's just that I've read so much about you. Several years ago you spoke at my university. I didn't know you but the girl I wanted to date said she had to hear you speak," he said. "Being the only way I'd get to go out with her, I offered to take her. She couldn't be bothered with me but I changed my major after hearing you speak. I've never regretted it. No, I didn't forget, I'm Jack Miller."

We shook hands again.

"Hi, Jack. You can call me Clay. Otherwise, every time you say Mr. Olson, I'm going to look to see if my father came into the lab."

"Yes, sir. I understand. I met your father. I'm told he keeps the place running. Every one has been so nice and you can't beat the location. I'm glad you're here to give us some guidance."

"Yes, well, let's start at the beginning. Show me any notes you or Randi have filed. Just start with the first day and I'll follow along."

"It's not a lot. I'll get those files and bring them to your office."

"Is Randi out on the Sea Lab."

"The what?"

"Never mind," I said, knowing the answer.

The way we'd tied the Sea Lab off for the storm meant I'd need help to untie her. Then I'd take the anchor on the bow back to Harold.

I wanted to take the Sea Lab out before day's end. I wasn't going to dive today but I wanted to give the two Detroit diesels some action and make certain there wasn't a reason to take it in for service.

I sat behind my desk, reading the files Jack brought me. A very nice handwriting caught my eye at the point my improving scrawl ended. I always kept a master sheet to mark down temperatures and location each time I went out on Sea Lab. Randi picked up where I left off, using the same master sheet I had been using. It was easy to follow. If she was more than temporary, I'd let her start transcribing my scrawl into her easy to read English. Harry would be pleased.

I thought, 'Pop hadn't mention the new help? They'd be hard to miss. That's why Pop kept talking about me going back to work.'

"Clay, would you like a cup of coffee? I go to Mr. Olson's shop for coffee. No one can drink mine, not even me."

"Oh, yes Jack, please!" I said, pulling open my desk drawer and handing him my cup.

Once he left, I wondered, 'Do I want the help getting me coffee?"

It was only a cup of coffee. Someone going for coffee or a soda could offer to bring it back for the other two, since they were going anyway. I'd do the same if I were going for coffee.

I wanted free spirited employees who thought for themselves and didn't need supervising. I wanted them to speak up if they had something on their mind. We would all be doing the same work. That hadn't changed.

Why another marine biologist? Why a lab technician?

What was Harry up to?

I finished looking at the temperatures recorded since I last went out into the Gulf, seeing nothing remarkable. I set that file aside and began reading notes Randi made after a dozen dives. Once again, she modeled her notes after mine. What she wrote was neat and orderly.

"Morning!" Pop said.

"Morning, Pop. You didn't mention Harry hired help," I said.

"Didn't see it as relevant. That's between you and Harry and the help," Pop said. "Harry's not bashful. He'll let you know what's on his mind."

"I suppose you're right," I said. "It came as a surprise."

"Welcome back, son. I missed you being here for our chats."

"Thanks, Pop. I feel like a fish out of water at the moment. Randi looks like a good fit for the lab. Her notes are easy to read. I'd think they were mine, except I can read hers."

"I've got things to do. I wanted to say hello," Pop said, moving away from the doorway of my office.

Jack nodded at Pop and he stepped into my doorway.

"My first day I found these in the trash can. The one beside your desk. I was sure someone brushed them off your desk into the can. When I looked at them in the slide projector, I was certain they needed to be saved. I filed them to show you when you came back. I wasn't sure where you wanted them to go."

Jack handed me an envelope with eight slides. I didn't need to look at them to know that each slide was marked in the upper right corner: Tampa 1 of 8 and so on. I knew what they were and I knew who threw them in the trash can. Being back meant being professional and doing the job I was paid to do.

Jack was right. They needed to be preserved as the last act in years of studying my reef. He'd already proved to be helpful.

"Thank you, Jack. I'll file these where I want them," I said.

I wasn't a great believer in signs from some mysterious underworld. I didn't empty the trash can, assuring the slides would be there when I came back, if I came back. They were part of the history of my reef. It was my responsibility to keep even unpleasant records of what was happening in the Gulf of Mexico.

Time healed the wound those slides depicted.

After Tampa, I never wanted to see those slides again. I didn't need any reminders concerning the death of my reef. Those slides documented the reef's death. It represented man at his worst.

It left me at a loss for a reason why I cared so much. I'd seen over the last ten years, I was fighting a losing battle. The Gulf had begun to deteriorate on my watch and more pollutants and chemicals were being introduced to the water on a daily basis.

As a teenager, Harry and Bill had me believing I could save the Gulf. In the last few years, I hoped I could save the beauty of my reef. Today, I was left to wonder, how long before the last fish swam in Gulf waters? How long before the last reef died?

How long would Florida tourism survive once the waters that brought vacationers became a cesspool, a dump site for spilled petroleum products?

I pictured spilling my milk at the dinner table. I thought how far from the truth an oil spill traveled.

It was a reality I'd do my best to stop.

'Excuse me while I mop up the glass of oil I spilled.'

A catastrophe could never be a spill.

I filed the slides with the rest of the Tampa slides. They were now part of the official records at the conservancy and i needed to copy those papers for Bill.

It's the reason I came to work and the universe put me back where I needed to be.

What was I going to do with two employees?

The phone on my desk rang. I tried to calculate who might be calling me at ten o'clock on my first day back. Without bothering to consult the universal forces that influence everything, I thought, 'Harry! Connie calls him each morning to update him on messages. Pop would have told Connie, Harry's secretary, I was back and Connie told Harry when they spoke.

Harry would be getting to work on Capitol Hill about this time.

"Hello," I said.

"Clayton, I wanted to welcome you back," Harry said.

I smiled.

"Thanks, future Senator McCallister. How'd you know?"

"Connie! She calls me every morning from the conservancy to tell me about any messages or goings on."

"I forgot," I said, not forgetting at all.

"You've been on vacation. You ready to rock and roll?" Harry asked.

"I am, Harry. We had a storm at the end of last week. It's the first one I've seen up close. It brushed by us. I'm going out on the Sea Lab, make sure she's purring like a kitten. I want to see what the storm churned up," I said.

"Sorry I'm not there to go along. Pay particular attention to the smell. After a storm there is the most incredible smell on the Gulf."

"I'll keep my nose open, boss. You hired my replacements?" I asked. "Just in case."

"Clayton, if I didn't know you were joking, I'd be offended. You've carried all the weight of the conservancy for too long. You've moved us into prominence and I want you doing the things that matter most to you. Leave the mundane chores to Jack and Randi. They're good kids and they'll love following your lead. I should have hired you an assistant years ago, Clay, and Randi wrote the most beautiful letter to me concerning you and the conservancy. She was passionate about her interest in biology and the sea. I offered her a technician's job. We'll see if she's cut out to be a marine biologist. It's time we readied ourselves for the twenty-first century. It'll be on us before we know it. We've been keeping the polluters back on their heels but they're working to circumvent the laws that protect the environment. I'll be a busy senator looking for ways to keep the polluters under control. They now hire entire law firms to endlessly litigate the actions brought against them. They can keep a lawsuit in court for years while they continue polluting and dumping their waste into the environment."

"Yes, you'll have your hands full, Harry. I'll get back at it. I'm ready," I said. "I can tell you where they are polluting but I can't do a thing to undo the damage they do."

""Nice having you back. It makes my job easier."

"I've read Randi's notes, Harry. I'll let her transcribe my notes. I've never had very good handwriting. We haven't met yet."

"I'm glad you are going to let them help," Harry said. "Your writing has made tremendous strides since it looked like hen scratchings, but you still write like a doctor. Randi will love assisting you. I'll show you her letter when I'm home. Both of those kids will be overjoyed to know you depend on them. So, depend on them."

"I'll keep them busy," I said. "I think that's the first time you've given me a direct order, boss."

"I'll tell you what I told your father after his heart attack. 'No matter what you are doing, John. It will still be there tomorrow.' Clayton, you've far exceeded any expectation I had when I offered you the job you do. Don't burn yourself out. I need you in the Gulf. Florida needs you in the Gulf."

"You sound like a politician," I said. "I know, Harry. Sometimes I get caught up in wanting to make a difference. I'll pace myself. Thanks, Harry. If I've exceeded expectations, it's because you let me."

"Lucy is on her way to the state legislature, you know. I expect her to be in congress before too long. She's smart and she won't take any crap off the old guard."

"She said you wanted her to run for your congressional seat," I said.

"She's right though. She'll learn a lot about politics in Tallahassee. They take the gloves off at that level. Lucy was born to be a politician. She'll be able to bare knuckle with the best of them. After a couple of terms, I'll endorse her for my old seat in congress. Daddy would like the cut of Lucy's jib."

"Shouldn't she wait until she's elected to the legislature first," I asked.

"She's going to campaign with me, Clayton. Everyone knows me and they'll know Lucy soon," Harry said.

"That works for me. You know my sister is the smartest person I know, Harry."

"I know. I've done my damnedest to convince you I'm the smartest person you know, but even I know Lucy has an instinct for politics I've never had. I should have worked harder to get her to come to work for me in Washington. Now, when she moves up, she might be after my senate seat. The thought has crossed my mind."

"Harry, you have an election to win before that seat is yours," I said. "Don't get over confident. I know you know your stuff, but nothing in politics is for certain, but one thing is for certain, Lucy would never run against you. She holds you in high esteem."

"I know and it's why I want you at my side, Clay. Like I told you, a senator attracts national attention. The more people who hear you speak about the Gulf, the more votes I'll get. That's always been the case and we'll make certain it stays that way."

"Let me settle back in. We'll see how it shakes out," I said. "I'm back on my game and I'll be there when you need me, Harry."

"When you need to spend time with Dylan or Ivan, you can take time off now and you know that the basic work of the conservancy is getting done. Dylan's at the age when you'll want to be more available to him, and Ivan is already changing the face of the cove. I'm sure you'll want to spend some time helping him get it done. You have my blessings, Clay. Whatever you want to do is fine with me."

"I'm glad you feel that way. I have a lot to think about, Harry."

"Yes, you do and I've got a vote in ten minutes. I've got to get down to my seat before they call order. Welcome back, Clay. See you in a couple of weeks and we'll go to the Gulf Club."

"You're on. I haven't had lobster in a while," I said.

Harry hung up.

I was officially back to the boss.

What took me so long?

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