The Gulf and The Cove

by Rick Beck

Chapter 12

Peace, Love, & Music

Being true to his word, Ivan jumped right in.

"When we got the news about Boris being MIA, I felt like a piece of me died. MIA was some bureaucratic bottomless pit I'd fallen into," Ivan said.

"I remember," I said. "It was a bad day."

"Dylan, Clay knows Boris and I share a connection it's not possible to explain but I'll try," Ivan said. "Right now I know Boris is fine and in no distress. I'm sure he's on the boat with his family and they have settled in for the night. I could easily guess these things. When I shift my thoughts to Boris, I have a sense of him."

"How do you do that?" Dylan asked.

"I'll do this chronologically," Ivan said. "That way I won't need to double back. Boris and I were raised together. We were close and shared a significant connection. My Pop Pop hung a big rope from a tree branch with a tire at the other end of the rope. This was a swing," Ivan said.

"Pop Pop took us there some days so we could swing over the river. We lived in Tampa then. My father, Nick, and Pop Pop did not get along but Nick allowed us to visit his father each summer once school let out."

"Is it still there?" Dylan asked.

"I don't know," Ivan said. "I haven't walked back there in ten years."

"Sounds like fun," Dylan said.

"Don't go back there until we make sure the rope is OK. I don't know it's still hanging from that tree limb. You could get hurt if you try to swing on it," I said.

"Daddy, you're a worrywart. I'm not stupid," Dylan said. "In ten years a rope hanging there would likely rot."

"And you're not a kid. I know these things. I am your father however and you wait until one of us tells you it's OK to go back there. I'd rather be safe than sorry, kiddo," I said.

Dylan looked into the sky. I couldn't see his eyes, but they were no doubt rolling in frustration.

"How am I ever going to grow up if you don't let me do stuff?"

"You'll find a way, kiddo. Of that I have no doubt."

"The story," Ivan said. "It's long enough without you adding editorial comments. We can talk about the swing later on. It's not like Dylan is going to run out in the dark to go swing on it," Ivan said.

"Sorry," I said. "Go on."

"Thank you," Ivan said. "The tire swing next to the river was for us to be able to swing over the water. The rope broke after a few years of use. Pop Pop died the year before and we moved from Tampa into this house. My father took over Pop Pop's fishing boat. Boris was twelve and I was nine. One day Boris decided to fix the rope swing."

Ivan sipped from his soda and paused to remember it correctly.

"One day I realized Boris hadn't come in for lunch. If there was anything a kid his age didn't miss, it's a chance to eat," Ivan said.

"I stood out on the deck, where we ate our meals, and I looked to see if he was swimming or resting on the logs. My thoughts were on my brother. I felt a sharp pain in my arm," Ivan said, raising his right arm.

"I felt like the pain was about Boris and he was hurt. I walked around to the front of the house to get a better sense of him. I felt him more strongly. When I reached the path at the edge of the woods, I knew he'd gone to the swing," Ivan said. "That was logical. He went to fix the swing and he hadn't come back. The pain in my arm was something different."

Ivan gave us a second to think over what he'd told us.

"I walked to the swing. Boris was on the ground under the limb and the rope was next to him. He went out on the limb to attach the rope he'd repaired. The limb broke and he broke his arm and knocked himself senseless when he collided with the riverbank."

"My grandfather would have said, 'It wasn't the fall that did the damage. It was the sudden stop.'"

Dylan smiled.

"He didn't tell you he was going to fix the swing?" Dylan asked.

"No! I was nine and Boris thought I was a little kid. He didn't tell me where he was going. I'd always had a sense of him but we were brothers. I figured it was what it was like having a brother. That was the first time my sense of Boris guided me to him. As I got older, I realized it was more than just being brothers," Ivan said.

"Boris didn't buy it. He said, 'If you could sense my ass, I wouldn't have been out there for two hours."

"I had to admit he had a point, but then I realized I had to be aware of Boris before I got a sense of him. It wasn't switched on full time. It operated when my thoughts tuned in to Boris. Once we were separated and he was living in Tampa, I often lay in bed sensing what he was doing. There was no way to confirm what he was doing, which meant I didn't know if it was my imagination or a sixth sense of sorts."

"Maybe I've got it too," Dylan said.

"Maybe. You've got talent you haven't discovered yet," Ivan said. "I'm glad to get to watch you finish growing up, you know. It doesn't take a sixth sense to tell me that. I have a neat son."

"You left out the part about you flying," Dylan said.

"That came later. I was eleven or twelve when I figured it out."

"Boris was living in Tampa with mommy dearest by then. I used to go out to the swing and use it as a platform I could dive off of. I'd swing out over the river and dive off the tire into the water. It was crude but it amused me. Being alone, I had nothing to do but think up ways to get into mischief," Ivan said. "Nick was rarely home and I pretty much did anything that came into my head."

"Where was Nick?" Dylan asked.

"Nick was fishing. He was gone most of six days a week in those days. He came home to bring me groceries and to make sure I hadn't killed myself or burned down the house. Once he saw that I hadn't, he went back to the Vilnius II. He doesn't like the house much. It reminds him of his father and the years he wasted hating him."

"Nick knew you could fly?" Dylan asked.

"I didn't really develop the skill until I was thirteen. My body had begun to grow and muscles began to appear where my skinny little boy body was before. I was going to the swing each day by then. My liftoff from the tire was less than graceful when I tried to dive. The idea came to me, I needed to go higher on the tire to gain enough elevation to have time to let go of the tire and turn so that I was executing a proper dive. To gain more height to allow me to do that, I had to increase my takeoff zone and get back farther before launching myself off the riverbank," Ivan said. "I needed to run faster too."

"Here's where I envision you taking a nose dive and breaking your neck, Daddy-O," Dylan said.

"I came close a few times but each time I faced that possibility, I managed to bail out of trouble. Each time I bailed out of trouble, I became more determined to find a way to make my dive off that tire."

"Execute being the operative word," Dylan said.

Ivan laughed.

"Yes, I was probably crazy thinking I could do something I didn't know could be done. It wasn't about anyone making the dive, it was about me making the dive," Ivan said. "I was thirteen. I had to do something. I spent my time alone most days."

"I never asked him how he learned to dive off that tire. I'm hearing that story for the first time. When I saw him, he absolutely flew. I'd never seen anything like it. He flew with the grace of a bird and he made what I thought was a perfect dive," I said.

"The dives started off being rough. I knocked the wind out of myself a lot. A few days I limped home after a few bad attempts. I'd have trouble breathing for a couple of days. Then I'd think out what went wrong and I knew how to do it better the next time I went to the swing," Ivan said.

"I bet you didn't go as high after that," Dylan said.

"Come on, junior. No self respecting kid admits defeat that easy. I was sore a few days. I calculated that I needed to go higher and when that didn't work, I went higher still. Each time I hit the water like a ton of bricks. Then, one day, when I least expected it, I backed up as far as the rope allowed, which was quite a ways. I ran full speed at the riverbank. I took off on the tire and I absolutely soared. I was trying to let go before the tire began its return trip to the tree. I let go with one hand but the other stayed attached to the tire. The tire kept pushing me higher. Once the upward momentum stopped, I was able to let go and I continued upward for an instant longer. For another instant I was suspended in mid air as the upward momentum fought the forces of gravity. That's when I learned the trick to perfecting my dive. It was timing. As the tire swung back toward the riverbank, I turned in mid air before I plunged into the river. I'd made the dive," Ivan said.

"It was a rough dive as far as dives go but I'd pulled it off. I needed to use the momentum of the tire to continue pushing me upward. It's where I went wrong before. I was in a hurry to get away from the tire to make the turn. Riding the tire as high as it would take me solved the problem. That left me to perfect my release and the turn in mid air as well as my entry into the water. As the man in New York City said, when he was asked, 'How do I get to Carnegie Hall?' The man told him, 'Practice, practice, practice.'"

Dylan laughed.

"To someone on the riverbank, I looked like I was flying."

"Cool!" Dylan said.

"Why do I have the sinking feeling that telling you that was asking for trouble?" Ivan said.

"Daddy-O, I'm not crazy. You don't think I'd try a stunt like that, do you?"

"Yes!" both Ivan and I said.

"Don't even think about it," I said. "You stay away from there."

"Oh, I won't," Dylan said way too smoothly. "You were telling your story, Daddy-O. Remember?" We looked at our son and realized what was coming soon.

"So how did you find Boris this time?" Dylan asked. "You were gone a long time, Daddy-O. If you could sense where he was, why not just go get him?"

"Because I was eighteen and too stupid to know I couldn't get into Vietnam. Trying to get into Vietnam, over five years after leaving here, is how I got into trouble. That trouble cost me five years of my life, junior."

"Well don't blame me," Dylan protested. "If I were you, I'd have stayed right here where you belong."

"Touché," I said.

"You're going to tell us that part?" Dylan asked. "I want to hear about that. I want to know what my father did."

"When I left to find Boris, I had somewhat of a plan. When Boris came home from boot camp, he brought two soldiers home with him. I met them when I went to Tampa to see Boris. One of those soldiers was with Boris when he was wounded," Ivan said. "They fought in the same battle and Big Boy, the soldier he brought home with him, was wounded trying to rescue Boris."

"Cool," Dylan said. "Big Boy?"

"You had to see him to get the joke. Big Boy was short with curly blond hair. He looked twelve and Boris called him Big Boy. At first I think it was a joke but Big Boy took it seriously, so it became serious."

"Something like calling him the opposite of what he really looked like?" Dylan asked.

"You got the joke. Big Boy followed Boris even into battle. He was discharged because of his wounds and he was eventually shipped home. He wrote my mother a beautiful letter. That's how I got his address. I took it off that letter when I was at my mother's. In that letter he described the battle. Up until he was wounded trying to reach Boris to drag him back to the American side of the battle lines. He woke up in a hospital," Ivan said.

"Big Boy said his squad got him into a helicopter. The American force fell back to regroup. This takes a lot of time during a battle; hours. When they went back in, the enemy force was gone from what I learned from several sources. I'm getting ahead of myself and I want to stay chronological if I can. I'll remember it better that way."

Ivan sipped his soda and looked into the night.

"I knew certain facts from Big Boy. He didn't know what happened after he was wounded. He knows he got out safe. The rest he heard from other soldiers. I didn't trust any one source for information. If I got the same story from more than one source, I figured it was close to what went down," Ivan said.

"I didn't think anyone could beat us in a war," Dylan said.

"We didn't leave Vietnam because we won," Ivan said. "It was called "Peace with honor." That's politician speak. The Vietnamese threw the French out of Vietnam twenty years before, but we had to take a shot."

"The soldier, Big Boy, was close to Boris when he was wounded. Somehow he got helicoptered out but Boris didn't. In his letter he said, 'Boris was wounded in the right shoulder. It wasn't a fatal wound. Boris isn't dead. No one could tell me what happened to him after i was flown out that day,' Big Boy wrote," Ivan said.

"I got his address off his letter. I didn't know what I was going to do but I was going to do something. Even then, after reading Big Boy's letter, I knew I'd start with him. Believe me when I say, I'd never been out of Florida except for the march on Washington when your daddy and I were still in school. The answer I was looking for wasn't in Florida. It was out in the country. I needed to hear the stories that were being told about Boris. If I knew what his buddies knew, I could find a way to get over there and search for my brother."

"Contacting the pentagon periodically, the answer was always the same.

"Corporal Boris Aleksa is listed an MIA. His status is unchanged."

"After I'd met the first few soldiers who were with Boris in the battle where he went missing, they gave me a great deal of information. Each of the first three buddies of Boris I talked to gave me names and addresses of other members of their platoon. Most were still on active duty. Of the five names Big Boy gave me, two were still in Vietnam. One was in Germany and two had been discharged. One of them was in Little Rock, Arkansas and the other lived in Syracuse, New York. Each added his own layer of information, experiences and thoughts on my brother's disappearance," Ivan said.

"As I got new addresses, I took them in order of where they were located. If there was a soldier near where I got his address. If a soldier lived in Georgia or Florida, I visited as many addresses that were farther a way as I could, and then I came home before, after, or both, when soldiers were nearby here," Ivan said. "Nearby was subjective. At first it was Jacksonville or Waycross. Once I was gone a while, Atlanta or New Orleans was close enough to rate a trip home."

"The hardest part of the search was staying away from this beach."

"And daddy," Dylan said.

"And your daddy," Ivan said. "I was homesick from the day after I left home. If I hadn't started sensing Boris, I probably would have quit and come home."

"The first year was the hardest. Most of the soldiers' stories were similar but each man gave me a piece of the puzzle I didn't have. It kept me going. I didn't know when one of them might shed some light on the mystery of where Boris went."

"The road is hard. It's hard being out there. It's where I always seemed to be. No matter which soldier I talked to, I knew before long I'd be on the side of the road with my thumb out," Ivan said.

"I gathered a lot of information. Boris was considered a good soldier by the men who served with him. He was well liked. I had no trouble believing that. Boris was charming and he knew how to get what he wanted from people. He'd been a boxer in Tampa and he could go toe to toe with anyone and that got him respect."

"Guys you didn't know opened up and told you all that stuff?"

"There were a lot of double takes. If I walked up to a house and the guy I wanted to see was looking out at me, he'd come flying out of the house. Some guys thought I was Boris. Most knew I was younger than my brother and they also knew Boris's status. They'd all checked more than once to see if he might have ended up on a prisoner of war list. There was a number they could call to check," Ivan said. "Some soldiers wouldn't talk to me. Some would talk but wouldn't talk about Boris. One tall skinny kid who didn't look much older than me said, "I've done my time in hell and I want to forget it."

We sipped soda. I hadn't heard anything disturbing. I remembered some of the story from times when Ivan came home.

"I hadn't hit the mother lode yet. I was in the flow of migrants who were moving on the highways with me. I knew they were hippies. Most were younger than me, so going on nineteen, I was seen as an old guy. I had only a passing acquaintance with my fellow travelers. At first there weren't that many but every once in a while they flocked to the highway moving east and then moving west. The unusual thing was when I saw them, dozens and dozens of them were going in the same direction. I found that odd. Did they all have the same friend who invited them to stay?"

"The flower children," Dylan said.

"Exactly. I didn't get it at first. Your daddy and I had gone to a war protest when we were seventeen. Neither of us needed to go there again. We'd gone with Uncle Teddy," Ivan said. "He was resisting the draft by then."

"How do you do that?" Dylan asked.

"Very carefully," Ivan said. "Getting caught meant hard time in prison."

"You'd go to prison because you won't kill the people your government calls names?"

"How do you think they raise armies to fight wars? It's your duty to kill people your government doesn't like," Ivan said. "You aren't supposed to think it over."

"That's bogus," Dylan said. "There's no draft now."

"No draft today. You still must register at eighteen," I said. "One day, if they decide they need more soldiers, the draft will come back to life. Politicians never forget a thing like that."

"I'm talking here," Ivan said. "We can discuss the virtue of war and peace another day."

"Yes, you are," I said. "Don't let me interrupt you.

After getting fresh sodas and stretching our legs, Ivan went back to story telling.

"I was on the road six months. Believe me, I wanted as many addresses in the South as I could get. There's nothing worse than standing on the side of the road in Kansas during February. It was during February I got the address of Boris' lieutenant. He lived in Kansas and it was February," Ivan said. "I looked him up in the phone book. I told him who I was and he agreed to speak to me. I told him I was hitchhiking and should be there the next day."

"I was shocked when he said, 'When you get close, within fifty miles, and you need a ride the rest of the way, call me and I'll drive out to get you. I'm off tomorrow and I'll have time on my hands.'"

"I got a ride to Topeka and he came out to get me. He served me hot soup and he was willing to talk. He remembered Boris but not well. He explained the circumstances behind the battle. Then he got personal, 'I didn't like that business. We should never have left Corporal Aleksa behind. I wasn't told until we'd fallen back off the battlefield. It was chaotic. We walked into a battalion of Vietnamese. They outnumbered us four to one. We were on their turf. We got mauled. I lost ten percent of my command," he said. "I'd been in that fucking shithole for three months and in two hours I lost twenty men, that's the killed, another dozen were wounded. It was a nightmare."

"The men came to me after we began to regroup. Aleksa's buddies. He wasn't fatally wounded but he was unconscious and bleeding. They asked me to send them back after him. While I made arrangements for the mission to retrieve your brother, orders came down that we were to regroup in an area a click southeast of the battlefield. We were ordered to go back at the Vietnamese. Orders coming from a command post nowhere near the battlefield. Officers get a sketchy report on what happened. it's a matter of resolve and determination. We were to go back and retake the battlefield. I've got a hundred and fifty men still walking. We didn't make a dent in the North Vietnamese force, so they're still at close to 600 men. Needless to say I'm in no hurry to lose another twenty or thirty men. Where we regrouped, we could hear Charlie moving. I sent out scouts to find out if we were in the way. We weren't. They'd eaten a meal and were moving east. They'd come off the Trail and had some destination and we slowed them down by a couple of hours. I had my men stand fast. My sergeant and I went over the area maps. It was beginning to get dark and the scouts said Charlie had gone. I sent in your brother's buddies to take a look-see for your brother. The rest of the men were ordered to bivouac for the night," the lieutenant said.

"The men from your brother's squad were ordered to fall back once the light was running out. They returned without locating your brother. They asked to go back to get your brother. I refused to allow part of my dwindling force to go into Charlie's bush after dark. I told them I'd call them at first light and they could do a search but as soon as I got orders, they had to fall back and rejoin the main force. None of us got any sleep. His buddies were too jacked up and I was trying to hold on to the men I had. We'd been sent to knock out reinforcements coming off Charlie's Trail. Groups of three, four, five men move south together and reinforce units that are running out of men. We're hurting Charlie bad in the region but no one expected a battalion strength force to come down that trail. I was the son-of-a-bitch to be waiting at the end of the trail. We weren't prepared."

"'So what did you do?' I asked him.

"'We went back in at first light. Charlie was gone. Your brother was gone. We did a search and marked where our dead were. We found eighteen of them. We flew out twelve the day before. I let Aleksa's squad stay and search for a couple of hours. I was ordered to pull back but I stalled. Seems like my radio malfunctioned or something like that. Knowing about such things, they sent a runner with orders to fall back and move to the southeast.' he said, wiping sweat off his brow."

"It was warm in his house but not that warm," Ivan said.

"'Once they made it perfectly clear that I was to move my force in a southeasterly direction, I sent word for the men doing the searching to rejoin the force. They once again asked to stay. They would catch up. I denied the request. I was told another better rested force was on the way and they'd search the area and see to removing our dead. We formed up and moved southeast and until you called yesterday, I hadn't heard another word about your brother, except they didn't find him and he had been listed as Missing in Action. MIA,'" the lieutenant lamented.

"'You have no thoughts about what happened to Boris?' I asked." "They found the spot where he fell. Grass matted down and the vegetation mashed like someone pulled themselves across it. It lead to a path in the bush less than twenty yards south of the battlefield. The sergeant said, 'That boy regained consciousness. Heard Charlie's chatter. He crawled in the other direction. He found that path and he stood up and walked away. That's what I think.' The North Vietnamese didn't care about dead or wounded Americans.'"

"What do you think?" I asked him.

"'Never knew the sergeant to go off half cocked. It's what his twenty-five years of military service told him. No one had a better idea.'"

"It's not possible they carried Boris off with them. His buddies didn't think so and the sergeant didn't argue with them. We could have wandered around out there looking for him but I couldn't see getting more men killed for a man who might already be dead. Sorry,' he apologized.'"

"I couldn't hide my anger and he couldn't hide his concern. He was no lifer and he was about to prove it. 'What I'm about to tell you, you didn't hear from me. Tell anyone I told you and I'll deny it. We were maybe five clicks from Cambodia,' he said. 'During that battle.'"

"'A click is?' I asked him."

"'A kilometer. A click is six tenths of a mile. We were less than three miles from the Cambodian border, maybe closer. For all I know we were inside Cambodia. We were there to intercept men and supplies coming off the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The trail run just inside Cambodia and there's always men and supplies moving south from Hanoi. We stood and fought that force, until they were over running us. By pulling back Charlie disengaged. He had a destination and we got in Charlie's way. Once we pulled back, Charlie went on his way. The official report puts us five clicks inside of Vietnam.'" "The people in charge lie?" I asked. 'They do whatever suits them. An official report is supposed to be accurate. A colonel or a general is told to get something done. They order men to do it. If something goes wrong, the men who said to do it aren't going to take the hit. They're superior officers and when they order someone down the chain of command to do something, it becomes their job to do it. The question of how, why, or if we can, never comes up.'"

This was a spot where Ivan paused, drinking soda and looking into the night. He was seeing where he'd been and the men he'd met.

"By the time I was ready to get on the road to Idaho, the lieutenant gave me a pair of warm gloves and a cloth hat I could pull down over my ears. He fed me as much as I wanted to eat and he put some sweets in a bag for if I needed some energy to keep going in this cold. He drove me a hundred miles to a major interchange early the next morning. He said I'd catch a trucker going northwest and I shouldn't get in a car if I could help it. The car rides would be shorter and once a trucker picked me up, he'd spread the word about where he put me off and where I was heading. It was a good tip," Ivan said.

"The lieutenant was OK. Once he decided to help me, he couldn't do enough for me. That's not to say when I told him I was going to get my brother, he didn't look at me funny."

"It was the first time that I was able to comfort one of the soldiers who were with Boris that day. I think the lieutenant was glad to get it off his chest. I hoped it helped him reconcile his demons and move him beyond his time in hell," Ivan said thoughtfully.

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