The Gulf Between Us
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Jerry W.
Editor: Jerry W.
Clay Olson and his family are leaving Tulsa. At fourteen it's the worst thing to happen to him. Life in Tulsa is good. His friends live on his block. They don't live exciting lives, but they're kids. Their job is to have fun together.
The family is uprooted and moves over a thousand miles. They'll live near a tiny town in a house on the Gulf of Mexico. The closest house is nearly a mile away and there's only one. There are no kids except for his brothers and sisters.
While testing the waters of his new world, he sees Ivan Aleksa. Clay decides this handsome, graceful, athletic boy is going to be his friend.
Too scared of rejection, he hesitates. Ivan disappears. Clay's first opportunity to make a new friend, and he doesn't talk to him, but he doesn't forget him either. He has no idea how he'll ever find this regal boy again.
The distance between them proves not to be so great, but the question remains, why would a popular talented boy like Ivan want to be friends with the very ordinary Clay?
Moving to a new place, even a quaint seaside town in Florida, was a disaster for me at fourteen. When we drove away from the only house I'd known, I was sure it was the end of the world. All that I'd known left my life as we turned onto Hayfield Trace on our way out of Tulsa.
I'd finished 8th grade in the house they brought me home to after I was born. I had lifelong friends. Leaving everything behind overwhelmed me. No one asked me how I felt about it. Everyone in my family left everything behind.
At fourteen I was silly enough to believe if I was miserable enough, and let everyone know it, it might change my father's mind. I was plenty miserable. It didn't change anything. No one was happy to be moving away from our home.
Change came hard that year. I wasn't sure I would survive it. I didn't know what I'd do or how I'd adjust to a place I knew nothing about. I was scared for the first time in my life. I was scared and lonely as the car with six kids and my parents found its way to the open road.
No one had anything to say. I couldn't remember the car ever being that quiet before when all of us were in it. What I thought of as hard times was misery for my father. His job of twenty years went away. There were no prospects. He'd been trained to do his job when the company opened its doors. He was twenty-five and newly married to my mother. She was pregnant. Their future was set.
They bought a house and had six kids, Coleen being first. She'd just turned nineteen. John-Henry, Brian, and Teddy came one a year for the next three years. My parents decided four was enough. They didn't call me their little accident, but I was born two years after Teddy. If I was unexpected, Lucy, now nine, came out of the blue. By far the most formidable child, we were all happy about Lucy.
The prospects of getting a new job in Tulsa were bad. The town had run out of gas, and my father's future looked bleak, until his former boss called him to tell him about a job in Florida. It didn't pay much but it came with a big house. The catch being, they needed someone to be on the job the following week. We left school a week early to arrive in time.
We drove southeast, where we were told we'd find Florida. I longed for life to go back to normal, but we were on our way to a new life and no one had much to say.
"Give me a soda, Clay," Pop said. "Are there any peanuts left?"
"Give me some room, Brian. Quit hogging the space," Teddy ordered.
"Mama, I need a tissue," Lucy said.
The car rolled off the plains and into rolling hills. The second day we reached the emerald green waters of the Gulf of Mexico. We'd follow the gulf through Mississippi and Alabama, and we'd come to the panhandle of Florida.
Following the gulf down the west coast of Florida, We passed Tampa, and two hours south we came to Sanibel Island. The Sanibel Island Conservancy was where my father was now employed. Our house belonged to the conservancy.
The first time I saw the green water, it fascinated me. It followed us seductively for long stretches, once we reached the Mississippi coast. Turning east on the second day, we were more than a day from where we were going. The car was cramped and beginning to smell of too many overripe boys.
The first change in landscape I noticed were trees filling the hills. It was a far cry from the Oklahoma grasslands. I didn't know there were so many trees. The water was an even bigger change. I wasn't done being miserable, but I was fascinated by all that water.
The Gulf Of Mexico had a certain allure from the first time I saw it. For a boy whose only contact with large bodies of water came in the form of a mandatory Saturday night bath, I was peering across my right shoulder as the water followed us east. It would be there for the next five hundred miles.
We left the gulf for short periods and then there it was again. First the trees would begin to thin, and then I'd see the white sand and the green water. On route 98 we stayed close to the gulf, even when we couldn't see it. It came and went, but it was never far away. I'd live next to the gulf for the rest of my childhood. At first I didn't think we'd ever get clear of it. Then I hated to be far away from it.
I noticed different shades of green. There was some blue, and other deeper beautiful colors between blue and green. It was spectacular for a kid who lived in Tulsa all his life. The colors in Tulsa ranged from dark dirt to light dirt. There were not so green green shrubs, and sort of green scrub grass, and green grass.
Besides the color of the water, there was pure white sand bordering the gulf. From a distance Florida sand resembled Tulsa snow. The water sparkled and the sand was a blinding white in the midday sun. The colors amazed me.
This was going to be different than Tulsa, I thought, as we made one of our dining stops. We pulled into the wayside park and pulled out the cooler with the lunch meat and sodas. There was a picnic table in each wayside park. There was one every thirty or forty miles after we reached Route 98 in Florida.
Once out of the car, I enjoyed sights and smells I didn't recognize. After finishing my single sandwich, I walked along the water's edge for the first time, while my siblings sat gorging themselves with anything eatable. We'd need to stop for more lunch meat and bread if we could afford it.
I was being seduced by one of Florida's many features. I couldn't swim a lick but I didn't fear water. It was enticing. As I looked at the horizon, I wondered what was out there in the endless sea. I'd never seen a sea before.
"Clay," Mama called, coming to find me. "We're ready, dear. We need to get moving. There will be plenty of water where we're going."
"Yes, ma'am," I said, as she met me. "Isn't it beautiful, Mama."
"It's lovely, Clay," she said, coming up behind me and putting her arms around me. "You'll find a million things to do, hon. You'll make new friends."
"I don't want new friends. I'll only lose them. There's no point to it. I knew them all my life, Mama."
"Come on. We've got to go. No point in making your father angry. He's doing the best he can, Clay. We've got to help him. He lived in Tulsa all his life too. This isn't easy on any of us."
"Yes, ma'am," I said, and we drove on.
I'd had it good and I had to go where my family went. I didn't have to like it. I couldn't remember a day when I wasn't with my friends, until now.
My father had taken a job with an environmental conservancy for Sanibel Island, right off the west coast of Florida. The almost 100 year-old house came with the job. With six kids, a mansion on a beach couldn't hurt.
Back then, I thought about Tulsa every day. Even with the water that fascinated me out our backdoor, it was the place I considered my home. A few minutes after the station wagon stopped in front of the biggest house I'd ever seen, my brothers and sisters were laying claim to the bedroom they wanted. There were eight in total, not to mention the sitting rooms on the upper floors.
While they dashed from room to room on the second floor, I found the stairs to the third floor and the first door I opened had a bed in it. I tossed my jacket and hat on the bed, marking it as my territory. I didn't care which room I slept in, but it turned out to be the best bedroom with the best view of the gulf.
It was time for bed before I discovered my room faced the water. There were double glass doors that allowed me to see the gulf from my bed. Best of all, the sun rose on the opposite side of the house, and the light of day got to my room last. The screened in porch outside my bedroom and stairs that led from the porch to the backyard would come in handy in years to come.
There had been no fussing. We all got a room to ourselves, except for Mama and Pop. They bunked together on the second floor. John-Henry and Brian would no longer fight over the limited space. I'd no longer wake up to Teddy's snoring. Coleen was a woman and needed a room of her own. Lucy was about to reach adolescence. Having a room to herself would make the transition easier.
Once I discovered the double doors, the porch, and the stairs, my disposition improved. Even at fourteen, I could see the possibilities. I didn't like it here. I'd learn to live with it. I went out on the porch, down the stairs that were at the side of the house, and no one could see or hear me coming or going.
There was no constant in my life now, only loneliness wrapped in memories. Having a beautiful beach out my backdoor was no substitute for having friends. The beach would distract me from the loss I felt. I'd seen what was around us as we drove to the house. What I hadn't seen was another house or any sign of life. I was isolated. The idea I'd find new friends was a joke. They'd have to be shipwrecked for them to get to our house.
Probably the best thing was being able to sleep as much as I liked. I was on babysitting duty, until my siblings got situated. Mama, my brothers, and Coleen, were looking for jobs. My brothers would end up working for my father, and babysitting became my job alone, once I got up to face the new day. As long as I was in the house, it didn't matter. Lucy could take care of herself but being alone where we were living wasn't a good idea.
I stayed in the yard, wandering down to the water twice the first day. Lucy and I played Parcheesi after we got bored with rummy. Lucy beat me three games out of three and accused me of throwing the games. We were usually pretty competitive. Lucy could hold her own in most games, but my heart and mind failed to take an interest in playing games.
After lunch, once I'd been relieved by Teddy, I found a river Just north of our house. It wasn't all that wide, but it was a barrier I couldn't ford. It also ran fairly fast as it came to the gulf. The other side of the river didn't look any different from my side.
Living so close to all that water and not knowing how to swim was kind of a drag. I wanted to be in the water, but I could see the river might be dangerous. The water ran fast. It swirled strangely where the river water and the gulf water met. The gulf was easy with water as placid as the water in my bathtub.
As I turned back from the river, realizing I'd seen everything north of the house, I saw the house sitting back in the trees. It was as tall as ours but half as big. The wood was gray from paint long ago weather beaten into dust and parched by the sun. I thought it was a little less than a mile to the river and our closest neighbor. Not much to see in this neck-of-the-woods.
I'd yet to notice the shells and fascinating treasures that littered the beach near the water's edge. I didn't know anything about Florida. I didn't know the gulf was filled with life and treasures that routinely washed up. It would take time for me to identify the things that were of value and those that weren't. The first day it was miles of sand bordered by even more miles of water.
It only took a few walks up the beach to recognize there was wildlife that went with the sand and water, which made it more interesting. I recognized some from text books and movies. Others were strangers to me, heavy on the strange. The beach I'd completely seen after a trip to the river, would furnish me with hours of exploration, not to mention a room full of booty I brought home.
My older brothers were able to work for my father, helping him do what needed doing. When Mama and Coleen weren't job hunting, they made frequent trips to fit the house with things that weren't provided. My mother went grocery shopping and if it was a quick trip, I stayed behind. On the first couple of trips, she needed me to be her bag boy. It took a bit of food to feed the eight of us.
As we got settled in, I had time on my hands. In Tulsa my friends and I would be hiking out toward the farms near where our suburban neighborhood was built. In the summer we were in constant motion. I was still in motion but I moved alone on those early days in Florida.
After walking as far south on the beach as I wanted to go, it appeared we were alone for as far as I could walk. There was the house next to the river, but it was empty. There had been no sign of life the first week I journeyed to the river each afternoon. I was tempted to go to look inside, but I didn't.
I'd begun to discover the shells that were all around me. There were manatees, or sea cows, seals who barked and couldn't be ignored. The dolphin kept their distance, floating, skittering, and jumping close enough to shore for me to appreciate their shows.
Big birds glided overhead. Some came with colorful plumage. The seagulls were most plentiful. They were mostly white. Pelicans stood on the logs just beyond the mouth of the river, when the seals hadn't claimed the spot. Some birds flew alone and some flew so high I could barely see them. Others came in clusters in a rainbow of color.
Most encounters with these new life forms occurred near the mouth of the river. There was a part of the beach that stuck out into the gulf, where it bordered the river. The pile of logs were a hundred yards from the mouth of the river, where most of the wildlife activity took place. When I walked to the river, if the seals were on the logs, they'd bark incessantly, wanting me to go away. I didn't.
After a time they'd go back to sunbathing and I'd sit and watch the swirling waters. A lot of shells had been washed out of or into the mouth of the river, and I could retrieve conch shells, colorful smaller shells, and even live snails by lying on my stomach and reaching into the clear water. Then I laid on my stomach, chin in hand, surveying the river for anything that looked promising.
If I didn't have chores or babysitting duty, I was on my way to the river right after breakfast. I was excited walking up the beach, not knowing what I might find today. I hardly paid attention to the house that sat a hundred feet away from the spot where I spent so much time. It had to be empty. Who would live there and not be out on that beach every chance they got?
It became easy to walk right past the house and forget it was there. It stayed in the shade of the forest until well after noon, and then the sun shined brightly on the three floors. I had to shade my eyes to see it in the afternoon. I wondered if it was haunted. That idea had me keeping my distance.
I guess the people who lived there got old and died. I only went to the river during the day, so someone could live there and worked during the day, but then the first weekend, there was no sign of life. No one came out and told me to get off their beach. I was glad they didn't. I'd found a place where I was comfortable.
I felt free to sit on my beach to watch the river push its way into the gulf. The green gulf water resisted the river's attempt to invade it. Watching two opposing forces of nature in an endless struggle fascinated me.
Only when the gulf ran high, when a storm was raging or recently raged, the gulf forced the river backward. It covered the point of sand where I hung out, and swallowing the swirling waters at the mouth of the river. Then the gulf would calm down, receding, and everything returned to normal in a couple of days.
Mostly the Gulf of Mexico was a gentle sea. I waded in it and at times I felt drawn toward the pile of logs that sat haphazard ten or fifteen feet above the surface of the water. I wanted to climb on those logs. I wanted to dive off them. There had to be one monster storm to deposit those trees there.
I used the morning low tide to get a closer look at the logs when the seals weren't there, and they weren't always there. I could let the water get up to my chest on calm days, without being scared. I got within fifty feet one morning, and fearing the return of the ferocious seals, I retreated back to my point.
It was while daydreaming and lounging on that section of beach, I made my first friend, early the second week I was in Florida. It only took a week, and I had begun to think less about the friends I missed. Then there was Millie, big eyes blinking at me from the swirling current that held her in place.
What looked like her being hopelessly caught between the river and the sea, was a spot where she could sit with little effort, as the river water washed over her. Millie was a manatee. She had human eyes and a sad look on her face. I wondered where her friends were. We were no more than three feet apart, but she showed no fear of me as she sat watching me. I rested my chin in my hand and watched her back, wondering if she'd seen me there before.
She was too big to miss. A manatee grows to be a half ton. It was difficult to tell how big she was, because much of her body was distorted by the moving water. Once she'd gotten a good look at me, she swam up the river. I was sad she left me alone again. Making contact with another creature was cool. I hoped she'd return on her way to where she might be going.
Much to my surprise, once she got to where the river came out of the forest, she stopped swimming and let the river carry her back to me, where she once again stayed suspended between the two opposing flows of water. Once more our eyes met and we stayed like that for a long time. I think she was smiling. Do manatee smile?
As my daydreaming took me off to parts unknown, Millie left and once I came back to the hear and now, I realized she was no longer there. I jumped up to go home. I'd come back the same time the next day. Maybe Millie would be there. I was excited. Millie and I couldn't talk to each other, but having her there was a comfort to me.
My timing was good. When I got home, it was lunchtime. My mother had been home and left sandwiches on the table for Lucy and me. My brothers were still working with my father. Coleen didn't tell me what she was up to, but I didn't mind. She was sure I was becoming as worthless as my other brothers.
I ate sandwiches and estimated I'd been watching Millie starting a couple of hours before. That's when I wanted to be at the river the next day. Maybe she'd come back and we'd continue our communication. I wanted to touch her to see what her skin was like. She wasn't shiny like the seals, but her skin looked thick and tough. I was curious about that.
I left the house at ten the next morning, after eating. I collected some shells I decided would look good in my room. Living in Florida, I wanted items I found in Florida to fill my room. First it was conch and smaller colorful shells.
One day I found a couple of coconuts by the forest next to the faded house. That was followed with a large fan like branch of palm leaves. It smelled of salt and sand. The branch went into a corner of my room. I held the two glass doors open with the coconuts, and the conch shells went on the two night stands on opposite sides of the bed. The colored shells went on the white cloth on top of my dresser. I hadn't much but junk decorating my room in Tulsa. It's not like cow patties or tumbleweed were good decoration.
I gave up on Millie. My first friend had left for parts unknown. I knew creatures in nature don't make friends with humans. It was fun thinking we were communicating. I gave up my eleven o'clock vigil and stopped waiting for her to return. Besides, she probably didn't know what time it was.
Florida was invading my mind. Even alone, I liked how different it was from what I'd known. While I had to babysit Lucy for most of the next week, I didn't mind. We played cards, Monopoly, checkers, and we ate the snacks Mama left for us when we were stuck with each other. This was no different from Tulsa, except in Tulsa my friends came to hang out while I was babysitting duty. Remembering them made me sad again.
My second week in Florida came to an end. It was okay. I'd only been at the house and the A&P with the accompanying laundromat. I accompanied Mama to the grocery when she needed a bag boy. There was nothing there. There was nothing but trees and empty space in between there and home.
One day I found something really weird. I was told it was a starfish. It had five arms but it was calcified. It was very hard and quite dead. I was amazed by its shape. Who know such a thing lived in the sea just outside my backdoor? It went on my bookshelf. There were no books yet, but the starfish was beyond reading. I dropped sea dollars next to the starfish as I found them. They were every bit as curious to me. I had no idea the gulf would give up such things.
I couldn't read either. There was still too much new stuff to see. I loved being outdoors. I loved to wake up and look out at the gulf. I loved the quiet of where we lived. I loved Florida and I wanted to see everything on my beach and everywhere else.
It's while waking up and being excited about getting outside, after I ate of course, to pick up where I'd left off on my point. While I lay on my stomach with my chin in my hands, I gazed into the swirling clear waters, and there was Millie, right where she'd been before. She was watching me.
Millie had her big eyes on me. She saw me before I saw her. She didn't move or act put off by me being next to her river. I reached out to touch her after a few minutes. She moved just out of reach, but no father. She didn't want to be touched, but she didn't want to leave. It was cool. We could communicate.
I found it more amazing the second time we met. I don't know if Millie was a boy or a girl manatee, but I wanted her to be a girl and so she was Millie to me, and if she was Michael, well, I'd apologize later for the oversight.
On this day I felt better than I'd felt in a long time. Millie being back meant she'd be there from time to time, and that was enough. I could find things to do when she was off doing her thing, but I liked it best with her there.
I hadn't made a human friend yet. I hadn't been far. I wanted a friend where I lived, and that's about the time I began to look at the river differently, wondering what was up the river. Where did it go?
There was a possibility the river led to civilization. If there were houses or a place where people hung out, there would be kids my age, and if there were kids my age, maybe one would be my friend. I didn't need three friends like in Tulsa. That seemed selfish, especially now that I had none. One would be cool.
I couldn't swim, and even as unskilled as I was, swimming against the current wouldn't get me far. That's when I began to see the forest in a different light. If I stayed close to the river bank, I couldn't get lost, and it might lead me to houses and people.
I wasn't ready to dive in among the trees yet, but soon I'd move off the beach to head inland.
As June passed, my desire for friendship grew. I'd been alone for long enough. This place was too awesome not to be able to share it with someone. I wouldn't be picky and one friend would do.