The Gulf Between Us
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Jerry W.
Editor: Jerry W.
Peace and tranquility returned to our beach after Christmas. I no longer had anything to worry about. Ivan was fine with the idea of spending more time with Lucy. We rarely had plans to do much after eating dinner at my house, except to return to Ivan's. Staying to play cards or a board game was entertaining.
There was an unexpected benefit to the plan. I began reconnecting with the family I'd been separating from over the past two years. At times Mama, Teddy, and even John-Henry sat in on card games. The banter around the card table told me things I didn't know.
At nearly seventeen with my boyfriend living next door, my family was easier to be around. I enjoyed spending time with them. We related to one another as equals. I no longer felt like a child around my brothers.
The biggest surprise was Teddy. While John-Henry proved his credentials as a conservationist, Teddy was passionate about keeping his new home, Florida, safe for all the creatures that lived there. This was a cause he believed in. Teddy was full of surprises.
My family was cool. As close as Ivan and I were, no one inquired about what was going on with us. We were friends and that explained everything. Ivan was as welcome as I was at my house, which made being home easier. Ivan seemed to enjoy himself.
Mama's self righteousness faded somewhat once her eldest son appeared in photo and print. The only thing mentioned to Mama at work, "How sweet it was for John-Henry to save that dolphin."
There was one closeup picture of John-Henry's face, identifying him as the leader of the rescue, and a picture of the four men supporting the dolphin on their shoulders just before it swam away. The nature of the beach or its location weren't disclosed. It was a story about men rescuing a sea creature in trouble.
Everyone at the conservancy knew which beach it was and John-Henry was no less popular there. He was a hard worker who could be depended on. That's what was important where he worked. Who he swam with or where he swam wasn't.
It was Florida after all.
On New Year's Eve we didn't go to my house. We sat on the deck outside of Ivan's bedroom and watched a crystal clear night sky. We made love and were still awake at first light. We weren't due to dinner until that afternoon.
Happy New Year!
Ivan and I became closer as 1967 progressed. Fishing was canceled two weekends in a row, while a series of stoms churned up the Gulf of Mexico. Most boats finished maintenance that began before Christmas. The crews had extra time to spend with their families.
It had turned unusually cool for that part of Florida. I had trouble staying warm in what would be shirtsleeve weather in Tulsa. The heat at Ivan's was a fuel oil furnace. It hadn't been turned on in three years. Once we turned it on the house smelled like oil for two weeks. At twenty-five cents a gallon for fuel oil, we didn't run the heat much.
Ivan and I had no trouble keeping each other warm at night or any other time for that matter.
I was relieved when the sunshine returned to the sky. Getting back into the gulf was my vacation. Fishing made time move faster than being stuck on shore.
After the storms the fish were practically leaping onto the boat. We didn't need nets but we used them anyway. Two weeks in a row we left the cove on Friday after school and returned Saturday afternoon with our holds full. It would be a good year for fishermen.
The winter mellowed and that suited me fine. Life was good.
One day after school, once it was warm enough to sit on the deck again, Ivan put on the Johnny Cash album John-Henry gave me for Christmas. It was a 1964 album, Bitter Tears, that was new to us. We'd never heard of it but 1964 was a good year for the Olson clan.
I'd forgot about the album until Ivan put it on the record player and came to sit with me on the sunny deck. After listening to the A side, Ivan got up to turn the record over to play the B side. The unusual thing, we didn't say a word until the entire album played and it was quiet again.
"Cash is a certifiable hell raiser," Ivan announced to me. "He's right up there with Dylan. That was a remarkable album, Clay. You should thank John-Henry. It tells quite a story."
Dylan's songs had to be decoded. His ability to rhythm was ingenious and genius at the same time. While Maggie may well have been 'In the basement mixing up the medicine,' the truth ran far deeper than Maggie. Cash had the same feel for injustice but his songs were more direct. Listening to either of them was an education of sorts. Their music ran deeper than the words they sang.
The Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian didn't pull any punches concerning the mistreatment of America's native people.
"As Long as the Grass Grows...," told about how the 'White Father's' laws were enforced. During JFK's presidency a treaty the Seneca signed with George Washington, giving them title to lands for "As long as the grass grows and the rivers flow," was violated. The land was taken in the early 60s to build a dam. It was one of the few treaties that hadn't been violated, until now.
It's how it went when whites made treaties with the Indians.
The Ballad of Ira Hays was a true story.
The picture of the flag raising on Iwo Jima had decorated John-Henry's wall in his room in Tulsa. It had been there as far back as my memory went. Under the picture were the names of the marines who raised that flag. Ira Hays was one of those marines.
It was one of the bloodiest Pacific battles in World War II. The marines who raised 'Old Glory' on Mr. Suribachi in that picture went home to a heroes' welcome.
"The Ballad of Ira Hays," told of the marine, a Pima Indian, who went to war and took part in the flag raising. Ira Hays went home to a dirt poor Indian reservation, once the heroes of Iwo Jima toured the country. On that reservation Ira Hays died a stereotypical drunken Indian, forgotten by the country that once honored him.
Once again Ivan and I saw the injustice of war and of the people who ran things. The injustice ran into every track on Bitter Tears.
Ivan said, "No one wants to hear songs about people who possessed the land before the Europeans came and took it. They never gave a thought about the culture or the history they were grinding under their boot heels. They took what they wanted."
While I'd insisted on listening to Johnny Cash during the time Ivan and I were becoming friends, it wasn't until he heard the Bitter Tears album that Cash earned a place on Ivan's record player along side of Dylan.
It was while listening to the only rock & roll station we could pick up on the beach, we caught an interview with Johnny Cash one afternoon, as we were about to go sit on the deck.
Johnny's resonate voice came out of the tiny speaker on the radio I got for Christmas.
"That's him," I said. "That's Johnny Cash on the radio."
We stood in front of the radio to hear what he was saying.
"I was over at Columbia Records waiting for news on my next album, if there was one. They were making big changes. I wasn't sure about my future at Columbia. I was told all the recording artists were summoned to appear.
"After an hour of waiting one of the secretaries came to escort me into an empty office. Not a good sign. I waited some more. It was then the door swung open and this young fellow dodges in.
"He stood for a second considering me. He's in an old flannel shirt, dirty jeans, and he has a guitar strung over one shoulder. I won't try to describe his hair.
"He began to circle my chair, not once, not twice, but three times he goes around my chair, never taking his eyes off me. Then he stops and says, "You're him. I love you man.""
"I don't mind telling you, I was beginning to get worried. Then he says, "I'm Bob Dylan." That's how I met Bob. I love his music too."
Ivan began laughing.
"That's funny," he said. "That's a funny story."
The power of both men was in the truth they told in their songs.
By 1967 people in America began to pay more attention to a small country 10,000 miles away. Mostly they paid attention to their sons and husbands who were writing home from Vietnam.
The number of soldiers going there was increased. At first there were advisers. Then there were troops to protect the advisers. Now the troops were going to pacify the Viet Cong(VC), "Victor Charlie" or "Charlie."
Seriously outnumbered, the Viet Cong used ambush and booby traps. They hid among civilians and operated at night. In general the more troops that were sent the more resistance there was.
While the stories I heard bothered me, they were stories about other peoples' brothers and sons. It didn't hit home until it was my brother. John-Henry was the first person I knew who was drafted. We knew almost nothing about what we were fighting for in Vietnam.
Ivan told us one night at dinner, "The French were there as a colonial power, for the natural resources. I believe it was rubber plantations. When the French lost a battle at Dien Bien Phu, the terms of their surrender included them leaving Vietnam.
"That's when Eisenhower sent advisers to help the South fight the insurgency from the North. As the insurgency heated up in the 60s, Johnson authorized the subsequent buildups of troop. A jungle terrain is a tough place to fight a war when the enemy lives in the jungle and knows it and you don't."
Ivan's facts didn't tell us much, except we were there to fight. John-Henry would be in boot camp at the end of February, and I didn't know what to think about it. The entire war and draft deal turned my family upside down. Ivan and I were too young to go, but we were getting older.
One day we held hands on the deck and my mind was working overtime. I was thinking about the future.
"Do you think there are other guys like us?" I asked thoughtfully.
"Like us meaning?" Ivan asked.
"Boys who love other boys. It's not the usual way it's done," I said.
"No, and I think you think we feel the same way about it. I don't think we do, Clay. We have different feelings about it."
"What do you mean?" I asked, curious to know everything he thought.
"You don't see anything but us. I see other things. If I wasn't with you, I might not be with a boy. I can't be sure because I am with you and I don't need to think about not being with you."
"Why are you with me?" I asked confused by his comment.
"I'm with you because I love you. We love each other. It's all I know but it isn't all I feel. It's all we know. If you hadn't come along, if we hadn't fallen in love, I don't know who I might like. Boris, but he's my brother. I've got to like him. It's an unknown we don't know, but we do love each other and that makes it unimportant."
"I never liked anyone the way I like you. I don't like girls that way. I'm pretty sure of that. I look at boys."
"I'm not convinced I couldn't find a girl I liked a lot, maybe love.
I'm not as certain about my feelings as you are. I feel great being with you. I don't need anyone but you. If I didn't have you, I don't know what I'd think. I don't worry about things I don't control."
"You have no control over what you feel?" I asked.
"Not the way you're talking about. I feel what I feel and I go with that. Could I stop loving you. I don't think I could. Love is love. It's a powerful feeling. I can't see it going away. I'll always love you, Clay. When you truly love someone, I don't see how you can unlove them. You'd always love them on some level no matter what happens."
I could have let what Ivan told me bother me. I was good at worrying. He didn't worry as far as I know. Things were what they were and he dealt with them on those terms. I worried about what could happen and what I'd do about it if it did happen.
What I knew early in 1967, there were boxes coming home from Vietnam in increasing numbers. We had the baddest military the world had ever known and we were losing soldiers at an alarming rate. The peasants in Vietnam, the people, didn't want us in their country; the leaders did.
Once in power, few leaders gave it up willingly.
I hated that John-Henry was being drafted. Thinking about what could happen was a bad idea. He was my big brother. He intended to go willingly. He promised he'd return, but in spite of his reassurance, he would send me a letter that rocked my world to its foundation and it made Vietnam very very real in a way it wasn't before.
Spending time with my family was OK. The independence I'd established wasn't threatened by the card games. My parents continued letting me have my way, even after I began spending more time at home. I worried that the more time I spent at the conservancy house the more time they'd insist I spend there.
Going back to school after the holidays and working on the boat divided our time nicely. It kept the days moving. This year, once school was out, we'd work six days one week and three days the next week, alternating that way over the summer. The following summer we'd be out of school and able to work full time on the boat or any hours Mr. Aleksa set out for us. I was looking forward to it and I wasn't worried about the draft yet.
In the beginning of 1967 Ivan and I had the world by the tail. We were almost convinced that we could live the way we were living forever and never need to deal with the insanity that raged out in the world beyond the beach.
We bothered no one and simply minded our own business. We were content loving each other, but we were to learn that you can't keep the world from reaching into your life to rip pieces out of it. As kids we were immune from the madness. As eighteen year olds, we could be tossed into the middle of the storm someone created because they didn't have anything better to do.
The peace and tranquility we enjoyed was about to be disturbed. The world was about to drop on top of our lives. The world is too small or our beach was too big to escape the mindless violence.
John-Henry was only the first to be called to duty by his country. He wouldn't be the last of the Olson clan to face the draft. We understood as early as February and his first letters home told us, he was going to fight for freedom halfway around the world.
Almost from his first letter home, the sergeants were telling them they were being trained to fight in Vietnam, Republic of. They were fighting to keep America free and to preserve peace.
This didn't sit well with me, not because it was Vietnam, but because he was my brother. My parents remained stoic. Brian remained oblivious. Teddy remained defiant.
I listened to Ivan reading from Time magazine while we sat on his deck. Without Ivan, I wouldn't have known anything about the war in Vietnam.
I knew more and more about the country a half a world away. I had no idea what the fight was about. I knew more about Vietnam than I knew about either of the states next to Florida.
At the dinner table John-Henry told us that it was his duty to his country. Teddy wasn't sure it didn't have more to do with testosterone filled politicians seeking to prove they were real men.
"The old goats who run this country aren't about to send their sons to Vietnam. They aren't going. They want us to go to fight for what? They're people doing the best they can in their own country.
"I'll tell you when I'll go to kill someone, right after the old goats lead the way. I'll follow them and their sons into battle, but I won't go because they say I've got to learn to kill for them."
"There wouldn't be a war if the Vietnamese wanted us there. What right do we have to invade another country? They're peasants for God sake. We're the most powerful nation in the history of the world. We don't belong in Vietnam."
My reasons were easier to explain. I didn't want my brothers dead. No one said anything to make me believe the war was worth one of my brothers' lives. I was with Teddy on the war.
The surprising thing was John-Henry didn't have anything to say about Teddy's concerns. While we were in Tulsa, if one of us dared to speak ill of our government, he'd have caught hell. I suspected we all felt bad about John-Henry going. Arguing about it wasn't going to help him.
John-Henry waited until we were around the card table the night Teddy went off on the war to reply. He addressed it to Teddy, but it was meant for all our ears.
"Cool off, Teddy. I'll go willingly. I'm not going to kill anyone who doesn't deserve killing," John-Henry assured us.
"I hope they feel the same way about the American's running around inside their country, John-Henry. I somehow doubt we'd be so charitable if they were invading our country. Give that some thought."
"We'd smash the suckers," Brian bragged, putting down his comic book to speak out. "We're bad and we go where we want. Screw the Vietnamese. They can move if they don't like us there."
"There you have it, John-Henry. Brian thinks the war's a good idea. Do you really want to be on the side of your idiot brother?"
"Teddy," Pop said, drawing the line at insulting one of his sons.
"Sorry, Brian. I should have said mental deficient."
"Pop!" Brian complained.
"Teddy!" Pop repeated. "This war has been discussed enough. Let it go. John-Henry is going. Accept it."
Teddy left no doubt where he stood. Mama hadn't heard the exchange and she remained silent on the subject. She knew one of her sons would soon be in harms way. She didn't like the idea but she wouldn't speak out against her country, yet.
"I'm with Teddy," I said. "Not on Brian but on the war. What are we after? Why don't the people who want to fight go ahead and fight. Leave the rest of us alone. I don't hate no one enough to kill him."
"I'm going. You guys aren't helping any. I won't do anything I can't be proud of doing. I'll be the best soldier I can be. Pop's right, I've heard all I want to hear about it. I've got to go. It's the law."
John-Henry got the final word. He was the oldest brother and he was the one going over there. I didn't like it but he didn't seem to mind. I wasn't so sure I'd be so willing to go without a good reason.
Sitting there that night, I didn't realize we were all in the way of the draft. Anyone eighteen or over was.
It wasn't long after John-Henry went to boot camp that Ivan began to read from Time magazine about how Cassius Clay, now Mohammed Ali, was fighting the draft. According to what Ivan read, 'He claimed that the Vietnamese hadn't done anything to him. The Vietnamese never called him a Niger, and he refused to go to kill people who were defending their own country.'
Ali had a much louder voice than any of the Olsons. In spite of being one of the greatest heavy weight champions of all time, he was stripped of his title and the right to fight in the U.S.A.
He faced five years in federal prison if convicted of refusing to be drafted. Having money, Ali fought back. While he couldn't box in his own country, he could fight in Vietnam.
"They offered him a sweetheart deal," Ivan said.
"What's that?" I asked, not keeping up with the boxing world.
"They'd let him tour with the U.S.O. and he'd put on exhibition matches for the troops. He wouldn't go anywhere dangerous."
"He didn't take the deal?" I asked.
"He objects to the war and won't do anything to promote it. He wouldn't take the deal."
"He has principles?" I asked.
"As well as religious objections," Ivan answered.
"Sounds like he's the real deal," I said. "Didn't care much for him after the name change. I need to rethink that. I like Ali."
"Yeah, he's OK," Ivan said. "One hell of a boxer. He makes fighting look easy. Believe me it isn't easy. He's that good."
"Just not in Vietnam," I said.
"Just not in Vietnam," Ivan said.
Once John-Henry was gone, I didn't want to comment on the war. Ivan had no such compunction. He read me articles about the fighting going on in Vietnam. We were losing a lot of men. I listened but didn't usually comment.
"According to Gen. Westmoreland, 'Everything's hunky-dory. We should have the country pacified by fall."
The talk about Vietnam was absent from the table. John-Henry was in South Carolina, Fort Jackson, training. One night Ivan and I just sat down for dinner, just before Ivan turned seventeen. As Mama was bringing in the food, Pop had something to say.
"Brian is going to enlist in the army," Pop said. "He wanted me to tell everyone at the table tonight. That's where he is tonight."
Speaking of a quiet table. No one had anything to say after that.
Teddy was at work and that left me as the only brother left. I had nothing to say. Brian wasn't my favorite person but I didn't want him dead. John-Henry could take care of himself. Brian was helpless. He thought he was going to become John-Wayne. He wasn't.
"They're using up men fast," Ivan said once we were on his deck.
Brian failed his physical and was classified 4-F. They could reclassify him at a later date if they were really running short of men, but there were plenty of draft age boys.
No one had much to say about Brian not going.
Ivan and I talked about what we would do once we were ripe to be drafted. We didn't know we had nothing to worry about, but I was worried. The longer I thought about it, the less I liked the idea of going to someone else's country to kill those people. I still hadn't heard a good reason why I should.
Being eighteen didn't seem like enough. There was a name for big guys who picked on little guys. Was it the same for countries? Did my country care how it looked to the rest of the world.
At first they needed 200,000 men to pacify the Commies. Then they agreed on a quarter million. Before that number sunk in, there were a half million troops there. A family on almost every block seemed to have a son who wasn't coming home again.
It was at dinner in March when Teddy announced he'd be moving in with two of his friends near work. I didn't think anything of it, until Teddy stopped coming home. The only address he gave Pop was a P. O. Box in a nearby town.
Teddy would be nineteen just before I turned seventeen, but I read nothing into it. If anyone in the family knew anything different, they didn't tell me. Ivan and I talked about our brothers from time to time. Boris had turned nineteen. We hadn't heard from him.
"Teddy's a working man. He gets to do it his way," Ivan said.
I was worried by Teddy's move. It wasn't like him. He'd been working as far back as I could remember, but he stayed close to his family. He didn't have much to say until after John-Henry was drafted.
"He's not going to answer his countries call," I said, putting two and two together by then. "There is no apartment. Only a P. O. Box. I bet someone else checks the mail for him."
"The masters of war will find a way to go on without Teddy," Ivan calculated. "Ali is looking at five years in prison for resisting the draft."
"Neat trick. How do you make men go to war? You threaten to send them to prison for five years if they won't go. It's illegal not to go kill some poor sucker in his own country. It's a racket," I said. "The only way to stop war is to go to jail."
"You're a hell raiser, Clay," Ivan said. "Teddy isn't going? He's a hell raiser too. He learned to think for himself somewhere. Our governments worst nightmare, men who think. They'll want to make an example of him. They need to make an example of him."
"They got John-Henry. Brian's too dumb to go. Teddy won't go and I'm leaning toward Teddy's position. I won't kill anyone. Once you learn to be a trained killer, can you unlearn it?"
"I suspect most men can, but then there are the men who learn to kill and they like the power it gives them. They might never stop killing, until they're killed. War is a good training ground for them."
"How do you know if you'll like killing people?" I asked. "Who really wants to find that out about themselves?"
"That jar you have on top of your refrigerator? It's your ticket out of the draft."
"What's that mean? The draft board takes bribes?"
"You go to college. You get an education deferment."
"You should pay attention when I read to you. It's the law. It's there to save your ass. How do you think our fearless leaders keep their sons out of the draft? They send them to college and buy grades to keep them there if necessary."
"That's how they get out of going?"
"Uh huh. It's all a ripoff. Poor suckers go and die and the rich kids sit around their dorms smoking pot. Looking good for the girls."
"I don't like it," I said. "Why should I get a pass?"
"Because you can, Clay. Don't be a fool. Take what the law allows. You're plenty smart enough to go to college. Do it for me."
It was from Ivan that I learned about draft resistors. The government called anyone who wouldn't go to war a draft dodger. I was almost certain Teddy intended to resist the draft. I wasn't sure how he'd do it but Teddy knew.
Why didn't Ali just enroll in college? He had more money than me. He had to know he could do that. I'd listen to him talk. He was plenty smart. Why didn't he do what the law allowed?
Teddy didn't send us any letters. He knew the implications could put the heat on Mama and Pop. The FBI would come. They'd insist we reveal the whereabouts of one Theodore George Olson. Withholding that information was a violation of federal law. They never got beyond the front door.
Pop spoke politely to the two agents with buzz cuts and confessed he didn't know where Teddy was and he didn't know he'd received a draft notice.
This was a recurring drama at our house. It was difficult to miss the unmarked sedan parked out on the highway. It followed when an Olson vehicle left the house. They lost interest quickly. Teddy remained quiet for some time.
Teddy must not have been the only draft resistor in Florida. The FBI gave up on our driveway after a couple of weeks.
In a note from Teddy that Pop read at the table, my brother explained himself to his family.
"It's my belief that all life is sacred and my job is to preserve life where I can. I will not become an instrument of this country to murder citizens of another country. If this war is so vital, why don't the politicians take up arms and head for Vietnam?
"When all young men refuse to become killers, war will stop. The politicians will lose their power. The world will become a safer place. I intend to stay true to my beliefs and I'll accept the consequences.
"I understand if you don't agree with me. That's your right. That's not to say I don't pray for John-Henry's safe return each day, Love Teddy."
Pop folded the note and put it beside his plate before continuing.
"We haven't heard from Teddy. He got this message to me by way of one of his teachers. The teacher brought it to my work this morning. Teddy is well and safe. That's all I know. He requested the note be read at dinner. I repeat, none of us know where Teddy is, which is the truth."
The teachers were mostly gung ho at school. Obviously not all teachers were. My American history teacher wanted to know how many of us had brothers in the military. Half the class raised their hands. He seemed delighted that so many kids were going to war.
I couldn't conceive of John-Henry coming home in a box.
My life with Ivan was good. We had it made, but other than that, 1967 was turning into a bummer of major proportions.
I didn't get much mail. So when I got a letter from John-Henry, I took it with me to Ivan's to read when we had time. I might have just as easily opened it at the house, but no one was home, and getting a letter from my oldest brother was a big deal. I didn't want someone else to read it at the table. John-Henry didn't want that either.
I sat on the deck with Ivan. He waited for me to open the letter.
"Clay," I read to Ivan. "Don't expect a letter from me all that often. I'll write the family when I have time, but time isn't something we get much of in boot camp.
"Scuttlebutt has it, the talk around here is, we're heading for Vietnam, once we finish training. Since you're the only one likely to stay out of this war, I want you to know what to do if I die."
I stopped reading and tossed the letter down between the two wicker chairs.
"I don't want to read this. I don't want to think about my brother dying. Why's he putting this on me?"
"Would it do any good to tell Brian? Teddy's long gone. You're it, dude" Ivan said, picking up the letter. "I want you to know what to do if I'm killed," Ivan read. "Mama and Pop aren't to see my body. You will be the one who identifies me for the final disposition and burial. I don't want either Mama or Pop to be any more upset than my death will make them. I trust you'll do what I've outlined in this letter. It's nothing special. I haven't made much of an impression on the world. So that's how I want to go out.
"A simple ceremony. Mama and Pop can put me where they want me. I doubt they'll hold still for Arlington, and that's cool. You find out the details and you tell them I want you to handle it. That might help them a little. You'll need to be strong for them, buddy.
"I hate laying this on you, but Brian's not up to it, and Teddy, well, I don't see Teddy hanging around long enough to be of any use. He's an independent sort. With the number of guys we're sending over there, we should kick butt within a year or less. That means you'll stay clear of Vietnam. At least I hope so. You're my most levelheaded brother. I know you'll follow my orders. Got it squirt?
"I love you brother. I hope to see you again one day."
Ivan folded the letter before putting his arm over my shoulders. The letter upset me so much I was shaking.
"He'll be OK,' Ivan said.
I couldn't speak for fear I'd burst into tears.
"Boris is going," Ivan said, after sitting close to me for a few minutes.
He looked out at the Gulf of Mexico and said nothing more.
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