The Gulf Between Us
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Jerry W.
Editor: Jerry W.
Turn, Turn, Turn
Nothing changed for Ivan and me. After trying to leave each other alone for long enough to get some sleep, we got up to go to school together each Monday morning. On Friday we went fishing together after school, returning home Sunday so we could spend some quality time together, before going to my house for Sunday supper. We had it good but we understood that there were storm clouds gathering around our peaceful world.
We continued going to dinner at least twice a week and some times more. We stayed for cards once dinner was done. Lucy put her hurt feelings behind her and was always happy to see us.
Our lives were a routine that didn't have a downside. A little less school would have been coo. We couldn't be together all the time. A good way to screw up a good thing would be to do something that had the school calling my house. That would get my father on the radio calling me.
Not having a worry in the world was a good thing. We saw no future in creating problems. We were trusted to do the things we were responsible to do and we happily went to school together. There were still a few things I didn't know.
That's not to say I hadn't begun to worry about my brother, John-Henry. He hadn't left South Carolina yet, but what Ivan read me, while we sat on the deck in the afternoons, wasn't good.
I had no doubt we could crush the relatively small country of Vietnam and not break a sweat. I'd looked on a map of the world at Vietnam and the United States. It was mostly jungle and they were mostly peasants. Being the most powerful country in the history of the world should count for something. If those people looked at a map and knew of our power, certainly they'd surrender.
It took two bombs to subdue Japan, more of a formidable military power than one half of Vietnam. The rational for dropping The Bomb was to prevent us from taking tens of thousands of casualties invading Japan. To keep from taking tens of thousands of casualties in Vietnam, shouldn't we follow the same logic and get it over with?
John-Henry leading a charge to take out a machine gun nest wasn't necessary these days. We could blow that machine gun nest and half the country off the face of the earth and John-Henry and a lot of other boys could come home.
As my mind worked out how to best get the war over with in a hurry, Ivan was talking to me. It took a second for me to switch into listening mode.
"Go down to Florida and read name six for last month," Ivan said, handing me the magazine he was reading from.
"I'm in Florida," I said.
"Last month's war dead is listed by state. Name six, Florida."
I ran my finger down the list of states, trying to remember his instructions. I stopped at Florida and counted down to the sixth and last name on the list.
"J. Purdy 7/9/48. Who is J. Purdy?" I asked.
"Green teeth? Nasty grin? Sadistic guy from the rope swing the summer we met? He wouldn't be nineteen until July."
"Purdy!" I said. "He died over there?"
"I can't prove it's him but how many J. Purdys are there that age from here?"
I could feel Purdy's steely grip on my arm. I recalled his acrid breath in my face and resisted the urge to recoil. I remembered the way he manhandled me, as my mind passed over my only memory of the late J. Purdy.
I didn't know anyone who died before. Teenagers didn't die in large numbers in my experience. I resisted any idea this might make me feel good. It didn't, although I didn't know how many people might never experience Purdy's bullying ways.
I handed back the magazine as Ivan studied my face. He could see the news didn't delight me.
"You read all the names of the guys who die?" I asked.
"No, but it would be a good idea for the politicians to be forced to read each name of the boys they kill at least once each month. I doubt they have consciences, but you never know. I read the Florida list because I might know someone. Now I do."
"Isn't it better not to know? I don't feel very good about Purdy dying."
"Good! I'd be disappointed in you if you did. I didn't think you would think much of it."
"Just proves guys everywhere are dying over there," I said. "I don't like thinking of anyone dying."
"Or anything," Ivan added.
"'War is hell,' a great general once said. He was burning down a plantation at the time during the Civil War," Ivan said. "I think it was in the Civil War and that general made it seem like hell for anyone alive in the South at the time. Until then, until Gen. Sherman, war didn't involve the civilians any more than necessary. He went out of his way to make the civilians suffer. Just your average guy with too much power and time on his hands."
I didn't know much about war. I was born during the baby boom in 1950, after World War II. There was the Korean conflict right after I was born. That one lasted three years. We had been virtually war free for the entire span of my memory, until that Gulf of Tonkin deal when I was fourteen. We were trying to be peaceful.
"That was a hundred years ago," I said, after thinking it over.
"Yeah, except for the Spanish American War, the Boxer Rebellion, the Mexican War, and World War I, we've hardly had war since."
"Boxer Rebellion? That's the one with Ali being a draft resister?"
"No, that was the Chinese one in 1905," Ivan explained.
"Oh!" I said. "Chinese? We fought the Chinese?"
"Yes. We didn't fight China, as in the country of China, but we were fighting the Chinese. It was a British protectorate then. We were just being helpful to the Brits, our allies."
"The British? The guys we fought in the revolution?"
"Yeah, those British," Ivan said.
"Now we're fighting the Vietnamese but not Vietnam?" I asked, trying to get my wars straight. "Which the French protected."
"We are fighting the Vietnamese from North Vietnam," he said. "They defeated the French and got rid of them before we showed up."
"And that gets us back to the Civil War, North versus South?" I said.
"We fought that here. We were fighting each other."
I sat and thought and tried to remember the list.
"There was that little invasion of Russia in 1918," Ivan added.
"What invasion of Russia?" I wanted to know.
"The Allies invaded Russia. We were one of those and were on the side of the White Russians, but the Reds won the Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks took over. We wanted to prevent them or the Japanese from getting the military supplies. They didn't control all of the country, because we helped hold some of it."
"Russia and Japan?" I said. "We invaded Russia? That might explain why they're so pissy with us. I don't remember reading a thing in history class on that. Wouldn't that be important in explaining our hostilities with the Russians? That invasion thing sounds important. Maybe a list of who we haven't invaded would be shorter?"
"We invaded Vladivostok where a lot of World War I military supplies were stored. We didn't know the Reds would win. It was more an Allied decision to secure the weapons."
"Vladivostok?" I said. "Didn't we think that invading a country like Russia might come back to bite us later?"
"If they think about this stuff, they don't admit it," Ivan said. "Some general gets the idea and how do you say no? He's thinking about his next star. Stars come from taking action."
"Could explain the Russians not trusting us? A little invasion in our past we haven't gotten around to writing into history. That was only fifty years ago."
"It was complicated and we get back to war being hell. There are always unexpected consequences. People won't read history books if you make it too depressing."
"Like the Cold War is a consequence of invading Russia. History is how you learn stuff. I'm not depressed by the facts. How do you know all this stuff, Ivan?"
"I read books. My grandfather studied history, especially the Soviet Union. When he fished, he read during the lulls. All his books on history are in the house. You're welcome to read them. It's what I do when you aren't here. I like to read. I like history."
"I'm hardly ever at my house without you these days," I said.
"Yeah, no telling who we've invaded that I don't know about."
"OK, we're getting somewhere. Why are we in Vietnam? We both have a brother heading that way," I said. "What are we after?"
"I have no idea. Vietnam is near China, as Korea is near China. China as in Communist. It's a reach. Then consider we invaded Russia. How vital was Russia to us? We want things the way we want them. When they aren't the way we like, we fight. That's all I know."
"Who decides this stuff? Do they read history?" I asked.
"No one knows who and they write the history," Ivan said.
All that aside, as much as I disliked Purdy, I never wished him dead, but I didn't need to. He was dead. I thought of how my mother invoked God's wrath to punish sinners. If I inadvertently condemned Purdy to eternal damnation, I didn't remember it, but I don't think I did. I don't recall ever wishing someone dead.
We lived incredibly simple lives. The upheaval came from outside influences. I had a brother ready to ship out to Vietnam. Ivan had a brother getting ready to go to boot camp before he'd ship out. Ivan was closer to his brother than I was to mine, but there were only the two of them. I had spare brothers if I lost one.
John-Henry was about to turn twenty-one. He wasn't old enough to vote or drink. He wasn't so young he couldn't go to war. Boris wasn't close to being old enough to vote or drink, but they were the proper age to learn to kill.
The idea that boys younger than both John-Henry or Boris were coming home in boxes by the thousands scared me. Sitting at a table full of food with my family and my lover didn't make the war seem real. The boxes with the bodies did.
Being comfortable wasn't right when we were at war.
This was a period when the war was not discussed at the Olson table. When a letter came from John-Henry, it was read after dinner and before we left the table. By all indications my brother was fine. He was the leader of his rifle squad. I didn't find that hard to believe. He claimed the soldiers were good dependable fellows. In other words, they were like John-Henry, regular guys.
Boris wasn't drafted. He joined the army. He had a date when he reported for boot camp. He didn't mind going to Vietnam. As a foot soldier, that's where he'd be going. Before he left for the army, Boris was coming to spend two weeks with us.
He was going fishing with his father, his brother, his brother's lover, and Kenny. Mr. Aleksa wasn't happy about Boris' decision to join the military without talking to him about it. There would be no sport fishing.
Under the circumstances, I didn't know how Ivan would act. It was obvious he didn't think much of the war. It was a poor use of resources, especially brothers.
The idea Boris was going because he wanted to go didn't strike me as good planning for his future. I didn't know much and kept my opinions to myself. Ivan and Boris had to deal with it in their own way.
It was sunny and in the seventies when Boris arrived on Wednesday afternoon. His car was parked in the driveway when we came home from school.
"Hi, Clay," he said, hugging and kissing me when I came into the kitchen.
He hugged and kissed Ivan, who came in right behind me. Boris had been swimming and wasn't wearing anything. He remained nice scenery, but I'd resolved sexual attraction and my love for Ivan not being in the same ballpark. I could appreciate Boris and not want to jump his bones because I loved Ivan. I trusted him to do the same.
Ivan took a good look at Boris once the embrace ended.
"Why are you doing this, Boris? The war is bogus."
"Yeah, but the ladies love a guy in uniform."
"You'll be in the middle of an army of men in uniform. How will the ladies know which one is you if any uniform will do?"
"I thought I might make the military my career. I don't see myself as a fisherman. Got to do something, little brother."
"Being a target doesn't sound like much of a career choice."
Boris' reaction to this told me he hadn't thought of it that way. Death wouldn't look good on him in or out of uniform.
"I thought we could have fun. Spring break is next week. You guys won't be in school and our mother won't be a problem."
"Cool," Ivan said. "Whatever you like. We go out with Dad on Friday and come back Sunday. The rest of the time is yours."
"Sunday, once we're back, we eat at my house," I said.
"Cool," Boris said. "I can dig it. I don't get much home cooking. Eating out all the time is a drag."
We started out swimming and Ivan and Boris shot baskets at the side of the house. I stood under the basket and threw the ball back to them. Boris wasn't bad but Ivan was on his game and rarely missed.
When we went back into the house, I radioed my house and was surprised to get Lucy.
"It's me, Clay," she said.
"Hi, Lucy. Boris is here. Ask Mama if we have enough for an extra plate tonight. We'd like to come down for dinner if it's OK."
"You kidding?" Lucy said. "No one's here but Mama, Daddy, and me. Mama cooks for a small army. There'll be plenty. Boris is cute. Can I have him?"
Boris leaned around me to press his finger on top of mine to speak.
"You're cute too, Luce," Boris said. "I'm all yours."
Lucy screamed and disappeared from the radio.
"I think that means we can come to dinner tonight if you like."
Mama wouldn't run out of food, but I wanted to warn her.
Brian went with the truck driver who wanted to teach him to drive a big rig. He'd gone with him before. When the freight slowed down, he had to let Brian go. It was the first time Brian showed any interest in anything but football.
Mama and Pop were delighted to see the three of us. It doubled the people eating and they'd avoid eating leftovers from that nights dinner. Anything that was left went home with us.
The Canasta game after dinner was all out war and Lucy came out on top two games out of three.
Mama served us cherry cobbler during the card game. It was heavenly. She got a good buy on cherries at Piggly Wiggly. We got to eat the results of her preparing what she found. We got a cherry pie as a parting gift.
While a good time was had by all, I went home to sleep between Ivan and Boris. I knew it was going to be a long night. Each time I fell asleep, one or the other of them rolled up against me and I was wide awake again. Luckily the good food and hot card games tired them both out and they slept.
It was too chilly to sit on the deck.
Boris planned to stay for two weeks and I wasn't sure I could survive two weeks of sleeping between them. I disliked being away from Ivan and I made up my mind to endure the hardship of being too aroused to sleep. If I slept on my stomach I was asking for trouble and if I slept on my back the evidence was hard to miss.
Going on the boat Friday meant the bunks were singles and we mostly fell asleep on deck after a hard day's work. By April the weather was quite warm and the nights were slow to cool off on the water. The breeze on deck at night was usually pleasant. I often fell asleep leaning back against the bridge, after we pulled the nets and got the fish in the holds for that evening..
Boris and Kenny picked up where they left off. Kenny had just about finished maturing. He was strong and almost as well built as Boris but he had no life beyond the boat. He always perked up when Boris was on the boat. They really liked each other.
When I asked Kenny about being drafted, he shrugged and said, "They don't know I exist. They won't bother me."
He was right. There were two occasions when illegals were rounded up on the fishing boats. The INS would catch four or five heavily accented men without papers, and they were happy as clams.
Kenny waved as they came onto the dock to search the boats. He was a big redheaded boy with no accent. No one asked him for his papers or his draft card. If they came on the Vilnius Two, Kenny helped them search, showing them good hiding places, while he was hiding in plain sight.
No one asked why a strong young boy like him wasn't in a nice uniform doing his duty for his country. I was glad Kenny was safe. He had security Ivan and I didn't have, but I wasn't seventeen yet.
The draft was designed to catch enough people to fight the wars. It wasn't designed to catch everyone or to treat everyone as equals. Poor men watched their sons go off to Vietnam. Rich men watched their sons go off to Harvard and Yale.
The Vilnius Two was a safe port in the storm. Only American citizens walked its decks. The INS didn't care about their draft status. That was another agency's job.
The captain of the boat wasn't happy. The last time his oldest son sailed with him, hopes of him becoming a fisherman were dashed. Now Boris was putting his life on the line.
Mr. Aleksa stated his objection to his son's service in the occupation of another country. He brooded over the prospect. Heavy lines appeared on what had been a worry free face.
The first time Boris came on the boat, I saw happiness on Mr. Aleksa's face. It didn't last long but it was a new emotion for a man who didn't display much in the way pf emotion. This time there was no happiness. Even neutrality would have been easier to see.
The son his wife took from him was now making the first decision as a man and his father considered it a bad decision.
Mr. Aleksa loved his new country and the freedom it offered but he was no friend of the war. He remembered the Soviet troops in Vilnius as a boy. They were there to make sure no one gave the Lithuanian people trouble. The Soviets cornered the market on that.
Mr. Aleksa knew what being occupied meant. When his father sailed away from Lithuania and out of the Soviets' grasp, the Aleksas rejoiced. His family was free. Mr. Aleksa, being of age, faced conscription into the Soviet military. This was one of the primary reasons for leaving Lithuanian. His father didn't want his son to participate in the occupation of another people.
His son becoming part of the oppression of people reminded him of his youth, when the Soviet troops kept an eye on him.
For me it was simpler. Teddy authored my feelings. Killing people is wrong. No matter what reason you give. I didn't need to think about this. I was innately opposed to the killing of human beings.
if you go ten thousand miles to do your killing, you're on a fool's errand, often sent by fools. If you're invading another man's country, the fellow will defend it, as we'd defend our land against invaders.
Teenagers are taught to obey. High school is all about regimentation, obedience, and keeping good order if you hope to receive good reports. We were just right for the war machine.
I wanted to live and let live. I belonged to a group that might be small or large. There was no way for me to know, unless you were homosexual and unable to hide it well enough. Whether hidden or exposed, there was rejection, and violence, and a guarantee of tough sledding ahead. We were not welcome here and that was no secret.
I may not have been all that smart, but I was smart enough to know what to keep to myself. Both my feelings for Ivan and my feelings about the war weren't to be shared. Both were dangerous around the wrong people.
It wasn't a question of being a good American. I wanted to be true to who I was. I wouldn't be associated with anyone who denied my right to exist. I did exist in spite of their denial.
I thought about Mohammed Ali and his words. He belonged to a group that people didn't like. There was no justification for such hatred. It was too much power put into the wrong hands that abused that power to make life miserable for people like Ali.
Ali wasn't going to go to Vietnam to kill people who had never done anything to him. People in his own country had done plenty of harm to him. He refused to do harm to others. I liked his approach.
I would refuse to be part of the destruction, the hate, or the violence. I may not have known these things when I arrived in Florida, but I was aware of what I felt now. I was determined not to become part of the destruction of living things
The amount of fish a boat like the Vilnius Two took out of the sea was negligible. What I saw while taking those fish was an education I didn't know how to use. The idea that some creatures that came out of the nets I only saw once worried me. Were they once plentiful and now they were so few that I saw one in my lifetime?
Questions accompanied my enjoyment of being on the sea. This was freedom at its best. Being out in the Gulf of Mexico gave me a feeling for the size of the universe. In Tulsa everything was rather similar and my world was small. I couldn't see beyond my block.
On the gulf there were no boundaries. As the sun set in the west, I could see it and the sea it set into. We could sail two days straight and never reach the spot the sun was lighting on the horizon.
I didn't think fishing, the time on the boat, and my love of the sea were leading me somewhere I couldn't see. There were many changes on the horizon, but then, when Boris came to sail out of the cove with us the second time, I was going fishing, as I did often.
There was no way to know how much would change in the next three years. Everything had changed in remarkable ways in the last three years. I was aware of much more about life. I was more involved in my life than I'd ever been.
When we sailed with Boris aboard, the work was the same. He may have changed the mood but not the mission. We'd fish, fill our holds, and return to the cove.
None of us knew it was Boris' last trip on the Vilnius Two.
Ivan and Boris were fine together. There was no rancor of any kind. They acted even more like brothers the second time I saw them together. The brothers Aleksa were at peace with each other. Did they sense the coming separation would last for a long long time?
It was good to see them together. I didn't feel slighted because Ivan spent more time with Boris than he spent with me on this trip. Boris was joining the army. We were at war. They didn't know when they'd see each other again. None of us knew the future.
Mama packed her usual picnic basket of goodies for our journey. There was something everyone liked. The freshness of the taste delights made eating a nice experience in the sameness of the sea. Even with Boris on board, or maybe because he was on board, we did well and came close to filling four of the six holds.
On the way to the fish warehouse on Sunday, Boris separated from Ivan and spent the entire four hour journey with his father on the bridge. I have no idea what they spoke of but Mr. Aleksa looked better once we docked.
We went for pizza and to take care of Kenny's needs for the next week before returning to the house next to the river. Mr. Aleksa sat with us at the kitchen table for a while, and we finished what was left of the three pizzas we'd ordered. We went to work on the soda too.
Then it was time to get ready to go to my house for dinner.
Boris was the first one ready to go.
Mama was thrilled that we came to dinner, but we almost always did on Sunday. Lucy was happy to have card players.
Brian had returned from his latest trip with Mr. Anderson and there was talk of him getting his trucker's license so he could take turns with the driving. For the first time in his life Brian had a career path in place. He seemed happy. None of us could find anything to criticize him about.
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