The Gulf Between Us
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Jerry W.
Editor: Jerry W.
On my birthday, two days after school let out, Ivan and I were sitting on his deck. Mama was going to do cake and ice cream after dinner, but I asked for no more than that. Seventeen was as good as sixteen to me. They felt a lot alike.
I didn't want or need anything. My life was very good as long as I was with Ivan. Mama told me Lucy was churning the strawberry ice cream with a ton of fresh strawberries. A labor of love for her brother. I was looking forward to being with what was left of my family. Everyone was gone but the four of us.
Just when you think you've got it all, something happens to prove you don't. Ivan and I were chatting about what he had planned once we came home from the conservancy house.
It was then I found myself watching someone strolling up the beach. I knew who it looked like but it couldn't be him. He was hundreds of miles away, but it was him, John-Henry Olson.
At first I waited to make certain Ivan saw him. I'd been thinking about him a lot lately. I watched him come to the back of the house and stand under the deck. Ivan was looking right at him. He must have been there or Ivan would have been looking at him.
"Hey, little brother. Ivan. I came by to wish Clay a happy birthday. Happy birthday, little brother."
"What are you doing here?" I asked, halfway between excitement and disbelief.
After his letter to me, I wasn't sure I'd see my brother again.
"Couldn't find a card I liked. I decided this might do," he said.
But by that time I was on my way down the stairs. I came out of the kitchen on the run and I got him in a bear hug. He was startled by my enthusiasm for a few seconds. My brother and I met eye to eye for the first time. I didn't remembered not looking up to meet his eyes with mine. I didn't recall being that happy to see one of my brothers. I was glad to see him. He'd given me my best gift.
"It's good to see you too, Clay. I can honestly say, I've never seen quite so much of you."
It was then I realized I wasn't wearing anything. Ordinarily I was very conscious of being naked around anyone but Ivan. I passed right through embarrassment and went to explaining myself.
"Oh, it's just more comfortable not sitting around in clothes and we were about to go swimming and...," I thought sounded good.
"You don't need to explain it to me, Clay. It's Florida," he said with a smile. "You've grown up. I've never noticed you were growing up. You're almost as tall as me."
"Really!" I said. "You think so?"
"Really. I remember when they brought you home the first time."
"John-Henry," Ivan said, stopping beside me.
"Hi, Ivan. You taking care of my brother for me?"
"Sure am. We take care of each other. Keeps us out of trouble."
"I think Brian wanted to smash you because you cried so much, but Mama restrained him. Then he thought you'd make a neat football. Mama had her hands full after you came home."
"I don't remember any of that," I said. "Nothing would surprise me about Brian. Did Mama say where he is this week?"
"Albuquerque, New Mexico," he said. "She said he called last night from there."
"'I knew I should have made that left toin in Albuquerque," I said in Bugs Bunnies voice, munching on my imaginary carrot.
"What?" he said.
"Bugs Bunny. He comes up in China and takes a look around, chomps on his carrot, and says, "I knew I should have made that left toin in Albuquerque."
"Oh," John-Henry said. "Let's go swimming. I've been home a half hour and haven't been in the water yet. I can't wait."
"You don't have anyone to see, John-Henry. None of your girlfriends waiting by their phones for your call?"
"The only one I had to see was my little brother. I've got thirty days before we ship. Plenty of time to make the rounds. No one I want waiting for me, Clay. It's easier to leave things as they are."
"Yeah," I said, and John-Henry stripped out of his clothes to go swimming with us.
His face and arms were deeply tanned, which wasn't unusual since he worked on the beach, but the rest of him was four or five shades lighter. There hadn't been any sun on his body since February. By June his tan had faded.
I don't recall us swimming together since we'd arrived in Florida. He used to swim behind the house after dinner some nights, but I didn't swim with my older brothers. It would mean being dunked a lot more frequently than I liked. There was no dunking this time around. John-Henry seemed to savor being back in the gulf.
My birthday was turning out to be pretty good. No one expected John-Henry to make an appearance. The only sad part was Teddy wouldn't be able to visit.
The FBI would know John-Henry was home. They'd expect Teddy to visit his oldest brother, but Teddy was a bit more clever than that. They came up empty again.
The first week John-Henry was home, I didn't go fishing. Mr. Aleksa knew from Pop that I wouldn't be working. I'd once have been reluctant to be separated from Ivan for three days. I don't think we'd been three days without seeing each other since we met, except maybe when he went to his mother's the first year, when he had to stay until she was good and ready to bring him back.
This time it was John-Henry I didn't want to leave. Being seventeen may have had something to do with my appreciation for my family. I had it good. I had the freedom I required. I no longer felt stifled at the conservancy house. It was nice being home.
The dread I felt when Ivan and I were separated had passed. I no longer felt we'd never be together again, when we were apart. I felt secure being with Ivan. I felt secure when I wasn't with him.
I did fear I might not get to spend this amount of time with my oldest brother again. There was a good reason I felt that way. The letter he sent me woke me up to the truth about what he was about to do. He was aware of the danger. He made me aware of it.
When I got that letter, I didn't want to think about my brother dying. He had trusted me to take care of the arrangements if he did die. His trust made me realize I needed to do what he asked. I understood that it was to make it easier on Mama and Pop. John-Henry asking me to do it had me feeling more mature.
Pop and Mr. Aleksa embarked on a conspiracy to deny our government the pound of flesh they wanted. While I became aware of it once I joined the conspiracy, it was never mentioned to me or anyone else. The conspiracy was obvious to me as it unfolded. We were all involved without knowing it. The conspiracy was silent.
The following Friday with Pop bringing Brian and John-Henry to the dock. They sailed with us on the Vilnius Two. At first I assumed they were going fishing with us. No one told me that was the case.
We sailed out of the cove as we did each Friday. None of us were any the wiser. Mr. Aleksa welcomed my brothers aboard and that was that. My brothers hadn't expressed an interest in what I did and it crossed my mind, we might not be going fishing.
That's as far as I got, but I knew within the hour that something was up. I didn't ask what. A deckhand doesn't question the captain of the boat. If he wants you to know something, he'll tells you.
I was content to let the trip unfold. I trusted that whatever Mr. Aleksa was up to was fine. Neither John-Henry nor Brian dressed for fishing. I was instructed to wear jeans and a long sleeve shirt. That didn't add up to much.
I felt like a character in someone else's play. It was awkward as we sailed west out of the cove, turning south once we could no longer see the shore. Mr. Aleksa came off the bridge several times to scan the horizon. He usually didn't leave the bridge until we reached the fishing grounds.
Mr. Aleksa continued leaving the controls to scan the horizon as we went south at our usual cruising speed. He hadn't spoken since he welcomed us aboard, but he was more intense than usual. What was he looking for?
We'd usually change our course to the southwest an hour or so after leaving the cove. This time he turned directly south. We were following the coastline. I thought of the Keys and disregarded them as unproductive fishing grounds. The best fishing was to the southwest. I didn't know what Mr. Aleksa knew. He drove the boat.
We maintained our course for an hour or so. Then Mr. Aleksa turned us back to the east. We were heading for the coast. In only a few minutes it came back into view. I knew it would.
I was still in the dark. We sat around the deck saying nothing. If John-Henry or Brian knew something, they didn't let on. Pop told them what to do and they were doing it. He hadn't told me anything but what to wear, which I thought was odd.
I was confused but I knew better than to question the captain. I had a distinct feeling that if I questioned Mr. Aleksa, he'd have told me that I'd find out when it was time. A few hundred yards from shore the engines went silent.
Mr. Aleksa came off the bridge and went up top with binoculars. He scanned the sea for several minutes and then came back down.
"Get the raft, Kenny," he said.
Kenny brought a rubber package out of the galley. He took off the cords holding it together and opened the valve to inflate it. A four man life raft sprang open on the deck, filling with air.
"Okay, here's my flare gun. Once you get into the cove and find what you're looking for, fire it directly toward the boat. Do not, I repeat, do not fire the flare into the air. I don't think anyone is watching us, but if they are, that flare will tell them your location. Fire it along the surface, Clay, and I'll see it as soon as it leaves the cove."
"What do we do in the cove," I asked, not enjoying the mystery.
"I don't know. Your father gave me these coordinates. He told me there would be a cove, which is right there. He provided the life raft and said that the three of you were to take the raft into the cove. Once you find what you're looking for and fire the flare, Ivan, Kenny, and I will go about our merry way. Noon Sunday I'll be right here waiting for you to come back out of the cove. That's all I know. I have followed your father's instructions. I suggest you do the same."
I had my suspicions but I kept my mouth shut to mirror Mr. Aleksa's posture. John-Henry and Brian asked no questions about the nature of our excursion. They got in the life raft.
For all the exploring I'd done, I'd never seen a landscape like the one we were facing. I knew by the distance we'd traveled and by the density of the vegetation, we were in the Everglades.
As we got inside the cove, Teddy was standing on a point of land directly ahead of us. I wasn't surprised. I'd eliminated most other considerations. The fact Pop and Mr. Aleksa cooked it up seemed to point in his direction, but I wasn't sure what we were doing here.
We jumped out of the raft and hugged our brother. Tears streamed down Teddy's face. He too had a greater appreciation for the family he'd been separated from for the first time in his life.
I remembered the flare gun and I fired it at the mouth of the cove so it went in the direction of the Vilnius Two and stayed about three feet off the water. I listened for the engines to start before going back to the reunion.
I was choked up and firing the flare got my emotions under control. Having my brothers together again made me feel good. Teddy couldn't stop crying. He hadn't seen any of his family since he moved into the anti-war underground. He'd always been independent. His display of emotion betrayed his deep feelings for us. We hadn't seen this side of him before. Teddy kept his feelings hidden until now.
I was filled with emotion. I couldn't recall being that happy to be with my brothers. Being separated strengthened the loose bond we shared growing up. We'd all matured and were meeting on equal ground for the first time. The Olson boys had grown up.
Teddy had a place where we could stash the raft out of sight. If we'd been followed they'd have to work to find us. We were so busy talking that we never looked back at the mouth of the cove.
Walking along the bank, it narrowed to a point where we hardly had enough room to put our feet. At some point we followed Teddy into the underbrush. I couldn't see a foot in front of me. We had to protect our faces with our hands, but in a few dozen yards we broke out onto a well worn path.
It ended up at a substantial clearing surrounded by what I'd describe as a jungle. We might have been a mile from the cove. It could have been ten feet on the other side of the undergrowth.
"I'm the head gardener. I grow our food here and in three other places within a half hour's walk. We only stay here, our base camp, when we are expecting supplies or in this case, a visit. This way if we are discovered, they find this camp and don't look for more."
"You'd be hard to track," John-Henry said.
"That's the idea. There are eleven of us at the moment, not counting you guys. Some are here with me and the rest are at our secondary camp where we actually live. If things don't look or sound right, we move to the backup camp, which is deeper in the Glades."
"You all draft dodgers?" Brian asked.
"There are three draft resisters counting me. There are five girls and six men at present. Two of the men have been in Vietnam. One deserted the day he got back to the States from Vietnam. I've asked him to talk to you, John-Henry. He was there. He knows what it's like. He calls himself an anti-war veteran.
"Taylor has a written history of the French and now American involvement in Vietnam. He's agreed to talk to you and let you read his written history. He travels to wherever draft resisters gather. He's a smart dude, but you'll find out. He's involved in an anti-war underground that has safe houses and information to help young men who refuse to kill because someone says they want them to do it."
"Cool," John-Henry said. "I'm not resisting anything, Teddy. I'm going. I won't break the law."
"I know that John-Henry. You don't have to tell me where you stand. It's why I went to Pop. I asked for the meeting with you. He understood why. I don't want my brother walking into danger without knowing what he's facing.
"The army isn't interested in telling you the truth, if they're even aware of the truth. Pop said he'd arrange for the meeting. He saw the wisdom in it. I wasn't expecting all my brothers," Teddy said. "But I'm happy to see you."
"I want all the information your friend has. I'd like to talk to a man who has been there," John-Henry said.
"You just said more than I think I've ever heard you say, Teddy," I said.
"I didn't have anything to say then, Clay. I do now."
"You're going to tell John-Henry about the army and war?" Brian said without believing it. "Teddy, you're a trip. You been smoking that whacky weed?"
"I can't tell John-Henry anything, but there are people here who can. I've read the history of Vietnam and French Indochina. It's an eye opening read. I thought John-Henry should read it."
"I appreciate your concern for me, Teddy. I've worried about you. Guys came and asked me where you were. Called me out of ranks one morning. Put me in an office with two guys who didn't say who they were. They were looking for you. I told them you were at the house when I left for boot camp. They spent a couple of hours insisting I tell them your whereabouts. Persistent fellows."
"Crew cuts, aviator glasses, in suits with super skinny ties?" I asked.
"Yeah, you saw them?" John-Henry asked.
"FBI. You'll see them again while you're here. They sit on the road near the end of our driveway from time to time," I said.
"Good luck with that one. To be honest with you, I don't know where I am. Mr. Aleksa was told to destroy the compass settings for the cove once he starts back with you guys Sunday. I got them from Henry. He set up this camp and brings the supplies. He says there are dozens of coves like this along this section of coastline."
"I don't even want to know where I am," I said. "The FBI has been to the house. They follow us sometimes. When I'm going out with Mr. Aleksa, they're parked just up the highway from our driveway some days. I suppose they figure you'll drop by one day and walk right into their hands."
"I'd never go to the house by road. Did they notice the Gulf of Mexico sits out our backdoor?" Teddy asked. "They need more agents."
"No, Pop made them stand at the front door. He wasn't about to let them into his house. Not when they wanted one of his sons."
"Good for him," John-Henry said. "Pop would invite a stranger into his house for a cup of coffee."
We laughed over how friendly Pop was to everyone.
"They are strange," I said. "I wonder if they know how dumb they look dressed like the Bopsy-Twins."
"They think we're all stupid," Teddy said. "I'd never put Mama or Pop in jeopardy by going to the house. I planned to resist the war long before I was eighteen. I made contacts with the anti-war underground a year ago. They advised me and told me when it was time to disappear. They brought me here, after offering me a ticket to Canada and an introduction to the underground there."
"Sounds well organized," John-Henry said.
"They have a network of people who are determined to stop the war, John-Henry. They will be flooding Washington D. C. later this year. They intend to begin turning up the heat on the war machine," Teddy said. "Taylor says they are currently organizing Vietnam Veterans Against the War. These guys have been over there. They didn't like what they saw."
"Your peace and love crowd is going to be smashed," Brian said. "They ain't going to let a bunch of hippies upset the apple cart. This is America. We go where we want to go. We take no shit off anyone."
"That ought to make you feel better, John-Henry. Brian always has his mind on the pulse of America."
"I'm here to listen, Teddy. I don't know anything about Vietnam."
"The anti-war network is funded and organized by people a lot smarter than me. They don't think war is the answer in order to creating a peaceful world."
"Sounds self-evident," I said.
"Exactly! We are at war because someone, not the people, want this war. I've hear nothing that would make me want to fight. The people don't like their kids going over there to die for a slogan. It'll take time and we'll need to shed some blood to turn off the war machine. but the plan is to end this war."
"You're willing to fight to stop the war but not fight the war," John-Henry said.
"I am fighting the war right now. My only weapon is my feet. I refused to go. The organized opposition is just getting a foothold in this conversation. We are the people. We intend to make our voice heard. Our government is out of control. They've offered us no reason why we should go to Vietnam to kill Vietnamese, except they say so."
"I hope I live to see it," John-Henry said. "I don't like war."
That thought worked its way around the Olson boys.
"We're citizens of this country. It's our duty to go and fight when our government tells us to," Brian said. "It's always been that way."
"It's your duty to think about what your government is asking you to do and see if perhaps they've gone off the rails."
Even four brothers stood on every side of the war. John-Henry didn't know how to be honorable and do something other than go where he was told to go. Teddy dropped out and I would too if it came to that. Brian wanted to go to fight the Commies.
We met the people in camp. We ate their food and had short conversations. It wasn't much different than meeting people anywhere. It was a bit awkward with curiosity on the side.
Teddy showed us the supply tent. Everything was elevated under canvas and in big bags. There were beans, rice, flour, sugar, coffee, and some boxed and packaged goods you'd find in any kitchen. They had plenty of food and that's before I saw Teddy's garden. I could tell he took a lot of pride in the variety of food he grew.
The garden was full of vegetables. The tomatoes were ripening and peppers and green beans were ready to pick. The berries and fruit could be picked and eaten while you walked.
Mama would have had a field day in Teddy's garden.
We caught up on each other's lives after eating beans, rice, and a raspberry apple mixture. The people were OK. The guys had long hair. My hair was short from school. It would be as long as Teddy's by summer's end.
A tall thin boy in a fatigue shirt sat down with us. On his shirt was stenciled Taylor. offering us a drink from a bottle he carried, he sat among us. I thought of Indians with their peace pipe.
As tradition would dictate, we each took a swig from the bottle as he passed it around. The liquid had a kick. One swig was enough.
John-Henry drank with Taylor, who was polite and said nothing outrageous. I'm not sure what I expected but the bespectacled thin lad wasn't it. He was clean with short hair and he spoke in a manner that made me think he knew what he was talking about.
Once he'd grown accustomed to being among us, he moved close to John-Henry and spoke in a confidential voice, but I heard every word. Since we hadn't exchanged names, instinct told him who to direct his comments to. Once he began talking, he didn't stop.
He didn't tell John-Henry about the war. He talked about what he'd seen and the people he met. He described experiences he had while "in-country and he'd been there over eleven months."
Taylor knew where John-Henry would enter Vietnam and told him what to expect as the company he trained with was disassembled to resupply whatever rifle squad was short handed. It didn't take a genius to figure out how they came to be short of men.
This was a point Taylor emphasized. He told John-Henry that no matter where he was inserted, he needed to make friends fast. It was the new guy who died before he could learn the ropes.
The men with experience didn't get close to 'new meat.' They had a habit of dying fastest, before they knew enough to stay alive.
I listened closely because I wanted to hear what Taylor said. I wanted to be able to tell Ivan when he asked, 'What did he say?"
Taylor spoke about the Vietnamese. They weren't gooks, VC, slopes, or Charlie. He called them by name. He was befriended by Lam and Li, who came on base to take care of the soldiers.
Taylor was stationed at Da Nang. Besides a little mortar fire, he was rarely close to the fighting. He'd met the families of Lam and Li.
It took six months for him to receive the invitation. Most soldiers treated the Vietnamese like they were the foreigners. Taylor didn't doubt that both men were VC. At night they helped in the effort to expel the invaders of their country.
"They didn't tell me they were VC but they were too polite and cool not to be. They showed none of the nervousness most locals showed around the soldiers. My interest in their traditions and customs won them over. They could tell I sincerely wanted to know them as people. I never treated them like servants."
Then he leaned close to John-Henry and spoke more softly, "One day Lam brought my laundry. He waited until there was no one in earshot. He was dusting next to where I sat and he'd never done that before. He warned me to stay on the base that evening. I asked him why. He said, 'bad idea today.' I told a sergeant who I knew to be a big mouth. 'I've heard there will be trouble off base today. Might want to stay close, Sgt.'"
"He warned you?" I asked.
"He did. There was only one way he'd know there would be trouble around the local spots where soldiers went. He wanted to keep me safe. He knew I'd know he was VC but he wasn't my enemy. After the bombings the Sgt. wanted to know how I knew. I said I'd heard it from someone in the barracks. So I may owe my life to Lam. He knew I ate at a local place in the evening."
"At night men like Lam," Taylor said in a soft voice, "Put on their black pajamas, the uniform of the Viet Cong, and went about undermining the American war effort. You could never tell which of the handsome polite people might be out in the shadows with their AK-47, waiting for an opportunity to rid their country of an American."
"So they don't hate us?" John-Henry inquired.
"They are gentle people. After the warning, Lam invited me to eat at his house. Li was there with his wife. Lam had a pretty wife and three beautiful kids and an AK-47 in the corner. We'd declared a truce and never talked about the war."
"That's amazing," I said. "You were breaking the rules."
"The first job I have is to educate myself. I ate with Lam because he was my friend. He invited me to eat with me because I was his friend. We weren't at war and my country saying I was didn't matter."
"Will I meet people like him?" John-Henry asked.
"Depends on where you are. The combat troops don't get into town that often. They're also far more hostile to the Vietnamese. They are trying to kill each other. I had a safe duty assignment. I was no threat to anyone. I wasn't at war with anyone."
Leaving Ivan behind was a first. He left me when he went to see his mother at times. I'd never left him before. He was on my mind but being with my brothers without any distractions was an experience I was glad I had. It was a first too.
Teddy had seen Pop twice and Mama once. It was as carefully arranged as our visit. Pop knew who to leave a message with to get it to Teddy. He also knew that Teddy might or might not respond.
I suppose the FBI could arrest us for failing to give up Teddy to them, but Olsons didn't betray their own. They'd have to lock us up. We weren't stupid. We wouldn't inadvertently lead them to Teddy.While I lived a simple life and considered myself lucky not to need a lot of stuff that would slow me down, Teddy and his clan were the definition of simplicity. Except for a guitar, some bongos, and bows and arrows, they had nothing to pack when they left.
If someone told me that I'd leave Ivan to go with my brothers to camp out in the Everglades, I'd have laughed, but I enjoyed those three days. I learned quite a bit that I'd tell Ivan, and I watched my brothers get along for the first time. I'm glad I didn't miss that.
I was happy we had the opportunity to spend those days together. It would be a long time before the four of us were together again. Life was about to become very complicated for three of us. Brian would be content to stay in the wind, driving America's highways, and never needing to look over his shoulder.
Once we were back at the cove, I could only think of Ivan. I did hug and whisper in my brother's ear, "I love you, Teddy," before I left him to follow his conscience.
It wasn't the kind of thing the Olson boys did, but I learned something from the Aleksa brothers. Teddy cried as he waved goodbye. He knew the road he was on would take him a long way from his family. He knew it might never be safe for us to see him.
For me it was a matter of missing Ivan at night when I slept in a shelter that had been designed and erected in less than an hour. The palm leaves made for comfortable sleeping, but I had trouble sleeping without my lover's arms around me. Nothing could replace that.
We heard the engines of the Vilnius Two rumbling just off shore. We rowed out of the cove to meet it.
I didn't look back. I knew Teddy was still there. We'd said our goodbyes. Looking back would only remind me of wasted time when we could have been friends.
I knew more about Teddy from those three days than I knew about him before. I liked him.
Teddy was cool.
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