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from A Squandered Life / Scuba '71
....under a whole new and intricately interactive sky towards which bubbles and human bodies were drawn like the souls of a spiritual world.
At this time the university was also sponsoring scuba diving lessons and Don and I decided to give it a shot. The instructor was a slim unsmiling bearded guy by the name of Caldwell. He was attached to the relatively large and well funded Marine Biology Department which was always in need of divers for their various activities. Part of the attraction was that we might actually get some paid work out of it. The first part of the course was a rather dreary overload of theory presented in monotone by the unsmiling Caldwell. A lot of people dropped out at this point and I began to suspect that this was part of Caldwell's intent - an informal weeding process. By the time we got down to the pool, only those of us with the stamina for dry theory remained.
I have to say I was very excited as we prepared for our first pool session. The pool itself was already a very familiar place but actually seeing and hefting the equipment was invigorating and a refreshing change from the tedious class room. We were encouraged to “buddy up” and the importance of having a buddy you could trust in a pinch was drummed into us. Don and I were each other's natural choices and helped each other get the gear on and check the systems. First immersion felt like the culmination of some evolutionary journey. I was stupefied by those first sensations of descending to depth, and mesmerised by the way the light reacted with the surface of the water as you looked up. We were instructed to do a number of drills and activities but, quite frankly, I would have been perfectly happy just sitting there on the bottom, feeling my lungs breathing and looking up at the light show.
Don and I both felt that, as we were such ace swimmers, we were going to be pretty competent divers and we became a little casual in our preparations, often quietly yakking and joking when we should have been paying attention. We kept it quiet because Caldwell had a reputation for playing tricks if he thought your attention may have wandered.
One of the drills involved lowering your tank to the bottom of the deep end, dropping down after it with held breath and without face masks, opening the valve, breathing, and getting it on to your back to re-surface - all under the supervisory eye of Caldwell's assistant Geoff who lurked about under water in full diving regalia. Caldwell made sure we'd all closed the air valves on our tanks and ordered us to lower away. Feeling pretty relaxed and confident, I didn't even take much of a breath as we slipped into the water at Caldwell's command. I found my tank without any trouble, turned the air valve, and drew about a fifth of a breath - only to find that the regulator was blocked. The mouth piece and air hose responded with a dull click of finality and refused to release any more air. With my casual quarter of a lung full of air I quickly realised I had three options. I could fuck around with the regulator to see if I could get it to work - too time consuming and no guaranteed outcome. I could swim back to the surface gasping - too humiliating as I guessed Caldwell had set me up in some way. I could signal to Geoff in the blurry distance that I needed air - which is what I did. Without my mask I could only vaguely see him, and seconds ticked by as I waved at him. I couldn't of course shout, “Geoff you cunt, I'm drowning.” with any certainty that he would hear anything more than a bubble, but he eventually swam over and hovered in front of my blurry eyes. Beginning to feel not a little desperate I gave the classic diver's signal for “air”, pointing urgently at my mouth with my index finger. I couldn't see his face clearly so I couldn't tell from his expression what he might be thinking, but he seemed to be taking a very long time to respond and at this point I doubted I could even get to the surface with my now spent lungs.
Suddenly, without any conscious decision on my part, without even any warning from any of my internal systems, my right arm broke ranks and shot across towards Geoff's face. Luckily my vision was so blurred that my arm mis-judged the distance to his mouth piece, and my arm and the rest of me recoiled in horror at what it/I had just done. Equally luckily, Geoff now got the message and came over to offer his mouth piece. I took a couple of huge drags, gave him the “ok” signal, and set about trying to figure out what had gone wrong with my regulator. I realised that Caldwell must have turned it off at the poolside while I was yakking with Donny, so when he gave the signal to close valves I'd actually opened mine. Then when I got to it at the bottom of the pool, I'd actually turned it off again - hence, no air. I wasn't amused but I learned some salutary lessons. One, NEVER take a casual breath before going under. Two, always open a valve halfway for that first breath, then figure out if you've been opening or closing. Three, never trust Caldwell.
Our lessons were thrown into stark relief when we heard that somebody on one of Caldwell's other courses had drowned on his first open water dive. Donny and I were both stunned when we heard the news, and watched Caldwell's face carefully at our next session. Looking more drawn than usual and sounding a lot quieter, Caldwell acknowledged that we'd all probably heard the news. “He was on the surface,” he said, “but the water was choppy and he took his mouthpiece out. A wave hit him and he got a mouth full of sea water and panicked.” He looked sombrely at us. “Don't take your mouthpiece out in open water,” he warned, “It only takes a lung full, and it's game over.”
Later, as we prepared for our first open water excursion, although I didn't know the guy who drowned, he haunted my dive. It was a cold grey day and the water was choppy. Don and I suited up and did our buddy checks. The first hit of that cold Atlantic Ocean was truly shocking, but with a bit of movement the water trapped in the wet suit warmed up and stayed put. It was murky and I don't remember seeing much apart from waving fronds and rock bottoms. It didn't seem long before Caldwell was signalling us to surface. As I surfaced the regulator on the top of my tank kept bumping the back of my head. I immediately thought again of the recently drowned diver and kept my jaws firmly clamped on my mouth piece as waves broke over my face. By the time I'd clambered back into the boat my jaws were aching but we were all exuberant and animated from having completed our first dives.
I only did a few dives thereafter. On the plus side, the ambient temperature of the Atlantic only varied a couple of degrees between summer and winter, so we could dive year round, sometimes bobbing up between lumps of ice floe. On the down side, I didn't have my own equipment and could only borrow the university's if I was doing work for them. One time I was collecting scallops for the marine biology department and the borrowed suit was so ill fitting that every time I over-extended a whole new layer of ice cold sea water would rush in expecting to be heated and held in place. By the time I surfaced I was shivering so hard I could hardly stand up. To be honest, I found all the preparation time, the suiting up, the care, the caution, and the attention to detail so encumbering that the freedom and joy I had been expecting didn't really materialise.
So it was a short-lived career, and the next time I undertook any diving was a lifetime later in the mesmerisingly clear waters of the Mediterranean, off the islands of Malta and Gozo. By that time I was a confirmed snorkeller and had no intention of scuba diving again, but because the water was so clear I was drawn ever and ever deeper. I ended up re-taking a diving course then and there just so that I could sit on the bottom and look up to watch the undersides of the waves breaking against the rock cliff shores. The interplay of light with the oddly heaving surface gave the impression of being under a whole new and intricately interactive sky towards which bubbles and human bodies were drawn like the souls of a spiritual world.
© 2013 Deacon Martin