As Foreign as Firmament to Fin The sensuous beauty of diving in the sea.

Photo of U.S. Navy Diver by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jayme Pastoric.

Getting to the bottom of it is easy, in one respect: All it takes is an iceberg, concrete shoes, a pocket full of stones. At Ft. Eustis, Virginia, we used a 100-pound weight. The training tank was a 33-foot high cylinder with steel stairs winding up the side and steel decking welded to the top. On summer days, we would hang at the surface, hyperventilating, kicking lazily with bare feet, and looking down through the water table as someone lowered the weight from the deck. When everyone was ready, the first person would grab the eyelet of the weight and be yanked down headfirst, pinching his nose and blowing to prevent ear squeeze. The next person grabbed his ankle as he disappeared and was pulled down too, and so on.

In the breath-hold contest at the bottom, most made it three to four minutes. We asked our friend Chris how he got to five, and he chuckled and let drool run from his mouth. To Army divers, this was a terrific joke.

 

•  •  •

 

Being in the sea is a problem different from living near the sea or on the sea. How to state the problem?

Is it a need to see that ships’ screws do not wiggle on their bushings and that their blades are not bent, chipped, or fouled with line; to tap a hull for soundness; to map underwater rocks, wrecks, and sandbars; to search for lost tools, weapons, and bodies (salvor is not savior); to build and pour concrete underwater and blow up and raise the sunken; to cut apart with thermic rods that melt granite?

To breathe differently? To be of two worlds?

Being in the sea is a problem different from living near the sea or on the sea. How to state the problem?

To learn to live within and without, as if metaphors were mere fancy?

A friend reminds me that I have written about being an Army deep-sea diver, but I have never written the experience. It is the same problem.

 

•  •  •

 

Raised in the Midwest, I watched Cousteau documentaries, pored over catalogues from the US Divers Company (Cousteau again), and read books such as The Golden Guide to Scuba Diving: Handbook of Underwater Activities. One activity was the inspection of a submarine by Navy divers. My friend Karl, who was scuba-certified, said we should apply for the Navy dive school from our mid-south Army post. But I had forgotten how to swim and had barely glimpsed the sea. The Army itself made the choice as momentous as stepping off a ledge. If I failed the qualifying course or dive school itself, I would not go back to my old job but would be “reassigned according to the needs of the Army,” and god only knew what those were.

I feel retro-concern now for my 19-year old self, who never realized how alone he was in the adventure. I was a yo-yo who flung himself out as far as he could imagine and happened to return.

We drove to Jersey to drop off Karl’s wife and children before driving to Virginia for the pre-screen and to Florida for school. The smell of gasoline and damp in my LUV truck, little engine straining through mountains at night and in the dawn. The lights and bells of the boardwalk. He and I had planned to swim down the shore, but the Atlantic was cold, rough, and dangerous. We drove to Atlantic City and threw French fries to the gulls.

The Army itself made the choice as momentous as stepping off a ledge. If I failed the qualifying course or dive school itself, I would not go back to my old job but would be “reassigned according to the needs of the Army,” and god only knew what those were.

I dove for the first time, with Karl’s old scuba gear, in his parents’ neighbor’s pool, four feet deep, dead leaves on the bottom. Breathe out when you come up or you’ll, like, die, he said and left me there. The air from the steel tank tasted like ozone, and the hiss and bubble-burble of the regulator mimicked the in-and-out of my breathing. Okay, I thought, my face and scalp tight from the cold water. I sipped the air. Okay.

 

•  •  •

 

Months of school in Panama City: morning PT, classroom instruction, afternoons in the pool. How long can you survive if your ship goes down in the middle of the ocean? was the koan, Until I can wade ashore the horrifying answer. Push-ups, flutter kicks, and mountain climbers on the pool deck. Over-and-unders in the pool, breath-holds, chest heaving air among the alveoli for any last molecule of oxygen, the throat holding in its secret: I do not belong down here.

Trainees swam in circles on the bottom with scuba as cadre floated above. They surface-dived, grabbed trainees, shook them, twirled them, tore their gear off, tied it in knots, stripped away their air, blinded him. The rule was to fix your problems on the bottom and never surface. It was not so bad. Even now I cannot stand the way bedsheets tangle.

They said they would drown-proof us, and our growing confidence made it seem possible. We had wind, strength, and endurance. If we were still in the school, we had not failed. More and more, being in the water was like being in love and having that person love you back. One of the new cadre was a startlingly-beautiful young woman. None of us stood a chance, least of all me. During hell week, I winked at her through my face mask; she blew me a bubble-kiss. Her colleagues took both out on me.

The seasons on the Gulf changed from summer to fall to winter. “The Boys of Summer” played on the radio. There were three girls in an overheated apartment my friend Stub and I used to visit. I did not date the one who liked me most, but the one whose stepfather was an abusive drunk and retired Navy Master Diver. When I finished school the beaches were cold and empty. I read her letter, eyes blurry, on the way out of town and threw it out the window of my LUV truck.

More and more, being in the water was like being in love and having that person love you back.

Two years later, my team went back for a job. I had had other girlfriends and several adventures by then. I felt like people in those photos you cannot believe are the same people. We went to eat lunch where she was a waitress. She asked, formally, if she could talk to me, but she wanted me to come back later to do so.

She asked me to sit down at one of the four-person tables with the pepper flakes and sprinkle-cheese in clear jars. She said she did not know if I would be happy for her when she said what she needed to say, but she wanted me to know she had become engaged to her boss, the assistant manager of the Pizza Hut. She asked my plans, and I said I was getting out of the Army to go to college then planned to go back in for medical school. I had the support of our Diving Medical Officer, the Secretary of the Army’s son. I was not trying to be a shit, but she looked stricken, and that was nice. In the end I did not become a doctor. I do not know if her husband made Manager.

You can see the problem of writing about being in the sea and everything else.

 

•  •  •

 

Getting to the right water is rarely easy. Steel or even aluminum tanks are heavy—sets of doubles for extended bottom-time doubly so—as are lead weight belts. Rocket Fins, vests, compasses, knives, booties, wetsuits, hoods, or dry suits are carried in canvas bags. Surface-supplied hardhat rigs require air flasks, compressors, a gas panel, comms box, yards of umbilical hose, a squad of people to assist.

My first time out, a squall hit while I was being made to wash pots in the galley. Dirty water rolled in the sink, and through the porthole over the sink I saw sky, horizon, sea, horizon, sky, horizon, sea.

Rarely did we step into the sea like a bath. More often we took a Zodiac inflatable up a river or across a bay; rode on LCUs and LCMs in the Chesapeake and along the coast of Panama; caught hops on helicopters or a C-130. Off the Channel Islands, it was a powered barge, with sea lions; in Florida, a converted NOAA trawler whose mast rocked back and forth like a metronome, with me the little weight on top. Moored next to the Royal Navy in Miami, we had to jump several stories off the bluff stern of a ship, like Hart Crane. It feels good to have a burden momentarily lifted.

The dive school had converted two minesweepers, keels laid in December 1941, into yard diving tenders for open-water operations in the Gulf. Dolphins rode the bow wave, and flying fish leapt ahead. My first time out, a squall hit while I was being made to wash pots in the galley. Dirty water rolled in the sink, and through the porthole over the sink I saw sky, horizon, sea, horizon, sky, horizon, sea. The reek of diesel fuel, lubricating grease, and cooked corn and Brussel sprouts finally got me. The water in me sloshed with the contents of the sink, and the Gulf in its bowl, and I started throwing up, in a trash can that would not stay put, and did not stop. Many sailors as well as soldiers were too sick to stand. I tottered up a couple of ladders to the main deck.

“I can’t do it, Chief,” I told the man running the side that day.

“Get your ass back down in that galley, Tree,” he said affectionately, using the nickname they had for soldiers, who wore camouflage.

The water below the surface is largely unaffected by surface storms. Being chosen to dive would have been a mercy. The small difference between our personhoods and the world is never more evident than in the sea, where only a thin skin keeps us from dissolving in the amniotic vastness. If you have ever been seasick, you know this would come as relief.

 

•  •  •

 

We dove scuba and a variety of “hats,” once we left school and were assigned to our units: Jack Browne, like something a plumber made of leftover parts; Mark 12, a fiberglass box with windows; the SuperLite 17B, as sleek and functional as a motorcycle helmet; and (rarely, in training) the old Mark V deep-sea hat, dress, weights, and boots, which did not change for 70 years. Different hats felt different to wear, because they were meant for different work. Generally, the worse conditions were, the more durable the gear had to be, and the more uncomfortable it was to wear.

Hardhat divers get dressed with the help of tenders, but divers still have to stand up, walk to a ladder, climb down it, and climb back up on their own. The Mark V rig weighs 190 pounds.

 

•  •  •

 

Burn of chlorine, tingle of sun. Water blacker under Alligator Bayou, at night, than anywhere else on earth I have been, until a fin tip touched the silt and a galaxy of phosphorescent stars exploded. A storm at sea, rain pattering on slick mountains of water. The pleasure of breathing cold air while neck-deep in warm water. Breaking ice with a weight in order to dive.

Surface swims against the tide, night compass-swims underwater, shallow-water dives, and ones in deep water where I hung effortlessly in a large lighted sphere of open water, like some watery church, with a sacramental object far below. A dive in the Keys, the colorful reef fish, barracuda with soulless eyes, nurse sharks. A civilian woman died on that dive. Sometimes there was nothing to see but filtered light on ripples in the sand, clouds of polyps, or the Ozymandias of a shipwreck, broken spine flexing in the surge.

Hypothermia / hot shower, exhaustion / plates of hot chow. Creosote burns, jellyfish stings, fire coral sores. Clams, oysters, and mussels harvested and eaten fresh at beer parties after-hours in the dive det. The cruelty and unreason and ignorance of us, but with fraternity and purpose and good humor. Swim call, out where the big hungries feed. The sensuous slide of sea along your tanned body in youth, and the promise of things to come. We were drown-proofed, after all.

 

•  •  •

 

I almost lost my youth a couple of times but fumbled it back into my pocket. (I believe if you reach the age of 40 with your youth intact, you get to keep it.) Military diving does shape people, I guess. My younger son said recently he knew it was me approaching, unseen, by my directed walk. Maybe a poet could explain how forms offer freedom.

 

•  •  •

 

Another diver joke: Your buddy, who is topside, shuts off the air to your hat while you are below.

Air sings coming down an umbilical, and it changes pitch if it slows, and goes silent if it stops. This should never happen. You might get one last breath if you act fast. In the SuperLite there is not even a mouthful if the air is off.

A roar of laughter down the comms cable, delivered to the bone-a-phone over the lump of skull behind your ear, and your buddy asks, “What are you doing, Dave?”

You wait, silent, saving your breath.

The line opens again. He even does the voice. “Look Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.”

You know he knows all the lines.

Silence. Prickly sweat begins.

“I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently,” your buddy says, “but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I’ve still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. And I want to help you.”

Military deep-sea divers like to play the world’s fools, even though most are supremely competent and a little piratical. They know what their real work is and find ways to play between bouts of it. This is not “blowing off steam.” It is one answer to the problem of being in the sea and to that of being immersed in any purpose—medicine, management, even writing.

 

•  •  •

 

Water entry, descent, bottom-time, ascent, and return: if all ends well, it is like marriage in nineteenth-century novels—a comedy. A mammal that does not surface is a tragedy. Divers will joke about that too, though, as they will any other shortcoming.

I had bought some realistic-looking, pot-metal doubloons in the Miami airport. I put them in my buoyancy compensator in Panama and dropped them in the mud for my dive buddy to find on a job. He was known for being . . . frugal. His wide eyes in his mask as he surfaced with his fingers full of doubloons; his refusal to accept they were fakes and to allow the disappointment to sink in!

Water entry, descent, bottom-time, ascent, and return: if all ends well, it is like marriage in nineteenth-century novels—a comedy.

Panama was my last duty station and the perfect place to end my time as soldier and diver, with its two oceans, the Canal, rivers, bays, jungles, and fascinating culture and history. A friend and I drove across the isthmus to Devil’s Beach, by the Jungle School, donned scuba gear and swam out to the reef that sheltered the mouth of the cove. As we swam around, looking into old lava tubes, a sea turtle shot out over my head, eels mouthed something silently, a spiny lobster hid deeper in the rocks, and Zebrafish nibbled my skin. On the swim back, a conch dragged a trail in the rippled sand.

Panama was where I had the first inkling, off the coast on a landing craft, that I wanted my life to be a certain mix of domesticity and external adventure. In Panama I often used to try to memorize underwater scenes, thinking: here is one of the times I have on this earth. My heart as full as a blue orange.

 

•  •  •

 

It is hard to show the experience of the feeling of freedom that is available to someone wearing claustrophobic suits, gear, and breathing machines. It feels as if you could go anywhere and be part of the Everything, that you are freed of constraints but have the honor of understanding your responsibility for your own life. This has turned out to be a life-long feeling for me, though I dove only a few more times after I got out of the Army.

One civilian dive was over the Tongue of the Ocean, a trench that separates Andros and New Providence in the Bahamas. I will always remember the crackling and crepitation of the living reef in the cold upwelling from the trench, and swimming along a sunny, 60-foot bottom and suddenly being suspended over a void perhaps a mile deep. The experience was uncanny, sublime. I did not want to get to the bottom of it, for a change.

It feels as if you could go anywhere and be part of the Everything, that you are freed of constraints but have the honor of understanding your responsibility for your own life. This has turned out to be a life-long feeling for me, though I dove only a few more times after I got out of the Army.

Another was on a large shipwreck in Biscayne Bay, but while visibility was good, and the ship and its wildlife interesting, it was an unhappy time for me, and that turned out to be my last dive with anything other than mask, snorkel, and fins. Busman’s holiday and all that, love. Endings can be a comfort too.

 

•  •  •

 

We are creatures of deep time, without thinking of it, until deep time swallows and we are gone. Maybe there is no living within and without, and metaphors are how we take our local meaning.

I will only mention the terrible video I saw recently, in a Facebook group for former military divers. A live crab is standing, in a shallow pan of sauce that is beginning to boil, picking at an ear of corn with one claw and eating it enjoyably. There is a diver, the group member wanted us to know. There is all of us, I say, in the horror and sensuality of forms, broken loose from our mothers’ eggs and umbilicals.

 

•  •  •

 

One day you think, I’ll just go swim in the sea then, and decades pass. A friend says offhandedly, You’ve never written that, and your mind sinks to the bottom of a steel cylinder where you have been lying under a full atmosphere of water for nearly 40 years, trying to achieve “manatee mind,” so you can last a little longer than your buddies before pushing off for the happy surface, knowing at some level that a life’s pleasure comes from trying to feel everything and not to think at all.

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