(And no, I'm not referring to the Van Halen album by the same name, nor the vaguely similar "OU812." No, I'm talking scuba here. Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. Frogmen (and frogwomen.)
(Caveat--photos are BIG. If you're on dial-up or low resolution montioring you might want to skip opening them and just open the Flickr link at the end, where these and more photos will be.)
Florida is the land of swimmers and beaches and scuba divers. Everyone in Florida is required to know how to swim by the age of three, snorkel by five and be a Dive Master rated scuba person by the age of twelve. My brother in law is no exception, even though he lives in Louisiana.
I didn't realise this year that a good portion of my trip to Florida would include my wife's brother and sister and his training to get his scuba certification, nor that we'd spend a lot of that time toting heavy (and often wet) equipment back and forth from my father-in-law's house to the dive shop, any number of bays or the very cool Vortex Spring, in Ponce de Leon, Florida. I kid you not. Named thus because said Spaniard thought for certain what he'd found was the Fountain of Youth.
It's damn close.
In a nutshell, it's a 65+ foot deep funnel that houses a very cold natural spring at the bottom. The spring forms a pool and a creek, and houses some of the most incredibly clear, incredibly cold water you've felt. Since there's a neat cave at the bottom and the water is perfectly clear all the time and there's no boat traffic (unlike the entire rest of the state of Florida) it's a perfect place for scuba diver trainees to go, and they do. In droves. This is why we were there with said brother-in-law and said trunkfull of mildly damp scuba equipment.
So, one hot morning found all of us sitting around with about a thousand other scuba wannabes, all of us hanging around waiting for their chance in the water with dive buddies and instructors and etc. Now picture this: the grounds around the pool are literally standing-room only with divers in various states of neoprene undress. Every type and style and colour of person, acres and acres of black neoprene, colourful flippers, aluminum air tanks...in short, millions of dollars worth of state-of-the-art personal underwater apparatus. Everywhere you looked someone was either zipping into their suit or hanging instruments off their buoyancy control vests or otherwise either preparing their ultra-modern equipment or taking it off. Three wharves, each divided in half - 'enter' and 'exit' to expedite the flow of divers - and they stay full of lines of people.
Me, I was mildly bored. Watching a diver is like watching paint dry--they're on the surface a few minutes, they make the "dive" gesture to their buddy, and they're gone in a swirl of bubbles. Hours pass, then they return soaking wet. Not a lot of spectator sport involved there, even when the water is so clear you can see them some fifteen feet deep.
Little did I know that was all to change.
Three or so hours had passed and we were waiting for our family member to get his second opportunity in the water. Out of the blue (and the heat) a brand new Ford truck comes trolling along the green grass, brushing neoprene people to each side. It pulls up to the center dock and several guys jump out and start bustling around in a rather business-like manner. Out comes a huge ice chest. A huge figure-8 loop of black hose. Six gleaming aluminum air tanks. Tool chests. And then the miraculous. Three canvas and rubber suits.
Right then it started getting positively medieval.
Next out of the truck came a somewhat tarnished brass diving helmet. A 1945 Mark V Model 1 diving helmet to be exact. The same thing the Navy used to use toward the end of WWII.
Then the sign came out--for $150 dollars you could wear this antique suit and go diving, and they already had one taker. A BIG boy, my size or larger. Three men started bustling around him in the same way that I can only imagine a knight's squires would have done. He stripped to a Speedo and slipped both legs into one of the canvas suits and immediately started sweating. That was the end of the easy part. The rest was a downright struggle.
They put dishwashing soap on his knuckles so he could force his hands through the rubber-capped wrists of the suit, which he had to do one at a time--no room in the suit to simply shrug it on like a sports coat. Once that was completed he sat on the lid of the ice chest (that had contained the boots, the weight belt and the three suits) and the squires really went to work. They had to literally do all his dressing for him, because it was impossible for him to reach. I watched the boots go on and get laced up, the squire using military-precise movements to secure the loose ends of the laces under leather straps designed for the purpose, his each action designed to prevent damage to this unrepairable antique.
Then a metal shoulder plate with a series of huge brass bolts and a high neck with threads at the top was settled onto his shoulders and the rubber impregnated neck of the suit was forced around and over those bolts. A high collar of the canvas material was pulled up against his neck, and over the rubber gasket of the suit went long strips of brass, washers of a sort. The squires were sweating in the noon heat but the knight was pouring water.
The biggest of the squires got out a brass wrench and started attaching nuts to the bolts, pressing the rubber and brass into a water-tight seam. The surreal nature of the scene was made even more apparent by the fact that there were literally hundreds of people clad in the very latest diving gear watching this man with a mix of envy and curiosity and a sort of dread in their eyes. Some sixty years ago THIS was state of the art protection, allowing a human to breathe and function under water. These modern divers were dressing and undressing themselves with a minimum of outside assistance while this promethean figure required three helpers.
The squires went on with their tasks. The massive bowl-like helmet was lowered onto the collar and screwed into place. A huge brass fitting attached to the thick air-hose was screwed on and a wrench was taken to it, to ensure a tight fit. The little round porthole window in the front of the helmet was left open to give the diver some much-needed air. I can't imagine how hot it must have been in there.
When it was all said and done the owner of this miraculous piece of engineering shouted into the radio: "Diver can you hear me?" A tinny voice responded from the huge radio box, and the owner shouted for more volume from the diver. Finally the right balance was struck, the diver was instructed on how to control the flow of air inside his helmet (finally mercifully turned on) and he stood up with help from two of the squires. He simply couldn't do it alone.
I know it's laughable but hearing those lead and brass boots tramping slowly along that wooden wharf made chills run up my spine. I'd watched this creature be born, and now it was moving with a slow, eerie grace, it's footsteps so heavy they literally made the entire wharf vibrate. Slowly he was lead into the cold water, bubbles erupting from the down-turned spout on the back of his helmet, and the water closed over him, the black airhose trailing out like an umbilical cord.
I don't think I've ever been so in awe of a thing. The sheer magnitude of what was going on struck me--a man was under the water there, walking around and breathing and talking to the people on the surface. He was peering at the aquatic world from out a tiny brass porthole that had to be bolted into place. His hands no doubt were chilled by the water they were immersed in, the canvas material little protection against the biting cold of this natural spring. But, he was alive underneath the water. No amount of cutting-edge plastic flippers and neoprene suits and polycarbonate goggles could bring the fact home to me quite like this strange figure cut out of 1945 and placed carefully in 2008.
The diver didn't stay down long. I'd walked up to the restroom for a minute and by the time I'd gotten back he was already out again and being unsuited, but I'd seen his birth, I'd no need to see his death. I think the experience would have been lessened if I'd watched this inhuman creature be shucked, skinned and peeled back to reveal some guy with his black Speedo and his wallet buying him a rare experience.
No, I'd had my vision, my moment. For just a few sweet short minutes I was there with him, breathing in metallic-smelling air, feeling the cold water press the canvas snug against my chest and limbs. For just a moment there I knew what a fragile barrier there was between myself and everything else, and that thought both chilled and reassured me.
The complete photo set can be seen at my Flickr collection page.