When we walked through the revolving doors and onto the pool deck, we were immersed into a thick steam that blanketed the water’s surface. This December night had brought one of the coldest recorded temperatures to Seattle. Perhaps the fog was a byproduct of the extreme cold. The road had been blocked with ice, and all the equipment had to be carried down the walking path. The fun tropical atmosphere of the turquoise tiles and blue water had been replaced with an eerie feeling. This evening looked more like London in the time of Jack the Ripper. I shivered as I piled my equipment in a chair and sensed that this lesson would be the hardest one yet. My sixteen year old classmate, Jennifer, was shivering too. We had both been thinking of the dive charts and air embolisms discussed in our classroom earlier that night. I was armed with my 800 dollar dive computer, new hood and gloves, and my personal regulator. I was prepared.
Tonight we would be striding into the pool as if we were at the back of a boat. I stood dressed in my wet suit with cylinder and added weights. I calculated the weight of my cylinder to be about one hundred pounds. Our instructor, Alec, would have disagreed with my assessment, but he wasn’t standing in my flippers. I was thinking of new inventions, light weight Styrofoam air cylinders, while I looked down and stepped the six inches from the pool deck to the lip at the water. I was carefully balancing all the weight carried by my body. What am I doing here? My fins extended out over the water’s surface. Alec looked silly. We all did. We were a family of frogs, Jennifer and her father, Alec and me.
“Be sure to step far enough out, and to not hit the side of the pool with your tank,” warned Alec just before he strode vertically into the water with barely a splash.
He resurfaced and smiled at Jennifer. It was her turn. Off she stepped, executing not the desired upright entrance, but a 45 degree face first splash. Oh dear, it was my turn. I can’t remember if I stood on the ledge for a while, or time stopped momentarily. I have the shortest legs of the group. Here’s hoping that that tank clears the pool. I am sure that I produced an enormous splash with my face first entry. As everyone inflated their vests, I seemed to manage to do the opposite of what was instructed. On the surface, I sank. When diving to the pool’s bottom to practice skills, I floated. I tried not to get discouraged.
At the depths of the deep end, we practiced again, this time with giant black rubbery gloves, something that Mickey Mouse would wear. In the gloves, my fingers expanded to twenty times their normal size,and I couldn’t get my mask strap around my rubber hooded head. Alec helped. The fat fingers had trouble stretching the hood open to enclose my face mask, sealing my head from the water. Alec helped. We were asked to sign with our black rubber fingers the amount of air in our cylinders. I couldn’t read the small digital numbers on my dive computer. My vision must be too old for this. Alec swam over and signaled how much air I had left. If I could have focused on his eyes in the murky water, I would have been able to see them roll with frustration. I made a mental promise to never dive without Alec, the expert.
I did much better when we swam without our masks; however my practice rescue of Alec was a disaster. We tried again. It was still not perfect.
“Tula, when did you think you had to always be perfect?”
I thought about Alec’s question. It must have come from my parents. Doesn’t it always come from the parents? Just ask my kids!
We continued to practice. If I could remove the black novelty gloves, I could feel the button to inflate my vest, or deflate my vest. I should start wearing dive gloves in the Seattle cold as practice for my fingers. I wondered if they would match my mink. I rose up and sank down in the water like a carousel horse from an amusement park, constantly adding and subtracting air from my vest as I searched for the illusive neutral buoyancy. If I was not tangled in the pool’s lane dividers on the surface, I was scraping the slimy bottom with my stomach. Perhaps I should attach sponges to my stomach and clean the pool while I am bottoming out. At least I would be useful.
We were finally finished our drills and allowed to swim. I watched Alec as he rotated and floated on his back just above the bottom of the pool. I tried it. Suspended on my back, I stared at the misty lights that illuminated the water’s surface in the fog. I played in my weightless state, turning in the water and spiraling like a dolphin. I wanted to swim summersaults and tumble in the deep end.
I remembered the mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs in Florida. The water nymphs, who swam to the glass of our underwater viewing windows, turned summersaults with ease. They sipped air from hoses strategically placed around the springs in which they performed. They were beautiful young girls in two piece swimsuits, stunning beauties from the 1950’s. Even under the water, their lips were red and their cheeks rouged. They wore white rubber bathing caps filled with yellow centered daisies. To me, as a young girl, they were the prettiest women I had ever seen. Now I swam around the cold Seattle pool like a Florida mermaid.
This is what these dive lessons are all about. I am having fun. I need to stay focused on the beauty I will experience in the depths of the Puget Sound. I will see marine life at play. I will turn on my back and float beneath the surface, as I wait for the sun to illuminate the water at sunrise. I will swim above a forest of kelp, the redwoods of the sound, and glide through the top of its canopy. These are some of the reasons to drag the cylinders of air through the icy night, to struggle under the weight of equipment, and subjugate the fear of air embolisms, currents, and predators. All of this, in order to experience the elation of weightlessness in the vast unknown, and the excitement of what lies waiting beneath the water.
I spun through the pool’s deep end one last time before we heard the clinking of the dive tool against Alec’s cylinder. It was time to leave and retreat to the warmth of the hot tub. I bobbed around the hot bubbling waters and speculated how much more weight would be added to my vest on the next lesson. I looked at my bleeding hand and wondered when I tore the skin beneath the black rubber gloves. As I showed off my injury around the hot tub, I realized that I could hardly wait to try it all again the following week. I may be the shortest, oldest student in the class, but by god, I will be a scuba diver soon.
The image of Scarlet O’Hara jumped into diving hooded head. Standing just before intermission in the fiery glow of burning Atlanta, all hope lost and clutching an onion, her only source of food, she declared to God as an oath, that she would never go hungry again. You got it Scarlet! You may have had a lot of other problems; you lost Rhett and you never got Ashley, but you didn’t go hungry, and that was your goal. I took my hot tub oath that I would be a scuba diver, come hell or high water. I hope it’s the later, high water. That’s what I am in training for. Spin on kid!