The day had come. I worried about passing my swim test with a runny nose, and the Kleenex from my right hand dissolving in the pool. I would need to swim laps and tread water for ten minutes. As slow as I swim, it could take hours to complete twelve laps. However, with no fever, I knew I could do this. I plowed through the first two chapters of my dive handbook and answered the test questions. I tried to remember how many PSI’s were at what depth, how long it would take for my lungs explode if I held my breath, and SCUBA was the acronym for what? I watched my DVD homework. Where did the time go? I scrubbed my new black dive mask to remove the protective coating. With practice, I began to rattle off the chart that demonstrated Boyle’s Law. By dinner time, I could assemble dive equipment, even though I had never seen a first or second stage regulator. I was as ready as I could be.
When I arrived at the dive shop, instructor Alec was waiting. With a big grin, he welcomed me to the class. I sat in the small classroom with Jennifer, the sixteen year old cheerleader, and her father, John, ten years my younger. I was the oldest.
“Jennifer, are you a strong swimmer?”
“Oh yes. We live on the lake, and I swim a lot.”
Gosh, I wish I had practiced my swimming. I think I can remember the flutter kick. I sneezed and dragged more tissues out of my purse. My two other classmates stared at me in fear that they would catch whatever I had brought into the room.
Alec proceeded to tell us his credentials. His large arm muscles flexed, as he wrote his name on the dry erase board. Good. His arms are large enough to pluck me out of the pool if necessary. Alec had three black belts and almost finished his fourth. He had been in special ops for the military, taking out terrorists in Europe after the Viet Nam War. He hinted at stories from his past. He had broken his back the first time, when he crashed his van while escaping through the Czeck border; the second time, after having jumped out of an aircraft at 27,000 feet over Poland. Hopefully our dive experiences with Alec will be a less eventful.
Then he revealed the magic to his students. We sat and held our breath as we listened.
“There is no place on earth better to dive than in the Pacific Northwest. Our nutrient rich waters sustain incredible diversity in marine life. You are lucky, and your timing is great. Visibility is the best in the winter. I will take you to the bottom of the Sound just before sunrise. When the sun appears, we will look up from the sand and watch as the rays illuminate the waters around us.”
Oh Alec. I can see it.
“We will see Giant Pacific Octopus at Sunrise County Park. They are practically tame. We’ll dive shipwrecks in Edmonds that are five stories high. We’ll go every Thursday morning when you are certified.”
Oh Alec. I want to be your dive buddy. I want to see the anemones, the Sixgill Sharks, the Andalusia, the sponges. I want to see it all. When do we start?
Alec finished reviewing the first two chapters of our text.
“SCUBA: Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, sir!”
We were in Alec’s platoon now, and we eagerly answer his questions. We signed additional forms with emergency contact information. Happily I was not required to fill out an Organ Donor Card nor a Do Not Resuscitate Form. My blood type is O positive. That was information was required.
“Next week, study chapter three. In this chapter you will learn all of the reasons why you will do everything I tell you, and what will happen to you if you don’t. Now let’s get our gear together. We’ll be practicing taking regulators and masks off and on under water tonight. You’ll also be learning how to use your BC vests.”
The textbook stated that there should be no diving with colds. I sneezed.
“Don’t worry,” Alec assured, looking at me. ” I will take you down slowly, so your ears will be ok.”
Jennifer and I looked at each other with fear in our eyes. We would be diving. Oh dear. We had not read chapter three. I grabbed my Kleenex. Jennifer looked at her father. I knew she was debating the pros and cons of diving verses sunning on the boat, during her upcoming trip to the British Virgin Islands. I was planning to stay near Alec and those big, body plucking biceps. We gather our equipment and follow the dive van to the pool. On the way, I called my son in New York. He was packing to come home to Seattle the next day for Thanksgiving.
“Son, I just wanted to tell you I love you.”
“Sure mom. Me too you. You’ll be ok. I can’t wait to hear all about it.”
We arrived at a large pool complex. The outdoor pool steamed in the mist of the Seattle November night. The white bubble cover looked like a lighted prop from a science fiction movie. We hauled cylinders, vests, and regulators to the indoor pool deck and changed into our swimsuits. In my excitement, I had forgotten to be cold. I was no longer sneezing.
We started to assemble our gear.
“Tula, yours is backwards.”
Whoops. I had faced my air cylinder and vest from the wrong side.
“No. That turns the air off, not tightens the valve.”
Again, whoops. I tested the cylinder air. The regulators worked. All hoses were secured. My vest was weighted with enough lead shot to take out a moose. It was time for the swim test. After the twelve laps, I happily waited at the shallow end, having kept pace with the class. When Alec beckoned, his three swimmers followed him into the deep end.
“Ten minutes of treading. In the mean time, let’s tell a little about ourselves.”
I interrupted. “So, what were you doing in Czechoslovakia and Poland?”
“If I tell you, then you won’t live through this course.”
Oh. Right. Secrets. If you tell me, then you have to kill me. I continued treading.
“We’ll have to go drinking. I’ll ask you again.”
Alec laughed. It was my turn. I was in the story teller’s guild in New York. I began.
“It happened to me for the first time last month in San Francisco.” I looked at Jennifer and then at her dad. “This may be “R” rated.”
“That’s OK. Jennifer is in High School. She knows everything.”
We treaded, and I talked. Alec reminded Jennifer how to move her arms and legs to keep higher in the water. I told my tale. Everyone focused on my words and forgot about the swim test. The more my fellow swimmers concentrated, the more animated my story became. At the conclusion, my listeners laughed. Alec announced that only two minutes remained. I had entertained for eight minutes. Jennifer related a story similar to my own. Her father listened attentively. Ten minutes had passed. As we swam back to the shallow end, Alec told of somersaulting out of second floor windows into swimming pools.
“When you were a toddler, were you jumping off the tops of bureaus?”
“Oh yes. All the time. There were eight of us.”
“You must have given your mother hell. Did you ever apologize to her?”
“No.” Alec laughed.
We put on our gear and knelt underwater at the shallow end while getting used to our regulators. I was a young girl again, beneath the water of the country club pool, sipping imaginary tea with friends. We held our breath, and raised our pretend cups to our mouths, bubbles escaping as we enjoyed underwater tea time. I could pretend again, this time without worrying about air. I could stay down forever. I smiled and waved to Jennifer. She smiled and waved back. I wondered if she had played tea party too. What is the international hand signal for, “Wow!”?
We practiced our skills. We removed masks and regulators, while Alex praised his fledgling students. We practiced again at the bottom of the deep end. I bobbled up and down like a carousel horse. I clutched my inflator hose pushing air into my vest and releasing it, in hopes to find the middle ground between the water’s surface and the pool bottom. Then it happened; neutral buoyancy. The magic had begun.
I no longer thought of breathing, no longer counted 5-2-7. I no longer gripped my inflator hose. I swam fishlike above the bottom of the pool. My head turned, and I watched with fascination the painted lap lines as they dipped to the deepest depth and paralleled past the drain. I could hear the bubbles coming from my regulator. I watched them rise. I could see my friends, three black finned bodies, swimming near, under, and above me, a third dimension distinct and different from the reality above the surface.
The miracle of breathing air in water and swimming with the ease of fins and vest, made me giddy with joy. It was the wonder of a young girl, the thrill of a new world to explore, and the anticipation of adventures yet to be. Without fear and with the comfort of neutral buoyancy, I swam in awe of my new experience.
Like an equestrian approaching a jump, my eyes turned to anticipate what was to come. I was swimming beyond where I was, to where I would be. I could hardly imagine the future excitement of seeing the sun’s rays spread through the darkness, illuminating the water at sunrise, the beginning of a new day under the water in the Puget Sound. The freedom of the mind separating from the body gave a spiritual feeling at the bottom of a pool. The sound of the bubbles from my regulator was my song of praise for the water and sea.