The water was deep and crystal clear. The blue pool was at the lower end of a rapid where the river ran into a bluff before being forced to turn left. The river would lay down gravel on the shallow rapid section and then quickly drop off as the water slowed. The water was deepest near the cliff and you could see the tops of some boulders, the size of trucks, that had fallen in the river from above, who knows how long ago.
I could not contain my excitement, waiting for my turn, hoping and praying that my turn would even come. I could see a serious problem that might prevent this from happening. This problem required my full attention and my best negotiating skills. Something that I had learned when I was a kid, long before, is that if you push nonstop for something, people will start to tune you out and stop considering your request. Therefore, I had to think hard and lay out my talking and negotiating points in logical order. The activity that I desperately wanted a turn at was going deep down underwater in a homemade ‘diving helmet’. The problem that might prevent this from happening was that I was nine years old. This ‘helmet’ was attached to a long hose with the air supply being pumped down from the surface. I, personally, did not even consider this to be a problem, but if there was anything I had learned in my many years, it was that others did think that age was a problem. Mothers were the worst.
Nearly thirty years prior, in the 1940’s, and for some unknown reason, my father decided that he wanted to delve down into the deep. He looked at what was around him and devised a plan. He started with a large galvanized steel stove pipe. He cut it into a two foot length. On one end, his cut was left long on two opposite sides of the circle. The two other sides that were 90 degree off of the long sides were cut short. He then glued and bolted rubber stripping around the sharp metal edge. In this way, one could put this steel stove pipe over your head (head inside) so that the fancy cut end would rest on your shoulders and then swoop down low in front of your chest and behind your back. He then cut a hole in the front were your face would be and put in a window. The top end was then closed off with a flat metal plate that had a threaded hose fitting inserted into it. He then screwed in a long air hose and attach the other end to a beautiful brass marine air pump (hand operated). On his first try, he found that the whole thing would float up off of his shoulders because of the volume of air inside. No problem, he had a stained glass studio, so he turned it upside down and poured in molten lead until the “helmet” would stay firmly planted on your shoulders and then some more lead until your feet would stay firmly planted on the bottom of the ocean, or river.
Just when I was starting to feel pretty confident that it was going to be a go for me, and I just needed to wait for the person on the bottom to come up, something of a commotion broke out. It seemed that the person on the bottom had made far too many right turns, and thus, unscrewed the air hose out of the top of the ‘helmet’. It quickly filled with water and became exceedingly heavy. Luckily, the person was able to dump it on the floor and swim up. “No problem!” I exclaimed. “I just need to only make left turns, got it covered, not to worry” I continued, trying to remember my right from my left. Surprisingly, This scrawny nine year old did find himself walking along the bottom of a clear spring fed river, looking out through a glass window in the side of steel diving helmet and listening to the hiss, hiss, hiss, coming from the air hose at the top of my head. Though I was not down very long, it was one of those memories that remain fresh for the rest of your life. I took up SCUBA diving in later years but magical moments of firsts can never be duplicated.
In the interim between the ‘diving helmet’ days and my taking up actual SCUBA lessons, I tried my own hand at do it yourself Jacque Cousteau. I wanted a self contained unit that you were able to swim with, so naturally, just as my father had done decades ago, I looked at what was around me. I started with a five gallon propane tank. I would pump it up with the standard air compressor in our garage. I too learned that you have to melt and cast a lot of lead to sink a five gallon tank. I fitted the contraption onto my back with seat belts taken from an old car sitting out in a field at a farm, complete with the buckle. The ‘regulator’ consisted of a small length of clear tubing, not much more than one quarter inch in diameter. I fitted one end into the propane tank. The ‘regulator’ consisted of upper and lower molars. These impressive contraptions had been shaped by millions of years of evolution. ‘Why mess with something so tried and true’ I thought. I simply put the ‘regulator’ end of the tubing into the back of my mouth and bit down on it hard. The human bite was sufficient to block the air pressure of a 130 psi tank. The problem at first was learning how to time letting up with your bit with your breathing. Early failures resulted in an impressive amount of belching. In the end, I found that the whole thing would supply me with enough air for about fifteen minutes under water.
If anyone is thinking of duplicating my contraption (I see a run on propane tanks), look up Pulmonary Baratrauma before you try. I had no trouble, but…
In later years, I found snorkeling to be more enjoyable than SCUBA diving. I compare the two in much the same way that I would compare bicycling to motorcycling. With the more minimalist sides of the wet and dry activities, your own effort, training and skill can play as enjoyable a part of the activity as the activity itself. What I give up in speed on land, and what I give up in time on the bottom in the water, is made up for by the challenge and improvement of self.
This is a video of some free swimming I did in Belize.