OK, I admit it. I’m in love with an inanimate object.
But if you could see her, you’d understand. In fact you might feel the same way.
Sometimes I even wonder, if she really is inanimate? So what if she’s forty years old. So what if she’s high maintenance? So what if her paint is not as fresh as it once was?
Where else could I find a thoroughbred steed that can take me and my family whizzing across country at 160 mph, above the clouds and haze of summer, through mild or threatening weather, day or night, eating up the miles like a horse on speed.
Her heart is 200 horsepower of whirring, fuel-injected cylinders. When given her lead, her three-bladed propeller slices through the air turning it into powerful thrust, like the magic machine she is. Her graceful wings vault her into the air, reaching for heaven, and finding quiet solace two miles high.
To understand her best is to realize she’s more than a magic machine; she is veritably a time machine, leaping us across country on a time schedule simply unimaginable any other way.
And the sights from her cockpit are unmatched by any artist, especially when a mixture of stormy and clearing weather paints a palette of color and texture that exceeds the human capacity to absorb, visually.
What is left is raw emotion.
She may be inanimate, but riding her is like clinging to the back of an angel. What’s not to love?
An undercast, seen from 9000 feet
In 1971 Harry Nilsson wrote a song I’ve always loved, and now I can claim it as my own. At least I imagine it that way.
Me and my Arrow
Straighter than narrow
Wherever we go, every one knows
It’s me and my Arrow
Me and my Arrow
Taking the high road
Wherever we go, everyone knows
It’s me and my Arrow
Here is how it sounds, from Harry Nilsson himself.
Visibility was lousy that day, which made the dive just that much more exciting.
I and some U.S. Navy SEALS were cruising in shallow water searching for antiquities, when out of the gloom appeared, fuzzy at first, and then with startling clarity, a fluted Roman column lying on its side. The effect was stunning.
We were diving in Caesarea, the location of one of the finest Mediterranean ports ever built before and during the time of Christ – designed to compete with the contemporaneous port in Alexandria, Egypt.
As we swam on, we encountered large frames made of hydraulic concrete, with remnants of wood still embedded within them. I could barely believe what I was seeing! The Romans had concrete, and used it underwater?
Well, there it was. And imbedded within the concrete remained some of the original wood used within the frames.
I’ve since learned that Roman engineers used a type of hydraulic cement called pozzolana. According to a local maritime historian,
“The Romans found that when they took the volcanic powder found around Mount Vesuvius and mixed it with lime and rubble, the substance hardened in water.” … “This ‘hydraulic concrete’ was imported to Casearea and used to fill wooden frames which were then lowered into the water to lay the foundations for the port.”
At the time of our visit, the diving site was not yet open to tourists, but now it is the site of an underwater museum, through a concerted effort of archeologists and historians.
Which worries me a little. You see, on that dive I didn’t have as much weight on my weight belt as I should have, so I picked up a stone and carried it around with me throughout the dive. Of course as I surfaced from the shallow dive I left the rock on the bottom, somewhere. If that stone had some archeological significance, the information about its placement, relative to the rest of the sunken port, was destroyed by my use of it.
I can only hope that it was a ballast stone from one of the many merchant vessels visiting that port two thousand years ago. That it should serve as my personal ballast stone feels fitting somehow. It was perhaps a connection tying me to ancient mariners.
Or else, it was just conveniently located junk. But, I can imagine, can’t I?
As of 2006, Herod’s Port has been accessible to tourist divers as an Underwater Museum. Now anyone can dive there, with the benefit of waterproof underwater maps and well marked archeological artifacts.
Caesarea is not your usual diving location, but it is important enough, historically, to make it into my top three.
Twenty kilometers north of Sharm el-Sheik are four current-swept reefs that attract Red Sea divers and bountiful sea-life alike. We left for the dive site from Ras Nasrani, heading for Thomas Reef, in the middle of the current-swept Straits of Tiran.
Thomas Reef is the smallest but most popular reef for diving. Because of the current, it requires a different diving technique than the simple but awe-inspiring wall dives at Ras Mohammed. Our dive boat with some diving professionals and tourists onboard anchored just off Thomas Reef and quickly had its bow swept into the current.
The plan was to enter the water from the stern, and follow the anchor line down to a point where we could kick like mad and make our way to coral encrusted rocks. From there, it would be a fairly short swim against the current, using the rocks for assistance, until we entered the calm water in the lee of the reef.
Thomas Reef provides a unique dive site due to the sea life attracted to the current. Because of that, it is well worth negotiating the heavy flow; rewards awaited the determined diver. In my case, a surprise awaited me as well.
As I let loose of the anchor chain, I could clearly see the steeply sloping bottom features of the reef, where I was headed. I spotted my target rock and kicked mightily until it was in my grasp. Now anchored, I had time to survey the beauty around me, and plan my next step. It was then that I noticed that an inch way from my naked right hand, the one firmly grasping the rock, sat not just another stone, but a stone with eyes.
It was in fact, something far more dangerous than a stone — it was a stonefish.
Stonefish are reputed to be the most venomous fish in the world. Had I grabbed it instead of its stony neighbor, glands at the base of its many dorsal spines would have flooded my bare hand with venom. The sting causes intense pain; with the affected body part swelling rapidly, potentially leading to death of tissues.
Just how bad the symptoms become depends on the anatomical location of the punctures, depth of penetration and the number of spines involved. The effects of the venom are muscle weakness, temporary paralysis and shock, which, if encountered during a scuba dive in a strong current, could make a safe return to the dive boat somewhat difficult. If not treated, the incident could prove fatal.
The emergency treatment required is much more than is likely to have been available on a chartered dive boat. As breathtaking as a Red Seas trip promises to be, you might stumble across critters that can take your breath away, literally. So a check of the closest and most capable medical facility should be high on your pre-dive checklist.
No doubt about it, if I had grabbed the wrong “stone” I would have been in a world of hurt; and probably in a lot of trouble with my dive buddies as well since that trip would have been brought to a sudden and exciting conclusion.
Oh yeah, once I overcame my surprise, and moved on, ever so carefully to the lee of the island-like reef, the experience was everything I had come to expect from the Red Sea.
I’ve read a couple of books lately where the author, critically injured in an accident, experiences what seems to be a visit to heaven, followed by a swift return to Earth. The most recent such book was Flight to Heaven, by CAPT Dale Black, a plane crash survivor.
A common theme in these books is that the author finds colors in Heaven to be much purer and vibrant than any colors seen on Earth. Well, I know a place just like that, and for a diver it must indeed be heaven on Earth. It’s called the Red Sea.
Sharm el-Sheik and Ras Muhammad are located on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, where the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba meet the Red Sea. On my first dive at Ras Mohammed, as I sank below the water’s surface I saw a wall of color that defied description. The phrase, “a riot of color”, is a cliché, but that is what I saw. It was as if every inch of the reef was shouting for attention, clamoring to be the most colorful, the most interesting piece of rock ever created. I was stunned — in sensory overload from the beginning to the end of that dive.
At Ras Muhammad, the coral encrusted wall dropped at a dizzying angle, headed for depths of 3000 feet, 1000 m, a very short distance from shore. I had planned a dive to no more than sixty feet, where the natural light was bright enough to show off the colors cascading downward, towards what seemed to be a bottomless abyss. But at sixty feet I saw a never ending waterfall of fauna, just a few feet below me, and then below that, even more. The colors were still spectacular even at that depth, defying all the laws of physics as I understood them.
When I realized I was twenty feet below my planned dive depth, a curious thing happened. I stopped searching for the next most beautiful thing, stopped my descent, but for a few moments I had an almost overwhelming desire to throw rational thought aside and continue down into the abyss.
I understood the consequences of that action, had I continued deeper, but the experience in that moment seemed to transcend my worth as a human being. The living communal organism, and all the life forms sustained by it, clutching close to the wall, seemed to have much greater significance in the whole scheme of things than I did. I felt a kinship, perhaps pointing to our theorized evolutionary beginnings, that made it seem that where I was, was where I belonged.
My Navy travels have afforded me the privilege of diving in some of the most interesting places. In this, and the next couple of posts, I list my top three diving destinations.
I’ve been diving on the Australia’s Great Barrier Reef on two occasions, both times departing for the reef from Cairns, pronounced like the first syllable in “Kansas”. The first trip was to the inner reef, a short boat ride away from the docks. That experience was OK, but not what I had expected. It seemed like the reef had been abused by massive diver and snorkler populations which had not treated the reef with the respect it deserved.
On my second trip to Australia on Navy diving business, I traveled with the Commanding Officer of the Navy Experimental Diving Unit, CDR (later CAPT) Jim Wilkins.
From Cairnes we took a fast boat to a liveabord vessel anchored on the outer reef. It was a beautiful 140 ft. tall schooner, SV Atlantic Clipper. And that made all the difference.
During the diving season the Clipper is stationed on the outer reef, and shuttles divers to four diving locations; Norman Reef, Saxon Reef, Hastings Reef, and Michaela’s Reef. Each location featured different underwater vistas, showing an overwealming diversity of colorful reef animals. On a typical day we’d make three daylight dives of varying depths plus a night dive.
After one memorable night dive we walked up the long gangway to the deck, shed, cleaned and stowed our dive gear, and then, attracted by commotion at the bow, found a cluster of divers feeding large fish while six or more Bronze Whaler sharks circled amongst the fish, which seemingly paid the sharks no mind at all. The fish knew where the sharks were at all times, and only the healthiest, quickest fish dared feed in such proximity to the large predator. The agile fish apparently felt confident they could dodge the far more cumbersome sharks, because while we watched, not a sinlge fish was taken.
I, on the other, was not quite so agile. And I admit that it bothered me a bit that while I had been swimming through the dark to a dive ladder on the port side of the vessel, near the stern, Bronze Whalers were circling alongside the port bow. But the ship’s crew assured me that the Bronze Whalers were “not particularly dangerous.” They had attacked spearfisherman and “bathers”, but the attacks had not been fatal.
Well, that’s comforting, I thought.
I have to say the most memorable series of dives were with the magnificent Green sea turtles. To observe such beautiful and docile creatures in their native environment was probably the highlight of the entire trip.
During one of the many dives I learned a valuable lesson about diving with diveboat gear. Through the years I’d been diving, since 1964, the equipment was either my own, or belonged to the Navy, and was always maintained in like-new condition. It may have looked battered, but mechanically it was pristine.
As Jim Wilkins and I descended through 60 feet on one dive, I noticed my regulator was becoming increasingly difficult to breathe. I checked my bottle pressure, and there was plenty of air – the dive was just starting. But whether I understood it or not, it was becoming harder and harder to breathe – by the second. I finally took action by grabbing my dive-buddy’s octopus regulator (a back-up regulator), and together we slowly ascended to the surface.
Back on the boat I discovered my tank valve was not fully turned on. Why not, I wondered?
Well, the valve was worn, and generated a considerable resistance before it was fully open. As I am accustomed, I had turned the valve until I met resistance and stopped. That is a good way to prevent damaging a well working valve, but that particular tank valve was not working as smoothly as it should. It fooled me.
Chalk one up to lessons learned.
Without a doubt, the series of dive made from the Atlantic Clipper were among the most memorable of my diving career. In upcoming posts I’ll describe Red Sea dives at Sharm El Sheik and Ras Mohammad, followed by a dive at Herod’s Port, in old Caesarea, Israel.
Sometimes weather makes for an altogether bad flying day.
The luxurious turboprop was speeding through turbulent skies, using its radar to pick its way around southern thunderstorms, en route to a quail hunting plantation just across the Georgia-Florida border. The craft had left Cleveland with my wife and one-year old son on board. Occasionally the plane was jolted so hard my wife feared her head would strike the ceiling of the spacious cabin. I, remaining in Cleveland, was praying for their safe arrival in Florida.
I had met the King Air pilot, David Ingalls, at the airport in Thomasville, Georgia a couple of months previously when he landed to refuel before flying back to Cleveland. He was returning from one of his frequent bird hunting trips to his antebellum plantations (yes, plural is correct. He owned two.) My wife and I frequented the Thomasville airport because we had our two-seater Cessna 150 hangared there while I was in graduate school at Florida State University. In 1976 I was finishing my Ph.D. and was about to move to Cleveland, Ohio to work as a research Associate in Biophysics at the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine.
The airport manager, knowing we were about to move up north, suggested I talk to the King Air owner because Ingalls lived in Cleveland. Apparently he was supposed to have owned part of Pan American Airlines, and had served as an aviator in World War I. That explained why he looked to be in his mid-seventies at the time, albeit a virile, well-preserved seventies.
I approached the pilot as he was inspecting his aircraft, and mentioned that we were moving to Cleveland, and before I knew it he had invited my wife to fly back to Florida with him anytime she wanted. He explained that he made frequent hunting trips with his business associates, and he usually had a couple of empty seats on board the aircraft. My wife had been thrilled at the offer.
At the moment however, my wife was having second thoughts about the trip as the turbulence seemed to be shaking the plane apart. But eventually the storms gave way to smoother air as the aircraft sped towards the Florida border. Unfortunately, the foul weather was soon replaced by low-lying fog which covered their intended landing site, the grass strip at one of his plantations.
As the aircraft descended into the murk, searching for the runway, my wife started praying. She had seen no sign of land through the thick clouds, and she knew they were far from any regular airport. As the time on the approach counted down she finally caught sight of the pine tree tops just beneath the plane’s wheels. Other than someone calling “pull up, pull up” just at the end, the landing was smooth; but baby boy wasn’t the only one with a wet diaper that day, figuratively speaking.
Ten years later when I was working for the Navy diving community in the Washington D.C. area (Bethesda, MD actually), I came across his obituary in the Washington Post. I never read obituaries, but by some great coincidence, I saw his. As I read, I saw he was the REAL DEAL.
Not until many years later did I find out more about David Ingalls. We were in Panama City where I was still working for Navy diving, eating lunch with my family at an aviation-themed restaurant, and on the wall next to our booth was a print of a British plane shooting down a German fighter. It was a lucky shot we were told, but it placed a very young Ingalls in the history books as the U.S. Navy’s only WWI fighter ace. He was nineteen years old.
While later visiting the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, FL we saw a plaque commemorating LTjg Ingalls. Well, we began to realize that the King Air pilot had not only been the real deal, he had been a very BIG deal; and yet he had remained entirely humble and personable.
David Ingalls, born in 1899, was a grandnephew of President Taft, and by 1929 had become the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Aeronautics, a personal friend of President Hoover. He served throughout the Second World War, and retired with the rank of Rear Admiral. And he was indeed a Director for Pan Am World Airways.
As they say, weather is no respecter of persons. But that day, the airplane and its passengers arrived safely, due no doubt to the sophisticated electronics in that aircraft and the consumate skill of the pilot. Admiral Ingalls lived another 10 years, and that baby boy is now a Navy Flight Surgeon.
In some places, the food chain gets down-right personal. In the high Arctic, a careless human is not a top predator; he is a meal. Polar Bears are methodical hunters, showing no fear of humans. When hungry, they are white death on paws.
In 2007 the U.S. Navy and I were helping the Smithsonian Institution Scientific Diving Program teach a course on under-ice diving in Ny-Alesund, Svalbard, an international research town a relatively short distance from the North Pole. Ny-Alesund is the most-northern continuously occupied settlement, and is occupied year-round by scientists and support personnel.
The fjord adjacent to Ny-Alesund is normally covered in 4-5 feet of sea ice in the springtime, making it an ideal location for training in under-ice diving. To gain access to the water, ringed seals travel some distance from land to find holes penetrating the ice, through which they enter and exit the water beneath the ice. And polar bears walk out on the ice to patiently wait for the seals to reappear, and be gobbled up.
In 2007, the sea ice was gone. The polar bears’ food was not concentrated around breathing holes, and thus the bears were not catching many seals. They were hungry.
By law, the resident and visiting scientists had to carry rifles with them when they ventured away from the icy town to do research in the surrounding hills. But in town, no weapons were required. Polar Bears simply didn’t come into town.
Until one night.
There is only one bar in Ny-Alesund, and it specialized in serving Jesus Drinks during parties. A Jesus Drink is any alcoholic mixture served with glacial ice that is roughly two thousand years old. Get it?
On the night of the bear sighting, a petite Australian doctor friend of mine was walking back from the bar alone, and as she approached the dormitories, she saw a polar bear passing along the side of the dorm I was in. As it disappeared around a corner of the building she was left wondering if she was hallucinating. To make sure of what she saw, she ran across the end of the building just in time to see the white bear reemerge, calmly walking down a snowy road. Since she was close by, I clearly heard her yell the alarm, “Polar Bear in Town!”
The bear was headed towards the area where about a dozen Greenland Huskies, used for pulling sleds, were tied down for the night. So the deathly calm of the Arctic night was shattered by a female doctor yelling at the top of her lungs, while the vulnerable dogs were barking to save their lives — literally.
Of course I hopped out of bed, threw on my multiple layers of Long Johns, slipped into my Arctic parka and gloves and headed out the door to see the bear.
As luck would have it, our experienced dive team leader from the Smithsonian was walking in as I was headed out.
“John, you’re heading outside, in the dark, with a bear close by, and you have no gun.”
“Hmm… I see what you mean.” I hadn’t looked at it from the perspective of a hungry bear. I turned around and went back to bed.
The next morning we found bear tracks a plenty. The dogs had scared off the bear apparently, since he didn’t claim any animals. Lucky dogs.
Well, the next evening we happened to have a party, with plenty of glowing blue Jesus ice. Although the walk to the bar, down a snowy road with no protection from the elements had not seemed daunting in the fading polar daylight, things were different when I returned to the dorm about midnight, by myself.
There was no moon so the sky was pitch black, but everything else was white, except for me. My parka was brown, and in retrospect made me look a bit like a muffin. And of course I knew that out there in the whiteness, somewhere, was a brazen, hungry bear looking for a snack.
I had never thought of myself as a potential meal, until then.
My head was on a swivel, and my not-yet dark adapted eyes were peering towards the most distant snow and ice, in all directions, looking for a movement that might warn me of a bear. And then the huskies started yelping again, in obvious alarm. That was when I realized that by the time I saw the white on white predator, he would have me. They’re fast, and I had nowhere to run for safety. I was in the open.
That is a curious feeling, knowing that you could be taken like a hunter takes a deer.
I wondered how badly it would hurt.
Well, with that Jesus ice coursing through my veins, I felt safe. That is, I felt safe once I was back in the dorm, snug in my bed.
As I lay there trying to fall asleep, I couldn’t help but reflect on how primal a fear it is, that fear of being eaten.
You are 100 feet down using scuba, with your dive light spotlighting the most exotic looking Sea Hare you’ve ever seen.
It’s noon at McMurdo Station, Antarctica but it’s dark at your depth because between you and the surface of the Ross Sea lies19 feet of snow-covered ice. Your dive buddy has drifted about 100 feet away, but you can see him without hindrance in the gin clear water of the early Antarctic springtime.
The 800 foot water visibility also means you can easily see the strobe light hanging on the down line 200 feet away, the line leading to the three and a half foot diameter hole bored through the ice.
Under these conditions, you should not have to worry about your regulator, but you do, because you know that any scuba regulator can fail in 28° F water, given enough opportunity. You also know that some regulators tolerate these polar conditions better than others, and you are using untested regulators, so yours might free-flow massively at any moment.
Should that happen, you have a back-up plan; you will shut off the free flow of air from your failed regulator with an isolation valve, remove the failed second stage from your numb and stiff lips and switch to a separate first and second stage regulator on your bottle’s Y-shaped slingshot manifold, after first reaching back and opening the manifold valve. Of course, that backup regulator could also free-flow as soon as you start breathing on it – as has already happened to one of your fellow test divers.
In that situation you would have no choice except to continue breathing from what feels like a torrent of liquid nitrogen, teeth aching from the frigid air chilled to almost intolerable temperatures by unbridled adiabatic expansion, until you reach your dive buddy and convince him that you need to borrow his backup regulator. Once he understands the gravity of the situation, that two of your regulators have failed, then the two of you would buddy-breathe from his single 95 cu ft bottle as you head slowly towards the strobe marking the ascent line. And of course he will be praying that his own primary regulator doesn’t fail during that transit.
Once you reach the ascent line you are still not out of difficulty. The two of you cannot surface together through the narrow 19-foot long borehole. So you would remove your regulator once again and start breathing off a pony bottle secured to the down line. Once it is released from the line, you can then make your ascent to the surface; but only if a 1300-pound Weddell seal has not appropriated the hole. In a contest for air, the seal is far more desperate following an 80 minute breath-hold dive, and certainly much more massive than you. Weddells are like icebergs – their cute small face sits atop a massive body that is a daunting obstacle for any diver.
But you even have a plan for that — you’ve heard that Weddell seals don’t like bubbles, and they get skittish about having their fins tugged on, and will thus relinquish the hole to you. … At least, that’s what you’ve been told. You certainly hope he would leave before you consume the meager amount of air in your pony bottle.
The text above was taken from a U.S. Navy Faceplate article I wrote concerning a 2009 Smithsonian Institution sponsored diving expedition to Antarctica in which I participated. On and under-the-ice photos were taken by expedition members Drs. Martin Sayer and Sergio Angelini.
Music Appreciation classes notwithstanding, I sense that the best way to become absorbed in music is to sit in the middle of it, in an orchestra or choir, and to be part of the organic music-making machine. Although I am not from a strongly musical family, my mother was a dancer and dance instructor, and we owned one of those cool Hammond Drawbar organs, on which I learned basic chord structure. Mom and Dad bought me a clarinet in 4th grade, letting me graduate to a beautiful LeBlanc clarinet by the time I was in high school. It is still, many years later, one of my greatest treasures.
In college I usually traded the clarinet for a guitar, which was a more sociable instrument for the college crowd.
Sadly, I let my musical skills atrophy somewhat with age, but that instrumental passion has been replaced by a broader love of good music, and an imperative to pass that love on to my children and grandchildren.
My wife is a keyboardist, and we have owned two pianos and two organs, with our living room currently filled by a Yamaha Grand piano. Our family room is, I shouldn’t say filled, exactly, but accented by a “Baby” Grand, to wit a pink Barbie Grand just the right size for a 2-3 year old toddler/preschooler.
Although I am not a music professional, I started training my children with a simple rule. You guessed it, “Only classical music on Sunday.” We could rock our hearts out six days of the week, but Sunday was for God, and classical music.
I guess that simple rule paid off: my son sings and plays the guitar, and was the leader of a darned good band in high school and college. He married a violinist and pianist, and they own a piano that his 10-year-old daughter plays superbly. She is far more accomplished than I was at her age.
Our daughter recently retired her electronic key board “with piano-like action”, and bought a real piano, with far-better feel to it. She plays our Grand with a skill and beauty that is mesmerizing.
Now, this is where the fun begins: the musical education of a 3-year old, my daughter’s daughter.
So, where to start?
I began with an animated version of Peter and the Wolf, starring Kirstie Allie and my Sea Hunt diving hero, Lloyd Bridges. While the animation captures the attention of our preschooler, she cannot help but be affected by the Sergei Prokofiev score. Of course, I point out to her which instruments are portraying which characters, with my favorite being, no surprise, the clarinet – aka the cat!
It helps that the little one sits in my lap so I’m free to cuddle her, and ooh and awe over the beauty of the music, and when suitably inspired, conduct the orchestra, as if it needed my conducting. At any rate, she gets reinforcement that the music is special – not just the animation.
Now for diversity. The next music I started playing was found in Fantasia, both the original version that I loved as a child, and the 2000 version which I’ve only recently seen. They are both spectacular on a hi-res computer monitor – and I don’t even have Blu Ray.
What prompted me to write this blog is the stunning compatibility between the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, one of my favorite composers, and the Disney animators who put Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the “Steadfast Tin Soldier” to music. This combination must send this 3-year old into sensory overload. At least it has that effect on me.
Just as I was immersed in music during my formative years, Little Preschooler is close to the screen, surrounded by the music, and getting positive reinforcement from Granddaddy. Isn’t that how you teach music to children?
Let me share with you Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and The Steadfast Tin Soldier. Remember, the actual DVD is far better quality.