Diver blown up, Sir
By Bob STEVENS
Another distinguished entry in the Naval Officers Club Literary Prize competition, 2001, this essay was published in the Naval Officers Club Newsletter No 48, March 2001, pp 4-5.
I had often wondered what it would be like to put on one of those – now old fashioned – diving suits and explore the bottom of the sea and it was while serving on a West African station, during World War II, that the chance arrived for I happened to mention it to the Base Diving Officer over a couple of pink gins.
“Of course you can have a go,” he replied, and fixed it for three days time.
The morning arrived and I stepped happily into the small launch that whisked me off to the diving-boat stationed in the centre of the harbour. I arrived, grinning away and imagining myself, in a few minutes time, tripping lightly over the ocean bed and gambolling with the mermaids – or what you will.
“It’s simple,” said the Diving Officer. “Just go down, walk around a bit, and come up when you’re tired.”
Ha! So might an Indian Fire-walker nonchalantly explain his act to an innocent bystander. One look at the diving boat filled me with misgivings. It was stacked with pipes, poles, horrible looking bits of steel and other instruments of torture. Over this, stared five villainous faces, grinning, a mixture of black and white. This was the Diving Officer’s crew, my harbingers of doom.
“Now, we’ll just get you dressed,” said a smiling sailor, with what looked like an evil glint in his eye. So, like Sir Galahad arming for the tilting green, I was surrounded by minions eager for the fun. Dressing? Sir Galahad could not have suffered more. First, I had to step into a one-piece suit, through the neck, which was much too large and I consequently got lost inside. It took some time and a lot of swearing before it was finally adjusted to my size.
Next, my feet were strapped into two large wooden boots that had obviously survived the Spanish Inquisition. Then, I was told to force my hands through the small rubber openings at the end of the sleeves. They needed no forcing. The mouth of the rating curled with scorn. “What small wrists you’ve got!” he remarked, and had to fix on two rubber bands, which almost stopped my bloodstream for the rest of the morning. Then came a pad for my shoulders on which was placed a large steel plate, which was clamped down with nuts and bolts.
Finally came the helmet, which was screwed down on to the plate. It had three little windows; one on either side and one in front, the glass of which was not yet placed into position, so I could still breathe God’s good air.
“How do you feel?” asked the Diving Officer.
“Fine,” I managed to choke out through my little window. In fact I felt completely cut off from everyone and everything.
“Well, just sit there a minute until the other diver comes up,” he said, and I began to hope the other diver would never come up.
Just sitting there, doing nothing, had a dreadful effect. I began to think about the possibilities of sharks. I could imagine air pipes breaking, boats getting wrecked, air raids that would leave me forgotten down below, and my emotions were working to a climax when one of the crew yelled out, “Diver blown up, sir!”
I shot to my feet expecting to see a horrible mass of blood and bone, when I realised it was just his quaint way of reporting that a diver had come to the surface.
“What’s the matter, sir?” asked a grinning sailor. I mumbled something about cramp, and prepared for the worst.
The next feat I had to perform was getting over the side of the boat on to a steel ladder. When I tried to step briskly over, I found that my feet were rooted to the deck.
“You can’t lift your feet over with those boots on,” said the sailor, sighing. “You have to swing each one over the side.”
So I swung one foot over with such violence that I was nearly precipitated into the water there and then. Luckily it landed on the ladder. I swung out the other foot, which went too wide and left me standing crossed legged. However I managed to stay in this position while they fixed on two heavy weights; one on my back, which pulled me back towards the sea, and the other on the front, which shot me up again.
“You now weigh over two hundred pounds,” said the Diving Officer cheerfully. He then tried to explain the intricacies of the air valve at the side of my helmet. Apparently one let it alone until one wanted to return to the surface and then one pushed the button and screwed it in.
“Now,” continued the Diving Officer, “when you get beneath the surface, push in the button for a moment. We want to see if your suit’s leaking. If you’re O.K. we’ll tug your lifeline once and you can carry on down.”
I was just about to enquire what would happen if my suit was leaking, when he fired his parting shot. “Don’t worry,” he said. “When you get to the bottom, Petty Officer Jones is waiting to take you around.”
He could not have created a better effect had he told me that a sea monster was awaiting me. For it was only yesterday that I had put Petty Officer Jones on a charge for smoking whilst on duty and I could imagine him waiting for me with a certain amount of satisfaction. However, before I could abort the mission, the front glass was screwed into place and I found myself in what seemed like a small cage, breathing rubbery air.
I was given the signal to dive and, murmuring a short prayer, I jumped into the sea. Forgetting all about the button, I sank, whether the suit leaked or no, and landed fair and square in the mud. Opposite me a shape appeared: Petty Officer Jones.
Now, I don’t know if it was an air pocket or something wrong with my suit but my left arm shot up in a magnificent Nazi salute and nothing would keep it down. Jones tugged at it but it floated gracefully up again. He tried shifting weights, did funny things to my air valve, which made a nasty noise. He even hit it in a fit of temper, but it was of no avail and I was forced to proceed like a fanatical German officer expecting all the fish to shout, “Sieg Heil!”
… leading the blind
Up to this moment, the pressure on my legs hadn’t worried me and it was not until Jones signalled me to walk forward that I became acutely conscious of it. I reeled on my heels like a drunken man for a moment and then fell flat on my back like an actor executing a spectacular death scene. I could do nothing until Jones put a rope around me and hauled me to my feet. Then, adjusting my air valve until I was buoyant enough to walk, he took both my hands in his, as though leading a blind man, and I started off.
Alas, after a few steps I found I had no control. With the extra buoyancy I was bobbing around like a balloon. I grabbed at Jones and we twirled round and round like a couple of mad dancers until our air pipes and lifelines got hopelessly mixed up and I had to stand while he untangled the mess, and I was certainly grateful that I couldn’t hear what he must have been saying. I couldn’t see much because, by now, the mud was so churned up that it resembled a heavy mist.
For something to do, and to keep my courage up, I explored my helmet. I found a little tap and turned it. This produced a sharp jet of water in my face. To this day I don’t know what it’s for. Unless it’s a trap for mugs like me.
Finally the signal came for me to return to the boat: two sharp tugs on my lifeline, which scared the hell out of me. I can imagine the sigh of relief Jones gave as he screwed down my air valve. I slowly rose to the surface, my left arm still extended, as though presenting a sword to King Arthur.
Now, some kind person could have explained beforehand that all I had to do was to let out some air to keep me vertical. But, no. My suit inflated to bursting point and I floated horizontally, incapable of doing anything. They pulled at me with boat hooks, pushed me with poles, threw ropes, screamed and shouted, while I could only wait until a sailor would cry, “Diver blown up, sir!”
At last I was deflated, dragged aboard and sent ashore, being quite definite in my mind that it would be a long time before any other ambitions were going to be realised.