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NOTE: This was for a feature in Today’s Chiropractic Lifestyle called “Things to Do Before I Die.” I wanted the reader to relate to my feelings because what I was writing about wasn’t all that dramatic per se. So the story acknowledges that up front and pleads with the reader to bear with me. At one point I even ask, “Can you relate to this?” The piece was historically linear and thus easy to write until I got toward the end. It took me many tries to write the last couple of paragraphs because I didn’t want to be too blatant in tying my experience in old age to my youthful dreams; I was fighting for the reader to get a little splash of surprise. Then, when I hit on changing the “gold” doubloons early in the piece to “golden” doubloons in the punch line (as in golden years, get it?), I knew I had a winner.

SCUBA Diving No Matter What

scuba image

By Randy Heuston

I know, I know. SCUBA diving is no big deal to most of you.

Readers of Today’s Chiropractic Lifestyle expect these pages to be filled with inspiring sagas of extraordinary people doing extraordinary things. SCUBA diving is rather ordinary, and thousands of ordinary people enjoy it. Some of you living the chiropractic lifestyle sprint up Mt. Everest with 100-pound back packs, jump out of jet planes with cocktail napkins for parachutes and dash gleefully through Pamplona with bulls’ horns a hair breadth from your perfectly toned derrieres. If you expect this to be about diving to the floor of the Mariana Trench, forget it. No, this is definitely in the bucket list category, just a little personal to-do before the dying of the light.

To understand why this was on my list you need to understand the imaginings of a puny, asthmatic boy growing up more in the fantasy world of books than in the glow of physical accomplishment. Still, living in Florida during the early 1950’s—my dad moved us there thinking the salt air would help my asthma—I had done some snorkeling with a buddy. Our crowded junior high was on a split schedule, and we were assigned to ride the bus to school in the afternoons. Instead, we bucked the system.

Somehow we talked our parents and the principal into letting us ride our bikes (they didn’t have gears back then) five miles to school every morning so we could go snorkeling in the afternoons. For a dive float we stuffed a bushel basket into the hole of an inner tube. For an anchor we tied a clothesline to the basket handle and imbedded the other end in a coffee can filled with cement. We would paddle out to the coral reefs off Hollywood and Dania, Florida—not much as reefs go—and dive down seven or eight feet to bring home conch shells and try to spear fish. With the afternoon sun tanning our backs, kicking about on the cool, rolling Atlantic Ocean, peering through our masks at an occasional lobster sashaying along the bottom… snorkeling was great!...

The next year my family moved back to Illinois. (The asthma had gotten a little better.) It was the mid-1950s, and Jacques Cousteau and a colleague had recently invented the aqualung, triggering popular interest in diving with self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, or SCUBA. I would sit in my room for hours, wheezing and staring at the brilliant four-color photos in the National Geographic about Cousteau and the “silent world.”

I fantasized a lot about diving with my own SCUBA gear and finding a pirate’s chest of gold doubloons. Snorkeling was no longer enough. I wanted to go deeper. I needed to learn to SCUBA dive. My dreams were a mini-version of what my hero Jacques Cousteau said when he first stepped into the Mediterranean:  

“Sometimes we are lucky enough to know that our lives have been changed, to discard the old, embrace the new, and run headlong down an immutable course. It happened to me… when my eyes were opened on the sea.”

Well, my eyes were opened on the sea, but unlike Cousteau my life took a bunch of detours along its course. Like high school, college, marriage, jobs, volunteer work and raising a couple of daughters.Besides, there aren’t many coral reefs in Illinois. Sure, there were opportunities to learn SCUBA, but they always seemed to cost too much time or money for life’s demands. You know how it is, right? Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.

SCUBA diving stayed written on my bucket list for more than 50 years….

Then, during this winter break, my wife and I took our oldest daughter to the Florida Keys. Next to our rented condo on Key Largo was the Amy Slate Dive Resort. We walked over to check it out. They take experienced divers out day and night, provide certification and equipment, and offer tourists “Discover SCUBA.” In the morning you’re in the pool getting used to the gear; in the afternoon you go to the reefs. I put my money down. The fun would start the next day.

However, something happens as the years go by. The risks you took when you were young don’t seem so inviting later in life, do they? Perhaps you had some brushes with death or disability along the way. Particularly when you cross the 65-year-old threshold, the world tells you to start folding your tent. Life seems more about what you can’t do than what you can. Act your age, old-timer….

But I didn’t sleep well with it. What if I had an asthma attack?  What about sharks? What about giant squid? Maybe I’ll just cancel the whole deal. Let’s not be stupid. If they won’t give me a refund, it’s only money. Stop being a silly old man. Nobody is expecting you to do this.

Nobody but a frail boy in Illinois 50 years ago. Oh, and let’s not forget Dylan Thomas. He’d expect it:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light….

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

So the next day I sat by the pool while our 28-year-old dive instructor, Christy, taught me and a 15-year-old boy (the age I was when I started dreaming about SCUBA diving) about the regulator, the buoyancy vest and all the rest. We got into the water, practiced equalizing the pressure on our ears, adjusted the buoyancy and kicked our way along the bottom. Christy was great, but this was harder than I had imagined. When I wavered, she said, “You’re going to do this and enjoy it. I’ll see to that.” I got ready to take my “frail deeds to dance in a green bay.”

And that afternoon, a few miles off Key Largo, we did just that. The boy and I got our gear on without embarrassing ourselves in front of the boatful of experienced divers and jumped into the water without incident. Once below, Christy held my arm much of the time as I steered clumsily around the brown coral reef 30 or 35 feet down. Some of the coral formations were 15 feet high. There was a coral bridge to swim under. Lots of delicate coral fans, several schools of brightly colored fish, a four-foot Manta ray half buried in the sand, a couple of barracuda. No sharks. No asthma or panic attacks. No worries….

Was the experience as enchanting and awe-inspiring as the brochures promised? My ears hurt, the weight belt kept slipping down, it was tricky keeping the right buoyancy, and it was exhausting. So, no, not really. You get a better view of the undersea world at the Georgia Aquarium. But this wasn’t really about seeing it. It was about doing it. Can you relate to this?

For your dreams in life you have to get on a bike with no gears at seven in the morning with your cornet case, your lunch pail, your textbooks and your swim fins banging on your back and ride the five miles rain or shine or the wind in your face. Sometimes you have to dive under the waves crashing on the beach, get about a pint of salt water up your nose, drag along the raggedy old inner tube you patched yourself and kick a few hundred yards off shore whether you can really swim or not.

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

My wife, my daughter and Christy all said they were proud of me. I was proud of me too. I felt, well… younger. Not exactly a kid again but probably as close as it gets. Back at the dive center I bought a T-shirt imprinted with a pirate skull in a crimson bandana over crossed cutlasses. Sweet! Step aside, babies. This burning, raving, raging old salty dog is coming through.

I told them all I absolutely had gotten my money’s worth. And then some. You see, it’s worth a lot to go as deep as you can.  

It’s like a chest of golden doubloons.







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