The Rogue Voice


January 01, 2007

One more jump

Ronnie could not help me. He had no wetsuit or fins or dive mask. A friggin’ Stanford degree and I’m gonna die for a $1.50 abalone! What a waste of a life.

Death feels close. A breath away. The fear is unbelievable.

One more jump
A trapped abalone diver thinks of his brother above

By Dennis Cutshaw

“One more jump.”
“You’re crazy. It’s getting dark. The swell is coming up. Let’s get the hell out of here!”
“All I need is eight more abalone for an even four dozen. That’s seventy-two bucks.”
“Christ!” He shook his head, staring at the deck.
I could see my brother thinking of that juicy steak and the six-pack waiting for him back at the green shack. Especially the six-pack. From white-collar engineer to line tender on a commercial abalone diving boat—my boat, his little brother. It’d been a hard fall.
“Hand me that iron, will you?” I say.
Ronnie handed over the curved steel buggy spring we used to pry the shellfish from undersea rocks. I zipped up the wetsuit and put on the swim fins and dive mask.
“Give that popper a pull.”
He yanked the cord on the air compressor and tossed a couple of coils of the 300-foot long air hose into the heaving sea.
I buckled on the weight belt, bit into the air regulator mouthpiece, and jumped.
The cold water hit me with a shock—56 degrees. The first ten seconds was the worst, when that icy water traveled down your neck to your back. But soon my body warmed up the trapped sea water and I continued my descent.
I was beat. Tired, sore, stupefied from six straight freeze-out days on the ocean floor, under three atmospheres of pressure. Who knows how many brain cells were irreparably damaged. Fifty feet down, the sea is master—a conscious alive thing I was swimming through, with fish and eels and crabs and swaying curtains of bull kelp. Could I steal another day harvesting the succulent mollusk from it? I touched bottom at forty-seven feet on my depth meter. Visability was fair at six to 10 feet, but it was late in the day and getting darker. I windmilled the fins and took off, moving fast, scanning the terrain, peering into crevices, circling boulders, all senses poised for the elusive abalone.
Three-quarters of an hour later I had seven abalone, one short of my four-dozen goal. But I was getting cold—my fingers were begining to feel numb, and I was still mad at my brother from yesterday. It was during lunch break; Ronnie had stowed his leather gloves on my side of the compartment and I had taken them out, thrown them on the deck, and said: “Stow these where they belong.”
“Screw you,” he screamed. He grabbed the guilty pair of gloves in a frenzy and threw them into the sea. Then, for good measure, he went into his side of the storage compartment and threw his thermos and lunch into the ocean, too. Then he stormed down into the hold, crawled into a bunk, slammed the hatch closed and slept the rest of the day.
“What a loser. He never could control his temper,” I was thinking as I swam across an island of sand and came upon a massive mountain of granite, rising from the sea floor and angling up and away at a 45-degree slant. I began swimming up the grainy speckled surface when I came onto a deep gash in the rock; it was three feet wide and two feet high and narrowed as it went in deeper. I stuck my head into the crevice and, as my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I could barely make out a single, huge abalone hanging from the ceiling at the far end of the cave,
The fissure was just wide enough for me to wriggle in and, with my right arm and the the abalone iron reaching forward, and the left arm stretched back and pressed against my leg, I slowly inched deeper into the crevice. I could almost reach the abalone. Almost.
And then things went bad. Real bad.
A tremendous undersea swell exploded behind me, crushing me impossibly deeper and tighter into the crevice—so tight I could not move a single part of my body, just wiggle my fingers a little. Fear rose up and roared through me like a tornado. Adrenaline flooded into my muscles. I pushed with maniacal force. But there was no leverage; it was like trying to lift a mountain with a fingernail.
I forced myself to lie still and slowly take deep breaths.
“Don’t move, Dennis—if you lose the rubber mouthpiece of the air regulator between your teeth, you will die.”
Tons of granite pushed in on me from all sides. I could not move an eighth of an inch. Entombed in this granite vice, I could do nothing but try to fight off the waves of panic that surged through me like runaway freight trains.
Ronnie could not help me. He had no wetsuit or fins or dive mask. A friggin’ Stanford degree and I’m gonna die for a $1.50 abalone! What a waste of a life.
Just breathe, Dennis, deep and slow.
In…and out…
In…and out…
In…and out…
Death feels close. A breath away. The fear is unbelievable. It’s getting darker in my tomb. I see only grey rock before me. I feel a slight movement of cold water slipping past me. It is very quiet, just the outbreaths bubbling away.
I can do nothing. I am powerless.
My brother! Why was I so hard on him? He shows up one day. His marriage had ended. A current job hadn’t worked out. I let him sleep on the front room sofa of my shotgun shack in exchange for line tending, I never paid him a damned cent. He cooked meals, fixed up the shack—once making a table of a huge wooden telephone line spool we found floating in the ocean, sanding and glassing it ‘til it shone like teak. Me? I just ridiculed his middle-class, home improvement ways, hippie-idiot that I was….
I’m getting colder. There are no colors—everything is grey, turning dark…how long have I been here? Seven minutes? Twenty minutes…. Every cell in my body is throbbing with terror. I am afraid. I am afraid to die.
Breathing in…breathing out…
Breathing in…breathing out…
Suddenly—WHOOOSH—a huge force, like an unseen hand, seizes me—a backwash!—and I am instantly popped out of my stone prison, floating free in the water, the surface only thirty feet above me. A couple of kicks of the fins and I’m at the top, swimming back to the boat and climbing up the ladder.
“You stayed in that one area over there a long time,” Ronnie said. “I could see your bubbles—I figured you must be in a good abalone spot.”
My brother stood there on the wind-blasted deck, a three-day stubble of whiskers, dirty, torn clothes, his tired face looking like a road map of Bulgaria—crisscross ed with creases etched by sun and wind.
He was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen.
“You know what?” I said. “I’m going to give you a great big kiss.”
Ronnie didn’t say a word. He Just looked at me as if I’d said something in Chinese. But he didn’t yell, and he didn’t look around for something to throw….
Just another day in paradise.§

Dennis Cutshaw is a freelance writer who lives in Morro Bay.

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