Wednesday, January 20, 2010

This is a true story. I just can't remember if there were two or three. Oh my!


Dad and I were diving Lake Mead at the Cliffs the day I found a duffle bag with three heads in it.

We were down on the bottom at seventy-five feet, visibility not so hot, although we’d both been careful to keep our swim fins aimed away from the mucky bottom. It only took one kick of a fin to stir up a cloud of mud that brought visibility to ziltch for twenty feet around us. I’d stopped to check out a sparkle in the mud (turned out to be a beer can), and when I looked up dad had disappeared again. He was the worst dive buddy in the world. Once you got down on the bottom, he’d be off like a shot, his head swiveling back and forth, raking the bottom with his eagle eyes, intent on being the first one to find anything and find more of it than anybody else.

We always hoped for treasure, like a gold chain, or a wallet full of money, but mostly we only found trash. Stuff that people dropped overboard off their boats.

When I saw him gone, I laughed into my regulator, blowing a stream of wasted bubbles towards the surface. No way was I going to try and chase after him: been there, done that. He was probably thirty or forty yards away by then and never would look back. It was extremely bad dive etiquette on his part, but that was dad.

So I shrugged and began my own slow cruise along the irregular, bumpy bottom keeping my eyes peeled for any unnatural shape or lump or color, I’d been trained by the master. Six inches of a rope lying in the muck might lead to a long buried anchor. It didn’t matter that dad had found hundreds of anchors over the years – they were still coveted finds. Sunglasses were also a hot ticket item. Our record in one day was twenty-six pairs: four of them Vuarnets! I had to haggle like hell with dad to keep those Vuarnets, even though he couldn’t even wear them. Dad’s belief was that because we were on his boat, using his gas, and his air tanks, on his lake, anything we found together was rightfully his.

The bottom along the stretch we were diving that day was full of sudden drop offs and unexpected cliff walls. I had to keep looking up to make sure I wasn’t about to bonk my head into a wall. I also kept checking my depth gauge after swimming over a ridge and down into the abyss of a ravine to make sure I didn’t go too deep. A diver doesn’t have much bottom time at one hundred feet, just a few minutes.

I wasn’t finding much of anything, one decent lure tangled so badly in a drowned creosote bush it took me ten minutes to get it out. I followed a ridge line for a while before checking my compass and realizing I was headed straight out into the middle of the damn lake. So I turned around lined up my compass and followed the ridge line back towards shore. I was still at sixty feet when I ran into a cliff face and got spooked when my tank clanged into the overhang above me.

I had an interesting moment of a short news video playing in my mind where the overhang had collapsed onto my body and I was trapped sixty feet deep with no one knowing where I was. This is one good reason to never dive alone.

By the time I swam clear of the overhang and stopped hyperventilating, I’d kicked up so much muck I could barely see my hand in front of my face. I decided to head back to the boat. Mom had dropped dad and I off at the west end of the cliff wall and would be sitting in a little cove on the boat at the east end waiting for us to finish our dive; she would have lunch ready and cold beers.

All I had to do was to keep that cliff wall on my left side and I would be sitting on the Sea Ray eating a ham sandwich and drinking a Corona in a few minutes. I kept my fingers on the wall until I passed the brown smog I’d kicked up. Once I got in clear water I calmed down a tad and started prospecting for stuff again.

Off to my right I caught a glimpse of white, definitely not a rock. I swam towards it entertaining the possibilities: blanket? Towel? Garbage bag? When I got close enough to see the straps I knew it was a perfectly good, probably expensive, nylon duffle bag. I could tell by the plumped out cylindrical shape that it was full of something. What could be in it? Maybe it was full of money. Hallelujah! That would make my day. Family history said it was possible. (My folks had once found a bag of money in the lake. I have a picture of mom laying out wet bills in a grid on the shop floor. I can’t tell if they’re 20’s or 100’s even with a magnifying glass, but there were rows and rows of them. They never did tell me how much it was, it was their paranoid secret.)

I picked up the white bag by its green webbing handles and hefted it off the bottom. It was heavier than paper money would have been. Damn! So then I started thinking: jewelry, coins, something wonderfully valuable. The zipper was closed all the way and I wanted to open it then and there at seventy-five feet in the muck. But I recalled dad’s first rule of underwater salvage that he had drilled into my head. Never open anything underwater – wallet, bag, car door, anything! If there’s money inside, it will likely disintegrate and you’ll be shit-out-a-luck.

So I eyeballed the cliff wall again to orient myself, direction wise, and started swimming for the boat. The more I swam the more excited and curious I got. What was in the bag? In my excitement, I was sucking down air out of my tank like crazy and my fingers itched to yank that zipper open. But no, remember what dad said, I told myself. Well it wouldn’t hurt to just shake it a little – or hey – maybe just feel the bag. That might give me a clue.

So I stopped swimming in the murky water and held the bag in both hands, squeezing it with my eyes shut, hoping for a vision of wealth. It felt like one…two…three big round things. Hmmmm. Three big round things, now what could that be? Some kind of sports equipment? Balls, maybe. I squeezed again: too small for basketballs, soccer balls would be closer. Just get to the boat where you can open it, Chris, I told myself. So I started swimming again.

Suddenly, I had this truly terrifying thought. Those round things were just about the size of my head. I felt my head with one hand and the round things in the bag with the other and freaked out! I screamed into my regulator, “Dad!” But of course, he was no where in sight. Swim for the boat, swim for the boat! Then I was kicking like an Olympic champion swimmer for the finish line.

It can’t be true. I’m imagining things. I can’t be carrying three people’s heads in this bag. I can’t! I couldn’t get the gruesome possibilities out of my head.

If I just stopped for a minute and opened the zipper a little way and peaked inside the bag, I might be able to stop freaking out. What if it is heads? I’m sure it isn’t! What if it is?

Finally I couldn’t stand the suspense or my terror for another second and I stopped swimming and carefully set my flippers down on the closest rock. I held the bag as far away from my body as I could, and tugged the zipper pull, one inch…two inches… five, twelve – and then I watched in horror as long dense strands of brown hair slowly drifted out of the opening.

I’m pretty sure I screamed. I know for sure that I squeezed my eyes shut as tightly as I could. The hair was bad enough; I did not want any gory pictures burned into the retinas of my eyes or my brain. I opened the zipper the rest of the way and dumped whatever it was out of the bag, swimming frantically away from it and furiously waving the bag behind me with one arm to get every last speck and hair out. You see, I really wanted that bag.

On the other hand, I was so creeped out by what I had seen, that I was desperate to be out of the water, in the sun, in the boat with my mom and dad, safe from the creepy- crawly feeling that pulsed all over my body, and safe from what lay behind me in the lake.

I angled up towards the surface as quickly as I could safely do so, until I broke out into the sunshine. And then I thrashed along the edge of the cliff face like a crazed woman until I rounded the last point and saw our boat. I should have gotten a medal for that last speed sprint with all my dive gear dragging on me. Mom and dad were sitting in the cockpit of the boat, calmly eating lunch in the sun when I clawed my way onto the teak swim platform with relief.

“Find anything?” dad asked while I stripped off gear: mask, fins, weight belt, BC, tank, regulator, gauges.

“I found this duffle bag,” I shouted, flopping the stinking thing on the teak. “And it had three heads in it!”

Dad dropped his sandwich and gave me his immediate attention. “Heads? What heads? Where’s the heads?”

“Back there! Out there!” I waved out at the water I’d just been delivered from. “I dumped em out.”

“You what? Let’s go back and get em!”

“Fuck you!” I told my father. “I am not going back to look for heads. You want to go look for heads, rock out, go look for heads – I’m not going!” I yelled at the sky, “I need a beer!” Mom got me the beer and a sandwich, but I couldn’t eat. By the time I’d told them the whole story I was exhausted and mom had talked dad out of going back. “You’re not bringing any heads onto this boat,” she said. Then we stowed our dive gear and dad drove the Sea Ray back to Vegas Wash Marina where we put her on the trailer and went home.

I never dove that spot again with dad. I had nightmares about the hair for a while, and I washed that duffle bag over and over trying to get the smell out. After all, as dad would say, it was “a perfectly good” duffle bag. But I finally threw it away.

I’ve been forever thankful that I shut my eyes after seeing the hair. Because even though I still have that image of wafting hair stuck in my mind, if I really concentrate (in the light of day), I can almost convince myself that those heads were actually soccer balls.

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