Breathing Underwater/Creative Nonfiction
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Editor’s note: Moving deftly between a teenaged boy’s perspective and a more mature point of view, Mark Montgomery’s “Breathing Underwater” presents a funny and poignant account of a boy’s relationship with his father, and the high jinks and wilderness adventures that define it. The story shows how our most vivid memories are often sparked by the natural world and our interactions with others within it, and the ways a life-and-death experience can shape both those memories and our later selves.
– Leslie Heywood, Editor, Creative Nonfiction
by Mark Montgomery
In 1977, after divorcing my mother, Pop flies to Santiago, Chile. There, he buys two thoroughbred racehorses and perms his hair. Returning, he spends much of the next two years in LA — the fast-lane of thoroughbred-owner society in California. In time, he invites me to join his So-Cal horse racing society, pulling me out of school, so I can join him for long weekends at Hollywood Park or Santa Anita. I meet trainers and jockeys and grooms and exercise riders. I meet professional horse-players with nicknames like Bigbird and D-Double. I meet Telly Savalas—TV’s Kojak, the lollipop sucking tough cop and fellow horse owner, who says, “Hey, Kid,” and winks at me. I learn to handicap races. The Daily Racing Form, or “DRF” to those in Pop’s new circle, becomes my bible. Pop and I sleep in motels and eat all our meals in restaurant bars or coffee shops with other horse-players, who teach me about parlays and exactas and how to play liar’s poker. We get up at 5:00 am to watch certain horses train. Pop takes scrupulous notes, a habit I’m quick to mimic.
I decide I want to be a jockey, but Hector Palma, Pop’s horse trainer, shakes his head, assessing my career as he might a foal. “Too big,” he says. “He’d never make Bug weight.” “Bug” is short for “Bug Boy,” a term for apprentice jockeys whose weight must stay below 105 pounds to give their mounts an edge. The other problem is the minute I touch a horse, my eyes start to itch and I sneeze and wheeze and cough. Hector says I’m allergic to the horse dander. He’s seen it before. To prove him wrong, I volunteer to work for him one Saturday, “no charge,” I tell him. “Any job you need done.”
I spend my first day on the job shoveling out stalls and brushing horses. By lunchtime both of my eyes are swollen shut and I can’t breath. I feel anxious, claustrophobic, like I’m trying to breathe underwater. Hector finds me slumped in the corner of a stall wheezing. An hour later I’m in the emergency room, where a nurse administers steroids to open my constricted lungs. My fleeting dream of rounding the clubhouse turn 15 lengths back, and piloting Pop’s prize filly through traffic down the stretch, comes to an abrupt and asthmatic halt.
Pop’s career in horse racing is cut equally short. He has some successes — one of his mares wins a few races — but soon the bills start piling up and injuries to the horses set things back. Then, the feed costs, medical bills, and constant travel all take a toll. Pop sells the horses, returns his efforts to his neglected transmission shops, and sets his sights elsewhere. For me, this feels not only like the end of my brief ride in the fast-lane, but the end of whatever connection I have with my father. After he sells the horses, I don’t see him for months at a time. My school work is hopeless. I’m in the 9th grade and I’m cutting every chance I get, and failing every subject except for drama.
Meanwhile, my father, who becomes an overnight expert in every new hobby he takes up, adds scuba diving to his latest list. And, like all of his other pursuits, I’m his support team. He approaches me with the idea, telling me he’s already signed us up for a scuba class, then hands me an exercise booklet and a bunch of complex diagrams and charts. To a soon-to-be ninth-grade dropout who never passed pre-algebra, the pictures look like cut up intestines. “It’s only an eight-week course,” he says. “We’ll train in an indoor pool, but it ends with an open-water dive in the Monterey Bay! Plus, there’s a special trip planned for anyone who finishes near the top of the class.”
“Top of the class, Pop? Really?”
“Sure, Kid. If you put your mind to it, you’ll ace this stuff. It’ll be a breeze.”
Despite my utter failures in school, Pop has an unwavering confidence in my scholastic abilities. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been his devoted companion. When my older brothers grew tired of his excursions — all the research and exhaustive preparations — I remained glued to his hip, passing him a wrench or researching how to properly suck the venom from a fresh snake bite. Before he moved out of our house, I used to camp out in a sleeping bag on the living room floor and wait for him to come home from work. He was always late, yet the moment I heard his car idling in the driveway, I’d race to the garage to fling open the door to greet him. Then, I’d make his favorite cocktail— vodka and tonic with two limes. He’d sip it while he warmed up the plate my mom left for him, and tell me about his plans for our next adventure.
Now, a few years into adolescence, I am a less faithful version of the boy who slept at the back door. These days, my father doesn’t live here anymore, and I’m rarely home at night myself. As for allegiances, I feel less like my father’s son and more like another one of his hobbies. So, this scuba thing gives me pause. But above all of that, I’m just not crazy about the thought of underwater breathing. It sounds like my horse allergy all over again.
But the thought of not doing something with my father has never occurred to me. I flip through the booklet and look for photographs among all the tables and graphs. Nothing. Not even a cool picture of a shark. I feign enthusiasm. It’s not that I don’t like the ocean or swimming. I love the beach. What bothers me is it sounds like a lot of studying — all these dive-tables and exercises. I’d dropped out of high school the year before. Didn’t Pop get that I was a lousy student? Plus, it’s not like we live in the tropics. The water is freezing. I’m skinny and I get cold easily, especially my hands and feet. I still have nightmares about the long mornings I spent duck hunting, standing in ankle deep water in a duck blind out on a levee in the delta, surrounded by cattails and marsh boles that stuck out of the water like tossed spears. Pop would repeatedly blow into his duck-call, while I sat shivering. For several hours, I barely looked up. I hummed to myself and gripped my loaded 20-gauge shotgun between my knees, praying for an excuse to break the monotony and fire it. Such memories thwart my enthusiasm for scuba. The North Coast of California is cold and murky, far from the bathwater, crystal blue I’ve seen in Jacques Cousteau’s underwater world.
After the first class and well before any one of us has gotten wet, my father buys enough gear to equip him on a two-month diving excursion — wetsuit, mask, snorkel, fins, spear guns, extra spears with special tips — tips designed to stun the fish upon entering its brain, to lessen its will to fight, he tells me. He buys waterproof bags and buoyancy devices, breath regulators and weight belts. All this gear only adds to my initial distaste for the sport. The tanks and weight-belt alone must double my 115 lbs.
“How are we supposed to carry all this stuff?” I say.
“Don’t worry, Kid. Everything is lighter underwater. They talk about it in the first chapter. You did read the first chapter, right? Our next class is tomorrow night.”
“Oh, sure. Chapter one.”
Actually, I did read some of it, particularly the part that warned against surfacing too quickly. That apparently causes air to enter your blood, which makes the brain, like, explode.
Our next dive class begins with a round-table introduction during which we share why we’ve chosen the course, as well as our past experiences diving. During this session, I notice two things about the class and my father. One, the class consists mainly of divorcees, roughly my father’s age and predominately female, so regardless of any declared motive (adventure, father-son bonding), he is clearly looking for some action. Two, my father stretches the truth — a lot! During his self-introduction he speaks of his extensive dive travels up and down the California Coast and Mexico, as well as some shadowy hints about dive excursions he’d taken while in the service. I know my father has done a little abalone diving, but this is the first I’ve heard of deep-diving along the Oregon Coast, lobster diving in the Sea of Cortez, or cave-diving in Honduras.
The morning of our first open-water dive starts at 4:00 AM. As soon as Pop wakes me I add “too early” to the growing list of reasons why I hate scuba. The morning is dark and cool. I’m still wearing my clothes from the night before, the ones I slept in: cut-off jeans and the forest-green cardigan my mother bought for my eighth-grade yearbook picture. I walk to the driveway, where I hear an engine idling. The night sky is black and starless. I shiver, cold and hung-over and sleep deprived. I’m nauseous and feel achy, like my skin’s turned inside out. Standing on the van’s rear tire, my Uncle Rich— another Pop devotee— cinches down some gear to the roof rack, a Marlboro in his lips. “Mornin’, Nephew,” he mumbles, eyeing me. He always has nicknames for people. He’s the only one I know who gets away with calling my father by his birth name, Grover. He usually calls me “Nephew” or “Snake,” sometimes “Snake-in-the-Grass.” All depends on context and mood.
“Did you sleep in that getup?” My uncle says. He steps down and walks toward me, takes a long drag and inhales deeply. “That’s a cute sweater, Shark-bait, but you might want to put some shoes on.” I scowl and look down at my feet, head back inside, annoyed. “Hurry it up!” He shakes his head and laughs. “Our captain is on a tight schedule. And we’re burnin’ daylight!”
I sprawl out on the floor in the back of the van and sleep. When I wake it is to the sound of downshifting and the high-rpm strain of the van’s engine. We are crossing the Santa Cruz Mountains, its tight banking turns and switchbacks tossing me back and forth, like a whiskey keg in a ship’s hull.
“I think I’m going to be carsick,” I say.
“What’s that?” Pop calls out, eyeing the rear view.
“Can you pull over? I’m going to get sick.”
“Just come up here where you can see the road. You’ll be fine.”
I stumble to the front of the van and sit on the cooler between my father and someone I’ve never met and don’t remember picking up. “What happened to Uncle Rich?” I say to the stranger.
“He’s driving the El Camino, Pop says. “We made the switch while you were crashed out.”
“You alright?” the man says. He has wire-framed glasses and a beard. He looks like he’s from Berkeley, a graduate student, a professor maybe. He’s a big man. “You must be Snake. I’m Doug,” he says, not bothering to extend a hand, keeping his distance, like he’s afraid I might just puke after all. He watches me for a moment until a little smile widens from the center of his beard — his lips a sea anemone just before you touch it.
“Hi,” I say, and reach out my shaky hand. “Are you a diver too?”
“Yeah, I’ve been diving for a year now, but eventually I want to get certified to be an instructor, so I go along and observe the classes. And I don’t have an outfit like your dad here. We’ve been talking about a trip to Baja, maybe buying a Zodiac together.”
“Zodiac? Like the serial killer?” He forces a short laugh, not sure what to make of me.
“No, it’s a dive boat, an inflatable dive boat. Don’t you watch Jacques Cousteau?”
I stumble toward the back of the van and collapse on a pile of wetsuits, hoping to disappear among them. I hear him laugh again, as I pull my body into a fist, an anemone contracting.
We arrive at the harbor in Monterey just as the day breaks. It is cold, with a ripple of wind and a thick, thick blanket of fog. I feel like I’m already under water. The air is all mist and salt and gas fume. I hear gulls and barking seals and a fog horn.
Uncle Rich guides Pop as he backs down the boat ramp. Doug stands in the water with his pants rolled up and disconnects the boat, and then guides it with a lead rope to the public dock, like a horse to its stall. There, we join our classmates, and the instructor tells us the plan: upon anchoring in the designated area, we are to descend as a group to the bottom, roughly 20 feet, where we will line up and perform for him each of the outlined tasks —buoyancy-device inflating, mask clearing, emergency gear removal and ascent.
Because we have our own boat and gear, Pop has the instructor convinced he’s a Master Diver, so we head out to the designated area first. Joining us in our boat are two women, Jennie and Jackie. Jackie is maybe 22, from our class. She has a small, athletic frame, like a runner, and a pretty face with a doe-like expression. She giggles a lot, especially when she’s with Pop. They were partners during most of the pool dives, which caught me off guard since I was his “Lil Partner” and all. My Dive-Buddy, by default, was my Uncle Rich.
It’s a short ride to our training area. We anchor, and within minutes, the other boat arrives and we start our exercises. The water is murky and cold, and my wetsuit is baggy, so the cold water pools up all along my neck and lower back. Other than that it’s uneventful. There’s not much to see; we can hardly see each other. The instructor has to practically get in my face to observe my maneuvers. His eyes look unnaturally wide magnified behind the mask. It’s like being scrutinized by a curious seal. The most I can make out, besides the shadowy figures of our fellow divers, is the occasional hazy outline of a fish. Any fantasy I had about a blue and exotic world at the bottom of the sea has been erased. It is more like swimming in a blender. The group examination ends in 15 minutes and we all surface as certified scuba divers.
On the surface, the instructor tells us that, since most of us still have plenty of air left in our tanks, we’ll ride over to the reefs and do a dive there. He promises the water will be clearer and sea-life more vibrant. Pop motors our crew behind the instructor’s boat. The first boat stops and drops anchor. Pop, however, passes the first group with a wave and continues down the reef-line. “Why aren’t we stopping?” I ask.
“There’ll be lots more to see down a ways.”
“Aren’t we going with the rest of the class?” I ask.
“No. We’re close enough. It’s too shallow and overfished there,” he says, pointing back at the group. “Trust me, we’ll have more to see and spear where we’re going.”
“Spear? This is our first dive. Shouldn’t we stay together? Don’t we have to do, like, class stuff?”
“That’s why we have Doug. He can observe us. It’ll help him with his certification, and we can go it alone. Win-win.”
“Don’t argue with Captain Ahab,” my uncle says.
“But the class is over there.” I point back toward the other boat, so much closer to the harbor, to dry land. I begin to seriously regret not reading our textbook, and that I copied Pop’s homework in order to pass all of the written tests.
Pop speeds up and the cool, wet air makes me shiver. I hold my knees and try to hide my shaking from the others, especially the women. They appear to be excited by our captain’s rogue plan.
Pop stops the boat. Doug tosses out the anchor.
“This is where the big fish feed.” He lifts the rear-seat cushion and pulls out a four-foot long spear-gun, the end of which has a three-prong “stunner” tip.
Great, I think, now we’re spear-fishing. I’m cold and just want to go back to van and sleep and soak in that post-dive hot-tub everyone keeps talking about. The place is spooky. The kelp sits on the surface of the water in thickets like a forest of tentacles, yellow and jaundiced, like seasick seaweed.
Pop and the girls jump off one side of the boat making big flipper splashes. They descend. My uncle, Doug, and I jump from the other side. Doug leads us away from the kelp bed, and we descend. Right away, my mood brightens. This place is a mayor upgrade from our first dive spot. We can actually see each other, and the reef is colorful and fish abundant. Some of the fish are huge. We reach the bottom, which my depth-gauge tells me is 30 feet below the surface. We all give the thumbs up, check our air gauges, and inflate our buoyancy packs until we can float comfortably. We swim around the reef. My uncle points out several rock cod and some abalone. Doug points out the spiky sea urchins that blanket the reef and then at their sharp needles. He wags his finger back and forth in front of us in a gesture that says, “Warning, do not touch these.”
We swim on. I’m hoping to see one of those leopard sharks the instructor told us about. “They like it out in the kelp where they can feed,” he said. “They’re harmless. Two or three feet, tops.” Harmless is fine with me. It would be cool to tell Brian that I saw a shark.
Several minutes later Doug stops and turns to us. Something is wrong. He shows us his air gauge. He’s low. He shakes a thumb up and down, deliberately, toward the surface, which means, “I am going to surface.” We return his signal with “okay” shaped fingers, and he begins his ascent. My uncle and I carry on, circling the reef. I’m trying to think of another hand signal to use. I like these scuba-signs. I like showing off this new underwater language.
After a few more minutes I get tired. My breath starts to labor and I feel my throat tighten. I’m swimming hard, so I stop and try to relax. This doesn’t help. I just sink, so I have to kick harder. My uncle is several yards ahead of me swimming away. I look at my air gauge. It reads that I still have a quarter tank, but I’m sucking hard on my regulator now and getting little more than tiny spurts of oxygen. I can’t breathe. I fish for my backup regulator but it’s somewhere behind me and I can’t reach it.
If this were to happen to me today, an image of my children would pop into my mind, maybe pushing my daughter on a tire-swing, or pitching batting practice to my son in the backyard on a July afternoon. But in that instant, I instead think about a movie I once saw about an underwater breath-holding champion, a free-diver who would swim some 200 feet down, holding his breath for over 7 minutes. While training for the world record, he convinces himself that, since humans once lived in the watery womb, their bodies must be able to breathe there. It’s just a matter of getting the body to remember, he theorizes. Maybe, I instantly hope, my body will remember too, discover an ancient gill somewhere in its evolutionary roots; but my body, the amnesiac, is suffocating, and in the next instant I go from underwater breathing to underwater screaming.
I kick hard for the surface but I feel heavy, I get nowhere. I panic. I start to squirm, and my throat screams still louder for my uncle. Finally, he turns. I flail my arms and kick and writhe and make throat cutting motions with my hand. He looks curious, but then soon understands that this is underwater language for, “I am out of fucking air!” He swims to me and pushes his buddy regulator into my mouth. I grasp it with both hands and suck hard. He says something with his throat and waves his hands up and down in front of me, which either means, easy Snake, relax, or he is praying to Mecca.
After several deep breaths, I slow down, loosen a little. My uncle looks at my air gauge and then puts my regulator in his mouth and tries to breathe, nothing. I shrug “Who knows,” while he looks over my equipment. He finds the problem. Besides being out of air, my buoyancy-compensator is deflated, which is why I keep sinking. A leak, we later discover. He gestures for me to surface, slowly (thumb-up, then hands up-down), and then takes a hold of me and begins to fill his own BC. We ascend as partners, dive buddies, both of us breathing easy.
As we approach the surface we begin to ascend too quickly, which is something even a student who only looks at the photographs knows is dangerous. My uncle pulls me close, kowtows his free hand for me to relax, slow down. Then he releases some of the air from his BC and we slowly kick.
We break the surface, two corks released from deep water, and bob there for a moment gulping air. The first thing I notice is the boat in the distance. I see figures standing. My uncle releases me and swims for the boat, calling out to them. I kick hard but struggle to stay afloat, like I’m chained to the reef. Each surge of water covers me. As my uncle reaches the boat, I realize we have forgotten about the deflated buoyancy pack. I try to take it off, just ditch it the way I had done so many times in the practice pool, but my body is a bed of kelp, tangled in straps and hoses. My back and shoulders burn. The pressure against the back of my neck and temples intensifies as I hold my breath, dip under the surface and then — in a flurry of kicking — I rise again. I release the air from my lungs in spurts, and then sink back down.
I taste salt and blood — my tongue, I think. My arms and legs are tired. I feel like I’m climbing an underwater ladder. My finned feet are bags of sand, my arms, the dull blades of a fan. I am an old Packard abandoned in a quarry pond. All of the empty spaces inside me begin to fill. The air swims away from my bones to form underwater skeletons.
It is warm below the surface.
During one of our classes the instructor told us about an abalone diver who became tangled in a kelp forest and couldn’t surface for air. He was free-diving — no airtank — so he had to think fast. Apparently, the thick stalks of kelp have air inside them. Knowing this, the resourceful diver removed his dive-knife from its ankle holster, cut a slit into the kelp and sucked a lungful of air from it. This gave him the breath he needed to collect himself, use his tool to cut himself free and ascend. I think of this as I sink. But while stories come to me in a flash, I can do no more than flail and kick and hope that some phantom bubble will lift me to the surface.
Then I see a big splash in the water and a cloud of red and blue moving toward me. It’s Pop, his bright new wetsuit like a lit fuse. He reaches me and yanks me upward, pushing something into my mouth. It’s the mouthpiece of my snorkel, but I panic and yank it out, taking with it my mask. I can see the elongated faces of the divers peering down from the edge of the boat. Another splash. Then another. Pop jambs his own regulator into my mouth, but I toss it, spin away from him, and go under again. This time I feel myself sinking hard, just wanting the struggle to end. I fall deeper. All I can sense are my underwater screams. No bright lights or tunnels or fields of grain, just the siren pull of the reefy bottom, inviting me into its black jaws.
My father grips one of my arms and the back of my neck like a mother cat. He’s choking me, commanding me to be still, stay calm. I pant hard, until Doug and my uncle arrive with inflated packs. I clamber on top and take in mouthfuls of dry air. Pop holds my arms so I won’t go back under. Then he swims me to the boat, rescued.
Later that night, at the after-dive party, Pop tells everyone the story. His version emphasizes the heroic rescue and how I had submerged three times and that he knew that the last time would be my final breath. As dramatic as he makes it sound, this is actually not far from the truth. In that moment before he pulled me up, I sensed that, while I had given up, he would not. He would have found a mouthful of air, a scrap of kelp, or the memory of a gill in his effort to save me. His composure, always impressive, was made even more so in contrast with my own desperate floundering.
But I don’t tell it quite that way to others. As the evening wears on, I begin spinning the story too. People come up to me asking me what happened, and each time, with every re-telling, the equipment fails more drastically, I get held under longer, sink deeper, the water becomes murkier and my head grows light and fuzzy. Soon, I start believing this new version. I tell it again and again, until it becomes true.
After the dive party we return to the motel room we rented. We planned to make another dive or two in the morning, but my equipment failures and near drowning has changed things. The new plan is to get up, have breakfast, and return home. This plan sounds fine to me.
My uncle and I arrive to the room alone. I feel tired from the day and drunk from the sips of wine I stole at dinner. We both collapse on separate beds still dressed. I turn on the TV to distract me from the spinning bed. My uncle opens a beer and lights a cigarette. I hadn’t seen my father for several hours, since just after we ate. I turn to my uncle.
“Where’d Pop go?” I ask.
“He got his own room.”
“Why, we’ve got two beds. I can sleep with him.” My uncle takes a long drink from his beer and sets it on the nightstand.
“He’s in there screwin’ that kid, Jackie,” he says.
My uncle stuffs out his cigarette in the nightstand ashtray. I don’t say anything. I just stare at the TV for awhile, and then get up to change the channel. I sit back on the edge of the bed. My uncle sits up and swings his feet to the floor, facing me.
“Sorry, Nephew. I didn’t mean… I shouldn’t have put it like that. I know you’ve been through a lot today.”
“So have you,” I say.
“Your father and his fucking adventures.”
“Crazy,” I say.
My uncle sighs and pulls a fresh Marlboro from its box. “That was a close call, Sharkbait.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Uncle Rich?”
“I’m glad you were there. Glad you were my dive buddy.”
“No problem, Snake-in-the-Grass. And I really am sorry for putting it like that.”
“I don’t care. Let him do what he wants. It’s no big deal.”
I try to sound convincing, but I know it comes out a mixture of envy and disgust and longing.
About the author:
Originally from Northern California, Mark Montgomery now lives in Central New York, where he teaches in the English Department at Cayuga Community College. He has a Ph.D. in English from Binghamton University. His poems, essays and stories often focus on father-son interactions and how particular activities in the natural world (surfing scuba, hunting, trekking) shape those relationships.
About the illustrator:
Angela White is a fine artist whose work is featured in both corporate and private collections. Working from her studio at Washington ArtWorks in Maryland, she has exhibited her encaustic and mixed media paintings across the DC metropolitan area as well as in New York and Washington state during her 30-year career. Her work can be found at her website www.angelawhiteart.com.
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