Friday, August 31, 2007

X. Diving adventures 1

Once you’re infected by the treasure-hunting bug, the disease will eventually affect your mental sensibilities. I guess that’s what happened to me. Although I had spent years digging relics and coins by the thousands on land, once I had read of a site in the Yazoo River where Confederate and Union soldiers had dumped literally tons of munitions, I became obsessed with the need to dig them from the river bottom. To that end I bought an underwater metal detector and awaited an opportunity to use it. I had no knowledge of diving techniques, so it was either take a course in scuba diving or find some experienced divers to do the work for me.
As luck would have it, at that opportune moment problems with the circulating water intake screens at the power plant forced me to call in divers to investigate and make repairs. They had a boat, heavy equipment, and diving apparatus of all types. I had assigned one of my hunting buddies, an Engineer at the plant, to coordinate operations with the diving contractor. I had caused an infection of this Engineer, and he was now nearly as gold-bug diseased as I. Once his fertile mind began humming (with visions of a chest of Confederate coins lying on the river bottom, I’m sure), he went to work on the divers, convincing them that once the intake job was complete, it might be fun to make a run up the river to dive for a little treasure…
And so we did. The divers picked the Engineer and me up at the waterfront in their large boat with all the equipment we would need. They had more. Girls. Cute ones, in skimpy bathing suits, all the more to make this a memorable adventure. Unfortunately, as it turned out, they also had several coolers of iced-down beer.
So we drank beer and ogled the cuties as we roared up the river toward our rendezvous with treasure. Without divulging the exact location, let me say that we soon reached the vicinity. Once over the target we anchored and prepared for the dive. Though these divers had never used an underwater detector, I gave them instructions on the proper techniques.
Using an underwater detector is much like using one on land: get a signal, back off to determine size, and if it’s (in this case) not as large as a baseball, move on. Simple, right? But somehow these divers could never get the technique down. Dive after dive they scanned the bottom, each time returning empty-handed. While they worked, the rest of us drank beer after beer merely, of course, to prevent the sun from baking our hides. Between the cold beer and the hot cuties, I got quite high, so high, in fact, that I became… Superdiver!
I KNEW the relics were down there, and that I could do the job better than these would-be excuses for professional divers. When I voiced my disgust to them and suggested they give me a few lessons on how to use scuba gear, they, having likewise imbibed enough of the delicious brew that their judgment was no better than mine, agreed that I sure could strap on a tank and go find a cannon ball, smartass.
I wasn’t about to jump off the side of the boat into that rushing river, so I insisted I be put ashore, where I could walk serenely down the sandy bank at my leisure. That sounded like a good idea to the rest of the crew, so we all put ashore with coolers and scuba gear in tow. While I was strapping on my weight belt and air tank and the rest of the gear and receiving instructions, my Engineer buddy, who likewise had become addled and, aware of the admiring glances of the bikini-clad cuties as I donned my gear, had decided he could be just as much a hero as I. He would try his hand at it, too.
After donning tank, belt, etc., etc., and receiving my instructions, sure now that I was as expert at this science as my teachers, I gathered up detector and knife, donned my earphones, and walked out into the river.
Talk about pitch black! The second my head went under all light disappeared, and I was utterly alone in the cold, free-flowing muddy water. The only sound was that awful hiss of air that reminded me of my mere mortality and its total dependency on whatever oxygen remained in the tank strapped to my back. I thought at once that I should have had another beer for the road. Not to be. And regardless of how chicken I felt, I couldn’t go back, not with those gorgeous young things back there expecting me to be …Superdiver!
Taking another long drag of precious air, I struggled against the current, went horizontal, and began blindingly scanning the river bottom in long semicircular sweeps. There were plenty of signals, which gave me hope, but each was too small to be significant. It didn’t take long, though, until I got that large, symmetrical signal that meant… cannon ball!
After digging it from the rocky bottom, I fondled the big ball and estimated it to be about six or seven inches in diameter. Now, heart thumping, I only needed to get out of here. I had no sense of direction, only the feel of the river bottom under my flippers. I chose what appeared to be an uphill direction, and, fortunately, walked right up the bank, right out in front of an admiring pair of suntanned beauties. “Nothing to this,” I told them authoritatively with my chest stuck out. “32-pounder. Probably Confederate.”
“Guess I’ll go back and get some more.”
The guys weren’t so impressed. In fact, the divers seemed a bit peeved. My Engineer buddy wasn’t smiling, either, as he completed preparations for his own diving experience. “Let me try the detector,” he whined.
“Naw,” I answered, “better let an expert handle the detector,” and I turned and strode manly-like back into the river.
This time I hunted with confidence, sweeping the detector in long, graceful arcs, the way us experts do it. I had forgotten all about my buddy, who had walked into the river behind me. I was crawling along the bottom while thinking about the big logger-head turtles that infested these waters, and how they liked to lie on the bottom of the river with their big mouths wide open, hoping a little fish would mistake their wiggling tongue for a meal and dart inside so the big mouth could slam closed and… bite off my arm!
It was at about the thought of the loss of my metal-detecting arm that my buddy managed to grab my foot and pull it. I’m not sure how I avoided drowning, screaming the way I was, but when I didn’t, and when I had recovered from the shock, I found that yes, you can curse out loud underwater, and yes, the other person, the cursee, can hear your curses. Curses did not deter this cursee, however, and he held onto my foot as I once again began the search. In a short while I detected another large ball. After digging it from the river bottom I thought I might as well just stay out here and dig the rest of what-must-be-many cannon balls, so I turned to my buddy, pulled his hand over so he could feel the ball, and shouted for him to take it out. He must have understood, for he brought his other hand forward to receive it. At that point I dropped the ball into his cupped hands.
Horrors! Somehow, as the cannon ball dropped, it struck the air hose connected to my mouthpiece, jerking it from my lips. My instructors hadn’t included in their lecture instructions regarding the proper procedure for locating a missing mouthpiece, so I realized at once that I was about to drown!
I would never have believed it possible unless I had done it myself, but it’s true: One can run underwater. Run I did, stirring the river to a boil as I raced up the bank towards air. When my head broke the surface I had already decided that I’d had enough scuba diving for this day. The cuties weren’t impressed by the way I exited the river screaming, either, despite my quickly bragging of my heroics. To make matters worse, my buddy brought out the cannon ball and was recipient of the oohs! and ahhs! that should have been mine. The professional divers were all toothy smiles.
We’d all had enough for the day, so we packed our gear and our two cannon balls and headed downstream, planning our next trip as we rode the river back to Vicksburg. It had really been a great day.
In subsequent trips (in a flat-bottom aluminum boat and without the beer and babes), my buddies and I hauled out more cannon balls and other relics. All things considered, the dives into this and other local rivers are some of my most treasured memories.
Several months later I earned my open-water diver’s license, but afterwards I was rather uncomfortable diving in the rivers. Guess it’s those logger-head turtles.
The obvious lessons I learned from this true tale are 1) Research can pay off big, 2) The rivers are kind of a “last frontier” for relic hunters, 3) Better know what you’re up against before donning that scuba gear, and 4) Avoid beer and cuties when diving.

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