My wife Rise` (pronounced “REE-suh”) made me promise to tell this particular story about my “Frankford days,” so here it is.
In the early 1970s, I learned to swim at the Frankford Y, in the Leiper Street building currently subject to sheriff sale. I was this hulking 19 year old man towering over this class of tots, learning to swim with them. Oh man, that was mortifying!
I learned to swim quickly, thank heavens, and in no time I was doing laps, while all of these little kids who viewed me as an oversized peer and fellow graduate vied for my attention whenever I went to the pool.
When I was really, really good, I could go down to the bottom of the deep end of the pool and lay there on my back. I could also do three-and-a-half pool lengths under water in three-and-a-half minutes without coming up. The time sounds unreal, but I swear that this is true.
Once I participated in a Swim-a-thon for charity at the Frankford Y. I did the breast stroke for five hours, while my brother Tom, on the pool deck, kept count of the number of pool lengths achieved without taking a break, the basis for the donations I had solicited.
After five hours in tepid, mind-numbing, skin-wrinkling lukewarm water, I think because of a complete lack of sensory input aside from back-and-forth, back-and-forth, back-and-forth in lukewarm water, my brain really and truly began to manufacture visual hallucinations. I really did see a pink hippopotamus flying through the air of the swimming facility in front of me. I figured, “That’s it. I shouldn’t be swimming in deep water if I am starting to hallucinate from boredom.” So I called it quits at that time.
Around 1978, when I was 25, I took the SCUBA diving class sponsored by the Frankford Y. The instructor was a very safety-minded SCUBA diver certified by NAUI — the National Association of Underwater Instructors. Members of the class were after their “NAUI cards,” the SCUBA diver’s “driver license,” because without them you’re not allowed to get a fill for your SCUBA tank at a dive shop, because otherwise you’re just too darn dangerous to yourself and others. SCUBA diving is a life-threatening sport, appropriate for cool minds, only.
For the class, I purchased the best equipment then available — a really good neoprene wetsuit, and a big aluminum “80,” a SCUBA diver’s air tank designed to hold about 80 cubic feet of compressed air, at around 3000 pounds per square inch. Because my life depended on it, I learned everything there was to know about my regulator — the clever device which bleeds air into the mouthpiece at just the right pressure to counteract external pressure of the deep water pressing against your body.
To graduate from the class, one had to master the complex science of compressed air and how it interacts with the human body, as well as the dangers connected with SCUBA diving — hyper-oxygenation, the bends, pneumothorax or “exploding lungs,” and so on.
You also had to demonstrate utter fearlessness in the water, and proficiency in donning and using the equipment. The NAUI diving test at that time illustrates the point: One had to be able to swim one full Olympic size pool length without equipment, without coming up for air — a piece of cake for me, in those days. Then, all of your equipment was thrown to the bottom of the deep end of the pool. You had to be able to dive down, and suit-up, without coming-up for air, until, fully equipped, you had cleared the water out of your mask and were swimming around on the bottom with no difficulty. Finally, you had to be able to swim down to the 20 foot level in Richland Quarry, without equipment, pick up a rock, and bring it to the surface.
In the end, what NAUI wanted, and still wants, is an individual who doesn’t “freak out” when something bad happens under water, as it does all the time, in SCUBA diving. They want you to be able to work out the best solution for underwater difficulties without dying or accidentally killing off a dive partner.
My NAUI training at the Frankford Y really paid off. It saved my life. On one dive off Ocean City, I was in about 150 feet of water, walking along the bottom, when suddenly the sea floor gave way beneath me and I fell into a perfectly dark place.
What had happened was that years before someone had dumped an old railroad engine into the sea, probably as an artificial reef, and as silt covered it over the tank began to rust. At 150 feet, water pressure squeezes the neoprene wetsuit to a very dense thinness. Suddenly, it is less buoyant, so that, relatively speaking, there is less buoyancy “up” and more weight “down” from the aluminum “80” and the diver’s weight belt.
As a consequence, my effective underwater weight at 150 feet was such that I fell through the rusted side of the old engine’s iron tank.
Again, inside the tank it was perfectly dark, because it was a mix of water and mud comprising a thick goo.
I thought to myself, “I fell straight down, so I’ll swim straight up.” I tried and, CLUNK, I hit solid iron. I thought, “Hmmmmmm, where did the opening go?”
Just then, at that moment, I reached my ten minute warning.
The ten minute warning is a spring-loaded valve in the regulator which shuts off your air ten minutes before it runs out. This forces you to throw the switch on your valve turning your air back on, equipping you with the knowledge that you have ten minutes to get back to the boat.
But I couldn’t, because I was stuck in the muddy soup inside a sunken railroad engine’s tank.
I flipped my switch to get my air back, and I thought, “Okay, I’ve got exactly 10 minutes to get out of here, or it’s time to figure out if I’m going to Heaven or Hell.”
It occurred to me that I might have rolled down the tank away from the hole after I fell in. So, I walked through the perfect darkness of the muddy goo, hands raised, feeling for the hole in the top of the tank.
I walked all of the way to the end of the tank, turned around, and walked all of the way back, feeling the wall of the tank with my hands above my head the full time. No hole.
I thought, “Wha-a-a-at? How is this possible?”
Then it occurred to me that in total darkness, under water, in a tank, there were no cues respecting which way was “up.” In other words, I might have just walked the length of the tank sideways!
So, I took off a neoprene glove and held my bare hand above my regulator, to the left of my regulator, to the right of it, and below it, exhaling each time, and feeling for bubbles so that I could tell which way was “up.”
Nothing. The goo was too thick to allow me to feeling bubbles.
I calmly thought, “Okay, Pete, you’re down to about five minutes of air. This may be it.”
I made a final apology to God in my mind — what we Catholics call “an Act of Contrition” — and then I said a brief prayer for help.
Instantly, this idea jumped into my mind, in my own mind’s voice: “Pete, break the rule about holding your breath.” To this day, I believe that it was God, talking to me through an angel — something like that.
The SCUBA diver’s rule about holding one’s breath while using a SCUBA tank underwater is simple: Don’t.
The reason is that the diver is breathing compressed air. If he inhales compressed air and holds it, he will become buoyant, float up, and the air in his lungs will expand and his lungs will explode in only 2-1/2 to 3 feet up, and then he’ll die.
But, it occurred to me that if I held my breath, I’d hit the top of the tank, and suddenly I’d know which way was “up.”
So, I inhaled, my lungs expanded — and my FEET slammed into the FLOOR!
All of that time, I had been perfectly upside-down in the black goo, thinking that I was right side up!
I turned over, felt along the “bottom” of the tank — really the top — for about 3 feet, found the hole, swam out, and I was free.
Just then, my air ran out. But that was not a problem — a diver coming up toward the surface from 150 feet has to exhale the full time, anyway. As the air in the lungs expands as the diver surfaces, he just can’t breath in. What he thinks is “breathing out and in” is actually just releasing air coming out of the lungs more or less slowly.
So, I came up to the surface at a leisurely pace, passing other divers from the dive boat, all of them unaware that I had just about died.
But let me get to the part of the story my wife wants me to tell…
There were a number of fairly good-looking unmarried girls in the Frankford Y SCUBA club. And I was still an “eligible bachelor.” But I was an “eligible bachelor” because I was completely socially inept, vis-à-vis the prettier half of our species. I didn’t know what to do with a girl. I didn’t know how to get a girl’s attention. I was an idiot — a nerd.
So, I may have been eye-balling some of those wonderful ladies, but they could tell, in the way I carried myself, that I didn’t know what to do, and so I think they suspected that I wouldn’t be much fun and so they avoided me.
One of the ladies was a good-looking one named Diane. I was attracted to her, but Diane was already taken — she had a boyfriend — and I felt too inept to compete.
Around that time, I met Rise`. We began dating. She came to SCUBA club functions with me. This enabled the girls in the SCUBA club to realize, “Hey! Pete DOES know what to do with a girl! Look! He’s functional!” and suddenly I was “in” — a qualified male.
In September, 1979, I was studying for the Pennsylvania bar exam, in my little apartment on Penn Street, near the Margaret and Orthodox Station of the Frankford El. Rise` had wanted to go out with me that night, but I told her, “Littlest” — my nickname for her — “I can’t. I’ve got to study for the bar exam.”
Around 8:00 p.m. that night, as I was studying, Rise` called to see how I was doing. As I talked to Rise`, there was a knock at my door. I laid down the phone and answered the door — and there was pretty Diane, holding a pumpkin. Diane smiled and said, “Surprise! I’ve got a pumpkin for you, to help you celebrate Halloween!”
To be perfectly honest, I thought to myself, “Wow! Not too many months ago, I was a nerd, studiously avoided by the opposite sex! Now I am on the phone with a pretty girl, and I have another pretty girl coming to the door of my apartment!”
I went back to the phone and said, “Listen, Littlest, it’s Diane, and she has brought a pumpkin for me. I’ll talk to you later.”
I hung up and invited Diane into my apartment for the first time. I gave her a tour of the apartment, fell into conversation with Diane and, lo and behold, in what seemed like 5 minutes time, an hour had passed.
Just then my phone rang, and it was Rise`. She heard Diane talking in the background and said, “WHAT!!! DIANE IS STILL THERE???!!! AFTER AN HOUR???!!! I THOUGHT YOU HAD TO STUDY FOR THE BAR EXAM!!! GET RID OF HER!!!”
Me being a man, it hadn’t occurred to me that being alone in my apartment with another pretty girl might rub Rise` the wrong way. As Anthony Quinn says in “Zorba the Greek,” “Am I not a man? And is not a man stupid? I am a man. So…”
In any event, I gently told Diane that I really had to get back to studying for the bar exam. I am sure that I hurt her feelings. But Rise` was right.
Or was she?
Every now and then in our marriage, I have teased Littlest about the “Pumpkin Girl incident,” as we call it. The other night, after I teased her about it, Littlest said, “You know, if you make that story the subject of one of your Frankford Gazette stories, and you try to defend yourself in it, every girl and lady reading that article will say, ‘She was right, he was wrong.’”
Okay, so let me see what happens: I hereby defend the fact that I had Pumpkin girl, a very pretty young lady, alone with me in my apartment for an hour, while I was dating Rise`.