Funny how our lives might be different had we made a different choice when we came to that fork in the road. I think about that often at my age. What if I kept my '68 Camaro, today it would be worth a whole lot more than the $800 I sold it for. What if I followed my young dream to become a pilot, what would I be doing today? What if I had joined the Air Force after college, where would I be now? What if, what if, what if.... When I Interned at NASA in 1980 while I was going into my Sophomore year in college, my NASA Manager tried to talk me into staying to work for them and finishing my college locally. I decided to reject that offer and go back to college where I was attending in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. I earned my BS in Communications with an emphasis on Broadcast TV Video Engineering.
When I graduated, the first place I applied for was that NASA job I was offered earlier. At that time there was no opening, so I went to work at different jobs in Houston. Over time I kept applying at NASA and one job was with the WETF (Weightless Environment Training Facility) where they train Astronauts underwater to work in weightlessness. At the interview I was told to get my SCUBA license and re-apply. They could not consider me without the SCUBA license. So, in 1988 I signed up for a SCUBA class at a local college. The class took three weeks of class and pool training a couple of nights a week. The class work to me was boring, but good info to learn. Pool time on the other hand was fun. The first part of the pool time training was to swim the length of the Olympic size pool four times without stopping. When the whistle blew, I was gone. I am not one to be fast in anything I do except driving, so I was not out to win any swimming races. I did have endurance however so I could keep going no matter what. When I stopped swimming, I stood up in the pool and the instructor asked who was I racing? Turns out I finished before everyone in the class. I think that was the first time in my life I beat everyone at something. I guess I was that determined to get that job at the WETF
I recall in a later class we were all at the bottom of the deep end of the pool which was about 15 feet deep. All of us students were on our knees at the bottom in a circle facing inward. The instructors would swim behind us outside the circle and do something that we needed to react to calmly. Some of the students did not react so calmly and had to keep at it until they were sure of themselves. On the other side of the circle I saw one of the instructors pull the mask off the student across from me. He calmly put the mask back on and cleared it like he was supposed to do. I did not know when the one of the instructors turned my air valve off at the top of my tank but when there was no air, I looked at my gauge an saw the tank still had air, I tried my buddy breather which had no air either. I reached back and checked the tank valve and found it was closed, so I opened the valve. I passed the test.
The last night of the pool training one of the instructors had a plastic bag full of pennies that he poured out in the middle of the pool. The goal was for three divers to go out there and fill the inside of their masks with pennies put the mask back on and clear it. The one with the most pennies won. In our class was several Policemen from Texas City. My group to go do the penny thing was me and two of those police officers. We were all three determined to win this one. When the whistle blew, we took off out to the middle of the pool and grabbed all the pennies we could and filled our masks. The cops were aggressive in grabbing the pennies so when I had my mask full and cleared, I grabbed the mask of the cop who had the most pennies and pulled it off and went to the surface. I won that round. We were all laughing about that and the Police Officers were sort of impressed with my improvisation. When we were all getting out of the pool one of the officers told me that I had better drive perfectly through Texas City. As we laughed about that, I was not sure how serious he was.
After I got my SCUBA License, I kept applying at WETF which later became the NBL (Neutral Buoyancy Lab) but never got an interview. I loved SCUBA Diving so I went at every opportunity I could. When Jennifer and I got married we went to the Cayman Islands for our honeymoon and I was able to dive a lot while there. Since I had rented the equipment for the week, one time we walked into the water from the beach at our hotel with my gear and Jennifer held onto the tank while breathing from the buddy breather. We went down to about thirty feet and swam along following a sea turtle. Over time I have tried to get Jennifer interested in getting her license, but she does not want to. I was hoping that short swim at the Caymans would get her interest, but it didn’t.
When our son Will was 12 years old, he took SCUBA classes. When his group went for their open water test, I tagged along as a helper. It was fun to be in the water while Will was working through his Open Water test. Over the years Will and I have gone SCUBA Diving from time to time. I think the most interesting dives we went on was at Epcot. There is a large saltwater tank that has all kinds of sea life living in that divers can go in. The sea life includes several Bull Sharks. The tank has underwater windows to a restaurant where diners can watch the divers swim past. It was cool seeing the diners watch us, especially when a shark swam past us. BTW, the sharks are well fed before the divers get in the water. The dive masters told us in the pre dive briefing that if we hear a loud bang under water, to get out immediately. They all have shark sticks which are basically a stick with a 12-gauge shell at the end. When pressed against the shark’s skin, a pin presses at the shell to set it off. The dive masters watch the sharks closely and if they started to get aggressive, they will take it out. If they do have to kill the aggressive shark, there will be blood in the water and all the other sharks will get very aggressive. In all the history of the Epcot Dive, they have never had to kill one of the sharks. Will and I agreed to an underwater signal that if one of see a shark close by and the other of us does not see it, we will tap on our tank with the brass clip twice. One time I heard that tap and immediately a shark swam past me less than an arm’s length away. I reached out and touched the shark as he swam past. His skin felt like sandpaper. The scariest part of watching the sharks close to us was seeing their black eyes looking you over. I think Will and I have SCUBA Dived Epcot at least three times over the years. I hope to do that again with him someday.
A couple of years ago I got a call from the NBL out of the blue. I was working at Boeing and they had gone through their old applications and saw that I had applied several times. I was excited to go for the interview. At the interview they offered me the job of underwater camera operator for the Astronaut training. Since I had over 100 dives in my logs I was qualified to work there. The young guy in me was like, “When do I start?” The practical old guy in me was like “There is no way I could physically do this every day.” The interviewers went over the daily routines that I would face. One of the routines would be to swim the length of the pool (200 feet) four times every morning. We would also have to dive in and go to the bottom (40 feet) and retrieve a bag full of shot lead that weighed about 30 pounds without flippers or any SCUBA gear and bring it to the surface and throw the bag out of the water onto the side of the pool. I asked them if I could give them an answer the following day. I went home thinking about those physical requirements and thought that if I were in my 20s, I could do that no problem, but I am in my 50s. Reality made my choice.
As I look back at my times SCUBA diving, I have a lot of fond memories. The thought that I got an offer from the NBL for helping Astronauts train is icing on the cake. Now that I am in my 60’s, I am not sure how many more dives I have in me. I guess I will take that one dive at a time.