Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Steve Irwin,My First Underwater Breath And Marijuana

Posted by Picasa I used to live in Grants Pass in a big house on the top of a ridge. If I looked out to my east, I would see the traffic on highway 5 heading up and down a steep grade on the hillside opposite the one I straddled. Down below the hillside there was a bright orange wind sock that filled and fell throughout the day, marking the end of a small runway at a small airport in a little town called Merlin. Merlin itself was a dog pound, two gas stations (one "in town" and one out by the freeway), a post office, a school, a mobile home park, a yard that rented floatables in the summer for this particular stretch of the Rogue river and a small strip mall with a pizza deli, a pet food store, and a video store.

There was also the little Handy Pantry that served badly greasy chicken strips and burritos and sausages and french fries all kept warm under a hot light in a case. They sold fishing licenses and bread and beer and had photos of enormous salmon caught by locals and snapshotted, with captions beneath like "Paul 1997", "Bobby, 2002, 34 pounds" and "Betty 2004, 22 pounds."

On the deli case was one of those photos that famous people hand out with a signature on it and local bars and establishments hang on their walls to show what a worldy place they had. On this particular case, in this particular photo, was a picture of Steve and Terri Irwin. I think it said something like "All the best, Handy Pantry staff, Thanks for everything. Steve and Terri."

I wondered how many greasy chicken strips Steve ate...

There is a wildlife rescue center called "Wildlife Images" near where I lived and just off the river. There, they rescued lions and cougars and bears and beavers and Bald Eagles and so on and so forth. I imagine Steve and his wife Terri did a show about rescuing something scary.

And ate greasy chicken strips in between.

I used to stop in every now and then and get me some of them greasy chicken strips to eat with ranch dressing. Standing in line and waiting to be served, I would always look at the photo of Steve and his Oregonian wife and think about the time I stopped into his parent's little reptile zoo in Queensland back before Steve took it over and renamed it. Then I would muse on the man himself. Steve Irwin.

What a nut!

And I mean that in the most sincerest of ways. The guy was a fruitcake with way too much enthusiasm for his own good and way too much love of life and adventure and bravery and stupidity.

I mean, couldn't he have shared some of that with the rest of us?

I never sat down and watched an entire episode of one of his shows. I usually caught the latter half while I was flipping through channels looking for something interesting to watch and would stand there watching this idiot do idiotic things to big snakes and crocs and alligators and whatever else was dangerous that would make one look like an idiot, and I wouldn't sit down. Steve would be doing his silly "Crikey!" thing, and I wouldn't even care.

The guy had cajones, and he had a lust and an appreciation for life, that one wishes were contagious.

The picture above is of my boat I bought on Brampton Island and two guys I met briefly-- they were tourists-- whose names I don't remember, who taught me to hold my breathe fifty feet underwater holding on to an anchor chain while I contemplated kicking one of their arses.

They were both stoned and I was up for anything.

Except stepping on a ray.

These guys heard about my boat and approached me with a proposition. If I took them out to go diving, they would give me cash for gas and beer. Deal. It was my day off from scrubbing pots, and I could always use more gas and beer. It was something new to do-- I had never seen a guy go diving before-- and what the heck?

We motored around to the backside of Brampton and then headed out a few thousand yards where there was a small amount of reef to be seen if you stuck your head underwater, swam down about fifty feet, and looked.

Now I don't know about anyone else, but if I was gonna put on a funny suit and swim to the bottom of the ocean, I don't think I'd suck down a bunch of marijuana first. I mean, come on! Isn't that a bit like drinking and skydiving?

There ought to be a law.

But that's what these two knuckleheads did. They got high. Then they dove. I sat in the boat with the anchor down wondering if I'd ever see these two again. I looked for bubbles for awhile, then got tired of leaning over the side and squinting so I lied back in the boat and enjoyed the sound of lapping waves against the bow.

Time went by and then they were back.

"It was great!"

"Classic, mate! It was classic!"

"What did ya see?"

"Ahh, there's a nice bit of reef down there. Put a mask on, stick your head over the side."

I looked. There was a small but colorful little patch of reef down there, about fifty feet down, more or less.

The two got on board and flopped around like divers do, weighed down by weight belts and things on their backs, big rubber clown feet strapped to their own.

"Wanna go down, Yank?'


"Wanna dive?"

"I'd love to but..."

"I've still got a good five minutes in my tank. Come on, have a go!"

PADI classes. Books. Lessons. Safety courses. Sound familiar?

Not to me at that time and place. I'd never heard of such things.

"I'm in. What the hell do I do?"

"We'll just walk hand in hand down the anchor chain. You know how to clear your ears?"

"Hold my nose and blow." (Son of a pilot. This stuff, I knew. Plus of course, watching episodes of Jaques Cousteau as a kid.)

"Alright, let's do it then. Whatever you do, DO NOT shoot to the surface holding your breath. "

"I'll blow up."

"Yes, you will."

Here's how this went. My diving buddy who was high on pot was going to follow me down the anchor chain, and we were going to pass the mouthpiece back and forth and breath easy off of it. I was not to panic and take rapid breaths. I was to stay calm and breathe easy, sharing the mouthpiece and pulling myself down the chain while blowing pressure into my nasal cavaties by holding my nose and blowing into it.

Easy peasy...

The water was clear for a thousand feet, it seemed to me. The bottom was a sparkly, distorted landscape with splashes of color on a very small patch of reef. Most of the bottom was sand, however, with bits of vegetation like grass tufting out in places like water splashes in the rain.

I would breathe and pass back the mouthpiece, and then look around and blow out my nose, and pass my hands down the anchor chain until I was standing on the bottom.

Only I wasn't.

I was standing on a five foot ray.

It shot out from underneath my feet, taking my breath away with it. Swoosh went the ray. Whoosh went my breath.

AND THERE I WAS (I just love to get to that part of a story!)


Out of breath and frightened out of my wits. My heart doing jack in the boxes inside my chest. My partner clinging tight to the mouthpiece as his breath had also been taken by the suddenness of the ray's appearance and disappearance, sucking and blowing bubbles for himself, and he was looking in the direction of where the ray had skedaddled to and not looking at me.

"DO NOT shoot to the surface."

OK ya bastard. Then give me some goddamn air!

Yelling underwater when you have blown out most of your air being startled to near death by a five foot ray that had nestled itself peacefully in the sand beneath your feet is not an option.

Punching, however, is an option. So is tackling. Mauling. Ripping out hoses and so on and so forth.

They all crossed my mind.

But what happened was different than all of that. What happened was much less entertaining and much more profound.

I simply calmed down. I got inside myself and in control of myself and quieted myself down.

I had a minute without air I could use. I was in no danger unless I freaked out. My partner would come around in a second, he was as startled as I was...

I tugged on the anchor chain to draw his attention. I tugged again. The third time I tugged, he realized that the chain he was clinging to was being tugged, and he turned to me. He let go of the chain and held his arms out five feet wide, the mouthpiece sitting comfortably in the center of his face.

"Yes," I thought. "It was that big. Now give me some goddamn air."

Rest in Peace, Steve Irwin--

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