“Do not go gentle into that goodnight
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
– Dylan Thomas
For reasons that are obvious to everyone who knows me, I always try to avoid looking into mirrors. And even on those occasions when it does become necessary, (like having to stick bits of toilet tissue on razor cuts) I seldom focus on the B-I-G picture. As a consequence, I’ve managed to retain a mental image of myself as I once was some umpteen decades ago: A time before wrinkles were first invented and when I had the physique – and temperament – of a half-starved barracuda.
There is, I suppose, a little bit of the ‘Dorian Grey’ in all of us; an unwillingness to recognise the slow and subtle changes wrought by time and a need to keep the past alive by putting a slightly different twist on the facts. It was something that I hadn’t thought too deeply about until I attended a recent social gathering of the Hysterical Divers Society, held in the front bar of ‘The Sozzled Cod’.
It was one of those functions where everybody stands around with a drink in one hand and a cocktail-sausage-on-a-tooth-pick in the other while dredging up impossible stories about diving’s “good old days” and how – unlike today’s new breed of divers – a person had to be tough, intelligent and committed to make the grade.
My mate Krabbmann was in his element. “In those days,” he said, “buddy-breathing from a twin-hose regulator demanded real skill; getting ‘narced’ was all part of the thrill, and we all had to be fearless to survive. Not like the cosseted and molly-coddled divers that are churned out today.”
Because we were all looking backwards down a time-tunnel at the people we would have liked to be, (and probably never were) none of us openly disagreed with him. But tucked away in the back of my mind was this niggling thought that I couldn’t actually recall ever being ‘fearless’.
I still cringe, for example, when I think of my first night dive. It was 1962 and only a short way into the Royal Navy’s lengthy diving programme. The dive took place from a boat hovering over a seemingly bottomless hole in the floor of the English Channel. It was winter, the seas were rough and the sleet was blowing sideways when the Petty Officer asked for the first volunteer. “You’ll do, Strike!” I was kitted up with surface demand diving equipment, a pair of lead boots and instructed to descend 120-feet down a suspended shot-line and practice line signals with the surface tender.
With no light, I slowly made my way down the line to spend what seemed like hours – but was in reality only minutes – answering pulls on the lifeline. It was pitch black and I couldn’t see a thing, (mainly ‘cause my eyes were tight shut with fear) while I waited for the signal to ascend and, as I’d now determined, quit the course.
Back on the boat, my shivering and teeth-chattering symptoms of terror were put down to the cold. Before I could recover enough to tell anyone of my decision to pull out of the course, the Petty Officer decided that conditions were too rough to continue night diving and we returned to the base.
I eventually passed the course, earning (to my way of thinking) every penny of the increased pay that I subsequently received. It was only later, with the confidence borne of increased experience that I began to enjoy every moment spent underwater.
Listening to the folk gathered in the bar of ‘The Sozzled Cod’ that evening, it suddenly dawned on me that we’d become the same silly old fossils that we used to scoff at when we were younger. And that our collective experiences – although very modest when weighed against the achievements of today’s supposedly ‘cosseted and molly-coddled’ divers – were not so very different from those that divers will always encounter.
The truth is, the ‘good old days’ really weren’t that good. It’s just that some people prefer the certainty of the past and secretly envy those younger generations who will be exposed to all of diving’s future possibilities.
“We even had to make our own wet suits using paper patterns and sheets of un-lined neoprene held together with glue, tape and faith.” Krabbmann continued.
Considering the expansive effects of age, it occurred to me that most of the people in the room would require at least five-times as much neoprene if they still had to make their own wet-suits.
Not me, of course.