April 23, 2024

**Do Not Use**

New Director's Dialogue available now in ARC Event Library


By Tom Watson

Jimmy Vause was the brain behind building our diving helmet. In 1947 Jimmy was about sixteen and his brother Buddy and I were thirteen. Jimmy had somewhere gotten a square sectioned five gallon can and a piece of plexiglass about eight inches square. We collected a tire pump, about fifty feet of quarter inch Manila hemp line and half inch rubber hose, a few feet of rubber garden hose and a truck tire valve stem and core. The last material was some forty or fifty pounds of lead that we appropriated from a building site nearby. I had to wait for the Statute of Limitations to run out before I could write this story.

Jimmy’s plan was:

  • Remove the original top of the can.
  • Turn the can over so that the original bottom became the top of the helmet.
  • On two opposite sides cut semicircles on the bottom and line them with split garden hose to protect our shoulders.
  • Cut out a hole and install the Plexiglas for a window.
  • Drill a hole in the top, insert the valve, and attach the half inch rubber hose to the top.
  • Attach the Manila hemp line to the top.
  • Weight the helmet with the lead.
  • Connect the tire pump.

The idea was that we would dive from a boat with two or three boys on the surface supporting one diver. The diver would get under the helmet and would go down because of the weight of the lead. One boy would tend the air hose and the Manila hemp lift line, while another pumped air down to the helmet. When he was ready to come up, the diver would simply slip out from under the helmet and swim to the surface.

Jimmy explained to us that the air pressure inside the helmet would keep water out, keep the helmet from collapsing, and allow the diver to breathe. Some air would probably escape around the shoulders and go to the surface as bubbles. We knew about the hazard of bends, but Jimmy said that we would not go more than about thirty feet down and would not stay very long, so there was no reason to worry.

After a couple of days’ construction time we were ready for a test. We went to the Cove Hotel pier, our normal swimming place. There, in about ten feet of clear water and on a firm sand bottom, each of us made a “dive”. It was neat! We walked along the bottom looking at small fish around the pilings, where barnacles, oysters, and hair like grasses grew making a feeding place for spade fish, pin fish, star fish, pin cushions, and squirrel fish. The biggest problem was communication with the dive tender via the rope. Once I tried to bend over, but the helmet stayed up and I got out from under it. I could not easily get back in, so I swam to the surface just as Jimmy had planned. Our diving helmet was a success.

A few days later, a Saturday morning, we were fishing to make our movie money. We caught stingarees, trigger fish, and crabs, for which Raffield’s Fish Market paid us 1.5 cents/crab, 1.5 cents/lb for trigger fish and a penny a pound for stingarees. They sold the crabs for a nickel. Trigger fish were skinned and filleted, then sold for 35 cents a pound as “sea bass steaks”. The stingarees were skinned, and the wings diced with a cookie cutter to make “scallops”. Those, Raffield’s sold for about 40 cents a pound. We usually made around a quarter apiece, plenty in a day when movies cost 9 cents, cokes a nickel, and popcorn a dime.

This day was different though. Someone noticed black smoke coming up from near the black channel buoy three quarters of a mile away, off Redfish Point. It turned out to be a boat that burned for about a half hour and then sank. In no time at all, the town rumor mill identified the boat as the Molly O. She had had an explosion, burned, and sunk with a mother and small child aboard. The father according to rumor had gone to shore in another boat for groceries.

We stopped fishing and decided to go out with our diving helmet and find the Molly O. We loaded the gear aboard a rowboat and rowed out to the black buoy. There, in what we figured to be about 40 feet of water, we would dive until we found her. I was the first diver. This was our first dive from a boat, so I went over the side while Buddy and Jimmy prepared the helmet, hoses, retrieving line, and pump. When all was ready and air was being pumped into the helmet, I ducked under it, and signaled to start down.

As I slowly descended, I listened to the whish-whish of the tire pump and watched bubbles going up. At first it was a grand adventure, but as I went farther down the water became less clear. I could see sun rays streaking through the murkier water, and as I neared the bottom, I could see almost nothing. The thought of sharks entered my mind. I was beginning to get scared. Then as my feet touched bottom the unexpected occurred. The bottom was not hard sand. It was ooze some three feet thick. As my feet penetrated the ooze a thick black cloud obliterated all light. My feet finally settled on firm sand, but I had had enough.

I ducked out from under the helmet and shot toward the surface. The sunlight made a shimmering bright spot at the top and I headed toward it. I was going so fast that when I broke the surface, I went out of the water almost to my waist. Fortunately, I had missed hitting the boat by three feet! I clamored into the boat and told Jimmy and Buddy what I had seen. Nobody else went down that day. We decided that our equipment was not up to finding the Molly O.

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