79, Merritt Island, Florida, USA
I was just 14 years old when I learned to dive in Block Island (Rhode Island, USA).
Certification courses were few and far between, and most people were taught by friends who had learned from other friends and so on.
My bedroom overlooked the parking space of our neighbor, Louie. One day I saw Louie washing some stuff in the driveway between our homes.
I’m sure Louie wasn’t thrilled when I showed up at his door asking him about his scuba gear. Louie enjoyed his hobby and made the mistake of attempting to answer all my questions: “How does a double-hose regulator work?” “Where do you get your tanks filled?” “How deep have you been?”
“Will you teach me to dive?”
Louie went into his living room and brought back two of the biggest books I had ever seen – United States Navy Diving Manual Volume I and Volume II – and a piece of paper with my first reading assignments.
Reading wasn’t my strongest suit in school, but adventure was. Louie was to find that out a few days later when I showed up asking for my next assignments.
When we eventually finished the classwork Louie felt was necessary to keep me alive, he and I set out to create a wet suit from a sheet of 3/8-inch neoprene. I lay on the rubber and Louie marked my outline on the rubber. I flipped over and he marked it again. He handed me some shears, stretched the material and I cut.
In order to make it a custom fit, we glued it together on me. I lay still on the floor as I gave the neoprene glue time to dry. Finally, it was time to take it off, and as I slowly removed the wet suit the hair on my arms and legs got ripped off.
I had fuzzy seams in my first wet suit!
The rest of my diving equipment consisted of an 1800 psi CO2 tank and a US Divers “Aquamatic” single-hose regulator (cost: $37 US).
I couldn’t afford a double hose on my paper route earnings.
Most of my diving was in the abundant lakes and quarries in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
As a teenage boy, the most fun I had with my new scuba diving skills was scaring the local girls. I would sneak into Lake Terramuggus, hide in the shore reeds and wait for a boat – usually filled with unsuspecting girls – to pass overhead in their rental row boats. I would make scratching and bumping noises on the bottom of those boats. The noises and seeing the bubbles emerging from underneath was all it took to create the “Connecticut Loch Ness Monster.”
I could hear the screeching and yelling as the girls hurried back to shore.
I joined the US Air Force in 1959 at the age of 17, and scuba diving took a back seat for several years to a wife, kids and an air force career.
It wasn’t until 1972, when I was assigned to Johnston Island, an atoll 750 miles southwest of Hawaii, that I got an actual certification. In order to dive the magnificent reefs around Johnston, I signed up for a course the day after I arrived. Over the following 11 months, I logged well over a hundred dives and departed the island as a divemaster/assistant instructor.
Although I have since dived in just about every wet spot around our water planet, Johnston Island is still the best diving I’ve ever done.
I was later assigned to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, where I immediately signed up for a YMCA scuba instructor (slam) course.
At the graduation ceremony, a PADI® representative approached me and said that PADI accepted the “Y” Instructor Program.
I gave him $35 US and walked away with two instructor certifications that day!
I am probably the only PADI Instructor who hasn’t taken a PADI Instructor Orientation Course!
My last duty station was at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, and we settled in the nearby small town of Merritt Island.
My wife, Edith, was driving through Merritt Island one day when she saw a “For Sale” sign on a scuba store. We purchased that store in December 1980 and I retired from the US Air Force after 22 years of service. We changed the name to American Divers International (S – 3140) and soon became one of the first PADI Five Star Dive Centers in Florida.
Over the next 38 years, we taught several thousand people to scuba dive.
Shortly after we purchased American Divers International, several certified divers who had suffered various injuries – missing limbs, neurological damage, sight/hearing impairments – after being certified asked if I could help them with equipment modifications so they could continue diving. We cut fins so they pointed the right way on a leg with a missing foot, for example.
It felt good to help make diving easier for these people and to assist others to learn to dive, but I also grew my business.
One day a man walked in and said, “I heard you teach handicapped people to scuba dive.”
Jerry and I were both Vietnam vets. He was severely injured by an anti-personnel bomb, which created a problem with learning to dive.
He was blind.
I said I wasn’t qualified to teach blind people to dive, to which he replied: “Better get qualified because, one way or the other I am going to go diving in the canal in back of my house with my son’s gear!”
I called Jim Gatacre, whose Handicapped Scuba Association (HSA) was very new: no student materials, no instructor’s materials, just a lot of enthusiasm and an idea that would allow a way to teach nearly any person with nearly any handicap how to scuba dive.
Even after many pool sessions, it was Jerry who taught me and HSA how to teach a blind person to dive.
Not being able to see had nothing to do with how talented he was as a diver. During Jerry’s advanced class, I tried to confuse him by having him descend to the bottom of the lake at 6 metres/20 feet, turn around three times and come back to the shore where he started. He confidently dropped down with the divemaster following, made three circles and headed straight to shore, surfacing right in front of me.
I didn’t know until much later how he did it. Do you?
After 38 years, Edith and I retired from American Divers International in 2018. Our youngest son, Jeff, and his wife, Becky, are the new owners and are carrying on the traditions of the company.
Our four children, their mates and our grandchildren all scuba dive. Our oldest grandson, Tyler, is also an active PADI Instructor.
Everyone who dives (or wants to dive) has this idea in the back of his mind that someday he may find around the corner a Spanish galleon with cannons, treasures, and all.
Even me, after all these years.
Based on an article that appeared in the Third Quarter 2021 The Undersea Journal®
Americas, Training, Instructor, PADI, Professional Association of Diving Instructors, usaPADI Pros