playwright-legislator-diplomat CLARE BOOTEE LUCE discovers a strange new world and describes it brilliantly in a two-part article
Oh, flesh, flesh, how art thou fishified!
There I was, slithering along the bottom of the pool like an eel, an eel whose head was imprisoned in a rubber-sealed pickle jar, from which little bubbles noisily escaped, while a quiet trickle of water stole in. A human eel whose body, encased in a clammy black frogman's shirt and black ballet tights, propelled by black rubber flippers, was tightly trussed to a long, gray, pickle-shaped steel tank which slithered along with it.
On my writhing way toward the pool's deep end, I gaped frog-eyed out of my glass prison. The aquarian scenery was not inspiring. I seemed to be in a flooded and deserted quarry at twilight. Through the murky water, cement walls loomed high on all sides. The walls began to shimmy. I looked up.
September 8, 1957
Ten feet above, the quarry's liquid lid broke into a steely broth, churned by a downflash of king-sized blue flippers. A second later another bottled face confronted mine. It stared at me. I stared back. Its fishy blue eyes seemed full of questioning concern. But I could not verify the expression because its mouth was not in its jar, like mine. Its mouth was sucking lemon-wise on a white rubber bit from which trailed giant rubber-tube mustachios that were joined behind its head to a round alarm-clock-sized gadget affixed to the top of its own tank. It raised its blurry eyebrows higher and swam at me, pointing a gray forefinger. Then the forefinger met the thumb to form a circle. Plainly, in the language of bottled eels, it was asking if I were O.K. I considered the matter. Well, I am not yet drowned. 1 formed my own fingers into an answering circle, noting with faint dismay that they had become as weirdly white as a sea anemone's.
Something—I thought it was relief—came into the confronting eyes. Anyway, they now looked less like watery blue onions; indeed almost human. A muscled gray hand fastened on my arm like a limpet, and I was floated a few feet up. With a flip of its fins, it shot ahead, beckoning me to follow. I followed. Now we were flippering around and around the pool, like trained seals. Good. I have graduated from eeldom to sealdom.
Now my fellow seal rounded on me again, jabbed gently at my chest, then at his own: this was seal talk for "You do what I do." Then he jackknifed and rolled, again and again, mask over flippers. Through my mask this performance looked part fish, part human and part washing machine. Nevertheless, the thing looked easy, and graceful, in a ridiculous sort of way. I began to tumble with him, awkwardly. Sometimes my bottled head came out of the water, sometimes my widespread flippers flailed the air. Good. I am making the novice mechanical-porpoise class.
Suddenly I was quite out of breath. I gulped for air, and swallowed water. I breathed through my nose. Water came that way too. I snorted and spat, held my breath, and fought to surface. Instead, I sank fast, arms up, legs sprawled, in a sitting position. The bottom of my tank hit the metal drain on the bottom of the pool. There was a resounding clang. It echoed through the pool like the bells on the lost island of Atlantis. It knelled doom. I sat there, not breathing, frozen with fear. Now I will drown.
The eyes in the glass were again confronting me, and a finger was pointing to the button on the side of my mask. I pressed it hard. Air hissed sharply into the mask, cleared out the water and escaped: gurgle, gurgle, gurgle! All around my head bubbles panicked to the top to join their own element. And mine. I gulped air deeply and found myself shooting up in the bubbles' wake. I grabbed the side of the pool. How very extraordinary. I can always go up—if I can breathe.... What if I can't? I emptied my lungs and let go of the side. The tank clanged on the bottom again. How very extraordinary. I will always go down when my lungs are empty. I filled my lungs again; I ballooned up. I emptied them; I plummeted down. Up—gurgle! Down—clang! I breathed slowly and shallowly. I made a new discovery: If I rationed my breath, I could lie there on the bottom, inert as a collapsed puffer fish, and rest. I rested. This posture of aquatic repose was followed by the slow return of my mental faculties. Thought began to trickle into my mind the way water was trickling into my mask. I am cold. Very cold. I have a stabbing earache. I have been down here as long as the wreck of the Hesperus.... And yet I could not have been eeling and sealing and porpoising about and lying here like an exhausted flounder in 10 feet of water for more than 15 minutes. I've had it.
My bottle-faced companion, who all this time had been patiently goggling at me, standing on his finger tips, like a lobster, made a "thumb-up" gesture. He also knew I'd had it. I won't surface. I'll go out the way I came in: gallantly, like an eel. I slithered back toward the shallow end, punching my air button every other second and fighting claustrophobia all the way. Then something on the barren floor caught my attention. It was something very small. I eeled over to it and picked it up, and held it before my mask. It was a rusty bobby pin. I dropped it in disgust.
Who wants to slither on his belly, scavenging rusty bobby pins, when he can walk erect and pick lovely flowers on the lovely land? Who wants to gurgle and flounder on dark, watery bottoms when he can loll and sing in the brilliant sunshine? Who wants to be wet when he can be dry? Who wants to communicate by finny signs when he can speak in the tongue of Shakespeare? Not I.
I surfaced in four feet of water. I tried to stand. The compressed-air tank on my back again weighed 30 pounds. I fell crouching to my knees and fumbled at the six straps that would unbutton my splitting head. Someone untrussed my gear and floated it away. I stood up and ripped off the mask. It dropped in my hands, weighing like a solid rubber bucket.
There I was, after an eternity, looking up into the handsome brown face of Park Breck, my underwater instructor.
"How was it?"
My chattering teeth could not bite on a word. He took the mask, smiling uneasily.
"You did fine."
"My mask leaked."
"I told you: the Hydro-Pak doesn't always fit a woman's face. Your face is too small."
Small? It felt like a wizened winter apple.
"And you forgot to press the air-release button."
"My ear aches."
"You kept shooting up and down. That's dangerous. And you forgot to equalize. Blow against your nose."
I gripped my stiff nostrils and blew. My ears popped painfully. I let go my nose. Some of those gurgles must have gotten into my middle ear. It plopped and squeaked. I slogged to the side of the pool in my flippers. I hoisted myself to the side and ripped them off.
At last I stood on land. But not dry land. The leaden skies oozed cold rain. And the sou'wester that had been gripping Bermuda for four days in the backwash of Hurricane Audrey was blowing up again.
"Everything feels different and looks different in weather like this."
"Besides, that shirt doesn't fit. When they don't fit, they're worse than nothing. I told you, remember?"
"I guess I forgot everything you told me once I got under."
"Most people do. That's why we begin with the pool."
I headed for the door of the warm, pink little Four-ways Inn.
Maybe I end with the pool.
I turned on the hot water tap in the bathroom. I bent over to peel off my frogman's shirt. It had been a struggle in the first place to get it on. It was too tight at the hips. I don't have the hips of a frogman. I rolled it up. It coiled like an enraged garden hose below my breast, which also is not the breast of a frogman. I fought it up and over, as far as my neck. I tried to pull my arms out of the sleeves. They came out of the sleeves and almost out of their sockets. I pulled it over my head. The thing turned into a devilfish. It almost smothered me before, panting, I beat it off and hurled it to the bathroom floor. It slobbered across the tiles and lay limp, like a dead man-ray. During my struggle the hot water had reached the rim of the tub. In the nick, I turned it off. I tried the water with a tentative toe. It seemed boiling hot. But I consigned myself to it like a lobster seeking heaven in the martyrdom of the pot. I lolled like a pink jellyfish in the tub. I floated my red, unflippered toes to the top, admiring them extravagantly. "How beautiful are thy feet, without flippers, O King's daughter." I floated my tired body and thought...
Why, in the name of all common sense, had I decided to try skin-diving? Who ever made me think I would enjoy anything so tiring and dismal and frightening? Who indeed! Why, none other than that arch spinner of underwater yarns, that master magician of marine enchantments, that fabulous, fabricating frog of a Frenchman! Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau!
Two years ago I had shown his film, The Silent World, in the Embassy at Rome. That was a world of sun-drenched tropical seas, breached by flashing brown bodies who wore only trunks and Aqua-lungs. That was a liquid paradise. I recalled how my bubble-plumed hero, Cousteau, and his valiant fishmen had gone down in the sea to beauty; how confidently they had penetrated its wine-dark depths, exploring its weirdest wrecks, tearing the watery veil from never-before-witnessed scenes of ocean's strangest and most resplendent mysteries; how playfully, under azure waters, they had consorted with gorgeous fishes, ridden with noble tortoises, and danced with suctorial octopi; how tenderly they had made friends with Ulysses, a giant grouper; how nonchalantly they had encountered and how bravely routed the finny monsters of the deep; how boldly they had put the fear of man even into man-eating sharks!
How delicious, how effortless it had all seemed! A bewitchment had fallen on me. I read diving books and diving lore. Then in an article in a magazine which shall be nameless, I encountered a sentence that thrilled me: "Off the coral reefs," it said, "on the Bermuda barrier, there is the best amateur Aqua-lunging in the Western World, and excellent instructors." When the next hot summer came I would go to Bermuda and try. I did not yearn to hear the musical bark of the devilfish, or the playful squeaks of dolphins. My ambition was a small one: I defined it, to give myself hope (and courage). I only wanted to see an angelfish face to face at his own level, which (I read) is between 20 and 30 feet of clear water.
So what had I found? I had found myself lying like a jettisoned part of an old refrigerator on a hard cement floor, shivering to death in 10 feet of water, while something probed my eardrums with an icicle, and under a noisy mask stale cold water tickled my nose.
I hated Monsieur Cousteau.
Ah! the beauty of a small blue porcelain tub. Oh, the joy to be...where? Why, in water again. The bliss of the child in the womb.... Suddenly it flashed through my mind that in water I am no longer a prisoner of gravity. I thought with astonishment that there was something I had liked about my experience in the pool: the sweet and mysterious escape of human flesh and bone from the awful lifetime burden of gravity. But, definitely, that was all. For the rest, I passionately hoped Monsieur le Capitaine Cousteau would get the bends—right at home in his own porcelain bathtub.
In the afternoon I decided to try once more. Why, I don't know. Maybe it was the strength that came from the big hot lunch I ate; maybe it was the small warm faint fingers of sunshine that now poked through the dark fabric of the Bermuda sky; maybe it was that strange desire which I had for the first time identified in the bathtub, the spirit's deepest desire to shed the body's burden of gravity. Maybe it was because I have always believed, with G. K. Chesterton, that anything worth doing is worth doing badly. Or, maybe it was just what the conversation at lunch of my two young Bermuda guests, my godchild and namesake, Clare Boothe Carey, and Tony Ribiero, did to my vanity.
Clare said, "Isn't Auntie Clare terrific—just like Auntie Mame!" And Tony said, "What's so terrific about lung-diving? I can hold my breath without all that junk, and still make it on the bottom, the whole way down the pool!"
So once again, I sat on the side of the pool while Park patiently explained (all over again) the basic facts of gracious underwater living: I must breathe slowly and regularly; I must always exhale coming up; and go down and come up slowly in order to equalize pressure on my eardrums. I had to do for my own eardrums what a pilot does for the eardrums of his passengers when he takes off or lands his plane gradually.
I eeled and sealed and played the flounder again. But I did not bob up and clang down. My earache dulled. But the Hydro-Pak mask still leaked and roared. And every time I punched the button, I wished it were Cousteau's aquiline and aqueous nose. I used a nose to breathe. What use was his elegant hawklike beak to him? I concluded that he used it only to frighten off sharks.
I stayed in the pool quite a while, dreading the hour of my next encounter in the bathroom with my rubber frogman's shirt.
O, I have passed a miserable night,
So full of ugly sights, of ghastly dreams....
Lord, Lord! Methought what pain it was to drown!
What dreadful noise of waters in mine ears!
That night I fell asleep exhausted at 10 o'clock. I was soon having nightmares in which my live but severed head, entrapped in its gurgling and roaring mask, was rolled by hidden currents on all the floors of the seven seas.
I snapped up in bed and turned on the light. The gurgling and roaring were real. They came from the antiquated air conditioner. I got up and turned the wretched thing off.
That did it. I would not use a Hydro-Pak again. I would use Cousteau's scuba. Cousteau had betrayed me. He might as well betray me to the death....
I slept like a clam. I awoke 10 hours later when the telephone rang. It was Breck. No diving was possible anywhere off the island in weather like this. I said: "How very disappointing!" and sighed with relief. I ordered the biggest breakfast I have had since I was a child. Waiting for it, I went to the window. It was sheeted with rain. On the high flagpole on the terrace of the Mid-Ocean Club, the British flag whipped taut in drenched glory in a strong sou'wester. Beyond, a high surf broke on the beach. The ocean was dark, and six miles out, from the sharp teeth of the barrier reef, spume fumed against the leaden sky. What a lovely day not to dive!
When you were a tadpole and I was a fish,
In the Paleozoic time,
And side by side on the ebbing tide
We sprawled through the ooze and the slime....
After two days the wind dropped and the surf subsided. From my window I saw a shaft of sunlight strike the drooping British flag, like a benediction on its long struggle with the squalls. It was clearing.
Park called. We decided we would try for a third dive from a boat in the shallow waters of Castle Harbour, near the wreck of a little harbor tug called the Sea Fern. That sounded encouraging...even romantic...
We boarded Captain Roy Taylor's sturdy 40-foot fishing boat, the Wally III, at St. George. We dressed for the dive on board. Park told me I would be warmer if I wore only a thick tight sweater over my bathing suit. But somebody else had told me that the rubber shirt would help to "seal" the sweater, and that it would go on more easily if I sifted it inside first with talcum powder. I had bought a can of talcum in Hamilton. I sifted it liberally. After a mild struggle I emerged looking like a biscuit ready for the pan. Suddenly I remembered that the last time I had used talcum was 20 years ago, when I found out I was allergic to it. Too late. I sneezed lightly.
We anchored near the shore in Blue Horizon Bay. On deck we struggled into our heavy gear and strapped on weight belts. The horizon was anything but blue.
Park said, "It's going to be cold. The wind has blown off all the warm top water. And the visibility will be low. Thirty feet, maybe. When you go down, don't forget to equalize." Then, diver-fashion, he tumbled overboard backward from the rail.
With the help of Park's assistant and Captain Taylor, I hauled myself over the side and down the ladder, clutching the rail. I sneezed and readjusted my mask. I flopped in and down, sucking air through my mouthpiece as though I were the last survivor of the Calcutta death hole. I came up and, guided by Breck, swam down again slowly to about 10 feet. My ears didn't hurt. Fine. I am learning to equalize. I looked around. The visibility was certainly low. I saw nothing but gray-green water. We swam along the rocky coast in the direction of the wreck. Dull fish shapes and rock shapes appeared, disappeared and reappeared. A strong current was flowing. I began to battle it. A dark brown shape loomed about five feet under. It was the well-scavenged hull of the Sea Fern. It lay long and rusty. Like a giant bobby pin. Little gray schools of fishes flicked and darted past its macabre profile. I am learning to breathe, but I am tired. The current is very strong. I pulled at Breck's flipper. We turned back to the Wally III.
Swimming back, growing colder by the minute, I tried to fix my attention on the harbor floor below. It was a gruesome sight. Gray and flat except for the pyramids of sand the sea worms build, it was splotched with great lumpy sea puddings, the color of manure. Disemboweled red snappers, heads intact, mouths open, lay in stiff death all around. A snakelike, mottled green moray, about four feet long, drifted past a beer bottle, dead as a cucumber. I looked up. Overhead long transparent ribbon rolls of ooze floated swiftly by—worms' eggs. A jellyfish sloshed across my mask. The current is too strong now. I thumbed up.
Swimming on the surface, we reached the boat. There was a melee of tanks and flippers around the ladder as with Breck's help I unfastened my gear, spat out my mouthpiece and hauled myself wearily up the ladder. It was raining hard again. Captain Taylor and Breck helped me to peel off the frogman's shirt.
I went into the cabin and changed back to slacks. I came out and leaned gratefully over a hot cup of coffee that the captain handed me. Then I sneezed, and with a rush, my eyes ran rivers of tears while my nose dripped stringily. I sneezed again and again like a little French train snorting out of a station.
The captain said, "Caught a cold?"
"No, I have an allergy to talcum."
I rubbed my stringy hair on a damp towel. I realized I did not look like Sophia Loren. The captain looked at me wryly.
"Find anything interesting down there?"
"I didn't come up with Alan Ladd, did I?"
"The floor of any harbor," Park said, "always looks like a city dump heap. Wait till we hit the barrier reef on a sunny day."
I ruminated between coffee gulps and allergic sneezes on the ugly dive and tugging currents. Why not face it? I might stay here until I am covered with algae before I see sunshine and fair weather. Still...the dive on the Sea Fern was an improvement on the dive on the bobby pin.
"AN UNDERSEA RHYMER NAMED CLARE..."
Out of the ocean depths around Bermuda, Clare Boothe Luce brought the fruits of a hitherto un-exploited talent: the composition of limericks. Here are a few—making up a versified manual of some dos and don'ts—which she wrote down.
Said a scuba instructor called Breck,
"Never drink when you dive on a wreck.
For the loss of sobriety
Will destroy your aquiety.
And you'll end with the bends on the deck."
An amateur diver called Pease
Whose lungs were once caught in a squeeze,
Said. "I don't realize
That I must equalize,
And I also have pains in my knees."
Her scuba instructor said, "Clare,
Underwater, whatever you wear,
The best mask, a best flipper
Won't make you a kipper—You must surface sometime for air."
NEXT WEEK: PART II
In which the author, still stormbound, spends an evening with the treasure divers and beholds the ancient and beautiful things they have found below the waters; and then, with clearing skies, herself discovers the wonders of the sunlit jungle of the reefs, making the acquaintance of a variety of fishes, including a man-fish and Ulysses Junior, and finally finding her own treasure of the sea.