In recent years Don Pablo José Bush Romero, Mexico's distinguished diver, self-made scholar and restless millionaire-at-large, has lived much of the time in the past, picking at the carcasses of old ships and prowling through ruined cities and forgotten caves. It is possible that the prevailing gloom of these lost worlds is affecting Don Pablo, for recently, in the middle of a somber moment, he declared, "I am 58. It is time now for me to leave the herd and wander alone like an old bull elephant."
When some of Don Pablo's close friends heard this, they laughed and jeered. Don Pablo Bush Romero has been wandering off for years, and the friends who have wandered with him know that Don Pablo will never be a loner. They know, furthermore, that Don Pablo could never travel anywhere with only one trunk and a couple of loose tusks, as an old elephant should. Wherever he goes, it is the nature of Don Pablo to mix, to become involved, to take on new projects and, in the process, to accumulate baggage that would stagger an elephant.
Four days after deciding to become a lonely old bull, Don Pablo wandered away from Mexico City accompanied by 70 friends (he had expected only 30). He led this latest mass exodus to the Mayan ruins and shipwrecks that lie along the half-wild Caribbean coast of Mexico. As often happens to those who wander with Don Pablo, the 70 who followed him this time returned home sunbaked, rain-soaked, mosquito-bitten, undernourished and happy. By the time Don Pablo himself came home, after 10 so-called carefree days, he had lost a few pounds and one tooth and had picked up, here and there, the following flotsam and excess baggage: the skull of a whale; 1,500 shotgun shells: three cannon balls; 80 diving tanks; a pineapple; a punch bowl; two hunting rifles; a model of Nelson's flagship H.M.S. Victory; a toy bowling set; four dozen 18th-century crucifixes and medallions; parts of a refrigerator and an outboard motor; a sea shell the size of a soup tureen; a movie projector; two dolls; and three exquisite, foul-smelling fronds of black coral.
Don Pablo is not altogether sure how he came by the punch bowl or the outboard-motor parts. The other items in his baggage do fit, at least loosely, into the quiltwork of his life. Don Pablo is—or more correctly, was—a dedicated big-game hunter, and this accounts for the shells and rifles. The toy bowling set was a gift for his 5-year-old daughter, Jannette; the dolls were for his 12-year-old granddaughter. Patsy. Some of the things Don Pablo brought back had been left behind by members of the party who returned to civilization before him. The whale skull, to name one such item, had been found on a beach by Dr. Eugenie Clark, a charming American ichthyologist who collects such things the way other ladies collect hats. In the near future, when Don Pablo tries to ship the whale skull to Dr. Clark in the U.S., it will probably get bound up in red tape. Some customs clerk almost certainly will want to know the exact price paid for the skull, and so forth and so on. If this happens, Don Pablo will simply reroute the skull by way of a friend in Juàrez, who will walk across the border carrying it in his arms. Although Don Pablo is a man of considerable means, there is in him a practical streak of peon cunning.
November 30, 1964
The bulk of Don Pablo's baggage on his last expedition—the diving tanks, the foul-smelling coral, the cannon balls, and the rest—is merely the heavy price any curious man is apt to pay when he takes up diving. Don Pablo is an unusual diver. He is one of the least competent and most important divers active today. When he goes below he often drifts aimlessly in the shallows, an indolent sea cow in a timeless world. Underwater he rarely does more than oversee the strenuous work of other divers or serve as their messenger boy. But his importance to the sport of diving, and to the various sciences that use diving as a tool, far exceeds his own ability, for Don Pablo was the founder and is the president of the Club de Exploraciones y Deportes Acuàticos de México, an organization well known to divers everywhere by its abbreviated name, CEDAM.
The men of CEDAM are most famous today for their labors in recovering old bones and artifacts from the bottom of a sacrificial well in the ancient Mayan city of Chichén Ità. They have also received a big play in the press for the two patient months they spent picking through the cargo of El Matancero, a Spanish merchant ship that foundered off the wild coast of Quintana Roo in 1742.
There is an aura of romance about all such projects, an aura that usually vanishes as soon as work begins. Anyone wanting to know what diving in the sacred well at Chichén Ità was like can approximate the experience by lowering himself for a short while into a sewer (the bigger the sewer, the better. It was 85 feet from ground level to the water at Chichén Ità, and 40 feet farther down in the turbid water to the history-rich mud).
CEDAM's search of the old ship, El Matancero, defies simulation, although anyone who has tried to dig up a concrete sidewalk with a hairpin has a fair idea of the problem. The cargos of old ships often lie under loose sediment or in the tangled, porous structure of a living reef. But most of El Matancero's cargo lay solidly packed two inches to two feet deep in the cementlike calcareous accretion of a shallow, windward shoal. On an average workday on El Matancero, 50 members of the CEDAM expedition worked above the surface supporting 15 or 20 divers who were swept to and fro in the surging water like hapless rag dolls as they picked carefully at the fragile objects embedded in the hard floor. Today, three years after the last serious work was done, the Matancero wreck site—roughly 100 yards square—resembles a battlefield of crisscrossed trenches and shell holes; and still today, in the bottom of the hollows, bits of old jewelry, buttons, fragments of crucifixes, spoons and glassware are tossed fitfully back and forth by the surge.
Like most such artifacts, the bones, rubber dolls, rings, incense burners, bells and other Mayan offerings from the well of Chichén Ità, and the thousands of crucifixes, medallions, spoons, buckles, cuff links, pins and needles from El Matancero have answered some archaeological questions and provoked others. It was generally believed, for example, that the ritualistic Mayans threw teen-age maidens into their sacrificial wells, but it now appears that they were not at all choosy. To judge by the bones dredged up by CEDAM, the Mayans tossed in just about anybody.
There have been other expeditions as productive as any of CEDAM's, the excavation of the sunken city of Port Royal by Edwin Link, the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian Institution being one that comes immediately to mind. There are many other countries, notably France and the U.S., where diving is more popular and technically farther along than in Mexico, but there is no diving organization anywhere to equal CEDAM. The Mexican club prevails because, since its inception by Don Pablo in 1958, it has stuck to the sensible idea that a diver is not an odd, exotic creature who should dwell apart, associating only with his fellow flippermen. CEDAM is a large community that welcomes all manner of men. Less than a quarter of its 800 members have ever dived, even in a swimming pool. Only about 100 of them could be called competent divers. The balance of them are archaeologists, biologists, mineralogists, soldiers, sailors, lawyers, doctors, bosses and clerks who have some interest in the past and the future of the sea. Because it has the divergent intellect to solve many problems on its own and because its work is done for the people of Mexico, CEDAM's credit in the scientific market-place is good. When it needs help on an expedition it usually can get it from the Mexican navy, the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History, from the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian Institution of the U.S. and from comparable European agencies that are curious about what goes on in the sea. In France and the U.S., sport divers and military and civilian research teams occasionally collaborate on undersea matters, but usually only when each breed has some immediate profit to realize. And even then, the teamwork is often of a low order, the esprit de corps about what you find in a cageful of weasels.
All diving expeditions are beset by demons. The water may suddenly become murky when there are no heavy seas to make it so. Heavy seas sometimes build up when there is no distant storm to build them. For no good reason, compressors fail, air hoses break, marker buoys disappear. Anchors get up and walk around on the bottom. Tempers flare; the bickering begins.
Considering their volatility, no ethnologist would pick Mexicans as the civilized tribe most likely to live in peace through all the disappointments of a diving expedition. But under the leadership of Don Pablo, a man of remarkable control and poise, the members of CEDAM have learned to live with disaster, calmly reconciled to the fact that anything that can possibly go wrong on a diving expedition sooner or later will. Don Pablo is not the dynamic sort who mounts the barricade waving the flag of the republic to dispel demons. His policy is to carry on in spite of them. At the start of the $50,000 Matancero expedition, the C-82 cargo plane bringing most of the diving and salvage equipment crashed. The crew barely escaped before the gas tanks exploded, destroying all the equipment. When Don Pablo heard the news, he said, "No one was killed. So nothing has happened. It means harder work, that is all."
On all his wanderings in the past Don Pablo has maintained a casualness and candor that would have distressed that old romantic gypsy, Richard Halliburton, no end. In Don Pablo's written accounts of African safaris and hunts in India and North America there is little soul-searching, deeper meaning or other literary fluff. Whether he is writing about stopping an enraged monster in its tracks or merely describing the unwholesome way Calcutta waiters pick their noses while serving food, Don Pablo does not embellish but simply presents the facts. Although he usually hews to the line in his journals, in writing of one trek through the sere wilds of Mexico he felt obliged to stray long enough to bring the reader up to date about one of his companions, Carlos Rubio. In a footnote Don Pablo remarked: "Carlos Rubio was killed in ambush by landjumpers shortly after this was written. He saved Pepe Villanuevos by placing himself in front of Pepe and taking 20 impacts," After staying awhile in the African village of Bukoba on the edge of Lake Victoria, Don Pablo reported with postcard matter-of-factness: "The village was picturesque and attractive. At night the hippos came out of the lakes and walked through the streets and the leopards entered the gardens to devour dogs."
Here and there, in the corners of the world, Don Pablo has acquired knowledge useful to him as the leader of CEDAM, as well as some factual odds and ends that he will never need. He is a modest authority on the mating habits of jaguars, on the wife-lending customs of the Masai and on the nest building of East Indian wasps (they sometimes make nests in gun barrels, thereby blowing off hunters' heads). He knows how to hunt wild turkeys at night as the Tarahumara Indians do (the Tarahumaras walk in a circle under the roost carrying torches, until they or the turkeys are overcome by dizziness). He knows how to prime a lighting cock for the battle of its life (you cut off the coxcomb and feed it to the cock, along with raw meat and certain worms that come to the surface when blood is spread on the ground).
Some of Don Pablo's long-standing friends believe that if he had gone into politics, his poise, his gregariousness and his quiet genius for getting separate minds to meet and work together would have carried him to the top. Don Pablo does not agree. "It is important in politics," he has said in the presence of ladies, "to kiss the rings of political princes. When it comes to ring-kissing, I have no talent." Despite his deficiency as a ring-kisser, Don Pablo does have important connections, the most important, for his material welfare at least, being the Ford Motor Company. Don Pablo makes his living selling Ford cars. He has had a hand in other ventures, sometimes winning, sometimes losing. Winning and losing are his heritage. One of his grandfathers, Major Lorenzo Romero, fought on the losing side against the gringos at Veracruz and on the winning side against Emperor Maximilian. Don Pablo's other grandfather, Cassius Bush of Illinois, was on the winning side in the U.S. Civil War, and then was a fairly consistent loser until he wandered into Mexico as a sewing-machine salesman. Thereafter he enjoyed modest success, passing the business on, in time, to Don Pablo's father.
Don Pablo was born in 1905 in a suburb of Mexico City, a block from El Arbol de la Noche Triste (the tree of the sad night), under which the Conqueror Cortés sat and wept after his Spanish team was upset by Montezuma's Aztecs in the first contest of what turned out to be an epic series. At the age of 12, Don Pablo was taken for a year to Chattanooga by his maternal grandmother, on the theory that he could learn better English there than he was getting at the American School of Mexico City. In Chattanooga, Don Pablo learned to say "Sho' nuff, honey" and other such Anglicisms and developed a taste for history, nature and money. He hawked newspapers and magazines, dug for Minié balls on the old bloody grounds of the Civil War, and in a year of boy-scouting went from Tenderfoot to Eagle. At 14, back in Mexico City, he quit school for two human reasons: 1) he wanted money, and 2) school was taking valuable time away from his education, which he found came faster by reading and reading and reading than by sitting in a classroom parsing sentences and figuring out why John and Peter need x hours to pick y apples. He got a job as grease monkey on Henry Ford's Model Ts, and has been connected with the Ford Company in one way or another ever since.
Despite his recent gloomy rumblings that he is now too old to carry on as the friendliest Ford dealer in Mexico or as the leader of CEDAM, it is doubtful if Don Pablo will quit either career completely. He has rarely ever been able to disentangle himself from worthy alliances, and his faith in the fine family of Ford cars and in CEDAM are still only slightly less than his faith in God and the Republic of Mexico. As long as Mexicans want Fords, Don Pablo will probably be selling them; and as long as there is work for CEDAM to do, he will no doubt be involved in it. The three cannon balls that he brought back from his latest foray onto the coast of Quintana Roo came from a new wreck site—the 30th site that CEDAM has investigated. The three fronds of black coral that he brought back to Mexico City were the first ever taken by divers from the Caribbean coast, and, as a result, a syndicate has petitioned the Mexican government for the right to exploit this find and manufacture jewelry to boost the tourist business on the resort island of Cozumel.
Anyone—of any nationality—who is interested in collaborating with CEDAM in its exploitation of the sea is welcome, provided he is willing to work and expects nothing in return except moral satisfaction. All of CEDAM's discoveries, however important or trivial, belong to the people of Mexico. This is more than a matter of noble principle; in Mexico, it is the law. Sixty years ago, when foreign archaeologists operated in Mexico on a finders-keepers basis, an American consul named Edward Thompson dredged a sacred Mayan well at Chichén Ità and shipped a spectacular haul of artifacts out of Mexico via the consular pouch. Although Mexicans were irate and the legal battle lasted long, the Mexican Supreme Court eventually decided in Thompson's favor. He had certainly acted like an ugly American, but he had violated no law. Shortly thereafter the Mexican government passed a law forbidding the wanton export of archaeological wealth.
In 1957, a year before CEDAM was founded, another American, Bob Marx, began picking into the old wrecks sunk off the Mexican coast. Marx was a conscientious and scholarly worker, not a careless plunderer, but in view of the law enacted after the Thompson affair, he was still a freebooter, and the Mexican police landed on him. In the end, when CEDAM was authorized by the Mexican government to explore the wreck of El Matancero, Marx and about a dozen other U.S. explorers worked with them.
In the Mayan wilderness of Yucatan and the roadless coast of Quintana Roo, in forgotten caves and sealed-up temple vaults, in coralline ledges and the deep twilight of its sea, there is still more history and wealth than a regiment of scholars could dig up in a decade. Recently, while discussing the future during lunch with the U.S. Navy's diving pioneer, Captain George Bond, Don Pablo asked, "Am I not right that this is a momentous time in history? A fantastic era for us? I am perhaps the strongest exponent of the sea in Mexico, but then I am only a Mexican trying to speak English. In this world, those of us in CEDAM are not very important, but we have faith in a new world and the work ahead." As he spoke, Don Pablo lost some of his matter-of-factness and most of his poise. In his excitement he almost knocked a plate off the table. Embroiled for a moment in the future, he forgot entirely that he was an old bull ready to quit the herd.