mad in pursuit :: memoir

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aerobics... photo by Lou OuzerDefining Moment: Drift Dive

This morning I went to an aerobics class. Despite the fact that I thought I would die only 10 minutes into the class, it was great. Good music and a good substitute for going to a nightclub and dancing your brains out -- tonic for the blues.

The class reminded me of my mid-eighties heyday at the Downtown Athletic Club, when "aerobic dance" was all the rage and the routines were all choreographed. On a Friday night after a hard week at work, I'd completely lose myself in the movement and music.

I joined the Downtown Athletic Club in the fall of 1979 after I scared myself silly on a scuba-diving outing. Jim and I were taking an Advanced PADI Certification course, which set up various challenges for the class to master. On that particular weekend, our task was to complete a "drift dive" down the St. Lawrence River. I'd spend a lot of time setting up our drift dive apparatus. A giant inner tube equipped with a dive flag and two lines. (Steer clear, you Great Lakes ships, the divers below might fuck with your propellers!) Drift dives were great fun, they told us. The boat drops you off, you sink to the bottom and lazily float along with the current, poking around the bottom for old bottles and other treasures. After a measured interval, you surface and meet the boat. Cool.

But the secret of scuba diving is your mental and physical readiness for the unexpected. Unexpectedly, we were dropped into a very swift current, so strong that it immediately tore a fin off my foot. I was able to catch it but was being bounced along too fast to do anything but clutch it under my arm. Jim and I looked at each other. Lazily float along? Poke around for old bottles? We were in high-danger mode, both realizing we better just concentrate on making a beeline for the boat and not getting swept out into the shipping channel.

Acting conservatively, we surfaced early and sighted our boat. The current on the surface was no gentler, so we careened along. We had one chance to grab the right line or continue floating till rescued. Not so much a life and death situation, but one of potentially deep embarrassment and gigantic hassle, which would require working our way with the current toward the shore and figuring out how to link back up with the group. I wasn't afraid of dying. Nothing gained by having my life flash before my eyes. However, my focus was ever so constructively sharpened by the fear of making an ass of myself.

Moment of TruthWe met the prow of the boat, slid around to the back, and grabbed lines, me on one, Jim on another. The fin finally slid out from under my arm, lost forever. The crew was taking a long time getting the divers before us on board. After the drift apparatus is pulled up, protocol demands each diver take off flippers and hand them up before pulling himself up the ladder. I remember it as an awesomely long ladder. I held on to the line — some sort of fat hawser — while the current sucked at me and nuzzled its way between me and my ife support. By the time it was my turn — God, I don't know how I managed to swim the short distance between the line and the ladder — my arms were numb. The ladder didn't extend very far into the river, so it required pure upper body strength to haul myself up. I had nothing left. My survival depended on a couple of burly guys leaning over, grabbing my quivering arms and yanking me up and over the transom, as inelegant as a harpooned dolphin.

It was no big deal to anybody but me. I was a girl after all. But Jim had given me a stern warning when I got excited about diving: Anybody goes diving with me, has to carry her own tanks. I took that seriously. Carrying my own tanks also meant I had to be strong enough to hoist my own body weight out of the goddamned water. The next day, back in Rochester, I hunted the Yellow Pages for strength-training, called to join the Downtown Club, and never looked back.