Growing up for six years in Athens, Greece allowed me to spend a lot of time underwater long before first strapping on a dive tank. Free diving and spear fishing were starkly honest expressions of young adventures in body and spirit. Our family friend – Anastas – taught me how to do both at age ten.
Anastas lived nearby only in the sense that all English-speakers within five miles or so were loosely considered “neighbors” in the sprawling Athenian suburbs. Anastas was a World War Two hero, professional pensioner, and exhibited the obliquely idealized model of Greek manhood upon which the movie “Zorba the Greek” was based.
The first two descriptors of Anastas were never in doubt, and whether or not his consistently strident claim to Zorba’s bona fides was actually true, it certainly could have been true. Anastas overflowed with a passion for living. His favorite expression in self-taught English was “To be in life”: to live in the moment and wrestle the day’s chores with rippling biceps from obscurity with fervent energy as if his very life was dependent upon their completion. And maybe it did; he was in his late seventies at the time.
Move over Homer; Anastas was both actively living and telling his personal “true life” stories to all who would listen and many who wouldn’t (sound familiar?).
With no access to a scuba diving class until our return to New York, my obsessive routine of free diving was pure and free of internal conflict. Hours floating and miles of swimming and submerging tied each summer day into a cohesive package that was never long enough, but also seemed to strangely never end.
There was no option of a wetsuit, weights, gauges, dive bag, or real stringer, and none were missed. Never having experienced these luxuries meant putting them outside my realm of conscious thought. Armed with my trusty olive-oiled Balco double rubber-banded spear gun and a total absence of reluctance to swim to an often distant shore with the catch, my only other companions of gear were a simple mask, fins, basic snorkel and a bathing suit that might as well have been tattooed on.
Early on, my father had pulled me aside and asked that I snorkel closer to shore out of concern that he could not reach me in an emergency. He realized that he would still be compelled to try to affect a rescue, and would probably die in the attempt. I ignored him, never had an emergency, and he seemed to learn to live with the situation.
I relished the unfettered attitude of youthful certainty, a streamlined thought process that flowed effortlessly into a cleanly executed pike before slipping silently in a perfect vertical toward the bottom and my prey. Hiding in a crevice, the small (compared to Pacific Giant standards) octopus would lie still, barely exposing evidence of its presence from a rocky lair. With the bottom sixty feet below, I would repeat and repeat the free dives until the poor mollusk finally gave in and I could shoot to the surface, fighting the tentacles as they wrapped around my arm in an attempt to “bite” me with its sharp beak.
Occasionally the octopus was successful, but more often than not I won. I would reach behind the head, break through a membrane, and literally turn the octopus’s head inside out while aching lungs arched for the surface air. One move of my bare hand and the octopus would be gutted and still, the only evidence of life being the suction marks lining my arm as I broke the surface a few seconds later.
Not a very pleasant image and definitely not the sort of thing I would repeat today, but those were truly different times. We always ate the catch, and the method was taught by Anastas and was sanctioned by common usage. It was pure art in its savage simplicity.
During those years I also learned about human death, having witnessed while snorkeling back to the beach the immediate aftermath of two drownings as the victims were towed ashore. These crudely vital experiences proved to be life lessons so basic yet rarely found in today’s civilized America.
But my real dream was to become an actual scuba diver, with compressed air tanks and all the complicated attachments. At times, the impatient urge could physically hurt; hadn’t I proven myself, put in the time? But a dive class was not available, and it wouldn’t be until I turned seventeen that I became a true, Cousteau-ic diver in 1979.
All those years of free diving were hardly wasted, not in my proficiency as a “real” scuba diver, or as a part of my character. As we turn the corner past middle age, our search for increasingly complicated challenge can bypass the most simple and honest bars of actual achievement. Be careful what you wish for; you might just get it…
I regularly try to remind myself that today’s most basic goal attained is quite likely tomorrow’s crown of reflection and satisfaction. It helps to settle me. After all, it’s always been that way.