The Seabee museum at the Naval Construction Battalion Center, Gulfport, MS, was blown away by a hurricane some years back, the docent said, so the visitor center just had a large conference room with display cases of curated materials about the different wars and service of the Seabees, a Willy’s jeep, and so on. There were some things about Underwater Construction Team 2 and Port Hueneme, California, where we attended Underwater Construction School, and a Jake suit, which Frenchy spent some time fussing over, pointing out needed corrections to the rigging of its dress and putting its glove back on. We got on the road, 240 miles to go. A squall came onshore, the wind and waves high enough that the Mississippi Sound was blowing in over the road at Pascagoula. We got off I-10 and went down to US-98 to stay on the beach and pass through Gulf Breeze, Fort Walton Beach, and Destin.
The emotional relationship with a landscape maybe more important than verisimilar details. Pulling into Mississippi is for me like being immersed in an ancient curse. Coastal Mississippi lovely, broad grassy floodplains with a rim of treeline in the distance, egrets at waterholes and bayous cutting slowly. Heading into Florida is more complicated still. The soil, flora, and water change slightly but significantly, all somehow warmer and sunnier, but there’s sadness too. Of course I have a personal history there, from my intense desire to visit as a kid, to Army dive school in the Panhandle as a young man, to a honeymoon for a doomed first marriage, to doing the MFA in Miami (all these with a financial component, no money but driven by desire for a way of life I saw there), to meeting my father and developing a relationship with him in South Florida before he died.
The Panhandle of Florida: Ow, my nostalgia hurts. All these lovely white-sand beaches that used to be rural and empty now developed, insanely overdeveloped with strip malls and franchise restaurants and beach geedunk. What did I expect? Frenchy remains good-humored about it until Fort Walton, where he spent several months installing a multi-leg mooring system.
Then into Panama City Beach, where the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center is located—my Hogwarts. After all, what’s more magical than breathing underwater? The Army cadre kind enough to stick around on a Friday evening to give us the tour. The school bigger now (the base itself very dense with all sorts of mine warfare buildings, a VA outpatient clinic, etc., things that weren’t there before) but the school still basically classrooms, gear lockers, (now) two training pools. Out back, two new Yard Diving Tenders, looking like sleek missle/radar-proofed swept-back mini-destroyers. (My sea training was on bigger YDTs that were wooden-hulled minesweepers.) Civilian contractor crews on those boats, as are the security guards at the gates of many of these installations, with their foreign-looking weapons. In Alligator Bayou, the water is more tannin-laden and darker/dirtier-looking than it used to be. Is that false memory? On night dives back then, blackness so total that lights were useless, and when you stirred the silt on the bottom with a fin, a bloom of phosphorescence. Today, two go-fast boats for the SEALs, moored up at the Navy Experimental Dive Unit. The new training pool has an enormous gantry for lowering mock pipelines and construction projects into the water, and the pool’s bottom has an inflatable bladder covered with mesh screening, so they can adjust the depth of the bottom to suit.
NDSTC was built in 1980 and trains students from all branches of the US (and other) military. They teach “basic gas laws, diving medicine, recompression chamber operations, salvage mathematics, and salvage operations. The classroom routine is demanding and requires the total commitment of the student. Students in the diver training program are required to perform various tasks in an underwater environment. These tasks, called projects, are designed to test the ability of the student to function in an alien environment.”
Yes, alien. I had never been to the sea, except a quick spring break roadtrip the year before, and though a child swimming prodigy, had forgotten how. I had to relearn that and get into even better shape to apply for dive school. (Talked into it by a good friend who was from Seaside Heights or thereabouts; he now the highest-ranking NCO at the Corps of Engineers.) All Army divers have to start with another MOS (job) and then train as divers. My comrades some of the most talented and smartest people I’ve ever known. Dive school used to be 16 weeks, I think, now 18. NDSTC has special courses as well, for officers, Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) and Marine Combatant Diver (MCD), Navy Amphibious Recon Corpsman (ARC) training. Once deployed, Army divers use scuba and hardhat rigs to do underwater construction and demolition, underwater mapping and surveys, body jobs, ships’ husbandry, and, of course, have a combat mission. I did only Second Class diver school (and underwater construction school with the Seabees), but those who stay in come back to NDSTC for First Class and Master Diver training. Over the bridge of St. Andrews Bay, the enormous electrical pylons on piers in the bay, marking where we used to have to do fin swims on the surface or compass swims underwater, real bears. Learning to look for the upright tail of the shark versus the horizontal tail of the dolphin.
We say goodbye to the cadre, who're leaving to go home to their families. At Spinnakers, a waterfront beach restaurant with a dozen bars, 25 years after I used to go there while in dive school. (The old diver bars across from the main gate of the base now gone: The Ten Foot Stop—where I set a short story—and Down the Hatch.) A big ship’s bell the bartender rings with the right tip. A Mark V helmet on display inside, the metal bashed flat on top like a crushed tin can. “Hey, Frenchman, look at this,” I say. He contemplates. “That guy died in that hat,” he says. Powdery white sand, the blue-green water with light rollers. High tide. The depth drops off 15 meters out, where the red ball buoys bob. The sun sets. A long pier to the west, high-rises all around. “Party with Thousands,” a sign says on the building next to Spinnakers. Beach chairs, palms, tiki huts. A group of fictional rowdies could make land here quite happily. B happy, anyway, to run the boat up on the beach while R sulks but has the presence of mind to drop anchor as they come in, so he can pull it off the beach. All but R striding ashore like MacArthur, running into the bar. R stays with his boat. He thinks about it no more than five minutes, retreats off the beach and motors back to the marina with his feelings hurt.
Salt Lick Tavern, on the beach road a mile away , in the same building as Sea Dogs Grooming Salon. (It’s for dogs. I think.) Salt Lick looks like something from a Bukowski novel, string lights outside, neon beer signs, a faded 1950s place, red lamps inside, two other customers, a bass-voiced surly local trying to make time with the trim leathery bartender, a slightly confused but amiable obese man. A refrigerator with cans of beer, hand-markered signs advertising shots, two pool tables, horseshoe bar, a monkey’s fist hanging from the ceiling, wood paneling and ship prints that nearly look like velvet. “A not-so-clean, poorly-lighted place,” Frenchy says.
Back at NDSTC, behind the Navy Lodge where we are staying the night, smoking pipes, drinking bourbon, under a gazebo next to a bayou filled with riotous frogs. Young guys pull in in ther pickup trucks. I lived in the building next door when I went to school. Frenchy said he always imagined having a smoking room in his house, somewhere he could smoke a pipe, look out on the rainy world and imagine what he’d be doing with the rest of his life. He says he doesn’t think that’ll take very long. Tells me about being in Panama, sitting down with the guy who ran operations in the area, looking for work for the divers. He was with an NCO and an officer I knew. They’re awkward and getting nowhere; he interrupts: Where are you from? The guy says Hampton, Virginia. What high school did you go to? Hampton High. Frenchy: I’m from Ferguson High School, and you kicked our ass. The guy laughs and agrees. Frenchy: But you had 5,000 people, you fucker. They got along great, and lots of work came the divers way, even up into Honduras on TDY. I told him about Nelda K--- R---, the girl who came to say goodbye to her outprocessing boyfriend at this very building, and in the car in the parking lot, called someone over and started her next relationship. Her brother a Ringknocker, she very smart and a waitress, huge hair and too much makeup. Easily hurt.
We talk late into the night, pines overhead in the breeze, palms against the stucco building, a little spinny drunk, fatigue as much as whiskey. Since I don’t believe in a heaven, I can’t keep from inventing versions of them. One of them would be for old-timers to be allowed to sit on the edges of ongoing life and lie about adventures, concocting history even as time rolls on. The “sages and philosophers” at the tavern in Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle.”
The next morning, juvenile squirrels digging in the sand and gravel under the pines. Frenchy does what he always does to find good food: Chats up a local, this time the maid, who said she ain’t never et at the place across from the gate, but the guys seem to like it. Frenchy says we should tell them I’ll put their restaurant’s name in my writing for consideration, and if they say no we’ll use it anyway and say the place is nasty, the bacon smelly, and there’s animal pelts in the kitchen.
Man in the Sea Museum, in Panama City. There’s a Navy Master Diver reunion going this weekend at NDSTC, a lot of cars with out-of-state plates, the RV camp at the base is full, guys in special ball caps and pins, graybeards, a ponytail, bow legs. Some of them begin to trickle in to the museum, the curator walking around with them not to tell them about equipment—he does try—but to hear what the equipment did, how it was used, the jobs it was used on, etc. Frenchy: It’s a crying damn shame some of the stuff I used to use is in a museum.
Panama City Marina, city-run. Frenchy says that if my fictional boat owner pulled his steel-hulled boat into the slips behind the breakwater where all the fiberglass pleasure craft are, their owners would be having a shit-hemorrhage. A few miles away, after a search for Frenchy’s old houses, where he lived when an instructor at the school, the private marina at Masselina Bayou. The Hawk’s Nest Bar and Grill, battered and closed, perfect for divers, who love that sort of place, and fictionally still open —eternally. Isn’t that nice?
Attractive cove at Watson Bayou, at the start of Millville, an abandoned sightseeing excursion boat docked there. Pawn shops, where R could trade equipment off boat to get money for fuel. Before Parker city limits, a papermill on the water, smell of collard greens, industrial stacks and smoke, railyard, logging trucks, Lind Group RockTenn facility. When I was in dive school, guys would be hungover in morning PT, the sulphur stink of the mill the last straw, falling out of the run to vomit, their wag friends: Hey Earl! Chuck! We always said the mill was all the way down in Port St. Joe and that the wind brought it up the coast. Sorry, St. Joe.
Leave Panama City in a light rain, head east along the coast through old fishing and sponging communities, some of them with diving connections. Roads mostly deserted—after spring break, after FSU’s graduation, before summer vacation season. Mexico Beach gas station/Subway franchise across from the water. Men’s room wall: Sheer Thin Health Mart Personal Products: Fantasy Six, Warmed Encounters, Hugger, Rugged ‘N Ready. Seventy-five cents. Frenchy says the last would be like a neoprene shirt. The woman who works there, on the Borden truck arrival: I bought two days’ of chocolate milk. I can’t live without my chocolate milk.
It’s Love Bug season, the things apparently mating as they fly clumsily, in clouds, to smack wetly against windshields. They’re wet, and the juice dries and bakes in the sun. The gas station buckets with squeegees and washer fluid stink from all those who came before. The bugs no match for The Beast, my rental car, which looks...happy to be going again.
Port St. Joe, men surfcasting in the rain. Frenchy says his brother is big on fishing and asks him to go when it’s raining. Frenchy says he’s been uncomfortable all his life, and he doesn’t plan to do that for shits and giggles. Appalachicola, where they did sponge diving. Carrabelle, where they trained for D-Day landings. Sopchoppy, great name, backyard America, then barbecue supper near Panacea, which is about right—good pulled pork will fix many things—except they did serve canned beans. Past and through Tyndall Air Force Base, and the state forest, the long wooded drive to Tallahassee for the night. The trees are dress-right-dress, Frenchy says, meaning in neat plantation rows; since the land must have burned out years ago or been clearcut. The road through the trees is straight and perfect and deserted. I can see the Atlantic from here, Frenchy says.