By Steve Dresselhaus
I hope that people who know me would describe me as a nice guy – good, steady, a family man, environmentally aware, deeply spiritual, and an actual practitioner of his faith, not just a proclaimer of it. I never get drunk, I do not yell at people and my professional life as a SCUBA diver and sea kayaker make adventure a daily reality. Am I a saint? I suppose that would depend on your definition of the word, your understanding of theology and with whom you compare me–a liberal politician running for office?—yes, I am a saint. A stay-at-home mom?–not even close. I may not be saintly enough to qualify for my calling, but I am actually a missionary: yes, no joke. I am a real-life, honest-to-goodness missionary – not the angry, preachy, jungle-stomping missionary destined to end my days simmering in a large pot waiting to become the main course for a family of cannibals, but the kind who at least tries to not embarrass others of similar faith. While I now preach a message of hope for a better and brighter today and an even better tomorrow, I have not always been a nice person. In fact, I went through a season of my life when I was pretty much nothing but a self-serving, pleasure-seeking adventure junkie whose sole purpose in life was satisfying the whims and desires of the evil trinity of Me, Myself and I. My career at the time was working as a SCUBA guide, divemaster and instructor at several spots in the Caribbean and tropical Atlantic.
For a young single guy, this really was the dream life. Diving, adventure, shipwrecks, sharks, fast boats, tall, pretty blond tourists, and endless white sand beaches with palm trees all made for a pretty exciting life. Back then in the 1970s, I joined the band of dive instructors who had become certified SCUBA instructors with a cluster of certifying agencies. NAUI, PADI, CMAS, YMCA were the letters after our names; and people thought because of the accumulated letters that we were either board certified brain surgeons or part of a clandestine branch of the military. With awe and envy, those who knew us and what we did referred to us as the “bronze godlings.” I’m not making that up, they really did. Now, 45 years later, “pale, bald Buddha” is a more accurate descriptor.
Lest any young man or woman be lured into this lifestyle with unrealistic expectations, I must, in the spirit of honesty and transparency, engage in full disclosure. Dues, costly ones, must be paid in order to enter that earthly paradise, that wonderful place known only to underwater adventurers. The heavy price extracted from me to earn the title of bronze godling, a valiant man of the sea, was enduring daily, chronic, severe “mal de mer,” “mareo,” or–as they say in something similar to French–“hurlies de les cookies.” I got seasick–I mean like really seasick–every single day. Not just the kind of seasick where I felt icky, but the kind where I became the role model for every rail-thin, cat-walking fashion model in America. I was a hurl-o-matic. Every day I would captain my boatload of tourists out to the dive site. Every day started out with me being the gallant man of the sea, the teller of tales, the fearless one, the tier of cool knots, and the fixer of all things broken. I believe I was the inspiration for the legend of Fabio. I would stand at the helm of my boat, eyes scanning the far horizon, the northeast trade winds blowing through my nearly shoulder-length sun-bleached hair as the boat I captained raced across the transparent blue water, my bare suntanned chest and broad swimmer’s shoulders glistening in the tropical sun, and then suddenly bleaagh, bleaagh, raaaaaaalllllph. I was at the edge of the boat, on my knees, hands on the gunnels, my face over the water, actively engaging in what we euphemistically call “feeding the fish.” Day after day I got sick, so sick I thought I would die but afraid I wouldn’t.
The aura of the mighty man of the sea was shattered in a heartbeat. While watched by many, I barfed alone. The bronze godling was thrown from his pedestal and became a mere mortal–a retching, wretched one at that. The tall, pretty blond tourists shifted their yearning gaze from me to the potbellied rich guys with all their new equipment, assuming a direct correlation between cool equipment at sea with a cool Porsche on land. Retching ex-godling or flabby-bellied sunburned nerd with a thick wallet? For my fickle admirers it was no contest–I barfed in solitude, rejected and scorned. Seeing my humiliated and weakened condition, the local deck hands, like hyenas circling an injured zebra, brazenly called me to my face what I already knew they called me behind my back: “el marinero verde” (the green sailor).
To my credit I stuck it out: I endured the pain, the humiliation, the rejection and the ridicule. The day came, several geologic eras later, when I did not barf at sea. With a swagger in my step and my head held high I returned to the dive shop on shore, breakfast intact, ego restored. The day came when I did not feel sick or even queasy. When that day came, however, I did not revert to being a beneficent bronze godling. No, I became a cruel manifestation of Neptune, eager to seek revenge on those who had laughed at my misery and taken advantage of my weakness. Harking back to my family’s Nordic roots, I became the merciless thunder-throwing Thor. I became the angry god of the sea, whose sole purpose was to inflict “hurlies de les cookies” on people who were only looking to spend a fun day on the ocean.
My co-captain and I would often take unsuspecting guests fishing. There was a great spot south of Key West, near the lighthouse at Sand Key, where the Gulf Stream butts up against some reefs, making the water rough and choppy but full of fish. We would anchor and wait. One by one our clients would grow silent, which is the very first evidence of seasickness. Like a circling shark smelling blood, the evil within me, never far from the surface, would well up seeking a victim. “Seymour,” (not his real name since I don’t know what the statute of limitations is for the premeditated causing of seasickness), “what do we have for lunch?” “Well, cap’n,” he would reply, “we have some leftover cold, rubbery, greasy fried eggs with the burnt, brown, crusty edges. Want one?”
Conversations ceased. Silence became absolute. To the silent tourists´ faces a dash of color was added – green. Not bright green, more of a bile yellow, more like the yellowish green of an old fading bruise, more like the moist green slime that that used to be iceberg lettuce rediscovered in the back of the veggie drawer in the fridge. Silence and green – the proof of seasickness: my evil Neptunian soul would begin to celebrate its triumph: sovereign, unopposed and unstoppable. As my clients’ misery deepened, my sadistic joy increased exponentially.
“Seymour, toss me the knife. I need to cut some more squid for bait . . . Nah, wait, never mind. I’ll use my teeth.” There is a direct and instantaneous correlation between rough water, rocking boats, engine fumes, and raw, slimy, squid sauteed in gallons of its own malodorous snot being bitten in half and severe, eruptive hurlies de les cookies. My success rate of intentionally inducing seasickness approached 100%.
Biting raw squid in half while in a rocking, bouncing boat full of silent, green, diesel fume-sniffing flatlander tourists from Nebraska whose closest experience to the sea is singing about “amber waves of grain,” is not in itself noisy. However, the sounds it creates and induces in others could best be likened to those of a thousand cats hurling hairballs in the middle of the night. The sounds in my boat became primal, animalistic, pre-human and reminiscent of our pre-evolved status when human vocabulary consisted of grunts, groans, “ughs” and other undefinable sounds which predate the invention of repeatable syllables. Added to the primitive grunts, groans and gags was the visual component, as in some kind of ancient religious ritual my guests knelt and bowed low before their sea gods – knees on the deck, hands on the rail, mouths open like an anaconda choking down a fully grown capybara. Because children may read this and because I do not wish to arouse the censoring powers of the FCC, I will describe no further the sights and sounds of the cookie hurlers I created.
Now, four decades later, I still spend a lot of time at sea. Often I will be at sea four, sometimes five days a week doing SCUBA diving or sea kayaking as part of my work with Reconciliamar, the small NGO that my wife and I run. However, my days of intentional cruelty are long gone. Yes, I really am a missionary, and I really do believe I have a role to play in making the world a better place. But now, instead of trying to make innocent people barf at sea, the message I share is of love and reconciliation, repentance and forgiveness. I have confessed and repented of my evil ways and days of yesteryear, but . . . those sure were fun times and I often miss “them good ol’ days.”
If you, the reader, happen to be one of the people in whom I induced hurlies de les cookies, I humbly and sincerely beg your forgiveness.