“This here scar is where my sister jugged me and took my pack of cigarettes,” I told them.
“This’n here is where Auntie Bueler’s good-for-nothing jailbird boyfriend shot me with his little old 22 pistol,” I explained. Here we was at Thanksgiving, sitting in this cold swamp at Morrison Springs in Florida, and these crazy folks with me wanted to know all about how I got this scar and that scar. I got so many scars I can’t remember how I got them all.
Anyways, I went along telling them ‘bout my scars because the nutty old Judge who brung us to this scary place seemed to pay attention to my story, and I thought it was smart to please him. There we was, me, Gerard Haber, five other juvenile delinquents, the weird Judge, his assistant scuba instructor, Mr. Raymond Solaris, and one of the teachers from our special school, Mr. Morris. All of us freezing our asses off in this swamp. One of the other kids, a scrawny little old girl, kept complaining, “I’m cold, and I ain’t going in that cold water.” It was so cold we had to build a fire to warm up our wetsuits that had gotten stiff as a board. I guess all of us kids was there for the same reason: to con the old Judge into not sending us to Juvie Jail.
The old Judge had this idea that he could keep us kids from stealing, beating up on people and smoking dope ifin he could just teach us to read better and show us how to get jobs. He built us two big old schools where they taught us all kind of stuff, like how to read better, cook, work on cars, take care of plants and yards, work with animals, and work on oil field crew boats and fishing boats. You see, down where we come from there was lots work to do on boats. Anyways, the old Judge had’em build a big old deep swimming pool so’s he could teach those of us kids who stayed out of trouble how to SCUBA dive, and work on boats. Said he got the idea from some people he knew down in Florida.
Learning to use SCUBA equipment was real fun and kept most of us out of trouble for a while. Those who was just hell-bent on getting in trouble, got kicked out of our SCUBA club. We did have some badass kids in our club, but nothing we did seemed to surprise the Judge and Mr. Ray. I remember one day, after SCUBA class we were standing in the parking lot and the Judge said, “Ah, damn, I locked my keys and wallet in the pool locker room.” Now they had built this place with special locks and all because it was in the neighborhood where most of us kids stayed. I am here to tell you that place could get pretty rough. One of our class, a quiet kid by the name of Dave, who was on probation for burglary, said, “Don’t worry, Judge, I’ll get them for you.” In about three minutes, Dave came back with the Judge’s keys and wallet. The old Judge just said, “I don’t even want to know how you did it, Dave.”
After much talk, we agreed to call our club ‘The Dolphin Divers.’ I thought ‘Tiger Sharks’ was a good name. Others wanted to be called ‘Killer Whales’ and some said we should be ‘Barracudas,’ you know, real scary animals. The old Judge explained how intelligent, playful, and friendly to man the Dolphin was. He told us there were stories of how Dolphins had even helped rescue drowning seamen. I think, some of the time, the old Judge was just funning us, but he was partial to the name ‘Dolphin Divers,’ so we settled on that name to please him. It growed on us after a while. We even got jackets and hats with Dolphins on them. As I already said, pleasing the old Judge seemed the smart thing to do. It got us in a swimming pool and out of jail for a while.
But this SCUBA training was tough and some of the kids said “to hell with it” and dropped out of the club. This didn’t seem to bother Mr. Ray and the Judge, because they told us things was going to get even tougher and they wanted only the best of us to stay. Sure enough, it did get tougher. They made us swim with them mask, fins and snorkel and then swim some more. But, I’ll have to say, they swam every stroke with us just to show us it could be done. The mask always leaked water in our faces, but they taught us over and over how to clear the mask until it came natural to us. We spent a lot of time in class reading manuals, but some of us couldn’t read so good-they say I have something called dyslexia-so we had video instructions, telling us all about pressure under the sea, breathing compressed air and what it could do to you ifin you didn’t breathe right and come up slow. They taught us about how to operate our equipment and take care of it. We even learned how to talk with our hands underwater.
We learned to share our air with one another. They called it buddy breathing. They would take us all six of us to the bottom of this deep pool with our scuba equipment. Then they would come down and turn the air off our tanks one at a time until all six of us was breathing off one regulator. This took some team work, talking with your hands, and staying cool.
They told us about the animals we would see in the sea, and which ones was no danger and which ones not to fool with. We kids talked a lot about sharks and barracudas, but the Judge and Mr. Ray said most of them wouldn’t hurt you ifin you left them alone. One kid asked, “What if we come up on a great white shark?” The Judge said, “We have a procedure for that…you stick your head between your legs.”.One of the kids asked, “Why would you do that?” The old Judge said “That’s so you can kiss your butt goodbye, cause if that great white wants to eat you, he is going to eat you.” He went on to tell us we would not be diving with any great whites. Then there was more swimming, until we were finally able to swim half a mile in under eighteen minutes. We swam so much every day our fingers looked like prunes when we got out of the pool.
After we got good enough with our equipment and swimming, the Judge took us on his sailboat to practice snorkeling in Lake Ponchartrain. All of us kids acted brave, and talked big talk when the Judge took the boat out to where we could hardly see land. Some of us had never been on a boat, much less a sailboat that far out. Everybody got pretty quiet when the Judge and Mr. Ray anchored the boat and said we was all going to get into the water and swim about a hundred yards up current. There was a little chop on the water. It definitely was not smooth like the pool, but things went OK going out and we all seemed pretty calm. Coming back was another deal. When we turned around to swim back, the boat looked like a toy boat miles away. Everybody started to breathe hard and we all sounded like one of them old steam locomotives I use to see in old picture shows. I could hear whistling sounds coming form our snorkels on our way back. We all got back fine. But, getting on a sailboat from the water, with your gear, even with a ladder, took a little doing and we had to help one another.
The only time we could go on our check out dive was over the Thanksgiving holidays, so that’s how we ended up in this cold swamp, but what the hell, none of us had any turkey dinner to come home to anyway. Our Thanksgiving dinner would a come from the corner Pack-a- Sack ifin we was lucky.
We first dove in Morrison Springs, then went a few miles away and dove in Vortex Springs. The water was cold and our wetsuits never got dry before we had to put them on again. The water was so clear you could see the bottom thirty or forty feet down like you was looking through a window pane. At first, this kind of takes your breath away, because you feels like you are hanging in mid air. Mr. Morris tried to go diving with the old Judge in Vortex springs, but freaked out when he got over the deep part. The judge got him back to the shore, but Mr. Morris decided scuba diving was not for him.
We tried to get a boat trip in the Gulf of Mexico, but the weather was too bad, so we got in our bus and went to Gulf Shores, Alabama, and stayed the night in a motel hoping the weather would get better. The next morning, they took us to what they called a breakfast buffet, where we could eat all we wanted. That place surely lost money on us. One of the kids, Malcolm, was about six feet tall and about two hundred pounds of pure-dee muscle and bone. He could eat like a horse. I thought he was going to kill himself eating the sausage patties and scrambled eggs. Next he took in on the pancakes and syrup. We all did a good job on that buffet.
The weather was not good offshore, but the old Judge knew about an old boat wreck just off the beach in about eighteen feet of water. The surf was a little rough and the water was cloudy so Mr. Ray and the Judge decided they would take us to the wreck one by one and hold our hands at all times. I went with the Judge, and when we got down to the sunken boat, we could only see ‘bout four feet even with our strong lights. The old wreck had all kinds of holes in it but they had taught us not to stick our hands in places we couldn’t see. We all carried diving knives for safety and to use as tools, but were told if we ever took them out for any other reason, we were out of the club, period. I remember some of the people around the school, who didn’t approve of what the Judge was doing saying, “The Judge is teaching them what…and gave them knives too?”
I took my knife out of its scabbard on the calf of my leg and started to poke in some of the holes. The Judge was still holding on to my left hand when this big old fish jumped out right into my face. I wet my wet suit and started to shoot to the surface, but the Judge held on to me and started laughing so hard in his regulator I thought he was going to strangle and drown his fool self. When we got back to shore he told me my eyes had gotten as big as coffee cups. We had a good laugh about what had happened. We would talk about it when I came back to visit him after I got off probation and got a job on a riverboat as a deckhand.
I don’t know how the other kids got along in life, but I did pretty good after I got away from my crazy family and got on the river. I remember the old Judge telling me on that trip to Florida, there was no shame in having a crazy family. And, according to him, I had no obligation to love them or even put up with them. The only thing I should do was to take care of myself, get a job I liked, and do the best I could in life. Things haven’t been perfect in my life, or even very good some of the time, but I haven’t ended up a jailbird or dopehead like a lot of my family and friends.
I heared the old Judge turned Juvie Court over to some younger judge and moved to Florida with his wife near those cold sinkholes he took us to that Thanksgiving.