His friends were also there to see what might go wrong, and Ned was fine with that.
Rising sunlight skimmed the trees lining the shore of the beach park and dispersed into a pencil-gray sky that seemed to hush them as they watched Ned wrap wool over each ankle of his long-johns and then tie it with scraps of rope he’d collected from the docks. Underneath was another layer, he explained. The water tapped and swayed below them on the narrow pier, and Ned’s friends puttered with arms crossed, impressed with their own breath rising in forced plumes and impatient with Ned’s meticulous tinkering.
None of them were as daring as Edwin James Finith – Ned, they called him – and he knew this, but it was more than showmanship that drove his curiosity and self-imposed duty to see things through. He was square-headed, had strict posture, and was lean, yet toned with the grit of growing up on the Puget Sound, lifting salmon crates, clearing lines, and tying fenders as a deckhand on weekends and after school. He carried his heavy tasks with swift, light footing and a grin that curved up his cheek with not exactly arrogance, but an invitation to come closer, to watch and learn, lean in to be wowed.
“You’ve got what under all that?” Cliff asked. He would be an imposing presence among them – was a year older, a senior, and much broader in stature – but for his patient, studious nature. He really wanted to know: “You said nylons? For women?”
The twins snickered.
“Stealing from your mom’s underwear drawer, Neddy? Shame on you!” Mel teased, his wide, ruddy face creasing with laughter. Dennis looked nothing like his twin, with his dark, glossy hair and jutting nose, but often matched his brother’s goofing. “Yeah, sick!” he felt the need to add.
Ned was too focused to acknowledge their heckling. He was driven. A touch crazy, some would say. But he had ideas, like buying up all of the WWII bomber masks and goggles from the surplus store. There was no reason not to take him seriously. And Ned had known his friends long enough to be sure at least one of them would jump in if he began to drown.
But he did not expect to drown.
I am gonna breathe under there, he had yell-whispered to them in the movie theater while they had watched the underwater scenes in The Frogmen a year back, how those military divers slid beneath the water’s surface, rocketing through blooms of self-made bubbles powered by swimfins and breathing air fed by three-cylinder tanks strapped to their backs. No one had seen a thing like that before, but Ned had seen it all along, had already been dreaming up ways to do it himself.
“What do I do again?” Mel teased, tipping the head of the bike pump into one hand, then the other. “A few pumps and then…?” he turned his palm up with a shrug.
“C’mon,” Ned said, tying the last bit of wool to his ankle. Then he stood with a tilted grin, taking a heavy step weighted by pads of lead he’d slipped into his tennis shoes. “I’ll be drinkin’ water if you quit pumping.” He laughed with them, was also one of them. Yet was also aware of their tendency to stand at his side while teasing the whole way, reluctant to fully commit, to envision the whole course without question.
He took the pump from Mel’s hands and did a quick demo, though he’d shown them all before. “Fast and even,” he said, moving his arms in a spurt of pumps. “No stopping ‘til I’m up.” He stepped over the partially uncoiled pile of rubber tubing he’d attached to the pump hose, handing the “T” of the handle back to Mel. “Take turns if you need to.”
He hoped they would have the stamina to feed him air for a good five-to-ten minutes. A much longer time than when he’d sunk that carved out water tank with an anchor, and this new method would feed him a continuous airflow, just like those Navy divers had. He wouldn’t have to waste time paddling back to a tank for every breath.
“You trust me?” Mel ribbed, tipping the pump handle from one hand into the other.
Ignoring him, Ned double-checked the clamp on the pump hose, then did a hopscotch over the thick coils to check the mask hose clamped at the other end. Finally, he took the mask and then sat with his legs over the end of the pier. He fastened one side of it to a leather helmet, and then began fitting the gear to his head, eventually snapping the last buttons along his jawline.
“Oh shit,” Dennis boomed, “he’s really doing it!”
With his hair, nose, and cheeks covered, and the mask slimming toward its hose tip like a pointed mandible, Ned looked like a bug, a misshapen creature who escaped a science fiction lab. Only his eyes were visible, and they scrunched with a hidden grin as he threw a straight-armed thumbs up to them before lowering his goggles over the only part of his face left to cover. This was absurd! Terrific! he knew his friends were thinking. Cliff, who’d been quieter than usual, stepped toward Ned with his fingers pinching his chin as if he had another question, but before Cliff could get to him—splash! Ned was in the water.
Dennis gave a hoot, Mel worked the pump up and down, up and down, no longer laughing or smiling, and Cliff remained stilled in place.
Ned was descending, six feet, then eight, he pushed water up in a backwards stroke to aid the weight in his tennis shoes, drifting down, down, down, the water extending above him, turning greenish-brown to darker brown as he sank. It was surreal, air reaching his mouth, not full and sure, but there, rushing his throat in dry bursts, providing just enough to sustain him, and there he was, bubbles tapping down his chin, in the sea taking breath. His feet touched bottom, and by his count he was 15-to-20 feet down and had as much time as his friends could endure pumping.
Already he thought himself victorious.
Any second now, he’d see what few men had ever seen. He had become supernatural, swaying his arms under water and breathing, like a spirit peeking in on the sea, where so many creatures he’d caught and observed lurked: the hard shell crabs, spindle-legged shrimp, and darting salmon. The oddities he and his friends had collected in glass bowls: tubesnouts, bombers, moon jellies… A finned something darted past in the distance, then was gone. Something large, swift. A dogfish? Mud shark? Or—? He couldn’t resist the image prodding him again: a boy riding a fish. Not a fish, a dolphin. A boy riding atop a dolphin as if on horseback as it leaped out of the ocean.
Ned took a weighted step forward, then two, careful not to pull his tubing taut, but eager to see, wanting the animal to reveal itself. To ride a dolphin! Always this triumphant image from a childhood book called to him in moments like this, as if he was already a wise, aged man reflecting on a lifetime. As if he already knew—
His chest tightened and breath tapped a staccato. The airflow had slowed, the gusts arriving less measured, a tad weaker. But Ned kept his feet at bottom, looked this way and that, with a small, yellowish cod zipping by his nose and a desire to see more, more, so much more, something much bigger. His racing heart and the erratic bubbles spurting from his mask were not symptoms of dwindling air but of adrenaline, a tease at a challenge.
Next time, I will swim deeper, stay under longer, Ned decided, before ascending to safety, before even knowing whether he had succeeded. This was how a goal existed in him, never as a question of whether or not, but rather a certain: I will.
He stepped forward again. This time pulling the tubing tight and causing the right side of his mask to unsnap. Water rushed his nose and mouth, and bubbles galloped over his lips and scattered the view through his goggles. How quickly he’d grown accustomed to breathing among the fish, because as he turned his head attempting to clear his view, the bubbles kept coming, kept escaping until he remembered: he would need another breath. He needed to adjust the mask quickly or his next mouthful would be seawater. With flailing arms, he brought the mask back to his mouth, then gulped one last gust of air before kicking off the sand, rocketing himself towards the surface and letting the mask flap his face and spill bubbles as he ascended.
“Just don’t stop!” Cliff told Mel. Mel reenergized his pumping as they all looked to the surge of bubbles breaking surface and the tubing bobbing like an umbilical cord, rust-shadowed and vague in the water. They guessed Ned was right under there, close, each of them wondering if maybe they should have protested against their oddball of a friend going under like that, yet their bodies coursed with the very energy they suspected had thrust them into life in the first place. Or at least made life an adventure to be lived.
“There!” Dennis shouted.
Gasping at the surface, water splashed into Ned’s eyes, a result of his own thrashing. His goggles were gone, though he did not know how or when. Soon Cliff was gripping him hard under the arm, so hard a pinching squeeze radiated across Ned’s chest. He coughed, but could not help smiling as salt water stung his nose and struck a lightening of pain between his eyes.
“Ned, man, you did it!” Mel said, standing over him, hands to his hips and rapt with an enthusiasm Ned took pleasure in.
Cliff snatched the towels Dennis held out to him and draped one over Ned, who was now crouched on the shore. Ned lowered his head to rattle off another cough. Then he raised it, dizzy with swallowed bubbles and the buzz of a real-life superpower. He punched his fist into the air, and his friends cheered.
“Who’s next?” he asked without expectation. In a couple of years they would each give it a go, using wetsuits made of neoprene and manufactured regulators and tanks no longer exclusive to the Navy. But not this first time, not today.
“Ah, Neddy!” they said to him, failing to subdue their excitement, their fright. Their relief to have him as a friend and not be him.
He coughed and coughed, spraying his palms with blood-speckled saliva this time, and then bared the red gloss in his teeth with a wide, hungry grin.
His friends were also there to see what might go wrong, and Ned was fine with that.