2016-01-22

Priorities

My good buddy Jeff once treated me to the perfect moment, not a particularly sublime location or time, we were in a status meeting at work. It was the early-mid nineties and we were working at Bellsouth in the Advanced Intelligent Networks Division. It was a meeting where management was upset at a potential miss of a deadline, something we didn't do that often, so they were surprised and alarmed. There were dire warnings, a little table pounding, slightly raised voices, all designed to set us worker bees to an appropriate attitude of contrition, commitment to do what was necessary, and concern for our failings. At some point the two of us came to the attention of management. It seems our attitude was not sufficiently, er, serious. Frankly, the two of us were quite chilled out compared to the attitude the meeting was supposed to impute. "Sadler, Bentley: You guys don't seem to be too concerned about these most severe and evil consequences as a result of your inadequacies!" (slight paraphrase there...) Spotlight is seldom comfortable, especially when all eyes are suddenly on you and the room hits a period of un-natural quiet. Into that silence, Jeff spoke, he said...

Wait for it...

Masison Blue
Lemmie set the stage. For some years prior, Jeff and I would take cave diving trips. Phreatic Zone Spelunking. In case you're not sure, that means SCUBA diving in a cave. Why? That's a subject for a different post. Anyhow, the week prior to the meeting we had taken a four day weekend to explore the Madison Blue system in the northern Florida panhandle. It was a more complex dive than normal, it was a specific photo mission. We had heard of some great fossils and such that were beyond the "Rocky Horror" - a tunnel complex that was a maze of twisty passages, all alike. Maybe it was more like a maze of twisting passages, all alike. (extra points for that reference...) The tunnels were small, barely wide enough for a diver, hard craggy rocks everywhere and the tunnel carved a corkscrew under ground for some distance. Add to that they were 100 ft below the surface and more than 1000 feet from the entrance. (From memory, guys, I don't recall the exact depth / distance, this was 20+ years ago...)

Rocky Horror Entrance
The cave was deep and long enough that we knew we didn't have enough air for a single penetration, plus it took some time to negotiate the maze of twisting passages, so we planned it as a two day dive. The first day, we took the Diver Propulsion Vehicles (DPVs) to a point and swam to the entrance of the Rocky Horror with the extra bottles. We then weaseled our way through the passages toting multiple spare stage bottles to the far side where we left them for our dive the next day. On the way back we realized that we would be able to take the DPVs right up to the entrance of the Rocky Horror and thus extend our dive time for the photo mission. Miller time, good dive, off to BBQ and bad TV at the cheap hotel.

Day two and we're in the water early. This dive I've got two cameras, Jeff is taking the extra strobes and we're off. We ride the DPVs right up to the entrance of the Rocky Horror and set them down, clipped off to the line so they won't drift out in the slight current. Through the tunnels, pick up the bottles and off to a great photo mission. We get a lot of good images, white shrimp, chambered nautilus fossils, as good a photo mission as you could have. We hit thirds on the air, and out we go. Back through the maze of twisting passages and we pick up our DPVs.

Funny how much drama can be hidden by a simple phrase like, "picked up our DPVs" - when we sat them down at the beginning of the dive, unbeknownst to us we had placed them in a bed of silt. As soon as we picked them up, instant silt out. Zero visibility. Zero like no other zero you've ever seen. The silt was so thick an air gauge pressed to the lens of a mask wasn't readable, the little bit of trapped water had so much silt that 1/8th of an inch of it is totally opaque.

Handling situations like this is what Cave Diving training covers - so we're still good. Jeff is leading out and I can feel him collecting gear - I'm tail end charlie so I'm keeping touch contact, or at least I'm supposed to. So, I loose contact, but I know he's ahead of me on the line - being a wise doobee, I had placed markers pointing in the direction of out on the line while coming in, specifically for just such conditions - thanks JJ for the training! I finish securing my gear and start out.

One hard and fast rule of cave diving is to always have a line all the way back to the surface so that, in case of a silt out or light failure, you can get "Out Of The Cave™" - I'm on the way out and my primary light fails. So now instead of white out, I'm in the darkest dark you can imagine. I no longer see the glow from Jeff's light, and my primary light is dead.

I was taught the true definition of Black that day in the cave when my light went out. 100 fool column of water over your head inside a cave 1000+ feet from the nearest air, in a thick silt out, there is NO light. Black. Well, that's why we carry backup lights. Two actually - which is a good thing, because sometime during my traversal of the Rocky Horror, I managed to bust one of my backup lights. I've gone from three lights to one, I'm carrying 2 cameras and three stage bottles and a DPV - can't ride the DPV in a silt out. It's fun (NOT) to swim a thousand feet in a cave with no visibility, too much crap and a missing buddy. At least I can follow the line out.

Or thought I could. With a hand on the line, kicking slowly, controlling my breathing, I come to the end of the line. That Was Not Supposed To Happen. Whatinthehell happened to the line? Did I come off the line somehow and get on a different one? I retrace the line back to my last marker, I can confirm by touch that it's my marker. So, I'm still on the correct line. That's good. Turn again and head back out. Follow it towards out and the line STILL ends. Again, whatinthehell happened to the line? Did Jeff get tangled in it and break it in the silt out? Hmmm, so this is what it feels like to DIE IN A SILT OUT SHEEEIT!!!...

You ever get a chance to look at the little dude in your head? The guy sitting in your skull pulling levers and hitting switches to get you going? Ever see him freak out? It's called panic and it's what kills cave divers. The little dude has done a back-flip out of his chair and is commencing to cha-cha all over the inside of my skull when, for the first (and I pray) the only time on earth, I hear God speak directly to me in a Loud, Clear, Drill Sargent Voice. "KNOCK it OFF!" he says, "SHUT UP and Do what you're TRAINED to do!" At which point the little dude ceases his dance, runs back into his char, and commences consult the Manual of Cave Diving Emergencies. This calms him enough that he begins to hit switches and pull levers in a orderly, proficient, trained, cave diving manner.

So I shut up and reverted to training. First, the gear was messing me up - I didn't put it on right in the silt out. I'll take some time and get situated and use the easy gear exercises to calm down and regain control of my breathing. After the gear gets situated I realize that I have options, line search, various things I can do to find the other end of the line. Time to get started with the drills.

Meanwhile, Jeff has been moving on. His lights are working and he's following the line out. He clears the silt! Ya HOOO! clear water! Now, all he has to do is wait for me to clear the silt and we can finish. So he waits. Some more. Even more. He thinks, "Man, I do NOT want to explain to Penny that I left him behind." Wait some more and he decides - I gotta go get him. He clips off his extra gear, empty stages, strobes, and DPV to the line and does something he really does not want to do - he goes back into the silt to look for me.

Before commencing the different line search drills, I'm going to check one more time - and I find the exit line! The line had been tied off to a rock at a very acute angle. While moving hand over hand I was grasping both the incoming and outgoing line at the same time! I'm back on the line out! That was hairy...

I see the silt turn white as Jeff's light gets closer and we make touch contact. I can tell he's upset from his abrupt hand signals we're exchanging by touch in the zero viz. You Ok? I'm Ok. This Way Out. Ok. You Go First. Ok. and we swap positions on the line. I feel his hand on the back of my knee - touch contact! All is good with the world. I'm pretty anxious to get out when suddenly I realize - I've lost touch contact! Follow Procedure - I'll continue out of the silt and he will follow. Soon enough I'm in CLEAR WATER! Now, all I have to do is wait for him to clear the silt and we can finish. So I wait. Some more. Even more. I think, "Man I do NOT want to explain to Andrea that I left him behind." Wait some more and I decide - I gotta go get him. I clip off my extra gear, empty stages, cameras and DPV to the line and I do something I really do not want to do - I go back into the silt to look for him.

Turns out Jeff lost contact when he was putting all the gear he clipped off to the line. We meet up in the silt, again. The entire touch contact hand signal conversation is repeated in reverse this time and he's lead again, I've got his knee, and we BOTH clear the silt! The cloud of silt we kicked up retrieving the DPVs has been slowly moving out of the cave overtaking our gear stashes and complicating the situation. The moving cloud of zero viz is a bit slower than we so we hit my gear stash in front of the cloud this time. I collect the gear and we're outta here.

We've busted our planned time, so we recompute the decompression stops and finish up on the platform at 10' breathing pure oxygen. We've got nearly an hour here like this and we're looking at each other through the crystal clear water. And Jeff gives me one more hand signal - he draws his finger across his forehead and mimes flicking a bead of sweat off of his brow. I nod yes. We had Steak and Bourbon for dinner that night and went home a day early to hug family members.

Three days later, we're sitting in the meeting. We've been given a penalty flag for 'insufficient concern' and asked why. Into the silence that followed the question, Jeff says, "Because I have enough air to solve this problem."

Well said, my friend. Well said.

2016-01-20

To My Dear Friend Jeff

Whenever I look into a cup of coffee I miss you all over again my friend...
The sugar has gone in, the coffee is swirling from having been stirred and the smell rising from the cup is building anticipation for a first sip, but the ritual is not yet complete.
It's at least a daily event, frequently more than once a day, creating a cup of coffee. I do it differently now - since sometime in the mid nineties as a matter of fact. You taught me that.
The cream is about to be poured in, heavy whipping cream works best, though half and half is an acceptable substitute. Just a touch and the fractals begin to unfurl in the cup. Tendrils of cream, swirling in a chaotic pattern. Not random, chaotic. Fluid. Dynamic. Quite beautiful actually.
I used to dump in the cream and follow it with a quick stir - quickly getting the cup homogeneous, to my optimal flavor profile and uniformity of color. That's the point, right? Get it perfect quick and drink it that way. NO! Don't warm it up until it's empty, never get it right again that way... But that got me a look, and a smile. So, what's so funny?
Before the tendrils merge, a first sip. A touch bitter, a touch hot. It's sweet black coffee with just a hint of cream. The cup is placed gently on the table and now there's a different pattern. The smooth spiral tendrils are being bent by waves from the side of the cup.
I always get the same cup of coffee? Why, yes, I do. Why is that funny? I don't get it...
A bloom! Somewhere in the bottom of the cup, a hot spot has caused a column of cream to rises to the top and bloom, spreading concentric circles of tasty fat that compete with the spiral for space on the mostly black surface, a mysterious force is keeping spiral and bloom apart for now, though they are obviously affecting one another.
I don't want to watch my coffee, I want the caffeine and the taste. A universe in my cup? World of flavors? Evolving coffee... Can't I just drink the coffee? You're smiling again...
I wonder if the bloom was caused by the impact of the cup when I set it down, or was it convection? I'll never know. Time for a second sip. Drawing the hot bittersweet black drink into my mouth - the taste is different. No longer black coffee with a hit of cream, the flavor is changing, evolving - a totally different coffee from before.
I get what you're trying to say - it's not always necessary to take the most direct or efficient line to the end. It's possible to miss out on much experience in the world if everything is done, 'optimally' - kinda makes you wonder about the definition of optimal. Maybe there is value in broadening our experience over even common things.
The current from the last sip has broken the chaos. Whatever forces were balancing the spiral of swirl and the circles of bloom have doubled themselves again and again to an island of stability. The thin delicate lines of cream are folded a thousandfold, like the steel of a fine sword, no longer distinct but unified into a whole, into a tan background. Time just to drink, until the next cup.
I hate social media. Shallow, false sense of community and connectedness. It makes you believe that you are close to someone - when you are not. It makes you believe that you know what is going on in their lives - when you do not. It makes you willing to put off real communication and fellowship - until you cannot. It lures you into laziness in your relationship - until it's too late and you'll never again have the chance to correct it.

Jeff, you taught me how to eat a tube of Rolos (buy two, one to share, cuz someone will ask for one or more, the other one is yours to enjoy in its totality!), drink coffee, work better, and love more fully. We got to go and explore places no human but us had ever seen, and you literally saved my life at least once and risked it for me several other times. I spent more time with you in hotel rooms than your wife has and you're one of the few people I'd willingly share a room with on a trip. I still call you brother. I would have died or killed for you as I know you would have for me. You showed me your mettle and steel on more than one occasion and it made me hope that mine was worthy of yours.

Yet I let our social media 'connection' lure me away from real, human, contact. I know times change, we quit caving for a good reason, I moved... and then we got lazy - as if a quick timeline peek was a substitute for a call, letter, or anything of substance at all. I do not understand depression, I suppose it's not in my nature, something for which I'm grateful. I would not have thought it in yours, either - which just shows my ignorance of the subject and the shallow nature of social media contact. I did not understand that it was a battle for you until the battle was over. I'm sorry I wasn't there for you brother, that I didn't even recognize the need. I'm not so egotistical as to think that I would have made a difference, but you deserved at least for me to have noticed the battle and for me to have joined the fight.

We are all stones, being shaped by the river of people and situations that flow through our lives. I can count on one hand those that I think have shaped me the most. They are my God, my father, my wife and son, and you Mr. Bentley. I have stories I'll tell over the next little while - those days we spent cave diving are some of the best times of my life and deserve some chronicling, hopefully some will find the tales of interest, some educational, some may even find them entertaining. I cannot go back and fix the past, but I hope that I can pass on some of the wisdom that you taught me.

But that's for later right now, I think I'll have a cup of coffee.