My father was a “deep sea” diver in the 1940s and 50s, trained by his father and uncle Ted in northern Ontario. I suppose they did it for fun, like searching for fabled sunken barges loaded with gold in cold dark lakes in the area, but they were also periodically hired by the Timmins police department to drag the Matagami River.
I try to imagine what it was like walking with leaden shoes on the bottom of a tea coloured lake. I see the little window grill in front of my face and hear my compressed lungs inhaling and exhaling rhythmically inside the bubble of a metal helmet. I imagine my father.
He left us far too early, at the age of 33, thrown from a turquoise 59 Chevy station wagon one stormy evening in Detroit. When I was old enough to read, I searched for him in his collection of books. I read John D. Craig’s Danger is my Business, and learned about tangled air hoses, the bends, and giant squid. I coveted that old book, with its yellowing deckled pages and brown cloth cover. It was the beginning of my appreciation for literature and yearning to travel to far away places. I was 10 years old.
Later, when I was studying intaglio printmaking at the University of Guelph, I searched for my father in old, frayed, black and white photographs and tried to capture him on copper plates in acid baths. I was 33 years old. It was the first time it occurred to me just how young he was when he died. I purchased a CD of Hank Williams greatest hits–his favourite music–and played it on repeat for months while I worked in my basement studio. It was a time of intense longing and creativity.
In the old photos of my young father in his torn and patched diving suit, there were no good views of his helmet in its entirety. It was important to include it in the portraits I was working on, so I searched the library for something that resembled my memory of it. In the early 60s, he had built a cement pool in our backyard and liked to walk on the turquoise floor in his suit. I was always fascinated with the helmet, which to me was like an enormous, exotic jewel. The print above is the result of my research, and I gave framed copies to my brothers.
Being the eldest in my family, I remember a lot about my father and his side of the family, but they all moved away and drifted into obscurity decades ago. Finally, after years of longing, imagining, and searching, I had quietly given up, but one of the most amazing things that could have happened materialized this year–my father’s two sisters reached out to find us.
I am an ecstatic and changed woman because of this unexpected reunion with my tribe. I also met two of my father’s brothers, one of whom resembles my father so much that it took my breath away. He is stricken with Alzheimers and frail, but he stood with much effort to embrace me, and said only one word, “Finally.” Yes, they remember me as a shy little girl, and I remember them as smiling young men and women, but ours is a bond of blood that survives the test of time. There are many cousins in this clan, including one who walked me to kindergarten… yes, this is a happy day indeed.
So… this is not the end of a story, but the beginning of a new chapter. And oh, about the helmet! My brother thought it was on display at a restaurant up north some years ago, and that it is now lost, but it turns out that one was my great-uncle’s helmet, and my father’s is in Detroit in my uncle’s garage. The family has decided to give it to me, and I’m going to pick it up next month! I’m so incredibly thrilled!!! I feel as though I’ve found the holy grail. And… I think this just might be the impetus for a new body of work that is formulating in my mind this very minute.
Read The Diving Helmet – Part 2 here.
My father is 17 years old here, and is standing with his father at a dive site.
14 thoughts on “The Diving Helmet – Part 1”
Thank you, Kaye. It’s not polished as a literary piece, but certainly holds promise for a future endeavour. I’ll be posting photos of the actual helmet soon. Can’t wait. Thanks again. ML
Thank you, Larry. I NEED to come to Vancouver…to see YOU…and also… my son James’s ashes are there, in Lynn Canyon (will you come with me please???)…but the unexpected is happening right now in Ontario as you can see. Please be patient, I am coming dawling! XOX
A great read Michelle–I thoroughly enjoyed it. How wonderful to connect with kin. I am looking forward to a series on diving, especially now that our 16 year old grandson has earned his international junior diving licence from his lessons in Guanabo, Cuba. What an emotional connection to your father!!
Thank you, Judith! It has truly been an amazing year! And congrats to Alex! Wow! International Junior Diving Licence! You all must be so proud! xo
Hello Michelle and all the others. My name is Mike Babiski and I was a commercial diver and now am involved in many different historical diving projects. I enjoyed reading the two parts of the story and because I study old diving helmets I noticed that the Mark V helmet from the garage in Detroit is not the same helmet from the images of your father. Did I read that there were three helmets? Anyways the wing nuts on the breastplate in the images are of the large older style with the big Micky Mouse ears where as the Mark V U.S. Navy style has the small wing nuts which have no big ears. It is hard to tell from the photos but I believe that helmet may be a Canadian made John Date from Montreal. The John Date project I am working on is going to be a book as well as a traveling exhibit for diving and maritime museums. I also do professional helmet repairs and cleaning – not polishing. I can help with the stand if you have not already got one. I can install a front face plate guard on the Mark V which is missing. I also do diving presentations, displays and even can let people dive the helmets. This is easier done shallow water style which means without bolting the suit on but putting the helmet with the air supply in the water and then ducking underneath and into a diving helmet experience. I have traveled all over Ontario and Quebec with the projects and displays and have met a lot of nice and very interesting people. I would like to get in touch with you.
Well I have to say that I was pretty excited to receive your message! My father was quite young in the photos, so the suit and helmet he’s wearing likely belonged to my grandfather or great uncle. You have a good eye. He bought the Mark V later. Unfortunately, my uncle Mark passed away a few days ago, so I need some time to digest everything. In the meantime, I will speak to my uncles and brothers, and will get back to you. I’m very interested in learning more about your projects–especially the diving presentations! We’ll talk soon, and thanks for getting in touch.
The saga continues. Could this be the beginning of part 3. I think yes. The excitement mounts. Due to my back ground I tend to be overly cautous as should you when dealing with strangers. A little caution can go along way. You are a precious light in my life & wish only the best for you.
Thank you, Larry! Big hugs to you! xox
My mom sent me a link to this! It’s wonderful.
Thanks so much, Liam! The experience of writing the story was quite emotional, and cathartic too! I had no idea that my friend’s son was such a prolific writer! Bravo… looking forward to reading some of your stuff. And thanks again for the kind words! ML