I was 10 when we arrived in Ventura. California has been my home ever since. My father’s great passion in life was sailing and the next few years involved plenty of it. We continued to live on the Agio for the better part of the next six years. While we each had our own stateroom, it was still tight quarters and I looked for every opportunity to escape. A few times I tried to run away from home.
Life in California revolved around the water. All my new friends surfed and I soon joined them. I also started getting into trouble again. My mom, who went to work for a few years on California’s offshore oil platforms, never knew what to expect when she would come home. Once she found me and a few friends hunting down squirrels with homemade blowguns. Another time she saw the boat’s mast swaying as she approached. She broke into a run, and when she reached the boat she saw that my friends and I were taking turns pushing off and swinging around the mast high above the deck on a harness I’d rigged.
During most of this time, my father and I might as well have been living on separate planets. He was working his tail off. He would leave early in the morning and come back at five o’clock — briefly — for dinner. My mom was pretty good about corralling us inside for family dinner, but as soon as we pushed back our plates we would all head off to do our own thing.
There was a period there, in eighth grade, when my dad made an extra effort to get me into ice hockey. The closest rink was in Thousand Oaks, nearly an hour’s drive away. During hockey season he would get up every Saturday at 5:30 a.m. to drive me out to Thousand Oaks for practice. He even helped coach our team. Throughout that hockey season, the two of us had an opportunity to bond again, just as we had when we were back in Kimberley. But soon that, along with my sports career, came abruptly to an end.
I’d noticed that my knees were starting to ache, and toward the end of the season, it got pretty severe. I could play through it, but after practice, I would have two swollen bumps on my knees. And if you tapped them in just the right spot, it felt like someone was jamming an ice pick into my knee.
My folks took me to the doctor who diagnosed it right away.
“Your boy has Osgood-Schlatter syndrome. He’s been so involved in sports, so constantly and for so long, his knees haven’t had the chance to develop properly.”
In rare cases, he told us, surgery was needed. He didn’t think that would be necessary for me, but I would have to wear a brace for a while.
“And of course,” he added, “he’ll have to cut out the sports.”
My mom nearly gasped. “What do you mean, cut out the sports?” She was terrified: Without sports, she knew it would be no time at all before I was getting into worse and worse trouble.
They tried putting my legs in braces, but as soon as the braces were on I was off skateboarding around the harbor. Finally, they realized they had no choice but to put me in casts. As much as I hated them, those casts probably saved my life, or at least my knees. Confined to plaster casts, my joints were finally able to grow properly. I’ve never had any knee problems since.
At the time, it was also a catastrophe of sorts. I was a freshman in high school, and I desperately wanted to wrestle and play baseball. No dice. I spent my ninth-grade year with casts on my legs. As soon as they were off, so was I — off getting into trouble again.
Without athletics to absorb my time and energy, my mother hit on a new tack: getting me a job. Soon before my 13th birthday, she introduced me to a man named Bill Magee, who owned the Peace a charter dive boat in Ventura Harbor. Bill offered to let me work on his boat.
I worked on the Peace all summer, every summer, for the next few years. Everything about being on that dive boat, with the tantalizing possibility of adventure outside the harbor and west to the Channel Islands, completely captivated me. It’s no exaggeration to say that going to work on the Peace changed the course of my life.
Bill Magee was one of the nicest men I’ve ever known. He and the boat’s captain, Michael Roach, were like fathers to me. They watched out for me and entrusted me with a lot of responsibility. I had not really had that experience before. They showed me a whole new side to the concept of respect. They instilled in me the belief that I could be somebody and do something special with my life.
Bill had made some money in construction. He eventually sold a successful roofing company up in the Bay Area, which allowed him to fulfill a dream I expect he’d held on to for some time. Sport diving was his hobby, and he had put a chunk of the proceeds from the company’s sale into the Peace — cashed in his chips and taken to the sea.
Captain Roach was the perfect complement to Bill, the classic salty Irish sea captain. He taught me how to give a firm handshake and look a man straight in the eye when you are talking to him.
Bill Magee was also pretty wild — the Hugh Hefner of the high seas. Bill had a new girlfriend every week, usually about half his age, and he was always throwing hot tub parties (I believe the Peace was the first boat to feature a hot tub) with lots of women, alcohol, and God knows what else. Strictly speaking, the Peace was a dive boat, which meant that people were paying to be taken out scuba diving. Unofficially, it was also a hell of a party boat. We’d take our passengers on tours of the Channel Islands off Ventura. We’d take out groups of divers four at a time — and in between dives, when we were anchored up for the night, we would party. Bill would front me a few hundred dollars so I could sit down and join the interminable poker games. Here I was, at 13, drinking Scotch and playing poker with the guys.
At the same time, diving was no joke. When you weren’t on an anchor watch, it was fine to whoop it up and party, but when you were on, you had to be on. You had to know your limits and capacities. I didn’t know it at the time, but that proved to be great preparation for the Navy SEALs.
As the low man on the totem pole, I often got the chores on the Peace that nobody else wanted to do. One of these was diving down, whenever the anchor got stuck, to get in there and free it. This often happened in the middle of the night. Many were the times I was rousted out of deep sleep to hear, “Wake up, Brandon! We have to move and the anchor is stuck. Get your wet suit on— you’re going in.”
I’d dive down there with a flashlight, scared shitless. It was a hell of a way to get over one’s fear of sharks, let alone fear of the dark.
Sometimes I would get to depth only to find the anchor wedged under a one-ton ledge that was being rocked off the ocean floor by the boat’s weight and the pull of sea swell on the surface. With a blast of air, I would signal the guy pulling the anchor to let out some slack in the chain. I would then go to work untangling the mess. A second blast of air to the surface would signal that my work was done. At that point, the crew would haul the anchor up while I stayed below, watching to make sure it had come fully clear of the bottom. Often it would get stuck again, and I’d have to repeat the entire routine. When it was finally clear, I would blast a final jet of air to signal where I was and alert them to my position and ascent. Once back on board, I would run through a fast hot shower and try to get in some hurried shut-eye before the break of the new day. It was terrifying, and I loved it.
This is Part I of a series. Stay tuned for Part II.