As I take a mental inventory of the many great experiences with which I have been blessed, it occurs to me immediately that those are offset by great experiences’ ugly sister: bad experiences. They appear to complement each other nicely by number in a yin/yang sort of way. I for one welcome the notion of a balanced universe; it keeps me from being a perpetual bottom-dweller of spirit, and prevents me from becoming easily overwhelmed by the sight and fragrance of…pretty flowers.
Chuck Studley is the real name of a real guy, a great friend of mine from our days as cadre at the U.S. Army’s Combat Dive Academy. I knew Chuckles and I would get along swimmingly (no pun intended) within the first week that he was assigned to the Dive Academy in Key West from the 7th Green Berets.
That first week we found ourselves flying in a Navy H-53 helicopter over Fleming Key, where some academy corollaries were located. The flight was for orientation to Shark Drop Zone (water), where we parachuted for proficiency training. My eye caught the very prominent Calda Channel that snaked its way around the northern tip of Fleming. It was an impressive sight, the shallow green water powerfully accented by the dark green of the Calda.
Wanting to impress the new guy with my geospatial prowess, I jumped up and indicated strongly out the open door of the helo, pointing down and out at the channel, shouting, “Chuck…this…this is Calda Channel!” Chuck regarded the scene but only sat there, directing a blank stare full of blinks my way. He then arched his arms up and around, indicating our surroundings, answering finally, “George…this…this is called a helicopter!”
Chuck was (far and away) the greatest diversion of all for me on Key West. It was always the simple things, insignificant in universal scope and short-lived, that were very impactful for me. I’m put in mind of driving the main street on approach to making my final turn to my quarters when I became aware of a car intentionally keeping speed with me to my left.
Fearing road rage, I hesitated, but finally looked, to find Chuck’s Cheshire grin through the open passenger window of his car.
“Stop and get a beer?!” he called out.
Now that’s something I just never did with anyone let alone when the sun was still up, but I associated Chuck with all things badass and cool, so this would be a great thing as long as furniture wasn’t getting smashed and dudes weren’t flying head-first through plate glass.
“Yeah, sure. Why not? I mean there’s nothing wrong with a little—” and Chuck cut me off by speeding ahead to turn into the last beer-serving establishment between us and our turn-off to our quarters. Funny he would turn into the one place that only ever had choppers parked outside. But at least there weren’t many choppers, so we dashed inside, less for a beer and more to be able to just say we were in that chopper place once.
Right in, right out, one beer and nobody gets hurt. We sat at the bar, tossed back a tankard of Guinness, and watched a local lass of fine social standing smash an empty beer can between her butt cheeks.
Chuck: “She should add that to her resumé immediately.”
Geo: “I wouldn’t want to compete with her for a job.”
With that, we left. No inebriation, no time wasted, no ‘splaining to do to the wives, and I am always pleased by the chance to see something I have never before witnessed, yea though it may involve a buttock.
“Man, that was nuts, Chuck!”
Sigh. “Never mind. See you tomorrow, Chuckles.”
The following day, Studley Chuck and I dove. It was a Saturday and we made this dive to hunt for lobster. It was late in the season and the “bugs” were getting harder to find, so we ventured into waters we had not dived before. These were simple shore dives—nothing complicated, just wade out until you’re underwater and start hunting.
We hadn’t caught a bloody thing all day and this was to be our last look. We floated about, executing the usual hunt strategies, when we heard the crescendoing buzz of a motor in the water. There is a phenomenon associated with being underwater: Sound travels several times faster underwater than in air, therefore the ears are unable to triangulate direction of noise underwater. That means every buzzing engine sounds like it is coming right at you.
Pro divers like us knew better as we settled to hug the bottom. Besides, we had the correct Diver Down buoys tethered to us and floating on the surface. The water there was shallow—very shallow. I remember thinking that, though I had been through this on countless occasions, I’d be damned if this time it really did sound like it was coming straight for us, and with the throttle wide open.
We wondered why the boat was getting bigger, and then it hit us.
Boom. I saw more stars than Galileo Galilei. The hull slapped my back and an extraordinary pain was introduced to my right lower leg and foot. I was every bit of the word stunned. I looked for Chuck but the water had turned an opaque tan, sediment kicked up by the boat’s propeller. I surface to the sight of Chuck’s shocked face. He was shaken but held on to his cool as he was prone to do under stressful circumstances.
“Man, that was close!” he hissed. I was not able to say anything at the moment.
“Hey Geo, you OK?”
“I don’t think so. I don’t think I’m OK, Chuck….”
Chuck rushed over to me and grabbed onto my life vest. The boat that hit us had stopped, the pilot understanding fully that he’d hit something hard. Of all things worldly and heavenly, Chuck Studley was also a Green Beret 18-Delta, a much-revered combat medic with volumes of combat medical experience behind him. He struggled to conduct his primary survey on me with questions and palpations as he kept me above the water.
There were two men on the boat. They circled around and came to us. The frail little guy at the helm was frantic.
“Oh, my word… my heavens… my stars! Oh my God, we were scared that we had hit a manatee!” the peculiar little man went on.
“Oh, well, that would have been really bad then, wouldn’t it?” Chuck snapped at the driver’s queer remark.
They pulled us aboard their boat and motored us to shore. My back was fine but my lower leg and foot were causing me agony. There was a large gash in my calf from which blood ran. The decidedly feminine driver-fellow handed me his business card. I took that as a decent and honest gesture, though I was still fighting mad that he had run us over in spite of our diver buoys. Chuck loudly schooled the driver with a crash-course in WTF Diver Down buoys meant.
Chuck helped me to shore and hurried to pull all the dive gear into our truck. Chuck and I made our final assessment: An outboard motor has a rubbing skeg that is designed to hit the ground before the prop does to protect the propeller blades from damage. The skeg had hit and crushed my foot into the seabed and a single blade of the prop cut into my lower leg.
The “couple inches to the right” theorem washed through my head as I realized by a rice-paper-thin margin either one of us might have died a shitty death at the hand of a waif. I glanced down at the business card still in my hand. “Hair by Robert,” it read.
“Ain’t that a peach, Chuck. We almost got killed by a hairdresser. Not a barber, a hairdresser.”
We raced to the academy. Studley brought me to the aid station.
“Sew me up, Chuck!” I ordered. He hesitated, taking long close stares at the wound.
“I don’t know….”
“What do you mean, you don’t know? Sew me up, fucker!”
Chuck was concerned about what I couldn’t see. He was worried that there was nerve damage and associated blunt crush injury to the foot. He needed an X-ray. That meant a trip to the Naval Air Station hospital nearby.
We notified our duty officer and headed off to the Air Station. An X-ray showed no danger and the doc set up to stitch me.
“Doc, can you let my bro do that, please?” The doc looked up in surprise. He said that wasn’t possible; it was strictly a matter of hospital policy. So it went.
Monday, I limped up the stairs to the cadre day room. Mid-step I met our commander coming down the steps where we stopped to chat. Chuck stood just there at the top of the landing.
We traded essential data and the boss appeared genuinely mad about the situation, like he wanted blood. I pulled the business card out of my back pocket and handed it to the boss, who froze when he saw it.
“Jesus Christ!” he bellowed, “THIS CLOWN DOES MY WIFE’S HAIR!”
With that, Studly Chuck, the boss, and I all joined hands for a chorus of “It’s a Small World After All.”
Looking back at good experiences’ ugly sister, I can say in no uncertain terms that as long as Chuck Studley is there…I would intentionally let another boat run me down.
By almighty God and with honor,