It was a gray day in San Diego, which means that it was somewhere between January and June. The year was 1970 and I had been home from the Army for about seven months, which was long enough for my hair to increase from sub-military length (they threatened to not let me leave Vietnam unless my hair was short enough. I made certain that it was) to somewhere around my collar. My beard, which I had dreamed of for years, was a sparse and raggedy affair hanging miserably off of my chin, but by God, at last I had one.
Benson “Benny” Beck and I were posted up at the south end of the La Jolla Shores beach, by the end of the street which ran in front of the 7-11 store. We had gathered driftwood from all along the beach and had a nice little fire going in a hole that we had dug in the sand where a concrete pad made a ninety degree angle from a wall. The 7-11 was close enough to provide sunflower seeds and donuts and six packs of Budweiser, and we were doing our part to make sure that their business was successful.
Benny and I hung around together a lot during that first year back from the War. He had arrived home about two weeks before I did, and I went to his parent’s house on my first evening back in San Diego. We did nearly everything together that first year, with everything consisting mostly of drinking beer, smoking weed, eating pizza from Nicolosi’s, Pernicano’s, and Sorrento’s, all of which were located on El Cajon Boulevard. Occasionally we would diversify and eat hot dogs from Der Weinerschnitzel on College Avenue (or ‘Der Tumorschnitzel,’ as we called it) or burritos from some nasty little joint on El Cajon Boulevard between Euclid and 54th. Strangely, Benny never gained a pound. I, on the other hand, ballooned to over 200 pounds from my svelte post-Army 132.
We went to the mountains. We went to the desert. We went to the bar owned by Dave “Monk” Callabretta’s dad, and on that day we went to the beach in La Jolla.
There was no thought in either of our heads about going into the water. I guess one could say that there was rarely any thought in either of our heads one way or the other, but that’s a different story. Anyway, in lieu of bathing in the frigid waters off of the Shores – yes, in the winter they are just plain frigid – we sat back, opened packages of snacks and bottles of beer, and maintained the warm fire while we talked about – – – everything. And nothing in particular. And it was while I was pontificating about nothing important that Benny pointed out to sea and said “What is that?”
I looked to where he was pointing and saw nothing at first. “Ain’t nothing there” I said. “You’re tripping.”
“What’s the matter? Ain’t you got eyes?” he asked. “Look over there.”
Benny pointed to an object about one hundred meters off of the beach. I squinted at the waves and at last perceived a dark object just barely protruding above the water “Looks like a piece of wood” I said. “Or a seal.”
The object was moving toward us and soon was joined by another similar object, and then another. We watched, speculating on the nature of what we were seeing, until the objects came close enough for us to see that they were the heads of divers in wet suits.
As they approached the shore they rose up out of the water and we could see that they were carrying one of their number, or at least helping him to struggle out of the water. In no time the divers spotted us and, more important, our fire, and made a beeline to where we were seated.
“What’s wrong?” Benny called out to them as they approached. “Can we help?”
“Our friend here got cold” one of them replied. “His suit failed and he’s got some hypothermia going on. Can we sit by your fire for a while?”
“Sure” I said. “Help yourself. We’ll go dig up some more wood for you.”
The divers sat their friend in the sand in front of the fire, propped up against the concrete pad. Benny and I didn’t take long to find more wood and we built the fire up a little more to help the cold diver recover. We chatted with those guys for a while until the diver in distress claimed that he was warming up. One of his friends volunteered to stay with him while the others resumed their dive and returned to wherever their cars were parked. They would then return to pick them up.
Benny and I shared our beer with them and kept the fire going until a car appeared at the end of the street that runs by the 7-11 store, right where we were waiting. They climbed into that car and disappeared.
After a few more beers we walked along the beach back to the La Jolla Shores parking area, which was almost empty on that gray, murky day. Probably, we were going to grab some pizza, or a hot dog. Who the divers were and where they went to I haven’t a clue.