Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Earth Day, April 22, 2015 - My First Earth Day & Bert Thomas, Swimmer and Diver Extraordinaire

Today, is Earth Day! Hurrah Earth!



We really do need to push ourselves and our governments (and other's) to leave things better than when we found them, rather than abusing things for fun and profit. Existence on this planet, IS a profit for us by the way.

We need to do big things as well as the little things to sustain and fix our planet. The biggest thing we can do however is to change our ways of thinking, especially as it relates to big money and governments.

As individuals, we need a paradigm shift in our thoughts about how we live, how our community and country lives and how others live in their countries. The world is a contained unit. It's like we all live in the same room and if someone lights up a cigar, we all suffer for it through their pleasure. If someone does one bad behavior, it does have a ripple effect across the room, or the world.

Like the burning of tropical forests to plant palm trees for palm oil. A hugely destructive and yet, profitable behavior. Insects are dying off, like bees and when they go, they say, we go. Insects after all, do not need us, we need them for survival.

We need to act on climate change whether or not is is affected by our activities as there is great debate among the laymen about that, although there is not among informed people, like scientists. We need to at least think about our planet and our actions. We need at least one day a year to think about it. We need to therefore think about it, at least, on that one day.

Wednesday April 22nd, 2015 - Earth Day
Earth Day is an annual event, celebrated on April 22, on which day events worldwide are held to demonstrate support for environmental protection. It was first celebrated in 1970, and is now coordinated globally by the Earth Day Network, and celebrated in more than 192 countries each year. - Wikiipedia

It's a day of respect for the planet we live on. I reflect on how we have and are treating it, and to feel gratitude it would deserve just as if it were a person. It's what we humans have to do sometimes, to anthropomorphise things in order to see the degree of respect that we should attribute toward them, for our own benefit.

Here's an interesting web site for today, EarthDay.org, the Earth Day Network. Also, there is BTNW to take a different slant on things..

I first because aware of Earth Day when it was started. I took a NAUI certified SCUBA class that year in 10th grade at and through the Tacoma, Washington Lincoln high school that I was attending, eventually to graduate from in 1973.

I started this blog only about Earth Day but then in the writing of it something became obvious to me and that was that my famous diving instructor, Bert Thomas, seems to have disappeared in history.


Allow me to say that I'm a better person for having known and learned from Mr. Thomas, as is much of the world. As a SCUBA diver and one trained by Bert Thomas, as well as having been a life long resident of such a special place as the Pacific Northwest with it's many waterways, diversity of population and life, and its amazing places to visit on land, I could only grew up with an innate sense of ecology. I also took two quarters of Oceanography in college.

So I'm going to tell you a little story and give you some background. Allow me to explain....
Bill's Boathouse 2013
When I was just starting high school, a local dive shop called Bill's Boathouse located on American Lake in Steilacoom, Washington, wanted to run a trial to train and certify local high school students toward their SCUBA certifications. This would increase awareness of SCUBA diving overall as the infant recreation diving sport that it was, as well as increase sales for the products the dive shop was selling.

Lead by Bert Thomas, world famous for a variety of things such as attempting to be the first to swim the English Channel, and successfully swimming Seattle to Tacoma as well as helping Jacques Cousteau in the development of the aqualung or S.C.U.B.A. system (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) back when Bert was a Navy hard hat deep sea diver.

Bert also swam non-stop from Port Angeles, Washington to Victoria, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada and there is now a plaque on Ediz Hook indicating the location he swam away from at Port Angeles..He swam the 18.3 mile distance in 11 hours on his fifth attempt on July 8, 1955, almost two months before I was even born. 1,500 people where there to meet him when he arrived in Victoria, BC.

Port Angeles, WA
Although he had failed in his attempt to be the first person to swim the English Channel, he then not only crossed the channel from Cape Griz Nez, France to Dover, England, he was then "pulled from the water after reaching about midway on the return trip."

May 15, 1956. 
Bert was born in Durango, CO, but called the PNW and Tacoma, Washington his home.He was a Marine drill instructor in San Diego and a platoon sergeant in a demolition unit. Later he was a Navy frogman instructor at Pearl Harbor.

Odd. My first Ishinryu Karate Sensei the also great bear of a man, the great Steve Armstrong was also a Marine DI only in Okinawa. I don't use "great" lightly with either of these men, either. Bert has been described as a "human polar bear" and a "professional cork".
"Description: Tacoma distance swimmer Bert Thomas is embraced by his wife Mary at the end of his swim from West Seattle to Old Tacoma on May 15, 1956. Thomas swam the 18.5 miles in 15 hours, 23 minutes in 40 degree water battered by high winds and the tide. His feet touched the bottom for the first time at 3:05 a.m., 15 feet out from the shore. Visibly exhausted, he staggered in to shore and collapsed in his wife's arms. He appeared ghostly white with blue lips. His wife struggled to get him into his bathrobe to warm up. When he could speak, the ex-frogman's first words were "Man, it was quite a haul." Mrs. Thomas had supported him on the swim, aboard the "Sharon Two." She fed him through a tube every hour and lit the cigarette that he smoked, continuing the swim on his back. Also aboard the craft was his 12 year old daughter Sharon and Erling Bergerson. The other support craft was the "Memories," skippered by George Peterson. (TNT 5-15-1956, p.1) ALBUM 9". - Historylink.org

Oddly, coincidentally enough (considering this blog today), Bert ended his 15.5 hour swim from Faultleroy, Seattle, 18.5 miles on May 14, 1956, at the Tacoma Old Town dock (I'll get back to that in a minute) where there were 5,000 people to meet him.

Having known him personally, he and his wife also got to be friends with my mother and sister, both of whom who were motivated by my achieving my own SCUBA certification in getting their certifications. I can honestly say that Bert was a truly great man to know and be trained by. My NAUI certified SCUBA card was signed by the great Bert Thomas himself. It indicates that I had 41 hours of training and I received my certification in May 1971.

In writing this blog, I found very little record of Bert online (there are however these interesting photos and descriptions I did find). So, I thought I'd go into a little more about him out of respect so at least he will be slightly memorialized in more detail, somewhere.

My SCUBA card signed by Bert Thomas and dated 1970
Bert was a great bear of a guy and a pleasure to be around. When they opened their second dive shop, Philippe Cousteau sent a bouquet of flowers to the shop. The dive instructors were a great bunch of guys and Bert was a real character. As was old Bill, who owned Bill's Boathouse, though he was old even back then when I knew him.
Bert Thomas Obituary, 


Bert's fatal event, as it was explained to me, was in attempting to stop a student surfacing too fast during an open salt water certification dive. A new diver thing to do which can be potentially lethal, as it was for Bert. As one of his students was rushing to the surface, Bert raced up after him to stop him from getting the "bends", also known as decompression sickness, divers' disease, or caisson disease.

Officially, Bert died on Thursday, June 8, 1972, having suffered a heart attack at Tacoma General Hospital. It's been conjectured however by one of his dive instructors, that it was that event with the student that led to his passing. 

The student came to his senses and stopped on his own, but by then Bert had too much momentum and couldn't stop himself from surfacing too quickly himself. He was rushed to the hospital but didn't make it which isn't unusual in this kind of thing.

However, he died doing what he loved, diving and teaching.

Before all this happened, we had started a SCUBA club at my high school.

Lincoln High School Newspaper Oct. 22, 1971

Those teachers in my high school SCUBA class also included Mr. Vincent, my biology teacher who initially didn't want me in his class, kept throwing me out of his class (usually for good reason) and just didn't much like me. But after we had to do ditch and don in he school pool where you have to dive to the pool bottom and ditch your gear, surface, breathe, then dive and don your gear, his attitude about me from that day forward dramatically changed for the better.

Mr. Vincent, Biology Teacher May 1971
He nearly drowned (he thought so anyway, though he was fine aside from a little sputtering) and I was there to help him. Being the fish in water I had always been, I gave him some support and advice and did not make fun of him, but showed him compassion.

The Author (right) on open (saltwater) certification dive May 1971
I had several years of search and rescue experience, being a commander of others in Civil Air Patrol and before that in Karate. Yes, I was a pain in class for a teacher sometimes. But in a real life situation, especially a dangerous one, I was very effective both as a leader and a companion in arms, so to speak.
Diving in 1978 in Hawaii at a vacant Hanauma Bay on O'ahau Island.
Once he saw that side of me, everything changed between us. We never became best buds, but he did have a respect for me from then on that equaled the one I had always had for him, from the beginning.

Over that next year or so the now officially certified students of the first 1970 Lincoln High school graduating SCUBA class, all kept talking. At first we joked that our next effort would have to be sky diving and for some of us, that happened (for me nearly two years later when I was 17, then ended up a parachute rigger in the USAF years later, among other things like working on the B-52 nuclear bomber\weapons platform).

We started the Lincoln High SCUBA Club. One day someone brought up that we needed to do something to raise people's awareness of SCUBA diving and concerns about our planet, conservation, and clean up. Someone mentioned the new Earth Day.


If you lived in Puget Sound, you'd know many of us who grew up here are highly concerned about our environment.

It's like living on a microcosm of an ocean at your front door. We are seafood lovers, nature lovers, mountain climbers and hiker.


Washington state has just about everything here other than tropical environments, though we do have rain forests (I live in one), but we also have deserts, mountains, waterways and so on. You can go to where there is snow, and that same day to a desert, any time of the year.


We kicked around ideas of what kind of event to plan, where, why. We finally decided on cleaning up under the Tacoma Old Town Dock.

Tacoma Old Town Dock History
"Old Town Dock was first built in 1873 and served the shipping industry until trade operations moved to the Tideflats. After that it quickly transitioned into a popular public space. It was closed in 2008 after an engineering study found it to be too weak for pedestrians. After five years and $2.3 million in renovations, it reopened May 15, 2013."

Our thinking was that this dock had been around "forever" and had to have a lot  of junk under it that didn't need to be there. We knew we couldn't even make a dent in it, but it was a statement and figured, wasn't that was Earth Day was all about? To bring things to people's attention and in the course of that, do even a little good?

It was agreed and decided to go forward with it. It occurred to me that without people knowing we were doing it, it wasn't much of a statement. So I mentioned that if we were going to do this, someone needed to get the attention of the media, so people would hear about it in a timely fashion, or at all.

I was designated to find the attention. I wasn't exactly thrilled with that as it seemed a bit daunting for an 11th grader, but I brought it up, so...I got it. I followed through. I called TV stations. No one would bite. I'm still not sure why they found it uninteresting but concepts like Earth Day back there were still thought of by many as just "more hippy crap".

It seemed like an obvious video event to shoot and a good news piece as a human interest story, though admittedly, someone contacting the media wasn't thought about until the last minute and so I was calling mere days before the event.

One TV station suggested newspapers and so I called around from bigger to smaller. Finally I got one to bite who said they''d send a photographer. Success! They were a small publication called the "Tacoma Review (Combined with Tacoma Buyer's Guide)".


Sure enough, the Tacoma Review photographer showed up.

1972 Tacoma Earth Day Old Tacoma Dock SCUBA clean up
Under the docks we found trash, lots of it but I also found a few antique bottles I kept, some medicine some alcohol but all small at around six inches high. Within a year, I donated them to an older friend of the family, to her husband who had a bottle collection and was old and very ill. He died within a year or so but the bottles had cheered him up. Although I'd love to have those bottles now, I simply cannot feel any  regret in my actions.

LHS SCUBA Club Diver extracting under dock garbage
We also found several bicycles, and more than a few fishing poles. We assumed that people biked to the dock to fish and wind or accident found their transportation and fishing poles in the deep water, lost to them forever.


It was eerie diving under that dock, among the wood pilings encrusted with sea life, barnacles, mussels, sea anemones. That previous Christmas, I had gotten some SCUBA tanks from my parents. Duel 72 cu. in. US Divers brand, black, steel tanks. I could stay down for about an hour around 30-40' with proper and controlled breathing, which takes a little practice (first rule of SCUBA diving: "Stay Calm!" always, breathe slow and easy).
Your humble narrator diving under the  Old Tacoma Dock 1972
When the newspaper came out and I saw the diver with the dual tanks, being the only one in the club with duals, I knew it was me and that I had made the front page! Pretty cool, especially since I called them to come shoot photos of us. I got ride of the gear over the years as it got older but I still have those French, Flotante fins as well as my US Divers Turbo fins (which didn't float) and my wrap around mask, though I haven't been diving in some years.

In the end, this was the end of this event. The few who read the edition of the Tacoma Review with us on the front cover knew about it, but no one called, and I didn't pursue more media attention even though we had made it into a local newspaper. Now I know, I should have followed up, but I was sixteen. The event was Saturday, the newspaper came out on that next Wednesday. And that was the end of it.

After high school graduation the SCUBA club fell apart, or at least, I wasn't around anymore. We had done the Earth Day event. We had done several group dives. And that was it. I'm not even sure if there were other dive classes, but I believe there were until I graduated and I know they had moved into other area high schools to teach, but I don't' know how that all turned out. I know they had expanded to another dive shop and were doing well last I heard around that time.

All of this led to my producing a wood block print (linoleum block actually) of a free diver. Not great but for a 10th grader with no talent for art, not too shabby either. This is the only surviving print of the eight print run in Mr. Thomas' Creative Crafts class.

"Skin Diver" print 8 of 8, May 1971
Now, getting back to the original point of this little jaunt into history back to the beginning of the advent of Earth Day....

We all need to help our most favorite planet, to consider how we relate to it, and how we should act toward it.

It doesn't have to be a large effort, some international committee you set up, or even a small Earth Day SCUBA diving clean up under a dock type of event. It doesn't in fact have to be any kind of event at all as it is more about how we act on a daily basis that most counts. It can merely be in the way you talk to others about the earth and how we treat it. Or in your posting about it, or simply in your altering your habits even a little bit toward the better.

The earth is not unlike having a car when we were teenagers. It may get messy inside that car, after all its yours and you don't have to keep it as clean as your parents car, but eventually and hopefully, we mature to the point that we realize our environment indicates a big part of who we are and how we want to live.

If not taking care of that car leads to a lack of care about more important parts of the car than just the interior, things like the engine or the brakes, then eventually things will start to break down and one day, probably when we most need it, it will simply stop working.


When I think about Earth Day, I can't help but think about my first foray into environmental activism. or about Bert Thomas. Or the waters he swam in to break those records back even before I was born. I think about our Puget Sound waters and how there are places where there is so little oxygen in the waters now that there is nothing living there. I think about the huge ball of plastic the size of Texas in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

I think about Japan's failed nuclear plant due not really to a tsunami but due to it's poor design and maintenance of their Fukushima plant, its radioactive materiel still floating around in the Pacific Ocean. I think about coal burning, carbon issues, war zone pollution, the killing off of the Amazon basin's forests. I wonder why we are so bent on killing ourselves, just for more money.

Take a moment this Earth Day to consider your environment, think about our truly amazing world and make a change. Or, two.

It's really not that hard to do and it's really the least we can do.

Not to mention it's really only in our benefit to do so.


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