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Luigi with fans at the New York Book Festival in June
It was just after lunch when Frankie, Josh and I arrived at the Umm Saqueem jetty and unloaded our gear from Josh’s yellow Suzuki jeep. There were few large powerboats in Dubai in 1974, so it wasn’t hard to spot Tim Johnson, or “the Duke,” as most people called him, waving from the back of a 35-foot Bertram.
With the help of several seamen we lugged our tanks and other diving equipment to the boat and loaded everything onboard. After arranging the gear for easy identification when suiting up, we sat down on the blue Naugahyde cushions for what we thought was a brief trip a few miles offshore.
It was pushing 5:00 PM when the Duke slowed the engines to a drift. He walked back from the cockpit and instructed the boatmen to set up the outriggers and bait the fishing poles that were stored on deck.
“What’re you doing?” I asked in an uneasy tone. “It’ll be dark soon.”
“Just thought we may as well take advantage of the calm seas for a little fishin’. We got plenty of time.”
As we trawled in an expanding circular pattern my apprehension concerning our underwater task was soon gone. The breezy sea air and rocking motion of the boat relaxed me into a tranquil state of confidence. The elements of humidity, heat and sand particles suspended in the atmosphere provided the perfect ingredients for brewing a soupy brown haze that covered the Arabian Gulf sky. The dreary mixture sheltered the descending sun so that only the lightened sky above the horizon indicated that the day would soon be over.
Before long it would be dark. I moved forward to the cockpit and confronted the Duke. “We’re not rigged up for night diving. Do you plan to bunk down here and start in the morning?”
He cut the engines and yelled, “Hubba hubba! Veloo, get the car batteries and those underwater lights, and put them on deck. Saleem, bring up those lift bags and assemble that portable winch.”
It looked like it was going to be a night dive after all, and what a night, not even a sliver of moon. I didn’t mind diving after dark and had made several nocturnal excursions into the deep to photograph sea life, but not to lift heavy objects. I was concerned, but I wasn’t going to let my diving buddies know it, especially not the Duke.
This excursion was my baby. Mr. Tandoody had asked me to arrange this salvage job, and I recruited Josh and Frankie to assist, but I was smart enough to know my limitations as a diver. Because of his experience as a professional diver Frankie would be the dive leader and direct Josh and me underwater.
We gathered around the small table in the cabin, and Frankie gave the pre-dive briefing. “We’ve anchored close to where we believe the lost cargo should be located. There are four crates; the biggest is about eight-by-eight feet. We’ll lift the two largest with the portable winch. The others we’ll raise with lift bags. Once we bring them to the surface the crew will slip the cargo net around ‘em and lift them on deck.”
“How deep is the water here?” I asked.
“Sixty-three feet,” Veloo responded.
Veloo and Saleem rigged up the lights and dropped them into the water while Josh, Frankie and I put on our scuba gear and went through a checkout of one another’s diving equipment. Veloo secured the lift bags, extra lines and hardware in a heavy rope-net bag. Weighting the net with a couple of extra tanks, he dropped it over the side and watched it descend beneath the smooth surface of the Arabian Gulf waters.
The Duke paced back and forth across the deck like an expectant father. Turning abruptly toward his three-man dive team, a beaming smile broke across his face and his bare feet began tapping out a silent jig to accompany his choreographed vocals
Boop Boop Diddim Daddum Waddum Choo!
Shaking my head in amazement I watched the Duke wiggle his fingers in the air as he sang the second chorus, “and they swam and they swam right over the dam,” slapped his knee on the “Boop Boop,” and snapped his fingers on the “Diddim Daddum.” Then rolling hand over hand like a basketball coach calling a traveling violation, he sang the “Waddum Choo!”
Tim abruptly ended his little vaudeville exhibition. “Now you three little fishes don’t swim over the dam,” he cautioned.
Returning to our task, Josh, Frankie, and I partially inflated our horse collar buoyancy device, known as a “Fenzy,” grabbed our masks securely in one hand and our regulators in the other and, one by one, like synchronized swimmers, flipped backwards into the water from our perch on the side of the boat. Gathering on the surface and holding onto the anchor line we made one final safety check, turned on our waterproof flashlights, and descended down the line into the black abyss. Once we reached bottom, Frankie secured a thirty-foot rope to the anchor, using it as our pivot point. I positioned myself about ten feet from the anchor while Josh went out another ten. With Frankie on the end we began a circular search. After just a few minutes, Frankie tugged three times on the line, indicating that he had found the goods. Josh followed the line out towards Frankie and tied an inflatable surface float to one of the discovered crates so the topside team could move the boat and tether lights overhead.
Frankie selected the largest crate. Using sign language, he instructed Josh and me to tip the crate and dig the sand out from under, allowing us to pass the lift-belt beneath. We repeated the process on the opposite side of the crate so that the steel rings on all four ends of the two belts met at the center of the square crate.
Working patiently to secure the shackles to the rings and then to the commercial lift-belts, I concentrated on watching Frankie guide me from the other side of the sunken box. The underwater lights cast a dim glow on the area where we worked. A chill shot though my wet body. A cold thermal current passing, I thought, or was it Frankie’s grotesquely glowing eyes, magnified by the glass of his mask and distorted by the bubbles rising from his regulator that caused me to shudder? Beyond the formless face of this aquatic life form was total darkness.
Just as I recovered from my imagined encounter with a creature of the deep, I felt a strange tingling sensation on the back of my bare neck. Shit, a poisonous sea snake, or maybe that not so surreal creature I just saw, was objecting to my nocturnal foray into their domain. My pulse raced, causing my blood pressure to rise, along with a few noxious flatulent bubbles that worked their way through my bathing suit up the back of my diving coveralls and out the opening of the cuff of my long sleeves. I threw up my right hand toward the back of my neck to shoo away the undersea predator that was trying to nibble on my exposed body, and carelessly knocked my regulator from my mouth.
Think, think, think what do I do? My mind reverted to my training. Just as I was about to enter the “passive panic” stage, all was revealed.
Ahh, Section I, PADI DIVER MANUAL, circa 1974, I got it!
I was getting a bit frantic now, but hell, I’m a PADI trained diver. Like an underwater Boy Scout, I was prepared. I reached back over my right shoulder to my air tank, which was secured on my back. The task was to feel my way from the first stage of the regulator, where it connects to the tank, to the breathing hose. Then I needed to follow the hose until my hand reached the second stage of the regulator, the breathing apparatus, grab it and bring it back to my air-starved mouth.
Hell, no problem, I thought. I did this in training. As my lungs screamed for air I started the retrieval procedure. “You can do it,” I kept telling myself. Tilting my head back so I could reach the hose, I looked directly at the lights hanging from the boat near the surface, where I knew there was fresh clean oxygen. I’m outta here!
Just as I was starting my emergency ascent, a hand materialized from out of the darkness and shoved my regulator back into my mouth.
I looked my savior in his mask-covered eyes and saw the smiling Josh shaking a sea cucumber in my face, the same turd-looking sea animal that he had used to “tickle my neck.”
Having recovered both my dignity and my regulator, I returned to the task of securing the crate. Frankie checked my work and made sure that Josh and I moved away from the box before tugging three times on the lift rope, the pre-arranged signal to haul up the crate with the deck winch. We repeated the process on the second crate, which was just a bit smaller, and then swam over to the two small boxes. Instead of hauling these up by the winch, Frankie decided to use the lift bags. Positioning Josh and me on opposite sides of the first crate, Frankie attached the bag and then slowly inflated it with air from his regulator. As the bag filled it began a leisurely graceful ascent to the surface, lifting the small crate like a hot air balloon rising into the sky. Josh and I swam upwards, guiding it toward the waiting arms of the crew who netted the box and pulled it aboard.
Frankie connected the airbag to the second small crate and slowly inflated it. The bag rose, pulling tight the belts that connected it to the box, and then stopped. Frankie took hold of the writing slate that was connected to his weight belt. TOO HEAVY USE WINCH, he scribbled. Giving Frankie the thumb-touching-forefinger diver’s okay sign, Josh and I began the sand clearing process and connected the rings of the lift-belts to the shackles, while Frankie surfaced to advise the crew to drop the winch cable.
When the cable broke the surface above, Frankie grasped it with both hands and swam downwards, guiding the steel, snakelike rope-wire towards the crate, where he connected it to the rings. Before Frankie could give the normal three-tug lift signal, the cable prematurely slithered upward, pulling taunt on the belts. Strange sonar sounds emanated from the now obviously straining umbilical. Sensing danger, the three of us back-paddled like frenzied fish to distance ourselves from the erratic shifting of the wooden chest. The eerie underwater symphony continued until a loud piercing twang, the resonance of an enormous popping guitar string pierced the dense water causing a sharp pressure squeeze on my eardrums. I looked upward through the lurid lights to the bottom of the boat, trying to trace the source of the sonic vibrations. Gracefully slithering toward us was the spiraling serpentine coil from the winch, Medusa in a free dive.Taking advantage of the extra milliseconds that the physics of undersea sound waves gave us, Josh and I put our power fins into motion. Legs kicking and arms wildly cutting through water, we navigated away from the falling line. Frankie must have misjudged the refracted light from the underwater object coming down on us and moved in the wrong direction, allowing the lengthy cable to encompass his head and tanks in a snarl, like a large Slinky gone wild.
The weight of the coil-wrapped tanks pushed into the seabed pinning Frankie on his back, legs floating upward to seek their level of buoyancy. A plethora of bubbles exited from the wildly lashing air-hose that was once connected to Frankie’s regulator. Josh and I raced toward him. Before we could reach Frankie, he calmly pulled the large knife from the black rubber scabbard attached to his right calf. Without a second thought he reached over with his right hand and slashed the left shoulder belt of the Fenzy and then calmly cut the waist belt. Pulling the orange-colored artificial lung over his head, he allowed it to float slowly to the surface. In simultaneous motions, his left hand released the waist belt of the dive tank harness while his right sliced through the left shoulder harness attached to the dive tank. Reversing the technique, Frankie transferred the knife to his left hand and sliced through the right dive tank shoulder harness, while reaching with his right hand to release the weight belt buckle and letting it fall to the seabed. Completely unencumbered, Frankie righted himself. Only when Josh thrust his regulator towards him did Frankie finally let his own airless mouthpiece fall toward the ocean floor. After taking a big suck from the offered lifeline, he guided it back to Josh’s mouth. Slowly following them to the surface I studied their motions as they calmly swam, face-to-face, taking turns breathing from the one regulator, as if the natural thing to do.
Reaching the surface, the crew helped us onboard and took our gear. Still shaking from watching Frankie’s great escape, I looked at Josh, who was lying on deck, chest heaving and deep breathing sounds escaping from his diaphragm. I thought of how calm he was during the ordeal, but looking at him now I could see the stress leaving his body. What was it about guys like Frankie and Josh? Sure, the training taught them the mechanics of what to do, but it was just plain guts and discipline that allowed them to overcome stress in such a situation. I wanted to be just like these guys, but rich, like the Duke.
All too soon for me, Veloo and Saleem returned with fresh air tanks and another Fenzy and regulator for Frankie.
Laughing loudly, Frankie and the Duke slowly walked toward us. Tim stopped directly in front of me and eyed me up and down. “Hey, hooky hooky, you ready to finish the job with the men, or you want to stay onboard with the pussies?”
I still hadn’t fully composed myself, but after seeing Josh and Frankie in action there was no way I was backing out now. If I wanted to be like them I had to act like them. “Fuck no. I’m ready to go. You stay here with the pussies.”
The Duke bellowed out his deep laugh, Haw Haw Haw! “We got your ass now, don’t we, Falcon?”
Ignoring the Duke and me, Frankie again took charge. “Looks like we have to adjust our plan,” he said. “Not enough time to recover and rig the cable; probably not strong enough anyway. We’ll have to open the big crate underwater. Tim says that there should be some metal boxes inside. The lift bags will be able to handle them. If we hurry we should have plenty of air to finish the job.”
“Plenty of air up here, Falcon. Sure you don’t want to stay here and enjoy it?”“Fuck you, Tim.”
After gearing up we repeated our back flip water entry, but this time we each held onto a prying bar. Reaching the bottom, we gathered around the stubborn crate and Frankie levered open the top. On cue, Josh and I worked on the sides. First the top, then side after side fell onto the sandy bottom revealing twelve metal boxes.
Josh and I attached a lift bag to the first box while Frankie worked alone. The boxes were heavy but easy to manage underwater. One chest ascended, the bag returned and another followed. After about half an hour we followed the last bag to the surface, stopping at the ten-foot level for a ten-minute decompression hang off. Frankie and Josh were fearless but they were also safe divers. Enough close calls; we didn’t need a case of the bends to top off the evening.
By the time we were back onboard, the crew had stowed the gear and removed the portable winch. Using a large crowbar, the Duke pried the lid off the largest of the crates. He removed the top and cut into the waterproof fabric that enclosed numerous cardboard cartons, and then opened one of the cartons. Hundreds of “Citizen” watches in all shapes and sizes sparkled within.
“Shit,” I said just as the top of another package was opened to reveal even more watches, this time Seiko’s. “There must be ten thousand watches here,” I said to no one in particular.The Duke looked at me. “How about a thousand dozen?” he said. “These are the cheap ones. Wait until you see some of the others.”
The next two crates, about half the size of the largest, contained gold Rolex, Cartier and Patek Phillipe watches.
Using his California cowboy strut, the Duke slowly and deliberately moved toward the twelve metal boxes neatly piled, four by three, at the side of the deck. Each sheet-metal rectangle looked to be about two feet long, two feet wide and two feet deep, secured by a metal clasp with a small brass padlock.
Inserting the bar between the lock and the clasp, the Duke twisted his wrist in a quick, smooth motion and popped the brass ring from the bottom of the lock. “Takes me back to my teenage days in California,” he said. He lifted the top of the chest a sliver, peeked inside, and with a slap of his right hand against his raised right knee, let out an “Ooo Eeee, we found the right boxes.”
“Come here Falcon,” ordered the Duke. “What do you think of this?”Dazzling rays, reflected from the boat’s lights, bounced from the shiny metal bars, ten-tola gold bars. My heart pumped wildly as I gently took one of the smooth bars, felt the weight, rubbed the cool bright metal on my cheek and even kissed it. As if in a trance, I continued to sensually stroke the gold bar.
Enough foreplay; I wanted to know how much gold there was, and counted the visible gold bricks, eight across, four long, thirty-two per row. Stacking them on the deck as if I were a child playing with building blocks, I reached row thirteen, a portentous number I thought, as I tallied a total of four hundred and sixteen ten-tola bars per metal container. The Indian tola measurement was commonly used in the Arabian Gulf, so I knew that each of the almost five thousand bars of gold weighed three and three quarter ounces. At the current rate of $35 per ounce it was worth over $600,000 on the local market. Once smuggled into India it would be worth more than 2.5 million dollars.
I pulled my camera from my dive bag and took a few shots of the bars before replacing them in their treasure chest.
With a shit-eating grin the Duke looked at us. “Why don’t you guys have a beer and get some rest while the boys and I get underway?”
The Bertram built up speed, and with beers in hand, we lay back on the cushioned bench seats and talked about our dive.
“Damn, Falcon,” Josh said, picking up on the moniker the Duke used. “I wish I had a movie camera so you could see the look on your face. It was like you were doing an underwater sea ballet, flaying arms, twisting legs and so on. It was just a little sea cucumber tickling you.”
“Fuck you, Josh,” I mumbled and closed my eyes, trying to will him out of my presence. Just as I started to doze off a jolt from the thrust of the engines knocked me backward into the rear of the bench seat. My slumber aborted, I watched Josh and Frankie as they tried to keep their balance. Holding on to the side of the boat they sidestepped toward the bow until they finally reached the cockpit. As the boat gained speed and the bow bumped madly on the sea, lifting higher and higher, I took my chance and crawled on hands and knees to join them.
“Yaaa Hooo!” cried the Duke, bucking up and down like a rider on a bull in a rodeo. Just then he pushed the throttles forward and we shot onward at breakneck speed.
“What’s the hurry?” Frankie asked. “Got a couple of those Indian beauties waiting at home?”
“Fuck no; we got an I-ranian customs gunboat on our ass. See that little speck of light over there? That’s them. Word just came in over the radio from some nearby fishermen friends.”
“So what? We’re just picking up lost cargo, salvage rights, law of the sea and all that,” I said.
Frankie, Josh, and Tim looked at me like I had just said the dumbest thing they’d ever heard.
“Shit, Falcon,” said the Duke, “for being smart enough to run a school, you sure are thick when it comes to real life. This here ain’t no lost cargo and we ain’t in Dubai waters. One of Bin Jabir’s dhows was sneaking it into I-ran. They was gonna be boarded and inspected, so over it went.”
Josh and Frankie stood on the side laughing.
“You sons of bitches knew all along, didn’t you?” I said, looking at them.
“Fuck, Falc,” Frankie said, “no one had to tell us. Anyone wet under the collar could have figured it out.”
Josh just stood there shaking his head and smiling at me.
An abrupt “CRACK” and then another came from the side of the boat while fiberglass splinters sprayed our faces.
“Motherfucker, them bastards are shootin’ at us. Let’s get our butts moving,” yelled the Duke. “They ain’t supposed to do that—that ain’t playing by the rules. Hold on, boys,” ordered our crazy leader as he pulled a knob on the instrument panel and kicked in the supercharger, sending the boat flying.
Josh laughed like a kid on a trampoline, bouncing up and down as the boat pounded the waves
Frankie moved to the cockpit. “Go for it, Duke. Let’s show those fuckers who not to mess with.”
The Duke yelled over the noise of the engines, “Well, if them mothers want to fight, this will be the ‘Mother of all Battles’.”
“Battle?” What had I gotten myself into? These two assholes, Josh and Frankie, were just as certifiable as “ole Bimbo Timbo” over there.
It seemed like hours, but it was only a few minutes later the Duke suddenly pulled down on the throttles. Just as rapidly as we had picked up speed, we dropped to a smooth, brisk pace.
The adrenaline rush didn’t take away the fear. I was scared. “You’re not giving up, are you? If you are, I’m over the side ‘cause I am not gonna spend my best years in some Persian jail.”
The Duke looked at me with his piercing blue eyes. “Hold on to your dick, Falc, we’re back in Dubai waters. Those customs creeps can’t touch us. We’re home free, baby.” Reducing our speed even more, the Duke set the throttles on autopilot, and then walked towards the ice chest on the stern. “Come on, the captain here will buy you a cold one.”
I grabbed the beer from Tim’s extended hand. “Damn you, Tim. I thought I was gonna be the bum boy for some Iranian prison guard. Your buddy Iskar told me that he just needed a couple of amateur divers to salvage some worthless equipment for a friend.” Walking away from Tim I took a swig of the Heineken and let the cool liquid run down my parched throat. I felt like an imbecile. Brought here under false pretenses and having my naiveté ridiculed was one thing, but being shot at by Iranians was another. I was really pissed off.
During the half-hour it took to reach the dock I barraged the Duke with all of the new cuss words I had learned from him.
“Calm down, Falcon,” he said with a smile. “No one was hurt, you had a nice dive and we had a little excitement. What’s the big deal?”
I could see that I was wasting my time. As the boat glided into the slip I turned and addressed my mates. “You fuckers are crazy. This is like living in a sci-fi movie. You’re all being cloned into little Dukes. I’m outta here, assholes.” I hit the deck, loaded my gear and took off with Josh’s yellow Suzuki, leaving him and Frankie on the boat still laughing and shooting the shit with Tim.
Marie and the kids were fast asleep when I crept in at dawn. I showered and climbed in bed, snuggling to the security of Marie’s warm body. Lying there waiting for my heart rate to drop back to normal, I replayed the evening’s events in my mind. Tim’s strange comment about the “Mother of all Battles” seemed to repeat itself in my brain like a broken record. What a curious thing to say. Only someone a little eccentric like Tim would use an expression like that.
How could I let myself get into a situation like that? Less than a year ago I was Luigi Falconi, mild-mannered school administrator, hired to come to Dubai to run an oil company school, and today I’m “The Falcon,” leading a team of divers recovering smuggled goods.
This is one helluva way to spend my Christmas holidays, I thought. The adrenalin rush, the gold, and the machismo—I had to admit I loved it.