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FEATURE

The $10,000 Dive

by Carroll E. "Shorty" Cutting (as told to John J. Lesjack), Santa Rosa, California

There's plenty of work available. The job is to convince the other fellow that a blind person can do it.--Bert Cutting

During the Korean War, Mom was already doing laundry for five of us--Granny, Dad, Malin and me--when my sister Maggie and her two little boys came to live at our house in Mattoon, Illinois. "I'm tired of using a wash board," Mom told Dad. "Put the engine back in my washing machine!"

Dad said he needed the engine to power his air compressor for the salvage job he had coming up. He heard Lowell Thomas, a famous news broadcaster, announce that a barge with 150 new cars aboard had sunk near Golconda and that a St. Louis salvage company had tried twice but couldn't find the cars. Dad had created his own diving apparatus and helmet when he dove for mussel shells that he sold to button factories. Once buttons were being made of plastic, and the button factories were out of business, Dad got calls to salvage stuff from fresh water all over southeastern Illinois.

Mom argued, "You could put the engine back for wash day and take it out when you need to make a dive. You've taken your car engine apart and put it back together. How hard could it be to replace my old Maytag engine?"

Dad came back with, "I need to be ready to roll. Tell you what--if you'll hold off until I finish this next job, I'll buy you a brand new washing machine!"

"One that rinses clothes?" Mom asked.

"Yes," Dad said. "But the job will be in Golconda. Granny, Shorty and I will be there all summer."

Who's going to take care of Malin and Maggie's two boys?"

"You are," Dad said.

After the Strickland Construction Company called, Tom Strickland and his father, Pappy, and Pappy's Seeing Eye dog, Nipper, visited our house. Pappy had been blinded on a job eight years ago. Dad had been blind since age 15 from typhoid fever. Mom had been blind since birth. The Stricklands signed Dad up as their diver and signed me on as a "back-up diver" for Dad.

Dad had been making and selling brooms--25 cents each, guaranteed for a year--but he easily gave up the lesser job for a better-paying one.

In the middle of June, 1952, Dad stepped off the third deck of Barge #110 and dropped into the Ohio River. He surfaced and held the edge of the barge. Then I slipped his diving helmet over his head and onto his shoulders, and he went to work. Dad's job was to attach a load-line to a car, loosen the chains that secured the car to the deck, and signal that a car was ready. Tom Strickland would use block and tackle and winch to pull the car off the deck and onto a smaller barge.

Barge #110 had been marinating on the river bottom for six months along with 150 new Chrysler products, 50 of which slid off before the triple-decker barge sank. The water level was now below the top deck.

Six months previously, the St. Louis company had had trouble with the swollen river. Despite the use of the latest scientific marine equipment, a well-known hard-hat diver, and two big tugboats, they found nothing. A month later, the same company came back with 2 different divers and a large crane and brought up only one damaged car. The barge's disappointed insurance company paid almost $50,000 and ordered the St. Louis crew off the work site.

Dad sent up four cars his first day. He put 26 cars ashore during his first week. By the middle of September, he had raised 93 cars. Dad pumped the mud, sand and silt from the hold, and the barge floated.

I never did any diving. All I did was help Dad into his diving helmet, secure his weighted vest, his life line, and operate the gasoline powered engine that kept the air flowing down to Dad's windowless helmet. He was in water 35 feet deep for 5 to 8 hours a day. At the end of each day, Dad took my arm, and I led him back to the little house boat where Granny had dinner waiting.

Granny cooked over a little metal stove with a wood fire and made the best roast chicken dinners I've ever eaten. In the evenings, we often sat in the door way of the houseboat and enjoyed a warm breeze and quiet talks. On extremely warm nights, Dad and I swam in the river to cool off. Except for reporters coming around, I never had a better summer.

One reporter asked Tom Strickland about hiring a blind diver and Tom said, "Sunlight penetrates river water about 2 inches. After that, you've got dirt, sand and silt. In the depths of the river, the blind have an almost equal ability to that of a person with normal vision."

Dad came close to not finishing the job when he cut his hands and feet on broken glass scattered about the deck. However, Granny doctored the cuts with her home remedies and bandaged him up. He never missed a day of work.

We came closest to losing Dad when he misjudged the distance between cars in the deep water and nearly got swept away by the power of the current but he grabbed an "I" beam, and held on until we could pull him up.

The afternoon he got paid, I drove Dad over to a phone in Golconda. I had a "hardship driver's license" which meant I could drive if Mom or Dad were in the car. He called Mom and I heard him laugh and say, "Yeah! Ten thousand dollars! I'll buy one of the cars and have Marguerite drive us to California to see the kids. You'll get to hold Harry's new daughter. I'll walk Evelyn down the aisle Yes, it will be our first real vacation Of course I'm getting you the new washing machine, Honey! The surprise is that you are getting a new dryer, too "

I think both of my parents were crying then.

When I was growing up, I never marveled at how much Dad could do--roofed his own house; typed 120 words a minute; roller skated; taught his grandchildren to drive his tractor; used a gas powered chain saw; sheared sheep; the list is endless. I didn't understand the fuss over his abilities: "Of course he could do those things," I thought. He was my dad. Funny how people show their feelings.

Dad's uniqueness was recognized in 1945, when he was interviewed on an episode of Ripley's BELIEVE IT OR NOT radio show called "Unusual Jobs." His achievements were acknowledged with an appearance on the Chicago-based TV talk show, WELCOME, TRAVELERS. And he was honored for his pioneer work in diving by being inducted into the Diving Heritage Hall of Fame (posthumously, of course) in 2008. But it makes me sad that no one told him he was brave or good. No one told him they would look after him and yet, when interviewed about his ability to provide for his mother, wife and six children, Dad said simply, "I am most fortunate." His statement was printed in newspapers across the nation.

Carroll "Shorty" Cutting and John J. Lesjack were in the Navy together aboard the USS Lipan (ATF 85) fleet tug in 1956.

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