Don’t let life pass you by

Randy Riley - Contributing columnist

Our lives are shaped by millions of events that combine to make up each day and each year of life – from childhood to retirement.

Looking back over the past 70 years, I can clump most of my years into 10-year groups. I use the word “clump” because it’s not a pretty word. It sounds lumpy, bumpy and not well organized.

That’s is the way the seven decades of my life appear in the rearview mirror.

I’ve been writing these columns for over 8 ½ years. In many of these weekly essays, I ramble on about things that I have seen or experienced (good or bad). I might write about local or world events that make the news.

Usually, I try to avoid the hot, divisive topics that spur anger or bitter disagreement. We get enough of that online or from various cable news outlets.

A few years ago, I found out that an interesting, enjoyable column in the Tuesday paper might bring the reward of an extra piece of bacon with my Wednesday morning breakfast at Sam’s. The cook at Sam’s never shies away from letting me know if he agrees with my column or not.

I always enjoy the feedback, but the bacon is a special touch.

I also get a lot of feedback while shopping at Kroger. In our pre-COVID days, Debbie and I enjoyed having dinner followed by our weekly, big-time shopping trip to Kroger. We always ran into people who recognized us (in the pre-mask days) and wanted to chat for a bit.

We enjoyed the visiting and chatting. Often, the chat involved something I had written. The parting comment was often, “Keep it up. I really enjoy the columns.”

A few weeks ago, someone recognized me through my surgical mask and complimented me on the column about seasonal changes and my trips to the Tropic of Cancer in the Bahamas and the Equator in Brazil. As we parted, she said, “You should write about some of the other places you have been and things you’ve done.”

I’ve thought about that recently and decided that I’ve had enough with writing about politics, elections and viruses. So, I started making a list of some of my favorite thing. Many of those things involve experiences and adventures I’ve had. Several have to do with traveling.

Here is one of my favorites.

Over 25 years ago, I held the certification from the Professional Association of Diving Instructors as a Dive Master. As such, I organized annual scuba diving trips to Stella Maris Inn in the Bahamas. These trips were a continuation of the dive trips that had been led for years by my friend and mentor John O’Rourke.

We always had a mixture of experienced and brand-new scuba divers. A great joy of every trip was reliving the wonders of the living reef through the eyes of a first-time diver.

My friend, Sam, was such a diver. He was an emergency room doctor who longed for adventure that did not involve patching up victims of crashes.

At that time, the Bahamas did not have the same requirements for documentation of diver training, education and experience that was required to dive in the United States. When we arrived, we gave Sam a crash course in diving in one of the swimming pools at the inn.

One of the goals of scuba diving is to achieve neutral buoyancy. With all your scuba gear on, you need to exhale to get beneath the surface. At some point, as you descend beneath the surface, you become negatively buoyant and will continue to sink unless you put some air into your buoyancy compensator (an air-vest you wear under your tank).

Rather than struggling to keep from sinking to the bottom or from floating back up to the surface, the goal is to become neutrally buoyant. Then, if you slowly inhale, you will rise slowly. If you exhale you will descend. Sam easily grasped the simple gas-law-physics that controlled buoyance.

The next day we approached our first site. Sam and I geared up and stood on the boat’s rear dive platform. We were ready to step into 40 feet of beautiful, blue water. With a new diver, you always hold onto each others chest strap until you’re certain the rookie diver is comfortable. We stepped in and exhaled to get below the choppy water on the surface. Sam seemed to be doing very well.

We sank to about 15feet. As I looked over Sam’s shoulder, I noticed a good-sized gray reef shark was headed our way. The shark was slowly and calmly swimming toward us and would probably pass beneath us by about 12 feet.

Not wanting Sam to be startled, I pointed two fingers at my eyes. Then I pointed behind Sam to signal, “Look over there.”

Sam started to hyperventilate. With each deep breath, in and out, in and out, Sam’s buoyance would change. Up and down, up and down. It was like hanging onto a 185-pound yo-yo. I tugged at his strap and signaled for him to relax. Then I signaled, “Watch me.” I headed for the shark.

As I approached the shark, he turned to his left. I also turned. We swam shoulder-to-shoulder with each other for about 15 feet. I stopped. He kept moving off into the deepening blue of the water. I looked back at Sam. He was making circular motions near his right temple — a universal sign to indicate that I was crazy.

Maybe I was a bit crazy back then, but we sure did have fun. Sam and I dove together several more times that week. We even experienced a shark-feeding experience together, but I know Sam will never forget his first scuba dive and his first shark encounter.

I haven’t seen Sam since he moved from the area, but I truly hope he is still reaching out and grasping more new and exciting experiences.

That is, after all, what life is all about.

Randy Riley is a former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.

Randy Riley

Contributing columnist