Fred's World!

The Early 60's

Fred & Dave Robbins
Filleting A 300 Pound Jewfish

His nickname among the divers, boaters and fishermen of Sebastian Florida, is "three-fingered Fred". I'll get to the reason a little later. Fred has some unexplained love affair with the AMC Gremlin automobile. At one time I believe he owned four of them, never less than three in varied stages of disrepair. Fred is a fairly knowledeable Gremlin mechanic, albeit a bit careless. As I said in a previous story, parts were moved from one car to his Gremlin boat engine or to his other cars, depending on priority or which one could most easily be put into operation. The same applied to his one Florida license plate, and one auto liability policy. This haphazard attitude is reflected in most aspects of his life.

I'll begin with one incident that seems to typify Fred's outlook on what others feel might be important matters.
The guests arrived at Fred's house trailer early in the evening, to help celebrate his marriage to his second wife Carol. It was about 8:45, and the "blessed event" was scheduled for 9 o'clock. Dudley, the Justice of the Peace, arrived about half-smashed, in his red shirt and dirty jeans, the wedding ceremony booklet rolled up and stuck in his back pocket. At a minute or so before nine, Fred realized that another very important event was about to begin. So we sat and watched an episode of "All In The Family", while Dudley finished another beer.

From a purely physical standpoint, Fred was the best diver I had ever seen. He stands about 5 feet seven, and when I first met him was 150 pounds of pure sinew and stamina. For example, one sunny day between tank dives we snorkeled above the reef in 80 feet of crystal clear water. I watched as Fred free-dove to the bottom, standing there for a few seconds. When he rose half way to the surface, a large tiger shark swam beneath me and circled above him. He stopped underneath the shark for what seemed like a full minute, before it swam off. Where the rest of us would use three tanks on a day's dive trip, Fred would get the same bottom time out of a tank and a half of air. Unfortunately, he was subject to the same laws of decompression as everyone else, and it would ultimately cost him dearly.

Sometime in late 1971 or early 1972, Fred was diving alone in deep water off Sebastian and late in the day after his second or third tank, suffered a severe case of decompression sickness. (The Bends) Nitrogen bubbles in his blood stream lodged in vital portions of his brain, rendering him nearly helpless. By shear force of will he made it to shore in about three hours, and crawled up the ramp to the door of the marina. An ambulance took him to the only hyperbaric chamber available at that time in Cape Kennedy, 70 miles away. The marina operator called me at home and I met them as they wheeled him into the astronauts' hospital. Fred never ate anything during a days diving, and had been vomiting nothing but bile for a several hours. He was shriveled and grey from dehydration, and at 40 years old he looked 90! Two hours in the pressure chamber and a couple of liters of intraveinous fluids left him with only a slight jitter in his eyeballs, and things looked pretty good. I took him to my home on Merritt Island well after midnight, but he had a relapse at around 6 AM. I delivered him back to the chamber, where he underwent over 24 hours of compression and decompression. To this day Fred must limit his bottom time, because once you've been severely "bent", the next episode comes more easily.
The Late 60's

Me and Fred

Back in those early days, many divers legally used a "power head" to harvest large snapper, grouper and jewfish. This device was a heavy, contact-operated bullet chamber the size of a lipstick. It was attached to the end of a rubber-powered spear, and loaded with a .357 or .440 magnum bullet. It was most effective, but extremely dangerous in the hands of a less-careful person. Fred would never use the provided safety pin, as it slowed his firing time. Alone again and far offshore, while loading his powerhead he succeeded in blasting off his right index and middle fingers, including the knuckles on his fist. Shock nearly killed him, but he managed to stay conscious long enough to make it to shore. His skills as a draftsman had to be transferred to his left hand for quite some time during recovery.

Many of Fred's ideosyncrasies were not as dangerous, but exasperating nevertheless. He was obsessed with an unreasonable belief that every ounce of added weight on his boat, resulted in an exponential drop in fuel economy. It was a constant battle to bring along redundant equipment and supplies, as Fred was equally obsessed with the optimistic view that we would never need a spare or extra anything. Whenever I would ride along on his boat, I would suggest that I bring my fathometer and ship-to-shore radio as backups. A few undirected cursewords from the "captain" and the spares were left ashore. The same applied to extra fuel, as his mind briefly calculated distance/time/fuel consumption/wild guess.
On many occasions, the scenario unfolded something like this: One gallon of gasoline is left in the tank, and we are four gallons North and one gallon East of the inlet. Fred heads directly West, anchoring a hundred yards offshore near a well-occupied beach. Donning his mask, fins and snorkel, with a five-gallon can and plastic hose in tow, he swims ashore, siphons a few gallons of gas from an isolated car, and swims back to the boat. Other times as Fred steered through often-dangerous Sebastian inlet, I would be peering down into the gas tank, tilting it to direct the last few ounces of fuel into the pickup tube. "I told you so" never worked, so I didn't waste the effort. In his later years, he got the reputation for "crying wolf". Well offshore with plenty of fuel still in the tank, he would begin calling on his radio for a gasoline handout. The other boaters became wise to him, and would ignore his pleas. Not a good situation, if a real emergency ever arises.

Fred is a fairly handy mechanic, but I'm certain that he believes he can repair any electronic failure with an outburst of curse words and physical abuse. On more than one occasion when the spare equipment stayed ashore, Fred's fathometer would stop operating. When a few smashes to the case with his fist did not restore function, he would throw the device the full length of the boat, where the pieces could be kicked into the corner. If we couldn't find a commercial fishing boat to locate a good reef, the diving day was ended.

One beautiful day, my son Carl and I headed offshore with Fred to dive a reef 15 miles out. Fred's engine box was constructed of old aluminum road signs, and when we had gone about five miles we heard a slight "ping ping ping" from the engine. Removing ~No Left Turn~ and ~Speed Limit 35MPH~ revealed a frayed water pump belt slapping a few loose cords on the engine box. Now this belt had many good hours left in it, but Fred retrieved his one spare. He removed the old belt and tossed it overboard before fitting the new one, which didn't! Fit, that is! Now Fred is nothing, if not ingenious at times. He cut a hole in the bottom of a styrofoam cooler, and jammed it over the manfold water inlet. As we idled back to shore, we took turns pouring sea water into the cooler and through the hot manifold. We did manage to make a shallow water dive, so the day was not lost altogether.

When it came to diving equipment, Fred was the inveterate minimalist. During the first few years that I knew him, his back pack consisted of several cloth straps connected to two steel bands which held his tank. With no reserve on his regulator, he would stay on the bottom until his air ran out, getting a few more breaths on ascent as the ambient water pressure dropped. Anyone who wore a full wetsuit, a buoyancy compensator or a decompression meter was a "candy-ass". And heaven forbid, there should be any bright colors in your fins, mask or wetsuit, he would fall off the dock in a laughing fit. At the end of each diving day, all of Fred's equipment would be left on his open boat for days, with the hot humid Florida sun beating down to rot rubber and rust steel.

Now Fred did a lot of diving alone, and I maintain that there's nothing wrong with that. I have done it many times over the past 40 years. If you're in good health and take the needed extra safety precautions it can be as safe as diving with a buddy, and you only have to worry about yourself. The problem is that Fred was usually alone with his thoughts and actions, even in a crowd. He would often reboard the boat with a loaded speargun, sometimes with a bullet in the power head. On more than one occasion, he skewered his fuel tank or some other equipment.
One day while Eleanor and Dave were still on the bottom, Fred started his engine to drag the anchor loose from the reef. Eleanor was busy searching for shells, so Dave alone saw the speeding anchor miss her body by only a few inches. She could have been killed or severely injured, but Fred would usually scoff at the idea of real danger he might cause to someone else, and absolutely never apologized.
On another day, Fred and I were diving from my boat nearly 20 miles offshore. He finished his dive and returned to the boat, while I happily swam down the reef catching lobsters. When my air supply reached the turn-around point, I swam back to the anchor for the ascent to my boat. At the surface, my boat was nowhere in sight and in it's place, my anchor line was attached to a Clorox bottle. Even though he was not familiar with my engine, Fred had dumped the anchor line into the windy sea before trying unsuccessfully to start my boat. He got it started after 15 or 20 very long minutes, and his zigzag course finally found me. Although his intent was to save me the long swim back to the anchor, it could have been a bad night for me. After that, the ignition key went to the bottom in my pocket with me.

In all fareness, I did watch as Fred rescued one of our dive club members. Dr. Smith was free-diving above a wreck off Cape Canaveral, when he speared a large amberjack. The fish sounded in 70 feet of water, and the doctor had to let go of his gun. As he rose to the surface, he experienced "shallow-water blackout". This happens if you do a deep breathhold dive and depleat most of the oxygen in your lungs. As you rise toward the surface, the partial pressure of oxygen drops below 10% and you instantly lose consciousness. Fred fortunately was snorkeling from his own boat, and rescued our "safety officer" who was unconscious and motionless about 15 feet underwater. He undoubtedly saved his life, as noone else was aware if the situation.

Over the years Fred has been the victim of his own impetuousness on numerous occasions. He will often dive with an unsheathed knife in his net bag and once fell into Dave's boat, driving the knife two inches into his thigh. Several times he dove with his hearing aids still in his ears. A costly mistake indeed. I have seen him fall off the dock into oyster beds, walk off the dock carrying a tank on his shoulder, and unapologetically tear up other divers equipment through careless use.
Fred is now 70 years old, and hasn't changed one iota since I first met him 37 years ago. It's nothing short of a miracle that he is still alive and functioning. Dave continues to take him on his boat, but watches him like a hawk.
There's much more to Fred's World than I've told, but I'll leave him to rest in peace. I expected Fred to live to be a hundred, but he died in October, 2010 at 77.

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