It is only 7 AM and my teenage self can already feel the oppressive heat of the day building. With a push and a lunge I send my father's banged up flatbottom boat gliding into the water. I carefully step over hoses and buckets to take a seat on the front bench. With a squeeze on the fuel line bulb, Dad starts the oversized outboard motor. It coughs and chugs and belches a small cloud of smoke before settling down to a constant rhythm. I feel the lurch as he shifts it from reverse to forward, and the growl of the engine grows in volume as the boat drives out into the river channel.
The Tennessee River is almost a mile wide here, but Seven Mile Island splits it down the middle and so we move into the southern half. The water is still calm at this hour. There are no recreational boats out midweek except for the occasional sport fisherman, a menace in their too fast speedboats whose wake can be dangerous if they ignore the dive flag we hoist when we stop. Wilson Dam is only a few miles upstream, and Dad wants to get at least one good dive in before the turbines begin churning and the river current gets too strong.
We drift to a stop almost dead center in the channel. It is too dangerous to dive here alone, the massive barges laden with coal are confined to this narrow part of the river and could never stop before crushing a small boat with its mussel diver under the surface. Only days where he has a boat tender like me does my father attempt it. He pulls on the outer shell of his dry suit. Even though the heat of the day is climbing and the temperature will be in the high 90°F by lunch, Dad must wear this winter dive suit. The bottom of the channel, though only 20 or 30 feet below us, is pitch black from silt and freezing cold from the many ground springs that empty into the river from below.
I stand and balance myself in the middle of the boat before yanking the pull cord on the air compressor that will pump air down the reinforced hoses attached to my father's mouthpiece. The compressor rattles and shakes convulsively and does a poor job of concealing its constant need for repair. Dad rubs toothpaste inside his mask to prevent it from fogging up while I raise the red and white dive flag. Finally, after everything is adjusted, he buckles the heavy lead weight belt around himself and slides over the edge of the boat into the murky water. I hand an empty woven bag to him and buckle the second empty bag in the water at the front of the boat. Bubbles float to the surface as he lets go and descends into the darkness.
This is the worst part of the day for me. As my father crawls along the river bottom collecting mussel shells, I sit exposed to the sun and wait, occasionally glancing up and down the river to make sure no large boats or barges are coming our way. The first dive is always the longest. After this one they will be shorter and shorter until he reaches the limit for his body that day. I daydream about whatever most teenagers daydreamed about in the early 90s. After a long wait, a commotion at the front of the boat indicates that Dad has switched bags, leaving his now full first bag clipped up front and descending again with the second empty one.
I clamber forward and unclip the bag. It is so heavy that I struggle lifting it out of the water onto the deck. The dark, slick bivalves inside squirt water and clamp shut. The species I find in the bag tells me what kind of day we're having so far. If it holds the smaller Heelsplitters or Pigtoes we will not be here too long. They are worth so little that I will not even bother cleaning them. It is more cost effective to sell them live at the cheaper price than bother opening them up. But if the bag holds Washboards or Mapleleafs, or even better, the large Threeridge, I know we will at least cover our costs. These species demand much higher prices with their thicker and heavier opalescent shells.
Today the bag is full of the smaller, less expensive species. I sort through the measuring rings to find the appropriate gauge. Game wardens frequently check our haul and we must be careful not to keep any shell that does not meet a minimum size requirement for its species. By the time I have ringed the bag and thrown the discards over the side Dad has surfaced with the second bag. This time he does not go back down but hangs onto the edge of the boat and catches his breath.
"Cut the compressor off," he says. "They've already turned the dam on, let's try another spot."
As he climbs back into the boat and peels the top half of his dry suit down to light a cigarette, I ring the second bag. He drinks a can of V8 tomato juice and watches me.
"See any fish?" I ask. Sometimes in the gloom of the bottom Dad will startle a catfish out of its resting spot and it will race down the length of his body, both of them terrified.
"Nah, real dark down there. I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. Don't like that."
He brings the engine to life and we move out of the channel over to the island. Sloughs and inlets break up the low-lying and forested land. We pull up into one of the larger ones, now out of sight of the other boats on the river. Sometimes beds of Mapleleafs or Three Ridges will collect in the calm waters here. Dad also likes diving in here because of the chance of finding arrowheads. This island used to be the center of a large American Indian culture and the river often washes out artifacts they left behind. Thousands of pieces of broken clay pottery and partially worked flint can still be found in washes along the shore.
"Look going there," he says, nodding his head further up the slough as he zips up the dry suit again.
In the water about 50 feet in front of us a snake swims from bank to bank.
My dad chuckles a little, "Last week Jimmy was with me and one tried to crawl up the anchor line into the boat." He laughs louder, "I thought he was gonna fall out." This is the last thought he leaves me with as he slides back into the water and starts another dive. Nervous, I keep a close eye on the water around the boat. It only takes a few minutes to spot several other snakes, though all pretty far removed from our location. While most of the water snakes we have are not dangerous, the cottonmouth is and it can be very aggressive. After almost being bitten by one as a young child they make me more nervous than usual.
The compressor rattles and coughs, disturbing an otherwise peaceful scene of cranes fishing in the shallows and turtles sunning on logs. In the shallower water I can sometimes see the dark shape of Dad crawling across the bottom. A cloud of disturbed sediment trails behind him. I get more attentive when I see him move close to the bank and start digging around under the fallen tree that we saw the snake swim to earlier.
Protected by the island, the water here remains mostly calm, a murky green reflection of the trees overhanging the shore. When Dad comes up to switch bags he lifts something just above the water in his free hand. It is the propeller from a boat engine. On a regular basis we see flashy, expensive fishing boats racing across the river at top speed only to abruptly let out a high-pitched ping, spraying water in the air and drifting to a stop. This river flows over flooded farmland and the remains of forests and even towns. Stumps are everywhere just under the surface in shallow areas. Out of town fishing contestants lose their boat propeller on a regular enough basis that it is not uncommon for them to hire a local guide.
Sometimes a diver will come across less mundane items. Indian burials occasionally wash out after a big storm, spreading a trail of bones downstream. Rarely even, divers have found fresh bodies where a boat capsized in a winter storm. Though this last part is rare enough to not worry about, groping around underwater in the dark by touch only can make a diver nervous without much effort.
When Dad climbs aboard again, the sun is getting high. He leaves his full bag hanging from the front of the boat as he starts to strip down. Visibly tired this time, he takes a moment to catch his breath and drink another V8.
"Ring that next bag," he says between gulps, "there were a couple of nice Three Ridges down there."
I lift the heavy bag out of the water as I balance on the front deck. Most of the shells won't pass through the ring, and I set them aside to clean. To do this, I put one in my left hand with the hinge of the shell in my palm. My right hand slides the small thin blade of the dive knife in the crease of the shell just forward of the hinge on each side. There is a muscle here which the creature uses to shut the shell. Without slicing this muscle, it would be impossible to force the shell open. For these bigger shells, I'm careful when I open them because occasionally there will be pearls near the back in the folds of the fleshy meat. The pearls are almost always irregular and small, but occasionally a relatively round one can be found and these Dad saves in a small bag.
Flipping the flesh of the animal into the water, I sort the shells into buckets. Dad starts the motor and eases us closer to the bank under the shade of the trees.
"Let's eat lunch real quick and then I want to check a spot out at the end of the island."
Lunch is whatever we picked up at the gas station on the way in this morning. For Dad this will be a can of sardines and saltines washed down by V8 or Mountain Dew with a Little Debbie snack cake. I have my own Mountain Dew, and a can of Vienna sausages. This is our standard fare for outdoor excursions, portable, high calorie, and low cost. And about as bad for a person as a lunch could be.
After eating and peeing on the bank we take the boat back out into the main channel and head west. The water is noticeably choppier now, wind out of the West pushing against the oncoming current. The boat bumps and shakes as it cuts into the chop.
Dad lowers the throttle and shades his eyes as he looks downriver. "Well damn," he grumbles, "someone's already diving on that spot." I see another small boat, one even more banged up than ours, with a dive flag flapping in the wind. Dad glances at our buckets of shells and I know that he is doing some quick mental calculations. After the cost of gas and oil and food and cigarettes, do we have enough left over to call it a day? If not, how far is it to the next promising spot? What is the weather going to be like later in the week and is this our last day to dive until the weekend?
The wind picks up. Several miles west clouds have started to appear. "Looks like we are going to get rained on," I offer, hoping to help sway his decision, having tired of boat tending for the day. "Nah," he replies,"not for a little while at least." He opens up the throttle again and we circle back into another long slough separating two parts of the island. Wider than the last and more open to the West, the water here rolls gently in the wind. The sound of it lapping against the side of the metal boat is interrupted by the roar of the compressor starting.
Dive mask already on, Dad turns to me and asks me to keep an eye on the weather. "If it starts to rain or if you see any lightning in the distance tug the hose and I'll come back up." With a splash he is back in the water and his bubbles move forward of the boat. They move relatively quickly, and the boat follows behind, attached as it is to the ring on the back of his belt. He moves in a straight line and I know that there is nothing on the bottom of interest. Finally he slows and begins circling around the boat.
The clouds have already covered the distance to us. They block the blistering sun, and I'm grateful, but their arrival also marks another increase in the wind. When Dad surfaces next, he pauses and looks into the sky at the darkening clouds. Without a word he submerges again with the second empty bag. When I pull the full one up it is the heaviest yet. He must be on a good bed of shells, I realize, and I quickly empty the net into the bottom of the boat and clip it back. I ring and clean the mussels while constantly glancing downriver. The western horizon has darkened. Just as I finish the last shell Dad resurfaces and switches bags, sinking back into the murk. The second bag is equally full, and though several of the shells pass through the ring and must be discarded, the majority get cleaned and sorted. A peal of thunder rolls across the water and I kneel down on the front deck to grab the air hose. A few quick pulls and I return to cleaning shells.
The western horizon is now a purple line, and the water has a choppy gray color to it. When Dad comes up he argues that he is on a good spot, but I point to the approaching storm and tell him it has started thundering. Reluctantly he crawls into the boat. The distant boom of a second thunder emphasizes my point. I quickly pull the last bag into the boat as he coils the compressor lines. He doesn't wait for me to finish but cranks the motor and gets us underway.
The open river is agitated with heavy chop. As fast as he feels safe, and much faster than I do, Dad bounces across the waves. I toss any undersized shells overboard, but give up on cleaning the rest. The ride is so bumpy now I would be more likely to stab my hand than slide the blade into the shell. A fishing boat jets past us so fast it makes us appear as if we are standing still. I face the rear of the boat so that the spray from the bow hits my back. Looking past my father's wind-grimaced face, I can see an opaque wall of heavy rain behind us. "It's gonna be close," I shout and he glances at the approaching rain.
We have to slow as we turn out of the channel into the sheltered cove of the boat ramp. I can see several trucks and trailers lined up waiting their turn. As we coast to the bank Dad yells for me to switch places with him, and we carefully pass each other in the small boat. As soon as I hear the scrape of the metal hull on the rocky shore Dad leaps out and runs up the hill towards his Land Rover. I slowly back out into the water, silently hoping we can get the boat loaded before the downpour.
Another peal of thunder rolls across the water. With the boat idling I watch as first one and then another of the trucks back down the ramp and submerge their boat trailers. The waiting fishermen drift up and align their bow and then accelerate forward to push the boat onto the trailer. The wind shakes the trees violently when it is finally my turn. Fat raindrops are spreading concentric circles across the surface of the cove. As Dad reverses the rust-eaten Land Rover down the hill his boat trailer bounces and rattles. I do a quick circle in the boat and line up with the trailer as the rain begins in earnest. Sliding between the guide rails, the boat comes to a rest and I quickly kill the engine. The rain pounds down on my back as I lean over the front to secure the winch hook.
"Go, go, go!" I shout through the downpour and the Land Rover lurches the trailer and boat out of the water. We pull up under the relative cover of a shade tree and I leap out of the boat to take cover in the cab while Dad secures loose items in the boat. Slumping in the passenger seat I can smell a pungent mix of wetness and cigarette ash and coffee. The bang of the driver's-side door closing is followed by a sullen "Well damn" from Dad. "I was on a good spot there too," he complains.
We pull away, tired and lost in our own private thoughts. Though I know he will never work under a boss again, I secretly wish my father would return to the more steady work of the factory. The lean weeks in the winter, innumerable dangers he faces each day, and our constant struggle with solvency all would make a less stubborn man scoff at this way of life. But mussel diving is too independent for my Dad to give up. I glance over as he lights a cigarette, and I can tell from his forward lean and squinted eyes that he is already scheming for tomorrow. What spots to visit, and who might beat him to them, this is what he is focused on now. For him, and there is always tomorrow's treasure, tomorrow's big score. Later, as an adult, I'm more sympathetic to his independence. But for now I'm just wet, hungry, and tired.