By Dave McCracken

So you think you had a hard week, eh?

Dave Mack

 

Log PTWhat prompted this story was when a New 49’er member along the Rogue River last season flagged me down and handed me a copy of Skin Diver Magazine which was dated June of 1974. “You are in there!” he told me. I remembered the magazine article as soon as he handed me the magazine. I thanked him for the magazine, took it home and read it. Boy does that bring back some long-ago memories! The story was a reporter’s account of the “hell week” that I endured with 7 other young men during my fifth week of navy SEAL training (BUD/S), Class 76 in Coronado, California in early 1974.

Way back when the article was first published, I was pretty disappointed that the reporter did not do a very good job in describing how difficult the challenges were for us during that week. There were numerous events that we suffered through which the writer did not even talk about. Reading the article now, considering that he missed a lot of the events (because he was returning to a nice, comfortable hotel each evening to get a full night’s sleep), he did about as good as anyone could do who did not actually go through hell week as an active participant. Those of us that made it through, for the most part, seldom talk about it to others who have not gone through it. “Hell Week” in navy SEAL training is one of those things you can only fully appreciate if you do it.

Reading the article in Skin Diver prompted me to post it on our Internet Forum and challenge our members up there to guess how many of the pictures I am in. There was quite a bit of discussion and some guessing over this. In going back to look closer at the images to see who won my challenge, I came to the conclusion that each image was only a momentary snap shot of just one of many wild and dangerous adventures which took place during that week, not really doing the events much justice.

I’m not sure why it is; but as you start getting older, the major events that changed your life-direction forever become more important to you, and sometimes you want to share some of the interesting parts with those of your friends who are interested.

I am in the sharing mood at the moment. So if you are interested, I will refer back to the original story that was published in Skin Diver Magazine in June of 1974(My comments below will be in better perspective if you read the original story first), and I will add in some of the meaty stuff which the reporter missed altogether because he was having a nice dinner at the Hotel Coronado while several young guys were being given the test of a lifetime; something most people fortunately will never have to experience. Some of this will be a repeat of what I posted on our Internet Forum. Most of it will be new.

Since the writer begins with the subject of drownproofing, we might as well take that up first. I will never forget this terrified guy in the first group of trainees that was shoved into the pool during drownproofing (legs tied together hands tied behind his back) in just the first few days of hell week. It might have been on the first day. He panicked. Just the few times he managed to get his head above the water, he yelled “I quit!” The problem was that the only safe way to quit was to ring a special bell that was miles and miles away from the pool.

As this was just the first group in the pool (deep end), as an important object lesson to the rest of us, in a ritual that I’m sure they had performed many times during the past, all of the instructors lined up alongside the edge of the pool, lowered their heads as if at a funeral, and watched the guy drown. Eventually, after the poor guy (“quitter”) passed out and sank to the bottom of the pool, one of the instructors jumped in and pulled him out. Paramedics on the scene revived him and took him away in an ambulance. I was in the front of the next line of trainees, so I got to watch it all play out directly. This gave the term, “sink or swim” a whole new meaning! It was a very sobering experience. There would be many more. There was zero sympathy for quitters in this program!

Actually, the main purpose of the first phase of training was to push every student to quit. While there was other training going on, the main focus of the bigger first phase program was about quitting or not quitting. I suppose the idea was to weed out the undesirables before the serious training got started in phase two. The instructors were like wolves in the hen house, looking for any sign that someone was having second thoughts. When they found someone, they would pounce upon him with veracity to either get him out of the program or force him to reach deep down inside to find the indomitable spirit which everyone basically has. The instructors cheered in triumph every time someone quit. It was like a contest, leaving the never-ending question, “who will be next?”

Once we reached the pool during the first drownproofing event during hell week, nobody was given an opportunity to quit before getting shoved into the water. If you were going to quit, it was going to be in the deep end of the pool with your hands and feet tied!

This was a very serious business. Here is the object lesson, which has stuck with me my entire life: There really is no quitting; because if you give up, life will just run you over and over again until you finally stand up to it.

It was important to get drownproofing right in the pool. This is because, later in the week, we were shoved off a boat out in the Pacific Ocean several miles off of San Diego, hands and feet tied the same way, in full fatigues with boots on, in the middle of the night, for two, cold, winter hours. That was the coldest I had ever been in my life! But we were already down to about 8 determined young guys by then…

There is an image in the article of Master Chief Estok. Chief Estok was the meanest man I have ever met. In retrospect, he was on a personal mission to make certain that no trainee was allowed into the SEAL Teams that was not supposed to be there. You didn’t go to Chief Estok and tell him about your problems. That would be an invitation to the beginning of your departure from the training program.

Back to Skin Diver, I do not see myself in the image of the 50-foot cargo net. To me, this was the most difficult obstacle in the obstacle course, because it was about ¾ of the way through the course. By then, at least for me, my whole body was jelly and my lungs burned like they were on fire. As the article says, at least at that time, the course record was 6 minutes. My best time was 6:20 minutes, several minutes faster than the average time. That’s because I was going out there to practice during Sunday off-time. I worked out numerous gymnastic moves to get through the obstacles faster. But the one thing I could never master was descending the cargo net hand-by-hand without using my feet. My arms were not strong enough to take a chance at missing a grip and falling. So I was climbing down the back side of the net just like everyone else, which took a lot of time. I watched the course record holder, an officer by the name of Bob Baird, do the course one day. He was able to drop at least 30 seconds off his time by putting his feet out behind him, and using a hand-to-hand method of controlling a free fall from the top of the net. The guy was an animal!

One unfortunate guy fell off the top of the 50-foot cargo net in the obstacle course about mid-way through hell week. He got hurt pretty bad. They took him away in the ambulance that was always standing by. We never saw him again, either. There was not very much sympathy for students that allowed themselves to become too injured to continue. You either made it or you didn’t. Guys taken away with serious injuries seldom ever returned to BUD/S training.

Of special interest to any SEALs reading this, there was a young lieutenant JG in this class who had recently graduated from Annapolis Naval Academy. I will never forget how difficult it was for him on the first day we had to traverse the obstacle course (longest and most difficult in the world at the time). I just knew him as Mister Olson. This was just in the first day or two of of phase-one training in Class 76, long before hell week. There were a lot of guys who were not up to the obstacle course. Guys were quitting left and right, mostly prompted by aggressive instructors because they could not keep up, or because they had that “quitting look” in their eye.

The obstacle course came pretty easy to me because of my gymnastics background in high school. But others were having big problems with it on the first day. Mister Olson was one of them. I’ll never forget him hanging off the “Slide for Life,” about half way through the course. The “Slide for Life” was this long, long slightly descending rope that was strung between two poles. You had to up climb a 30-foot pole. Then, using your feet and hands, you had to shimmy your way all the way down to the other pole. It was a long way. When Mister Olson dropped from the rope (a long way) to the sand about half way through the obstacle, the instructors went into a frenzy trying to get him to quit. Instead, he got up and climbed the pole again and gave it another try. Then he fell off again; got up; and started to climb the pole. Rather than kill him off, the instructors told him to move on to the next obstacle.

Mister Olson was also spending Sunday afternoons practicing out on the obstacle course, and he mastered it in time for us to begin meeting the required times.

mud relaysTwo-man team in a relay race where we had to make summersaults over each other to roll our way through the mud. That was probably the fifth day into the grueling week. We were some pretty tired young men out there!

Back to Skin Diver, that image of the guy with the muddy face is not me. But it could have been any of us. We spent the better part of a full day later in the week doing relay races and different kinds of military reconnaissance exercises in the mud and in cold, shallow water.

One of the most common things the instructors impressed upon us in training is that “it pays to be a winner.” So, all throughout hell week, we were competing against each other for points in teams, and also as individuals. Those two guys who had accumulated the most points during the week were going to be freed from the final event of hell week – which was an all-night treasure hunt covering dozens of miles in search of “the next clue,” ultimately that would lead to the final destination the following morning, which was the end of hell week. So, points were important. We were working together, but we were also competing for points. The mud flats were no exception.

That is me on the left side of the log in the Skin Diver image. Note that I was the tallest guy in the class. Rod Long is the guy next to me. He was the shortest guy in the class. Can you see how he has to reach up to make contact with the log? This was because the instructors liked me. “No pain, no gain!” You had to take this kind of harassment with the right attitude, because they were testing you every minute of the day. There was no place for ego or a disappointment-attitude. There were no rights. There was no safety net. While we worked together, each one of us was completely on our own in the way we positioned personal identity in the training. Rod Long went through the whole week with a broken foot. He told me that it was the constant pain that got him through the week.

Log PTHere is an image of log PT that the reporter got earlier in the week, before so many guys had dropped out:

That’s me on the left in the hell week graduation photo (Skin Diver). There are only seven of us in the image, but eight of us survived the week. Seems like the eighth guy was being treated for some serious shin condition that happens when your feet are wet for long periods of time. Do we look tired or what?

That’s also me in the article kind of standing up in front of the raft during night rock portage. I will include another image below which shows it better. I was in the “bow man” position. Besides having to reach out in front of the raft with long, hard strokes to overcome heavy surf when launching the boat, my job during rock portage was to jump out of the boat onto the rocks with the raft’s bow line and keep the retracting waves from pulling the boat away. This way, the others could get out of the boat and onto the rocks, too – rather than end up getting washed into the water and smashed onto the rocks by the waves. Doing my part required split-second timing. I had to jump out of the boat just as it made contact with the rocks. It was not easy; because in the dark, I could not see what I was jumping onto. The image was snapped just as I was jumping out of the boat. Note that it was pitch dark out there, except for all the lights from parked vehicles on the beach that were shining in our faces, blinding our view.

Surf BoatI will never forget this night. The surf was strong; maybe 5 or 6-foot surging monsters that were breaking just before the rocks. Paddling out through the waves was nearly impossible, because the instructors deliberately waited until a big set was upon us before giving the order to launch. As hard as we paddled, every wave would push us back to where we were in danger of being smashed backwards onto the rocks. It was a sheer force of wills, us against unrelenting mother nature, requiring our combined total physical commitment to break through the waves. Once we got out beyond the surf zone, we had a moment to reflect upon the much more difficult and dangerous task ahead. We had to paddle back onto the rocks through that surf zone — in the dark!

Because it was dark out there, we were not able to see the size or location of the waves when we were paddling in towards the rocks. So we just had to accept whatever came along as we entered the surf zone. Anyone that has ever done any surfing, boogie boarding or body surfing knows the feeling of catching a wave. With these rubber rafts, in the dark, you had to paddle as hard as you could and just hope that the wave would pick you up, rather than crash down on top of you and swamp the boat. If the boat got swamped in the surf, you were a goner!

I will never forget the realization of riding on my destiny as we paddled into the surf zone on our first pass. But we were fortunate to be in just the right place at the right time; and this huge wave picked us up and swept us completely through the jagged rocks, totally ripping the bottom of the boat out in the process. We ended up on dry ground when I jumped out to do my bow man duty. There was a huge crowd of bystanders on the beach. They roared in applause, and the instructors went wild; I had never seen them more jacked up and pleased. “Now that’s the way you do it,” one instructor was congratulating us, over and over, again. We were rewarded by being ordered to knock out a few sets of pushups (30 per set). I was counting my blessings for being so lucky, because only part of that had to do with our performance. We were just in the right place at the right time.

The second boat was not so lucky. Another big wave caught them; but the coxswain was not able to keep the raft from broaching (turning sideways), and all the men got dumped upside-down by the wave directly onto the rocks. Several were then carried out into the water by the receding waves. Then the next wave crashed them right back on top of the rocks again. This happened several times until the instructors finally got them out of the water. Several guys got taken away in the ambulance. They were mangled! We never saw them again. Peterson lost all the skin off the palm of one hand. That had to hurt bad. But he never said a word about it.

Landing rafts on the rocks during a storm, in the middle of the night, is not for sissies. As soon as the ambulance departed and the crowd was pushed back, the instructors ripped into the remaining guys from the second boat crew for their failure and then made them paddle back out to do it all over again; only this time, they were made to use the boat that we had torn the bottom out of. If you ever tried to paddle a bottomless rubber boat out through heavy surf, you know they did not make it very far. The whole second crew ended up awash back onto the rocks. By this time, I think the instructors were feeling heat from the hundreds of onlookers who were watching the entire thing play out. The whole event was beyond brutal.

Rock PortageThat is me on the right, jumping off the front of the boat just as it was colliding with the jagged rocks.

To recover, they ordered our first boat crew to take the remaining good boat back out and show everyone how to do it the right way, again. Mister Olson was a heck of a good coxswain. Those bulky IBS rubber boats were difficult to keep from broaching when riding a big wave. I cannot tell you the number of times we broached and capsized during training. It was pretty common to broach in big, surging waves.

Notice in the images that there are only three of us in the boat? This was probably on the 3rd or 4th night of hell week. We were exhausted. But we did not want to get smashed on those jagged rocks like the other guys did. So we paddled like our lives were in the balance (they were). While our second landing was not as dramatic as the first, we did manage to catch another wave and tear the bottom out of the second raft, as well. There was another whole round of congratulations – meaning that we had to knock out a bunch of push-ups and sing some frogman songs for the onlookers. The three of us won a lot of points for that.

Demolition PitsWe were put through the live fire and demolition fields close to the last day of hell week. I used to have some wonderful images of the explosions going off on all sides of the rafts as we paddled to shore. I also had some images of us paddling out through 8-foot surging waves. Perhaps I can turn them up if I look a little deeper…

The main thing I remember about going through the demolition fields was that I could not manage the noise of the blasts. The instructors told us in no uncertain terms that we were not allowed to cover our ears with our hands. Doing so would be akin to quitting. They said covering our ears would cause pressure-differentials that could burst an ear drum. But I personally believe it is because they do not want a bunch of SEALs out in combat holding their hands to their heads to lessen the shock of intense combat. It’s better if the SEALs are toughing it out and shooting back!

To lessen my own ear pain, I followed directly behind Rod Long. Every time they told us to drop (prepare for more explosions), I ripped Rod’s legs apart and stuck my head between them. By this time in the week, our whole bodies were chaffed raw from never-ending wet, cold and the sand. I knew my helmet was just killing Rod (between his legs). He kept yelling back at me to stop. But every time they told us to drop, my head was between Rods poor legs, every time. Not that it did me any good. My ears are still ringing from that day, and I’m sure they will ring for the rest of my life.

The opening image of the Skin Diver article is me on the ropes. We knew nobody had ever made it all the way across. Chief Estok was using a jeep to loosen and tighten the hand rope, flinging some of us as much as twenty feet into the air. There were points for whoever flew up the highest, and more points for whoever made it closest to the far side, so we all gave it our best. This was mainly for entertainment of the instructors. They were having a blast! We were just doing our best.

eating lunchEating lunch: That is Scotty Lyon standing above us. If you look close, you can see that he has a cigar in his left hand. He used to smoke a cigar while leading the first phase soft sand runs! And those were some hard runs, too!

After the ropes, the instructors allowed us about 15 minutes to eat a box lunch down on the edge of the putrid demolition pit. For our eating pleasure, they tossed some smoke grenades into the water just in front of us. Nice!

Then they had each of us stand up in the stink-water and give a small talk on some subject; any subject. It was pretty hard for me to think of any story that late in the week, and I can only remember that mine was pretty lousy (no points). But Mister Olson stood up and provided a wonderful, detailed story about the life of the apple that he had been saving from his box lunch. Who would think that anyone could be so creative after being put through so much misery? Mister Olson won big points for that story!

Mister Olson Mister Olson giving his story.

The most difficult and traumatic event of the week was not even mentioned in the Skin Diver article. My guess is that the reporter was not invited to this one. It happened just after we had finished several hours of non-stop relay races in the pool on base. From there, it was only a short run (we ran everywhere with rafts on our heads) over to an indoor basketball court (competitive hardwood floor). This is where we went into a one-on-one basket ball tournament. We stripped down to just our bare feet and bathing suits. The game was simple. Whoever sunk the first five baskets anywhere on the full court was the winner. The only rules were no biting, no hitting in the face, and no kicking in the balls. Anything else was allowed. One game was played at a time. The rest of us watched. This event was managed by Scotty Lyon. While we did not know it until later, there was an object lesson he wanted to teach us that had nothing to do with basketball.

Scotty Lyon was the ultimate navy SEAL. He had a long history of running covert operations in many of the hot spots where the U.S. had an active interest (some places where the interest was “unofficial.”) Scotty was the officer in charge of first phase BUD/S training during the time when I went through. He was the person who set the standard that you had to meet if you expected to make it into second phase. The standard was nothing short of actually becoming a navy SEAL, even though you had not finished the training, yet. To make it, you had to demonstrate that you were just as tough and committed to the SEAL standard as the instructors; that you would never quit; that you would always be on time; that you would always be as prepared as possible; that you were always ready to cope when things went wrong (as they usually do), that there were no excuses for failure; and that when the situation demanded it, you were willing to do anything to come out on top.

Scotty was the first adult-figure in my life that acknowledged to me (without saying it) that I could make something meaningful out of myself. Training under him changed my life forever. I was lucky.

This particular event happened sometime around mid-week, so we were some pretty exhausted guys. I had played some one-on-one basket ball in high school with my friends, but I was never good enough in basketball for competitive sports. Most of the other guys were not very good at basket ball, either. That is, except for Peterson, who was a first string player on his all-state high school basket ball team. Peterson could sink nearly every basket from the outside!

With single elimination, it did not take that long for it to get down to just Peterson and me in the final play-off. Looking back on it, I figure Scotty Lyon had it all out planned this way from the beginning. It was going to be the best out of three games. Peterson made short work out of me (5-to-0) on the first game. Then Scotty stopped everything and re-explained the rules to everyone present. The doors to the basketball court were closed and it was just me and seven other students and just a few instructors. Scotty then made it abundantly clear that the event was not about basket ball; it was about winning against all odds. When I tried to tell him that I did not want to hurt Peterson, my objection was forcefully overruled and he said that I was to win on whatever terms were necessary, as long as I did not bite, kick Peterson in the balls, or smash him in the face. This was not a request. It was, perhaps, one of the main object lessons of the entire week.

There was no way I could compete with Peterson in basketball with any chance of winning. We both knew that. Peterson’s mistake was jumping up for the ball when Scotty Lyon tossed it up and blew his whistle (the typical way a basket ball game is started). Peterson got the ball, and I brought him down into a full body slam on the hardwood floor, as hard as I could. It had to hurt, because it took him so long to get up, I had my five baskets sunk before Peterson was back in the game.

The score was one-to-one, and everyone knew that the whole game had changed. This was the ultimate training in unconventional warfare. This was about coming out on top no matter the cost. Scotty Lyon had set us free and ordered us to make war on a basketball court.

Sometime during the second game, the small toe on my right foot got dislocated and was sticking out kind of sideways in a strange-looking direction. All of us had long-since passed the pain threshold to where pain just did not matter anymore (but physical exhaustion mattered a lot). Scotty had one of the instructors tape it to the second toe so we could get on with the final play-off.

Scotty ordered the other 6 trainees to perform doing cheer leading for the final game. Mister Olson was leading the cheers. While I was challenged with my own situation, I was amazed that Mister Olson could come up with cheer leading chants on the spot under those circumstances. He created them out of the frogman tunes we sung on our long runs. It was all so surreal!

On the initial toss in the final game, Peterson did not make the mistake of jumping for the ball, again. He faced off with me (smart). So the ball knocked off of one of us and bounced off towards the side of the court. Since there was nothing present for us to fight over, Peterson decided to chase the ball. After all, he could sink baskets from wherever he got the ball in his hands. As Peterson was a formidable opponent in any game, I was thankful that he was still playing basket ball. He never reached the ball. With the last of my physical reserves, I chased him down, caught him at a full run, and put him into a full-on body slam to the floor as hard as I could, once again. He didn’t get up. I was so winded; it took me about ten tries to sink 5 baskets. Maybe 15 tries. I won major points, but they were not celebrated by anyone. Even the other instructors were shocked at the brutality that I had unleashed upon one of my fellow students. It was grossly unfair to Peterson. Afterwards, Scotty gave us a short lecture that there is nothing fair in unconventional warfare. You win. End of story.

Peterson was hurt, but he still made it through the week, and through the training. We served in a platoon together after we were in the Teams. But there was always some distance between us after that day. Can you blame him? He was on the receiving end of unconventional war from me, unleashed by Scotty Lyon. I was lucky that Peterson wanted to win by sinking baskets. Had he switched gears, as I had, and faced off with me in all-out war, maybe neither of us would have survived hell week on that basket ball court. That would have been true with any of the other guys remaining in our class.

PetersonI’m pretty sure this is Peterson.

For me, this was one of those things you do in your life that you can never forgive yourself for. Peterson was my friend. But we were pawns in a bigger game that we both had signed onto. Scotty Lyon told me clearly that he expected me to win at any cost, so that’s what I did. If I did not incapacitate Peterson, chances are likely that he would have won the game. I was working on almost zero physical reserves. Putting him down hard was the only way I was sure to follow Scotty’s order. All things considered, if I had a chance to go back and do it all over again, I would not change anything. Sometimes life forces you to make very difficult, painful decisions.

Navy SEAL training taught us to think unconventionally – kind of in an “anything goes” sort of way. Mainly, we were taught to always arrive on time, get the job done, and get home again. We were taught in SEAR school (POW survival school with water boarding) to never get caught. Once in the Teams, when we ran operations against other SEAL platoons, you never wanted to get caught – because they would torture you (just for getting caught)! I’m serious about this; SEALs hold each other to a very high standard.

Racing in the mudThat’s me on the right, then Mr. Olson, then John Masters, then Peterson. We would have been racing hard against the other four remaining guys.

As part of our unconventional thinking ahead, Peterson and I drove my motorcycle into San Diego a few days before hell week and rented a full bottle of helium. We used that (when the instructors were not looking) to fill our rubber rafts during hell week to make them lighter. We did not have any cars at the time. So I drove my motorcycle with Peterson holding a full bottle of helium on the back. To us, it was just another exercise (we could have swam the helium across the San Diego bay if we needed to), but it sure got us some surprised looks when we took the highway bridge over to Coronado.

Peterson and I also used my motorcycle to drive miles and miles down the silver strand and bury stashes of chocolate and brandy, so our boat crews could secure a little bit of sugar and warmth during the multiple very long paddles and marches (with helium-filled rafts) down that way during the week. Looking back, it was probably more about getting away with something forbidden by our masters, than a nice shot of warm brandy when we were beyond freezing. Maintaining some indomitable spirit under the circumstances was part of the unconventional thinking the training placed upon us: Anything goes, but don’t get caught!

After notes:

  1. Mister Olsen and I had accumulated the most points at the end of the week, so we both were freed from the last grueling event. All of the others made it through. They reported that it was pure hell. I’m sure it was!

Second Phase ClassSecond phase class: These were the guys I went through second and third phase with. The image was taken while we were doing heavy weapons training out at Niland, California. I’m the handsome young man standing in the truck.

  1. I pulled a groin muscle during a run a few days after hell week on a soft sand run that was being led by Scotty Lyon. Even though it meant getting cigar smoke in my face, I always positioned myself in Scotty’s footprints in the sand. This injury probably would have been alright; except that in BUD/S training, you do not have the option to stop everything and try to explain that you are injured. So I kept running until it was so bad that I was pretty-much hobbling along on a single leg. That’s when Chief Estok asked what the hell was wrong with me in his normal very derogatory manner. I told him “nothing.” Scotty heard the exchange and stopped the run. Then he told me to ride along in the ambulance. I figured that was the end for me. But since I had survived hell week, the training unit kept me hobbling around on crutches while I healed. Rod Long was also rolled back to following class with his broken foot. So we eventually graduated with a different bunch of guys that made it through a different hell week. About half the guys from my original class, including Mister Olson, were transferred to other places, and I never heard from them or saw them, again.BUD/S class 77

Graduation ceremony from BUD/S class 77.

3. Rod Long, John Masters and I ended up in a platoon together (with Peterson) and covered a lot of ground together in the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, and in other exotic places. We were present during the American extractions from Viet Nam and Cambodia. Have you seen those old history clips of the military helicopters unloading people onto American ships and then being shoved off into the sea? We were there. I have kept in touch with Rod Long over the years, and several other SEALs that I served with. But we pretty much have all gone our own ways.

  1. Mister Olson went on to become a highly-decorated admiral in the U.S. Navy; and last time I checked, continues to serve as one of the most respected leaders in the history of the SEAL Teams and Special Warfare Group. I encourage you to read about him here. Even as a young lieutenant JG so many years ago, he was one of the best men I have ever met in this life. There have been a few others. But I will save them all for another story.
  1. I’ll bet BUD/s training these days is just as challenging, or perhaps even more so, as it was when IHelmets went through. Here is an image sent to me by my old SEAL buddy, Don Stevens, showing a line of helmets (each from someone who dropped out) of a recent BUD/s class. We should all appreciate the young men who are actively fighting for our freedom. They don’t do it for money. They do it for honor, for adventure, for each other; and because the structure provides an opportunity for young men to achieve personal greatness and direction in their lives. Most of all, they do it for God and country.

Note: This story was just about a single, special week that was part of a 6-month training program (now longer, I believe). While there was only one “hell week,” every week was hell. We had to exercise our skills against the instructors during the second phase of training — where the emphasis changed from “quitting” to performing. Making it through hell week was just a step. The standard is so high in this training, I doubt if any student ever took it for granted that he would graduate into the Teams until the SEAL Trident was actually pinned on his uniform!

 

By Dave McCracken & Don Stevens

Have you ever felt like you were way the heck out there all by yourself?

Dave Mack

 

Young DaveDave: Have you ever fallen in love? I mean really falling in love so deep that almost nothing else in your life is even important, anymore? It is a place where the only thing on your mind is wanting to be with the other person. You experience loneliness when the other person is not present; even if it is on just a short trip down to the store. You experience deep fear that the other person will lose interest in you. All you want to do is just be with your lover, together, in happiness.

The first time that ever happened to me was on my initial visit to Hong Kong. I fell head-over-heals in love with a young, beautiful Chinese girl. Her name was Suzy Wong. She was the loveliest creature I had ever laid eyes on!

“I suppose, in early 1975, I would have been willing to swim all the way across the pacific ocean for my first true love!” — Dave Mack

This all happened shortly after I graduated from Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training (BUD/S) in San Diego. I had just turned 20 years old. I attended Airborne training at Fort Benning (an army school in Georgia where they taught us how to jump out of airplanes at low altitude), and then a special SEAL training school (where they taught us how to jump out of all sorts of aircraft (skydiving from high altitudes with special gear to support SEAL operations). I was a SEAL attached to Under Water Demolition Team 12; and our platoon was soon off on a 7-month tour of Asia, mainly in support of America’s withdraw from Viet Nam and Cambodia. Since America was not yet ready to perform the evacuations, we were attached to an amphibious assault ship, and we spent most of those months traveling around Asia. We actually did not know the war was coming to an end (that was classified). As far as we knew, we were training to go to war. A lot of our activities were based out of Subic Bay, Philippines (A wonderful place, from where I am actually writing this story). We also visited other locations, including Singapore and Hong Kong.Hong Kong

It was in Hong Kong where I met my first big love. Our ship anchored itself way out in the middle of Hong Kong harbor. It was February and March of 1975. We were there for 10+ days of rest and relaxation (R&R). Since our SEAL platoon was only transporting around on the ship, we did not have to stand any watches on the ship and we had no duties to perform there. So our SEAL platoon was given permission to take the entire 10 days off. Our only requirement was that we had to check in with the ship’s Master at Arms at the pier every morning at 9 AM. Since most of the guys in our platoon had rented a hotel room together in Hong Kong, it was permissible for just one of us to check others in with the Master at Arms, as long as we knew where the other persons were.

Others in our platoon had been around a lot longer than me, so they already knew where to go in Hong Kong. This was a special bar where guys from the Teams met up during the evening. I don’t know how these places are established. But it is common to have a single bar in each port of call where Teams guys meet up when in town. These special locations seldom change. This was also true in the Philippines, in Saigon, and I am sure in many other places. So I found myself in the bar during my first evening in Hong Kong. Most of the guys from my platoon were already there when I arrived and the party had already started.

As places go, this was a friendly bar. There were some attractive waitresses who were very hospitable. There was a dance floor out in the middle of the bar where a few sensual dancers were putting on quite a show. One of the guys from our platoon got dragged out onto the floor and the girls seduced him into the action, all to the cheers and encouragement of the onlookers. I was just trying to be inconspicuous, much too shy to perform (or get performed upon) in front of any audience. This was all new and shocking to me. After all, I had been afraid of attractive girls my whole life! I was alright with watching. Luckily, I did not have to participate. I say this with meaning; because if the guys in my platoon knew that I was bashful with women, they most certainly would have forced me to become the main performance. That’s just the way it is in the Teams!

Somewhere in the middle of all that action, this lovely creature introduced herself to me as Suzy Wong. Many years have passed, now; but I recall that she was about my age (in years, but way past me in life-experience), perhaps a year or so older than me. She was very attractive to me, very feminine. She had a very comfortable way of positioning me as the dominant in the relationship. This is something common in Asia; where a woman instinctively places the man in the dominant, masculine position. It is hard to put this into language, because it is mostly about emotional chemistry. The best I can describe it is that Suzy recognized my masculine side in a way that had never happened to me before. It was a side of me that had always been there, but it was Suzy that pushed the button and brought it out. It felt so good to be a man in this woman’s eyes. This happened the moment we met. It was as if we knew each other for our whole existence. Positioned this way, all my normal shyness was gone and it was wonderful to talk with her and just to be together. We fit together like yin and yang.

I was in love!

Suzy worked as a waitress in the bar; but she was permitted to sit with me as a customer provided that I was buying her drinks. That was easy; I just bought her drinks, which she sipped slowly, until it was time for the bar to close.

I was invited to spend the night in Suzy’s apartment long before the bar closed at 2 AM. Before parting ways with my Team buddies, I arranged with one of my Team mates (Bob) to check me in at the pier in the morning. He promised to do it. Then there were plans to meet back up on the following evening at the same bar.

Suzy lived in a very small studio apartment that was located several stories up in a larger building which was overcrowded with people and onlookers. Everyone was speaking in another language, so I had no idea what was being said. But I remember lots of disapproving looks from elderly women as Suzy took me into her room. There was a lot of chatter, mostly which Suzy just ignored.

I had never been in bed with a woman before and didn’t really know what to do. This did not matter. Once in her single-room apartment, Suzy insisted on fully undressing me. Then she took me into the shower where I was washed cleaner than I had ever been in my life. Then she took me to bed and taught me all about the physical expression and sharing of love. It came natural to me and I just went with the flow. Suzy knew how to do everything in a way that allowed me to be in the masculine roll. I had never experienced these feelings before. It was a night truly in heaven. I was overwhelmed with joy and love. It was wonderful!

The following day, Suzy showed me some of Hong Kong. We took a boat tour. We traveled to the border of China and looked over the fence from a vista point. China was off limits in those days. So it looked like a really dangerous place. It was all very new and exciting for a young guy from Waterford, Connecticut. We were having a great time!

That evening found us back at the bar where my platoon officer told me that I was in “big trouble” with the Ship’s captain for not checking in at the pier that morning. I was listed as AWOL (absent without leave). This is a very serious offense in the military. So I went over and asked my Team mate, Bob, what happened. He explained to me and my platoon leader that he was supposed to, but forgot, to check me in at the pier that morning. Once he understood the situation, my Team officer told me not to worry about it; not to bother going to the pier the following morning; to enjoy myself with my girl; Dave and Suzyand that he would straighten out the whole mess and check me in at the pier on the following morning. I asked him if he was sure, because I did not want to be in trouble. He told me not to worry about it.

Suzy Wong and a young Dave Mack on our second night in Hong Kong. Do I look “love-struck” or what?

So I went off and spent another incredible night and day with my wonderful lover. All I can say is that this relationship became the most important thing in my life. Being together with Suzy Wong was the main thing that mattered to me. I was experiencing the most joy and pleasure of my life. I had never experienced such meaningful and wonderful feelings before. I was in love, and I wanted it to go on forever.

When we got to the bar on the third evening, there were MP’s standing by to escort me back to the ship. My officer was also there (the MP’s arrived there with him). He said that he was not able to resolve the problem on the pier, and that I was now classed as 48 hours AWOL. The longer you are AWOL, the worse it is. At some point, it turns into being a “deserter.” This was a very serious problem! My officer agreed to accompany me and the MP’s back to the ship and try and straighten out the whole mess with the captain. We left in such a rush; I only had a very short moment to tell Suzy that I had to go back to the ship. I told her that I would be back. She seemed concerned. Then we were gone.

Once back on the ship, my military ID card was taken away, and my R&R was cancelled for the remainder of our time in Hong Kong. My officer told me that he had done his best, but the ship’s captain did not want to hear any explanations. The Captain was going to schedule a Captains Mass (disciplinary hearing) where we would be allowed to present explanations. But that would not happen until after we departed Hong Kong. I was restricted to the ship. End of story!

Have you ever experienced a panic attack? I am not a specialist in this sort of thing; but I now have enough life-experience behind me to have gone through several emotional upsets that were so severe as to push me over the edge. I know others who have also experienced this. I have personally experienced two kinds of panic attacks. One is from overwhelming fear that comes on suddenly (like in drowning). The other type is when a very serious set of unreasonable circumstances were forced upon me. The internal feeling is similar in both types of circumstances; it is not being able to emotionally manage what is happening to you (to me).

In other words, stuck on that ship by no fault of my own, without even being able to say a proper good bye to the love of my life, I totally freaked out! There were no cell phones in those days. I had no postal address for Suzy. Stuck on that ship, there was no way for me to ever even see her again!

By “freaking out,” I don’t mean that I got violent or loud. Although, that might have happened if they had locked me up in the brig. This was something emotional: I could not accept the reality of being stuck on that ship! Internally, I was spinning around in circles!

We still had the better part of a week of R&R to go in Hong Kong when I got restricted to the ship. It would have been bad enough if the ship had steamed off to some other destination. But it was anchored right there in the harbor, not much more than a mile from where I really needed to be. The situation was just so unbearable; I could not live with it! What do I mean by this? I mean that the only option I could live with was to do something about my circumstances.

Don: When we got to Hong Kong, I had only known Dave for a short while. This was because I had been transferred to his platoon from an active Swimmer Delivery Vehicle (SDV) unit in Asia just a few weeks before. SDV’s are small manual-controlled wet-submarines which navy SEALs use to sneak around in. Most of the information is classified.

Cast and RecoveryThis was my 4th deployment overseas and my enlistment was coming to an end. I was discharged in Subic a short time later and then went to Singapore for a diving job with Oceaneering International.

Here are Dave and another SEAL practicing out in the South China Sea “Cast & Recovery” in 2-man teams from a high-speed boat.

I had spent enough time with the platoon to know that Dave was a good SEAL operator and well-respected by the rest of the guys in this platoon. Even though the war was coming to an end in Viet Nam, we devoted nearly all of our time to training so we could be prepared to do anything that was asked of us. As far as we knew at the time, we might have ended up playing some sort of combat role. So we trained hard in all of the SEAL disciplines of that time period.

This was not my first (or last) tour in Asia, and I had already spent plenty of time in Hong Kong. I was not much interested in doing the night scene with the other guys there, so I was spending most of my evenings on the ship.Ambush

On about the 3rd or 4th day we were there, Dave came to me with his plan. One of Dave’s closest friends, John Masters, was going to go in on the liberty boat and bring a set of clothes and shoes for Dave. He was going to position himself almost directly across from where the ship was at anchor out in the harbor, just in front of a tall building a short distance upstream from a yacht club that we could see in the “Big Eyes” (The “Big Eyes” were a huge set of binoculars up on the top deck of the ship which we were allowed to use). Once there (after dark), John would signal to Dave on the ship that he was present. We had special signal flashlights that we used specifically for this purpose.

Another of Dave’s close team mates, Bob Johnson, was not planning to go on shore that evening. Bob had agreed to lend Dave his military ID card. If you were picked up in Hong Kong in those days by any authority without an ID card, you were going straight to jail! Bob and Dave did not look anything alike. But with some improvising, the ID card might help Dave get back onto the liberty boat in case he decided not to swim back to the ship.

Dave’s plan was to strip down to just his bathing suit and swim to the yacht club, meet up with John, get dressed in civilian clothes, go say a proper good bye to his girl and get contact details. Then, his initial plan was to go back to the yacht club with John, strip back down to just a bathing suit, and swim out to the ship. My part in the plan was to lower the rope over the side of the ship so he could climb down and enter the water quietly. Then I was to lower the rope down again exactly at 2 AM so Dave could climb back up onto the ship. It was about 30 feet to the deck from the water. So a rope was definitely necessary if he wanted to get back on board undetected.

While Hong Kong was a friendly port, it’s not like you can leave a rope hanging off the side of a military ship so just anyone could climb aboard! We were in a war (which we were losing). There was a small company of marines assigned to the ship, and they were providing day and night security patrols that were watching the sides of the ship to make sure we were not boarded. If we left a rope Hong Konghanging over the side of the ship, these marines certainly would have found it. That would have created a full alarm. So as soon as Dave was in the water, I needed to pull the rope back up. Only at 2 AM sharp would he have another opportunity to get back up the rope.

If you look close, you can see part of the breakwater that ends in front of the tall building. John’s signal was supposed to originate from the shoreline near the front of the building.

To an average person from the civilized world, what Dave proposed to do in his plan would be wild and crazy. That’s the reason Dave was not in the ship’s brig; nobody in authority ever even considered that someone would swim to shore from the middle of Hong Kong Harbor! But we trained in this sort of thing all the time. The ship was only about a mile out in the harbor. That was not much. We trained to do similar missions on 5-mile swims. In SDV’s we were doing similar missions from very extended distances. We were training to board (and do other things to) ships that were under full steam. This ship was just sitting at anchor. Unless something went seriously wrong, this was a pretty easy program for Dave. The main thing he wanted from me was a commitment to have the rope over the side at 2 AM. He did not want to swim out there and have no way to board the ship! I told Dave he could count on me to do my part, and I meant it.

Dave: John had departed on the liberty boat several hours before. It was dark, so I was just waiting for his signal. I had to watch closely, because it was going to be originating from about a mile away. There were lots of lights in Hong Kong at night. John’s signal was going to be from just a small flashlight. I was watching closely.

Since we had never been to the place before, we were not even certain that John could reach the shore in the planned location. It was in front of a tall building that was right next to some kind of yacht club. We could see that the yachts were moored behind a very long rock breakwater (like a jetty that was parallel to the shore). John was supposed to signal me from a location up towards the end of the breakwater. But we were not sure if he could even get to that spot without entering the water himself (which was not part of this plan). Maybe the place was inaccessible. Maybe there was security. Maybe he could not get there.

If John’s signal never came, it meant the operation was cancelled for that night. Then I would go to work on a new plan for the following night. If the signal came, it meant that he would continue signaling until I arrived. You have to place quite a lot of faith in your fellow Team mates in these situations. Imagine if John signaled and I never arrived. Would he wait for me all night? Imagine if he signaled and then left before I arrived? There I would be in Hong Kong with no clothes! But none of us ever worried about the other doing his part. It was part of the SEAL culture: You always do your part, and you never quit!

Don: Taking my part of Dave’s mission seriously, as soon as it was dark, long before John’s signal was due, I went up and cased out exactly where Dave should go over the side of the ship. It was in this little hidden nook behind some gear on the deck. There was just enough room there to tie off the rope and slip Dave over the side. I was mainly worried about the marines who were patrolling the deck of the ship. We had to get Dave over the side without them seeing him. There could be no delays or noise. About 15 minutes before John was supposed to begin his signals, I went up to the place, tied the rope off, and had it carefully coiled so we could drop it off the side and it would come just short of the water. Everything was ready. Dave would just have to go over the side once he got the signal.

Dave: I figured while John would do his best, there was at least a 50% chance that he would not make it to the pre-arranged destination. This was a foreign country; a place we had never been to before. We did not know our way around. He was going to have to try and get a taxi driver to take him to a location that he could not even name. The location was quite some distance from the pier where the liberty boat was dropping us off. A lot of the taxi drivers did not even speak English. It was a tall order for John to get himself to the designated place on time!

Amazingly, John’s red flashlight signal started blinking in exactly the right place at the exact time that we had agreed upon. I had to look twice to make sure it was him. This was coming from the shore line about a mile away. Once I committed to going over the side of the ship, there was no turning back. I had to be sure. Might something else cause a steady red flashing from over there? I decided John was signaling. The mission was a go!

Don was just waiting for me to decide that I was going to go. I quickly discarded my clothes while Don dropped the rope down to the water’s edge. I handed the clothes to Don and went quietly over the side of the ship, lowered myself down, and slipped quietly into the water. The water was freezing! I had not planned on that! It was also moving swiftly with the outgoing tide. I had taken the outgoing tide into consideration, but had not planned on the water moving so fast!

The ship was using powerful spot lights at night to illuminate the water-area surrounding the ship. We were at war. There was a complete circle of smaller vessels surrounding our ship. They were out there about 100 yards. It is a long time ago, but my perception was that these were venders hoping to sell us cheap goods. All of the area between the ship and these boats was lit up by the spot lights. This was the zone I had to traverse carefully so I would not be seen by the ship’s crew or marine sentries.

We had trained extensively for this. I had to swim as far as I could underwater, then come up very slowly and quietly, with my face turned away from the lights, to get another breath of air. I could only take a single breath. This was to avoid becoming an object on the water’s surface long enough that could be identified (If someone spotted me, when they took a second look, I would not be there anymore, and then they would not be sure what they saw, if anything…).

This was not easy.

Don: Our timing was bad, because a young marine came around the side of the ship just as Dave slipped over the side, entered the water and disappeared from the surface. The marine was very alert, and wanted to know what the heck was going on. I calmly explained the honest situation to the guy. He had just caught a glimpse of Dave as he went into the water. We both watched for a while, and we might have seen Dave come to the surface just for a moment quite a ways out from the ship. Since the marine’s job was to make certain that foreigners were not boarding the ship, he was sympathetic to Dave’s plight and agreed to meet me just before 2 AM to help Dave get quietly back on board. This was very lucky; because someone else might have sounded the alarm and we would have been in a lot of trouble. It goes to show you how American fighting men, for the most part, stick together on the smaller things when someone else is doing something that does not pose a danger to the overall mission.

The marine was impressed, but not surprised, that one of our SEALs would pull a stunt like this. We had gotten to know a lot of the marines riding this ship. They were some pretty good guys. They were watching us train out on the water nearly every day. Your average person views deep, dark water as a dangerous place to go. Because we spend so much time there, SEALs view deep, dark water as a safe place of refuge. Both the marine and I knew that Dave was not in much danger out there in the dark.

Dave: Once I was in the water, there was only one direction to go. That direction was easy, because of the blaring lights from the ship behind me. Even though I was swimming along at about 10 feet beneath the surface, I felt like I was totally exposed by the bright lights. I swam as hard as I could to put distance between me and the ship. The hardest part, as always, was to gain as much distance as I could, and then rise to the surface for air without making any splashes or surface disturbance; none. Even though I was holding true to the single-breath discipline, it felt like there must be 100 sailors and officers watching me from the ship. “Man, was I going to be in big trouble;” this was what was on my mind!

Taking a single breath when you are absolutely starving for air is one of the most difficult disciplines we trained in. The trick was to not push yourself to the point of passing out. But if there was some hostility on the surface looking for you, you had to push it as hard as you could to put distance between you and the enemy. We trained in this technique even with our hands and feet tied. It was nothing new to me. But I was terribly worried about those bright lights staring down at me from the ship!

The Chinese guys on the smaller boats surrounding the ship never even saw me, even though I was within several yards of them when taking several of my breaths. I certainly could see them, comfortable and warm up on their boats. But the last thing on their minds was going to be some guy swimming around out in the middle of Hong Kong Harbor after dark. Asking one of them to give me a ride to shore was out of the question. That would have caused a disturbance that might have alerted the ship.

I slipped quietly under their boats and maintained the single-breath discipline so as to not set them off. Once I was distant from them, I came to the surface and took a careful assessment of my situation. It was not good. The outgoing current was moving much faster than I had planned. I was being swept out to sea! My only hope was to reach the long breakwater that was protecting all the moored yachts. That breakwater was about a mile long. John was on the upstream end. I had drifted so far out with the current; I could not see his red signals, anymore. That was very worrisome. Still, there was only one direction for me to go. I had to reach the breakwater. If I missed that, I would be swept out into the South China Sea.

The water was freezing! We did a lot of cold water work in the SEALs and especially in BUD/S training. Just like hunger, exhaustion, fear, oxygen depletion and severe pain, we had trained in being able to flick an internal switch to turn those kind of intense feelings off and just move ahead.

What else could I do?

My only hope at that point was to switch gears into a full overhand crawl stroke to reach the end of the breakwater. I had to swim as hard and fast as I could. I still had a good half-mile to go. It was hard to keep up the pace. So I stopped every once in a while to look at my progress. I could see the lights on shore sliding by as the tide washed me out to sea. I pushed harder. It was going to be difficult to make my target!

About a quarter-mile away from the breakwater, a huge junk (Chinese boat) came motoring down upon me with the current. I had to stop my swim to keep from being run over by the boat. As they passed by, I could see a bunch of guys peering intently over the side of the junk, trying to figure out what they were looking at that was splashing around out there in the water. It was dark out there! When I asked them in English if they would give me a ride to shore, I thought they were going to go crazy up there on the boat. The last thing they expected to see was some foreigner swimming around out there at night. They exploded with all this chatter in Chinese. Nobody extended any hands down to help me out of the water. Since we were moving along swiftly with the tide, I decided to take my chances by swimming for it. I swam as hard as I could.

I managed to reach the slack water just behind the end of the break water. I had made it. That was a close one!

Climbing up on the breakwater was not easy. It was just piled rocks. There was nothing smooth or level to stand on. I was barefooted and it was dark out there. But my eyes adjusted so I could see the rocks. I had to feel around with my hands and feet to find footings to climb up onto the breakwater. I was shivering so bad with cold that my whole body was doing the shakes. It was hard to find my balance on the slippery rocks. This was not going to be easy! Even as I started my journey, I immediately saw that the breakwater was infested with rats; millions of them!

I hate rats, snakes, spiders and just about all other types of critters. In fact, I often have violent nightmares about them. But at this point, I was so cold and far away from a secure position that I switched another internal piece of hardware to stop caring about the rats. Instead, I placed all of my focus upon just making it along to the next rock without slipping or falling. The rats were running out of my way, dozens at a time. I never stepped on a single one of them. They were fast little buggers! But I could hear their millions of feet scurrying on the rocks. It sounded like something out of a horror movie.

I was just trying to get to John, who I hoped was still on shore near the far end of the breakwater. It was a long way; maybe about the same distance that I had swam. It was slow going, but my pace picked up as I adjusted to the challenge of one rock to the next. I saw John’s signal again when I was about half way along the breakwater. Worried that he might give up and leave, I thought of yelling to him. Then I decided to only do that if the signal stopped. It never did! It was better to not give up my position. I had already come too far.

When I reached the end of the breakwater, I never even slowed down to catch my breath. I dove in and swam the relatively short distance to where John was signaling from. He said my splash into the water from the breakwater caught him totally by surprise, because he was beginning to think I was not going to go for it.

I was so cold, my whole body was numb.

There was nothing further to talk about. I got dressed as good as I could without a towel to dry me off. I felt better with a set of clothes on and with John present. He had some idea how we were going to get out of there. My position in the world had just improved a lot!

I had overlooked sending in a comb with John. So I just did the best that I could with my fingers. I was tired from the mission; the cold really zapped my reserves. But I was not swept out to sea, and I was going to see my true love again!

Even before putting my clothes on, I had already decided that it would be too risky to try and swim back out to the ship. The tidal currents were too strong. If I didn’t get it exactly right, I would be swept away and probably never return to the ship. The thought of doing the whole single-breath discipline for 200+ yards at 2 AM in the morning, to arrive exactly at the rope and get my hands on it as the current swept me by, and to get up the side of the ship without being spotted by someone, felt like mission impossible in my already-exhausted condition.. That water was freezing! And what if Don overslept? Getting out there and missing the rope would have been the end of me…I had already worked out an alternative plan to get back onto the ship…

Soon thereafter, John flagged down a taxi and we arrived at the bar just a little while later. Most of the guys from my platoon were there in the bar, including the officers. Boy were they surprised to see me! But not a single word was exchanged with the officers. They would have been in as much or more trouble as me if it ever got out that I had jumped ship and they knew about it.

Besides, I was only there for a moment to say a proper farewell to my love and get some contact details so I could return back to her later when circumstances would allow. When I arrived, Suzy was there having drinks with another customer. I was in a bit of a hurry, and I just wanted to see her for a moment; so I asked one of the other waitresses to break in and ask Suzy to see me for a moment. When she came over, she made it very clear to me that I was a nuisance for barging in on her while she was drinking with another customer in the bar. That was her job. She was not very happy to see me.

Right there in that moment, my heart was broken into a million pieces.

I had come too far to give up. I asked her for a postal address so we could talk by mail (she had no phone). I told her that I planned to come back and see her as soon as I could make it happen. She gave me an address and returned to her customer.

That was the last time I ever saw Suzy Wong.

To be fair, Suzy never could have known what I had gone through to see her that last time.

Once out of the bar, I bought two rather large quilts from a street vender. Then I returned to the liberty pier. The boat picked us up shortly thereafter. When we went up the stairs to board the ship, I held my big packages out in front of me with Bob’s ID card in one hand. It was sometime during the middle of the night. The MP’s on board just waved me through along with everyone else. They were tuned in to American sailors. It was too dark out there for them to be matching up faces with the small photo on an ID card. Getting back on the ship was easy. I was lucky!

After notes:

  1. My heart was so broken, and I was so exhausted and sick-to-my-stomach, that I overlooked letting Don know that I was back on the ship. So he and that young marine spent the rest of that night with a rope dangling over the side of the ship, waiting for me to show up. Don only found out the next morning at muster that I was back on the ship. He was relieved that I had made it. But, even to this day, he continues scolding me for not telling him that night. I should have. It was a lapse of operational professionalism. I will try and do better next time.
  2. By the following morning, I was terribly sick with vomiting and diarrhea. Another thing I did not take into consideration was that Hong Kong at that time had what was well-known as the most polluted harbor in the world. The raw sewage from all of Hong Kong and the surrounding area was being discarded into the harbor. In concert with my broken heart, it took my digestive system months and months to get back to normal. I am actually lucky that I did not catch Typhoid, hepatitis or something worse!
  3. A Captain’s Mass was held about a week after we departed Hong Kong; and despite my witnesses who testified that they had agreed to check me in at the pier, the ship’s captain found me guilty of 48 hours of AWOL. In view of my otherwise unblemished record in the navy, my penalty was suspended.
  4. Although I was not thinking of it at the time, if I had been caught jumping ship during wartime, I probably would have done 20 years of hard time in a federal prison.
  5. I wrote to Suzy Wong many times over the following months, never to receive a letter in return. Had we not been on a continuous 24-hour standby (to go evacuate our people from Viet Nam, and then Cambodia), I would have taken leave, and gone over to Hong Kong and try to marry her. I would have done nearly anything to have her as my own. But I never heard from her again.
  6. The truth is that I don’t know if she ever even received my letters. I have always wondered (hoped) that she might have been anxiously waiting all that time to hear from me. No matter how hard you try, some things are not meant to be…
  7. Don Stevens eventually returned to the Philippines and married the girl of his own dreams, brought her back to America, and they had three children who are now productive young adults. He and his lovely wife reside in southern California where Don continues to support the navy SEALs and Special Warfare Group as an independent contractor.
  8. Around 35 years passed since Don stepped off our ship as a civilian to start his job in Singapore. We had not spoken to each other since that day. Then, Don found our New 49’er web site a few years back and re-established communication with me. He joined The New 49’ers, and we spent a good part of the 2009 season dredging side-by-side on my 8-inch dredge. Don and Dave dredgingDon has been actively involved with some form of commercial underwater work for most of his adult life, so he adapted quickly to commercial dredging for gold. While we did pretty well in the deposit we were working on K-7, we might have recovered more gold in a different place along our mining properties. Still, we did alright. That’s just the way it is in gold mining. But no 2-man teamhas ever outworked what Don and I can do side-by-side!Don and Dave, along with several guys providing support, dredging on the Klamath River during the 2009 season.
  9. Part of becoming a man is in deciding for yourself about the things that are really important to you and standing up for them even when there is enormous personal risk. There have been a number of times in my adult life when I have done this, but this was one of the first times that I took a huge personal risk for something that felt really important to me (risk of getting caught). Right or wrong, for better or worse, this was the first real love of a woman that I ever experienced. If I had a chance to go back and do anything differently, there is not much that I would change.

Final note: As Don, John and Bob assumed enormous personal risk to help me in my time of personal need, the last thing I ever want to do is get them into trouble. The only reason this adventure came out right was because I got away with it. This continues to be a responsibility that I take seriously. I don’t want any of us to be in trouble with the authorities, especially after all this time has passed. So when people ask me if I really jumped ship in Hong Kong, I always answer: “Most of this story was the way we would have liked it to have played out if it really did.”

What do you think?

 

By Dave McCracken

“Pushsay, Pushay for your lives!”

Dave Mack

 

Our driver yelled, “Pushsay,Pushsay, push for your lives!” My friend of many years, Sam Speerstra, was managing this project. Sam is an “Indiana Jones” character from way back. Go with Sam, and you are sure to fine some adventure. He was the one who got me into diving for diamonds in Venezuela during the rainy season a few years ago. What a nightmare that was! Sam also introduced me to Madagascar, which is where this adventure took place. We were prospecting for high-grade gold.

“Hurry, give it everything you’ve got. I hear trucks coming!” Sam was driving us in an old Toyota pickup truck that probably already had a couple of hundred thousand miles on it. It was a wreck! The engine kept cutting out as we were working our way up the steep grade of a remote mountain, somewhere in darkest, undeveloped Madagascar. Sam’s swearing got progressively more descriptive and deafening as the engine problems got worse. We were pretty close to the top when the engine finally quit. It was in the middle of the night on a blind corner of a pretty busy highway. Most of the trucks traveling the highway did not have headlights; they travel by moonlight a lot in Madagascar!

Sam Speerstra, modern “Indiana Jones”

They speak French in this particular country. My French is lousy, but I understood the message. As soon as the engine quit, three other guys and I were out of the truck and pushing uphill. We already knew there was not a single pull-off behind us for several miles. We had been watching for pull-offs! There were also no guard rails. The embankment was very steep. Visibility was non-existent; the moon was not out this night. We were in near total darkness. We could hear the trucks coming from both directions on the highway. Sam was steering the vehicle as we pushed, yelling “Pushsay, Pushsay!”

We barely got the Toyota off the side of the road just up from the blind turn, when big delivery trucks passed by from both directions. The one coming downhill only had one dim headlight. It was moving in low gear. It probably didn’t have any brakes.

Once off the road, Sam stepped out of the vehicle, slipped, fell down the hill and ended up face down in a muddy ditch. The cussing started all over again. No one could find a flashlight to fix the engine. The guys figured it was a problem with the fuel injectors being too loose. They tightened them up in the dark, by feel.

E-r-r-r-r-er, E-r-r-r-r-er, E-r-r-r-r-er…Next we found the battery was too low to start the engine.

Sam decided the best thing to do was push-start the Toyota backwards downhill, around the blind curve in the darkness. What else could we do? We pushed, he steered. We tried three times. The engine would not start. That was when Sam admitted that the Toyota never push-started in reverse! We ended up in the same place on the blind curve where the Toyota originally conked out. “Pushsay, Pushsay for your lives.” Back up the hill we pushed the Toyota once again. I started looking for a place to sleep. There was only one sleeping bag in the truck, so I started quietly planning how I was going to find it first—while the others discussed the problem in French.

Pretty soon, a big delivery truck coming up the hill was stopped by one of the Frenchmen involved with our operation. I did not understand everything that was being said, but it became clear that no one had a working flashlight and no one had anything to tow with. The truck did have a long piece of wood in the back. It looked to be about 20 feet long. It was a rough-cut 2X6. They decided to use it as a push rod from bumper to bumper. Sam was going to attempt a jump-start going forward up the hill.

My biggest concern was getting over the top of the mountain. From there it was downhill to the village where we would put up until morning in a hotel—with real beds. We also had not eaten dinner yet. The main concern of Sam and everyone else was not destroying the license plate on the Toyota. What’s the big deal about a license plate for a broken down old vehicle? Without the license plate being nearly perfect, there were serious problems with “Les Polisia” at the many security checkpoints throughout the country! Damaged license plates were cause for harassment. Destroyed or missing license plates were cause for seizure! The severity of the offense would rule how much money it would cost to buy ourselves out of trouble at each checkpoint.

I was mainly hoping to get over the hill and down to the village where we could find a place to sleep that was off the open ground.

Pretty soon, the push rod was placed between the vehicles. Not being able to stand back any longer with dinner and a real bed predominant in my mind, I over-rode everyone’s objections by placing the push rod on top of the Toyota bumper, under the license plate, through the hole and up against the spare tire. This way, they only had to hold and balance the push rod against the front bumper of the big truck. Sam gave the signal and off they went—uphill. I watched. It looked like the Keystone Cops in the dark. Five big guys (two were passengers from the big truck) holding the push rod against the big truck’s bumper, running along in front of the big truck as they went faster and faster. Sam popped the clutch in second gear and the Toyota roared away in front of the truck, in the dark with five men being dragged behind, holding onto the push rod. They had to let go, because Sam took off like a shot, not wanting to take any chance of the truck quitting again.

When the men let go of the push rod, it dropped to the ground, pushed up against the license plate, and pop, off went the license plate, sailing into the darkness, over the steep embankment. The men were so upset, I thought they were going to cry. No use in crying over tomorrow’s problems. I urged everyone back into the truck so we could get going before it quit again.

Shortly thereafter, we found ourselves checked in to a reasonably comfortable hotel, by fourth-world standards, and eating dinner—and sharing a warm beer. The next day we found the license plate. It was only slightly damaged. Yes, life is good!

 

By Dave McCracken

“Dredging for Diamonds and Gold During the Rainy Season…”

Dave Mack

 

Author’s note: This story is dedicated to Alan Norton (“Alley”), the lead underwater mining specialist who participated in this project. Under near-impossible conditions, Alan made half of the key dives which enabled us to make this a very successful venture.
There are very few people I know, if any, with more courage, dedication and enthusiasm to successfully complete a difficult mission, than Alan.

If I can make it go right, I try and go overseas at least once or twice a year, usually during our winter months in California, to participate in some kind of a gold mining or treasure hunting adventure. Sometimes I am paid as a consultant to do preliminary evaluations for other companies. Sometimes I just go on my own. Doing these projects in remote and exotic locations is kind of like going back into time, or like going into a different universe. It is always a great adventure! Sometimes, on these different projects, everything goes smooth and easy. Sometimes we uncover fantastic riches. Sometimes we find nothing at all of great value. And, once in awhile, conditions are extraordinarily terrible and put all of our capability and courage to the final test. Such was the case on our recent testing project into the deep, dangerous jungles of southern Venezuela.

Venezuela lies on the north coast of South America along the Caribbean Sea. It is a South American country that ranks as one of the world’s leading producers and exporters of petroleum. Before its petroleum industry began to boom during the 1920’s, Venezuela was one of the poorer countries in South America. The economy was based on agricultural products, such as cocoa and coffee. Since the 1920’s, however, Venezuela has become one of the wealthiest and most rapidly changing countries on the continent. Income from petroleum exports has enabled Venezuela to carry out huge industrial development and modernization programs.

Columbus was the first European explorer to reach Venezuela. In 1498, Columbus landed on the Paria Peninsula. In 1498 and 1499, the Spanish explored most of the Caribbean coast of South America, and Spanish settlers were soon to follow the explorers.*

Almost all Venezuelans speak Spanish, the country’s official language. Indians in remote areas speak various tribal languages.*

I personally was contacted by an American investment group that was in partnership with a Venezuelan mining company. They hired me to spend around thirty days doing a preliminary testing evaluation on a concession (mining property) the company owns in the deep jungles of southern Venezuela. The property was reported to contain volume-amounts of gold and gem-quality diamonds. A river flows across the concession for approximately twenty-five miles.

The company had purchased a 6-inch dredge along with the support equipment. They wanted me to complete a dredge sampling program to see what kind of recovery we could obtain from the river. I brought one other experienced dredger along by the name of Alan Norton. Alan and I had spent several seasons dredging together on the Klamath River in northern California, and I had learned years ago to always bring at least one very capable teammate along when doing diving operations in the jungle environment. This proved to be a really wise decision!

We flew into Caracas, which is the capital of Venezuela, a very nice, modern city with big office buildings and hotels creating a beautiful skyline. Caracas enjoys the reputation of having one of the best night-lives in the world. Poverty is also visible along the outskirts of the city where thousands of people live in small shacks called Ranchos.

The company put us up in the Caracas Hilton where we spent a comfortable night, only to fly out the following morning to Ciudad Bolivar–which is a fairly large city, and the diamond capital of Venezuela.

Upon arriving in Ciudad Bolivar, we were promptly met by representatives of the company, along with the company’s bush boss, an American adventurer by the name of Sam Speerstra. Sam would make a good match for Indiana Jones. It was quickly apparent that he loved danger by the way he drove us through traffic to the small landing strip that we were to shortly depart from on our way to the concession. Sam had us unpack our bags while he arranged to have the aircraft pushed out onto the runway by a half dozen or so airport workers.

The dual engine aircraft was not in the best state of repair. The engine shrouds were held on with bailing wire, some of the cargo doors were held together with duct tape, and the instrument panel was held in place with safety pins, some which were not holding very well.

Sam enjoyed my apprehensive observations of the plane while our baggage was being loaded. Proudly, he told me the aircraft company we were using had the best record of non-accidents in the whole country. However, he also said the landing strip on the concession was quite small and hard to get into because of a large hill that had to be dropped over quickly in order to touch down at the beginning of the runway. In fact, he informed me the company had lost one of its planes trying to land on the concession during the week before. I asked if anyone was hurt. “All dead,” Sam responded, with a smile on his face. And he was serious! .

While, for proprietary reasons, I am not able to divulge the exact location where we were operating, I can say that we were at least several hundred miles into the jungle south of Ciudad Bolivar, towards the Brazilian border.

In this instance, we were asked to do this preliminary evaluation just as the rainy season was getting started. Shortly after taking off in the dual engine plane, we began seeing large rolling clouds. The further south we flew; the larger and more dense the clouds became.

About halfway to our destination, the pilot put down on a small landing strip in a relatively small village to pick up a full load of mining equipment which he had to leave there the day before. He had not been able to get out to the concession because of the almost zero visibility caused by the heavy rains and clouds. As we landed on this strip, the first thing we noticed was a completely wrecked plane that had crashed there. This added to our apprehension and to Sam’s sense of adventure.

It took about an hour to pack the airplane completely full of mining equipment. Since we had to remove the seats to make room for gear, Alley and I were directed to lay up on top of the gear that was stacked up in the belly of the plane. No seat belts! And the plane was loaded so heavily, even the pilot was not sure whether or not we were going to make it off the runway when we took off. We barely made it, and the plane was very sluggish to fly for the remainder of that trip.

We were in and out of clouds for the remainder of the flight, much of the time with zero visibility outside of the airplane. Occasionally, we would break through the clouds and see nothing but dense jungle below us as far as the eye could see in any direction. This was the Amazon! Sam took the time to educate us on the many different types of animals and insects which would certainly devour us if we were to have the bad fortune of crashing. Tigers and jaguars, driven out of some areas by villagers, only to be more hungry and ferocious in other areas. Six-foot long electric eels, called Trembladores by the natives, capable of electrocuting a man with 440 volts, and man-eating piranha were all through the rivers and streams, according to Sam. He told us of bushmaster snakes, the most dreaded vipers in all of South America. Sam said he personally had seen them up to twelve feet in length with a head about the size of a football. “Very aggressive–they have been known to chase a man down.” Sam said you could see the venom squirting out of the fangs even as the snake started to make a strike– one of the most horrifying experiences he had ever seen. “But, not to worry, I brought along a shotgun just in case we get in trouble,” Sam told us as hundreds of miles of jungle passed beneath us.

After quite some time, at a point when the clouds cleared away just long enough to see, Sam pointed down to a short runway cut out of the jungle. At first, we could not believe we truly were going to try and land there. Sure enough, it was the base camp for the concession. We made one low pass over it. The base camp looked large and well equipped. There was also a small local village right near the base camp. The landing strip was filled with puddles and looked to be mostly mud. Alley and I were a little nervous after Sam’s big buildup, and we had very good reason to be nervous.

In order to land on the strip properly, the pilot had to fly just over the treetops, around a ridge, to drop quickly over a hill almost into a dive to get low enough, fast enough, to meet the beginning of the runway. The pilot’s skill was very good, although it is the only time in my life I have ever been in a plane that actually tapped the tops of trees as it was going in for a landing. The thump, thump of the trees hitting the wheels of the plane put me in somewhat of a panic. But it was all for nothing, because within seconds we were safely down on the runway. The pilot and Sam seemed to think nothing of the hair-raising landing experience. Alley and I felt like cheering that we were still alive. This was the mental state we were in when we arrived in the jungle. And it was just the beginning!

Local villagers came out to help us unload the plane. They all seemed like very nice people. After having a chance to load our gear into the bungalow, Sam gave us a short tour of the base camp. The whole area was fenced in. There were numerous screened-in bungalows for the various crew member sleeping quarters, a large kitchen, an office, and a large screened-in workshop area. The company had spent a lot of money getting it all set up. There was a jeep and two off-road motorcycles—all in a poor state of repair. They operated, but without any brakes.

After we had a chance to relax a bit, Sam insisted we go meet the “Capitan,” who was the chief of the local village. We had to arrange for several boats and a small group of local Indians to support our operation along the river. Sam explained to us that public relations were very important and that we must go over and have a friendly drink with the Capitan. We assumed Sam was bringing the Capitan a bottle of Scotch or Brandy or something as a gift. But that’s not the way it happened. Sam preferred to drink the local mild alcoholic beverage called Cochili. This drink is made by the local Indians from squeezing the juice out of a special plant that they grow. The juice is allowed to ferment in the open air for several days or weeks, depending upon the weather. It is a milky white-like substance with clumps of bread-like soggy goo (kind of like pollywog eggs), along with some greenish-brown mold mixed in–it was great to behold! It smelled almost as bad as it looked.

We met the chief, who looked totally wasted on something–probably the Cochili drink. And immediately upon our arrival, the chief ordered some children to bring glasses and drink for everyone. Promptly, our glasses were filled to the rims. Sam quickly downed his first glass, licked his lips, smiled and said, “This is all in the name of good local public relations!” To be polite, I downed half my glass and did my best to choke back my gag. The stuff tasted terrible! I realized my mistake right away when one of the kids immediately took my glass and refilled it to the brim. Alley was paying close attention and slowly sipped his drink, and I followed suit. There was no place to spit if out without being seen, so we had to drink it down. Sam put down three or four more glasses and shortly was slurring his Spanish in final negotiations with the chief. I’m not really sure they understood each other concerning any of the details, but everyone seemed happy with the negotiation.

It was a good thing that the rainy season prevented the remainder of our mining equipment to arrive in the jungle for the next two days. Because I spent the next few days with a severe case of the jungle blues. I was popping Lomotil tablets left and right to try and dry up my system and finally started making progress on the third day in the jungle. Man was I sick!

Alan boasted that he never had a case of diarrhea in his life and that he never would. Sam spent several hours every evening drinking Cochili with the local Indians who would accompany us into the jungle. He was getting to know them better.

The weather was hot and muggy, although the heavy rains had not started yet in earnest. The jungle was alive, especially at night when the jungle noises were almost deafening. It was certainly not a nice place to go for a friendly, evening hike. We were glad for the fence that surrounded the compound.

On the third day, still weak from the fever, but feeling like I should be productive at something, I decided to take a motorcycle ride on the new jeep trail which had recently been hand-cut several miles to the river. Why is it that I always know when I am going to come upon a nasty snake just an instant before I see it? As I rounded the first corner on the trail, a large viper took off ahead of me up the trail faster than a man could run. No brakes! Finally, I stopped the bike, turned around, and returned to camp to rest up some more.

“Once the rains started, the water was so muddy we had zero visibility underwater and had to find our way through the broken branches of submerged trees by feel”

The remainder of our gear finally arrived on the following day. We assembled everything to make sure it was all there. It wasn’t. We were missing the assembly bolts for the six-inch dredge; we had only one weight belt; and we had no air reserve tank for the hookah system! This was not good!

We finally ended up using bailing wire to hold the dredge together, and had to settle for hooking the airline directly to the dredge’s air compressor. One weight belt was all we were going to get—not much margin for error! The entire operation would depend upon us not losing that single weight belt.

On the following day, all the equipment was packed to the river by the local villagers. This was not an easy two-mile pack, because the trail was very muddy and was quite steep up and down the whole distance. Alan and I were using one of the motorcycles to get up and down the trail, which was a real adventure with no brakes.

One very interesting thing about this jungle is that huge trees, for no apparent reason at all, come crashing down. At least several times a day, we would hear huge trees crashing down in a deafening roar. On one occasion, Alan and I were returning to base camp on the jeep trail. We had just come up that trail fifteen minutes before. As we were going down a muddy hill and rounding a bend, we ran smack right into a huge tree which had just fallen across the trail. Good thing I was driving! We smashed into the tree with both of us flying off the bike. Luckily, neither of us were hurt more than just a few bumps and bruises, although the front-end of the motorcycle was damaged. Chalk up one more for the jungle.

During the time while equipment was being transferred to the river and set up, we took several airplane rides to survey the section of river which we were planning to sample, and to make arrangements at a small village (with a landing strip) about twenty-five miles downstream to obtain fuel and some basic supplies as needed during our sampling trip. Once we started, we would not be in contact with the base camp until our sampling project was complete–which was to be about twenty-five to thirty days later. In flying around the area and landing on the two strips, it soon became apparent that the pilot was very skilled. While he definitely was flying by the seat of his pants, the conditions were normal and it was no big thing (to him). Sam just had the advantage of prior experiences at the concession and was psyching us out–all in fun. It only took a little while to catch onto his game.

One of the things we quickly learned in the South American jungle, is that you never stand still for more than just a few seconds. Otherwise, a steady line of ants, mites, and other meat-eating critters will crawl up your legs, inside or outside your pants, and go to work on you. We had plenty of mite bites–which hurt, itch, and generally drive you crazy for about five or six days before they start healing. And, we learned to never brush up against bushes as long as we could help it, for fear of getting fire ants all over us. They sting like crazy!

We never allowed our bare skin (especially bare feet) to come in contact with the bare ground in or around the camps. This is because of chiggers. Ants were everywhere. Whole armies of big ants could be seen to follow a single file line up and down the trail for a mile or more, carrying torn up leaves from a tree which was actively being stripped clean by other ants. The whole jungle was crawling with life. Every square inch had some creature that was starving to take a good bite out of us. Perhaps it was the muggy weather, or maybe weakness from the jungle fever, but my first impression of the South American jungle was that it was doing everything it could to suck the life energy out of my body.

On more than one occasion, some huge animal would go crashing through the jungle just a short distance from where we were standing. We never saw the animals, but had the continuous feeling that some huge cat or wild boar was ready to come smashing in on us. And, of course, the shotgun was never in my own hands when this occurred, which was probably a good thing for everyone else in the vicinity.

“We allowed the natives to swim in the river first to make sure there were not going to be problems with piranha and Trembladores”

While we were packing gear, one of the village-helpers came running in to show off a bird spider he had caught and skewered on the end of his machete. This spider was bigger than my hand; it looked like a huge tarantula. According to the natives, these fearsome spiders catch birds to feed on, not flies, in their webs.

Our first few days on the river were absolutely, breathtakingly, exotically beautiful. The sun came out. The river was low and semi-clear. The water was warm, but just cool enough to give us satisfaction from the muggy air temperatures. We did not need wetsuits other than to protect our bodies from scrapes and bruises. We dredged a half dozen or so easy sample holes. Gravel was shallow to bedrock. The first camp was quite comfortable. The Indians were using their bows and extra long arrows to catch great-tasting fish. Everything was perfect. I remember wondering why I had such a problem adapting to the jungle in the first place. It was like paradise on the river, and we were even getting paid to be there!

We allowed the natives to swim in the river first, to make sure there were not going to be problems with piranha and Trembladores. This is not a bad thing to do. We did not make them swim first. They simply dove in. We always watch for this in a jungle environment. The local Indians know what it is safe to do. After watching the Indians swim for quite some time, we decided it was safe.

The natives live under grass roof shelters–often with no sides. They hang hammocks from the supporting roof beams and sleep at least several feet off the ground. Since Ally and I don’t sleep very well in hammocks, we brought along cots, instead. On our first night in the jungle, Sam insisted the cots would be just fine on the ground. They had short legs which put the cots about six inches off the ground. Alan and I both had sleeping bags which could be zipped up. Sam simply had one dirty white sheet. About midway through the night, Sam’s cot collapsed on him. Shortly thereafter, he was dancing around the camp yelling, “Fleas!” He was barefooted, and the natives spent the next two weeks picking chigger eggs out of the bottom of his feet with sharp pointed sticks.

Let me explain chigger eggs: These critters somehow lay eggs inside the pores of your skin. The eggs grow larger and larger, causing an open sore. It keeps getting worse until you realize it is not just a mite bite. The egg has to be removed with a sharp piece of wood, kind of like a toothpick. The eggs I saw were about the size of a soft, white BB when removed. It was explained that this was really a sack full of eggs. The trick was to get rid of them before the sack broke. Otherwise, the problem was severely compounded. Apparently, the dogs carried these chiggers all over themselves. We were instructed to not pat the dogs for this reason. It was a good lesson for us, and we learned it quickly from Sam’s experience.

We had a three hundred-foot roll of half-inch nylon rope with us for the mining operation. The following day, Alley and I allocated one hundred and fifty feet of that rope to be used to tie our cots up into the shelter beams to keep us well away from the ground. Our Indian guides were quite amused by this. The rest of the rope was used in the dredging operation.

On about the fourth day on the river, Sam returned to the base camp to supervise the other surface digging testing operations. Our cook became extremely angry soon after Sam left. I later found out that he was contracted by Sam to spend only five days in the jungle. Sam left without taking him along. He was stuck with us in the jungle for the next twenty days or so, and we all paid for his anger in the food he prepared for us. We would get fresh-made pan-fried bread every morning that was so saturated with oil that you could squeeze the oil out of it in your hand. This, along with a can of sardines for breakfast. We got leftover bread from breakfast for lunch, along with more sardines. We also got sardines with stale bread for dinner. The cook was basically on strike. Luckily, there were plenty of banana and mango trees along the river to supplement our diet.

“It was easy to follow the tributary because it was running straight black mud”

But we had our attention on other matters. The heavy rains began on the day Sam departed. In one night, the river rose up at least fifteen feet. And it roared! Entire trees were washing downriver. It was a torrent. The water was the color of brown mud. The river rose up and spread out into the jungle, making the whole area into a huge, forested lake. There were no riverbanks to be found in most areas. Our own camp was within four feet of being washed away. We knew where the river was only because of the swift moving water. Some of the river was difficult to travel upon, because it was flowing through the treetop canopy, which was occupied here and there by huge nests of African killer bees and other hornets and varmints. It was a nightmare!

On top of that, the natives caught a hundred-pound Cayman (alligator) with a net out of one of our dredge holes where they had been fishing. It was certainly big enough to take a man’s arm off. At that point, the natives told us these animals came much larger on the river.

That was the day Alley decided to come down with his own bout of jungle fever.

Since Alley was incapacitated, I chose that day to hike back to the base camp and have a talk with Sam about the adverse diving conditions. Although we had recovered some diamonds and gold already, I was not comfortable with the recovery system for diamond recovery. I also was not excited about diving in the swollen, muddy river. I would like to get a look at what is going to eat me before I die! Even the natives, who were standing in line to dive in the clear water, absolutely refused to dive in the river once the rains started. This was definitely a very bad sign. Sam managed to get the big boss on the radio and I explained the problems to him. In turn, he told me that his entire company was depending upon the results of my sampling project to justify further investment in the project once the rainy season tapered off. “It all depends on you, Dave.” I told him we would do the best that we could.

The next day, Alan was so weak from diarrhea, that he was barely able to get out of his cot to do his duty outside of camp. I felt my own duty was to go do some sampling with the help of two natives as my tenders. Rather than dredge on the main river (which was raging), I decided to test one of the main tributaries which had the reputation of having lots of diamonds. The natives left me to keep an eye on the dredge, which was tied to the canopy of some trees at the mouth of this tributary, while they hacked a trail through the tree branches several hundred yards up this creek–which was now an endless lake out into the jungle. It took several hours for them to make the trail with their machetes. It was easy to follow the tributary because it was flowing straight, black mud, compared to the brown color of the river water.

While I was standing on the dredge waiting for the natives to finish the trail, a huge bee buzzed by my head. Within a couple minutes, there were about a dozen of these bees buzzing me. They were really mean! I had my hat off and was flailing around wildly trying to keep them away. There was no place I could go off to, to get away from them. Finally, I had to jump into the water and hide underneath the sluice box. This is where the natives found me when they returned. They were quite amused.

It took quite some time for us to drag the dredge up this tributary, because the branches were just hacked off at water level. I was looking for a place we could work off of a streambank, but eventually gave up on that idea. The water was simply too deep. I ended up throwing the suction hose over the side of the dredge, primed and started the pump, put on my seventy-pound lead weight belt and other diving gear, crawled over the side and shimmied carefully down the thirty-foot suction hose. The problem was feeling my way down through the submerged tree limbs to find bottom. There were logs and branches everywhere. I was in total darkness–complete zero visibility. Everything was done by feel, sensation and yes, fear. I finally found the bottom and estimated it to be about twenty-five feet deep by the amount of suction hose I had remaining with me on the bottom. It was scary down there!

After seeing the Cayman on the day before, I had visions of being grabbed by a huge alligator, and other visions of being grabbed by a huge python. A strong voice from inside my heart was telling me to end the dive. It was too darn dangerous! Any emergency would have me and my airline all tangled in the branches. Having to dump the weight belt would put an end to the entire program, because we only had one weight belt.

I decided that I should complete the sample after all we had gone through to get me on the bottom. This is what I was being paid to do.

As I dredged into the gravels on the bottom, by feel, I discovered more buried branches and logs. These, I simply tossed behind me just like I do with oversized rocks. I got into a pretty steady routine down there and was making good progress. But the strong picture of huge alligators and pythons was right there with me all the time. Do you know the feeling you have when watching a scary movie when you know something terrible is just about to happen? And when it happens suddenly it scares the heck out of you? This was the state I was in when something heavy jumped onto my back. I let go of the hose, turned on my back, and kicked this thing off of me like a crazy man–like I was fighting off an alligator. Then I realized it was just one of the water-logged heavy pieces of wood I had thrown behind me.

This was a terrible feeling of terror and embarrassment. I’m serious; I was so scared, I wanted to crawl right back up into my mother’s womb. I was left wondering what the heck I was doing there. Why was I doing this? It was nuts!

It is impossibly-difficult times like this, and how you manage them, that contribute to the definition of your personal character and integrity. And I freely admit that staying down there to finish the sample was one of the most difficult challenges I have ever overcome. This was a total mission-impossible situation! After a moment to get myself refocused, I turned around and finished the sample hole to bedrock. I carefully shimmied back up the suction hose, coiling my airline as I went, to make sure it was not tangled in branches. When we cleaned up the sluice boxes, we were rewarded with several gem-quality diamonds, one which was quite large and handsome.

“I let go of the hose, turned on my back, and kicked this thing off of me like a crazy man!”

When I got back to camp that night, Alan was still sick in his cot. I did not hesitate to tell him of my experience. I also told him he was doing half the diving from then on, starting the next day, with or without jungle fever!

And that’s the way it went for the next twenty days or so. We completed four samples per day, with Alan doing half of the diving. Some days, the river was so high we had to tie off on branches of trees out in the middle of the river. We would take turns watching for trees being washed down the river, and would pull each other out by the airline every time this occurred, to keep from getting snagged by the trees and dragged down river.

The diving was extremely dangerous. Each time one of us went down, we did so knowing there was a definite possibility that we would not live through it. The only other option was to give up. But, we had originally agreed to do our best to overcome the difficult conditions. That’s how we got the job in the first place. We didn’t really have any other choice. I look back on it now and can enjoy the adventure. At the time, however, it was not any fun at all. It was crazy!

The biggest problem was the lack of an air reserve tank on the dredge. Sometimes it would take as much as ten minutes to feel a way down through the submerged branches in the total darkness. We had to find a path. There was no easy, fast way to get back to the surface. Cutting the weight belt loose would probably be sure death. Not only that, but we would probably never recover the body! No reserve air tank meant almost no margin should the engine quit for any reason–which, luckily, it never did.

However, the heat from the compressor did melt the airline, causing it to blow off altogether when I was down on one dive. We run the airline around our neck and through our belt for safety. With no air reserve tank, we were able to hear the compressor working underwater by the vibrational sounds coming from the airline. I had just spent quite some time finding a path to the river bottom and started dredging gravel, when my air supply was abruptly cut off and I no longer heard the compressor noise from the airline. But the nozzle was still sucking. I stayed there for a few seconds trying to understand the problem and what to do, when suddenly my air supply returned and I heard the compressor noise again. I almost just kept on dredging, but decided after all to go up and see what had happened. When I got to the surface, Alan was holding the airline onto the compressor output with his bare hand. He got a pretty good burn out of it. An inexperienced underwater miner never would have known what to do. Alley saved my life. This is one of the reasons I seldom do these projects alone.

“He made his bow out of the core of a hardwood tree, using a machete to carve it exactly the way he wanted”

As we progressed with our sampling further down the river, the natives would move all the gear to new camps every three or four days. Some camps would be reconstructed out of already-existing structures. Other camps had to be built from scratch, using plastic sheeting for the roofing material.

Our main native guide was named Emilio. He was a real jungle man in every sense of the word. He walked with a limp because of an earlier airplane crash in which he was the sole survivor. His family hut had been hit by lightning several years before, and everyone in the hut was killed except Emilio. He was a real survivor! One night, he went hunting with our shotgun–which was only loaded with a single round of light bird shot. In the darkness of the jungle at three o’clock in the morning, Emilio snuck right up on a five-hundred pound female wild boar and shot it dead–right in the head. We had good meat for several days, and even the disgruntled cook cooperated with some excellent meals.

Emilio taught us how to hunt with bow and arrows–mainly for fish. But, he was able to bring in a few chicken-like birds on several occasions. The meat was tough and stringy, but that was probably because of the cook. He made his bow out of the core of a hardwood tree, using a machete to carve it exactly the way he wanted. The arrows were made from the same hard material, using poison from snake venom on the tips for big game hunting. The natives did not have any modem weapons whatsoever, other than the shotgun we let them use while we were there.

Even Emilio refused to dive during the rains. And, our doing so considerably raised the natives’ evaluation of our physical abilities and bravery, even if we were greenhorns in the way of the jungle.

Each Indian we met was very skilled and uncanny in jungle survival. They could tell a boat was coming up the river three hours before it arrived by hearing the change in bird sounds. You will never find a harder bunch of workers anywhere.

The canoes we used were also carved
out of the trunks of hardwood trees. A skilled native takes about six months to make a good dugout canoe, which sells for about sixty dollars. Mostly, the canoes are paddled. But the more affluent natives do have outboard motors, which make the canoes go along at a pretty good clip. The natives are very skilled at driving the

canoes over top of submerged logs and through rapids. A lot of the time the boats were loaded so heavily that there was only about a half-inch of freeboard on each side. Yet, we never swamped a boat.

The gold pans they used, called Beteas, are also carved out of huge logs. Several classifications of screens are used on top of the Beteas to classify material and screen for diamonds. The natives have a special way to quickly rotate the screens, which causes diamonds to move to the center of the screen where they are easily picked out. It is quite something to watch.

Many native miners only go after the diamonds. They know they only need to find about one or two diamonds a year to make it worth their while for the extra things they want. Otherwise, the jungle provides for all of the basic survival needs of the natives. They are quite self sufficient.

“I was running down the trail at full speed like a mad man out of control, swinging my hat about

The natives received about two dollars a day in wages and were happy to get it up until the end of our project. We wanted to extend one more week to really finish the job right. However, the natives made it clear that no amount of money could sway them from going back to harvest their gardens on time.

While we were hauling our gear along the mile and a half-long trail to the landing strip, I was swarmed by African killer bees. It was terrifying! I heard them coming from quite some distance away. It sounded like a bus coming through the jungle. First, there were only a few bees around me, then a whole bunch. In panic, I was running down the trail at full speed like a mad man out of control, swinging my hat about. Then they were gone. I put my hat back on only to get stung right on top of the head. I felt completely spent. It was time to go home.

When we returned to the base camp, we found out Sam had plenty of problems of his own. At least half his sampling crew had to be evacuated from the jungle due to an outbreak of malaria and yellow fever. When we arrived, he immediately needed our help to Griphoist the jeep out of a creek that it had crashed into. Apparently, the jeep had a problem jumping out of first gear while being driven down a hill. The lower gears needed to be used to keep the jeep from going too fast, because of the no-brakes situation. Sam was driving the jeep down a steep hill with four natives in the back. It popped out of gear and they made one mad roller-coaster ride to the bottom, only to smash right through their man-made bridge into the creek. Miraculously, no one was hurt and the jeep wasn’t wrecked. We managed to get the jeep back onto the trail and hightail it back to the base camp just as total darkness descended on the jungle. Sam looked at it as just another great adventure; just another day in the life of a jungle-man!

Our trip back from the jungle to Caracas was relatively uneventful, except that I was able to buy a nicely-cut diamond in Cuidad Bolivar for pennies on the dollar at U.S. prices. I presented this to my (ex) wife when I returned home and she was quite pleased to have it mounted on a ring.

Over all, our project was successful. We found diamonds, and we found some gold. We did exceptionally well considering the impossible conditions. The largest diamond located on the concession while we were there was over eight carats. But that came out of one of the test pits on Sam’s digging operation. We never found gravels deeper than three feet to bedrock, and there was very little oversized material to move by hand–other than submerged logs. The area would be a breeze to work in clear, slower water–like during the dry season. Everyone involved was impressed with our test results. We submitted a proposal to do a more extensive test/production project with more men and larger equipment, but internal politics within the company ultimately killed the program altogether.

I’ll say this: If we ever do go back, I guarantee it will not be during the rainy season. And we will have a cook who can find no better pleasure in life than to feed us well.

* The World Book Encyclopedia, 1987 Edition.

 

 

 
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This story first appeared in Gold & Treasure Hunter Magazine
Sep/Oct, 1998 on Page 4. This issue is still available! Click here.

By Dave McCracken

“Discovering a King’s Ransom of incredibly rich blue stones in Madagascar!”

Dave Mack

sapphireI am writing this on my laptop computer from a comfortable and well-equipped base camp in the remote reaches of northern Madagascar, where the natural resources are very plentiful but almost completely undeveloped. The country was under control of a dictator until just a few years ago. Now, like many other mineral rich countries free from the iron grip of communism, and eager to catch up with the western world, this country is allowing mining exploration companies to locate and help develop its very rich resources.This country is verypoor; especially in the rural areas, where much of commerce, and even people, are still being transported around on wooden carts being pushed or pulled by barefooted men:

The weather here is very, very hot. Blistering! I am sure to lose the skin off the back of my neck from several hours of exposure today, even with my safari hat on. The natives work directly in the hot sun all day, every day. It does not seem to bother them.

This country has never been explored for mineral resources with the use of modem technology. Most of the natives are not even using shovels! Most often, they use small metal salad bowls to excavate the sapphire-rich gravels from their digging holes. The gravels are loaded into burlap bags and carried long distances to the nearest water for processing. Sometimes water is miles away. Some miners process less than a cubic foot of gravel per day. Yet, they have bags of rich blue sapphires to show for their effort.

This morning, our guide took us out to a small digging area close to this camp. There has been a substantial rush of Malagasy miners into this area because of a very recent sapphire discovery of huge proportions. As the discovery continues to be defined and developed over the coming months and years, it will likely evolve into one of the largest sapphire finds in history.

We are fortunate to be here right at the beginning. No other western mining companies are here, yet. There are presently an estimated 10,000 (and growing) Malagasy hand-miners working in the field. But, the deposit is so large, they have not even scratched the surface. And because the truly-rich stones come from deep diggings, these hand-miners will need to settle for the surface deposits, which by themselves, are enormously rich.

Here follows an explanation of the commercial potential by my longtime personal friend and mentor, Sam Speerstra:

The small area we went to this morning was being dug by hand-miners less than a meter below the surface. They were turning up lots of nice blue stones, some of them large in size. The excitement was felt everywhere. Even young children were digging and pulling blue stones. It was explained to me that it only takes one good stone to support a local family for a year or longer. Such stones are being found every day by hand-miners. A truly good stone can set a family for life. These turn up often. But the best stones are found deep, where only heavy equipment can go. The largest sapphire found so far was discovered near here only several months ago! The native who found it, and all his heirs, are set for life!

Check out this video sequence that I captured during one expedition we made into the sapphire area. It shows how these simple and friendly people are pulling so much wealth from the earth:

While they also do the mining activity right alongside the men, it is usually the woman that are selling gemstones to local buyers (who are also mostly women). Clearly, the women in these remote reaches of Madagascar have the most business savvy. I captured the following video sequence of a short buying transaction. Watch how firmly this woman holds to her (high) price of $4 for a beautiful blue stone, despite the fact that she probably had to sell it at any price to feed her children that evening:

My client is the person who owns the commercial rights on a lot of this property. The local hand-miners are providing a very valuable service, even though they are removing millions of dollars worth of stones from his properties. Where local miners are finding great value at the surface, mechanized equipment will turn up a treasure trove of the highest-quality material upon bedrock, several meters below. One small mechanized operation has been recovering as much as 50,000 carats of sapphires per day along the bottom in just one area.

My clients expect to recover 370,000 carats of gem-quality sapphires out of just one small dig over the period of about a year. That is a conservative wholesale value of 15 million dollars for one small dig. Yet this is only a drop in the bucket. They are planning to launch several simultaneous operations; but they admit that they will never be able to effectively cover the vast rich deposits located on their concessions. The deposit is estimated to cover at least 100 square miles!

This afternoon we visited a boom town that has recently sprung up in this area. I would estimate this one town contains at least 5,000 people. The entire community has developed during the last several months solely around the sapphire mining. Hustle and bustle and excitement are everywhere. Big trucks and small vehicles of every kind and shape are flowing into the town from other locations to bring necessary supplies to support this activity. A lot of people are getting rich here, and are displaying their wealth. Gold jewelry is almost unheard of by the working class in Madagascar, where the prevailing minimum wage is less than ten cents per hour. But there is a lot of gold jewelry in this boom town; it is around people’s necks, on their arms, at shops along the very crowded marketplace, which is nothing more than bamboo and rattan huts by the thousands. Fortunately, I had my video camera with me and was able to capture the following sequence:

 

I saw one man tied to a tree with his arms fastened to his sides in the central part of the boom town. I assume he was caught stealing or jumping someone else’s claim. Justice is dealt out harshly and swiftly here. It is a good place to stay out of trouble!

Sapphires were being shown and traded everywhere in this boom town and elsewhere. In fact, I have not gone anywhere during the last week where people have not flocked to me, asking if I want to buy sapphires. Because we are white, and presumably rich, people are literally attacking us with their sapphires; handful upon handful of rich blue and green stones. I saw some the size of cherries, and am told they are being found much larger. Today, I could have bought buckets full! At one point this afternoon, I thought there was going to be a riot, or that we would be crushed by the sheer force of people trying to sell us these beautiful stones for pennies on the dollar of their actual worth. I was told to not take any money out of my pocket, for fear of a stampede. Sapphire buying under these conditions could be dangerous!

Some of the sapphires shown to me were absolutely breathtaking. They are like nuggets of blue, radiant, transparent beauty. Mesmerizing or hypnotizing, these stones are really getting to me. I have felt gold fever in my previous exploits. I was struck with treasure fever a few years ago on a dig in Central America when we uncovered a hoard of pre-Columbian gold treasure. But sapphire fever is something else altogether. Maybe it was a combination of a number of factors — perhaps the high excitement level of all those people pushing these incredible stones at me. But the way the sapphires radiate a sea-blue color when held in the light creates a captivating lure which is very hard for me to overcome. Every uncut stone is different, each with its own radiant life-light and individual character. Short of actually being there to experience it directly, this following video sequence is the best I can do to demonstrate how beautiful these stones are:

Since I am here at the bequest of clients, I have behaved myself and focused on capturing some of the experience with my camera. I have to close now because we are getting ready to plan tomorrow’s events, which, I am certain, will be every bit as exciting as today. Tomorrow we will visit a place where several thousand hand-miners are digging their fortunes with nothing more than salad bowls!

****** Following day:

Tonight, despite my exhaustion, I cannot shake the excitement from what we witnessed today in the sapphire diggings.

I thought the last few days were blistering! Today, to get to this new discovery, it was necessary to hike several miles up a rather steep incline to the top of a mountain plateau, where literally thousands of hand miners are working a newly-discovered shallow sapphire deposit of enormous proportions. It must have been 120o F in the shade! Unfortunately, there was little shade to cover our ascent of this mountain.

We were traveling light, though, compared to the hundreds of local supply couriers who were hauling materials up the mountainside to support the extensive mining activity happening at the top. I saw people carrying huge loads, mostly of food and basic supplies. Even the younger, stronger couriers were sweating today.

At the top, we found yet another sizable boom town of at least a thousand people. There were restaurants and shops of all sorts. Three weeks ago, there was almost no habitation here. This shanty-town has been erected along both sides of the trail, just on the down mountain-side of a big strike. Excavation pits are everywhere, all throughout the town, and even along the narrow trail. My first thought was to make certain to be off the mountain before dark. Some of the excavation pits had no bottom in sight. What a shock to fall in one of those pits at night while looking for the bathroom! What bathroom?

I captured the following video sequence, which was taken at a water (mud) hole where women and children are processing the sapphire-rich gravels that are being packed in from miles away on the backs of miners:

We did not nearly reach the top before local miners started approaching us with their stones. Local stone buyers were around everywhere, as this is where stones can be purchased at the lowest price. The miners came to us in hopes of receiving more money for their labor. So we were slowed down a great deal by the scores of miners who wanted us to have a look at what they had found. This did not conflict with our mission, though, because we went there for the exact purpose of seeing what the local miners are finding. There is no doubt the local miners are finding impressive volumes of rich blue sapphires!

I captured the following video sequence of even children wanting to sell us handfuls of beautiful stones:

The diggings were so extensive that we could have easily devoted an entire week up on that single plateau and not see it all. We picked only one erosive canyon to explore on this day, and it kept splitting off over and over again, with mining going on up every split that we saw. So we only touched upon a small portion of the diggings.

Most of the excavations were small in size, with a bottom in sight. I think the reason for this is that the dirt and gravel must be packed out of the holes. At the point where the hole becomes deeper than three meters, the material needs to be taken out in buckets on ropes. This takes additional helpers. I am assuming the miners must have decided that it is more efficient to dig out of shallower holes. And digging they were, everywhere we went!

This arrangement makes my clients very happy, since the pothole method assures less than a third of the surface deposits are being worked, and almost none of the deep deposits, where the truly rich stones lie waiting. I say only a third of the surface deposits; because in their haste, the local miners shovel their tailings and waste material over about two thirds of the ground while digging their pits. Then, rather than dig through their own tailings again, they move on to a new location once an excavation pit becomes too deep to work efficiently. There is no shortage of new places to work. People were digging everywhere, with everyone we saw having sapphires for sale.

Here follows just one of many buying sequences that I captured on video today. It shows world-class gemstone specialist, Tom Banker, pay a local miner the price he was asking for a rich, blue stone:

The upside for my clients is that they can follow up in the abandoned diggings of the hand-miners with near certainty of making an easy fortune using mechanized earth-moving equipment. Here, Sam Speerstra explains how the geology of the area has caused the sapphires to form rich concentrations:

We did, however, see several deep digging operations today. One had miners down in a very deep hole, using buckets and ropes to get the dirt and gravel to the surface. We were told the excavation was over 30 meters deep. This group had the biggest and highest-quality stones we saw all day.

Here follows a video sequence showing Tom checking out one of the largest sapphires we bought today. I paid the full asking price of $100 for this stone. Tom says it will weigh 7 or 8 carats after it is cut and polished in Bangkok:

I saw one miner going into a deep, narrow hole with a lighted candle in his hand to illuminate his work area. He was smiling. Going down into that small, unsupported crawl-hole, I would not have been smiling no matter how rich the sapphires! My clients asked if I wanted to capture the underground diggings. But fortunately, the batteries for the light to my video camera were not charged. Too bad!

Another larger group of hand-miners had apparently tapped into some kind of natural cave system, saying that they were excavating several kilometers into the earth. They also had very rich stones to show for their effort.

Man, did we see sapphires today! Handfuls! Bucketfuls! And some big ones! Beautiful, radiant sea-blue. I love sapphires! I never paid much attention to them before. Now I want to have some for myself. Big blue ones that radiate that special magic feeling…Check out this following video sequence, and I think you will understand what I mean:

I am told this new area we visited today has sprung up over the past three weeks. My clients surveyed this area a month ago, and say there were only just a few miners, and no town existed there before. Now the place is crawling with people. I am told this very same thing is happening all across a very large geographical area.

This adventure is just beginning, and I look forward to future visits to follow the development of this magnificent find.

 

 

By Dave McCracken

“My first breath was so shallow, it seemed almost insignificant in satisfying my need for oxygen.”

Dave Mack

 

I was doing all right with dinner. This was my first occasion to eat Thai food in Bangkok, but I have sat through a lot of similar dinner meetings in other Asian countries. I knew the routine from past experience. Eat a little bit first. Then, taste-test before taking a big bite!

This time, however, we had more than just a few drinks before dinner. This was a first-time meeting with new clients who had asked me to evaluate some potential gold dredging properties in Madagascar. Initial meetings are always a little tense for me. First impressions mean a lot all around. I always want to get an idea who I am working for. The clients want to know who they are paying, how good a job I am likely to do for them and how much they can depend upon me. So these first meetings are pretty important. I want to do my “best” to get through the initial discomfort of unfamiliarity, while not extending into the relationship too quickly. This process is a “touchy-feely” sort of thing. I definitely want to impress the clients and instill confidence.

In this case, we started with drinks, jokes, stories and discussions of the latest movies. I had to listen to the discussions about the movies. By the way, it never ceases to amaze me that my acquaintances in other countries have always seen the latest movies before I have. They know every American actor, and every movie each actor participated in. They also know every American sports star. No doubt about it, America’s biggest influence upon the rest of the world is the medium of entertainment! Our entertainment, for better or worse, is seriously affecting the rest of the world. By the way, you might also be interested to know that in every single other country that I have visited during the past few years, Americans are held in the highest regard. Contrary to what our own news media would have us believe, we are very well liked and respected in many foreign countries.

This initial meeting was going pretty well. Clearly, the clients were extending very warm, informal hospitality toward me. I was feeling quite comfortable. There were seven Thais and one American in this meeting with me. The American helped balance things for me, as the Thais kept shifting back and forth between English and their native language. This is very common in these types of meetings. The clients speak together in their own language, and then address questions or comments to me in English. It makes me a bit uncomfortable to be the only one in the meeting not knowing what the others are discussing, especially when it becomes clear that at least parts of the discussion are about me. Over the years, I have evolved a method of dealing with this that centers on an emotional faith that “the clients trust and respect me.” Otherwise, I would not be asked to meet with them in the first place. I generally just try to “go with the flow.” If there is a joke or a comment that involves laughter (sometimes directed at me), I take it in good humor, and go along with it. I know that if they are comfortable enough to joke around at my expense, I have already made it a step closer in establishing a trusting relationship with the clients. Most of the time, I don’t know what is being said in the other language or what the laughter is about.

So it was, on this evening in Bangkok. We did not discuss business at all that night. It was clear that this was just a “social meeting,” a time set aside for all of us to get acquainted. I was feeling very good by the time we sat down to dinner. The food was “so-o-o” good! I was enjoying it so much that I guess I stopped paying attention to what I was eating. All I remember now is that the chili on my plate looked like a green bean. So, into my mouth it went, along with a spoonful of other things off my plate. By the way, the Thais eat with both a fork and a big spoon together, using the spoon as the primary implement. The spoon is used to shovel food into your mouth. It is much more effective than just using a fork as we traditionally do in the west. It’s quite easy. I picked up a knack for it right away! “Hey, I can shovel down food with the best of them!”

As soon as I took the first bite of that spoonful, I knew I had made a serious mistake. It was like biting into red-hot boiling oil. The question was what to do about it? I vividly remember the calculated solutions. There were only three possibilities: First of all, however, I did not know where the bathroom was in this restaurant, nor was I going to try asking directions with a burning mouthful of food. Secondly, I could spit the food out on my plate at the dinner table of my clients, but this would have been unforgivable behavior, a real social faux pas. Finally, I could chew the food up, swallow it, and then quickly ask where the bathroom was located, or, I could just swallow the food without chewing it up any further.

Since chewing was clearly making matters worse with every bite, I chose the final option. I swallowed, simultaneously drinking the full glass of water in front of me. Then I swallowed several ice cubes, and placed one ice cube in my mouth in an attempt to cool my mouth off a bit. This was not working. My mouth was truly on fire! I could not even feel the coolness of the ice cubes in my mouth!

“I remember seriously wondering if I would ever get another breath”

Shortly after swallowing, the severe burning sensation extended down my throat and into my stomach. It felt like I had swallowed boiling acid! What to do? I sat there trying to appear normal. The Thais were discussing something in their language, not paying much attention to me. I decided that there was no other course of action at the moment except to wait it out and see if things would improve. However; the situation quickly grew worse. My eyes started watering out of control, while simultaneously the extreme burning in my throat and gut worsened. Sweat started pouring down my face. Then my throat began constricting in such a manner that it was becoming difficult to breathe.

I quietly wiped the tears from my eyes with my napkin, trying to appear normal. That was when one of the Thais first took notice that there was something wrong with me. “Is everything all right, Dave?” he asked. I could see the growing concern on his face. I tried to answer that I had eaten something very “hot,” but the words would not come out. My voice had completely shut down. I was having great difficulty breathing. My entire throat and upper chest were out of control. Convulsions were beginning to erupt throughout my throat, as if my throat, completely on its own, was trying to expel the source of the heat. This was making it almost impossible to get a breath of air. I was strangling!

The man who had addressed me quickly broke into the group discussion. Suddenly all the attention was now on me. It was too late to do any further “damage control” to avoid embarrassment. I could not even swallow the spit in my mouth, which was flowing like water, probably a reaction to the intense heat. I was choking on my own saliva! This situation had become critical!

The man who had first addressed me jumped to his feet, quickly came around the table, and escorted me to the bathroom. We spared no time. All of the others followed. Clearly, everyone was extremely alarmed. We went right to the toilet. The man told me it was crucial to “toss it up as quickly as possible, and to make sure I got all of it out. This was not difficult. By this time, the convulsions had extended all the way down into my stomach. The chili was even hotter the second time it passed through my already burning throat!

I remember seriously wondering if I would ever get another breath. My first breath was so shallow, it seemed almost insignificant in satisfying my need for oxygen. I had been in this situation several times before, almost drowning once. Another time, when I was a kid, I sucked in a full breath of gasoline while trying to siphon gas from my mother’s car for use in my boat. It takes enormous self-control to gradually recover and regain one’s breath after an experience like this. First, you must take the smallest breath possible, just to get the respiratory system functioning again. Then, a little more each time, as the spasms will allow. All the Thais stood behind me while I recovered. One person stood with his hand on my back, speaking words of encouragement during the course of only a few minutes. I remember, all the while, wondering how I was ever going to recover from this embarrassment.

Afterwards, back at the dinner table, my hosts wanted an explanation as to what had occurred. First, I needed to recover myself a bit and regain a steady voice. Next, I drank lots of ice water. Eventually, I was ready to eat again. I guess I mainly wanted to show my hosts that I was all right, and that I could accept their hospitality — without it killing me!

After a while, I told them the whole truth of it: My not wanting to spit food out at their table; and trying to act normal, while almost strangling to death. I went through all the motions several times. I acted out the burning and gagging sensations (while trying to act normal) — kind of like a scene from “I Love Lucy.” They howled with laughter, which was probably an emotional reaction to the stressful experience for all of us. This made us very good friends. Now I could spit out anything I want on their table, if I wanted to. In fact, I ought to do it sometime just to see their reaction! Every time we get together we laugh about the experience — once again! They probably laugh about it a lot even when I am not around. Indeed, this experience created a bond between us.

There are a few valuable lessons to be learned in every bad experience. From this situation, I learned that it is better to be human than perfect. People are quicker to accept you when you are not afraid to show some vulnerability. When you freely allow others to laugh at your expense — without taking offense, you also make it easer for them to trust you and show kindness. I learned that you have to let your guard down to allow others to get inside of you. It is from that “inside ” inner core-of-being that meaningful relationships are formed.

 

By Dave McCracken

Being first into northwestern Cambodia to have a look at the gold, ruby and sapphire deposits!

Dave Mack

 

We were really in Cambodia for another purpose. Our earlier gold prospecting efforts in north-eastern Cambodia warranted a follow-up expedition with an 8-inch production dredge. While we were waiting in Phnom Penh (Cambodia’s capital) for the dredge to clear Customs, there was a big shake-up in the Khmer Rouge rebel regime. Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader, was captured and placed under arrest by his own generals. The 30-year civil war was finally over!

 

Several of the key Cambodian players involved with our dredging operation were originally from the Pailin area of northwestern Cambodia. Pailin is well known as one of the richest gem areas in Asia. It has also been the stronghold of the Khmer Rouge regime since the early 1970’s, protected and defended by six million land mines. While we were waiting for customs to clear our equipment, old acquaintances from Pailin reestablished friendly relations with the Cambodian officials associated with our program. Pretty soon, we were involved in serious negotiations, and we were being encouraged to make an expedition up into northwestern Cambodia to take a firsthand look at the gold, ruby and sapphire deposits.

 

Our invitation was extended from the top officials controlling the area. We were provided with substantial security and invited to stay in the home of one of the area’s leaders. Vehicles were provided to us, along with guides. It was clear from the beginning that our expedition was well organized and planned.

  

 A small family operation, where a gravel pump was being lowered off a tripod
to excavate gravels onto a classification screen for gem recovery.

The first thing I noticed while traveling into the area was that they love Americans. During our entire stay, I did not see anyone who did not greet me with a heartwarming smile. Many people cheered when they saw us, as we were the first Americans into this region of Cambodia in about the last 30 years. Several generations of people there have never even seen an American before.

We were stopped at the final security stop for a passport check. I gather that is something they seldom do when you are being escorted by colonels and generals who are carrying documents signed and stamped by the highest level of government. I think the guards were so surprised to see us, they wanted to check what planet we were from! After looking at our passports, we were waved through with big smiles and cheers from all the border guards.

A Vietnamese tank which did not survive the mine fields alongside the road to Pailin.

On the road to Pailin, the United Nations was already busy removing land mines. It appeared as though there were hundreds of specialists removing the mines. We were told that because the mines cannot be located with metal detectors (because there is no metal in the mines), the mines were being pinpointed by using some type of sophisticated electronics from airplanes above.

Once we arrived at our destination, we were warmly received by the top officials (and their many soldiers and bodyguards) with a celebration that lasted far into the night. During the following days, we were given a substantial tour of the ruby and sapphire fields. Most active mining was very small-scale and primitive.

But the product being recovered was clearly rich and abundant. We saw some small hydraulic mining operations in the ruby fields, where the miners were recovering a lot of stones, while processing just a little bit of gravel. We saw simple panning and screening hand operations, where the excavation was being done underwater with buckets. They were recovering handfuls of rubies.

As gemstones have a much lower specific gravity than gold, we were mindful that suction dredging for them was going to require a special recovery system.

  

Cambodians give a new meaning to the term “hand mining!”

In one area, local officials were demonstrating for us how rich the area was using a gold pan. Then, one of the soldiers reached down and grabbed a single handful of gravel off the surface of the river-bottom. He came up with three rubies. Pretty soon, all of the soldiers were doing it. They gave the rubies to me. It didn’t take long to fill up a whole bag. It was pretty convincing to me! The rubies were small. My understanding is the deeper you go into the gravel, the more plentiful they become and the bigger they get.

The problem for the local miners is that they cannot excavate more than about a meter deep, because they are using buckets in moving water. We were told most of the bottom stratum of gravel in the rivers have not yet been mined.

    

Fine material is screened out and then gems are hand-picked from the screen.

All the same, I saw some fantastic gems-one ruby about the size of a baseball! They offered to sell it to me at a wholesale cost of one million dollars. Unfortunately, I was not carrying that kind of cash with me.

The annual rains were just beginning as we finished up with our expedition. Besides establishing that valuable deposits do indeed exist there, we were able to make friends with the people who control the area, along with many others. Naturally, we are invited to return with dredging equipment.

This preliminary evaluation was very successful, even though it was done with almost no planning in advance. Based upon the information that we gathered, though, we would be able to do good logistical planning in advance of our next project into the area.

 

By Dave McCracken

Talking about putting yourself way out there beyond where you should not be!

Dave Mack

Actually, I had no business diving in that cave with the equipment I that was using. The gear was old and used heavily in my dredging program. The breathing regulator leaked out of the side. The mouth piece rubber was no longer being held on by a band or plastic wire tie. My underwater flashlight was not working well. It would flicker on and off again, making it necessary to bang it on something to get it to come back on. I simply did not think the whole thing through! I have been diving all my life, and I should have known better. But I do have an excuse, it was treasure fever that was clouding my judgment, and I had it bad.

It all started when an acquaintance of ours told us about the treasure in Hall City Cave. My brother Brian and I had been dredging in a very rich pay-streak, three to four ounces of beautiful gold every day with a six inch dredge in the middle of the cold winter months. We were only dredging about four hours a day. The gold was just pouring in. Then a big storm came in which knocked us out of the water for about a week. That is when the old man told us about the treasure which the Indians hid in the cave.


Mark Keene and Ivan Jackovich looking for
treasure in the same cave a few years later

As the story goes, some time during the late 1800’s a few renegade Indians attacked and killed the miners of a small hydraulic mining operation near the town of Hayfork, in Trinity County, in northern California. While the mining operation might have been small, they were doing very well. The Indians apparently stole about one hundred pounds of mostly nugget-gold from the dead miners.

Since the Indians were on foot, and also carrying a very heavy load, it did not take long for the posse to catch up with them. In fact, as a last ditch effort to get away, the Indians stashed the gold somewhere so they could move faster. When the posse caught up with the Indians, only the Indians knew where the gold was. The men in the posse told the Indians that they would not be hung for their crimes if they would tell where they hid the gold. The Indians told the posse that they had hidden the gold in Hall City Cave. Then they were promptly hung right on the spot.

As it turns out, Hall City Cave has a deep, submerged cavern at the back of the cave. The cavern is said to be bottomless, because no one apparently has ever been able to get to the bottom. And of course, not the posse, or anyone else, ever found the gold. Did the Indians hide the gold somewhere in the cave? Did they just dump it into the bottomless cavern to get rid of it? Did they have some secret hiding place in the cave, perhaps underwater? Or did they hide the gold somewhere else?

As the story goes, during more recent years, there have been several deaths in the cave. These were drownings, as scuba divers have tried unsuccessfully to recover the hidden gold nuggets. There is a strong legend that powerful Indian spirits remain in the cave to guard the treasure, to scare away or kill anyone trying to recover it. The old man told us the story. He believed that if anyone could recover the gold, it was us; because of our superior skill, our experience, and our integrity. Especially our integrity, since the old man wanted an equal third of the treasure if we found it. He had the information and the maps; we were to provide the necessary equipment and do the actual diving part of the operation. “What the heck,” we decided, we were not doing anything else productive; just watching the rain and waiting for the river to slow down and clear up.

The old man drove; and other than a few logs crossing the seldom-used old logging dirt roads, and a little snow, we got to the cave with little trouble. It only took about an hour to pack the diving gear up the semi-steep hill to the cave. The cave itself was not very large. It was about seven feet tall in places, ten or fifteen feet in others. Most of the cave was wide enough to walk through, except one spot where it was necessary to squeeze through sideways. The cave did not extend very deep into the mountain, only about forty or fifty feet. The water-filled pool at the back of the cave looked very deep as we shined our flashlights into the water.

The cave was dark and gloomy. Menacing spirits were dancing in the shadows as we shined our flashlights around the cave while moving the equipment into place. The small area of the cave succeeded in giving us a closed-in feeling. Something about the atmosphere inside the cave was very wrong. We all had the same feeling that what we were doing was not right, like we were trying to steal something that did not properly belong to us. There was an unmistakable feeling of menacing gloom inside the cave, the feeling like we were in big trouble and that we should get out. All of us felt the gloom!

In fact, the feeling was so strong, we went outside and had a short discussion, reaffirming our determination for being there; agreeing that the gold was indeed ours if we were able to recover it; and also resolving that if disembodied beings were in fact making us feel so nervous, then it was all the more likely that the gold was hidden in this place. And, of course, it was also okay with the others because it was me that was going to do the diving. I was the most experienced.

The water in the back of the cave was crystal clear and ice cold. I chose earlier to use my dry-suit, and I took fifteen pounds of lead off my weight belt to make me less heavy in the water. In dredging, it is necessary to weight yourself heavily to the bottom of the river. In diving, especially cave diving, you want to achieve neutral buoyancy so you can swim up or down as you like. My problem was that my weights were in 15-pound increments.

To take another 15 pounds off would make me too light. To leave it on made me sink rather quickly. It was a choice I had to make. How easy it is to simply make a decision. Then you are stuck with the consequences! I chose to go heavy. I figured it would be better to not have to fight my way down into the deep hole against positive buoyancy.

The pool of water at the back of the cave was the surface of what turned out to be a round shaft which extended deep down into the earth at almost a vertical angle. The shaft looked to be around six feet in diameter. Shining my flashlight down, I could tell that it was deep. I could also see what appeared to be additional chambers which extended off the top of the main shaft. “Perhaps this was an old mine?” No, I remember thinking, there were no tailings or waste dumps outside the cave. “It must be limestone,” I thought, remembering the limestone caves near Del Loma which the Indians used to conduct raids from the small town of Denny up on the New River, through 20 miles of underground connected caverns. “This underwater cave could be bottomless,” I thought.

Rather than wear the scuba tank on the first dive, I felt it would be safer to use the fifty-foot airline that I had brought along. I attached one end of the airline to my scuba tank, which was to stay at the surface. The other end attached to my breathing regulator, which went into my mouth. This way, I could do a preliminary exploration without having to worry about getting caught up in tight corners with a bulky scuba tank on my back. The airline also gave me a direct link to the surface. Rope does not generally work very well for this sort of thing underwater, because it has a tendency to get tangled around vital things.

I just wanted to do a preliminary look around without getting too far away from the surface; which in this case, was going to be no more than fifty feet. Then I could think about putting the tank on my back and venturing further into the darkness. As it turned out in the end, this was a decision I would be glad I made.

We only had one scuba tank; and since my brother was not experienced using scuba equipment anyway, I had to settle for him acting as a tender holding a flashlight at the surface. Besides, I had the only underwater flashlight, so there was not very much he was going to do for me if I did get into trouble. It was pitch dark down there!

Of course, my flashlight started giving me trouble as soon as I started down into the main shaft. My depth gauge had just told me I was only fifteen feet into the hole when the light quit the first time. I stopped quietly in the darkness for a moment, listening, trying to get more comfortable in my surroundings. “What was that slight rumbling noise?” It was very light. Was it the echo of our own movements and noise in the cave, perhaps my air bubbles against the upper wall of the cave? No, it sounded too deep and far away for that. It almost sounded like the heavy beating of drums from far away. It was a very distant sound. I found myself looking into the darkness, trying to figure out if the sound was really there at all.

I tapped the light a few times along the side to bring it back to life and continued deeper into the shaft. As I descended, I passed several openings that extended upwards off the main shaft. “Good places to hide the gold, maybe,” I thought to myself as I went by them. When my depth gauge read 35 feet, I stopped and looked down the shaft. The water was perfectly clear. With the bright light, I could see well beyond the remaining fifteen feet that my airline was going to allow me. The shaft continued to extend at the same straight angle into the darkness, giving the perception of endlessness. The angle was so steep that if they threw it in this main shaft, the gold would not have stopped until it hit bottom. “No way to reach that without a scuba tank on my back,” I thought.

Looking up at that point, I noticed that there was a smaller shaft extending off the top of the main shaft. This one was only about 3 ½ feet in diameter.

“Better to check out the close quarters of these smaller, upper shafts without the tank on my back,” I decided, as I jumped up into the smaller opening above me. I was wearing my dredging boots; and because I was weighted slightly heavy, it was necessary to span the perimeter of the almost diagonal shaft and use my legs against the sides of the shaft to climb upward. While doing this, I managed somehow to keep the flashlight pointed in an upward direction. Looking up, all I could see was darkness. I was hoping to find the water’s surface and a hidden open chamber with a treasure of gold nuggets inside…

I climbed upward until I felt the familiar tugging of my airline, telling me that I had reached as far as it was going to allow me. At that point, while breathing in, I got a full mouth of water! Getting a mouth full of water can often happen when gold dredging in fast water. When your regulator is positioned just right (or wrong?) into a strong water current, the rubber exhaust valve will sometimes allow water to flow into the final stage of the regulator. This will give you a mouth full of water if you happen to be breathing in at the time.

This happens often to me, because I mostly dredge in fast water. My body just accepts it as a normal routine. I simply use whatever is left in my lungs to blow the water out of the exhaust ports. Then, I carefully take in my next breath. There is always a certain amount of undivided attention that goes with taking this next breath; because if it is more water, it is necessary to act quickly to avoid drowning! Almost always, though, I get nice clean air on the first intake after blowing the water out of the regulator. That’s why it was such a surprising shock to me in that cave when I got a second mouth full of water!

Now I had no air in my lungs at all, and I whipped the flashlight around just in time to see the regulator sink out of sight into the darkness. I still had the rubber mouthpiece in my mouth. Pulling on the airline the way I did must have made the rubber mouthpiece slip off the regulator. How could I be so stupid to dive without fixing it first? The realization of my position was terrifying. My body was screaming for air, and I was a long way from getting any. “Do I go down 15 feet to the main shaft and then climb another 35 feet to the surface? I don’t think I can possibly make it that far! Or, do I go towards the surface in the small shaft in hopes of finding air up there?” These were my only two choices.

I don’t even remember turning around in the cave. Going down was not physically difficult because I was weighted heavy. But as I went deeper into the cave, the increased pressure of the greater depth compressed my lungs even further, making my body turn into a panicked, psychotic animal. My body was screaming to turn around and go back up the small shaft, to do anything, anything to get air!

Have you ever had anyone hold your head underwater, or hold you down while blocking your nose and mouth from taking in air? If you have, then you have some idea of what I was going through. It took every bit of discipline I could master to reach the bottom of the small shaft.

The momentum, and the extra lead on my belt caused me to slip even further down into the main shaft. My lungs were a vacuum; it felt like they were squeezed flat. This feeling and the panic were one and the same. There was no discipline left. Just a mad scramble to get up the shaft. It was difficult. The tunnel was almost straight up, and I was wondering if I might have made a mistake and gotten into the wrong shaft!

The extra lead on my belt was pulling me back down. My feet were slipping on the smooth rock surface, and there were no hand holds. I was making progress, but it was painfully slow. I found myself watching the action in slow motion from outside the body. Inch by inch the body was moving, but I was not going to make it in time. The panic and desperation were kind of a far off feeling now. And then the flashlight flicked off!

It was the sound of drums after all, and they were louder now, much louder, all around me, in fact. The monotones, rhythmic pounding of the drums had an alluring, hypnotic effect upon me. It was a wonderful feeling to be a part of the ceremony. No, I was the ceremony! This was not something that was foreign to me or something that came from the outside. It was something I have always had with me and chose not to look at. The distant feeling of enthusiasm, and a feeling of greatness took over as I watched my fellow warrior-brothers dancing and leaping with wondrous strength, glory and bravery around the fire. They were singing “Hey Yey Yey Yey, Hey Yey Yey Yey,” to the beat of the drum. And I realized with exhilaration that this was a place where effort, emotion and thought all came together as one; a place which transcends time. This was my place, and the realization brought about the enthusiasm to jump in and give myself completely to the eternal dance around the fire…

“The light went out.” The voice from another world said.
“What?” said another voice.
“He was just about to surface and I think he lost his light again,” said the strangely familiar voice, with obvious concern.
“Huh?” I remember asking myself. “What is this?” And the sudden realization of the sadness this would cause to my brother, and to my family and close friends. “Not this way” I told myself; and looking up, I realized that it was not a fire I was looking at. It was my brother’s flashlight at the surface, just above me.

It was not very hard to scramble up the last few feet to the surface. I came out of the water like a madman, gasping for air. The first breath was vastly painful, the second not so bad. I was left the rest of that day, and the next, with mixed emotions; the feeling that I was simply happy to be alive, and also the feeling that I had been robbed of something important. “You O.K. Bro?”, asked my brother.

Yeah, I was going to be O.K. I spent the next hour or so diving in the shallow parts of the cave. This was not the first time I have come close to drowning, or the second for that matter. I prefer to try and stay in the near vicinity until the shock wears off. Kind of like getting back on the horse again immediately after it has thrown you, I guess.

And the treasure? It is probably still there! You can have it if you can get it! I know now that it certainly does not belong to me, if only for the reason that I am not going back after it. I will get my nuggets the hard way; I’ll stick to gold dredging!

 

 

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