I NEVER THOUGHT THAT DIVING WOULD BE MY career. It was always something I loved to do so it was hard to look at going underwater as work. I originally thought I was going to be a schoolteacher. Okay, stop chuckling. With a bit of hindsight, that seems a fairly unrealistic goal as I very much doubt that my independent nature would have fi t well into a regimented and inflexible system that required me to actually adopt a modicum of temperate behavior. When I finished up my work diving for the navy in 1971, I decided to hang out in the Caribbean and see if I could make a little money in diving outside military projects. When my mother’s friends would ask her what her son did for a living, she’d always say, “Anything to avoid a real job.” She was uniquely blessed with the gift of clarity. And she knew I would never do anything that required me to wear a tie or uncomfortable shoes. I’m still a tee shirt & shorts guy and barefoot is my preferred fashion statement. It worked out pretty well and I got sucked in… for over 35 years. I’m still infused with the same passion.
I survived a shark attack, four cases of bends, two aircraft crashes, a hotel bombing, a shopping list of interesting tropical bites, stings, and abrasions… as well as some strange mushrooms Jimmy Buff ett gave me in Tortola in 1975 that had me pretty damned confused for about a week. Over the years my work has introduced me to some colorful and crazy people… from politicians, movie :: special thanks and television personalities, rock stars, and other assorted characters. And the partying we did back in the Caribbean days fueled by liquor, controlled substances, and semi-religious herbs would probably have euthanized a more highly evolved organism.
Diving also took me away to distant places for long periods of time at sea, on fi lm locations, and on expedition explorations. I’m the ultimate frequent flyer. Every airline counter agent knows me (and the mounds of gear with me) on sight. But eventually months on the road off in the back of beyond for most of the last three decades takes its toll on the mind and body. Not to mention my hairline. I used to have a forehead… now I’ve got a fivehead.
In the last few years I also came to the harsh reality of losing too many friends, far too early. And it finally caught up with me. I knew I wanted to spend more time with the things that mattered most: close friends, my wife Gretchen, and my adoring dog Pete. Then recently I was diagnosed with a severe case of a disease that has been named after me: “Gilliam’s Posterior Vocational Glaucoma.” That’s when you get up and just can’t see your ass going to work that day. I’m sure that many of you have experienced the same symptoms.
So I decided to sell the last of my companies and retire while I was still young enough to enjoy diving in its purity and allow more time for other interests that had been put on the back burner. Like this book and others to follow.
But I would never have gotten my start in business without the initial help of my semi-deranged accountant mentor, Frank Majnerich. The legendary Dave Coston taught me to stay alive in commercial diving and introduced me to the science of breath hold diving and hunting underwater. Dick Bonin, President of Scubapro, took a chance on me by giving my fledgling company the franchise in 1973 and all my downstream successes grew from that initial start. Bill Walker joined me as Vice President of V. I. Divers Ltd. in St. Croix in 1974 and provided the “yin” to my “yang” as he helped me build the company from a tiny cubbyhole on Company Street to the largest diving operation in the Virgin Islands. Mark Shurilla, Kevin Bonnie, Dan Farrar and Lina Gretchen Gilliam 22 23 Hitchcock shared some great times on ships and yachts in far flung anchorages over the years.
I owe a lot to attorney Joel Holt who kept me focused on business, out of police custody (for the most part), and was always there as a friend during the wild days in St. Croix. Joe Giacinto and I met in 1972 at an instructor program. He lived on tiny Marina Cay in the British Virgin Islands and managed that unique resort. We’ve shared a few tragedies, a few monumental paydays, a lot of time on my yachts, and a lifetime of fun out on the edge. I’m tempted to reflect, “There ought to be a law against having that good a time,” but there actually were plenty of laws addressing our misadventures. We just chose to ignore them. As his late brother Mike once told us, “If you’re not living on the edge, then you’re taking up too much space!”
My photography benefited from the stellar help of my models Lois Leonard, Lina Hitchcock, Lynn Hendrickson, Cathryn Castle Whitman, and my wife Gretchen. You ladies are the best!
Blake Hendrickson introduced me to the modern Mac/Apple computer and changed my life as a writer previously shackled to the confines of a typewriter. Fred Garth and I shared the same passion for making journalism fun and never underestimated the intellect of our readers. He stood shoulder-toshoulder with me when we were threatened by loss of advertising revenue when we dared to print the truth about nitrox, dive computers, technical diving, and other controversial topics. Ethics in diving journalism? What a foreign concept. It worked pretty well for us and we had some fun along the way.
Thanks to visionary dive operators and friends like Dan Ruth, Peter Hughes, Lenny Kolczynski, Avi Klapfer, and Tony Rhodes. The modern liveaboard industry is a better place for all divers because of your vessels. David Sipperly and Miguel Sanchez also were valued dive partners who epitomized professionalism, courage and leadership.
A big part of my legal business has been consulting in litigation and risk management. In most cases this would be about as dull as dinner with a life insurance salesman. But not with characters like Rick Lesser, Michele Bass, Peter Meyer, Dr. Tom Neuman, and our late friend and colleague Bill Turbeville. It’s been a good posse to roll with and we certainly kept the wine merchants in business over the years.
My sincerest appreciation to friends Howard & Michele Hall and Stan Waterman for bringing their class acts to my publishing ventures. And a nod to Brian Carney who came to work for me right out of college, later bought TDI/SDI, and proved to be the only person that seems to know how to run one of my companies successfully after I sell them. Go get ‘em, kid! I’d like to thank all the great writers and photographers that I’ve worked with and published over the years.
Music has been a huge part of my life and I’ve been lucky enough to share times, private concerts, and friendships with some of the defining artists that made music that mattered. Thanks to Jonathan Edwards, Chris Smither, Dave Mallett, Chuck Kruger, and the best damn band out of Texas: Wheatfi eld (Connie Mims Pinkerton, Craig Calvert and Ezra Idlet). Thanks guys, you made our lives better with your extraordinary talent.
A parting wave to Jim Graham, my primary bad influence, and a true friend over more than three decades. Remember: a “good friend” answers your phone call and bails you out of jail after a night of inspired debauchery. But a “true friend” sits handcuff ed next to you in the back seat of the squad car and says, “Shit man, that was one helluva good time!”
But most of all, I’d like to thank you. I would never have enjoyed the success I did if you hadn’t been customers of my diving operations, taken training with my certification agencies (TDI & SDI), bought equipment that I manufactured, or welcomed me into your homes by reading my magazines, articles, and books. It’s been my deepest honor and privilege and I can’t imagine a more meaningful reward than your support.
For over 35 years I got paid far too well to go diving and visit the most exotic places in the world with some of the best people anyone could call friends. Many are profi led in this book. It’s a pleasure I cannot adequately express. My sincerest and heartfelt thanks to you all.
– Bret Gilliam, June 2007