On a drab day in the dreary beginning of winter, I walked into Abercrombie & Fitch's New York store to look at a used shotgun and fell in love with a shiny yellow submarine. On Abercrombie's ground floor, the submarine—14 feet long, missile-shaped and sleek—was poised on a boat trailer as if ready for adventure and only momentarily awaiting discovery. It had two open cockpits; in the rear one there were controls to drive the propeller and operate the elevator and rudder at the stern. According to a notice Scotch-taped to the bow, the submarine was constructed of fiber glass and could cruise four miles an hour for two hours on one battery charge. Made in Italy, it was sold by Healthways of Los Angeles. Cost: $1,500.
I left the submarine there, but I could not forget it. I am a busy woman—full-time housewife and part-time writer—my mind so jam-packed with necessary and extraneous matter that there is seldom room for any more distractions. Regardless, that evening and all the next day and the next evening the bright yellow sub kept cruising through my thoughts.
The following day I went back to Abercrombie's to look at my love again. It was gone. I searched the floor in growing dismay until a salesman asked me if I were looking for a particular item. "Yes," I said. "What happened to the submarine?"
"The one you had here a few days ago."
"Here?" He sounded quite startled.
"Not a real one," I explained. "I mean, not the big Navy kind. A small one, just for two."
He went to find someone who might know. The someone he found sent me to the purchasing agent, who had bought the submarine in the first place. The purchasing agent was a strong believer in small submarines. He spoke dreamily of the part they would play in the future, but he had sad news. The sub that had caught my eye was truly gone, sold to a quiz show.
When I told him I was going to Los Angeles soon on business, the purchasing agent suggested that while there I should certainly try bearding the sport's No. 1 sea lion right in his home waters. The West Coast sea lion he had in mind is a large, full-voiced and exuberant north Italian named Gustav Dalla Valle, the commander of the Healthways submarine fleet.
During my stay in Los Angeles, Gustav Dalla Valle did not have time to teach me to run a sub, but he started me on my way by letting me ride with him in the vertical jungles of kelp off Catalina Island. Gustav has been diving steadily for 25 years—a constantly joyful man whenever seawater is flowing through his lush, sun-bleached mustache. In our tour off Catalina he piloted the sub with vigor, first running it on the surface at low speed, then at high speed, forward and reverse, circling and zigzagging. Then suddenly with a warning bellow, "There she goes!" he pushed the bow under. For 15 minutes as I alternately held my breath and gasped for air, he continued dunking us up and down, running the sub like a porpoise. Each time we surfaced he would bellow through the water draining from his mustache, demanding to know how I liked it. Before I could say "Fine" or "I am beginning to drown," down we would go again.