It was 1962, and for several years the popular underwater diving adventure television program, Sea Hunt, starring Lloyd Bridges, had captivated viewers. For you youngsters, he is the father of movie stars Jeff and Beau Bridges.
Russ had taken a scuba training class in Kansas City. He had shown me the basics and I had researched all the current publications I could find and bought some gear. We had talked about diving in the ocean and perhaps exploring the American River in California. The discovery of a gold nugget in the American River started the gold rush of 1849. That fact was not lost on us.
We scheduled our vacations to start in mid-July. Joined by our wives, we loaded scuba gear and luggage in Russ’s convertible and headed west. The first stop was Pikes Peak. That red Chevy took us all the way to the top. Royal Gorge, the Painted Desert, and the Grand Canyon were next. We visited Boulder Dam and took time for a swim in Lake Mead. We zoomed right on through Las Vegas. After a drive through the desert we stopped to stay overnight in a quaint little town named Yermo, California. I don’t remember many of the places we stayed at. My wife remembers staying in Yermo because the older lady that checked us in gave us some cookies, but told us we could not eat them in the motel rooms.
The next day we went through Los Angeles and on to Fillmore, California. There, we were guests of our aunt and uncle who lived on the Spalding Ranch. The ranch was a part of the historical Rancho Sespe. The aunt was my mother’s twin sister (see The Battle of Beecher’s Island). Her husband managed the citrus packing plant on the ranch just west of Fillmore.
We had a busy agenda visiting Hollywood, Pacific Ocean Park, Knotts Berry Farm, and of course we spent some time on the beach. We spent a long day at Disney Land.
Finally the time came to go fishing and scuba diving in the ocean. Our uncle and his brother took us out in their boat. Russ owned two wet suits that we had used winter diving in fresh water. We knew because of the extra buoyancy of the wet suits in saltwater we needed weighted belts. We bought weight belts and special abalone prying tools. With my uncle and his brother, we started for the ocean before daylight, stopping for a big breakfast at a truck stop restaurant.
We put the boat in at a boat lift on a pier at Redondo Beach. Then we started for an area where we could dive for abalone. Along the way, we fished for bonito fish.
Pretty soon the sea swells began to work on us landlubbers. Russ and I were sharing a deep sea rod. I sat down waiting my turn. I was munching on soda crackers, having read that was a help in combating seasickness. Russ was making fun of me saying, “Look, look, Walt is getting seasick.” I knew Russ well enough to know that he was striving to cover his own nausea. The boat was riding the swells up and down, up and down. Suddenly, Russ threw the rod at me, rushed to the transom, and started upchucking that truck stop breakfast. Luckily, he had already caught a number of good sized bonito.
Eventually, we arrived at the intended diving area. Russ was still mighty green and wisely decided not to go down. I had my sea legs and was in good shape. I came to dive in the ocean and I intended to do it. I put my gear on and went down alone. Not knowing how much weight was needed, I found I was having trouble descending. Rather than go back for additional belt weights, I followed the anchor line down and carried the boat anchor around. I was at a depth of 75 feet according to my wrist-mounted depth gauge. Examining some boulders, I found no abalone. I was seeing lots of fish. A giant manta ray swam above and a bit to the side of me. From fin tip to fin tip it appeared to be approximately 20 feet wide. I thought perhaps the water was having a magnifying effect. Seeing the huge ray helped me decide that I had achieved my goal to dive in the ocean. I went back up to the boat, and we finished out our day fishing for bonito. I researched rays later and read that some species could reach a width of 18 to 22 feet.
We said our goodbyes to our aunt and uncle and left early that morning to visit our cousin and family at Sacramento before journeying home. Little did we know, the adventure was not over! We arrived at their home about mid-afternoon. They had their boat and trailer hooked up ready to go. They said they thought we would enjoy finishing the day out diving and boating in the American River and Folsom Lake.
A short drive brought us to the beautiful waters of the lake. We put the boat into the river near the beginning of the lake. The water was cold and very clear. We busied ourselves exploring the bottom, turning over stones, and picking up some colored ones for our cousin’s rock garden. There was a small cove across the river and several hundred yards down. Our cousins had fished there before, and they were interested in the depth of the water in that cove. They called the area Rattlesnake Bar. You can see it listed on the map above. Since I had used up some of my air in the ocean, I ran out before Russ did. Russ agreed to check it out. The area was several hundred yards from us. Russ said if we took the boat closer he would swim the rest of the way.
We crossed over and dropped anchor in the cove. I dried off, put on a jacket, and watched Russ’s air bubbles on the surface as he made his way toward us. I remarked to the group that he was almost out of compressed air. With the equipment used at the time you could see the air bubbles and gauge the status. He was steadily pulling harder on the regulator. All of a sudden there was a big rush of air and Russ popped to the surface. “I am out of air, but there is something down here that you must see!”
“Aw man,” I argued. “I don’t want to get wet and cold again.”
“You’ve got to see this! It is a stump or mannequin on the bottom, that looks just like a man! I am not getting out of here until you look at it.”
I put my frogman flippers on, donned a mask, climbed on top of the boat cabin, and dived deep while Russ waited on the surface. Twenty-five feet down, I found what had gotten my brother-in-law so excited. Swimming in one pass beside the object, I determined it was a man. The figure was trapped on the bottom by gravel covering the lower portion of his legs. I could see red hair, a glass eye, and a pendent around the neck. The man’s arms were floating in front of him, palms upwards. Russ knew what he saw. He just could not believe it. I came up and quietly said, “It is a person. Now what do we do?”
We all talked it over and decided to go to the park headquarters. Darkness set in by the time we had the boat out of the water and found the headquarters office. Luckily, there was someone there and he called the sheriff’s office. Russ and I reported the discovery and location and thought we had finished our part, but the ordeal was not over. The park person put us all in a conference room with a map on the wall and instructed us to wait for sheriff’s officers.
After an hour or more wait, two sheriff’s deputies showed up. One was smaller in stature and very polite and professional. The second was a large brawny tough guy with a pock marked face and a personality to match. He did most of the talking. “Let’s hear the story,” he said. After we explained again what we found and where we found it. Tough guy leaned in, gave Russ and me a look up and down, and then asked gruffly, “You guys been drinking?” We assured him we had not. He grilled us some more and finally said, “Okay, meet us at Rattlesnake Bar with your diving equipment in the morning and show us where it is.”
“We need to get started back to Missouri, we are about out of vacation time. Also, our air tanks are empty,” Russ informed him.
“You can get your tanks filled in Sacramento and meet us and the patrol about mid-morning at Rattlesnake Bar,” the big deputy said. “We had better find a body there or you guys are going to spend some more time in California,” he added.
We arrived back at our cousin’s home in Sacramento late in the night and went to bed. I don’t know about Russ, but I did not sleep a wink. The deputy’s threat had gotten to me.
By morning I had almost convinced myself that it was not a body. We found the divers supply and had our tanks refilled to the standard 2200 psi. The two deputies and the coroner were already at the gravel bar cove waiting when we arrived.
Still wanting to leave as soon as we could, we timidly asked if they would need us to help retrieve the body. The tough guy deputy told us that we could not leave because the sheriff would have papers for us to sign the next day. I knew he still didn’t believe us. He informed us they were experienced divers and certainly did not need our help. That part suited us fine, but staying another day did not.
The coroner gave us a balloon float attached to a long cord. He told us to attach it to the body. I got my gear on. Russ was having trouble with some tangled webbing. I could not wait. I had to know for sure. I grabbed the cord and went over the side. Russ followed, and we easily found the body. I tied the cord to a rock near the body and we went back to the surface. Russ and I withdrew to some boulders near shore and our cousins took their boat back upstream a ways.
The sheriff deputies worked off the patrol boat and the coroner used a small flat jon boat with a transport basket. As we watched from the bank, both boats positioned over the balloon float, and the two deputies dove in.
Not too far into the task the coroner jumped up, stripped to his undershorts, and dove in after them. He came back up with the big deputy in tow. Seems the tough guy got sick and upchucked into his scuba gear. Even though it was a solemn and serious occasion, Russ and I found just a little bit of satisfaction out of that.
The coroner told us he would have the discovery papers we had to sign at the mortuary early the next day. We spent the rest of the day with relatives and said goodbye the next morning. We stopped at Placerville to sign the papers and started a marathon drive back to Missouri.
Newspaper accounts later erroneously reported finding the body of Walter Anton Wood in 15 feet of water. It was actually 25 feet.
Each year about this time, I think of the young drowning victim and his family. He journeyed so far to meet with a fatal accident. We journeyed so far to accidentally find him.