Sunday, December 02, 2007
The real magic first appeared near the end of my seventh year as a volunteer diver at the Aquarium of the Pacific. Magic came in the form of a child, an adorable four year old called Michelangelo. Our dive team had just emerged from a routine Tropical Reef presentation on a cloudy Saturday morning in February. In the dive locker, an Aquarium staff member introduced us to Michelangelo and his family explaining that the youngster comes to Long Beach every weekend just to see us. Well, me actually, though I don’t flatter myself to think it’s “Me, Andy” he likes, but rather the generic diver that they just happen to call “Andy”. So, Michelangelo met the Saturday Morning Dive Team and just like that our lives were changed.
Michelangelo has autism. He is “high functioning” and astoundingly bright. He knows that a sand tiger shark is also called a “snaggletooth” and seems to be keenly aware of the mess we’re making of our environment. Since our otherwise band of nondescript divers had now become celebrities, even if only in the eyes of a child, we wanted to keep the flame of fame burning brightly – so we’ve invited Micro [his nickname] back to the locker often to visit the divers and to exchange some high fives. Along the way we fell in love!
Michelangelo’s mom is Dana, an advertising executive, and dad Mike is in the entertainment industry. We have met Micro’s uncle, an environmental scientist, and Grandma and Grandpa, too. Any child would be exceedingly fortunate to have such a loving and devoted family. Perhaps it is prophetic that this child was born to these parents. They seem to have adopted us; I know we have adopted them.
A couple of months ago, I missed a few diving weekends in a row while traveling on some business and a vacation. I hate it when that happens – I really miss my volunteer job when I’m not there. Dana had explained my absence to Micro who skipped one or two of the weekly sessions himself. We both returned after a few weeks. The top of our Blue Cavern habitat is about 30 feet above the floor of the Aquarium where the visitors gather to watch us feed sharks and make presentations. I tell you this because at my age, recognizing anything through the window of an AGA mask and 30 feet of salt water is no sure thing. But, at 9:40 in the morning, when I get into the “freezing cold” exhibit, the very first thing I do, before I check my gauges, before I acknowledge my dive buddies, before I observe the animals, I look for Michelangelo. And, he looks for me. He recognizes me because he instantly identifies each of the divers on our team. He knows us all by the colors of our fins! We saw each other at the same time. The look on his face on that one dive alone was payment in full for years of volunteer diving. The best part? He was wearing his wetsuit, normally reserved for cooler Saturdays, but worn that day in honor of the occasion.
Later, in the dive locker, Micro asked me if I had a nice vacation and gave me a hug. He gives “backward hugs” but I love those hugs when I can get ‘em, and the occasional [very occasional] kiss on the cheek. Sometimes friends ask, “What on Earth?…” can get me to drive 120 miles round trip in bone crushing traffic every week to dive inside a building. “Slam Dunk”…I dive for Michelangelo. As I dive for your children and for all of our grandchildren, too.
Shortly after our first meeting, Dana shared a story she’d written and hoped to have published. It is a beautiful children’s bedtime story which made my daughter cry. Thanks to a connection to a real celebrity, Dana and Mike have inspired a renowned artist to illustrate her story. The drawings are complete and watercolors will soon be applied. A mock up will follow and a book will be born. The Aquarium has even promised us a book signing or other exciting event. Of course, the hard part is getting from the mock up to the event. Although we have resources and we’ll work like animals to get it done, book publishing is no easy task, or so they say. So anything anyone out there can do to help us would be gratefully appreciated.
There are well over a hundred volunteer scuba divers at the Aquarium and they come for many reasons. For me, for our team, as you’ve already guessed, it’s the kids, the thousands of beautiful kids of all sizes, shapes and colors who’ve appeared on the dry side of our exhibit windows so many Saturday mornings. We are so crazy about the kids that even when our shift is over, it isn’t over. It is not unusual to see Saturday morning divers wandering about the Aquarium during the afternoon talking to kids, playing with kids, listening to kids [and annoying afternoon divers]. We love the kids and they love us. We dive for them.
Are you worried about their future? Environmentally speaking, we sure are. In the months to come, our hope is to use this forum to share experience and expertise, to educate and entertain. For the kids, for Micro, for his story, for a better world for all of them – for the magic.
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