We were an odd trio of kids, although if you observed Chet, Russell and myself we were pretty normal looking. I had my hair styled in an all American greasy pompadour that acted as a sunblock for my entire face. I wore chinos tapered at the bottom, with barely enough room for a skin rash. I sported a plane white T-shirt.
The psychedelic 60’s hadn’t arrived yet so T-shirts didn’t look like the big bang exploded on your chest.
Russell had thick dark hair that was pushed to one side as if it had been run over by a street sweeper. Although he wasn’t fat, he was chunkier than most of us skinny kids, whose body definition was comprised of bones that rippled through our skin. Chet was a year or so younger, but was mature enough to be at least 17 months older. His brown hair could have been a neglected golf-green stuck in a drought and he was a shorts and sneaker guy, Con’s of course.
Back then TV was like a talking Norman Rockwell and had yet to be thrown up into adulthood. For awhile our “really” big show was Route Sixty Six,. a weekly drama about a pair of twenty some things: Buzz, played by George Maharis, and Todd, portrayed by Martin Milner, traveling across country in search of the meaning of nothing. Every season despite neither having even a part-time job, faking to be a blind beggar, or forging checks, they drove a brand new corvette (that had to be either stolen or was given to them by Elvis Presley). Each week they’d stop in a small serene town, meet its only bad stereotype and wind up in a fistfight at the climax of more or less the same story.
We took Route Sixty Six seriously. We didn’t have a choice; it was in our television DNA. Me, Chet, and occasionally, Russell lined up two sagging chairs for bucket seats. Our engine was a cardboard box painted dark grey since even the best shows were still broadcast in black and white. If you looked under the hood, once you opened the cardboard flaps, you’d find our 4000 horsepower engine—nuts, bolts and wires from my dad’s workshop that looked exactly like a box of nuts, bolts and wires from my dad’s workshop. Our muscle car roared like a bad three-part harmony comprised of voices that still hadn’t cracked the adolescent barrier as we blazed across country without moving the length of a cellar tile. On the fly, at a hundred and fifty miles an hour, we made up our own far more inventive plots.
Other big TV hits we immersed ourselves into were Mike Hammer, Peter Gunn and Richard Diamond, three detective shows, which we lived in on Sundays because our folks sent us to church in sports jackets; all professional detectives wore their conformation suits. We used our dad’s old wallets and drew three colored badges on index cards for our official detective licenses. And we always packed a rod, a gatt, some heat, another words, a real unauthentic looking plastic gun that never ran out of bullets just like on TV.
There were others programs we spent days and nights in, like Seventy-Seven Sunset Strip where we all wanted to be Kookie, played by Edd Burns, although the other star Roger Smith in real life ended up with Ann Margaret, Hawaiian Eye with one of my early TV heart throbs, Connie Stevens. Although we never played Dobie Gillis, my all time fantasy chick, number one with two large caliber bullets in a tight sweater was Tuesday Weld. When she was on the screen I imagined I was the one she was manipulating. We spent some time in, Combat, and less in Gun Smoke. We were not inspired by the gimpy Chester or the inbred Festus. No one from our neighborhood would dare play anyone in the Patty Duke show and risk being banned from Wiffle ball for life.
The most fun we had was playing the best show ever seen on a 21inch RCA picture tube, Sea Hunt, which if you happened to see us in underwater action you’d think we over dosed by mixing Ovaltine, Bosco, and some experimental drug being developed by Timothy Leary. Sea Hunt stared a real man, no a legend, the hero of all heroes, the Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron of television, Lloyd Bridges, as Mike Nelson. Nothing was too dangerous or daunting for the emperor of the deep. Sea Hunt was an adventure slash detective show, which procreated the inferior copycat, the Mike Nelson-less, The Aquanauts. Sea Hunt and its second-rate imitator were the inspiration for our indoor, down the basement, most challenging undertaking. We cleverly combined the two, which catapulted us into a world that was as real as fake could be.
My folk’s basement was large enough for a year of Governor Christie’s dietary needs and could fit the entire east coast mob including my grandfather’s Chicago pal Al Capone and all his bootlegging equipment. It was divided into six sections; a summer kitchen (it was always cool no matter the temperature outside, none of us had air-conditioners), a bar my folks seemed to enjoy when I wasn’t around to see them enjoy it, my father’s TV repair workshop which looked like a disemboweled robot, an area of a thousand tools (which I’m sure my grandfather used to make silencers) and a wood working bench, a wine cellar that stored plumbing equipment, long florescent light bulbs and gift bottles of Scotch trapped for eternity in holiday boxes. More importantly the rear of the basement, home of our adventures, was insulated by a long counter swollen with toys, baseball equipment and clothes that got lost on the way to the hamper.
*Duplicating Sea Hunt was no run of the mill task; it took creativity, ingenuity and know-how in order to construct the perfect environment. We needed a boat, aqua-lungs, spear guns, and equipment that Lloyd Bridges/Mike Nelson would not attempt a voyage without. For our boat we placed two wooden benches from an old breakfast nook covered with paint that had peeled from the fumes of burned bacon and eggs. For our galley, between our seats, we shoved a prehistoric wobbly table with legs that must have been amputated by a carpenter without a tape measure. We hung–well, nailed two or three old blankets my dog refused to lie on, to the ceiling beams so they fell to the floor protecting us from the elements. That shantytown doppelgänger according to my unimaginative parents became our vessel, surrounded by the deep dark sea, more commonly known to closed-minded adults as the floor (painted the lovely color of an anemic rain cloud gray).
Now any outstanding aquanaut worth his weight in wet suits, like Lloyd Bridges, only jumped into the sea with topnotch, state of the art gear, since we all knew that lost treasure is buried too deep to reach without a breathing apparatus or as they say in the biz, an aqualung.
That’s where my grandfather stepped in. No, he didn’t dive, although during his day in the rackets many of his fighter friends did their share. My grandfather’s best friend was a mammoth, no, let’s be honest, fat man, a Humpty Dumpty that if he sat on the wall would collapse it, named Pocket Book Louie. He got his name because he owned, what else, a pocket book factory. Today he might have been called Handbag Louie, which lacks a bit of the flare. Louie had a spacious color-full factory strewn with pocket books that neighborhood girls could have played Gidget, or Lucille Ball, or Patty Duke or all three. With a few pillows stuffed in their gut and apron they could have made a trio of glitzy Hazel’s.
How did Pocket Book Louie become the key ingredient in our innovative underwater adventure? Like I said us aquanauts needed to dive and dive deep and for that we needed special scuba gear designed for that perilous undertaking. None of our parents had aqua-lungs since they didn’t own boats, or even snorkels and had little if any interest in finding sunken treasure, especially in the basement. A few parents bowled, which didn’t really help us unless we wanted to find, if we could lift it, the largest ever black pearl and one that had three holes so it could be easily plucked by an adult who had the courage to stick his or her hand into a giant oyster.
I spent a lot of time with my grandfather, who spent a lot of time doing time. I always had a feeling that Pocket Book Louie didn’t make his money selling pocket books. That suspicion was reinforced years later, a few days after his factory burned down, for which he collected a treasure chest full of insurance money. My mother found in the garbage, charred gloves and rags soaked in gasoline. It could have just been a coincidence that night when my grandfather’s car exploded with his winter clothes in it or he could have pulled a deadbeat associate out of an unfortunately timed fire.
For Chet, Russell and me it all started to come together during a visit to Pocket Book Louie’s factory, where we found what we immediately knew were our scuba tanks! Lying in a stack were long cardboard cylinders that once had pocketbook material rolled on, perhaps removed to encircle other disagreeable cronies. Using my under water expertise I decided that different diameters rolls were designed for diverse diving depths. My fellow aquanauts quickly agreed—it was a Sea Hunt-ee’s paradise.
Okay, now that I’d found our tanks, how were we going to get the air out of them in order to breath underwater? That would come a few days later; first I needed to bring the cardboard cylinders home. My grandfather, who, liked free things even if he didn’t steal them, filled the trunk of his old black Ford Fairlaine with our soon to be trend- setting deep-sea diving equipment. The car’s trunk was large enough to take all we needed even if there had been a body or two, alive or dead in it.
After studying the two shows closely we noticed that sometimes divers used one, two and, on occasion, three air tanks. This was not a time to take any chances on not being able to make it back to the surface (especially if we were carrying heavy sunken treasure). So my innovative grandfather cut the tubes according to our specifications and attached them into the crucial combinations with wire.
But we were yet to figure out how to get the air out of our scuba tanks. It didn’t take us long to find a solution. Under my grandfather’s workbench were old garden hoses. When we asked him to cut up all the hoses, even my grandfather who didn’t back down to machine guns pointed at him, couldn’t resist the puppy dog eyes of three (manipulative) kids.
My grandfather had the ability to make just about anything except twenty dollar bills that couldn’t be detected as counterfeit, thus spent five years not confined to his cell. Mobsters who took the rap and didn’t rat out his partners were given a key to the slammer. At home we paid negligible electric bills because he used honey in just the right places to slow down the billows and practically halt the meter. So he easily figured out a method to attach the hoses. Now we only required an effective breathing apparatus to suck in the oxygen. That took us a bit longer, one afternoon to be exact. We searched through all our toys, my mom’s old makeup compacts and even through my dad’s workshop without the desired results. In the wine cellar, Mother kept, remarkably untouched by man or rodent, an old air blown bingo game. Poking out from behind it was a huge checker set made out of large, hamburger size plastic pieces. They were thick enough to cut holes in the sides for our air hoses and by cutting a circular hole in the center we could stick two-inch tubes in them so we could hold the checkers in our mouth (without using our hands) which would deliver the vital air needed for us to reach the depths of DeBellis Jone’s locker. We fastened our father’s old belts to the tubes and tied them around us so that the unpredictable ocean currents that course through the deep crooks of my basement couldn’t dislodge them.
We had everything necessary, except one very important thing–treasure. Again Pocket Book Louie was our benefactor. His factory was crammed with clumsy goods that had fallen off trucks and a rainbow of plastic beads and fake jewels that adorned the side of handbags making them irresistible to grown women.We found a fortune in gems for skilled salvage divers, especially when they are stuffed into old suitcases—the perfect treasure chests. **
We had the boat, the gear, fake rubber knives and fire place pokers to use as spear guns – we were ready to dive. Lloyd Bridges/Jeff Nelson would be proud, well he would have been unless he found out we were also pretending to be some of the guys from the Aquanauts.
Diving off a boat, constructed of benches and blankets took skill acquired from practice and techniques that could only be learned by a dedicated fan of Sea Hunt and The Aquanauts. We adapted our scuba diving procedures to a unique set of circumstances, low ceilings, a cement floor, and unpredictable undercurrents in the sea streaming around the walls of my cellar.
We’d strap on our gear, including our masks, which were a combination of our parents’ large sunglasses, catcher’s masks and old football helmets. We checked our gauges, that were wristwatches taped to a hose, to make sure our tanks were full and then put in our mouthpieces so the oxygen flowed through with sufficient pressure. We had developed a method of deftly pushing aside the blankets, and quickly diving into the savage ocean.
To grownups, three kids wearing card board cylinders on their backs with garden hoses attached to giant plastic checkers stuck in their mouths as they waved their arms around like they were swimming underwater (or blind and searching for walls) with large rubber boots as flippers, carrying fire place pokers as spears, while making bubble sounds, would look a bit odd like they’d been exposed to radiation from an underground nuclear test that somehow leaked into our basement or we had swallowed the asbestos that circled our hot water pipes.
We’d spend days swimming the span of our basement, killing invisible sharks, fighting other divers, rescuing each other, saving fellow good guys, and getting my grandfather to repair our gear, or glue together broken pieces of treasure.
Never once did we get seasick, sunburned, or experience the bends from rising two quickly to the surface. Oh, there were a few times when a bench would fall and our boat almost sunk, but we’d always managed to insert the disaster into our story line, and make it sea worthy again, even while under attack from killer sharks, barracudas, and octopuses (which were an assortment of the remaining garden hoses and wire’s from my dad’s workshop intertwined and then taped to an old partially deflated basketball.
I began to notice that my parents had fewer and fewer guests venture to the basement when we were exploring the oceanic depths. At first I figured that they didn’t want to disturb us divers when we needed to use a hundred percent of our faculties just to survive. I began to suspect that there was more to it than meets our ridiculous diving masks when the days grew longer and the summer heat invaded our upstairs real life living quarters. Normally, by now we would be eating in the basement kitchen. Could they be that ashamed of their only son, no only child, who was acting like a failed CIA experiment? Nah, they loved me for who I was pretending to be.
At first those thoughts didn’t disrupt our adventures, but after a few weeks I became more concerned about the absence of my parents in the downstairs kitchen and it became evident in my underwater skills. I was waving my arms unevenly, breathing without the same intensity and you could barely here my bubble sounds. Russell noticed it first then Chet, leading both to simultaneously point out my sloppy technique and lackluster effort. Although, still fun, my underwater skills were disintegrating. So, I dug deep into my inner resolve, imagining how Mike Nelson would address this dilemma, and threw away the negativity that adults try to pour into the effervescent minds of their offspring.
Then the first big blow occurred. And it materialized suddenly. There it was in the newspapers, we’d have never noticed it except that the article was near the sports section. The Aquanauts was cancelled! Why? Shouldn’t someone tell the networks about all the trouble we had gone through to build our modern-day boat, with underwater gear unequaled in any basement in America? Well, what did it matter we still had Sea Hunt. No one could get Lloyd Bridges out of the ocean to become a land lover. No way! Not Mike Nelson!
So with a heavy heart, enduring the loss of the Aquanauts, we submerged again. The adventure continued! And just as we were about to forget that the cheap imitation of Sea Hunt had left us, we suffered another blow. No, Sea Hunt wasn’t cancelled, but it was an earthly catastrophe and nearly as bad!
Outside, envious forces were out to get us. One night I was awakened by a crack of lightning, like Mickey Mantle’s bat had struck my eardrums. I ran across my clothes (on the bedroom floor) and looked out my window, and saw the start of a powerful rainstorm. Thunder that I’m sure shook our boat, even though it was expertly tied to the dock (a support pole) and lightning slit a tree nearby, and then the floods. Everyone ran to the basement for both protection and to look for signs of water. At first it was just a trickle almost like the walls of the house were sweating, but soon the water surged, as if the God’s were telling us aquanauts that our antics were beginning to annoy even them. In the back of the cellar, where our boat was secured, the floor flooded with a tidal wave.. Our gear sopped fast into water logged and our boat took on real water in our make believe ocean. There was no way to stop it. I may have looked like a fool waving my arms around like a condor in a tornado while sucking on huge plastic checker, but I wasn’t foolish enough to go down with my ship. I watched the water rise a foot or two, until I could no longer see the chalk writing on the boat’s bow. The S.S. Brook Street was lost forever.
Maybe it was fate, or oddly timed synchronicity of the universe at work. As we tirelessly rebuilt our craft, the worse news ever stopped us in our wake. Sea Hunt was cancelled! A double whammy! The great Mike Nelson was being put ashore for good. What would happen to the emblematic Lloyd Bridges? Of course, a few years later, much to our delight he surfaced again in other shows and movies, but to us he’d always be Mike Nelson.
Well, there still was Peter Gunn, Richard Diamond, Mike Hammer and of course, Route Sixty-Sixin reruns (which each weekly show always felt like anyway), with Buzz and Todd and a whole country to fist-fight across. A year or so later Combat arrived and then a few years after, which in kid years seems like a new historical age, came a TV show tailored for the skills of us veteran aquanauts and detectives: The Man From Uncle starring Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo, who I became because I was the first to get a the real official Man From Uncle wallet. Today that wallet hangs on my office wall as a reminder of the spy drama’s perfectly timed arrival. It had landed on the heels of the cancellation of the remaining mind-expanding shows. Fortunately for us The Man from Uncle stimulated our rich imaginations and led to new distinctive adventures—none as exhilarating and ingenious as Sea Hunt. The Man from Uncle also marked the line in the sand of life, which I wouldn’t cross again for many years, until I became a voyeur of my kids as they became enveloped by their own uninhibited boundless alpha state.
After Man from Uncle’s first or second or third season I became a teenager where I managed to override my adolescent soul and gave in to my genetic sexual predisposal. I no longer wanted to play make believe except for fantasizing about dating cheerleaders. Previously dormant hormones drove the Disney molecules from my consciousness, until I became a writer where once again I gave myself permission to dive head first (without gear) into my imagination, this time to earn an adult living. No matter how successful I become, the fictional world will never ever be as outrageous, electrifying and boundless.
But not all is lost, this year coming to theaters near you, me, Chet and Russell is The Man from Uncle. For 120 minutes I’ll reminisce not about Napoleon Solo, but about being the greatest TV hero ever, played to perfection by Lloyd Bridges, the unrivalled Mike Nelson. Now if they make a theatrical version of Sea Hunt, possibly starring Bo or Jeff Bridges, the circle of life will be complete.