The alarm rings at 5:30am. It’s before dawn, before the sun rises across the sea to spill it’s sunshine across the island. The alarm screeches a high pitched buzz warning, and Orvil rolls over to shut it off. He sits at the edge of his bed, groggy from a lack of sleep and sore. He doesn’t get much rest these days. He starts to stand, then gently eases his body weight onto his left leg. His injured leg. The leg that was nearly destroyed completely in Iraq. Orvil sighs and looks down at the long winding “S” shaped scar down his shin. His eyes seem distant, and he stands still for a few seconds before he moves again.
It happened on September 20, 2005, what started off as a day like any other. Orvil’s main mission in Iraq was route supply security. His team was in charge of keeping routes clear from
attacks along with capturing insurgents, or as Orvil likes to joke, “Our job was to get blown up so that the other convoys that didn’t have the proper fire power to react didn’t get blown up.” finishing the joke with that raspy laugh of his. And that’s exactly what they did. Three weeks before he would’ve finished his tour, Orvil and his team, which included his best friend and bunkmate William, was on a routine mission when their convoy hit pressure plate. The explosion nearly shattered the vehicle to pieces, ending Michael’s life instantaneously. This was the beginning of a new and unexpected journey.
Orvil has a calm and confident nature. Today he’s chosen a green Kauai t-shirt with a chicken outline across the front, and white board shorts with colorful goldfish patterned across it. As he drives to the docks, he is calm, collected, and relaxed. As he gets out the car, a low groan, almost inaudible, escapes him. His face contorts into a quick grimace, then he is composed. His leg is lashing out, constantly reminding him of his past. Suddenly the winding “S” shaped scar doesn’t seem to be as easy of a description as that, but something completely different, something sinister. It now winds into a repeating memory of how Orvil had to spend 2 years in rehabilitation learning how to re-walk, and a long list of things he is no longer able to do. No more running. No more standing for long periods of time. So many physically demanding things people don’t give a second thought about, so many physically demanding things no longer within Orvil’s reach. Suddenly the scar isn’t some inconspicuous injury upon his left shin, now a beacon, screaming to be known. Reminding him, “You can’t do this. You can’t do this.”
He lifts his gear from the trunk, an old beige backpack, and most importantly his prized possession, his underwater camera. After unloading, Orvil walks away and pulls a pack of cigarettes and lighter from his pocket. He lights the long white wrapped stick of tobacco and it hangs burning from his river bottom lip. The end was a glowing orange as he inhales and a thick cloud of gray smoke as he exhales. He seems calmer. He looks down, appearing as though he’s looking at his feet, resting upon his black foam sandals. Eyes detached, his mind seems to disappear elsewhere.
After the accident, Orvil was sent to Germany for surgery with a compound tib/fib fracture and shattered right ankle. After he was stabilized, he was transferred to Walter Reed Hospital where he spent two years in physical therapy learning how to walk again. As painful as that injury was, it was nothing compared to the emotional pain of losing William. Not a day passes where Orvil doesn’t think of him. It was the tragedy of losing his best friend that turned him to alcohol. For two years Orvil was alcohol dependent, using the power of Bourbon to wash away the painful memories of that day.
He watches the boat. The cigarette end burns bright orange one last time, as he exhales a plume of smoke. He tosses the butt of it on the ground, steps on it, then gingerly picks it up to throw away. It’s time to get on the boat. It’s time to dive. This, he can do.
As he hit’s the water the world goes all but quiet, minus the sounds of steady breathing. It’s this kind of quiet that helps Orvil cope with his PTSD. Loud noises are a great source of anxiety for him now. As Orvil deems it, beneath the surface of Oahu is the quietest place on the island. Here there is no noise, no strain, no pressure. Orvil is weightless, free from the pain of his leg, the water enveloping him in a tight and comforting embrace. The only thing that exists here are the deep blue hues that darken the deeper you go and the swirling forms of life around you.
Orvil shoots ahead of everyone like a rocket, a surprise considering his slow and careful pace on land. He adjusts the strobes on his camera and searches for his next subject. It is because of his fast pace that he wears bright swim trunks, sometimes with rainbow goldfish, sometimes with bright rubber duckies, so he can be seen at all times as he speeds off into the reef. A rhythmic buzzing quietly echoes in this quiet place. Orvil absentmindedly hums The Little Mermaids classic, “Under The Sea”. It’s what he always hums when diving.
He is quick, agile, and all over the place. One minute he’s passing under a swim through in the reef, the next minute he’s chasing after a school of Juvenile Penant Fish. His energy is childlike, bouncing from the one place to another with radiating excitement. His eyes land on a Honu (Sea Turtle) and his eyes light up. His favorite subject. In four powerful kicks of his fins, he’s separated from the group and face to face, or more so, lens to face, with a Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle. Orvil holds himself up with one hand on the seafloor, the other loaded like a gun over the camera’s capture button. The turtle looks at him, half interested as turtles often appear, and Orvil takes a shot. He looks around with excitement knowing he’s captured yet another beautiful turtle photo. Another one appears, then another. Soon he is surrounded by a total of five sea turtles. Orvil leans to take in the view, a picture of perfect buoyancy. He tucks his camera into his side and doesn’t attempt to snap the perfect photos. After years of diving, years of war, years of therapy and life relived, he knows some moments are better left un-captured. His eyes scan the reef as the turtles settle into the sand perfectly content in his quiet little piece of paradise.
It’s been just over 40 minutes since the group has rolled off the boat into the sea. The leader captures everyones attention and motions with his hand, one finger pointing towards the surface swirling in a circular motion, “let’s turn around.” Orvil already knows the drill, diving several times a week has gotten him used to this routine. Dive masters know him now, and let him do his own thing. As the group makes a u-turn, the current gets noticeably stronger, pulling them back, then rushing them forward. It’s an effort to kick against the waves, but not for Orvil, not in his happy place. The water pulls him back and he does not fight it. The current starts to send him forward and he spreads his arms like an eagle, a bird soaring the skies. The Superman emblem that’s tattooed down his left shoulder, which matches his brother, seems all too symbolic in this moment. He is weightless and free, untied to any pain or burdens, he is Superman.
As Orvil glides over the reef theres a gleam of something unrecognizable in his eyes. An emotion maybe only someone with his experiences understands, a mixture of happiness and wisdom, like talking to an old soul. The group passes over a reef ledge and Orvil, in the lead of course, is the first to discover what’s hidden underneath it. He turns around to gain everyone else’s attention, one hand flat pressed sideways against his forehead, “shark”. Sure enough, laying peacefully below the ledge is a White Tip Reef Shark. It eyes Orvil cautiously, wary of his presence. Orvil lays on the seabed in front of it, careful not to make any sudden movements to scare it off. The group watches excitedly as he adjusts his camera to take different shots. He takes them from all different angles, adjusting his strobes for the best lighting. Once he’s satisfied, he adjusts the strobes again so everyone else can take a peak. One by one, they line up along side the small crater like reef ledge and observe. The shark is tired of the gawking, and smoothly swims further into the ledge and away from us. As it’s tail starts to disappear into the distance, Orvil waves it goodbye.
He is almost to the boat now, not an ounce less enthused at the end of the dive as compared to the beginning. Even as the divers hang on to the anchor line for a safety stop, squished and shoved from the waves, he kicks around them, taking pictures of them throwing shakas his way.
He is one of the first back on the boat. As he climbs up the ladder with his gear, his face contorts, grimacing. It’s an overwhelming site after seeing him so happy and free. He sits on the bench with a “thud” and presses his tank back into the track panting slightly. Water drips from his wet mohawk, and runs down his legs, over that S shaped scar that appears more sinister than ever, re emerging like a beacon after being suppressed in the waters weightlessness. As if it got bigger, more jagged, more incapacitating.
After the boat docks, Orvil walks to the end of the harbor, stiff again. He lights his cigarette in one quick flick of a lighter and stares off into the sea. His photos will be posted later on his instagram account that now has over 20k followers, and he invites everyone to take what they want, as a reminder of the dive. As a reminder to him of the water. A reminder to him that there is a place of relief, that there is a place he is free of the physical and emotional pain that’s been encrypted into him after the war.