It was three a.m. in late December and I and Stu Miller, a federal lobbyist and former motorcycle racer, were zooming around the DC beltway in his male-menopause red Miata and discussing what to do for the Millenium. The possibilities were dismal.
“God, some black-tie thing on the Hill? I’d rather slit my wrists,” Stu said.
“Let’s blow it off and go diving.”
We’re scuba loons. Blowing it off and doing something else is my response to most of Washington.
“Yeah,” he said, attempting humor, “We can dive in black tie?Hey?Hey!”
The idea burst on us like a squeezed grape.
“What if we really dive in black tie? Take a bottle of champagne. Take photos?.”
The light was dawning hard. Stu nearly hit a tree.
“?We’ll take the millenium Playboy down with us, sell them the shots. Yeah.”
“The magazine will get soggy”
“Not if we laminate it. I’m gonna call Playboy.”
Right, I thought. Sure. The idea was admittedly cute, and we’d both written for Playboy, which might add to our credibility, especially since the editors didn’t know us. On the other hand, magazines work months in advance. We’d have to leave town in four days for the Keys. At bottom we didn’t have a corn dog’s chance in a hog trough.
Sure enough, Playboy responded that it was thinking about the idea, which is magazine-talk for we aren’t thinking about it very hard but don’t want to crush your spirit. By then we were committed. We were going to do it anyway. We packed several cubic yards of scuba gear into a station wagon and pointed it down I-95 toward Miami.
All the way down we fantasized. What if we did the shoot and just sent the pics to Playboy?
God worked in strange ways, we said. And with strange people, which gave us a shot. What if?what if??
You gotta understand. When we were growing up, or at least in college getting older, Playboy was our philosophical guidebook. We all thought we ought to be at the University of Virginia, look like a young William Buckley, and drive a Lamborghini. Playboy gave us the polish, if not the Lamborghini. It was where we learned who Mancini was, what existentialism meant, and how to behave around people who wore shoes. We dreamed of Vargas girls and wanted to be like Hugh Hefner, to whom we referred familiarly as Hef.
Playboy actually sophisticated us. And we really did read the articles. Too.
So the thought of actually being in the magazine–having a photo of us in black tie with champagne and lovely babes in the altogether or at least mostly together–wow! Sure, a wetsuit had the erotic appeal of a cold shower. Maybe a reef wasn’t a blues club in Chicago.
But we were talking image. And as a glittering male ego-fantasy, it was up there with Marlboro Man, or a restored ’57 Chevy with 454 cubes and a mild blower and 73 coats of hand-rubbed Kandy-Kolor cherry metal-flake lacquer.
Even though it wasn’t going to happen.
We made 800 miles the first day, 300 the second, and pulled into Key Largo in early afternoon. Hotels were insanely pricey because of the Millenium. We went back up the road to Florida City and got a room in the Econo-Lodge near the Last Chance Saloon, a biker bar in which we felt at home.
For the next two days we dived in the mornings to check our gear and figure out how to do a shoot under water. I’d used a camera in the ocean enough to know that I couldn’t. We needed a cheap photographer. We found one.
In the afternoons we got props. OfficeMax laminated the cover of the Millennial Playboy for us. Fortunately it was brightly colored for good contrast against a midnight ocean. The centerfold was trickier. We did it in two parts and taped them together.
Then we got plastic “Happy New Year 2000” party hats and cheap red cummerbunds and bow ties (something told me the resale value would be marginal), a bottle of incredibly lousy champagne called Dom Bahde Stufe or something, with a gaudy label, and a box of frozen peas to attract fish for local color. (Hef probably didn’t do this at his parties. Well, we were going to.)
Since Playboy wasn’t going to happen, we laminated the cover of Soldier of Fortune magazine, for which I once worked in another and stranger life. The editor, Bob Brown, was a buddy of mine, and I knew he’d run it. We wanted a published record.
OK, Plantation Key, nine-thirty on New Year’s Eve. We showed up at Conch Republic, a dive operation running a reef trip for people who wanted to be underwater at midnight.
The photographer showed. Seas were flat, the night warm. We loaded gear, boarded, and went to Davis Ledge, a nice easy reef at thirty-five feet. The other divers suited up and went in. Stu and I looked like idiots in cummerbund and party hats. We probably were idiots, so it didn’t bother us. He went in. I followed.
At which point everything went wrong.
His hat tore in two in mild chop. The centerfold slipped from our hands. He dropped the Dom Bahde Stufe, having forgotten that he’d need one hand free to clear his ears. We finned around the bottom like neoprene bats and found it. The photographer had vanished.
We followed the reef and reacquired him. He looked unhappy.
The camera had flooded.
It was definitively the end of our great all-time wet dream of glory, of our quest for ultimate meaning, the closest we would ever come to the Playboy Mansion. True, the magazine wasn’t interested–but what a photo for the office wall.
What the hell. The water was clear and lovely, the reef burning in reds and orange where our lights touched it, goofy fish slowly swimming and wondering what we thought we were doing. We stayed down for forty-five minute, surfaced, had (good) champagne and shrimp on the boat, and started back.
Ashore, I went to the car and found a message on my cell phone. My daughter, I figured.
She was at the Phish concert in the Everglades.
It never occurred to me that it might be Playboy calling.
And it wasn’t. It was my daughter.
But?it could have been Playboy.
The Last Chance saloon was rocking. Bikers and local watermen were partying with their ladies, and a country jukebox was wailing laments about sorry paychecks and bad divorces. Stu and I were on our fourth Rum Runner, a devastating drink for whose acquaintance we would pay dearly in the morning. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered.
“Y’all want two more?” asked the barmaid.
“Yesh. Rum Runners. Hold the Runner.”
We stared at each other in sorrow, trying not to put our heads on the bar and sob. It isn’t a good thing to do in biker bars.