Article from the 9/25/2015 Catalina Islander

I have answered 36,198 questions from the cross channel boats and cruise ship passengers since becoming the Catalina Greeter through the Chamber Of Commerce, October 10, 2014.  Some of the unusual questions/comments made by some of these passengers arriving on Catalina Island:
"Do people live here?"
"Because you have bison on the Island, do you fly the Texas flag?"
"Is that a Mormon Temple?" (pointing to the Casino).
"When you have a low tide on this side of the Island, do you then have a high tide on the other side?"
"I want to call my daughter on the cruise ship that we just got tendered in from.  Will I have to pay 'roaming charges" if I called her from Avalon?"
 
""THROOOOOOOOOOW A COOOOOOOOOOIN!"  During the beautiful and warm Summer months, I can't help but think back to the years that I was one of the "coin divers".  From 1952-60 (I was 5 years old when I started), I dove for coins thrown from the "Great White Steamer" -- the "S.. S. Catalina".  I truly feel that this is one of the main activities that sets the "Island Kids" apart from their counter parts on the Mainland.  This most unusual activities allowed us to have unpresidented independence which, for good or ill, has made many of us the adults we are today.
 
I must preface this article by explaining that this "diving for coins" story is only acknowledging my experiences. There were no set procedures or rules on how to participate in this activity or how they plied the trade.  Each diver had his/her story and I would love to see as many of these stories told so that a more complete collection of experiences can be documented for posterity. 
 
Coin diving pretty much covered the entire history of the "Steamer Pier" (located at the present "Blue Water Avalon", 306 Crescent), from 1887-1968).   I don't know what caused the first brave sole to decide to jump into the water and expect passengers to throw him money (originally it was only boys who participated in this tradition, but by the 1920's, young ladies were in the thick of the activities), but I can assume that one of the passengers on these cross channel boats must have heard about the tradition of throwing "trinkets" to the natives in the South Pacific when the first Europeans "discovered" them in the 1700's.  This practice was still going on in Hawaii.  They might have seen a young man swimming and yelled to him, "How would you like some money?" and threw some coins in the water.  Finding this activity both challenging and rewarding, the diver probably eagerly "went for it" and then shared this experience with his buddies. They then decided the next day to "meet the boat"  in hopes that they would be so lucky.  Thus a very special and unique activity was spawned on Catalina Island!
 
At the turn of the century, only 30% of the world's population knew how to actually "swim", so the early "divers" did just that; they dove, but did a very minimum of actually swimming.  To keep from drowning, rowers would maneuver rowboats to likely spots where the passengers would feel compelled to see them participate in these "daring" feats of diving abilities.  Once they got their money, they quickly came to the surface and made their way back to the security of the boat.  It must have been a bit confusing for the early visitors on the ships as the actual yelling of "Throw A Coin" didn't originate until the summer of 1938!  The City Fathers were concerned as to how the tourists would respond to this type of "begging".  Once they realized what the divers were up to, many would throw pennies, nickels, dimes, and should the divers be so lucky, silver and paper money (paper money would usually be wrapped around a silver dollar for weight!  I was lucky enough to be the recipient of some of these "Mother Lodes"! 
 
The divers generally felt that they were providing these passengers a service.  Many of them had never been to an Island, let alone on a sea cruise.  The "Miss Catalina" speedboats would be the first line of "welcoming" these nautical venturers.  After the almost 3 hours of travel, all of this excitement gave the "illusion" that they had taken a major ocean voyage even though, if they had looked hard behind them, they could have still seen the mainland and Wilmington port.
 
I have had a number of adults tell me how "shocked" they were to even think of young children being "forced" by their parents to participate in this activity and some even called it "child neglect".  To set the record straight, WE WANTED TO DIVE FOR COINS!  It was a great form of exercise that our young bodies craved and it gave us a chance to perform (some even went on to become professional actors, like Gregory Harrison).   $15/day is GOOD money, especially when you consider that many of our parents were only being paid a little more than $1/hour.  Many of the divers were bringing home more money than did their fathers!  Weekly "allowances" were certainly not necessary during the summer months!  So lucrative was this program that soon after the City Of Avalon was incorporated in 1913, they instituted a "diver vocation tax" of $12/year.  Whether or not this is still on the "books", I don't know, but I will gladly help out Avalon by coughing up my $96.00!
 
Going back to the 1890's, another custom was in place.  The locals and visitors who had arrived earlier had formed a "gauntlet" where they would line up on both sides of the pier and the newly initiated passengers had to walk between these rows of "greeters".  They were welcomed by songs, yelling, and "Hi, Neighbor"!  They even had a broadcaster from the local radio station, KBIG, interview selected new arrivals so that they family and friends "back home" would be assured that they made the long trek safely!  "Duke" Fishman, the local lifeguard and "ultimate character", for years was associated with this activity and many visitors still talk about his antics from the 1930's.
 
My "diving career", if you want to stretch the definition of "diving", started when I was five years old.  I stood on the rocks, South East of the "Busy Bee Restaurant (present location of the patio seating of the "Blue Water Avalon") and bellowed to those going to the flying fish boat, the "Blanche W." (it is 91 years old and making its last voyage this month!!!!!), and other excursion boats leaving the "Steamer Pier", to "THROOOOOOOOW A COOOOOOOIN".  The bewildered passengers often found it confusing as to "where" to throw the coins; either on the rocks or in the shallow water.  Those that picked the ocean did us a BIG favor.  It graduated us past the simple intimidation of "yelling" and into the "real world" of learning to scurry, fend off our fellow divers and learn to use our masks.  This progressed us to the one of the most important skills; that of catching the coins on the "fly" before they hit the water and headed for the ocean floor.  Coins rarely "sank", but hypnotically waved back and forth, making it very difficult to calculate their motion to be able to grab them.  Of course, on this side of the pier, the water was only about waist deep, so it really didn't take a lot of skill, but a lesson that would come in handy later on.
 
My personal "Right-Of-Passage" came the following summer when I realized that I was now ready for the "Big Time"!  I told my fellow child entrepreneurs that I was "GOING UNDER THE PIER", which meant that I was now ready to join the "big kids".  I was actually going to dive for coins, thrown directly from the "S. S. Catalina" (the sister ship, "Avalon", had been out of commission since 1951).  I remember the look on my friends' faces when they realized that I was making the big move.  I was no longer one of them, I was now a BIG KID!
 
Unlike many of our predecessors, we had not rowboats.  WE HAD TO KNOW HOW TO SWIM AND SWIM WELL!  Once the steamer had made its way to the pier, the coin divers would head to the North Beach, also called "Pete's Beach" and "Step Beach", and go down the stairs, hit the water and then swim out.  The "macho divers" would enter the water diving off the ledge, or even the thick ropes, overlooking the water, along the edge of the water (present location of "Antonio's Restaurant" patio).  You  would have to watch the wave action so that there would be water UNDER you, when you dove in.  I learned this painful lesson on my first attempt!  Instead of watching the wave hit the wall, dive in, and let the wave take me out, I dove as the wave was going out, which meant that I dove face first into the gravel and rocks!  I could have broken my stupid neck, but all it did was ripped the skin off of my nose and forehead.  Of course, not wanting to let anyone know that I had "missed the wave", I simply swam out to the ship with blood streaming down my face!  The salt water burned like alcohol, but it also acted as an antiseptic and eventually numbed the entire area.  I had pretty well scabbed up for my next day's adventure.
 
At first, I started near the bow (front) of the Steamer and then, as I felt more secure, I began moving toward the stern (back).  The water was much shallower closer to the shore and quickly got deeper as we went out to sea.  "Free diving" forty feet or more was uncommon (this is one of the reasons you wanted to catch the coins in the air!). 
 
As a rule of thumb, the deeper the water, the bigger the money thrown.  If you were really cute, which I definitely was, passengers would motion to you to get away from the other divers so that the money would "hopefully" be thrown ONLY to you. Of course, all of the divers knew this little discrimination act and so would keep their eyes on us poor defenseless cutely endowed kids and knew where the coins were going to land. 
 
It wasn't unusual, toward the stern of the ship, for passengers to use silver dollars (which were still being used as regular currency) simply as weights to wrap paper denominations around to make it over the side of the ship to the ocean below.  The "big money' was generally thrown near the single propeller, which had to be kept rotating, even when the ship was docked, so as to keep the ship stable.  The chance of being sucked into the propeller shaft was a real possibility and it has been reported that some divers actually lost their lives this way. This would generally stop ALL coin diving for a couple of years.  This would hopefully give the bravest and stupidest divers time to think about their actions before they were allowed back into service.
 
There was another concern, which luckily I never heard ever came to fruition.  When you "dove" down deep and possibly had to hold your breath for a minute or longer, you would get pretty disoriented by the time you made your way to the surface.  You wanted the coins to be thrown far from the side of the ship as you NEVER wanted to find yourself coming up under the hull!  Generally if you looked for sunlight on the water, you were pretty well assured of never facing this nightmare!
 
In order to keep the flow of money, we would yell, "THROOOOOOOW A COOOOOIN!"  To get the "big money", we would come up with such brilliant statements as "LET'S SEE SOME SILVER!" or "TAKE THE WEIGHT OUT OF YOUR POCKETS!"  Boy, Shakespeare should have been so poetic!!!  Keep in mind, we NEVER thought of this as "begging".  We were putting on a display of athletic prowess, or "performance", if you prefer, and we were getting reimbursed for what it was worth to the passenger.  The further out they threw the coins, the deeper they made us dive and the more fellow divers we had to fight off.  This process determined what we expected to get in the way of remuneration.
 
If we weren't able to grab the money in the air, we had to face the sad truth that we now had to really work for our money!  When coins are heading to the bottom, they tend to flow back and forth, much like a leaf falling from a tree.  you wanted to get to it as quickly as possible, because not only did you face the prospect of having to hold your breath, sometimes for a minute or more, but the deeper you dove the colder the water got.  Then, depending on how much action was going on above the water line, you had to face the "welcoming committee"!!!
 
Once retrieved, there were only three places you could keep your money:  1) In your mask.  If you were lucky and got a lot of money, you couldn't see past the coins.  Your mask would tend to "fog up" and you would have to keep taking it off and rubbing it with spit or kelp "sap".  This is where I kept my money. Other swimmers would often simply pull your mask off to get access to your money.  2)  In your swim trunks.  They usually came with very small pockets and it took too long to try to cram your loot into them.  Many a diver was "pantsed" by other divers and you had to get a friend to find you a towel so you could get ashore without being arrested.  3)  In your mouth.  This was the preferred way of storing your booty, but money tasted BAD.  Also, there was at least one case where a diver swallowed a quartered and choked.  After a particularly "fruitful" dive, when you FINALLY held your breath for as long as you could and made the surface, some opponent would put their feet on your shoulders, forcing you back down, which would cause you naturally to "spit out" all of your money as your were gasping for air. There was then a major feeding frenzy!  IT WAS AN UNDERWATER JUNGLE OUT THERE!!!
 
Sometimes, when I was "bored", I would water ski around the "Catalina" when it was still a few miles out.  PROBABLY THE DUMBEST THING I HAD EVER DONE!  I would often fall off of the tow rope, on or off of my skis, but IF I had ever done it in front of the "Catalina", or got caught in its wake, I wouldn't be around to write this history! 
 
If you made it through the day (the Steamer would arrive at Noon and leave at 4:10PM, except on weekends and holidays when it would make two round trips), you were usually in the water around an hour when it arrived and an hour when it left.  You could easily gather $15 or more a day, which, in those days, was enough for some of the "mainland college kids" to raise enough money to buy three meals a day, stay in one of the Island Villas (where the "Tour Plaza" and "Miniature Golf" now are), for the weekend, and have enough money left to take their "summer romance" out to dinner and a dance at the Casino Ballroom!
 
I often wondered how our "locals" would have compared to water polo teams on the mainland, but we never had a swimming pool at our school so we were never able to compete, unless we moved to the mainland to go to school.  Although most of the money has been raised, WE STILL DON'T HAVE A POOL!   We were kicking our strong legs to keep our bodies partially out of the water so that we could throw our arms around, yell for money, and then dive down deep and often for the money.  Adding to this the nudging and downright fighting that often occurred, we could have made for a very formidable water polo team!
 
A "Twilight Zone" type episode occurred in 2011 when I was with a friend, Mitch Hammond, whom I had met in 1960, when I was 13 and he was 12.  Between my "water diving", I would often sit near the athletic bars (area across from the "Pancake Cottage", East end of Crescent) and watch these "athletic types" show off their prowess on the high chin up bars.  When they would do a certainly maneuver, a "Cherry Drop", they would be upside down and their money and anything else in their pockets would inevitably land in the sand below and disappear.  I would generally wait a minute or two and then go "diving" for the coins.  Mitch was one of those performers.  After he had left, I proceeded to "dive" in the sand for his loot (turned out to be 36 cents).  Unfortunately, at the same time I put my hand in the sand, so did Mitch, both trying to retrieve the coins, and we more or less "shook hands".  We have been best friends ever since, BELIEVE IT OR NOT!
 
We were enjoying our last meal at "Armstrong's Seafood Restaurant" (location of the present "Blue Water Avalon"), out on the balcony, over the water, where the Steamer Pier used to dock.   We were enjoying our usual wonderful swordfish dinner when all of a sudden I heard, "THROW A COIN!".  Mitch and I looked at each other, in hopes that it wasn't a figment of our imaginations. We had BOTH HEARD IT!  Remember, I hadn't heard those words since the 1960's!  We looked down into the water and saw three young boys, with masks and snorkels (we NEVER used snorkels in the good ol' days) and they were actually "diving for coins"!  Mitch and I couldn't believe our ears or eyes. They weren't trying to get the attention of the other tables along the railing...they were concentrating solely on us!  I quickly pulled out all of my silver coins (O. K., no more silver in coins!), dimes, quarters, etc.  I urged the other patrons to do likewise.  I started instructing these "wannabe divers" how to yell, "THROOOOOOOOOW A COOOOOOOOIN!" not "Throw A Coin".  I asked our server how often these boys had been doing this.  She had been with the restaurant for years and this was the first time that she had ever seen this happen!  I then turned around with the idea of asking these young divers how they knew that this was the spot where we used to dive for coins and how come they were only diving for Mitch and myself...THEY WERE GONE!
 
Mitch and I sat silently in a daze.  After a few moments, I sorted through my many thoughts and suggested to Mitch that IF I had accidentally fallen over the balcony railing, into the ocean, throwing coins to these young divers, when I came to the surface, I would be a 10 years old again!  As Mitch would carry baggage from the Steamer to the hotels for the passengers, he wondered if, when we left the restaurant, we would be greeted by a nine year old Mitch! 
 
"THROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOW A COOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOIN!"