Bart Beck stood next to the device he operated for decades, telling his friends how he, his father and brother used to raise it from the ocean surface by meticulously hand-cranking a wheel - before they installed a handy hydraulic system, of course.
"What's the big hole on top?" asked John Carney.
"That's the escape hatch," Beck explained. "Just in case ..."
Beck, 79, Carney, 75, and Dave Costello, 63, were holding a sort of mini-Steel Pier reunion at Gardner's Basin, where the beloved Steel Pier Diving Bell has been on display since being retrieved from a scrap yard in the '80s.
Beck, of Ventnor, whose family operated the bell from 1946 until the last days of the old Pier in 1978, was joined by two former "Diving Collegian" high divers, John Carney of Northfield and Dave Costello of Egg Harbor Township.
"It was easy just to open it from the inside," Beck said of the escape hatch. "The bell came up to the surface on its own buoyancy. The worst thing was when you got somebody who was a real heavyweight, because it would have been tough getting him out. But we only had to use it twice in all those years."
That would have been one awesome safety record. Beck estimated the bell made 150 trips a day on busy weekends, holding as many as 10 people plus an operator. Not that there was much to see down there.
"Because of the fact we operated so close to the breaker line, the water got rough and stirred up all the sand," Beck said. "So there was no way to sell it as an observation ride."
There were only about seven or so days a year when the water was even clear enough to see 10 feet away, he said. Many times, it was "like being down in a coal mine, absolutely black" - though that's when people could see the phosphorescent creatures outside the windows.
"So we sold it as a thrill ride," Beck said. "We could have brought it up slowly, the same way it went down, but since we couldn't give them an observation, we gave them a fast ride."
Beck got plenty of experience operating the bell, usually working the 6 p.m. to midnight shift - which would get traffic from the last of the five (and sometimes as many as eight) high-diving shows of the day, which let out at 11. The three men recalled some of the occasional hazards the two attractions shared.
"One day, this shark, a hammerhead, went right by the bell - covered up the whole side of it, and more - then swam out and stopped the water show," Beck recalled.
Not that animals were the only potential hazard.
"I did a high dive one night and my bathing suit disappeared altogether as I hit the water from 75 feet," Carney said. "What was the song, ‘The King is in the Altogether'? Well, I was in the altogether. I yelled at Jack Montez, the emcee, ‘Throw me down a towel,' and he shouted, ‘Ladies and gentlemen! He's lost his suit!' There were 4,000 people up there, and I could see 8,000 big eyes looking down at me."
Then there was the hazing of the new guys - like Costello.
"I walked into the dressing room one night, and I see Mickey Gose rubbing stuff on his knees," Costello said. "He said, ‘If you want to be a professional diver, you've got to protect your knees and get more spring out of them. Rubbing them with vinegar loosens the tendons and ligaments.' ... So I run down to buy vinegar. I'm sitting there, rubbing vinegar on my knees, and they ask, ‘How does it feel?' And I'm jumping, saying, ‘Yeah! I can jump higher!' And they're all laughing at me."
All these years later, the three are still good friends, with Beck going on regular trips with Carney and Costello playing chess with Carney three times a week - "And he beats me every damn time," Carney added.
"The old Steel Pier," Beck summed up. "There will never be another place like it."
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