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Saved by Dolphins

When life pulled him under like an ocean riptide, Bud Bottoms found meaning-- and a 20-year calling--in sculpting the ever-leaping, ever-playful sea creatures

July 02, 2006|Michael Fessier Jr. | Michael Fessier Jr. has written for the New York Times, Sports Illustrated and others.

No answers then, none now.

There were seven of them: Paul, Niel, Diego, Dale, the two Jims and a Harold, most expert outdoorsmen, nervy, athletic tough guys who might one weekend whip down to Mexico to hunt panther and the next be back home to spear a basking shark, dive for lobster or bag some venison in the close-by hills still thick with deer. All were his friends, but three were especially close fishing and hunting buds, and all of them wanted him--more accurately needed him--to come out with them on an underwater photography expedition. He, after all, had the best underwater camera. "You know how much I'd love to come," he said most sincerely, but damn--chained as he was to his day-job desk, a deadline looming--he just couldn't.

Even more aggravating, this was the second time they'd asked (their first try without him and his camera hadn't gone so well), and they really did need him, his expertise. He'd loved the ocean since surf fishing with his father on the Santa Monica beach as a kid, and this outing was exactly his thing, a mix of the great outdoors, some creativity, a little tech--but hell, his damn desk, five mouths to feed, his job. It was a long time ago but not the sort of long time ago that would ever really get old, ever leave him completely. He remembers the summer day, the usual layer of morning fog that inevitably burned off by afternoon--a Southern California sort of summer day--and of course the phone call two days later:

"Mr. Bottoms? Bud Bottoms?"

"Yes."

It was someone from the Santa Barbara Coast Guard station, and it seemed they had, well, a body (one of only two of the seven ever to be recovered). And, really, only half a body, the other half consumed by the opportunistic creatures of the sea.

It's a bit fictive, a movie missing the last reel, because it made no sense then and makes none now. Each man expert at surviving, yet none survived. Four of them had worked for Raytheon, supplier of assorted forms of war-related technologies, and the expedition had had something to do with submarines, and it wasn't surprising that the suggestion of a Russian sub being involved would surface. A less dramatic theory was that the boat, a WWII landing craft perhaps not as stable as it might have been with its clumsy add-on plywood bow, had run over a cable connecting barges operating in the area, but no one really knew and the craft itself was never recovered.

He was the lone survivor of a disaster that officially had none, and he thought to himself: Why me? Why am I alive and they are not?

It seemed to him that he'd been given this chance for a reason, that he must do something important, meaningful--use his good fortune to make some sort of statement. But what could that be?

It was the summer of 1997 when the last of the "clients" left, many of them lifers who had known no other home for as long as 30 years. This was the institution known as the Camarillo State Hospital, a self-contained community set on more than 600 acres in a valley five miles from the ocean, which the residents could smell when the wind was right but few could visit. It looked then as it did when it opened in 1936, the image of muted serenity with its neatly kept lawns and palm- and sycamore-lined avenues, walled courtyards, stately bell tower, all dressed up in California Spanish red tile and white stucco, looking more the spruce military base or upscale retirement village than the dreaded place the state sent its mad, its retarded, its alcoholics and drug addicts, the violent and the somnolent, all the unhappy castoffs of a society that needed a place to put such people: off by themselves and out of sight.

By its close, Camarillo, sometimes known with a semi-affectionate smirk as the Hotel California, had evolved away from some of its most controversial therapies (electroshock, lobotomies) to more rehabilitative training in shop and computers, art therapy and employment tending the crops and animals in the surrounding fields. In this way its sudden transformation--zappo cracko!!!--into the California State University Channel Islands, which opened in 2002, was not such a great leap. Yet there had to be some lingering sense of its now painted-over former identity, a place where once as many as 7,000 damaged souls had lived.

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