When Otis Barton told the story, he always said it began and very nearly ended on Thanksgiving Day in 1926, when he went for a walk to buy a newspaper. He left his third-floor apartment on East Sixty-seventh Street in Manhattan and turned toward Madison Avenue, loping along lost in thought. Barton was preoccupied that morning with a recurring fantasy in which he was a celebrated explorer just back from
a dangerous adventure, with photographs and specimens of creatures never before seen by man, resting between expeditions in a penthouse apartment with a weeping willow on the terrace, a beautiful girl who liked camping and looked good in a pith helmet by his side. Like other boys enchanted by the novels of Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, and the other fantasists who were so popular during his childhood, Barton had feasted on daydreams of wild animals, caves filled with gold, and lost civilizations. As a young man of twenty-six, the theater of his imagination was still as vivid to him as the pavement beneath his feet.
In the real world, though, Otis Barton was an engineering student at Columbia University, the grandson of a merchant who had started with a clapboard storefront in Manchester, New Hampshire, in 1850, sold dry goods, and prospered. Otis Barton’s father, Frederick, went to Harvard, made a small fortune as a textile mill salesman during the boom years just before the turn of the century, and moved his family to New York, where business was even better. His first son, Frederick Otis Barton, Jr., was born there on June 5, 1899, followed by two daughters, Ellen and Mary, and a second son, Francis. Frederick Barton died suddenly in 1905—heart attacks ran in the family—and his wife, the former Mary Lowell Coolidge, packed up her children and moved first to Concord, Massachusetts, and then to a house on Marlborough Street in Boston.
Mary Barton’s relatives and social circle included the Lowells, Cabots, and Coolidges, who had built their fortunes in railroads, manufacturing, and finance as coal, steam, and cheap labor drove the engines of the Industrial Revolution. Her marriage to Frederick Barton had been considered shrewd by family patriarchs, who correctly assumed that merchants would capture a significant share of the money pouring into the pockets of mill and factory workers as mass consumption became a predictable part of the economic equation. After Mary returned to Boston as a widow with her share of the Barton inheritance and her own small fortune, she settled her family into the proven aristocratic pattern of fall and winter in the city, spring traveling abroad, and summers on Vineyard Sound.
Otis Barton had been raised by women. His mother, her sisters, and
a devoted nurse, Katy Gaule, tended him like a prince, and the only indelible image of men in his life was a painting by William Merritt Chase that hung in their parlor entitled A Portrait of Master Otis Barton and His Grandfather. Against the kind of dark background familiar to anyone who has wandered through a gallery of Dutch masters stands the figure of four-year-old Otis in a high-collared, thigh-length smock and knee socks, next to a seated, gray-bearded patrician holding a sheaf of papers on his lap. Otis, looking directly at the artist, is a beautiful child with an oval face, dark hair combed to a shock in the middle of his forehead, and perfectly spaced features that hint of intelligence. His grandfather’s countenance is tragic by comparison, defined by sagging pouches under his eyes and an expression of utter weariness. The painting seems to suggest sadly that all lives pass from hope to defeat.
At twelve, Otis Barton joined the tribe of privileged teenaged boys at Groton, where he played baseball and became something of a legend because of his academic record. Before he could read or write, he had discovered that he could think in pictures and recall images in his mind as though he were looking at a photograph or a painting. Otis used this rare gift of an eidetic memory as a parlor trick, reciting long passages in Greek and Latin after seeing them just once on a page. He could do the same thing with figures and reading assignments. Rote learning and memorization were in vogue, and he scored the second-highest grades in the history of the school to that time. Otis was a tall, good-looking young man who should have fit in well with his classmates, but he often came across as moody and awkward, perhaps because the terrain of his imagination was every bit as real to him as that of the outside world. By the time he left Groton he was known as a loner and a daydreamer.
Real adventure broke through Otis Barton’s solitary fantasy life most often during summers in Cotuit on Vineyard Sound, where his family had a mansion they called a cottage, an enormous seaside pile of dozens of small rooms and porches with lawns sloping to the sea. The house was divided into a women’s wing and a men’s wing shared by Otis and Francis with a steady stream of tutors and hired playmates. The Bartons devoted their summers to picnics, swimming, boating, outings to neighboring towns, ice cream socials, and costume parties. Sometimes Otis holed up alone, reading or simply lying in his bedroom or on a cot on the porch, getting up only for meals, but on other days he organized energetic adventures. One summer, when he was reading In Darkest Africa, Henry M. Stanley’s account of becoming the first European to cross the Dark Continent, Otis became obsessed with the way the natives captured animals in pit traps. He persuaded his brother to help him dig one outside the toolshed, cover the pit with branches, seaweed, and sand, and trap their gardener, George Childs. The story endured decades of repetition at family gatherings.
The ocean, though, was the dominant presence of Otis’s summers in Cotuit. In sailing dinghies, he and Francis would follow the gray-blue forms of sand sharks over the shoals of Vineyard Sound and sometimes spear them for sport. Once, Otis dove at one of the shadows from the crosstrees of a large sailboat with a knife in his hands, but the shark was too fast for him and got away unharmed. Otis burned with curiosity about the realm of shark shadows and unseen treasures and demons beneath the sea, and during his summers at Cotuit he recapitulated the history of human attempts to descend into its mystery. After he saw a drawing of a naval battle between the Greeks and the Syracusans in which saboteurs swam invisibly underwater by breathing through hollow reeds, he took a length of garden hose and, with Francis holding the end of the hose in the air, weighed himself down with bags of BB shot, held his nose, and walked along the sloping bottom from the beach, taking sips of air from the hose. At a depth of about six feet, he could no longer draw a breath through the tube, and he realized that his lungs just weren’t powerful enough to pull the air that far from the surface. Obviously, Otis thought, the only way to go deeper was to bring air with him. He had seen an etching of Alexander the Great sitting on the bottom of the sea under a barrel, so he tried a dive with a washtub over his head, tied by its handles to his shoulders. He could breathe, but the air made his washtub so buoyant he couldn’t sink more than a few feet, even with weights.
During the summer of his sixteenth year, Barton’s passion for sailing, shark hunting, and fishing was enriched after he found a diving equipment catalog at a boatyard in Cotuit. The catalog advertised a selection of professional gear available in 1915 that men used for salvage work and for exploring to depths of sixty feet. A complete outfit with helmet and suit was too expensive, but he ordered a small brass pump that could send air down to a depth of thirty feet and a length of nonkinking hose. The brass and copper helmets in the catalog were sturdy-looking, with molded shoulder plates. The concept was simple, so Barton sketched out a plain wooden box with a glass pane in front and a hose coupling on top with straps on the sides that ran under his armpits, and took his design to a cabinetmaker in Boston, who built it for next to nothing.
When the helmet arrived on the freight wagon, he and Francis immediately hauled it, the pump, and the hose to the Cotuit town wharf. While a small crowd gathered, Barton attached bags of BB shot to his belt, slid into the arm straps, and lifted the helmet onto his shoulders. If he got into trouble, his plan was to release his weight belt and let the air in his helmet bring him to the surface. With Francis and another boy manning the pump and hose, Otis climbed down the wharf ladder and settled to the mud of the harbor twenty feet down. But a minute later he reappeared, shinnying back up a piling and heaving himself up the ladder. Between the buoyancy of the helmet and its armpit straps acting to lift him up and his weights holding him down, he was being torn in two. So Barton hung the shot from the helmet instead of his waist belt. This was more dangerous because he couldn’t easily get rid of the weight in an emergency, but it was the only way to stay comfortably submerged while wearing a light wooden helmet full of air. If he couldn’t breathe, he would just take off the helmet and hope for the best.
Barton climbed back down the ladder and this time walked around on the bottom of Cotuit Harbor for half an hour. The rhythmic panting of the pump sounded loudly in his ears, and he was surrounded by a dim light that he would later describe to Francis as “church-like.” The murky water of the heavily used boat basin surrendered no great wonders, but Barton thought the glimpses of debris, old moorings, eel pots, a few shrimp, and the odd flatfish skipping away from his bare feet were miraculous. Until the end of the season in August, Barton explored in his helmet almost every day and often manned the pump while Francis and the other children explored the world beneath the sea. And then it was back to Boston.
In September, Barton stuck with family tradition and went to Harvard College, where he worked his way through courses in engineering, mathematics, and natural science with the same lackluster ambition but spectacular results that had worked for him at Groton. After his graduation in the spring of 1922, he took off on the trip around the world that was almost obligatory among the young men of his social class. Big game hunting was the rage, and he spent a few months shooting lions, tigers, elephants, and antelope on the African savanna and in the jungles of India. When he got tired of roughing it, he meandered eastward along the chain of deluxe colonial hotels in exotic locales and eventually fetched up on the Sulu Sea in the Philippines, where native divers told him about battles with enormous octopi and about giant clams with pearls as big as fists just beyond the reach of a man holding his breath underwater. Barton spent hours in the shallows of the tropical ocean, mesmerized by the gaudy reef fish and splashy corals and tantalized by the deep water, where the color shifted from aquamarine to deep blue to purple.
Back in New York with his wanderlust year under his belt, Barton checked into graduate school at Columbia as his mother ordered, but his imagination never left the ocean. He scoured the college library for books on undersea exploration and discovered that people had been ducking themselves underwater using buckets and air chambers for thousands of years. The crush of water pressure and their need to breathe, however, kept them within a few feet of the surface, as he had discovered from his own experiments in Cotuit harbor. In 1690, Edmund Halley, better known for his passion for comets, broke the air and pressure barriers by inventing a weighted wooden trapezoidal box with a glass top in which he could descend for a few minutes to about sixty feet. He also invented an underwater pulley system for delivering air to the diver in separate barrels, but the device still could not transport a man beyond the sunlit shallows near shore. Powerful air pumps, full diving suits that protected a helmeted diver down to about three hundred feet, and new techniques to prevent the bends were just being tested in the mid-twenties, and navy submarines—from which no view outside was possible—had descended to 365 feet. But the abyss remained as unknown and mysterious as outer space.
As Otis Barton turned onto Madison Avenue on Thanksgiving morning in 1926, he glanced back down East Sixty-seventh Street to watch the sun transform the top branches of the bare trees of Central Park into golden lattices against the chrome-blue sky. New York was an exhilarating feast of beauty, but above all it was paradise for a dreamer. Another young man living there that fall, F. Scott Fitzgerald, had declared that the city was leading America on the greatest, gaudiest spree in history as the economic boom reached mythic proportions. Battalions of men in suits scrambled to keep the money machine moving toward their own dreams of permanent prosperity in a market that never went down. Bank chairmen and shoeshine boys shared stock tips, President Calvin Coolidge declared that the business of America was business, and a well-known billionaire told a reporter from Ladies’ Home Journal that everyone ought to be rich. Otis Barton parked his own money with a conservative investment company and forgot about it except for the checks that arrived every month with ever-increasing amounts on them.
The exhilaration of high times suffused every side of life in New York City. More than 250 plays, musicals, and revues premiered in 1926, including Florenz Ziegfeld’s new edition of his Follies called No Foolin’, which opened at the Golden Age Theater on Broadway after throngs stood in the street for days to buy tickets. Uptown in Harlem, the silky howl of the Jazz Age poured from hundreds of clubs and out into the city, blending with the tunes of the Gershwins and Irving Berlin. And the miracle of radio had blossomed, so the music also flew through the air and into parlors, kitchens, and bedrooms around America. Two Sundays before Thanksgiving, David Sarnoff had thrown a switch at 8:00 p.m. to broadcast an evening of entertainment over the first radio network, which linked the studios of the National Broadcasting Company with stations in twenty-one cities. The broadcast included the music of the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic, and the comedy routine of a hit vaudeville act, Weber and Fields. Millions of people on the Eastern Seaboard tuned in and welcomed New York itself into their homes. Sarnoff’s radio network, along with hundreds of magazines and seventeen daily newspapers, were transforming New York as much as the frenzy on Wall Street.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Descent by Brad Matsen. Copyright © 2005 by Bradford Matsen. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.