Corncob Snorkeling Practicalities

An old Doctor Who today reminded me not only of a fondness for jelly babies but also the memory of the holy grail of mischief.

Pursued a masked assailant, Tom Baker was cornered against a bubbling swamp. For just a moment, it looked as if he was going to cross the swamp by submerging himself and using a corncob pipe as a snorkel.

He doesn’t do it.

Instead, he decides to take out the assailant with a hastily-fashioned blowpipe and dart. And I understand why. It’s easier.

When I was little, I believed it my life’s ambition to march unflinchingly into the local duck pond, to walk along the bottom–corncob pipe remaining above the surface like a tiny periscope–and emerge on the other side a few moments later. I’d be soaked through–algae hanging from my ears and a mallard under one arm–but with full composure as if there were nothing impractical or strange about marching through a duck pond like the T1000.

Ideally, it would be done in full view of some respectable onlookers–preferably the vicar, some gossipy mums, and the mayor.

It’s too difficult though. Perhaps even impossible. You can only really pull it off if you happen to be Popeye the Sailor Man.

I wanted to do this quite badly but got no further than caber-tossing my mother’s clothesline prop irretrievably into the duck pond, trying to gauge its depth.

I was perfectly serious about this and it occupied my mind for a long time. This is part of why I couldn’t be bothered with things like being kind to my sister or doing school work. There was the impossible stunt to solve.

There were diagrams. There were also diagrams, of course, of my robot, whose body would–quite simply–be made from off-brand Tupperware containers and whose mind would be made from a complex tangle of coat hangers. Diagrams do not guarantee execution.

The way I saw it, there were three major problems:

1. That the depth of the pond might by more than my 4.2-foot natural height plus two inches of corncob pipe.

2. That the corncob pipe wouldn’t allow for enough air.

3. That I didn’t actually have a corncob pipe.

But there were also three solutions: the finding of a pond with the perfect depth (deep enough for full submersion but shallow enough not to fill the pipe and condemn me to a premature watery grave); the acquisition of a corncob pipe; and that I traverse the duck pond quickly enough so as not to run out of air.

I found that I could hold it for 28 seconds. That would be enough time to cross the floor of a duck pond. Probably.

Of course, holding one’s breath instead of breathing through the pipe reduced the corncob to pure decoration. But essential decoration, so why dwell on it?

Getting a pipe would still be tricky though. I didn’t know anyone who smoked a pipe from whom I could borrow one and I suspected that Abdullah, our newsagent, would be reluctant to sell a pipe to a ten-year-old boy, even if he promised only to use it as a duck pond snorkel-cum-periscope.

I’d have to consult the one person intelligent enough and with enough time on his hands to help me solve these problems.

“Dad, can I ask your advice about something?”

Without looking up from the fiddly work he was doing with the cables on his scale model of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, he said, “Crossing a duck pond with a corncob pipe snorkel, I suppose?”

“Yes!” I said.

“Can’t be done,” he said, “You won’t be able to see.”

I hadn’t thought of that. A duck pond wasn’t like a public swimming baths, clear and limpid. It would be black with silt and duck droppings and the regal business of swans. I had to assume complete duck pond darkness.

I opened my mouth to speak but before I could offer my solution, Dad said:

“Forget it. It’ll spoil the illusion.”

He was right. Once you were into the realm of goggles, you might as well get hold of some proper snorkeling equipment and maybe even a wet suit. Such levels of preparation would completely ruin the effect. This had to be done sans sporting equipment, with only a corncob pipe for breathing through and (ideally) a three-piece suit and a bowler hat (for the later uncovering of a croaking frog).

It couldn’t be done. I was defeated, just as Tom Baker had been.

I told this story to my wife today, expecting bemusement. Without looking up from her embroidery she said:

“Pop a length of rubber tubing in the duck pond the night before. Use it to extend the range of the pipe. Rig the pipe in advance to facilitate maximum airflow.”

Samara Leibowitz. Smarter than a Time Lord. Smarter than my Dad. Smarter than me, certainly.

There’s really no reason not to do this now is there?

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