During the final weekend of April three abalone divers drowned in accidents off the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts. One of these accidents killed sixty-six year-old Cedric Collett. Cedric Collett was a retired firefighter from Pacifica, a department he served for thirty years. He was an avid swimmer who trained in the waters of San Francisco’s Aquatic Park. As a fireman he’d received recognition for his rescue efforts to save a drowning child. Cedric Collett survived a three year stint in the Peace Corps in war torn El Salvador and quite a few runs of the exhausting Double Dipsea in Marin County. The Pacific Ocean doesn’t care about all that.
Cedric’s brother, Elmer, was an All-Pro offensive lineman for the San Francisco 49ers in the 1960s. Their father was an Olympic medalist in water polo. Even that kind of lineage can’t save an ab diver when conditions turn sour in the Pacific.
It’s not as if Cedric Collett and the two other men who drowned the same weekend are going to be the last to die this year in pursuit of abalone. Far from it. But there is a way to stop the deaths and to help replenish the decimated population of abalone. When Cedric and Elmer were boys, using diving equipment to pry abalone from beneath the sea was almost unheard of along the Northern California coast. All it would take is for our state fish and game department to place a moratorium on undersea ab diving. This would not eliminate the temptation for some to attempt unlawful dives, but that’s why we have game wardens and hefty fines. Of course, this would put some dive shops out of business and some coastal motels and eateries would lose out a bit, but money for life seems a fair trade.
Cedric’s football playing brother, Elmer, was also a longtime firefighter in Marin County where they and another brother and sister grew up. They made occasional visits to their maternal grandparents, Elizabeth and Adam Coutts who lived on a farm a mile or so east of the headwaters of Little River.
Some of my earliest memories consist of steep hikes to the Mathison Peak lookout station after calling on Mr. and Mrs. Coutts. Both were born in Scotland and Mrs. Coutts, especially, was very proud of her homeland. She had been educated by Irish nuns whose discipline had been too harsh for her liking. In her presence my mother pretended to be a thoroughly Scottish Mrs. Macdonald, though her father’s family name was Fahy, from County Galway, Ireland.
Mrs. Coutts rolled her “r”s from here to Edinburgh. She read tea leaves and practiced her own form of phrenology by running hands over small children’s skulls then pronouncing, “The wee bairn has a fine future.”
Mr. and Mrs. Coutts had two children, Marjory and Adam Jr. “Young Adam,” as he was known to all, once nearly lost his life to my gun-toting great uncle, John Finley Robertson, but we can get into that tale another time.
Mrs. Coutts did not much care for the Irish or the English and she most certainly was not going to have her daughter, Marjory, marrying a man whose last name sounded French.
Nevertheless, Marjory did marry Charles Elmer Collett Sr. Despite his Olympic water polo exploits, despite a long tenure as assistant U.S. Attorney for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and a Bronze Star for rescuing two Navy crewmen during a WWII sea battle, Mrs. Coutts never completely accepted “little Elmer” and Cedric’s father. One could say Mrs. Coutts was as unforgiving as the Pacific.