ST. PETERSBURG - As Hurricane Frances took aim on the Sunshine State, I figured it was time to clean out the garage to make room for some lawn furniture.
Combing through my shelves, I came across a box of old scuba gear that contained the log book I started when I learned to dive in 1979.
My 12-week class was in an old YMCA in New Brunswick, N.J. It was the dead of winter, and several classes were canceled when snow blanketed the eastern seaboard.
My first open-water dive was in a rock quarry with a water temperature of 56 degrees, the second in even colder water off Sandy Hook State Park.
A few months later I packed up my Datsun pickup and headed to Tampa to attend the University of South Florida. When friends and family asked why I chose USF, the answer was simple: "The water."
For a scuba diver from the northeast, Florida was Paradise Found. The coral reefs off the Florida Keys were a veritable wonderland waiting to be explored. My first dive in warm water was in the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, named after the British warship that ran aground on the site in 1744.
I don't remember much about the dive other than when I got back to the dock, I seriously considered dropping out of school to work on a dive boat. As I stood in the garage thinking about the hundreds of dives I have made since - from Australia's Great Barrier Reef to the deep wrecks of the Caribbean - I didn't notice that my 3-year-old son had picked up one of my masks and put it on his head.
"I want to be a scuba diver too," he said. "Can I go with you?"
The thought of someday being able to dive, surf, paddle and fish with my boy brought a tear to eye.
"Of course you can," I said. "But first you have to clean up your room."
He's not the neatest kid (takes after his mom) but he does have that spirit for adventure. So I asked my friend Bill Hardman if anybody made snorkeling equipment for children.
"Sure," he said and handed my son his first pair of fins.
Another colleague, Bill Serne, a photographer with a passion for diving, told me about the Scuba Rangers program.
"Dog, you'll love it," he said. "Wait until you see what these kids can do."
So I started surfing the Internet and came across the organization's Web site. "The mission of Scuba Rangers is simple: to involve children in scuba diving and pass along the excitement of underwater exploration."
The word "excitement" caught my eye. As a boy I can remember being rabid about every episode of the Underwater World of Jacques Cousteau. My son gets just as excited about dolphins and sea turtles, and I know it is only a matter of time before the Discovery Channel's "Shark Week" will rank right up there with Christmas for him.
As I read more about the Scuba Ranger program I wondered why more dive shops did not participate. Geared for 8- to 12-year-olds, the program teaches everything from water safety techniques to basic snorkeling and scuba skills.
The students receive no formal certification. A prospective diver must complete a regular certification course to get the coveted C Card.
"A student must be able to fully understand the math and physics of diving before they are safe in the water," said Darry Jackson, whose store, Bill Jackson's Shop for Adventure in Pinellas Park, was the first to teach diving in the Tampa Bay area. "We start certifying kids at age 15."
But Scuba Rangers seems like a perfect way for a youngster to learn about a sport that has brought others like me to Florida.
Then someday, as my son stores lawn furniture in his garage, he'll understand that is just the price we pay to live and play in paradise.