Tommy O’Brien... On Diving


Diver Reveals Underwater Mysteries
[Dallas Suburban News]

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June 1987

Drama Keeps Old Diver Spry...

WWhether a 30-foot brass shaft ever lay at the bottom of Harveys Lake isn’t necessarily what’s important about this story.

What’s important is that John Besancon is on its trail.

On Wednesday, the 85-year-old human lightning bolt struck the library of the Times Leader when I happened to be in it. The dapper and wiry fellow plunged up to me with a beamer of a smile.

“I want to find an article that appeared in 1962 or 1963,” he began. “It’s about a long brass shaft that was pulled up from Harveys Lake back then. I’d like to know what happened to it.”

Without a date, our files were little help. Cheerfully undeterred, the diminutive and dapper Laurel Run native turned to leave.

As he did so, he said, “Well, I’ll ask out at the lake when I go scuba diving this summer.”

It’s the kind of line that makes a columnist run after an 85-year-old guy. You know – to get the rest of the story.

“Meet me at Harveys Lake Diving School tomorrow at noon,” said Besancon. “I plan to ask the owner about this matter and about renting some diving equipment.

Yes, sir.

So we met Thursday, at high noon. Frankly, I was less interested in the brass shaft than I was in the story of the wiry grandpa pursuing it.

First, we met up with Tommy O’Brien, owner of the Harveys Live Diving School since 1955 (“Oldest commercial diving school on the East Coast,” he says) and master treasure hunter. A man who should know a brass shaft if he saw one.

Waiting for both of us was Besancon (“That’s Beh-SAN-son, he said briskly. “If we were in France it would be Beh-ZAUH SAUHN.”).

It took a while for the subject of the brass shaft to come up, so in the meantime I tried my best to write down the life story of this ageless and spritely creature. But capturing the richness of his 85 years was a little like cupping a moth in your hands or cradling sunlight on your arms.

Attracted to fast boats and Florida living, Besancon said he moved south in the 50s, working as president and general manager of Florida Gas & Chemical Corp., manufacturers of compressed gases.

“I met the scuba boys who were looking for compressed air,” he said. “That’s how I got in the scuba diving game.”

Then in the 60s he moved back here, setting up compressed air companies that included Commercial Gas Corp. of Laurel Run.

Father of seven, and grandfather, too, Besancon has had the sorrow of burying his wife, Erma, 15 years ago and, a few years ago, his son, Joe.

He lives alone now, in a trailer, still supple as the wind.

Arthur Besancon, his cousin and neighbor, recalled how Besancon, an expert welder, was working on his property not long ago when he fell 10 feet off a scaffolding right on his sitter.

Lots of cuss words, but no broken bones.

Besancon and O’Brien, who’s 25 years younger but from nearby Georgetown, knew a lot of the same guys.

So before they got around to the bronze shaft, they plowed through a lot of interesting insider stuff about Laurel Run and Oliver Mills and Old Frenchies and Harveys Lake characters, too.

They talked about a bunch of people and places and I’m probably spelling wrong because I was afraid to interrupt. (“You knew Tip Diamond?” “Oh sure, sure I knew Tip...)

Eventually, Besancon planted two gnarled and muscular hands on spry knees and nailed O’Brien with snap-crackle-n-pop eyes.

To business, the eyes said.

“Now, what I’m really interested in,” he began. “The boys pulled a bronze shaft out of Harveys Lake in 62-63. At that time I was having a ball in the Bahama Islands. I understand it was sold for scrap bronze, but I’m telling you, it is a piece of archeology. It had to be at least 65 to 100 million years old.”

O’Brien, with an Irishman’s empathy for quixotic characters, wasn’t about to dispute anything. All he said was, “I’ve been here since ’55, and I can’t say I’ve ever heard of it...”

“Listen to what I say,” said Besancon. “It’s eight inches in diameter and about 30 feet long. It looks like a telephone pole. You shake your head, but I’m telling you...” O’Brien thought a bit. In his 34 years on the lake, he’s pulled a lot of things from those depths. Even hydroplanes. Why, he’s in pursuit of something now.

“I’m looking for a Model T Ford that went down in ’32,” he said.

The treasure hunters looked at each other. Bliss. Understanding.

Finally the two agreed that even if O’Brien couldn’t help much with the brass shaft, at least he could put Besancon where he wanted to be – at the bottom of Harveys Lake.

“I got to get me a good wetsuit and a whole new outfit,” said Besancon. “I like that Star Pro single mouthpiece.”

“I got both single hose and double hose.”

“I’ve got the Aqua Lung now. Don’t like it much.”

O’Brien allowed as how things have much improved in mouthpieces since the ‘50s.

That solved, Besancon agreed to come back this summer to do some diving. I don’t doubt he’ll help find that Model T.

Meantime, he will keep haunting libraries and newspapers in search of his own Holy Grail of burnished brass.

And if they someday bring up the lost continent of Atlantis from the bottom of Harveys Lake, I have every confidence that John Besancon, adventurer, had a hand in finding it there.


An article by Jean Torkelson in the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, May 7, 1989. Reprinted with permission.

Web Notes: A search of news articles at www.newspapers.com by the web editor did not disclose any 1962-63 account of a brass shaft recovered from the lake.


No news article could be located about a Model T Ford sinking in the Lake in 1932. The true event occurred on February 5, 1934, when Andrew Diamond, 18, was crossing the Lake on the ice (not an unusual occurrence in earlier times) when his old truck fell through a soft patch of ice. Diamond pulled up a loose floor board to use as a float until he was rescued by two ice-fishermen. Chief of Police Ira Stephenson (who lost a daughter in a drowning at the Lake) and Patrolman Fred Swanson witnessed the accident. The truck sank in the deepest part of the Lake and was never recovered.

On February 22, 1934, A. L. Stull, owner of the Mountain Springs Ice Company, also broke through the Lake ice and his car sank to the bottom. A rescuer, George Jones, famed phys ed instructor at Meyers High, drove his car over the ice to assist Stull but Jones’ car also cracked through the ice and sank. Both Stull and Jones made it to safety. Later, Ralph Kocher, great-uncle of the web-editor, was able to haul Jones’ car from the Lake.

Two years earlier, on February 27, 1932, two students at Bloomsburg State College, Carl Kocher and Ada Bartlett, were returning home to Alderson from college when their car skidded off the road at Point Breeze and plunged through the ice on the Lake into shallow water. They emerged from the car and were taken into the Grover Anderson home on Anderson Road to recover.


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Copyright 2006-2007 F. Charles Petrillo