Everyone's life has a story. In "Lives," we tell some of those stories about North Shore people who have died recently. "Lives" runs Mondays in The Salem News.
SALEM — Two men sat inside a car at the end of a Cape Cod fishing pier revving the engine as they prepared to speed down the gangplank and soar off into the ocean.
It was the 1950s and the press had been invited to watch what was being billed as a demonstration of underwater survival. After a false start — the car ran out of gas — the refueled jalopy sped up, flew off the pier and landed in the water. Incredibly, it floated, forcing the intrepid passengers to roll down a window and sink the car.
After a few minutes under water, the two occupants escaped and swam to the surface.
Back in Beverly Farms, Barbara Cahill was hanging laundry in the backyard and listening to radio coverage of what sounded to her like a crazy stunt. She wasn't paying much attention until the news reporter said: "Local frogman Jim Cahill was able to successfully escape from the vehicle."
Mrs. Cahill almost dropped the laundry. Somehow, when her husband left for work that day, he had forgotten to mention that he would be driving a car off a pier.
For James F. Cahill, Jr., who died Feb. 28, that was just an average day.
The 81-year-old Salem native led a life that was, at times, hard to believe. It was more the stuff of legend.
"He had the same kind of qualities as John Wayne," said his son, Mike.
Cahill, a pioneer in scuba diving, took part in the filming of the 1951 movie "Frogmen" about the U.S. Navy's underwater demolition team. It was a subject he knew well — he had been a member of that legendary Navy team.
He knew Jacques Cousteau, the world-famous undersea explorer. They dove together in France, and Cousteau later supplied gear for Cahill's New England Divers' stores.
He knew Buster Crabbe, the Olympic swimming champion who played Tarzan in the movies. Cahill and Crabbe once ran a scuba training camp on Cat Island — better known today as Children's Island.
He knew Lloyd Bridges and served as a consultant on his television series "Sea Hunt."
There are so many stories about Jim Cahill that his friends barely scratched the surface when they met last week for his funeral.
There was the time in 1961 when Cahill's civilian dive team took part in the rescue effort after the collapse of Texas Tower No. 4, an offshore radar platform 65 miles off the New Jersey coast. It had toppled in a winter storm and all the crew was lost. Cahill and his team made more than 25 dives into 200 feet of cold ocean.
When Cahill was called to help at the Texas Tower, he brought along his best and most trusted divers — and that included Frank Sanger, a North Shore man who, as a boy, had lost an arm and a leg in a trolley accident. When Sanger was lowered by helicopter to a Navy ship, questions were asked.
"The Navy took one look at Frank and said, 'What the heck's going on?'" said Bob Cahill, another of Cahill's sons. "My father told them, 'If he doesn't dive, I don't dive.'"
In Salem, Cahill is remembered as a humble man who did his job. He was the city's harbormaster from 1981 to 1991, roaming the harbor in his familiar tugboat, Bob Sea.
"He was like the original old man of the sea," said police Chief Robert St. Pierre, a former neighbor.
"Cousteau invented (scuba diving), but Cahill introduced it to the United States," said Sgt. Peter Gifford, the current harbormaster.
Lt. Conrad Prosniewski, who heads the police dive team that Cahill founded, said the man was bigger than life.
"Jim Cahill is probably more known throughout the dive world and around the world than he is locally," Prosniewski said. "The guy was nothing short of amazing. ... His stories would leave us slack-jawed, and he was so extremely modest you had to pull things out of him.
"I remember being away at dive school in Virginia and they would say, 'You know Jim Cahill? Oh my god!'" Prosniewski said. "The guy was a legend, he really was. And that's a legend with a capital 'L.'"