When I first met Bret, I disliked him intensely. My friend Rob Palmer, a self-effacing Englishman, had invited me over to the Bahamas for the launch of the Draeger semi-closed circuit rebreather and I found myself in the company of a group of loud-mouthed American technical diving pioneers, each competing with the other to hold the floor and Bret’s booming voice dominating all of them. Bret could be a bit of a bully and I noticed he would pick away at any perceived weakness of character or physique.
It was at the TDI (Middle East) conference later, when Rob Palmer, my room-mate, went missing, last seen at 400 feet and still descending, that Bret and I bonded in the grief and lack of understanding as to why it had happened.
When we boarded the charter flight back to the U.K., Bret drily observed that he usually travelled in Business Class. I opined that I’d be happy if I didn’t have to sit next to a fat bastard. It was at that point Bret realised he’d met a soul mate.
Before I visited him in his homes in Maine for the first time, he sent me over eighty photographs of his properties. I retorted I was coming to see him, and didn’t really need the realty sales pitch. To his dismay, I turned up with my wife and two young children. He discovered to his delight that none of my family would take shit either and they became more soul mates too. My view is that if you can give it, you’ve gotta be able to take it too. Bret had a similar philosophy.
Meeting him by chance, diving in PNG, for example, bystanders were amazed at the way we insulted each other by way of greeting. But Bret was a stalwart and loyal friend who was quick to insert himself into any confrontation that his friends might find themselves with others. His technical witness work in litigation cases and extensive knowledge of diving meant that opposing lawyers competed to get him into their camp. As one judge was heard to say, “I know Mr Gilliam. He’s never started a fight but I’ve seen him win a few.”
Bret was generous to a fault. He once invited me to join him on a musical pub crawl in Ireland. We found ourselves on a tour bus with a number of ready victims from America. We laughed all the way. More recently he invited me to do the same and join him and friends on a trip to the Grand Tetons. Alas, I was not able to make it. As always, all expenses were covered. He used to regularly invite a great gathering of notables (and me) to dinner while at the DEMA show, all paid and taken care of by him.
Because I was tall, thin and English, and in those earlier days wore my hair in a pony tail, he likened me to Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac. He even had a framed photo on his wall of the drummer and some people questioned why he displayed a photo of me. I always signed my emails to him, ‘Mick’.
If you stayed in his home, you were careful not to over-do the cookies and made sure to replace the drip cup under the coffee machine.