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Diving into the limelight

Billy Ditty holds up a worn leather harness to demonstrate how he used to hang on tight when he dove _ mounted on a horse _ into a tank of water from 45 feet up. "You just hold on," he says, "and that was it."

Ditty, 51, trained the last five diving horses in Atlantic City, N.J., before the amusement ended when Resorts International bought the Steel Pier in 1978. The memory of the famous Carver High Diving Horses has been revived in Walt Disney's Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken, a recently released movie about Sonora Webster.

She was one of the many women who rode the diving horses at the pier and in a traveling circus. Sonora married Al Carver, son of showman W.F. Carver, who invented the diving horse spectacle in the 1880s. Sonora was blinded during one dive when a horse was startled by the sound of cymbals from the band and Sonora was thrown off balance and hit the tank of water face first with her eyes open.

The Dittys saw the film the first weekend it was out and enjoyed it, but they were disappointed that it focused more on the love story than on circus life.

Sonora dove for years after her accident. Ditty and his wife, Ruth, also 51, still keep in touch with Sonora, who is 89.

Ditty says that the riders were far more likely to suffer injuries during dives than were the horses. Ditty brings up treatment of the horses early in a conversation at his home, a haven for five dogs, three cats, two burros and 29 birds that chatter when anyone steps into the bedroom, which has walls lined with cages.

"A horse will get hurt more (by) jumping 'em, gaming 'em or racing 'em than they will diving," he says.

During his 16 years working at Steel Pier, none of the horses was injured during a dive, he says. But many of the human divers were hurt as they plunged astride the horses into 10 feet of water in tanks 11 feet deep and 24 feet in diameter.

Years after Sonora's accident, the human divers began ducking as the horses plunged into the water, protecting the riders' vulnerable eyes. They also started wearing helmets.

Ditty fondly remembers the women divers he taught, the horses he jumped with on training dives, and his boss, George Hamid, who bought the rebuilt Steel Pier after it was ruined by a hurricane in 1944. Hamid was the godfather of the Ditty's daughter, Susan, now 21.

After the storm smashed daughter Lorena Carver's livelihood, she took her diving horse show to Europe. She trained a British girl to dive, but a scandal erupted around them, the Dittys say.

The British girl was a "trollop," says Mrs. Ditty, who also worked for Hamid. A liaison with a couple of men played a role in Carver's downfall in Europe. She lost her money during her time abroad.

She also nearly lost her life. An unknown assailant shot a poison dart at her once when she was diving. The horse was killed; Carver lived and returned to Atlantic City where she sold the pier to Hamid.

But Carver stayed on, badgering Hamid's employees, including the Dittys, whose love of the circus life led them to obtain Carver's ashes a few years ago.

After she died, no one wanted to claim her ashes, so Betty Perillo, who had been a diver, retrieved her former employer's remains. She brought the ashes to her Kenneth City home after the pier's new owners refused her permission to scatter Carver's ashes near where the horses dove.

The Dittys read about Mrs. Perillo in the St. Petersburg Times in 1986 and contacted her. Mrs. Perillo died a few years ago and the Dittys took Carver's ashes. They discovered they also owned the ashes of Babette, Carver's beloved black French poodle.

The discovery was particularly ironic for Mrs. Ditty, who remembers Babette far more affectionately than she does Carver, a cranky woman who alienated everyone around her.

Carver would summon Mrs. Ditty and order her to walk to a nearby restaurant to bring back corned beef, roast beef and sliced chicken for Babette. Mrs. Ditty laughs at the memory.

The Dittys moved to Florida 11 years ago after Billy became disabled. He suffered pinched nerves in his right arm, and surgery to correct the damage worsened his condition. His disability, he is quick to say, had nothing to do with diving horses.

He never was injured during hundreds of training dives and occasional fill-in work for ill female divers. But Ruth occasionally feared for his safety.

"I thought I wasn't going to have a husband sometimes," she says.

The Dittys married after they knew each other three weeks and have been together nearly 24 years. Their love of animals formed a strong bond between them. Although Billy was in the circus, he was attracted to Ruth, who grew up in Philadelphia, where they met at a sports show.

"I was a towner and circus people don't go for towners," she says.

When Hamid's circus wasn't on tour, Billy lived at the pier so that he could be close to the horses. His was a vagabond existence, starting in South Pasadena, Calif.

"I was one of 13 children," he says with a shrug. "I went to the circus when I was 10."

"He ran away from an orphanage," Ruth adds.

Billy hooked up with Ringling Bros. Circus as an animal trainer. Because of his background training elephants, lions and other circus animals, making a career of teaching horses to dive never seemed odd to him.

"It was an experience diving 'em," he says. The approach was always "a lot of kindness and getting the horses used to you _ playing with 'em on the ground."

Horses between ages 5 and 10 typically were trained with beasts that were short and stocky. After Ditty gained the animal's trust, he would lead it up a walkway or on an elevator to the tower. At one time, the pier had a 10-foot practice tower, and that was the first step.

Ditty says that the horses would approach the edge of the tower and leap over on their own. He encountered just one horse that could not swim. Black Beauty also was afraid of the water, so the horse's career was cut short.

As the Dittys reminisce about various horses and human divers, they thumb through several scrapbooks of photographs and memorabilia.

They pull out old postcards of the famed Atlantic City diving horses and show off photos. One of Carver is a favorite.

While they show off their mementos, a recently adopted stray puppy named Daisy scampers around the room. Other dogs and a Siamese cat also stroll in and out.

The Dittys have a happy life, but they do miss their circus years.

"Hey, the sawdust doesn't get out (of your system)," Mrs. Ditty says.

"We've had fun doing the things we've done," she says. "But we miss it. We've been gone from it and I can't say how much we miss it. The pier was more than a place to work."