My college was nestled on the Rhine River just east of Schaffhausen, Switzerland. Hanging willows dangled into the crystal clear water which stretched a hundred meters across. Rowing enthusiasts often passed by our dock, causing the many swans to scurry towards the rocky banks. Near the dock was the deck of a restaurant, surrounded by hanging flower boxes full of brilliant red blooms. On a clear day, one could see the faint shadowy Alps towards the south. It was one of the most beautiful places to sit with a good book and cup of coffee.
The water came from streams fed by melting glaciers, making it cold enough to chill my foot with a single swipe. Swimming in the water was never my plan as I was an American who was accustomed to the warm waters of the local pool. The European students, however, found a quick swim to be invigorating. Each time they jumped in, they encouraged me to try it, but I never found the idea inviting. One day, however, they changed tactics.
"You Americans probably can't handle waters this cold," said Siggy, a young Swiss teenager. His friend laughed and the challenge was on. It was one thing to consider me squeamish, but another to challenge my country's honor. I felt obligated to prove that we, Americans, could jump into a glass of ice water as well as anyone else.
After retrieving my trunks (I was not about to wear a speedo), I joined them back on the dock. They jumped off near the shore as they always did, but I had something to prove. I jumped off the dock towards the middle of the river. This was a huge error on my part. The reason they stayed near the shore was because the current was blocked by the dock. I jumped out into the full strength of the rushing Rhine.
The water felt like a thousand needles poking my skin. I scarcely caught my breath before realizing my stupidity. With all my might, I swam to return to the dock, but the strong current drew me towards the center of the river. Within a minute or so, I was out of breath and already a good fifty meters downstream. I was going to drown if I could not get out.
Panic overtook me. I gasped for breath and slashed at the water to keep afloat. There did not seem to be any hope for getting out of this stupidity. Was I going to die because I was showing off? How many times had I heard stories about kids who were killed because they had something to prove? Now I was going to be an added statistic.
Just then, I remembered swimming in the pool back in Virginia Beach. My Boy Scout leader told us "Swim to move, float to survive!" I got on my back, and floated with as little exertion as possible. It did not get me out of the current, but it helped me survive until I did. When the river bent, I had rested enough to swim out of the middle and reach the shore.
I crawled out of the water, choked and panted on the rocks near a small garden. Turning to my back, I stared up at the warming sun and wheezed a prayer of thanks. Suddenly, the face of an old woman blocked the sun. She did not utter a word, but just looked at me curiously.
"American," I said through a gasp.
"Ahh," she nodded, before returning to her gardening.
Her response told me that I was through defending my country's honor, for that day, at least.