Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Death on the Rhine

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment