by Heather Henderson from Belleville, Ontario
It was the summer of 1963. My father was in the Canadian Army and we had been posted to the little town of Soest, Germany. There wasn’t much to do if you were a kid living on the Canadian Forces Base in Soest. TV was all in German so nobody bothered with even getting one. We didn’t even have telephones on the base.. There was a big old Quonset hut which had been converted into a clubhouse and called “The Teen Hut”, a place where the teens could hang out, dance and play cards or ping pong.. But you had to be thirteen to belong to the “Teen Hut” and I was only twelve. I longed for the day when I would walk through that door, select a Beach Boys tune and show everyone that I could dance as well as Hazel, my big sister. Maybe even better.
The day I am writing about had nothing to do with the Teen Hut, but everything to do with showing Hazel that I was just as grown up as she was.
The plan that day was to pack up some sandwiches and head off to the pool.
Of course, as soon as we got to there Hazel and her friends ditched me and headed off to the tower in the deep end. I watched in awe and envy as they climbed the big tower time after time and plunged into the pool, doing cannonballs and all sorts of goofy things with their arms and legs, laughing all the way. I had been paddling around in the “kiddie” end, completely bored, listening to all the German children having fun and, not understanding a word of what they were saying. I knew immediately what I had to do.
I climbed out of the pool and headed towards the tower. I got five steps up the ladder and I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was one of the lifeguards. BUSTED! He spoke English and was quite stern with me. In his very thick German accent he shouted, “You can not go up the tower! You are too small!” I argued with him and stood my ground . While I was not the strongest swimmer at the time, I knew I was quite capable of getting from the point of pool entry to the ladder at the side of the pool.! Finally he said, “OK, you prove to me you can svim 10 lengths auf this pool and I vill allow it!”
He blew his whistle and cleared a swath for me along the side so I could start my swim. Now, this pool was not just an ordinary pool, but an Olympic-sized one. I climbed into the shallow end and started my Olympian feat. By the time I got to the other end on my first length I was exhausted, but I was buoyed by the laughter and splashing made by the older kids – and Hazel – as they continued to jump off the tower. I managed to make it back to the other end of the pool without stopping. I desperately wanted to pause for a minute and take a breather . But I knew that would be the end of the tower if I did. So it was with great difficulty I started out on the third length. My lungs felt like they would explode and my arms started feeling like they were detached from my body and working entirely on their own. My legs were the only part of me that was working as commanded. I tried to keep thinking about the tower and how much fun it would be. And then it happened. I could feel myself beginning to slowly sink. I remember thinking if I could just keep my legs going I would be ok. And by some small miracle, I had reached the end of my third lap! That’s when I heard the whistle, it was the lifeguard, standing over me at the end of the pool. Pretending not to hear, I turned around, put my feet on the wall and drove off mightily, ignoring the lifeguard completely. I felt a hand on my bathing suit as he struggled from the edge to pull me physically out of the pool and I turned around with great indignation and punched it away. That gave me an adrenaline surge and I managed to keep swimming. I could feel my arms again and my lungs seemed to respond as well. I veered away from the edge of the pool, out of the lifeguard’s reach, and kept going, knowing that this might kill me but I was darned if I wasn’t going down without a fight!
And what a fight it was: two big lifeguards jumped in and dragged me out, kicking and screaming. They were yelling at me in German and wagging their fingers at me. I responded by turning around and jumping back into the pool to resume my fourth length. They were waiting for me in the shallow end This time I didn’t have a chance. They forced me out of the pool, put a towel around me and suddenly, good naturedly, one of them said, “Ya, you haff gutz! I like you. You can jump off tower. But take a rest first and then be very careful!”
Twenty minutes later I was ready. I nervously approached the tower, still a little wobbly from my ordeal. I knew I was being watched. I looked up. Funny, the tower didn’t seem that big before. I put my foot on the first rung and began my ascent of this seemingly endless ladder. By the time I got to top I could feel the adrenaline! Finally, my dream had come true. I was one of “one of them” – a teenager! All the way up I rehearsed the perfect cannonball in my mind. And then, there I was, on the platform. I walked over to the edge and looked down, ready to execute my plunge to glory!
I should never have looked down.
But I did. I looked down and stood there and then I turned around, climbed humbly back down the ladder and strolled very nonchalantly toward the shallow end. On the way, I felt a hand on my head as one of the lifeguards gave me a friendly hair rub. I turned around and he winked and smiled. He didn’t laugh or make fun of me. He just smiled. And I smiled back, feeling very grown-up indeed.