A summer episode

The year was 1950, I was 5 years old, my sister Hannie only 2, and my mother was still young, 27.  The summer was hot and the three of us went to the tiny strip of beach near one of the stone pillars of the bridge across the river De Waal.  The water was unusually high and the small beach was totally under water. There was a provisory swimming pool with as border a chain of wooden ‘bielzen’ such as used for railways. Previous beach visitors had dug holes in the sand, which were that day treacherously hidden under the water. I stumbled in one of the holes, lost my balance, and to my surprise was the next moment caught in the strong undertow that is characteristic for De Waal at several points between the basalt stone ‘kribben’.  I was too surprised to be alarmed or struggle. I drifted away fast and noticed that the water was gray-brown transparant in the sun light that reached my eyes that apparently I was keeping open. Once I surfaced and had a clear view of the skyline of our city Zaltbommel with the dominating cathedral tower, the Sint Maarten, and next to the right in my panorama view the smaller carillon tower, the Gasthuistoren. I had a feeling without words that I saw the tower and the skyline for a last time. I was totally calm.

I had put two fingers deep in my throat in an instinctive impulse. I had by then drifted away under the border of the chain of bielzen. On another impulse I stuck my hand out above the water.

On the beach was a boy of around eightteen who noticed a hand sticking out of the water, some twenty meters out of the beach, behind the border of the swimming pool area, drifting to the middle of the river.  He wondered for a moment and thought it must have been an experienced swimmer like himself who sometimes exercised crossing the river using the crawl method of swimming. Yet, Anton Slosser as he was called did not trust it and fast crawled to the place of the hand and got me to the beach again, trained as he was in ‘rescue swimming’. He was also a water polo player.  His father was the city barber. There was a beach supervisor who gave me something to drink. He was trembling on his legs. My mother, sister and me went to visit the home physician, the GP. He concluded that I had not swallowed any water. Only some years later I learned swimming , and I hated it.

I often keep thinking about what I missed in this process that ended with my narrow escape.  It is still waiting for me to be revealed. As for all of us. Just today I read in a local newspaper that in 2017 still 20 people drowned in De Waal. Hard to believe. Have to check it.

The panorama etching of J C Philips from 1649 of Zaltbommel displays the cathedral tower before it lost in 1696 by lightning and fire its top of 30 meters high. Nowadays the Sint Maarten tower is 60 meters high. At the time we were living just below the tower, Nieuwsstraat 21.

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