It was raining again, on a typical north German morning in November of 1963, when three things happened that would change my life forever. First and foremost, I turned thirteen that day. But when I ran downstairs, expecting the cheerful face of my mother, gifts, and shouts of happy birthday, she looked at me with sad and bloodshot eyes. Weeping, she choked, “The American President Kennedy has been assassinated. Assassinated! He was so young.” I cried with her, hugged her, and comforted her as well as a thirteen-year-old boy could. We all had loved and adored youthful Jack Kennedy, the man from across the big ocean who had declared himself a Berliner. How different he was from the senile old men who governed us.
Later that day the third thing happened, something that I hoped would save my life. The fear of water had haunted me for a long time and had turned my Saturday morning swimming lessons into nightmares from which I couldn’t seem to wake. I tried to escape them by making myself sick on Friday evenings. Mother understood and would say, “It’s OK, sweetie, just stay in bed until you feel better,” which usually would be Saturday around noon. When I was forced to go, I spent most of the lesson in the bathroom, in the grip of self-inflicted diarrhea.
On this miserable afternoon of a day that was supposed to commemorate my reluctant entry into this world, and during the month that has more Germans killing themselves every year in record numbers, I found the solution to my problem. It was hidden inside one of those cheap paperbacks that my brother Klaus bought every week. After he had finished reading them, he passed them on to me for my “real” education, as he called it. The one I was reading now had the promising title Jerry Cotton Battles the Drug Devils from Harlem. It was about the adventures of Jerry Cotton, a G-man, and included endless debates as to whether the “G” stood for gun or for government. You could tell good guys from bad guys easily, because the bad ones (usually people of color) feared it stood for gun, and the good ones (usually WASPs) hoped it stood for government. Jerry and his sidekick Phil Decker were tirelessly fighting suspected communist conspirators, Arabs engaged in the white-slave trade, and drug-dealing black gangsters (long before there was any real drug problem). From the inside cover of this particular book, an ad jumped out at me. I immediately knew that it would deliver me from my own enemies, most prominent among them Herr Schneider, my swimming instructor, who gave meaning to his life by ridiculing me in front of my classmates.
The ad showed a glowing muscular man in black swim trunks carrying a busty blonde woman in a black bathing suit, both of them smiling happily as they headed for the water. The caption read, “They used to be afraid of the water, too. Now they enjoy it, thanks to the invisible flotation devices they are wearing underneath their swim trunks. No more embarrassing moments at the beach!”
Although I had never been to a beach — the German beaches along the North Sea and the Baltic Sea are too crowded, and the water filthy and cold — I imagined myself wearing this wonderful device under my swim trunks and carrying Marlies, the girl in my class whom I secretly adored, to the public swimming pool and fearlessly jumping into the water, while she clapped her fat little hands in delight and admired my antics. It cost an outrageous 12.95 marks. I knew I had to have it.
Since I had no regular allowance, I depended for money on occasional gifts from my grandmother and the generosity and guilt of other visiting relatives. My piggy bank contained 7.67 marks — a good start. Within three weeks I had the money, with the help of Klaus’s 2 marks from his meager income as an apprentice car mechanic. Then I sent for the miracle device that would change my life forever and turn me into a superhuman being everybody would have to admire. Every day after school I ran the mile from the bus stop to our apartment as fast as I could, only to be disappointed. Meanwhile, I got cockier at school, because I knew that the end of my suffering was in sight and that soon I would show them all. At the end of every semester all of us had to take a swimming test and every semester I was the only one who failed. That would soon be over, I promised myself loudly in front of the bathroom mirror with the door locked, and silently to my unsuspecting classmates at school.
For years I had been trying hard to learn how to swim, but as soon as I saw the water I had only one wish: to run away. Aside from rain and my weekly shower, my first contact with water came in elementary school, when the teacher told us to get into the water and swim. He probably assumed we all could. And it actually worked fine for a minute, until I had inhaled enough chlorinated, urine-enriched water. I started thrashing about and screamed for help.
During the annual six weeks of summer vacation, my well-meaning but embarrassed parents sent me to the public swimming pool in the next village for lessons. They seriously believed the old saying: if it doesn’t kill you, it’ll make you stronger. I arrived at seven in the morning, shivering in the foggy cold of what passes for summer in northern Germany, and was expected to jump cheerfully into the freezing water and frolic for an hour. Nothing could have been further from my mind. Watching the white cloud of my breath in the crisp, chilly air, I tried to delay the inevitable as long as possible. Although the instructor tried hard and even let me use a life jacket to stay afloat, it didn’t help. I went into the water dry, cold, and frightened and I emerged from it half an hour later wet, cold, and frightened. I never had to stay for the whole hour because I tended to turn blue and the instructor had by then lost all interest and patience.
Then I transferred to a prestigious middle school, the first in my family to do so. My father expected me to prove to the teachers that working-class children were at least as smart as the children of white-collar workers. Ironically, I was better than most of them in reading and writing, mathematics and physics; only in physical education — and naturally, swimming — were they all well ahead of me. I was the one nobody wanted on the team; there were fights over who would have to take me — and lose for sure.
My new swimming instructor was a woman. I liked her. Fräulein Fröhlich was gentle. She explained about proper breathing techniques and different strokes, she praised my effort, she encouraged me, and she never chided. A few weeks later, however, she got married and moved away. Herr Schneider took over the swimming lessons. His teaching philosophy was simple and he never tired of repeating it: his childhood — unlike ours — had been very hard; we were all a bunch of spoiled brats, physical weaklings, and moral degenerates. But he had taken it selflessly upon himself to change all that. With his help, even we would eventually become decent, hard-working, law-abiding citizens, useful members of society just like himself. As he told us his favorite hard-luck childhood story, his fists clenched and his voice raw with emotion, we imagined him walking barefoot through a blinding snowstorm ten agonizing miles to school every day with his lunch — a cold potato and some salt — in his frozen little hand. I looked at my carton of milk, my sandwich, and my apple and felt completely unworthy to live at all.
During the first swimming lesson, he introduced his teaching philosophy to me in more practical terms. He threw me into the water while my classmates — including Marlies — looked on and cheered. He yelled, “Swim or drown, I don’t care. From now on, it’s survival of the fittest, just like in nature. You will not embarrass me or this class any longer, do you hear me?” I didn’t hear any of it then, because I was too busy drowning.
How I made it back to shallower water, I don’t remember. What I do remember is throwing up in the bathroom afterward. But those bad times seemed to be behind me when I discovered the magic device that would help me to overcome my fear of water. Once in possession of my lifesaver I would show him, my parents, and my classmates that I deserved to be alive.
Three weeks after I ordered it, the device arrived in a small box. I had no idea what to expect. I ripped off the paper and found a black rubber tube with a valve sticking out of it, not unlike my teacher’s finger when he raised it toward the ceiling as if he wanted the Aryan gods to bear witness to my worthlessness. A folded sheet of foolproof instructions read as follows: 1) Undress. 2) Inflate device. 3) Put device around your hips, using hooks to secure. 4) Put on swim trunks. 5) Enjoy the water!
I examined it over and over. There was nothing invisible about it at all. It was black and ugly. I sat on my bed and cried until I had no tears left. Then I pulled myself together. I undressed, blew air into the tube, hooked it around my hips, and pulled my swim trunks up as high as I could. Then I stuffed the ring down as far as it would go. I had to admit, they hadn’t actually lied to me; the ring was invisible, though I looked like a snake that had just eaten a very fat guinea pig for lunch, or a skinny little boy with extremely wide hips. I cried again, but continued to experiment with deflating it a little more and a little more and still a little more. And behold, my fat hips shrank before my very eyes. I prayed that nobody would be able to see it.
The next Saturday I wasn’t sick, although I was worried. What if somebody saw the device? What if I got expelled from school for cheating? What if the other boys pulled down my shorts, as they had done before? But I knew I had no alternative. While the other boys changed in the locker room, hitting each other’s buttocks with towels and having a good time, I hid the hideous black rubber tube under my towel, pretended I had to go to the bathroom, and locked the door securely behind me. The other boys snickered and made stupid remarks about the size of my penis. Once safely inside the stall, I inflated my lifesaver to a size that would not be visible to my cruel classmates. Then I hurried downstairs to the pool, where the others were already frolicking, the boys dunking the girls and the girls screaming in mock terror. To me, the terror was real. I knew this would probably be my last chance. Cautiously I got into the water and tried to swim. Breathe in, stretch arms, breathe out, pull arms back. I tried to remember everything I had been told. Kick like a frog in summer, breathe like a horse in winter. It went all right for the first three or four strokes, until I got water in my nose and panicked. I started thrashing around again, with my face under water and my buttocks safely sticking above the surface. At least there was no danger of them drowning. Through the water and my tears, I saw Herr Schneider running to my rescue with one of those long poles that lifeguards use to pull people out of the water. Never before had I been so happy to see him. Maybe I had judged him too harshly, I thought. But I hadn’t. Instead of pulling me out, he dunked me under. Time and time again. I knew for sure I was going to die. Then suddenly there was a splash, strong arms grabbed me around my chest, and I was out of the water, lying on the cold tile floor. The huge blond lifeguard pressed my stomach to push the water out. I heard him threaten to call the police, and scream something about my teacher being a Nazi, and thank God, those days were over. Herr Schneider seemed to be even smaller than usual. As I glanced up at his distorted and angry face, I knew that he would do everything in his power to make me suffer for this humiliation.
I told my mother the story, leaving out only the lifesaving device. She and our understanding and kind family doctor decided on the spot that I was highly allergic to chlorinated water, and that I shouldn’t have to participate in any more swimming lessons. The invisible flotation device landed in the trash can and was never missed. I am sure it saved my life.