Taking the Plunge

Ron Karpinski ©2008


Dawn broke on Saturday, the Fourth of July, a national holiday in the United States but in Switzerland just another routine summer morning.  A hot dry wind spilled in through our open bedroom window, forcing us out of bed.

My wifeís cousin, Martina, and her husband, Timm, had arrived the previous evening from Germany for a short visit.  Irmi and I planned to spend the day introducing them to a few of the sights in our little corner of the world

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Breakfast consisted of soft-boiled eggs, whole wheat bread, butter, marmalade, fresh fruit, cheese, and cold meats, all washed down with strong rich coffee.  Afterward, the four of us sauntered a hundred meters downhill to the Thalwil ferry dock on the western shore of Lake Zurich, where we boarded a passenger boat for the forty-minute ride into downtown Zurich.

Timm and Martina headed straight for the uncovered stern, open to the sun and wind, and found two empty seats on the railing, just to the left of a huge Swiss flag fluttering in the breeze.  Irmi and I settled in behind them.

While our guests gaped at the passing scenery, Irmi pointed out local landmarks, and I snapped photos for posterity.  En route, the boat stopped at Erlenbach, Kuesnacht, and four other villages nestled against the far shoreline.

In Zurich, we disembarked opposite the Buerkliplatz and followed the crowd off the wharf.  Standing on the General Guisan Quai, a main downtown thoroughfare, we pondered our options Ė straight ahead up the famous Bahnhof Strasse, lined with banks and exclusive watch and jewelry shops, or to the right toward the old city where many buildings date from the twelfth century.

The ladies quickly opted for the old city.  We strolled across the Quai-bruecke (bridge) and turned left into a maze of narrow cobblestone alleyways lined with quaint shops and cafes, pausing often to admire window displays.

If a store looked interesting, one or more of us went inside to explore.  Irmi led us into a small old-fashioned confectionery stocked with hand-made chocolates, bonbons, and jellies.  There, she bought a bag of dried strawberries and forced them upon us.  "Here, eat this," she said, "itís good for you."

Eventually, we wandered onto Niederdorf Strasse, which cuts through the heart of the old city.  Irmi felt a gentle tug and looked up to see Graeb, her favorite shoe store, beckoning not fifty feet away, and they were open!

In all fairness, the venerable Graeb, one of the oldest merchants in the city, is also my favorite shoe store, and I am the one who led the way inside.  A pair of summer sandals on display in the window had caught my eye, similar in both style and color to a tattered old pair that needed replacement.

Large red banners proclaimed storewide sales, luring Irmi and Martina to accompany me on the pretext of providing expert advice and moral support; however, three seconds after walking through the front door, the two of them disappeared into a sea of silk and perfume over in the ladies section.

Fifteen minutes later, having tried on one pair of sandals and finding them satisfactory in size, color, and price, I stood before the cash register . . . and waited.  Thirty minutes passed before Irmi and Martina returned.

They did not return empty-handed.  After much deliberation and soul-searching, Irmi finally settled on a smart pair of red leather open-toed platforms with wooden heels at 100 Francs below normal price.  She was ecstatic, having at long last discovered the perfect shoes to compliment a skirt she rarely wears.

The sales lady kept the bulky shoeboxes, and I placed both pairs of shoes, Irmiís and mine, into one plastic bag and cinched the handles into a tight granny knot.  I tried to stuff the bag inside my backpack, but it wouldnít fit; so, instead, I jammed it as far as it would go into a loose cargo net on the outside.

The top two-thirds of the shoe bag protruded above the netting and wobbled a bit when I walked.  Irmi looked skeptical at first; but, after I paced back and forth a few times to test it, it seemed stable enough.  We left the store.

Back outdoors in the bright sunshine, the three of us suddenly realized for the first time that Timm had not accompanied us inside. Where had he gone?  We searched left and right . . . and spotted him in the shade on the far side of the street, leaning against a stone wall, arms folded, eyes closed.

Policing up Timm, the four of us left the old city, heading in the general direction of the main train station.  At each passing storefront, I glanced at my reflection in the windowpane, relieved to see the shoe bag still in place.  On the Limmatquai, we followed a wide sidewalk paralleling the Limmat River.

The Limmat River begins high in the Alps as a small rivulet of melted snow and wends its way downward until it enters Lake Zurich at the southern end.  Through a miracle of physics, the river runs invisibly through the length of the lake and exits below the Quai-bruecke, once again called the Limmat.

No less than ten traffic bridges span the Limmat as it curves in a broad left-handed sweep through downtown Zurich.  Between the Rudolph Brun-bruecke and the Bahnhof-bruecke, a concrete footbridge leads to the opposite shore and Beaten Platz (square).  This is where we decided to cross the river.

If the footbridge has a name, it is not listed on the city map.  A sturdy structure, it arches slightly in the middle, wide enough for four people to walk abreast, with a waist-high railing of ornate iron, polished smooth by the years.

Mid-point along the bridge, the railing forms two outward extending semi-circles, or promontories, allowing one to step aside and take in the view without blocking the pathway.  Irmi ushered Timm and Martina to the rail on the northwest side, in order to take a photo with the city in the background.

This gave me a bright idea.  Why not take a photo of Irmi taking a photo of Timm and Martina?  I focused my camera, but the three of them did not all fit into the frame.  So, I stepped back toward the railing on the southeast side.

Still, they did not all fit into the viewfinder, so I took another step back.  Ah, thatís much better!  Just as they all came into view, I felt the railing bump me from behind but continued to concentrate on the shot, snapping the shutter release.  Perfect!  I lowered the camera and looked up, smiling.

Irmi turned in my direction and stopped short, her eyes filled with dread.  "The shoes!" she screamed, "the shoes!"

A part of me didnít want to believe that it had happened; but I knew what she meant.  Reaching behind, I groped for the shoe bag, but it was gone.

All four of us rushed to the railing and looked down.  Confirming our worst fears, the bag floated past, bobbing gently downstream, in the middle of the river.  Without another word, we ran off the bridge and onto the promenade.

Walking abreast of the bag, we considered our options.  Timm wondered aloud if the bag might sink; but I had tied the ends so tightly that it retained air, like a half-deflated beach ball, and drifted easily atop the surface.

Something had to be done quickly, though, or the current would carry the bag beyond our reach.  Once outside of Zurich, the Limmat flows for some distance in the direction of Basel before joining the Aare.  A few kilometers farther, the Aare is absorbed into the Rhine; and the Rhine, well the Rhine empties into the North Sea.  Who knew where our little bag might end up?

To our immense relief, the bag appeared to be moving slowly in our direction, toward the shore.  Or was that just wishful thinking?  Then, a tour boat approached Ė the type with a long low silhouette and curved glass top Ė heading toward the lake.  We hollered and screamed, but the pilot ignored us.

He did unwittingly help, however, as the boatís turbulent wake nudged the bag another few meters toward shore, tantalizingly close now, no more than ten meters away.  Several bystanders had now gathered to watch.  A young man approached Irmi and asked, "How much will you give me, if I dive in after it?"

Without hesitation, Irmi replied, "Twenty Francs."  I grimaced, knowing she had low-balled him.  The man, also not impressed, merely shook his head.

Silently, I urged Irmi, "Fifty! Offer him fifty!"  Irmi, not overly quick to part with her hard-earned money, pondered too long, and the man walked away.

My shoulders sagged.  Then a thick fog swirled up and blocked out the world, as my thoughts traveled inward, to a seldom-visited corner of my soul.

"Ron," the voice that is my conscience said, "You are responsible, you let the bag fall in the water, so you have to get it out.  No one else will help."

A switch clicked in my brain, and the old soldier within took charge.  Hands and fingers moved nimbly, quickly discarding shoes, socks, shirt and pants, until I stood on the sidewalk clad only in my Calvin Klein briefs.  Thankfully, they were black, looking from a distance like a Speedo swimsuit.

Handing my watch and wallet to Irmi, I said, "Here, hold these, please."  Speechless, she simply stared at me, as though after eighteen years of marriage seeing a side of this man for the very first time.

Swinging one leg over the railing and then the other, I pivoted onto a narrow ledge and faced Irmi with both hands braced on the ironwork.  Without another word, I pushed away, plunging feet-first toward the water below.

*          *          *          *          *

The entire sequence of events, from striptease to plunge, took less than a minute; but the human brain processes prodigious volumes of data in the blink of an eye, so what appeared to be a rash act had actually been well-calculated.

In July, the water temperature in that part of the river is at least nineteen degrees Celsius (66 degrees Fahrenheit).  Swimming there could cause goose bumps but certainly not hypothermia.  Also, the water is exceedingly clean and free of pollutants.  Lastly, the swim would be with the current, not against it.

In my mind, I saw myself paddling a short distance to retrieve the bag, then drifting lazily downstream to the next boat landing where stone steps or a ladder would facilitate exiting the water Ė into Irmiís grateful embrace.

*          *          *          *          *

I hit the river like a missile, arms at my sides, slicing downward through the foam.  At any moment, I expected to touch the muddy bottom, then push off back up toward the surface; but the water proved far deeper than anticipated.

Momentum slowly gave way to the watery depths, and I hung suspended in a rush of green bubbles, mesmerized by the crystal clarity of the liquid world around me.  The river bottom, however, remained beyond my field of vision.

Two meters above, light reflected off the surface, causing my brain to send a warning to my lungs, which suddenly craved oxygen.  A primeval force then took control of my arms and legs, whipping them into a clawing frenzy.

Bursting above the surface, I gulped several sweet breaths of air, then glanced about to determine my position.  The shoe bag, floating innocently only a few meters away, still sat high and dry atop the slowly moving current.

Approaching cautiously, I seized the bag in my grasp, but holding onto it while swimming, and keeping it dry at the same time, proved awkward.  In the end, I decided to pass the bag up to Irmi before finding a way out of the river.

The river at that point is more like a canal.  Vertical concrete walls extend from somewhere below the water line all the way up to the sidewalk at street level.  No access to the water is intended; the walls are smooth and bare.

A meter and a half above the water line, large steel eyeholes are imbedded every three meters or so, connected by thick heavy chains.  Perhaps intended as temporary boat moorings, they also serve errant swimmers well.

Allowing the current to pull me under the Bahnhof-bruecke, I grabbed onto a chain just beyond the bridge, directly below a promontory extending out from the sidewalk.  Timm peeked over the edge and told me to hold tight for a few minutes while Irmi and Martina searched for a rope or anything useful.

Fifteen minutes passed, while a number of pedestrians gathered on the bridge, gawking at the scene, pointing and speculating among themselves as to what might have the caused that crazy fellow to jump in the river.

Swimming in water of this temperature is quite comfortable; sitting still in it is not as pleasant.  A chill set it, so I kicked my legs to keep the circulation flowing.  After a while, my arms grew weary from hanging on to the chain.

At long last Irmi returned, after hiking up the block to a construction site and convincing a worker to help her.  As only happens in real life, the man was not Swiss or European, at all, but rather an American, hailing from the great state of Texas, which accounted for the deep slow drawl in his voice.

The fellow had brought a length of steel cable with a hook on one end that he lowered over the side, and I fastened the bag to the hook.  Then, he raised the bag up to the street.  Voila!  Our shoes were once again on dry land.

Then the construction worker leaned back over the railing and hollered down to me, "By the way, do you realize that you canít get out of the river on this side?  Youíll have to swim across to the other bank."

He had to be kidding.  "Are you certain?" I asked.

"Yup," he replied, "the Letten Swim Bath is your next option on this side of the river, and thatís a good two kilometers downstream."

Great!  I peered across the river.  Sure enough, a landing sat directly opposite our position, a good eighty meters away.  Obviously, the current would drag me downstream while crossing; but I could work back up to the landing by pulling on the chain anchored to the wall on the other side.

I am not a particularly strong swimmer, but, at the same time, I donít sink like a rock, either.  The current appeared to move no faster than a brisk walk.  Donít fight it, I told myself, give in and let it pull you, take long even strokes, achieve steady progress, and you will eventually make it across.

Irmi, Timm, and Martina apparently all shared an equal faith in my swimming ability, because they ran off as a group toward the opposite bank.  One of them hollered over their shoulder, "Weíll meet you on the other side."

Long ago, I learned that when facing any physical challenge, do not prolong it, or your nerves will suffer.  Just plunge in and get started.  So, I pushed off from the wall and fell into a right-handed sidestroke, my strength.

Fifteen meters into open water, the view changed considerably.  What had looked so benevolent from the shoreline now revealed itself as a relentless wall of water bearing down hard from left to right, making headway difficult.

Suddenly, a cramp gripped my right calf muscle, probably from being in the chilly water for too long.  I briefly considered turning back but banished the thought, repeating the old mantra, "If you ignore the pain, it will go away."

A heartbeat later, a tiny voice inside my head asked, "What if it doesnít go away?"  By that time, however, I was fully committed and forged ahead, concentrating furiously on my form.  Midway across, the cramp disappeared.

Tiring, I switched to a breaststroke for a few meters, then a backstroke, but made little progress.  So, I then rolled over into a left-handed sidestroke, searching for a fresh set of muscles.  Breathing became ragged and labored.

Struggling against the current, yours truly had a long talk with himself.  "Ron," I said, "you are (huff, huff) sixty-one years old now.  You need to (huff, huff) stop doing crazy stuff like this."

The final fifteen meters loomed ahead.  Arms and legs ached, and my hoarse breathing sounded like a sick whale spouting at sea.  Yet, in spite of all that, a residue of military discipline, still alive in my character after all these years, ordered me to bear down.  Rest all you want, after the job is done.

Renewed strength surged through my tired limbs, willing them to kick and stroke, propelling me forward a foot at a time.  The massive concrete wall drew nearer.  At last, I lunged and grabbed a length of chain, gasping for air.

*          *          *          *          *

From somewhere above, Irmiís voice pierced the void.  Leaning over the railing of a nearby bridge, she hollered down, "Ron, you donít have to go back upstream.  Thereís another landing on this side three hundred meters down."

Little did she know, the current had sapped all my energy.  Gratefully, I released my grip on the chain, and the river sucked me downstream. Treading water lightly, I drifted through cool shade underneath the Walche-bruecke.

Ahead on the left, Irmi and Timm snapped photos as I approached, resembling no doubt a drowning rat more than a returning hero.  Dragging my hand alongside the concrete landing, I halted in water still too deep to stand.

This particular landing belonged to the tour boat that had snubbed us earlier.  Fifty people stood in line waiting for the next departure.  Yours truly, clad in sopping wet Calvin Klein briefs, would now entertain them.

I hoisted myself up, twisted in mid-air, and plopped down on my fanny, legs dangling in the water.  My support crew gathered round, slapped me on the back and offered congratulations.  Thank you, thank, you, thank you.

Standing on wobbly legs, I sifted through my belongings.

"What are you doing?" Irmi asked.

"Iím putting on my pants," I replied.

"You canít wear dry pants on top of those wet briefs," she said.

"Why not?" I asked.

"Youíll get a rash," she said.

"But I donít have any other briefs to put on," I countered.

"Take off those wet briefs," she ordered.

"Men need briefs," I explained, "for support."

"Take off those briefs right now," she demanded. "Youíll be fine."

At times like this, I find solace in the memory of once having lived in an Army barracks with forty other men.  No vestige of modesty can survive that.

With no more graceful option available, Irmi held out my shirt to shield the crowd while I dropped my wet briefs to the deck and hopped around on one leg, pulling up my pants.  That done, the four of us prepared to exit the dock.

Despite falling in the river, our new shoes had remained remarkably dry.  Now, Irmi tied the shoe bag to her own backpack Ė by unspoken agreement, she would carry it for the rest of the day Ė and we set off for the train station.

From the main train station, we rode the cogwheel train to the top of the nearby Uetliberg.  The Uetliberg is a hillock above Zurich.  From up there, one can not only look down upon the entire city of Zurich but also the whole of Lake Zurich, as well.  A good portion of the Alps is also visible in the distance.

Up on the Uetliberg, we paused for drinks and a light lunch of grilled sausages and French fries, regaling one another with memorable moments from that morningís great adventure.  Forty minutes later, we hit the trail.

A long steep set of wooden stairs leads down from the top of the Uetliberg to a forest path below.  Once in the forest, we followed the marked trail to a broad meadow.  To the left, a sharp drop led to the valley floor.  To the right, fields had been planted in oats and barley.  Straight ahead lay the Alps.

For two hours, we walked through the fields in quiet conversation, marveling at the surrounding beauty.  Personally, I found it remarkable that no rashes or itches had developed.  Irmi was right.  Menís briefs are overrated

From the Felsenegg, a plateau above the town of Adliswil, we rode a gondola to the valley floor.  From there, a bus carried us home to Thalwil.

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By the time we arrived home, the neighbors had already heard about my plunge in the river and politely informed us that, in Switzerland, parading around town in oneís underwear is not against the law; but bathing in the Limmat is.

Oops!  All I wanted to do was save our new shoes, and now look at me: a criminal, a wanted man.  Hundreds of spectators had witnessed the deed, and traffic cameras no doubt captured my image from numerous angles.

When would they come for me?  Irmi and I watched television every evening for three days afterward, anxious to see if I had made the news.

*          *          *          *          *

The following Saturday afternoon, my lovely wife and I rode the train into downtown Zurich for a few hours of shopping.  No one recognized me.

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