The Day the Ice Man Melted
What a great day. Water temperature easily 28c, far too warm for a hard swim.
We arrived at the beach for The Swim of Peace and were introduced to the ever growing crowd as 'Champion Swimmers' who would assist the children to swim together for peace. Nejib was speaking through a faulty personal address system whilst being filmed by a couple of TV stations. He passed over to Thomas who spoke shortly, then to me to demonstrate my raft and Shark Shield. I explained how I liked to swim in peace and these items helped to take away the risk of being alone at sea. I passed over to Adam who demonstrated the arm actions for certain abilities of swimmer. Adam was joined by his girlfriend Gemma, who had been primed to sing and being an accomplished singer she took the microphone and proceeded to sing while the crowd listened "It's not about the money, money , money....."
I must say, what followed would never, ever, be allowed in England. Sometimes we simply wrap our kids up in cotton wool and our children are never allowed to scuff their knees. In Tunisia, the children are allowed greater freedoms. The children (about 450) were divided into 4 groups, non swimmers, very weak swimmers, ok swimmers and good swimmers. (the children deciding for themselves).
Rebbecca and Kathy, plus a number of adults , parents and organisers took the non swimmers and the weak swimmers and had them in the shallow where they were able to splash about . They also formed a human chain into a large outline of a heart, some standing through the shallow surf, others on the beach, hand in hand,
The other two groups would swim the left and right sides (symmetrically) of a heart , the plan being we would all meet up in the middle of the heart about half a mile out to sea, then proceed together straight into shore. There were 5 motor boats to act as safety cover and a hovering military helicopter. We, champion swimmers, were required to shepherd the (50 children) in our assigned groups, into the open sea and give them confidence to keep swimming alongside us as we swam the left or right side of the heart shape.
It was obvious right from the start that some of the kids were not good enough. Having swam out about a quarter mile, one young boy turned around and started to swim back on his own. So I swam ashore with him, ensuring he swam every metre himself. I then swam back to the group, who were by now virtually stationary, some swimming a few strokes, others treading water, but gradually covering the distance as a group, shepherded by the four of us, towards the centre of the imagined heart. Occasionally a swimmer would get onto a support boat.
It was almost immediately apparent we would not form a very precise heart as the current swept us parallel to the beach. Yet, after a while the two halves of the heart were joined and for a few minutes we were simply a mass of 100 bobbing heads (as if we were passengers on a boat that had just gone down) but all laughing and joking together. Then together as one big group, we commenced the swim ashore. I had taken up a position at the back. Very soon, two boys about 13 and 15 years old, fell behind.
They were swimming a few strokes, then resting. One boy had a look (very familiar to me), he was not going to make it, his strength and belief had gone. The other boy had a different look (again,one very familiar to me), he was going to make it if he could. Neither boy (I thought) would make it on their own. I detached myself from the group and swam with them side by side. Their struggles were being endured as they kept stopping to rest and look around for the support boats a hundred yards away.
I was now swimming side stroke as slowly as possible, almost treading water to match their lack of speed, watching them carefully as the support boats came close and tempted them to climb in. I swam between the boys and the boat, yelling "No Boat, No Boat" and waving the crafts away.
The boys had only a few words of English and knew they could not communicate with words. The eyes said all I needed to know. After the rescue boats stood by, away from my boys, the boys knew I was with them every stroke. They also knew they would be required to give me every single one. My two boys were swimming in all the way, even though we would be last to arrive on shore. For me, last is good. Often we have to come last, even lose, before we learn sufficiently to win.
Gradually, the boys approached closer and closer to the shore. The look of struggle in their eyes turned to a look of determination and self belief and I encouraged them with OKs. smiles, thumbs up and every other means I could think, to have them finish the journey they had commenced.
It took about 30 minutes to swim the (maybe 400) hundred meters to shore. Then we felt the sand beneath our feet, shared a few hugs and happy smiles, then the boys disappeared into the spectating crowds, now numbering seven thousand.
Did I say, virtually none of the swimmers had goggles and they all spent about ninety minutes to cover probably less than one mile. One or two wore life jackets. Many were collected by the safety boats. None were counted out and none counted back. Somehow growing up was always supposed to be this way.
Sunday is a day of peace, and just this once, I swam for peace rather than simply spoke of it.
The day of tolerance and peace continued throughout the afternoon and into the evening as the children and spectators lined the road leading into the town. Maybe a mile or two long, all holding hands. Later a live musical concert played into the night.
We had returned to the hotel for a short break and to get ready for the evening, where we (according to Thomas Noblett), would be meeting up with a few dignitaries and were expected in dinner jackets and tie "had I not received the letter?" Of course a dinner jacket (even smart clothes) , were probably the last things I would pack into my holiday suitcase (having already brought my raft with me), I had little enough space as it was. Still, since we had been invited, the least we could do was try to be a little smarter than turning out in sun bleached shorts and salt stained tees. Thomas suggested I (at least) should get a clean shirt.
Having LENT THOMAS £50 because his card would not work in the cash machine, I was now a little short and spent the LAST OF MY CASH negotiating a lower price for a new (fake brand) white shirt and tie from one of the boutiques in the hotel lobby.
Suitably showered and dressed in my fresh clothes I returned to the lobby (with a few coins in my pocket....the last I had) to get on the bus for the evenings meetings. Of course, everyone else had also gathered and were waiting all dressed in sun bleached shorts and salt stained tees. Thomas gave me his famous smile (the one that must have broken 100 girls hearts in his youth). So let me say it here and now, just to be clear: Don't trust Thomas.........Oh, and revenge is best savoured cold. I would say, Thomas did repay the loan straight away, so I was not broke after all.......just had to spend the money of souvenirs and chocolate to take home. It seemed the dwarf would not fit into my case any more than a dinner jacket, so I had to leave him behind.