What follows is a factual story recounted for your amusement as long as you solemnly make a promise (between you, me and our personal deity) to read it without judgement or worse a raised-eyebrow cynical appraisal of my action. If you can’t in the depth of your heart do so, please close this post and move on. The ‘dramatic’ event happened two decades ago, at the gloriously beautiful Château de Chenonceau.
(NOTE: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)
This true anecdote may tickle your funny bone, or you may scratch your head and wonder about why a grown man would behave in such a manner. Several years ago I and my traveling companion Hélène left the lovely town of Blois early for a quick start to what was planned as another stage in our private Tour de France. It was exactly on the 19th of April, so she tells me; the sky was a radiant blue however unseasonably cool with a blustery wind adding a stinging bite to near frigid conditions. The parking lot was some distance from the chateau and as we were walking my lovely friend who had donned a thin, spring jacket visibly displayed ed signs of discomfort by hugging herself and shivering.
Ever the gentleman I rescued her by offering my Coq Sportif ski jacket that I had been wise enough to choose for the day. Well, we come up to the chateau and just as we are about to cross the bridge leading to the entrance, I suggest that I’d take a photo of her. I turn to take a few steps back and almost immediately hear a heartfelt, “Oh, no!” I wheeled around and she was peering over the stone parapet into the moat some twenty feet below. Looking down I see my jacket sedately floating down towards the Cher River not far off to the left.
(Twenty years later back to survey the scene – almost nothing changed except for definitely changed hair colour, damn!)
How did that happen? Always fastidious about her appearance (also a tad vain as are most attractive women), Hélène didn’t want to be wearing an over-sized jacket, removed it and set it some distance away atop the parapet. As luck would have it a sudden blast from a particularly petulant Zephyr blew it off to the waterway below.
Now what? As you can see from the photo, across the moat stairs lead down to the water’s edge. That turned out crucial to the rescue operation I soon devised.
A rowboat was tethered to the wall a little farther but obviously under lock and key – no joy there. Without a clue as to what exactly I might do, I ran down to the steps and that being as far as I could go I necessarily had to make what one might refer to as an ‘executive decision’. Did I have a clue? Would I really?
First I put my hand in the water and it was as I feared – ice cold! No matter, I made a mental calculation that if I felt anything really amiss, such as an incoming heart attack, I’d turn back. Without further consideration lest I chickened out, I stripped down to my bikini briefs and gingerly so I wouldn’t get my hair wet slipped into the water; now with a stately breaststroke I set off on the rescue mission. All the while I’m watching my jacket gently sailing down towards the swift flowing river but thankfully an air bubble kept it afloat. I’d absolutely not have wanted to dive in after it. Finally, I caught up to it (perhaps a distance of some 20 metres) and turning around I started back half tossing forward, half pushing it in front of me. Oh, I forgot to mention that after the initial few strokes my briefs had slipped down to my knees and I had no choice but to removed them and toss them back to where the rest of my clothes were piled up.
Remember we had been the very first car in the parking lot and in the heat of the action I’d not noticed newcomers had arrived on the scene – in fact it turned out to be three busloads of Japanese tourists. They were now lined up on that same little bridge surely wondering about strange ‘gaijin‘ behaviour – perhaps a Spring Rites ritual? I didn’t yet notice them but as I swam up to the steps Hélène was now waiting for me but so was a young blond woman who had shown up as well.. Sheesh, I’m stark naked, think I. Well no matter, I’ll scramble up to the ledge backwards so she doesn’t get shocked by the ‘Full Monty’ but when I turn around there are about one hundred cameras aimed at me. I decide one is better than a hundred fold and make my way out of the water offering a backside view to the 100 cameras. (I vaguely hear a spattering of applause and even one cheeky wolf-whistle proving contrary to some opinions that the Japanese do have a sense of humor.) What a lovely young woman she turned out to be! It took me a half-second to realize when she stepped forward she was holding a large, dry towel to wrap around my shoulders. It turned out she was a backpacker from Switzerland and correctly surmised I’d need something to dry myself, especially in that temperature.
Apparently only mildly concerned, my navigator/companion was asking how I felt and just about then my entire body, from the top of my head to the tip of my toes started to tingle, something akin to a million bees swarming all over me. I said, “I feel fine except I’m wondering what is going on with my skin?” In the meantime she and my good Samaritan were rubbing me down and in about 30 seconds as quickly as that strange sensation had come the tingling ceased. I had by then put on my dry jeans and shirt and it wasn’t until some years later that I learned that what I’d experienced was the onset of hypothermia. After profusely thanking my benefactress we started back up when two uniformed guards from the castle rushed over and invited us to go inside the castle where a rip-roaring fire was burning in the main chimney. “Venez vite, il y a un grand feu dans la cheminée pour vous réchaufer.”
“Non; merci beaucoup!” I managed to utter with all the dignity I could muster, “In Canada where I come from we prefer cool water to swim in.” No kidding, that’s the best I could come up with but I wasn’t about to go in and face all those tourists who’d surely snap more photos. As well, how can you explain that you went in to retrieve a mere sports jacket?
Holding my head high, arm in arm, we marched off in quick-step unison. Coming to the car I automatically reached for the keys and that’s when I immediately realized that my imprudent bravado had an unsuspected reward, in fact a felicitous outcome of no small measure. “Here,” I disingenuously claimed, “here’s why it was imperative for me to rescue the jacket.” I held out the contents of the right side pocket – the car keys, my wallet with all my IDs, driver’s license and almost $1000 in French money when it meant a good week of traveling expenses. The day before I’d cashed in a Traveler’s Cheque for that amount. The bills were just a little wet around the edges but otherwise all was in good shape. My jacket has zippers on the side pockets and without consciously thinking about it I had closed it almost totally; what marvelous design. Notice I said, ‘has’ as I still have it but only occasionally wear it so as to prolong its useful life. Quickly I swallowed a couple of 2-22 pills (strong Canadian aspirin) and would you believe it I escaped the watery incident without so much as a sneeze.
Feeling no pain in the warm car and so it appeared nothing more than a casual afterthought I later asked if she’d had any concerns seeing me in a situation, “Fraught with danger!” I was definitely exaggerating yet wanted her to feel a little guilt for my enforced swim, but only a tad. Cleverly nimble, Hélène neatly deflected the implied guilt by claiming to have thought while taking this photo, “What a man!” And that she’d genuinely felt a very warm feeling for me for being so bold as to jump in to repair her unfortunate mishap. My ego satisfied I merely nodded in agreement.
For better or worse one constant in my life has been a sense of loyalty, not just to people but to things as well, for example I drive my cars until they are done, kaput, period. This jacket traveled around the world with me; it’s a stylish black, easy to fold, light yet keeps me warm on all but the coldest days. In other words I feel a great deal of affection for it and of course having saved the beginning of our European wanderings means I owe it my loyalty. The day it no longer is wearable it will be honorably retired but remain in my clothe closet as a reminder of when I was young and foolish, oh all right, not that young but still full of vim, vitality and just a tad of welcome impetuosity intact.
Almost twenty years later, my splendid Coq Sportif yet keeps me snug and warm, This pic was taken last year in Stanley Park following a rare Vancouver snowfall.
Now you are privy to this rather odd anecdote, one that until now only a handful of people had heard about and even they weren’t in on the whole truth. I always made it a point to underline that I needed to retrieve the keys and my wallet. The unvarnished truth is I went in for my jacket and nothing else as I’d never thought, not for one second, about the vital contents of that one pocket. Loyalty, in whatever form it is expressed can only be rewarded, do you not agree? And come to think of it and please don’t think it a dark thought, rather a happy one – when I’m laid out for the final journey, no ill-fitting suit please, but let me be decked out in my lovely Coq Sportif jacket, I’ll surely feel snug and safe for the unknown journey ahead.