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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Heroism for Beginners by John von Daler

                 Spartan, you might call the Danish summer. The dark, blue-green water of the inland seas laps up against the wet, heavy, seaweed-carpeted sand along the gently sloping shores covered with hip rose and broomrape plants. The sun peaks out timidly from behind fleecy clouds, giving off sporadic warmth through the constant breeze.
                "Somebody has to do it!" says my brother-in-law and looks at me quizzically. "You know how the women love it..."
                I had been in Denmark for a decade, and I did know the modest fancies of Scandinavian women: a leeward corner where they could take the sun, a cup of coffee and a cookie, a day without rain, a long dry pier to get from the inch-high water to the thigh-deep sea for your morning bath. The ladies would love us for doing this.
                "OK, OK, I'm in," I say and go in to put on my bathing suit. Then I go to the toolshed to get a large sledgehammer, a metal rod about a meter and a half long and some gloves. We are going to put in the twenty meter long pier.
                The two-meter long poles with a point at one end and the ten pier sections, evenly-spaced planks nailed into two thick beams also about two meters long each, lay on the grass at the top of the lawn where the occasional marauding tide could not get at them in the winter. They had to be hauled down to the beach, the pointed poles had to be driven evenly and deeply into the wet sand beneath the dark,  chilly water and each of the pier sections had to be laid on top of four posts and secured with rope. This would take at least all day.
                We start by hammering the metal rod into the sand in foot-deep water by the wooden ramp which later would lead up to the pier. You have to hammer and then rotate the rod, hammer again and swing the metal once again. Each hole takes ten minutes and pounding each pole in place also takes ten. It was going to take at least all day to get the pier out.
                The inland waters in Denmark get to be around 17 degrees C in the summer. Not freezing, but not warm either. Standing in it all day, even in the lukewarm sun, takes its toll, even when you are in your twenties. We work all morning, have a break for lunch and to get the color back in our feet and then we work all afternoon. Finally, just in time for dinner we put out the last pier section. The ladder at the end can be done tomorrow. We'll wait for low tide. We also decide not to tie the sections in place; that will take another hour and dinner at the white wooden table on the lawn has already been served. So we tie the sections to each other, but leave them just balanced on their supporting poles.
                We eat in our bathing suits to the accompaniment of a lot of well-deserved praise for our work. One of my many, blond nieces asks if they can walk out on the pier, but we say no, it's not tied down yet.
                But won't it float away?
                Nope, not this time of year, I answer and take a well-deserved drink of Albani Beer, Funen's pride.
                We go to bed early that night with good consciences and tired bodies.
                The next morning I wake up fairly early and walk down the lawn toward the water to take my morning dip. My brother-in-law is standing there already. As I pass the hip rose plants the water comes into full view.
                He says, Look.
                I look out at the water. The poles we so laboriously planted in the wet sand are there, but the ten sections of the pier are gone. The waves lick the bare poles like a gleeful green monster getting the last sugar off some popsicle sticks.
                What'll we do, I say, just as we hear a long, dry sound coming from the path along the coast.
                Sooooooo. Whatcha gonna do about that, I wonder?
                A Danish fisherman, Christian, complete with a pipe, a white cap and blue overalls with rubber boots walks up behind us without our knowing. As the smoke from his pipe drifts past us he surveys the empty water and the faraway islands as if they had just been invented.
                Could be anywhere. Never know about those tides.
                We nod our agreement. A couple of idiots from the big city should not venture too many opinions in a situation like this.
                Guess you're gonna be needin' a boat. Never gonna find that pier with your sailboat or the rowboat.
                The man is right. It would take years for us to tack back and forth between the islands. We nod quietly.
                Be back in a half an hour, he says. Row out to the buoy in the yawl. I'll be there.
                We run in to change to warmer, more serious clothes with boots. We grab a bottle of whisky and three glasses and tell the family that we don't know when we will come home. We do this all rather quickly, knowing full well that yesterday's heroes are tomorrow's deadbeats. Happily no one asks the question whose answer everyone knows anyway, Why didn't you guys tie the thing down?
                As we walk down the lawn we hear the putt, putt, putt of his little light blue and white fishing boat that already is approaching the buoy. We see Christian inside the little white house in the middle of the deck, a wooden room not much larger than a telephone booth complete with steering wheel, instrument panel, radio, compass and a short-backed chair. Through the windows on all four sides it looks like we two city-slickers might just be able to slide in behind him. We hop in the yawl and row out to the buoy.
                Christian does not say much as we sail away, but he does accept a glass of our whisky. He heads out toward one of three islands that we can see from the summerhouse. These low, flat almost uninhabited islets have always been a destination, but seldom a finished journey for us. The occasional sailing spree would head out toward them or the even more occasional solitary swimmer, followed by cheering boatloads of family. Otherwise we only saw them at a distance.
                Today they come into view like celebrities never before seen up close. Familiar characteristics get readjusted to fit reality: I didn't know there was a hill back there. See somebody has planted bushes there. Hey, there are cows over here!               
                Christian sails us around in silence for a few hours, the whisky keeping our spirits up. Finally he mutters something about that pier being halfway to Hamburg and he turns his boat around.
                Of course right at that moment we spot the whole pier, in one piece, lying on the beach of the closest island. We head for it and soon have the runaway in tether, floating after the boat and we sail home. Christian makes a mighty swing when we approach the naked posts in the water in front of our house and has us loosen the ten sections at the exact right moment so that they float on their own steam right over to their places. We would just have to lift them up and tie them on.
                We wave goodby as he sails away and we make a vow to go by his place with a nice present.
                We get the pier in place in about an hour and make our way up the lawn to the applause of our women and children. A late lunch is waiting to put down into our whisky-laden stomachs. The pier is in place. The ladies are happy, the children ecstatic.
                We go to bed that night to sleep the sleep of heroes, not just for this once, but for the second day in a row! Tomorrow the ladies and children can get out to some slightly deeper water with dry feet. What a luxury. I fall asleep with an old melody in my head: It's so nice to have a man around the house. It's so nice to have a man...


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