SMOKE: Freestyle Fear

Originally published: 11 February 2005

I'm not one for hording old things.

In the past I regularly flushed out old schoolbooks and birthday cards and other pieces of junk, getting rid of whole sections of my life.

But somehow a box or two has survived the carnage over the years and I was up in my attic the other night - torturing somebody - and came across the one remaining box of documents I still have in my possession.

It's been many a year since I browsed through that box and I suddenly had a hankering. Lucky for the poor stool with a bird shoved halfway down his throat - I let him go before it was time to move onto my very own, patented torture technique involving razor-sharp paper edges and instant coffee granules.

Naturally I can't reveal my secret recipe, but trust me - if your kid ain't telling what happened to that extra muffin my invention will have it out of him before he's even stolen it.

I'm setting up a website in a few days selling my book and promotional video, entitled: "How To Extract Maximum Information With Minimum Effort!", and if you buy it this week I'll throw in my "Nail Clippers And Eyeballs - Fun Torture Ideas For Amateur Home Lunatics" absolutely free!

And it really does work - I've got loads of testimonials, like this one:

From: Louise
Subject: Information Extraction

Dear Luke

I just wanted to write and tell you how fantastic and wonderful and absolutely brilliant your book and video are - they have changed my life! No more missing cookies in this household!! Just lots of screaming, and lots and lots of truth!!! I highly recommend everyone buys it!!!!

Keep an eye peeled for it folks - it's a sound investment as it has guaranteed returns.

But let's not get sidetracked, as enjoyable a subject as torture is.

I hauled that box out of the attic, discovered I'd lost 100 kilogrammes in five minutes from pure sweat (what's with hot attics, man?) and with my dog steadying the ladder I climbed down to browse through some memories.

There were the usual embarrassing writings that Mums latched onto when you were seven and spent the rest of your teen years proudly showing to anyone who was unfortunate enough to be trapped, and one or two old scripts I didn't know I had.

But then I came across this:


The year was 1979, I was six-going-on-seven and it was my first year of school at a convent in Uitenhage.

As you can see it was an award for coming third in the One Width Freestyle for Boys: Sub A, and was written in the calligraphic hand so favoured by nuns of the era, like Sister Noreen (who I can't remember, but who probably had a habit).

I'd never swum in my life and it was the gala most South African schools have in the summer. I remember that gala quite clearly - it was the first I had ever seen but I took absolutely no enjoyment out of it, because my race was an hour or two into the event and I had to sit there in terrified anticipation.

I think it must have been compulsory for all kids to sign up to race because I can't understand why I would have done so otherwise. I couldn't swim.

Either that or I was swayed by the promise of a kickerboard - plastic yellow boards with handles in the side which you used when learning how to swim. You could also wear waterwings if you wanted, and I wanted. As I no doubt reasoned to myself at the time: what could possibly go wrong?

And then they called it over the loudspeakers: "Would all participants in the One Width Freestyle for Boys: Sub A, please report to the starting line."

Small as I was I can still vividly remember the lurch of the stomach, the heat around the ears and the unbearable feeling of walking down the stands and heading for the start line, knowing everybody else was watching.

Their eyes burned holes in my back and by the time I arrived at the start I was leaking spinal fluid at an alarming rate.

You could have lit a match in the stands and touched it to my trail of spine juice, then sat back and watched it track all the way to my leaking back before setting me on fire in an explosion of small boy.

I put on my waterwings and got my board and gingerly lowered my chicken drumsticks into the freezing water. I was clinging madly to the side of the pool as my board floated gently away, and I was fretting about how I was going to get my board back when the starter's gun went off.

I shat my Speedo and looked around wildly - the other contestants were off in a flash, their yellow kickerboards held proudly in front of them as they cut a 10-foot wake through the still waters.

You could have tied a string around them and held on, and you would have got a nice little foot-ski going - that's how fast they were.

Only one kid was left behind, clinging in terror to the side of the pool.

I could hear the laughter welling from the stands as the rest of the school feasted themselves on this unusual but most welcome entertainment and crimson-faced I just clung there, not knowing what to do.

A teacher hopped in and retrieved my board, but I was having none of it - to hold the board would mean relinquishing my grip on the side of the pool, and even though I was more ashamed than I'd yet been in my short life to that point, at least I had one instinct intact - keep your skinny ass alive, boy. Keep that ass alive.

The teacher started prying my fingers off the side of the pool but with each one she got off I reclamped another firmly on, and she was fighting a losing battle. Eventually she just pulled with all her might and I popped free, flailing wildly to get the board.

I missed the board and got a finger in the teacher's eye and with a howl of pain and rage she let me go, scooping out the pulpy mess that was left inside her eye socket and crying like a baby.

I started sinking despite my waterwings and scrabbling madly I managed to reach the safety of the side of the pool. Not the side I'd started from - the side that ran along the width of the pool.

From then I was sorted - I inched my way along the width of the pool, hand over hand, and about 10 minutes later arrived at the other side to tumultuous applause and renewed gales of laughter.

Yep, folks - I was the original Eric the Eel.

At a glittering award ceremony after the gala I was presented with the certificate you see on this page. You might notice my position - third. And it would have been one of my greatest sporting achievements ever were it not for the fact that there were only two other contestants - my two best friends, who were twins.

The following year I left Uitenhage for good and never went back. Upon arrival at my new life in Pretoria I got swimming lessons before I started school and my dark, sordid little secret was firmly buried for these 26 long years.

Now it's out of the box, but I'm going to put it back soon. Maybe dig it up again in another 50 years - as an old man - and fondly remember when I was six.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
Spending time online does bad things to a person, but I'm OK.

Look at me now - all the way from Uitenhage to the bright lights of the big internet.

Find out more using the handy links provided.

Copyright © Luke Tagg. All rights reserved. A few lefts as well.

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