Europeans quibbling over the Euro debt reminds me of how their feuding could have spelled disaster of a different kind.
It happened one day at Butlin’s Holiday Camp in Bognor Regis on England’s south coast. I was working a summer job in the amusement park. I ran the tilt-a-whirl. Next to me was a Ferris wheel four stories tall. From atop the giant wheel on a clear day you could see across the Channel to Calais. We had a lot of French tourists. The French and English don’t get along. The former tolerate the latter for liberating their country — twice. The latter the former for being the nearest source of edible food.
Their nicknames for each other have a nasty edge. On this day the snipping between “Frogs” and “Rosbifs” was rampant.
A gaggle of giggling French girls was screaming on the Ferris wheel. Screams are not a language, but we understood what they meant. In an amusement park it was delight — usually.
The first sign of trouble was a grinding noise of metal on metal as the operators struggled to halt the massive hoop. Like air brakes on an 18-wheeler, when you hear them something’s wrong. You can’t stop either on a dime.
A girl with long dark hair was in tears on the big wheel. Each time around she was more distraught, shrieking something in French. Our eyes deciphered what our ears couldn’t. The French girl’s hair was wound into the hinge holding her seat. With each revolution more spooled around the stem pulling her face ever closer to the iron.
By the time the ride stopped, she was suspended at its apex with her head cocked sideways.
Two women chaperons who knew little English and three Cockney attendants who knew no French gesticulated below. Tempers flared as each tried bridging the gap by shouting in their native tongue.
Frustrated, one of the Brits put a pair of scissors in his teeth and started climbing toward the victim.
Her response — “No!” — was under-stood by all. He beat a quick retreat.
Finally an English nurse, in broken French, brokered a plan to lower the girl’s chair to the bottom.
The mammoth disk was rotated clock-wise then counter clockwise, each time removing passengers to maintain balance.
Once down, the attendants removed her chair from the ride. Everyone took a turn trying to untangle the young brunette’s hair from the greasy stem. It was no use.
The nurse was able to salvage several inches, but in the end could only save her patient with scissors. When freed from the iron wheel, the young girl sobbed in the nurse’s arms.
The crowd waited silently. A seagull called. A dog barked on the beach.
Finally, the French girl’s tear-streaked face emerged from the nurse’s embrace. When her lips curved into a brave smile, a cheer erupted. We were no longer French, English or American.
By evening the usual snipping had resumed as ferry loads of day-trippers retreated across the Channel.
But, on that July afternoon we learned that love and music are not the only international languages. Above all there is compassion.