Here We Go Loopidy-Loop

Two little dicky birds sat upon a wall, one named Peter, one named Paul,” we all recited while one moved his fingers. “Fly away Peter, fly away Paul. Come back Peter, come back Paul.”

“I know that game,” said Maqina. “You ink in one fingernail on each hand, then-”

“Shush,” urged Miss Quote. “We want to hear The Woodcarver’s story.”

After a while, we tired of this simple conjuring trick. Although our bottoms were still tender from the mass caning the previous evening for setting off fireworks without adult supervision, our 11-year-old spirits could not be doused for long. Besides, our little group had been at the end of the queue, so by the time the teacher had dealt out three “cuts” to each of the hundred or so boys, his arm was ready to drop off. We had gotten off lightly.

It was a balmy late afternoon in early summer, the day after Guy Fawkes, and only a few months before everyone in that small South African town would be involved in raising funds for the relief of Middelburg, her namesake in Holland, after the devastating floods when the dykes broke during a freak storm.

“Let’s fly away Peter, fly away Paul!” called the toughest of our group, running towards the swings.

Now, a word of explanation regarding those swings: they were situated on a slope above the town’s storage dam and recreational area, about three kilometres from our boarding school. There were four of them, in two pairs, hanging from sturdy chains nearly five metres long. Their support posts were angled outwards at the base. I have never again seen such tall swings. End to end, whooshing through your arc, you covered quite a distance and worked up such speed that your stomach would thump up against your mouth.

I played along with this group, but I didn’t really belong with them. Or any group, for that matter. I was “different”, and that was about the worst thing a kid entering puberty can be, because then you get picked on. Endlessly.

One of the wackiest things I did was to create a small patch of beauty for myself, three metres by two, somewhere in the middle of the six hectares that made up the school grounds. Not a blade of grass grew in that desert of dusty red soil. Where the idea came from to create a garden, I do not know. Back home, in Pretoria, we lived in a block of flats, so had no garden of our own, not even a pot plant.

A teacher of whom I had asked permission had walked with me some way from the hostel and scratched the perimeter boundary of my garden-to-be in the dry ground with a stick. On Wednesday afternoons we were allowed to go down into town to spend our pocket money. So come the next shopping day, I found a store that sold seed and my choice fell on zinnias, depicted in a riot of colour on the packet. They were to form the bastion of my private paradise, 40-centimetre-high sentinels protecting an inner sanctum carpeted with kikuyu lawn.

I prepared the ground with fervour, planted the seeds according to directions on the packets, then beseeched the heavens for further assistance. They obliged by watering my patch and beaming sunlight in rotation, until finally, after many weeks, there she was! That summer I spent many secluded hours concealed behind the tall zinnias, flat on my back on the lawn, discerning figures in the convolving clouds. The grass smelt sweet, the flowers aromatic. Industrious bees hummed in and out of them.

No one ever visited me there. A year or two before, when I used to pee into tarantula holes and scoop the drenched, irate occupants into jam jars to fight to the death with scorpions that I had captured earlier, other boys had crowded round to watch the spectacle. Violence was what they wanted, not beauty.

Renouncing my bloodthirsty ways for the aesthetic was deemed deviant, and I was to pay for it. Out of the blue came a challenge from some little scrotum to fight him, because he “didn’t like the look of me”. A teacher, supervising the gloved encounter, was charitable towards me and called it a draw. The mob knew better and queued to have a go at me.


Three of us were taking a break from swinging and watching the tough one. He was going higher and higher, standing on the wooden seat and propelling the swing with the powerful pumping of his legs. There was a fierce expression on his face.

“He’s going to loop the loop,” said one of the other boys in reverent undertones.

I did not know what this meant but sensed from the others’ keyed expectations that it was a daring feat. Hushed, we watched. At either end of his arc he was now level with the crossbar. Then came one final, mighty pump and he raced forward through the air.... and went all the way round, the chains fully extended. At the apex he was fully ten metres off the ground. He completed the circle, but ceased pumping, and so gradually came to a standstill.

I was terrified. And entranced.

“Bet you couldn’t do that,” taunted the tough guy, looking at me.

“Yeah, bet you couldn’t,” the others began to call, pariahs nipping at my ankles.

“Oh my goodness me! Now I’m definitely going to do it in my pants,” exclaimed Victimus Ultimus.

“Keep a cool head and a tight arse,” advised Gall.

Why I had wanted to make a garden, I hadn’t known. Why I was now walking towards the swings to take up their challenge, I knew not either. Not for sure, but I suspect it had something to do with beauty too. Him flying through the air had been so graceful. And it was a way of transcending the humdrum, the prison of the lacklustre compulsory education system.

And, if I’m brutally honest with myself, I was doing it also out of cowardice. I was more scared of being seen to be scared, than of looping the loop.

One thing I had figured out while watching him was that that final push, the one which would take me over the top, had to be made with 200 percent commitment. Anything less and you would not complete the circle with the chains fully extended. Instead, you would stall somewhere above the crossbar and then come crashing down. With the force of that long drop, there was no way you could keep your perch on the swing’s seat. The result would be catastrophic, if not fatal.

“Fly away Peter, fly away Paul,” I chanted softly, over and over, as I began to pump the swing. Higher and higher flew this dicky bird. The taunting had stopped. Heads were craned back, waiting for... the fall, of course.

Knuckles white from the force with which I gripped the chains, I had now reached the point where I was looking over the crossbar. That moment of motionlessness before the downward whoosh froze. It seemed I was suspended there for an eternity.

Now the push! Not only the force, but the timing had to be exactly right. Do or die, fail or fly! Now standing upside down, 10 metres above the ground, seeing only the sky. Then the treetops went racing by at the edges of my vision and I knew I was on the way down. I braced myself for the jolt that would come if the chains had not remained fully extended, but they had, and I was safe.

I coasted to a halt and sat in the swing, waiting for the applause, the congratulations.

“Let’s get back to the hostel,” was all the tough guy said. “It’s getting late.”

He turned on his heel and walked off, joined by the others.

It is difficult, all these years later, to know just what thoughts played in my 11-year-old mind at the time, yet I must have realised there was a better reason for doing something than merely to win approval: do something for its intrinsic rewards. With the others gone, I could better evaluate my loopidy-loop experience. A shiver ran down my spine as I realised I had discovered flying, and I wanted more!

I found myself standing on the swing seat again, gradually gaining momentum as I pumped with my legs and spread my wings.

The recreation area was completely deserted. The sun was below the horizon. What remained was what film-makers call fairy light. In this preternatural world I was beyond happiness and sadness, floating in a space I would later call “is-ness”, or “here-now”.

It is amazing how little effort it took to loop the loop, once I had relaxed in trust. I did it several times more, resting between loops and savouring the experience, high, high as a kite on adrenalin and cortisone.

When I came down to earth again, one thing had changed in the ordinary world: I was never challenged to another fight at that school.

“Ra ra ra!” cheered the little folk in chorus.

“My hero,” chortled Miss Quote seductively.

Sleep tight, don’t let the flees bite.

“Here we go loopidy-loop, here we go loopidy-lie,” sang Gall as he gave His Majesty a push in his hammock.