Unfinished Falls in D Minor by Henrika Brinkerhoff
Lake Placid, 1932, 1980
DNF, Ice Daredevling
We take for granted the ease with which intercontinental travel happens in our modern day. Were one to achieve at the highest level of one’s sport today there is no corner of the globe where one would not travel to compete with the Olympic gold on the line. But times have not always been so simple. The Fates, such as they are, can be cruel mistresses. And the Fates have never been crueler to any woman than the Faller of Frisland, Henrika Brinkerhoff.
Ice Daredevling in the 30’s, unlike our modern sport, mainly consisted of going over ice falls in barrels. But Henrika, whose lone hobby was painting her imagined version of Niagra Falls in water color, had no ice falls to traverse in northern Holland. Instead she would wait for the massive northern dykes (then made of wood) to freeze, and slide down them head first. Though heavily recruited for the Dutch bobsled team, when she heard that the 1932 Olympics would be held in New York, home to the better half of Niagra Falls, she eschewed the advances of Bobsled coach Guss Strootman, and committed herself to Daredevilry.
Unfortunately for Henrika, the Dutch Olympic Daredevilry Committee was under siege by penny pinching bureaucrats. Whereas the Bobsled team was sent over to America on a first class steamer, Henrika was told by DODC chair Henrik Von Thistlebrow that she must pay her own way to America if she wished to compete. And Henrika had nowhere near the money it would take to make the journey, having already spent her inheritance while recovering from a particularly vicious dyke injury. Many tears were shed at the DODC that night (though not as many, it should be noted, as would flow when news came that the entire Dutch Bobsled team wound up marooned in Hispanola, and missed the games altogether.)
Henricka did not hear of the Bobsled team’s failure. Nor of anything else: she sealed herself inside her home, a widow to games in which she could not compete. Wars came and empires fell, and all the while Henrika dreamed of the Falls. She filled volume after volume with her water colors, each increasingly unlike the actual Niagra Falls. She received milk and bread from a local boy named Rinke, who would also tend to the patch of grass in front of her home. She lived the mental life of a daredevil even as she never ventured out her front door.
When the IOC announced the the 1980 Winter Olympics would again be held in Lake Placid Henrika, now 78 had not heard a wit of news in nearly fifty years. But Rinke, who knew of her fondness for Upstate New York slipped a newspaper clipping with the announcement in with her bread along with a plane ticket that he had bought with the money he had saved from being in her service: Amsterdam Schipol to John F. Kennedy Airport. So many unfamiliar words! Henrika packed her most essential belongings into her barrel: a change of bloomers and the collected works of John Calvin. Rinke put her on a train headed south to Amsterdam, and after much coaxing and explaining of the massive advances in engineering that had occurred since she was last aware of air travel, she boarded her plane to New York City. From there she took a Greyhound bus to Buffalo. Oh the sites she saw out her tinted window. And as she got off the Greyhound bus in Buffalo, barrel under her arm she exclaimed to no one in particular, “I’m already a daredevil. To the falls!”
Unfortunately for Henrika, a man of ill-repute in a beat up Chevelle heard her cry. “I’m headed that way little lady, if you’d like to hop in.” Tragically, he was headed to the falls, and her body was found three weeks later washed up on the shores of the Niagara River. She was the third of six victims of the Niagra Falls Killer. When Rinke heard the news back in Frisland, while deeply saddened, his grief was softened by the knowledge that she died living her dream, going over the falls of her imagination.