One Polar Bear Club dip was enough

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Another apple has dropped at City Hall and 2014 is rolling in with a fresh start for everyone. It’s another chance to somehow get it right this time.

Like most folks, I reflect upon the past during the new year, often not knowing whether to laugh or cry. In fact, one of the most outlandish foibles of my misspent youth took place on New Year’s Day.

This tale goes back to the 80s. I’ve done a lot of foolish things in my life and it would be difficult to list them in order of their imprudence, but joining the Polar Bear Club was right up there near the top. Oh, I’m not an official member. I didn’t learn the secret handshake or get a decoder ring, but I did the hardest part – twice.

The Polar Bear Club, for the unversed, is a group of otherwise rational people who gather near a body of water on New Year’s Day and jump into it. This takes place in the northern climes where the dip is always frigid. I first heard of the club when I was a kid up near Chicago. I thought they were nuts. The club members would gather on the beach near Lake Michigan and go swimming on the first day of the year. There are other clubs in other cities around the country, but the general idea is the same – jump in the water on the first day of the year like a polar bear.

The mental image of those folks frolicking in the water had for some reason stuck with me throughout the years and I vowed that someday I would do it just for the experience. I didn’t need to join a club, I reasoned, I could simply do it myself.

Fast forward to Jan. 1, 1987 in Nashville, Tenn. I had just moved from Boonville, Indiana, and on the first day I wandered around the apartment complex to get a lay of the land. I noticed right away there was a large outdoor pool and to my astonishment they kept water in it year-round.

Standing outside the low fence near the sparkling water. I nodded knowingly. The time had come. Minutes later I was in my swim trunks near the fence and ready. It so happened that the complex had an indoor gym near the pool with a sauna. Entering the gym, I turned the sauna on full blast and waited a few minutes while it warmed. Then I returned to the pool, vaulted over the fence and took the plunge into the shimmering blue waters.

To say the water was cold was like saying Pope Francis is a good Catholic. It is an understatement of epic proportions. The icy water literally took my breath away. Gasping, I made sure to dunk my head for a total immersion like a good Baptist and then, moving faster than I thought possible, swam double-time back to the edge of the pool and sprang out of the water like a freshly hooked largemouth bass.

Moving with utmost haste to the sauna, I sat on the fragrant cedar bench with a grateful smile as the heat warmed my blue tinged hide. Smiling to myself, I realized I’d done it. Another silly goal had been reached, breached and conquered.

One year later. Jan. 1, 1988 broke bright and clear, and desperately cold. Having no plans for New Year’s Day, I remembered that the problem with doing nothing was that you never knew when you were finished. Then it hit me. I was a bona fide member of the Polar Bear Club, not some dilettante off the street, and I should take a swim to celebrate the new year. And I had no one around sane enough to stop me. Win-win!

Sitting in my car with a friend less than an hour later, I was near one of the boat launching ramps on Percy Priest Lake in Nashville. The engine was running and the heater was blowing hot air into the small passenger compartment. It was toasty. Sitting there in swim trunks I was ready to do what some of my ex-girlfriends had often advised, and go jump in the lake. I knew this would be colder than the swimming pool because there was a stiff breeze biting at my exposed flesh as soon as I got out of the car and the wind chill was in the single digits and falling. Brrrr.

There’s one thing to be said for inviting trouble: it generally accepts. Sprinting down the boat ramp, I torpedoed into the glacial water wanting to get this thing over with as soon as possible. Now, why was I doing this?

If this narrative had a soundtrack, this is where the creepy organ music would kick in.

I was quickly in about six feet of icy water. I did the obligatory head dunk and turning, started back to the car. I took six or seven long strides before realizing that I wasn’t moving forward. Oops!

There was a thick deposit of moss that was slicker than a Philadelphia lawyer covering the entire surface of the boat ramp beneath my feet. That was bad enough, but now I was going uphill. The faster I ran, the more I stayed in the same place. The more I stayed in the same place, the colder I got. Looking at my car, sitting enticingly about 80 feet away, I saw the exhaust plume and knew that it was blissfully warm inside. That was bad enough, but my friend, who had a lot more common sense than me, was pointing at me and laughing hysterically.

Noting that the wind had picked up and snow was spitting from a leaden sky, I tried to reason my way out of this problem. Attempting to run out of the water hadn’t worked so perhaps I could walk out. Trying this helped some but I was slipping a lot and moving far too slowly. I would freeze to death at this rate. I was shivering wildly by now and my fingers didn’t want to flex. Taking tiny steps I inched forward.

Yes! I was moving forward at a noticeable rate. I figured that by midnight I would be out of the water. Of course, by then the missing persons squad would find a man frozen to the boat-launching ramp on Percy Priest Lake with a funny look on his face. I would be on the morning news the next day having my 15 minutes of fame posthumously of course.

Well, I got out of that mess, or you wouldn’t be reading this tale of woe. I slowly, very slowly got up that ramp, an inch at a time. When, at long last, I got in my car I glanced into the mirror and saw blue lips and blue ears, oh, and a thankful smile.

I’ve heard that many people have trouble keeping their New Year’s resolutions, but I made one in January of 1988 that I have kept. I vowed that I would never, ever swim in icy waters again and I have been faithful to that commitment to this day. Oh, I still enjoy swimming, as long as it’s in the 80s or above. My polar bear days are over, but hey, maybe you should give it a try. I’ll wait in the car for you.

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