Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Polar Plunge 2010

The snow had been falling for over an hour before I even stepped out the door. Thick flakes passed through the scarce light of the ballpark, made the place seem lonesome and forlorn, like pen and ink drawing in black and white.

Most people who'd come to jump in a pool full of frigid water for Special Olympics (and just as probable to say that they did) were smart enough to stay inside, stick close to the bar, and have a couple of drinks beforehand. I had to get to work right after I did the plunge. There would be no drinking for me.

I'd been dreading this for a couple of days now. On my third try at this (with the aforementioned t-shirts to prove it), the polar plunge has become one of my winter rituals, a purge as much as a plunge, an exercise in will to show myself I will do what I don't want to do because I say I will.

It's powerful magic.

I got into this primarily because of my daughter, a high functioning autistic who participated in the Special Olympics a few years ago. It's not really for her anymore. She hasn't participated in Special Olympics in years and probably wouldn't if it was suggested. These days, it's more because I remember being at the Special Olympics and seeing the families with their own special needs kids.

Unless your family is more than a little unusual, it's hard to imagine the searing scrutiny, like being an ant under a magnifying glass. You can say it doesn't matter, it's none of their business, but I promise you going out to dinner, going lots of places, stops being fun after a couple of years.

At least, for me. A trip to Cracker Barrel is a battle of nerves.

Nobody was staring at anybody at the Special Olympics. We all had our kids, our issues and our insecurities, and none of it mattered. The kids were having a good time. Worries got left in the parking lot.

So, I jump to protect that. We don't go any more, but others will. The Special Olympics should always be there.

But still, I was dreading it. The weather had been lousy for days. I knew the water was going to be cold. I just didn't know how cold or how long it would take to recover. Jumping into a pool full of cold water always has its cost.

We lined up in the dark and stood as a shivering congregation, many of us, standing barefoot on top of chipped and cracked ice. We waited like penitents come to receive a scourging, while plunge officials told us to wait just a little bit longer, just another couple of minutes, wait... There would be fireworks and wouldn't that be something to see in the snow?

Of course, when they finally launched the rockets, we saw only glimpses. We stood underneath the think, opaque roof of the ballpark's shelter. At best, most of us could only make out the trails of fire as each explosive went skyward. We could hear the pops and crackle and smell the sulfur burning, but not much else.

In pairs or alone, we all took our turn. The goon hired as one part carnival barker and one part pentecostal preacher yelled through his microphone. When it was my time, I couldn't make heads or tails out of what he was saying, just looked at him, nodded and jumped. Whatever he was selling, I wasn't buying.

The water was cold and thick. It felt like someone had taken an axe handle and slapped me across my shoulders, my stomach, my legs. My entire body tensed up, tried to curl into a tight nugget. I sank, tasting salt in my mouth, then came up fast, hard and gasping.

Nobody expects much dignity in leaving the water. You get out as fast as you can. Sticking around is stupid.

After a numb hug with my wife, I shucked off the wet clothes in the men's room and traded them out for sweats and a coat. I walked my wife to the car then went on to work.

I'm still sore, particularly my right shoulder, and maybe I'm a little pissed about how the plungers were treated. I don't think any of us much cared about the fireworks. We couldn't see them and everybody complained about having to wait around longer than we expected. When you're wearing just a pair of swim trunks, single digit weather tends to slow the flow of time.

I wonder about what was in the water and whether the salt I tasted came from rock salt spread on the concrete walk stuck to the bottoms of our feet or if they dumped something in the pool to keep it from freezing up.

These are all piddling complaints. None of it matters. I'll be back next year.

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