The Story Behind the Story

I’m still amazed that some of my stuff remains on the Internet. This is one of my weekly columns that ran in the New York Times New Jersey Section. As with all journalism, there’s the story read, and the story behind the story. First, the article itself:

Happy (Yikes!) New Year

MY first worry when I was offered a chance to plunge myself into the freezing surf on New Year’s Day was that I have never looked good in a bathing suit.

”That is not an obstacle,” Henry Dorsey, past president of the Atlantic City Polar Bear Club, assured me. ”We have a lot of portly people doing it. A couple of women will be showing their tattoos. Your figure is not a factor.”

What about dropping dead of heart failure or hypothermia? ”In seven years, none of us have had any illnesses whatsoever because of this,” said Mr. Dorsey, 43. ”Since I started this, I don’t get colds.”

In 1989, Mr. Dorsey started the annual New Year’s Day dip when he bet a colleague at the FAA Tech Center in Pomona, Gene Peters, that neither would have the guts to just do it.

”The water temperature was 28 degrees,” Mr. Dorsey said. ”Air temperature was 15 degrees with 18-mile-an-hour winds, with snow on the beach. It was too cold to stand around thinking about it. We went right in, and we felt things we’d never felt before. It was — ” he paused — ”a mouthwash for the brain.”

Word spread until he founded this latest, and largest, Atlantic City chapter of the Polar Bear Club. The 70 members’ annual ocean plunge raises about $1,000 for charities through sponsorships and sales of the club’s ”I Survived” T-shirts and caps.

The offer of a free hot shower by the health spa at Merv Griffin’s Resorts encouraged me to shed my ski jacket, sweatshirt, sweat pants, socks and sneakers and join the beachside throng of swimsuit-and-goosebump-clad Polar Bears in applauding the arrival of Mr. Dorsey, who marched onto the Atlantic City beach at 11:25 A.M. on New Year’s Day wearing shorts, T-shirt and a Santa Claus cap.

According to a large thermometer he had brought, the air temperature was 32 degrees. The water temperature was a balmy 38. ”There’s almost no wind,” he exulted.

Michael Kahlenberg, a shoe store owner who is the local Polar Bears’ current president, handed me a plastic cup of champagne. His skin was glowing cherry red in the cold. ”When you’re in retail,” Mr. Kahlenberg confided, ”this is nothing.”

Mr. Dorsey gave a short welcoming speech, advising newcomers to scream when they hit the water.

”No problem,” I replied timidly, eyeing the pale gray surf.

The Bears shouted a countdown, and we ran toward the sea. For a moment I wondered what would happen if I stepped on a clam shell. I stopped caring when the first splash of chilled water hit my toes. The running, screaming mob of mostly 40-something men (there were about 10 women) around me had cut off all avenues of escape. A fiery tingle spread along my legs, hips and waistline. Then, to my surprise, I couldn’t feel a thing.

It was as if the nerves in my skin had shut down. I saw a wave coming toward me, closed my eyes, ducked and felt it pass over my head.

I surfaced and realized I had forgotten to scream. I was gripped with a giddy fearlessness. I came up from under a second wave and saw the Bears heading back to the beach. Most of them had spent less than 30 seconds in the ocean. I lingered, waded toward the shallows and felt a gust of wind, and that’s when I felt cold. I was about to leave when I was almost trampled by a wall of bellowing, ruddy, red-skinned Polar Bears coming in for a second plunge.

My skin began to tingle again as I staggered out. I wrapped myself in a terry cloth bathrobe, shoved my reddened feet into my sneakers and became suddenly, unnaturally warm. Mr. Dorsey handed me a frozen orange pop.

”Hits the spot,” he said.

Mr. Kahlenberg gave me an ”I Survived” certificate. I asked if he kept in touch with his fellow Bears.

”Most of these people I see once a year,” he said. ”We say hello, go in, and then go back to our homes and watch football games and don’t see each other until next year.”

Among the crowd of dripping, hooting, hollering Bears frantically putting on as much clothing as their numbed limbs would permit was a scowling 10-year-old Kevin Storjohann. He had accompanied his father, Warren, a veteran Bear, into the surf for the first time. He did not approve of this aspect of adult life and would never, ever do this again.

I licked my popsicle stick and told him, ”Some things you get used to.”


Now the story behind the story.

I had been taking aikido at the Jersey Shore for a few years when I learned of the misogi, a Japanese cleansing ritual that required you to immerse yourself in very cold water, usually in a stream or river. My aikido teacher suggested the class do this one day, in the Atlantic Ocean, during winter. I was one of two people who showed up.

Yes, the water was very cold but I was prepared for the shock because I had done Swedish sauna ritual back in college. Oberlin was a very liberal school with a Natural Foods dining hall that served yogurt and peanut butter with every meal. I became friendly with kids who thought that the things that were good for you

  1. Would annoyed your parents if they found you did them.
  2. Were rude tasting or shocking when you first try them, only because you spent a lifetime eating and doing things that weren’t good for you.
  3. Were just about anything that was green or brown.

It is in such company that I would sit in the gym’s sauna in winter until I was the color of steamed lobster. Then we’d run out of the sauna, down a short corridor and through a door and jump on a snow drift. This was supposed to do all kinds of good things. As far as I know, it also tracked dirty snow into the gym.

When I got the approval for the story from my excellent editor at the New York Times, Diane Nottle (who has since left the newspaper), I was living in Philadelphia. I drove down to Atlantic City with my son, who was five years old then and aware that his father wasn’t like ordinary men, but not exactly sure how and why. He saw me take off my bathrobe and join the crowd, but didn’t think I was that odd because so many others had gone in with me.

He stood somewhat far from the surf, bundled up in winter gear. When I came out, and Henry Dorsey handed me my Popsicle, my son asked, “Hey Dad, can I have like of your Popsicle?”

I gave it to him. Later, after I showered and changed into warm clothes, we went to the seafood buffet at Harrah’s, where my son thought it was really cool to be able to eat all you want in a restaurant with big fish tanks.

Having had a tropical fish collection when I was his age, I decided to interview the people who have to take care of those tanks, but that was another story.


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