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It was after the plumber told me about hypothermia that I thought I should get some medical advice. I called a doctor I'd once had an appointment with in Great Barrington, a town near where I live. He told his nurse to tell me that I was physically fit and that I could go ahead and swim. I could hear the nurse laughing even after she hung up the phone.
"He doesn't really know me," I told my husband. "What does he care?"
Half an hour before I departed on the three-hour drive to Lake George, I called my old family doctor in Cambridge. Mass. The old family doctor who'd listened to my heart for 29 years, who knew its rhythms, its past, its limitations.
"You think I'm crazy to go in?"
"Yes," he said without hesitation. "I think it's potentially dangerous. Bundle up really well and go down to the lake's edge and watch them. Just because those people are crazy enough to do it doesn't mean you have to be."
That settled it. I wasn't going in.
Helene is from the Bronx and she works as a betting clerk at Off-Track Betting. "I'm 47," she said with a strong New York accent, "about the same age as Elvis Presley would be, the same era of time; people covered everywhere with zippers. You know, back then an egg cream was the extent of our high."
She's a full-bodied blonde, and when she walks barefoot on the ice in her bathing suit greeting the crowd, she moves with style, holding her hands out like a dancer and twisting them in curlicues. The trick to walking on ice in your bare feet is to keep moving. When Helene shakes the hands of spectators and chats with them, she doesn't jump up and down; she gently picks up her toes and shifts her weight in a barely perceptible movement. She appears more comfortable and relaxed than the spectators, who are tense and bent over, buried under layers of clothing, trying to stay warm.
"I don't like to swim in the summer," she said, squinching up her face. "Why bother? I came back from swimming in the summer once and I squeezed oil out of my bathing suit and my eyes got all puffed up for days. The water is much cleaner in the winter. There aren't germs in cold water. You don't see roaches in Alaska, do you? I remember the sand at the beach from when I was a teen-ager; it was so white it was beautiful. Now the Atlantic Ocean along Long Island is blackish, greasyish and swirly. It cleans out in the winter.