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"No," he said, "I can't afford to get sick."
I checked into my motel, the Fort William Henry, and my hand almost froze while I tried to unlock the door to my room. It was painfully cold. The Polar Bears hadn't arrived from New York, so I had time to collect my thoughts. Suddenly, it occurred to me to call my Uncle Steve, a doctor in California and a very positive person. What he said was, "I think it's safe for somebody your age to do just about anything except stand in front of a moving car or jump into a vat of boiling oil." He also said the Polar Bears probably knew more about hypothermia than any doctor.
"To join the Polar Bear Club, you have to fulfill two requirements," Al explained to me the next morning over breakfast. "First, you have to be empathetic. By that I mean you have to get along well with everyone else. We have such a diversity of people, economically, educationally and ethnically. that there has to be a common denominator, a friendly element that holds everybody together."
There was a varied group sitting at the table with Al that morning. Helene was there. So was Destin. a hefty dock worker who speaks little English and looks like Tito. And Ala Quint, a nurse from Germany, who was a candidate for membership. And Eli, a Brooklynite who looks like an emaciated Tony Orlando and drives for a car service. And Pablo, a customs official from Puerto Rico and vice-president of the club. And Al's Brooklyn-born wife, Irene, who isn't a Polar Bear.
Al, who was from San Diego originally, is not only president of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club, but he's also president of the New York Office Machine Dealers. He's a great-grandfather, though his sturdy athletic body and broad shoulders make him look a good 20 years younger than his 65 years. "I've seen Al race guys 25 years old on the beach and beat them," says Helene. Despite his physical strength, Al confesses he has "a little inferiority complex," and when he smiles his eyebrows arch up as sweetly as the scarecrow's in The Wizard of Oz. "Al has natural brains," said Helene.
"Of course, the other requirement for joining the club is you have to like fresh air and cold-water swimming." Al continued. "You have to swim at least twice a month from November through March. Every March or April we have a secret vote to admit new members. Now there are 25 members, the average age is 61, and we have more than 100 auxiliary members who do everything but swim with us. They jog, play with the medicine ball; they're loyal followers."
"Do you ever get cold?" I asked.
"Cold? What's cold? It's all in the mind. Look, say you're indoors, it's February and you look outside and the thermometer says 50°. You feel warm, right? In the middle of winter, 50° is warm. Now, say it's August and you look out and the thermometer says 50°. You feel cold, right? Your mind telegraphs to your body how it feels."
"Do you really get spectators to come in and swim with you?"
"Oh yes. I think, though, that ours is the only club that does that. Some of the other clubs can be really stilted. They act like they're doing something no one else can do. We don't. We try to get people involved."