Swimming seems an activity that evokes an older time, perhaps even a better time, a time of gentle ease. Swimming belongs in a Norman Rockwell painting. There you are, floating on your back in a small pond bordered by Iowa prairie grass, with two dragonflies and a single grasshopper perched gently on the bent tips of the cattails edging the water; and in the distance is a cornfield standing tall against a shimmering blue sky with a lazy cloud drifting slowly past. Rockwell, of course, would have positioned a “no swimming” sign that you happen to splash with the merest flutter of a kick, as you slip quietly and peacefully through the cool blue-green, gliding without friction, free from the pull of all earth’s desires. Paradise.
There is just one very small personal hiccup with this rosy picture — swimming terrifies me. Let me assure you, I’ve tried to swim. In fact, I’ve swum thousands of laps. Unfortunately, they were mostly to the bottom of the pool and then back to the surface and then down to the bottom again. An exercise closely resembling drowning. Sure, I’ve had years of swim lessons. But come Graduation Day, I’m the one grabbing the wet end of the hook held by the swim instructor to fish out those unsuccessful students who disappear into the deep-end with no hope of resurfacing before the end of class. Swimming has not produced my best moments.
Which is why my taking the traditional plunge into the North Sea on New Year’s Day with 10,000 of my closest Dutch friends seems a tad problematic.
Let’s just set aside the drowning issue for a moment and talk about a few other minor concerns with this venture. First, this ocean is not called the North Sea because gentle hot springs hidden under the waves cause you to giggle self-consciously as your swim trunks bubble up around your waist. Sorry. It’s called the North Sea because it is best-suited for military landings.
Like this celebration the Dutch held the other day to commemorate the landing of William of Orange in 1813. Clearly, the Lazy River at Adventureland this is not.
And then there is the small problem of the water being slightly chilly this time of year. Look at all these swimmers in the North Sea.
Now, look again. They all are in wet suits. A wet suit make sense in the North Sea. A wet suit is designed so that you don’t freeze to death in the water. Why are these swimmers all wearing wet suits? They don’t want to die in the North Sea. This is not subtle.
Finally, did I tell you that 10,000 folks are expected to show up for this little dip on New Year’s Day? That’s a lot of people. And after this theoretical dunk in the ocean, how exactly do we get our wet clothes off and our dry clothes on? Will there be 10,000 changing rooms with small space heaters placed next to little tables holding cups of hot cocoa with marshmallows? I’m thinking not. Yup, 10,000 naked people on a cold, wind-swept, North Sea beach are going to be dancing on one leg trying to get their underwear on. This might not be my brightest idea.
But, there you are. The Dutch begin the New Year by a dip in the ocean. It heralds a fresh start. A new beginning. Time to buck up and welcome the future. What are you going to do?
So we all pay our three euro, don our orange stocking cap that is given to every entrant, along with a large tin can of split-pea soup (why not?) inside an orange bag with the sponsor’s logo, and wait patiently to strip down to our speedos and bikinis and run into the ocean. I make my way to the middle of the crowd where I’m sure it’s nice and toasty. Well, I slightly miscalculate. The North Sea wind instantly freezes me, somewhat like the flash freeze they use on the spinach you buy at Hy Vee out of the freezer compartment. As a result, I stand woodenly for 45 minutes. Not moving. Frozen spinach on the shelf.
Time passes slowly. But, after three line dances and lots of stomping to techno music interlaced with polka tunes, a roar goes up, and everyone around me starts running. I try to run, but I’m still frozen solid to the ground. I eventually loosen up, make it to the water, dive into a wave, don’t drown, turn around, grin with delight, and raise my fists high above the spray. This euphoria lasts about a quarter of a second. Then I discover a small problem — I don’t have a clue where I left my dry clothes.
Do you see them anywhere?
Sure, there are 10,000 bundles of dry clothes on the beach. That’s a fact. I can see them. They are all in the conveniently provided orange bags. My clothes are also in an orange bag. Just like every bag. I’m a little cold. And dripping wet. And getting colder. And the wind is blowing harder. The edge of panic starts to seep into my damp brain.
By the way, I told this story to my Dutch friend. Her grandfather was a fisherman. Her father was a fisherman. And her son is a fisherman. They have all gone into the North Sea for weeks on end to make a living. They all make it correctly home.
“Joe, you should have talked to me. We are all taught from young about finding our way back. You must make a line with your eye back up the shore to some mark on the land. You follow that line to your clothes.”
Of course you follow the line. Everyone knows that.
In the meantime, I wandered the beach like a soggy puppy. Whimpering in a heroic sort of way. As I contemplated taking someone else’s orange bag (how easily we turn to crime), suddenly, there was my bag. I nearly cried with joy as I danced naked on one leg trying to get my underwear on.
So . . . what do I think?
I think this is what Norman Rockwell would have painted had he been around for this foolishness. Not some nostalgic ideal. But, a dance with 10,000 of my closest naked friends, crying with relief, trying to put on their underwear. And, of course, Rockwell’s ever-present “no swimming” sign would be just visible at the corner of the painting — up on a sand dune with wet swim trunks hanging off one edge of the sign.
Now that would be a New Year’s Day picture.