Christmas gifts would have been a dud that year had it not been for my radio. All I needed was some cassette tapes or compact discs to make it great. On my birthday, I was given a used bicycle, one of Charlie’s old things. She had so much stuff and needed to get rid of it. I didn’t know how to ride a bike then, but I knew I would learn. The bike came with no training wheels, which would have been useful to a beginner. I was happy about the bike, but there was too much snow on the ground and the weather was much too cold to ride. I had no idea of the whereabouts of Barbie by New Year’s Day but as I listened to the radio station and sang along, I was preoccupied, imagining putting on my own concert. Things that winter holiday season became bazaar early on New Year’s Day, around 8 am. Mama found Goody and me in the living room. She wore a huge, cheesy smile and was in a playful mood, giggling and moving about without a care.
“Woody, Goody, get dressed. Get your coats on,” she told us.
I jumped up from the floor. I had been lying there watching our TV that in 1997 was already about 10 years old. It had a thick rounded glass screen that was about 19 or 20 inches. There were two dials on the front for changing the channel, with no remote-control in sight.
“Where are we going?”
“Yeah, where are we going?” Goody repeated.
“We’re going to the lake.”
“The lake!” we both shouted because we knew the beach at the lake was for summer activities and it was freezing.
“Yep. Get your coats. We are going to see the polar bears swim.”
It had been a long time since I had been to the zoo and besides the stinking smell, I loved to see all of the animals. At that moment, I thought I’d love to see some polar bears, sure. But polar bears at the lakefront just sounded crazy.
“What are polar bears doing at the lake?” I asked, trying to make sense of it in my head. “Are they real polar bears?”
She looked at me with those glassy eyes she would have after being in her room alone with those funny-smelling cigarettes. In the voice she would make when she was trying to be mellow-cool and not upbeat-shucking-and-jiving cool, she said, “Real as can be.”
“Real as can be?” I asked myself confused, but the hope of seeing actual polar bears roaming around the lakefront was ironing out any confusion.
I guess that’s how it works when people sell you a dream. They don’t need to do any of the tricking. At some point, your hopes and dreams do it for them. But real as can be didn’t sit right, not even with Goody. I stood by the slick, shiny wooden front door, one leg overlapping the other, staring into the buffet cabinet that was missing its door. Goody was making a funny face with his lips twisted.
“Goody, grab your coat! Let’s go see what this is all about,” I told him. Shortly after, we were out the door, piling into the Chevy, thankful that we had worn long underwear under our jeans. The cloth seats in the Chevy were cold on our butts.
A few frosted miles later, with the loud muffler on the Chevy huffing and puffing more in the frigid weather, we were at the Lakefront. My eyes zeroed in on the people gathered and Goody was watching them too, even before Mama parked. We were excited to see some polar bears swimming at our lakefront. I knew that polar bears lived in Antarctica and I was wondering how they got to our lake. Did they swim all the way from the artic? Did they float on a glacier? More than likely, a zookeeper captured them and brought them to the lake to have a swim while they had a break from the zoo. I didn’t have the answer to any of that, but I did know it was cold enough for a polar bear to feel comfortable.
I looked over yonder, walking ahead of Mama and Goody. A sizable crowd of mostly white people in their early twenties gathered on the cold, dirty sand, and they all had a can of beer in their hands. They were standing around talking as if it wasn’t freezing. We had made it onto the beach and there were so many people that I could hardly see the water. I knew I was going to have to push through the crowd to get to the polar bears. I was determined to get a good view. When I finally got through the crowd, there were no polar bears in sight. My eyes scanned the beach in every direction but there were none. Before I could voice my frustration to Mama, who was a few steps behind, I couldn’t believe my eyes.
“Oh no! Those guys are taking off their shirts…those white guys!” I was so shocked that I was speaking to myself. I couldn’t yell. All I could do was stand there and watch it unfold. They were half-naked and heading into the water. The water was gray and dreary, but as they flailed around, they kicked up splashes of bubbly water that matched the white tide that rocked back and forth all the way to the shore. The bravest of them only made it into the lake about waist-deep before they’d had more than enough of the shock of it.
All I could think of was why ain’t Grandma here to tell those crazy guys not to go into that water because they are probably going to catch, what Grandma called, walking pneumonia. Grandma said cold weather gives you walking pneumonia, so I always tied my scarf extra tight around my neck. I didn’t want that; whatever walking pneumonia was, it sounded bad. Those guys in that water on that cold day were sure to get walking pneumonia.
One-by-one more guys jumped in and even some women. I was concerned. The three of us watched them belly flop into the water and make these excruciating expressions before most retreated from the water and wrapped themselves in heavy blankets. It was appalling. It was disturbing. It was kind of funny and entertaining but it was also time to find those polar bears so I turned to Mama and Goody.
“Where are the polar bears? Did we get here too late, Mama?”
Goody stopped watching the fiasco to pose the same question. “Yeah, where are the polar bears?”
“There they are, right there,” she said matter-of-factly then flashed a gapped-toothed, cheesy, wide-eyed smile. We were both confused. “The people in the water, they are the polar bears.”
“Huh?” Goody and I said looking at her watch the crazy people in the freezing cold water on a freezing cold New Year’s Day.
Going to see the polar bears was a peculiar way to end our winter break. We stood there bundled up in heavy winter attire, but the wind became surly and harsh, not permitting us to stay out there much longer. The ride home was mostly silent but Goody and I wore our true feelings on our faces.
photo credit: (https://www.tmj4.com/news/local-news/polar-bear-plunge-2017-returns-to-bradford-beach)