The remains of veteran reporter John Higgins were finally laid to rest last weekend at Hillside Cemetery in Lyndhurst, NJ. Higgins died suddenly last November of a heart attack at age 45.
His gravesite sits on a hill, with an excellent view. Straight ahead of you, in the distance, sits the Empire State Building, symbol of a city that he loved. Over the right, a couple miles away, is the Meadowlands Sports Complex. I like to think that John may be on an undercover assignment to finally get to the bottom of the Jimmy Hoffa case. Right at the bottom of the hill, behind a tree, the turret of Medieval Times. In the upper left corner of the headstone is the inscription “Life Is an Adventure.”
As part of the ceremony, family friend Eugene Flinn read one of Higgins’ most legendary pieces of reporting. In 1983, Higgins had become a reporter at the Milwaukee Sentinel, originally working the police beat. He was assigned to cover the annual Polar Bear Plunge, in which locals jump into Lake Michigan on New Year’s Day.
Typically, reporters will cover this story from an angle of “Aren’t these people nuts?” For example, in a 2003 version from the Journal Sentinel, Marilynn Marchione wrote:
Legend has it that the Polar Bear plunge started around 1940 with a group of 13 “beach rats.” It’s become a big annual event that many regard as proof that nuts and fruitcakes indeed hang around long after Christmas.
Higgins decided to take a fresh angle on the story by entering the water himself. Here is the 1984 story he wrote.
Polar Bear venture requires courage for newcomer
By John M. Higgins
This is not the way to cure a hangover.
More than 60 swimmers completed the annual Polar Bear migration to Lake Michigan at Bradford Beach Sunday. The swimmers splashed about in the ice-filled water while about 700 spectators on shore cheered them on.
I dispute the popular Polar Bear claim that the annual swim is an ideal remedy for a New Year’s hangover. I took the plunge and found that my headache was more painful after I came out than before I went in.
Many swimmers delayed the onset of their hangovers by continuing to drink through the morning. To some, a last-minute shot of brandy or champagne served both as antifreeze and as a confidence booster.
Having lived in Florida for 17 years, I found that I needed a little coaching on how to be a Polar Bear and survive. Fortunately fellow bears were more than willing to share their wealth of experience with a mere cub.
The key to swimming in Lake Michigan in January is to stand around wearing only shorts and shirt and sip champagne before you enter the water. This gives your body a chance to adjust to the cold air. After 20 minutes in 23-degree weather, the 34-degree water is almost pleasant.
Tennis shoes are mandatory because wet feet tend to stick to the frozen rocks as you climb out of the water.
The crowd chastised a few swimmers who attempted to spoil the drama of the moment by jumping in several minutes before the prescribed noon start. The other swimmers maintained their dignity and waited for the 60-second countdown to noon.
During the final seconds, I considered backing out, but I mustered my courage and silently prayed.
Suddenly, we were off. I plunged into the waist-deep water and waded about 20 feet from shore. The water wasn’t as bad as I expected. The worst part was standing up and feeling the wind against my soaked shirt. I pity those who went in with no shirts.
I lasted about three minutes in the water. I walked around cracking jokes about wanting an inner tube to float around in. I wasn’t really too cold, although I spotted one man carrying a sign that proclaimed the water temperature was 35 degrees.
My sympathy went out to one spectator who lost his footing and slid helplessly down the rocks into the water. He managed an empty laugh as he was helped out, but he was obviously displeased about his rude initiation.
Getting out of the water was tough. The sharp, icy rocks made leaving not only difficult, but dangerous. Two men with ropes tied to a stake helped people out, while swimmers stood ready to catch those who lost their footing.
Once out, I immediately accepted a gracious offer to climb into a warm car in the parking lot. I dried off, put on my jeans and talked to two other participants.
“I’ll do this until I de,” said Jeffery Bakula, 22 of 4829 N. Hopkins.
Bakula and his friend, Richard Hoener, 23, of 430 W. Newhall St., Wankesha, are veteran Polar Bears, who said they swim because of the absurdity of it all.
“Once you do this, you’ve cut loose so far that nothing else compares,” Hoener said. “The best part is listening to all the people on shore before you go. I think they really envy us.”
Those who weren’t swimming were nevertheless determined to celebrate the winter festival. Kites, volleyball nets and Bermuda shorts were abundant as people celebrated the relatively warm weather and ignored the snow.
Tracy Jarvis, 24, of Melbourne, Australia, was with friends who brought a Christmas tree and small charcoal grill to the event.
“It’s just such a nice sultry day,” Jarvis said. “We’ve found a nice, shady tree to sit under and enjoy all the company.”