BENJAMIN MACK - The Nordmarks' summer house, located near the shores of Lake Helgasjön north of Växjö. The house has been in the family since 1907.
Ever since I was a child I’ve had a penchant for over-dramatizing things, making even the most ordinary days sound like they came straight from one of the “Die Hard” movies. And since I’ve been in Sweden, I’ll admit that I’ve sometimes made things sound much more extraordinary than they really are.
But when I say jumping into a frozen lake recently was one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done, I’m not kidding.
In my usual flair for theatrics, I thought leaping into an ice-coated body of water wearing only a bathing suit would be a great thing to write about. While that’s debatable, one thing I can say is I have never known cold like the waters of Lake Helgasjön, located just north of Växjö.
And mind you, I’ve dealt with below-zero temperatures on more than a few occasions.
Nothing has ever come close to the cold I had to endure, a numbing of the body so intense it even made my last breakup – which caught me so much by surprise I had just gotten out of the shower when it happened – seem enjoyable by comparison.
But I also have a weakness for not being able to say no to things. Some friends wanted to travel to Yellowstone for Spring Break, spending a week with nothing but freezing temperatures and grizzly bears. I said yes. When Girl Scouts appeared at my door last summer selling cookies, of course I bought some. And when my host family, the Nordmarks, invited me to their “summer” house for the day, I couldn’t refuse.
One cool thing about being an exchange student at Linnaeus is this: every student has the opportunity to be paired with a host family to show them what life in Sweden is like outside the classroom, student pubs, and the cultural enigma/tourist black hole known as Stockholm. And as far as host families go, mine is pretty cool – minus the fact that someway, somehow, I get the feeling they’re going to be witnesses to my untimely demise.
With the exception of trying to retrieve the head of a drill used to make holes in ice that had fallen into the lake – by ingeniously attaching a magnet on the end of a string – most of the day was going pretty normally by Swedish standards.
We were sitting in the sauna my host father Lennart had built several years earlier, losing large amounts of weight in temperatures well above 100 Celsius, when he proposed something radical: a dip into the lake. I laughed; there was no way he was serious.
But then I saw his face. He wasn’t joking. In that instant I knew this wasn’t going to end well.
Crazy as it was, I couldn’t exactly say no. I often crave attention, and this would definitely get me more than just a little of it. Plus, I didn’t want to give the impression that Americans were wimps. The hopes of a nation of over 300 million people were riding on me. It was my patriotic duty to do this. For some reason I suddenly had images of the fall of the Roman Empire.
I slipped on some flip-flops, threw on my bathrobe, and plunged into the blinding light shining through the open door and out into the subarctic air.
Lennart took the lead, sprinting to the hole we had sawed earlier in 40 centimeter-thick ice. He hopped in without missing a beat. Within seconds, he was out.
BENJAMIN MACK - Växjösjön is another lake located near Växjö. According to locals, during some particularly harsh winters it is possible to drive a car across it.
Now it was my turn. I said a silent prayer.
“You don’t have a heart problem do you?” Lennart asked through chattering teeth, breath more visible than Charlie Sheen’s alcoholism.
For perhaps the first time in human history, I actually wished I did.
I disrobed, already shivering. I threw off my flip-flops, and leaped in. I was genuinely surprised my life didn’t flash before my eyes, or think about that within a couple of seconds I might very well find out if there’s an afterlife.
The cold hit me with the equivalent force of a charging bull. Blasting, penetrating, all-encompassing. “Bone-chilling” didn’t even begin to describe it.
My body was shutting down. I needed to get out faster than the Shah in Iran.
Summoning my last reserves of strength, I exploded out of the water. For the first time in my life I actually saw what the benefits of being on swim teams for more than 10 years were.
Almost slipping on the ice, I threw on my robe, grabbed my shoes and ran back to the sauna. If only the Guinness World Records people had been on hand.
Feeling was just beginning to return to my body after near-death encounter No. 413 of my life when Lennart walked in.
“It’s cold, isn’t it?” he said of the lake.
“Not as cold as I thought it would be,” I lied.
If Pinocchio had been in my place, his nose would have reached all the way to Norway.