When I was a kid, our school district was broken down into small neighborhood elementary schools. I went to one in my neighborhood that had kindergarten through 3rd grade. It was a great way to go to school as a child – we all walked together in big groups, sometimes we walked home for lunch (how on earth did we have the time for that?) often bringing friend along.
It was a brand new school building. Actually, my kindergarten year it was still the “old” school – the building where many of our parents went to high school – big and ornate, with stairs that ran all along the hallways so the rooms were elevated. That summer they built the new sleek, modern school, with new desks and fold-up cafeteria tables, so it could more easily convert to a gymnasium.
I was happy there – we had recess and long lunches and art classes more than just once a week. And the teachers were great. There was my kindergarten teacher, who was also the principal. She was a kind older lady, who still understood young children. Even the next year – when my friend Tammy and I got caught carving Gina and Tammy love Donny Osmond in a door with a pop-top (remember those?) – and we ended up in her office, she knew that we really didn’t get it and treated us gently, just wanting us to understand why it was wrong, instead of worrying about punishment.
There was my beloved first grade teacher, who rarely had to raise her voice at anyone – she was so sweet, you just wanted to please her. I remember the last day of school, when I forgot to bring her gift and I cried and cried, so my mom took me to her house that afternoon to drop it off. She invited us I and gave us tea and cookies. If I hadn’t already loved her unconditionally, I would have then.
There was my second grade teacher, who…will, OK, my second grade teacher was kind of a douche – I still remember my friend Marsha and I getting in trouble for something we didn’t do and she simply wouldn’t listen.
But my third grade teacher? Oh my god did she ever make up for any ill will I picked up the year before. I credit her for my love of books. She read to us every day – long chapter books that left you crazy with anticipation for the next day’s installment. And if she saw that you took to reading, she did everything she could to encourage you – like she did for me. She took us on imaginary trips to far off places – we’d get out airline wings on and fly. Then we’d listen to the music and eat the foods and learn so much more than if we had just learned it from a lesson plan.
Plus, we had a great support staff at the school – the gentle nurse, who was forever getting my long eyelashes out of my eyes, the office ladies who knew you by name, and the librarian who made sure we had the greatest books available to us.
But the first person I think of when I think about that school is our custodian, Gus. Gus was the friendliest, sweetest, most caring person. He was always smiling, and always had time for you. When a kid had a problem, or was feeling down about something, they’d go to Gus before they’d go to anyone else. He was as likely as the nurse to put a band-aid on, and quicker than a teacher to break up any hallway squabbles. He knew everyone’s name and their parents’ names and their grandparents’ names too.
His “office” was the supply closet. Any time the classroom needed something, we kids would climb all over each other to raise our hand the highest - everyone wanted to be picked to be the one to go visit Gus. Because you knew that you would be getting more than some colored paper or crayons – you’d get a cheery hello, a compliment on what you were wearing or your latest artwork hanging in the hall. You’d have a real conversation with a grown-up who treated you like you mattered – like you had something important to say. And sometimes, you’d even get a candy to take home and eat later. Gus was everyone’s best friend.
It was a few years before we all found out that Gus was famous. We already adored him as much as humanly possible, but knowing this thrilled us. Our Gus was an even bigger hero in our eyes.
His name was Gus Br1ckner, and he was a swimmer. Not just any swimmer, though – he was best known for long, LONG distance swimming and very cold water swims. He was the original Human Polar Bear. He started the tradition of jumping into the city’s icy rivers on New Year’s Day in 1949 (though he didn’t limit his own activities to just one day a year). He would bring old filmstrips in for us to watch of him swimming in the icy rivers and rolling around in the snow. He held Guinness World Records for cold swims (6 minutes 22 seconds in -18 degree water) and total lifetime distance swim (38,512 miles – the last of these miles were recorded at age 75). He attempted to swim the English Channel 2 times – each time making it mere yards from shore (after swimming 34 miles and 15 hours) before having health issues that required he be pulled out. He wanted to try again in 1960, but it was called off by the authorities because of the conditions.
When I joined the swim team in high school, I was a diver, but being in a small district meant a small team and my coach didn’t like to see empty lanes. So I sometimes was called on to swim backstroke or in the freestyle relay. I took to the backstroke pretty well, but freestyle – Oh My God, I thought I would die. And while I was barely struggling along hating every minute of it (while Gus’ son was serving as an official) I would think of Gus – and how he swam way longer when he was way older. When we’d have to show up for practice at 5:30 in the morning in the freezing Pennsylvania winter, I’d think of Gus rolling around in the snow in those old movies. And I’d make it. He never knew how he inspired me.
When I heard he died back in the winter of 1991, I cried for the sweet, caring, kind man I used to know – even though I hadn’t seen him in many, many years. And I thought that someday I’d like to be a Polar Bear just like Gus was. Last year, I was a relatively new reader of Uncle Crappy’s blog, and when I saw his post on his New Year’s Day plunge, of course, I thought of Gus. I found myself wishing I had known Uncle Crappy better or sooner, because maybe I could have gone (actually, I wished I had known him sooner because he’s awesome). Well, kids – I know him longer and better this time around. And I have met some of the others planning to go. So by god, I’m doing it. On New Year’s Day, I am jumping in the icy cold Mon. And just before you hear my girly scream upon hitting the cold water, you’ll most likely hear me yell, “This is for you, Gus!”