All photos/art by Christian Kozowyk
There are those who call themselves members of the L Street Brownies, the famed South Boston polar bear club that makes its home at the James M. Curley Community Center, and then there are the hard-core types like Jack Dever. Beyond the group’s annual New Year’s Day dip, the 70-year-old L Street Brownies president has made plunging into the chilly Atlantic a daily routine. We caught up with Dever at the Curley Center on a frigid winter day just before–you guessed it–a swim.
“We’re not only the oldest swimming club in the country, we’re the oldest polar bear club in the country. One time I got a call from this guy on Long Island who’s from a polar bear club down there. It’s like Red Sox-Yankees. He said they’re the oldest, and I said, ‘No you’re not. We started in 1901, you’re 1902. Do the math.’ There’s a club from Philadelphia that says they’re the oldest, too. It’s a friendly rivalry.
“I’ve been an L Street Brownie for maybe 30 years, but swimming in cold water since I was an infant. I grew up in South Boston. We went swimming in Dorchester Bay. My family would come up from the projects the first warm day, maybe April, and go for a swim. We’d swim until November. It’s part of the way we grew up here. It’s the thing we did.
“The L Street Brownies is more conceptual. It’s the world-famous L Street Brownies. It’s like Red Sox Nation; it’s not a formal organization. If you say you are, I guess you are. I’m not down here taking attendance. Someone says, ‘Do you have to go in all the way?’ I say, ‘No, if you put your big toe in, that works.'”
“I start out in the steambath, go out and swim about 10 strokes, then come back to the bath. Then I’ll go out a second time, do another 10 strokes, and return to the bath. Finally, I go out for a third time and swim about 20 strokes, which is maybe about 20 or 25 yards. Then I’ll hit the steam one last time. Afterwards I’ll go out into the dugout and just sit out there for a half-hour just to get some sun.
“It’s a little bit of a shock to the system, especially if I’ve come back from Florida. I need to get into the rhythm. I do a couple of flips and then come out. But it’s addictive, and your body says, I want more of that.
“About seven years ago I tried swimming from one fence to the other–it’s about 200 yards–just to say I did it. This was in January. I’ll never do it again. I got out of the water, I thought I was checking out. It was a sensation I’d never experienced. I was delirious. You do what your body tells you to do? My body was saying, Don’t ever do that again.”
“We’re as tough as they come. You think the 101st Airborne is tough? The Marine Corps? [Laughs] We’re nuts. We’re health nuts. It’s not about money. I never get the flu. The salt does something. It strengthens your immune system. It lowers your blood pressure. It stimulates the heart. You get a nice buzz. One day I was walking around and it felt warm. It was 36 degrees. You tolerate things when you swim in cold water.
“We have a guy who comes down here, Tommy McIntyre, who loves the water. One day, it’s cold and Tommy comes down and the [gym] is closed. So he goes a little farther and parks his car. He gets out of the water and goes back to the car, and he sees that he’d left his keys in the car. So he walks down to the state police barracks, about a mile. In a bathing suit. In bare feet. You know, you can’t walk into a local pub like that; they’ll throw you out. He didn’t have many options.
“So he walks into the barracks, the state trooper looks at him, and Tommy says, ‘I just got out of the water; I went for a swim.’ The state trooper looks at him and says, ‘I know.'”