The weather was cold but spirits were high (and flowing) at Polish Falcons Nest 519 as hundreds of supporters gathered to watch almost 300 "penguins" take the plunge into icy Crystal Lake in a pledge drive benefiting the eastern region of the Connecticut Special Olympics.
Joe McLean of Middletown said Saturday's event marked the 11th time he's run the benefit at the Falcons. The first year, the plunge raised $18,000 in pledges; this year, he was hoping for more than $50,000. "We have people who have collected in excess of $2,000 each," he said.
Comes time for the plunge, McLean, 59, said he's always the first one in. "It's not as shocking as everyone thinks it is," he said. "But I'm also the first one out. We have some people who stand in there and play cards."
Up on the deck, Holly Naud of Middletown was asked if she was taking the plunge. "I'm not THAT crazy," she said.
"I usually have pom-poms to cheer people on," said Naud, a club member. "It's such a good cause."
The club worked for days in advance to clear snow from the parking lots, the rear observation decks overlooking Crystal Lake and the yard bordering the beach, she said. Two hours before the plunge, music boomed outside as people milled around, taking pictures, registering, greeting each other and joking.
Men in baggy yellow "drysuits" periodically waded out into the 32-degree water. They used long metal rakes that clanked as they cleared away the ice that kept forming across the 15-by-30-foot rectangle cut in the lake ice.
An ambulance idled in the parking lot and a medical crew and police stood by.
By noon, the plungers were poised to begin. They stood in line at the top of a paved path leading down to the water. Asked if he was having any second thoughts, David Serrano, who is in the Navy and stationed at the sub base in Groton, laughed. "Absolutely," he said.
But he took the plunge. So did team after team — nearly 300 people in all running five at a time — from a couple of twin girls age 9 to people old enough to know better.
Among the plungers: more than two dozen Falcon members from clubs in Middletown, Southington and Pittsfield, Mass.; the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; staff from the Special Olympics; police officers from Middletown, Wethersfield, Rocky Hill and Hartford; students from Vinal and Wilcox vo-tech schools; and staff for the Middletown Parks and Recreation Department. Other penguins hailed from Naugatuck, Woodbridge and Marlborough and several shoreline towns.
Middletown Police Sgt. Sean M. Moriarty of Haddam was on the 10-person team of local officers who raised $2,750 for Special Olympics. This was Moriarty's fifth plunge. When it came time for fundraising, Moriarty (who personally raised $360 of the total) says he used a clever strategy. "I told people, 'the more money I raise the bigger the bathing suit.'"
Every year the Middletown Police Department team has won the public safety department award. "We hope to continue that again this year," Moriarty said.
Less official groups included the "Beach Bums" (complete with flesh-colored sewn-on "bums"), "Double Trouble" (a Blues Brother duo from Old Saybrook), and "the Red Hot Chile Plungers" (origin unknown).
It was the region's second plunge. The first took place Feb. 20 in New London; the next one is scheduled for March 12 in Ellington, according to Jackie Turro, director of development for the eastern region. The region covers all of eastern Connecticut with I-91 as its western border.