Part 2: Bennington, Vermont
Rudy came aboard in late fall, so we haven’t had a chance to go swimming together yet. Nor are we even really sure what his feelings are toward water (or at least the idea of being submerged in it).
So far he’s insisting, based on redundant visual evidence, that water is not a liquid, but a solid (snow), and he’s working on an equation to prove it. Something along the lines of water=m(snow)(2) x (infinity).
“Moment of scientific inspiration should be shaken, not stirred,” he has remarked, deftly mixing his Einstein and James Bond.
Still, he was excited about the prospect of exploring Bennington, Vermont, for an upcoming Yankee Magazine story. In particular, he was tickled with the idea of the Penguin Plunge, the most dramatic segment of North Bennington’s Winter Festival on February 1st.
“They do what? In what?” he demanded incredulously. “And tell me again why your species is in charge…?”
But first, the preamble.
Bennington is a three-in-one town. Basically three villages, three personalities, rolled into one sort-of entity. Rudy was already a fan of North Bennington, site of Winter Fest, which is known for its funk, attracting artists and professors. “It’s the conscience of Bennington,” says Joey, the colorful counter guy at Fiddlehead at Four Corners, a exquisite gallery in a former bank in Downtown Bennington.
The village that’s just Bennington is stuffed with old-timey shops, along with the stylish Bennington Potters; a gorgeous Bennington Center for the Arts; and Bennington College, where ideals are fostered in a red barn environment.
Speaking of learning, it turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks. “A simple adjustment of the kibble-to-desire ration,” declares Rudy. “I meant ratio….”
Finally, there’s Old Bennington, the essence of white-clapboarded New England, with massive colonials lining a wide boulevard. At one end of the boulevard sits the 1805 Old First Church, and the cemetery where poet Robert Frost is buried.
At the other end, the Bennington Monument rises like a 306-foot-tall limestone ziggurat. “Ziggurat, shmiggurat–I know the world’s tallest telephone pole when I see one,” Rudy said enthusiastically. “And I’m not the first one to appreciate it, either.”
On its backside, the monument is guarded by a statue of General John Stark who fought the Battle of Bennington in 1777, a turning point in the Revolutionary War. His forcefulness caught Rudy off guard, which provoked a minor dispute and a torrent of opinion.
After that there was a time-out.
Clearly this was a lot of ground to cover in a weekend, but Rudy had been talking up the Penguin Plunge–a fundraiser for Special Olympics–for weeks.
Hundreds of observers trickled toward snow-covered Lake Paran, where a squarish hole had been cut through thick ice. As the tension built, Rudy was uncharacteristically quiet, eyeing the frigid water on this rare sunny February morning.
“Welcome to southern Vermont!” a voice blared over the loudspeaker. “Where else can you cut a hole in the ice and jump in?” Music thumped a pounding beat of encouragement and the crowd roared, caught up in the bare-it-all bravery.
“We cut the hole yesterday,” said a volunteer. “I guess it’s about 34 degrees.”
Teams of screaming, grunting, stoic locals were diving, dunking, or standing stock still in shock as bare skin met ice water. Teams with names like Ice Choppers and Team Lingerie.
“I’m for the Frosty Dogs,” Rudy announced, breaking his silence. “But I will NEVER do something like this…” he paused, “unless this is an option.”
Small-town community stuff can bring a lump to your throat, unexpectedly. Rudy cleared his, and we trotted off to visit the grave of one of his favorite poets.
“Robert Frost wasn’t a native son, either, but he wrote like one,” he observed.
The view over the countryside was quiet and the little clump of birches held its own.