Marilyn Bennett loves the ocean, but only if the temperature's right.
"When the water's too hot, I don't like to go in," says Bennett, a Massachusetts native who now lives half a block from the beach in Sea Isle City. "When it's like 80, that's too warm."
Fortunately for her, too much warmth really isn't a problem these days. The ocean is just about half that temperature - an official 40.3 degrees early Friday afternoon, right up the coast from her in Atlantic City.
But that's actually a bit warmer than normal - the historic January average is 37 degrees at Steel Pier. And Bennett, a retired legal secretary who taught water aerobics and more exercise classes for 25 years at YMCAs in Salem County, swears the water isn't too cold for her to walk in up to around her knees at least three days per week, all through the winter.
"This is my favorite time of year," she says. "Being from New England, I love winter."
And even at age 74, she can still enjoy cold water - up to a point, with that point being right around her knees. (But she borrows her son's wetsuit boots to protect the bottom of her feet when it gets too cold.)
Bennett says it was one of her knees that got her to start soaking her legs in the winter water. It was about five years ago when she hurt her leg somehow, and it was so sore, she was having trouble just getting in and out of cars. She worried she'd get arthritis, so she started getting into the ocean to avoid that.
So far, so good, she swears.
"I probably went in all but about 20 days that first year," she says, although she has slowed that pace down since then.
She obviously isn't one of those polar-bear types who rush their whole bodies into the water and out every year on New Year's Day. Bennett doesn't feel the need to get wet all the way to prove her point - but she also doesn't feel the need to rush right out as soon as she gets wet.
When she does her ocean thing in the winter, she'll sometimes walk in the water for 15 minutes or more.
She usually spends the time singing - sometimes patriotic hits, sometimes gospel-tinged tunes and often, her favorite Patti Page song, "Mockin' Bird Hill." So Bennett made sure to do a special little tribute to the 1950s star this week, after she heard the news about Page dying on New Year's Day.
"I might not sing well," she says, through a smile, "but I love to sing."
Sea Isle has its own very popular Polar Bear Plunge every year in February, but Bennett also doesn't join in that. She can't, because she always has to work - the plunge is so big that it draws almost summer-like crowds to the town. That makes the store where she works, Sessoms' Nautical Gifts, on Sea Isle's beachfront Promenade, a busy place on President's Day weekend.
In the summer, Bennett works two jobs - both of them beachfront. She has been a beach-tag checker for 20 years now, and is such a fixture in her spot that some people like to call it "Marilyn's Beach." She exchanges Christmas cards with some regulars from her beach, and says after Hurricane Sandy hit her hometown, she got a steady stream of check-in calls from people she knows mainly from checking their beach tags.
"She has a fan base," says J.B. Sessoms, her boss at the store. "Lots of people recognize her from the beach."
One advantage of that tag-checking job for Bennett is the commute: It's maybe 2 minutes on foot, because Marilyn's Beach is right around the corner from her apartment.
Still, she admits checking beach tags is getting harder for her - because of all those hours it puts her out in the summer sun.
"Last summer almost killed me," she says, on a January day when the air temperature was even colder - at a high of 35 degrees - than the water she enjoyed on her stroll in the ocean.
But it's not that she doesn't like summer - she has already bought her beach tag for her days off between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Bennett chuckles when she points out to a visitor that it's a special holiday tag, one decorated with a snowman, not a summer scene.
She is such a familiar scene herself in the ocean, and in her Sea Isle sweatshirt, a local artist once painted a picture of her cold-weather walk. Bennett is proud to have that painting hanging on her wall.
She knows she's not an arthritis expert. She has no scientific proof for her belief the ocean helps keep her knees healthy. All she knows is, she was starting to have problems - and starting to hear suggestions about surgery and other scary-sounding solutions. As soon as she started her winter walks in the water, she says her knees shaped up. So she sticks with it, at all times of year.
And if you readers are thinking just getting the legs wet in a January ocean doesn't sound like such a big deal, here's a field report from somebody who tried it the other day for maybe 2 or 3 minutes: At least 4 or 5 hours later, the tingling was still going on in those experimental legs - and that was after an afternoon cup of hot coffee and a ride in a heated car.
"Mine tingle just thinking about it,"says Sessoms, her boss, who adds on winter days, he'll sometimes hear Bennett wishing out loud she could get out into the water.
"I tell her to go ahead - and to go soak her head while she's at it," the boss says. "I think she's crazy."
But he has to agree that something Bennett does seems to work - she's healthy enough to show up every time she's on the gift-shop schedule.
She thinks the cold ocean may work for the same reason ice does on injuries - although for all her belief in cold water, Bennett thinks the ocean can work its magic any time of year.
"When the temperature is 80, it still helps your arthritis," she's convinced.
And it's not just that she prefers water at 40 in January - or at 35 degrees, the normal February temperature.
"My favorite water temperature is probably 50," she says.
So that would make her favorite ocean times of year about April and October in South Jersey. But this hardy New England transplant is willing to suffer through that too-warm ocean in July and August, as long as it keeps her legs moving.
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