When I was invited to join two friends in a traditional Finnish sauna, I wasn't sure I'd been properly raised to go rolling in the snow with naked Northwomen. My grandmother had taught me to avoid drafts after a bath, and nothing sounded draftier than bobsledding in the buff.
"It'll be a complete rebirth for you," a friend had told me, "and you lose a lot of weight." I told him I had visions of being reduced to a Halloween decoration. "No, all you lose is water," he said, "and you drink it right back."
And so, early on New Years Day, I went to the home of a friend named Britta; and I took Angela, a jovial Englishwoman, to give me support.
As Angela and I approached the house through the snow, a shudder raced through my barely covered bones.
"This will refresh both your mind and body," said Britta as we undressed. "It will put you at peace with the world."
"Just in case the peace is permanent," I said, "please remind my sister to call Lloyd's. I wonder if it's double indemnity for death by accidentally running nude through the snow."
"Oh, we'll skip the snow," she said. "And we'll start at only 180 degrees."
With a flash of panic, I remembered a day in Las Vegas when I was all but roasted to my reward in a mere 110.
"I'm really sort of allergic to heat," I told her as we went to the indoor sauna, a 6-by-6-foot wooden room that for some reason kept me thinking about capital punishment. Now naked, we carried towels and also palletlike pieces of wood to sit on.
As Britta opened the door for us, I decided to be a ‘man’ and try it for a second or two, so I went inside and sat down on the lowest level. My plan was to get beneath the heat and then yell for help, a principle I had learned in a pamphlet from the fire department.
"In Finland the sauna is a big Christmas social event," said Britta.
I smiled at her with visions of a barbecued bacchanal.
"Oh, not that social an event," she said, reading my eyes. "It's too hot."
"It feels fine so far," said Angela with that British fortitude so irritating to Adolf Hitler and me.
"There is one thing, Ms. Edna," said Britta. "If you have low blood pressure, you may feel a bit dizzy."
I did not have low blood pressure, but these two women were just waiting for me to faint and reveal American decadence; so I decided that instead of crawling out, I would stay and teach them a lesson by fainting without excuse. My eyes now were gently rolling on the waves of heat that were coming from an electric stove in the corner of the room, a stove that cooked black rocks.
"You see, it's easy to take now," said Britta, pointing to a dial on the wall, "because the humidity is zero. But watch what happens when I pour some water on the rocks and I make the löyly the steam of the sauna."
She applied just a ladleful of water from a wooden bucket, and I felt a stifling blast of humidity.
"You see, it's not the heat, it's the humidity," she gloated. "It's actually good for the skin-gets out the dirt."
"That's what they told Joan of Arc," I said.
After 7 minutes the temperature was 190 and the humidity 10 percent. I was making notes; I wanted science to have a log of my disappearance so mankind would know precisely how much cooking a woman can take. Britta was now saying merry things about the workout our arteries were getting, but I couldn't keep recording them. My metal pencil was too hot to hold.
"Aren't we supposed to be beating each other with branches?" said Angela cheerily. She thought of everything.
"Let's not gild the torture," I said weakly.
"That whipping with branches-it's called the vihta-is sometimes done to help the circulation," said Britta, "but it's not as common as most people think."
As the temperature rose to 195, I dizzily sank toward the floor of my hygienic hell and tried to hang on by humming Finlandia.
"Don't overdo it, Ms. Edna," said Brita. "Go out anytime."
"Oh, I feel fine," I said softly from the floor, where I had slumped on my pallet like a big rare hors d'oeuvre. "This is just like a day at the beach." The beach I had in mind was the one by the river Styx, but I didn't mention it because my country's honor was at stake. My brains had now been cooked into such a state that I actually felt myself in a kind of home-fried Olympics against Finland and England.
At the 10-minute mark, with the temperature at 198, Britta gave me a way to save face and body as well. ''I'm going to throw on the sausages now," she said. "Why don't you take a cold shower, Ms. Edna, and then we'll have a snack in the living room." "I just might do that," I said, lunging for the door.
A few minutes later I met Britta and Angela in the living room, where we stretched out in naked lassitude.
"Now don't dry yourselves with a towel," said Britta. "Just let the air do it. I'll get us all a drink."
"No, thanks," I told her. "I don't drink. I don't smoke, either. I've even cut out egg rolls with monosodium glutamate." I smiled in pious contentment. "I'm really too healthy for a sauna; but now that I've done it, I must admit that it wasn't bad."
"You haven't done it," said Britta. "We're going back. You see, the best thing is to take the heat awhile, then shower and drink, and then go back.
She soon convinced us that it was foolish to stop just a few degrees from inner peace; and so back we all went for a final trial by fire.
"Why, look at that: it's 210," she said with misplaced mirth. "Something must have happened to the regulator."
I must here explain that the difference between 198 and 210 is purely academic. At the 3-minute mark, perhaps because some connection in my brain had started to melt, I suddenly did the unlikeliest thing: I actually moved up to the highest bench, where Britta and Angela sat cooking on all pores. I suddenly wanted to expire not kneeling in prayer on the floor but seated proudly and stupidly near the ceiling like a real woman.
"You know, Finnish women used to give birth in saunas," said Britta, who was seeing to it that I would die educationally. "And the Finnish kids sometimes they put beer on the rocks and inhale it."
To inhale anything at 210 degrees calls for asbestos nostrils; my nose now burned so much that I could breathe only with my mouth. Britta and Angela had also switched to mouths; and there we sat, gasping away, three rational women who were slowly but definitely disappearing.
After 5 minutes at 210, I took no comfort in noting that the humidity was still at O. The ancient adage that it's not the heat didn't seem to apply. At 210, it's the heat.
"How about some löyly?" said Britta, picking up the ladle.
And so the end was about to come, not with a bang but a dipper.
"I'll just put on a few drops. You wouldn't be able to stand too much."
Before I could make a final statement-I had decided to be cremated since I was having such a nice start-Britta applied the deadly drops and the humidity instantly jumped to 5 percent. Now the heat became what the poets call g*****n unbearable. I had a burning desire to get out.
"It's still only 5 percent," said the Marquis de Baker. "Why don't we take it up to 10?"
"Well," said Angela, "Ms. Edna seems a bit distressed."
"Oh, that's all right," I said. "I really don't feel it."
I wasn't lying: I had suddenly transcended the heat stroke barrier and was feeling the opposite of freezing to death. Just as men dying in the Alps are said to feel a final flush of warmth, I now seemed to be getting colder.
Another ladle of water took us not to 10 but to 25 percent, where we stayed for the next 6 minutes as we prepared to beat the world's record for unbearable heat set by a broken Turkish bath in Benghazi.
"I think that should do it," said Britta. "If it's all right with you ladies, we'll quit." It was all right with me, and I shot Angela a look suggesting it had better be all right with her.
Britta led us not to the living room but to the back door, which she opened to reveal the countryside in all its icy splendor. We took a timid step or two.
"See how you're insulated from the cold by your sweat?" said Britta.
It was a lovely theory, and it applied for the entire period until your sweat froze. I imagined future archaeologists making a splendid find: three neo-Finnish faddists perfectly preserved in ice and salt. It was this thought that led me back to the living room after lingering luxuriously in the snow for 5 or 6 seconds.
"You should be feeling a nice lassitude," said Britta when she joined me.
And she was right. I felt a nice lassitude all during the week, for I had lost 10 pounds and had contracted a leisurely cold. Luckily, however, the sauna has given me the vigor to make a fast recovery: in less than a month I should be good as new.