I was a child of the ’60s. By that I mean an actual child — age 5 to 15, over the course of the decade.
Like most children of the day, I spent every waking moment I could in the sun: Climbing trees, building forts, playing jacks on the sidewalk, diving into mountains of freshly raked leaves.
Summers, I lived at the pool. We’re talking daily, eight-hour occupation whenever possible. I took swimming lessons from deeply tanned lifeguards, advancing from “Goldfish” to “Dolphin” level over the years. I played Marco Polo, performed “can openers” off the high board and dove for shiny copper pennies on the bottom of the deep end. Heck, I even signed on for the swim team, until I had to get up at 6 a.m. to practice. (Back then, I could sleep beyond 4 in the morning.)
My constant companion was a bottle of Sea & Ski “suntan lotion.” I still remember the ubiquitous green bottle with the orange lid. And the signature smell! Superior to that Coppertone stuff in the brown tube, Sea & Ski’s fragrance meant summer to me. As did the tube of zinc oxide my mother kept handy to spread on my nose.
I was — and still am — a freckly, fair-skinned specimen with blue eyes and blond hair, although the hair is more silver than gold these days. Remember all those “Know the skin you’re in” quizzes in Teen magazine? I fell solidly in the “Burns easily/Never tans” category. But, rather than accepting that information as my alabaster lot in life, I took it as a challenge.
“Someday,” I’d say, gazing at a bronze Christie Brinkley on the cover of Sports Illustrated, “I’ll have a sexy tan, too.”
By the ’70s, adolescence and unabashed sun worshipping were in full swing. Sea & Ski was cast aside for Hawaiian Tropic, Bain de Soleil and the low-dollar Crisco oil. Can openers, penny diving and Marco Polo were replaced by baking in the sun like chicken on a spit.
“Let’s lay out,” my friend Susie would say, and off we’d motor to the pool to spread Coors beach towels on deck and just lie. (I guess Susie should’ve said, “Let’s lie out.”) For hours, we’d lie, flipping like bass, from front to back, every 20 minutes, diving into the drink only when the heat became too much to bear. No swimming, no games. Maybe an underwater handstand or two, then it was time to lie some more.
“We’re missing valuable sun time!” Susie would say.
This behavior resulted, of course, in countless sunburns, an explosion of freckles and, unfortunately, no real tans. Severe burns (of which there were several every year) would produce blisters, then excessive exfoliation. Susie and I spent our après sol hours peeling sheets of loose skin off each other’s backs. We were so into it, it was hard to stop, even when we ran out of dead skin.
(Sorry. I just realized some of you are eating breakfast.)
I won’t even mention the pre-prom sunlamp disasters. I’m sure many of you have your own horror stories to tell. Suffice it to say, none of my prom pics made it into the photo album.
Today, I am paying for the skin sins of my youth. On Friday, I completed a three-week course of Efudex, a topical chemotherapy cream designed to nip skin cancer in the bud. My forehead currently resembles a pepperoni pizza with a profusion of lesions, 30 or more AK’s (actinic keratosis) that, if left alone, could devolve into something very dangerous, sooner than later.
Don’t feel sorry for me. I’m coping. A new hairdo with heavy bangs and a wide assortment of hats have obscured the carnage from the world. The stinging and itching isn’t pleasant, but the pain is nothing compared with the burns of my past. (Did I mention not one, but two cases of acute sun poisoning?)
I’m grateful there is effective prophylactic treatment. But I know there is more pepperoni in my future.
I share my disgusting story to drive home a message, especially as college kids flock to tanning salons before spring break: Protect your skin. Wear sunscreen every day. Embrace the alabaster. And, if you can’t, choose the fake bake. Self-tanning products are great these days.
Please, spread the word to everyone you know. Call your kids. Call your grandkids.
And, while you’re doing that, I’m going to call Susie.