This is a favorite time of year for those of us who are descendants of Northern Europeans with fair complexions – Sunburn Season. Yes, all of us white skin and freckled individuals have something to look forward to, the brutal rays of the summer sun. Bring out the SPF 1,000, the big umbrellas, wide brimmed hats and the “Jackie O” sunglasses. It is time to cover up. Of course, you can always do what I do – stay in the house.
I was born with the distinctive Irish/English pale skin. In fact, my mother was quite fair, so she was cautious of the sun. If she had spent a great deal of time sunbathing when she was pregnant with me, I would have been born sunburnt. In the sun, I always feel like an ant under a magnifying glass waiting to explode into flames. Let’s face it; I know how a vampire feels – without the coffin and the dirt nap. Being fair skinned and blue-eyed makes me a target for the rays of the sun. I was Goth pale before it was popular. It is not enjoyable going relax by a pool looking look King Tut, wrapped from head to toe, or lathering yourself up in a ton of sunblock and looking like the Crisco Kid.
As an infant, my mom had to put colored sheets in the crib so she could find me. I would just blend into the whiteness of the diaper and the mattress. Once, I emptied my whole bottle of milk onto the floor from the crib. My mom almost fainted when at first glance entering the room; she thought I had fallen out onto the floor. That is a true example of fair complexion. I was the fairest of them all –the Jersey Snow White.
I grew up in the sixties, and was constantly called a “cracker”, but it wasn’t meant to be a derogatory term. I was the literally the color of a saltine. I developed freckles as a child that gave some tone to my skin. I had the look of being in the wrong place when the “shit hit the fan.” Without the freckles, I would have been blue eyes and some hair. I was the Casper of my neighborhood or the Pillsbury Doughboy minus the chef hat. I was the inspiration for the song “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”
I always hated freckles. I was a human version of connect the dots. If I were able to draw a line from freckle to freckle, I am sure it would spell out Highly Flammable. Also, being in the sun only brings out more freckles. There is nothing more appealing than freckles with freckles. I had more spots than 101 Dalmatians, so I always had to be on the look out for Cruella Deville. I certainly didn’t need to become a coat.
Thankfully as I matured, my freckles on my face became less prominent. When I was a child, the pale skin and dark circles under my eyes from allergies, gave me the look of “Count Freckula.” I have a picture of myself in grade school sporting the Prince of Darkness look with a few missing teeth. I keep the photo hidden like the “Portrait of Dorian Gray.” As I recall even the tooth fairy was afraid of me – probably because I glowed in the dark. I received money for my missing teeth through the mail, not under my pillow.
I did enjoy going to swimming pools when I was younger. I don’t remember being badly sunburnt. I guess my mom provided constant skin surveillance, making sure I was covered in the proper lotion. Those were the days before the SPF factor was an important component of tanning creams or sunscreens. Our sunscreen was an umbrella, and Coppertone was the tanning lotion of choice.
I didn’t start having sunburn issues until I was away from the watchful eye of mom and was responsible for protecting the white exterior I inherited. In mentioning exteriors, Sherwin Williams once had a brilliant white exterior paint, and the shade was called “Vince.” It was taken off the market when consumers found that after painting their houses with it, the heat of the summer sun turned the paint a bright shade of pink. It was a quick recall when the paint would blister and peel after it reddened. This is an example of the unfortunate curse of not enough pigmentation.
I recall my first major sunburn incident took place on a summer vacation in Cape May, New Jersey. I was away for a week with my Aunt Lorraine and her family. My parents never really took an actual vacation when I was growing up, so my mother’s sister was always kind enough to include me in her family’s get-a-ways. It was our first day at the summer rental. My cousins and I were excited to be there and we just wanted to hit the beach. The ocean was literally right at the end of the block. My aunt was busy unpacking and getting the place in order, so she suggested my uncle take my cousins and I to the beach, while she settled in.
I grabbed my beach towel, and sunglasses to head to the beach. I knew my uncle would keep an eye on us to make sure we didn’t wander off or go to far out into the surf, but I should have realized that skin protection wasn’t on his mind. We spread out our towels, thus claiming our territory, and headed to the water. I splashed around enjoying the waves with sand under my feet. I was so happy to be there with an entire week stretching before me of sand, surf and salt-water taffy.
I always got very excited right before I left for a vacation, so I never slept the night before. That day on the beach, after I wore myself out in the water, I realized I was tired. I relaxed on my beach towel and quickly feel asleep. There I was exposed to the elements, with no lotion to protect me from the afternoon rays of the sun. I was a piece of bacon crisping and sizzling in the heat. Like a white witch tied to stake trying to escape the flaming pyre, I was smoking.
I was deep in dreamland – swimming with dolphins, playing miniature golf and riding bikes along the beach esplanade. Meanwhile, my epidermis was screaming “RED ALERT”. It hadn’t been exposed to the full force of the sun, and it wasn’t happy. I am sure that other people down wind from me thought someone was grilling on the beach. I slept for well over an hour. This was enough time to do the damage that would reveal itself over the next two days. We packed up to leave the beach as the afternoon waned, and I was already beginning to show the pink tinge of my burn.
Returning to the summer rental, my aunt immediately noticed that I was sunburnt. She began to question my uncle about whether he checked to make sure that we were all properly covered with lotion. She was like Wolf Blitzer delivering rapid-fire questions to determine where the breakdown in the lotion slathering occurred.
It wasn’t my uncle’s fault. He didn’t realize I required basting every thirty minutes, and I guess he didn’t want disturb me when I dozed off during peak grilling hours.
As night approached, my sunburn took on a more vibrant glow, and I was beginning to look like the mascot for Cape May’s Lobster House. My legs turned a dark red with a tinge of purple. My aunt put me in a bathtub of cool water so I could relieve some of the burn, which was beginning to make me uncomfortable. My initial immersion into the tub made the water steam and bubble like a hot poker being submerged. Yes, I was a hot ticket, but not in a good way.
My white alabaster skin became a fiery glow of red, pink and freckles. It was very sore to the touch, and I knew if my mom were aware of the problem, she would be rolling her eyes and trying to cover me with Noxema. I never understood what she believed were the benefits of Noxema, but whenever there was a slight over exposure to the sun, out would come the blue container for the mandatory application. I remember that distinctive smell of menthol, and the white heavy cream. The menthol never seemed to cool the sting of the sunburn, but the odor gave you something else to focus on.
That night my skin glowed. As the room I shared with my cousin lite up like Amsterdam’s red-light district, I realized how sensitive my skin was to the sun. I made a pact with myself to be more careful in the sun. It was painful, and it was a definite inconvenience to beginning of my vacation week. I spent the next day, at the recommendation of my aunt, out of the sun and relaxing inside. I felt grownup fixing my own bologna sandwich for lunch and sipping iced tea with my feet up. The worst areas of my sunburn were my ankles. They were deep red, and in retrospect I probably had sun poisoning, but I endured.
After a couple of hours by myself, with everyone else frolicking at the beach, I decided to do what any young, gay lad would do – I went shopping. I knew I had to escape to the souvenir shops of the shore, when I started singing “All by myself, don’t wanna be.”
The cash my parents and grandmother had given me for my trip was burning a hole in my pocket right next to my sunburn. I wasn’t selfish. I always made sure I bought something for my parents, my sister, and my grandmother to prove that I had been on vacation. It was a tchotchke of remembrance. I always made sure I had money let for myself for that all-important beach kite, or Jaws tee shirt.
I started out humming and feeling highly independent as I began my shopping excursion. Then, I hit the daylight sun and the long stairway from the second floor apartment. My sunburnt skin screamed like a Transylvanian bloodsucker being dragged from their casket. I said a few Hail Mary’s under my breath, which surprised me, because up until that point I didn’t even realize I knew the prayer. I guess I picked it up through osmosis from Catholic mass with my dad.
My legs felt stiff and my ankles not very flexible. This was due to the skin tightening from my overcooked condition. If Jane Fonda had walked out onto the deck and reminded me to “Go for the Burn!” at that second, I would have beaten the crap out of her, thrown her off the deck. “Bitch! You don’t know anything about a burn!”
After my initial shock and my mind doing an instant GPS for the shady route to the beach shops, I was ready to maneuver the stairway. I had gravity in my favor. I was going downhill, so what could be so difficult? The actual act of moving more than a few feet to retrieve Oscar Mayer from the refrigerator was the issue. I grabbed the stair railing and began my journey.
I felt like Frankenstein’s monster making his first steps after reanimation. I was all wobbly and jerky, and hardly bending my ankles, which were not cooperating. I was the pathetic creature understanding that fire was bad. The big ball of fire in the sky had roasted my marshmallow fluff skin, and now I was not a happy camper.
The force of momentum got me down the staircase, but my legs felt like ballpark franks – plump from cooking. I hobbled to the street determined I was going on my outing. If I passed out, at least I did it while making a purchase. I made it to the shops slowly, but I got there. The return trip was not easy. The sunburn had made fluid accumulate on my legs, and the force of gravity from being on my feet had made my ankles swell. I left the rental with ankles, but was returning with cankles.
Climbing the stairs was like trying to scale Mount Everest. I could look to the summit, but I couldn’t imagine how to reach it. Where was my Sherpa when I needed one? Meanwhile, I had the legs of a pink elephant. I pondered how the pink elephants moved around so easy in Dumbo. I could barely move my feet. I required a rope and pulley or a ski lift. I needed to put things into perspective and realize that if the Von Trapp family could outrun the Nazis in the middle of the night and cross the Alps, I could walk up a flight of stairs. While I stomped up the steps like two-ton Tessie, it did occur to me that everyone’s endurance and pain levels are different. Perhaps, if Maria, fleeing for her life, had sunburn it might have been a different story – The Sound of Munich.
I didn’t need to suffer in silence. I didn’t have any Nazis chasing me down, so I groaned in discomfort and frustration. Here I was at the beginning of my vacation excluded from the beach and trying to hide from the sun. I needed to lurk in some shaded location away from my kryptonite. I reached the pinnacle of my climb only to find when I left the apartment I had locked the door. Of course, I didn’t have a key for reentry. I guess I had also fried my brainstem in the process. Not only was I burnt - now I was screwed.
Here I was exposed to the mid-day sun clutching my bag of souvenirs. I couldn’t pretend to have been leisurely relaxing in the apartment with my feet up, when my aunt returned from the beach. I had two choices. I could lumber to the beach and try to locate my relatives hoping to secure a key, or I could sit on a lawn chair and wait for them to return. I chose the latter, because I just couldn’t walk any further. Luckily for me, someone from the apartment next to ours had left a beach towel over the deck railing, so I could cover my legs. I didn’t need to become a French fry under a heat lamp. They had also left a bottle of suntan lotion that was taunting me. This stuff did not make you tan. At best, it helped delay the burning effect of the sun.
I was Casper the sunburnt ghost, and I was sweating profusely sitting in the sun covered in a towel and feeling my ankles swell-up like a like a Macy’s balloon the night before Thanksgiving. I picked up the bottle of suntan lotion and held it up to the sky, and just like Scarlett O’Hara, I swore I would never get sunburnt again – “As God is my witness!” Of course, that lasted until the next time I spent too much time in the sun.
I never had sunburn as bad as that summer in Cape May, but I came close several times. Like the summer I tried to be cool when I was at the beach with my cousin’s girlfriend. She had a complexion that tanned very easily, and used Hawaiian Tropic deep tanning oil. In an attempt to fit in, I oiled myself up too. The rest of the day I was sizzling in a Frialator. That evening I almost passed out getting in to the bathtub to ease the burn that was making a vibrant appearance.
It is funny how easily we let go of all those declarations we make in a time of stress or personal discomfort. My vow to never expose myself to the pain and inconvenience of sunburn was short-lived on that hot day in Cape May. I revisited that vow several times, before finally realizing that I was meant to be one step removed from an albino. I was never going to have the San Tropez tan, but I once had a successful summer with Bain de Soleil. I worked hard at trying to develop that tan, healthy look, but I just never quite made it to a golden glow - mine was more of a beige blotch with freckles.
I gave up trying to be anything but pasty, when skin cancer became a more prevalent topic, and the ozone layer was reported to be wasting away. It didn’t matter anymore if I could achieve that beach bum look. Frankly, as I have matured, I realize I don’t like the sand that much, the crowds or the fat men shoved into speedos with more junk hanging than Batman’s utility belt. If I want to see a butt crack I’ll call a plumber. Plus, people who spend their lives in the sun, end up looking like an old leather handbag or the surface of an arid dessert. I’ll retain what I have left of my youthful skin, and look at pictures of Robert Redford knowing I made the right decision. Stay away from the rays.
If you have Irish cream skin or just a pale complexion, don’t suffer the sun the way that I did. Accept your whiteness and know its limitations. Prepare yourself with the maximum SPF when venturing into the great outdoors. The once popular theory that people with golden tans showed success and wealth is going away. Now they just look like candidates for a big case of basal cell carcinoma.
It is still very popular in New Jersey for everyone to head “down the shore” during the summer months, and pack onto the beach. The salt air and crashing waves still draws the sun followers to shore points. If you must go there, know your skin’s tolerance level, and take all the precautions to avoid my experience with pain, blisters and profuse peeling. I have peeled more skin than Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs.
Enjoy one of the great American pastimes and find your space on the beach. Remember to bring lotion for protection, water for hydration and music to block out the South Philly Italians yelling at each other from across the dunes. If you follow all rules, you can escape the woes of sunburn, and avoid my experience of being red, white and ewwww.