As I sit in a chair on my driveway in the afternoon shade while watering my lawn and shrubbery, I look down at the healing wound on the inside of my right heel and the blister that is scabbing up on the back of my hand. To do this I must peer over the pale flesh of my abdomen; flesh that has passed many a month since it has seen the face of the sun. The condition of these three parts of my body, hand, heel and belly, is intimately connected. The pale flesh of the belly, untouched by the rays of the sun for so long, is my belated attempt to avoid further damage to my skin; damage exemplified by the recent biopsy of a mole on my heal and the freezing of the remnant of known squamous cell carcinoma on the back of my hand.
If you grew up in San Diego as I did in the middle of the last century, you had a high regard for the sun tan. In fact, after the explosion of the surfing culture around 1960, the degree of one’s status and social attainment was greatly assisted by the quality of their tan, and I did everything that I could think of to get a tan. One of my personal favorites, as I reflect, was the application of baby oil while I would lay under the open sun at Pacific Beach or some other sun-drenched spot where I could properly cook myself.
Baby oil, we teens were guaranteed, was the magic elixir that would turn even a melanin-challenged northern European like me into a bronzed god. I do not remember who it was that issued that bogus guarantee, but their sales pitch was effective to the utmost. I would roll over every so often, basting myself anew each time. The only guarantee that was fulfilled was the unspoken one that I would cook myself like a Thanksgiving turkey.
“The West Coast has the sunshine, and the girls all get so tan – – -“ goes the lyric in a well known Beach Boy song, and the girls did their best to imitate art with their lives. Twenty years later little had changed. “I can see you, your brown skin shining in the sun. You got the top pulled back and that, radio on baby.” At least three times in that song Don Henly mentions his wayward lover’s brown skin, and unless she is derived from an more melanin-rich lineage than mine (or Don’s, to judge from when I have seen him on TV) that suggests that the girl spends a lot of time working on her tan.
But I’ll not point my gnarled finger only at the beach culture. One fine day while enjoying a burger and coffee in a roadside squat-and-gobble restaurant somewhere west of Albuquerque I heard a waitress tell a regular customer that her affections would be reserved for a man with that “weathered look.” Several ranchers and truckers in that joint filled her description to a tee, their tough, brown-to-red skin dried out and creased by deep wrinkles that looked eerily like the gulches and dry arroyos of that sun-blasted land. The Marlborough Man had as much to fear from the sun above him as he did from the carcinigous death sticks that he liked to suck on.
But let’s bring this story back to my favorite topic: Me. As I stated earlier, I tried desperately to get my uncompromisingly white skin to take on some color. I would broil under the sun at the beach all day, or roast in the desert at Yaqui Pass, Tamarisk Grove, or any of a score of unnamed (as far as I know) springs that could be found up valleys and ravines on the east slope of the Laguna Mountains, in search of the elusive tan. My record of “success” tended mostly to a glowing redness that never quite matured into that coveted bronze tan. Rather, it frequently evolved into full blown blistering.
Usually those episodes of trying to imitate a bratwurst on a tailgater’s grill would result in peeling that made me look like a snake shedding its skin. Perhaps that was my body’s way of getting me to put on some protection. Clothes applied to cover up my pseudo-leprosy also sufficed to block the next round of damageing sun exposure.
San Diego was not the only scene of my crimes against my own epidermis. In Texas, Vietnam, northern California, New Mexico and the Pacific Northwest I chased that unreachable symbol of sun-blessed health. It wasn’t until my third round of biopsies and freezings and lectures from my dermatologist that my addled brain at last allowed the thought that this might not be in my best interest to squeeze through into my consciousness.
So here I sit, writing this sad tale. However, it’s not really all that bad. Yeah, my belly’s white, but I’m sitting in the shade on my driveway, drinking some wine, watering the shrubs, and staring at the grass which I currently abide above instead of below. At long last I understand that life is worth more than a tan, and I believe that I would like to stick around for a little while longer.