If I want to capture the scent of summer all I have to do is buy a jar of Noxzema and the memories of damp bathing suits, wet towels, and peeling skin take a seat in a beachchair down by the water.
Back before there was sunscreen there was Noxzema to help take the pain out of our sunburns. It didn't protect us or prevent our future deaths from skin cancer, but it was fun to spread it on and it sure did feel cool on all the hot spots. Noxzema said summer like fly swatters and Good Humor trucks.
Getting that first sunburn was a rite of passage as a teenager. You had to go through the pain and redness every year to start building up to a tan. In my case the redness was pretty much as dark as I got, since I had the freckly skin of my redheaded mother to reckon with.
The freckles would eventually become so numerous that they ran together enough to pass for a tan. The effort took many hours, days, and weeks to achieve. To aid in the tanning process my girlfriends and I slathered baby oil all over ourselves -- the better to cook our skin and fry it to a nice golden crisp. Or in my case, a fiery flaming hot Cheetos red.
Perhaps the worst sunburn I ever endured was in 1966 on the beaches of Hawaii. It was my first time in the death rays of a tropical sun. I was in Oahu to be the maid of honor for my college roomie's wedding. The day before the nuptials I went to the beach to get some color so I would look nice for the ceremony. Thinking that more was more, I lay out for four hours during the hottest part of the day.
That night I was so sunburned that I couldn't bear anything touching my skin. My roommate filled a bathtub with ice cold water just so I could get away from the heat. While I was standing with her in the bathroom, leaning against the sink, waiting for the tub to fill, she suddenly asked if I was okay. I said I felt a little faint. She said my sunburn was gone. I was getting shocky and my flaming red skin had turned totally white. Once I got into the tub of ice cold water, the color came back and the heat returned with it. I'm not sure whether that was good news or bad news.
After my freezing bath, my roommate went out into the yard and cut off a leaf from an aloe plant. Aloe has been used for centuries on the islands to salve burns. It hadn't become the omnipresent ingredient in everything from shampoo to shaving cream yet. She cut the huge leaf in half lengthwise, scooped out the clear, viscous jelly and covered every inch of my burned skin with it. Since I had been wearing a bikini, that was a lot of skin.
The aloe worked wonders. The pain went away. My stupidity didn't ruin the wedding, although my face looks a little swollen in the pictures. Somehow, I never peeled. Except for my face. For some reason, we never put any aloe on it.
On the flight back from Hawaii I noticed that the Navy guy sitting next to me kept staring. I must be really good looking I thought. Until I went into the lavatory and got a real gander. The skin on my face was cracking and splitting. It looked broken. EEEEWWWWW. I went to the flight attendant who gave me some lotion. I used the lotion to glue my skin back together and it peeled off in one sheet, leaving me with fresh pink skin around my eyes nose cheeks and mouth, with about an inch of dark tan around the outside. Weird. When my boyfriend picked me up at the airport he squinted his eyes and I could have sworn he flinched.
That historic burn was later followed by memorable burns in San Diego, San Antonio, and Acapulco, along with too many to count here in Chicago. Until finally, I took the hint and got out of the sun.
Which brings me to this week and my latest trip to the dermatologist. About twenty years ago I noticed a small patch of skin that stayed red and raw on my face.
Can you say keratosis? I had joined the ranks of those who show up every six months to stand and wait for the doctor to scan their bodies for signs of melanoma.
Since that first little patch was removed I have endured other skin procedures, with more to come I'm sure. There was the cream that I had to apply to my face for two weeks. I felt like I'd been invaded by an alien as I watched the pre-cancerous areas become oozing scabs over the next couple of weeks. Somewhere there are pictures of me looking like I had a terminal case of herpes on my forehead and under my eyes. Did people stare. Oh, yes.
There was the time that a teeny little patch of bad skin on my nose had to be removed by burning it off. The doctor was worred that I couldn't take the pain. He said over and over that it was very important for me to hold still. Then he began the procedure, clearly concerned that I might flinch and he would burn a hole in my cheek or worse. I never moved. Sure it felt like hot needles poking my nose. But for the whole fifteen minutes I was as still as a statue.
Afterward he asked me one question, "Have you ever had children.?" Ha. Who knew that all those hours of epidural free labor and delivery would come in handy some day.
This week the dermatologist had a name for all the little skin things I pointed out as we toured my body. That's a framitz schnitzel. Over there? A varigated do-dah. None of them qualified as a melanoma. Not even a keratosis or two. But a bunch of things I call sunspots were bugging me. "I don't like how they look," I whined. "So don't look at them," he suggested.
Dr. Comedy. Never one to miss a chance to make some extra money, he zapped me all over with his nitrogen gun, which has become a regular event. The liquid nitrogen burns the area with freezing cold. It hurts for a few seconds as it freezes the area. When the frozen skin thaws out it hurts even more. Afterward the area blisters or turns black and appears supremely unattractive. So I'm wearing long sleeves for awhile until I heal. If I want to scare small children I show them my arms.
I stopped sunbathing in my thirties. I still like to go to the beach, but only in the early hours of the day or after three in the afternoon. Usually with a t-shirt and a sarong over my suit. And I wear SPF fifty. Yes, fifty.
Of course, when I feel the need to bring back the memories of those sunny days of summer, I can always get a whiff of Noxzema. Can't you just smell that weird odor now?