Songs have been in my head lately: Gershwin’s “Summertime,” “Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer” by Nat (King) Cole, “A Summer Song” by Chad and Jeremy, “Lazy Day” by Spanky and Our Gang, “In the Summertime” by Mungo Jerry, “Summer in the City” by The Lovin’ Spoonful, “Boys of Summer” by Don Henley, and others. With the warmer temperatures, people in our neighborhood are outdoors in the evening. The trees behind our house are, in the words of artist Bob Ross, happy trees. Birds (and squirrels: gray and fox) empty our bird feeder more quickly than in winter. I noticed two mallards across the street. The hen was perched atop a house while the drake wandered around on the lawn, calling. The scene looked like a stereotypical “spat” between couples.
A few years ago our air conditioner went out, and of course those were the summer’s hottest days. I kicked myself because, a week earlier, I’d postponed a scheduled routine maintenance call because of a minor illness. If I’d kept the schedule, the crew might have caught the problem before the AC died! But I thought back to childhood, hot’n’ humid seasons. When I was a kid in the 1960s (and a teen in the early 70s), AC had been available for years. Window units, in fact, became available after World War II: according to an online source, sales climbed from 74,000 in 1948 to 1,045,000 in 1953. I heard somewhere that the hospital in which I was born–the Fayette Co., IL Hospital, constructed in 1955–was one of the country’s first with air conditioning. My dad’s sometimes painful thriftiness is illustrated by his unwillingness even to buy a window unit at our home in southern Illinois. We had a huge fan that mounted in the back door, which created a breeze through the house.
The summer of 1967, when I was ten, was the most uncomfortable, not only because of the heat but also the mosquitoes. (Late that year or during the next year, my hometown’s government authorized mosquito spraying.) I recall many nights when I lay awake well into the early morning because of the heat and the buzzing. Fortunately, when you’re ten, you don’t have many responsibilities the next day.
The playwright Arthur Miller recalled a very hot September in the 1920s: “Every window in New York was open…People on West 110th Street, where I lived, were a little too bourgeois to sit out on their fire escapes, but around the corner on 111th and farther uptown mattresses were put out as night fell, and whole families lay on those iron balconies in their underwear.”(1) I suppose the small town version of that would be front porches and back yards instead of fire escapes. I certainly remember some evenings when my parents and I were outside visiting neighbors in respective yards, until twilight.
I was chatting with someone the other day who declared she hated to turn her AC on because she liked her windows open as long as possible. I understand the sentiment, especially its ecological aspects. Yet … I never forgot that summer of ’67, not for me the summer of love, but of sweat and mosquitoes.
I enjoy the anthology of essays and poetry, Summer , edited by Alice Gordon and Vincent Virga (Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1990). I happened to reread the essay by Roy Blout, Jr., “Tan,” just about the same time as I reread John Updike’s memoir Self-Consciousness (Fawcett, 1990) and browsed his essay about lying in the sun to get relief for his psoriasis. As I thought generally of childhood summers, and as I hummed summer-themed “earworms,” these essays reminded me of one of my most hopeless pursuits: getting tan.
These are memories of adolescence. I suppose I turned somewhat brown as a little kid who played regularly in the backyard sandbox with my cousin next door, improvised adventures with friends in the sunburned grass of our yard, cut across neighbors’ yards to play in the nearby park to wade in the creek there, and hiked to the town’s public swimming pool for a “dip” on a horribly hot day.
Cheerful memories… but I don’t remember if I tanned. The joy was being outdoors, messing around, getting out of our hot home, and living simultaneously in the real world and imagination. Being tan as an intentional goal wasn’t an issue until my teenage years, when I envisioned the joy of social approval and relief from bad skin.
My acne was so bad some months, that we worried (needlessly) that I’d be facially scarred. I don’t know the average age when puberty begins, but I seemed to hit it sooner than other boys, based on my terrible skin and the ribbing I received from clear-skinned jerks. I was 13 when I first shaved, and I remember the date, November 29, 1970, because my great-uncle Charlie Crawford died that day in my hometown, Vandalia. Up until then I was very peach-fuzzy and pimply, and since we had to drive to the St. Louis airport to pick up one of Charlie‘s daughters, I finally tired of looking so bizarre and asked Dad to help me use a safety razor. I also remember being horribly ashamed of my oily, broken-out skin when another relative passed away the following spring. Based on these and similar memories, my 13th, 14th, and 15th years must’ve been the worst for acne.
My folks consulted a St. Louis dermatologist. He advised me to get a lot of sun, because the UV rays helped acne. He even put me in a kind of tanning bed at his office, as a zits treatment. Obviously the advice is outdated today, with concerns for skin cancer and skin damage caused by excessive sun exposure. But at the time, the benefits of sunshine were still extolled, and looking brown signaled health as well as “coolness.”
The sun did clear my unruly skin. I knew in my heart, though, that I was just too fair to tan well. I inherited Dad’s complexion. Once, during a beach vacation, he got second-degree burns on his legs. No amount of shorts-wearing gave my legs any color beside red (accessorized with peels), while my insteps sported a pink spot from the sun and nothing more. My only hope was to be a browner shade of pale, to paraphrase that Procol Harum song.
I persevered. Perhaps someone among the tan girls who strolled around town in their shorts or culottes, in their sandals or bare feet, might notice me, if not as appreciatively as I noticed them. I went swimming, sometimes at the Vandalia Lake, sometimes the pool. I rode my bike a lot. I volunteered to mow my parents’ lawn, and even to pain the eaves of the house. I didn’t play sports, so baseball and tennis weren’t options. I got a couple summer jobs painting houses and “bucking bales.” Above the waist I only wore a tee shirt that I easily remove so my chest and back could get sun. My dad recommended a long sleeved shirt for outdoor work because one’s sweat was cooling. Apparently that’s how he and his friends survived the Pacific Islands heat during the war. But getting a lot of sun on my arms was the purpose of the hot, simple but tiring job, maybe more so than the $2 an hour we were paid.
Tan-getting has its own compartmentalized “dress code”, of course; acceptable attire at the swimming pool, or the relative privacy of your backyard is unsuitable for, say, a trip to the grocery store. That was the premise of John Updike’s often-anthologized short story, “A&P”. The exception, I’ve noticed, are resort hotels on the beach, or with a pool; during a Florida vacation, I noticed little family pad into the hotel cafeteria with wet hair, towels, and swimsuits.
Some summer days, I relaxed on a towel in the backyard for half-hour increments. But it was so boring when I lay on my back! Even listening to my little AM radio didn’t help, and I felt too uncomfortable to nap. Lying on my stomach, at least I could read a book. Just as certain Beatles’ songs (especially “Paperback Writer”) remind me of “kidhood” swimming trips, later styles of music remind me of sunlight and beach towels spread upon backyard grass. I liked the Adult Contemporary station WDZ from Decatur, IL (which played Olivia Newton-John’s first and for a while only hit, the Dylan song “If Not For You”), then around 1972 I switched to KXOK out of St Louis, which played Motown like The Temptations, the O’Jays, and others.
Genealogy was my high school hobby, and when I decided to copy the inscriptions in our small family cemetery (about 250 stones in all), I found a perfect opportunity to work on my tan. “Soaking up the sun” is an incongruous expression when you’re visiting a graveyard, but I thought of it that way. The graveyard was (and of course still is) out in the country, down a lane into a clearing in a wooded area. Wearing only shorts, or shorts and a tank-top, I drove out to the place and recorded names, dates, and epitaphs on my paper and clipboard.
Then I went home, opened the windows and turned on the kitchen door fan in order to get a good breeze, and typed up my notes. Eventually I gave a copy of the manuscript to the local library, and I gained quite a bit of knowledge of pioneer families of that vicinity which I provided to the genealogical society. Although at age 17 I had no idea what I was going to do with my life (and, at 54, I’m still very much in process), I think I had at least an intuitive sense that my teenage hobby was a “cool” combination of the kind of research I might later do, and the childhood freedom that allows you to proceed out the door in play clothes with the goal of a happy day.
A few of those ages-ago, adolescent summers, I looked pretty decent. I was thrilled when someone commented that I looked like I’d been outdoors a lot–and this was while I was standing next to my girlfriend who was quite brown. But then, kids who tanned easily (like said girlfriend) could say things like “Oh, I’m totally pale!” without irony. Arms were compared, and I marveled at friends’ shame at being medium-bronze instead of dark-bronze.
By the end of high school, my interest in being tan diminished. It was too much time investment for such minor results, and I v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y began to accept and like myself as I am. Thus, as I said before, getting tan is a set of teenage memories. My family and I have taken beach vacations, but the only other time I seriously “laid out” was with divinity school buddies on the beach of Long Island Sound at New Haven–and that was more to hang out with friends than to get brown. Whether at the beach, or doing yard work, I’m buttered with 100,000 SPF sunscreen.
But, oh mercy, I hate the smell of tanning lotion and sunscreen! Even the most pleasant-smelling varieties make me want to shower quickly to get rid of that aroma. Olfactory memories are very powerful, and although these summer stories of mine are cheerful and nostalgic, that scent tempers my nostalgia considerably! So does OFF!Ò mosquito spray.
1. Arthur Miller, “Before Air Conditioning,” in Edward Hoagland (ed.), The Best American Essays, 1999 (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), pp. 185-187 (quote on page 185).
A large portion of this essay originally appeared in Springhouse magazine.