The Burning Man
Doug types too much...
March 13, 2022
I went into sort of a coma a couple of weeks before my 9th birthday. July 6th, 1964. That was the day of my very first serious sunburn. And you know me. I like to do stupid things in a big way. As Steve Martin used to say, I don’t give you the $4 show. I give you the $4.50 show.
But that was 58 years ago, Doug. How could you remember an exact date like that from your childhood? That’s easy. Trust me.
The scene of the crime was Old Orchard Beach which is in Maine, about a half-hour’s drive south of Portland. Our outing was a day trip organized by a YMCA youth camp. There was a bus load of us kids and a couple of counselors. Our vehicle was one of those old rickety school bus contraptions with green vinyl seats and no air. The temperature peaked at 70 degrees that day so technically it wasn’t that hot. In the morning anyway. If you lowered the metal-rimmed rectangular side windows above each seat to halfway open, you got a pretty good breeze bumping along in a bus that seemed to have little or no suspension. None of us cared. We were kids, laughing and joking the whole way back and forth.
Even though it wasn’t that hot, it was sunny. Really sunny. At the time, there was little tree cover, certainly none in close proximity to the beach. In the days before anyone had even heard of sunscreen protection, I had no idea I could severely burn myself exposing my bare skin to UV rays continuously for roughly 8 hours. Gingers have to learn the hard way sometimes.
So yeah, I cavorted for an entire day in the water and on the sand wearing nothing but a tight bathing suit. I was having a great time. It was the first time I’d ever been to a real beach.
I felt great until we had to get back on the yellow school bus which had been parked waiting for us baking in the bright sun all day. It was hot inside, but we were kids and we didn’t care. We put the windows down and laughed and jabbered all the way back to Portland. The only thing I noticed on our return was the bare parts of my arms and legs adhering themselves to the hot vinyl seat. I’d never had that sensation before. I was sticking to the seat.
When I got home that day, my mother was a little alarmed. “You look like a lobster,” she said. By that time my very red skin was tightening. When I touched red places and pulled my finger away, a white spot lingered for seconds before turning back to my lobster red. Plus my skin was actually hot to the touch. Radiating.
Today you might take immediate advantage of a remedy like aloe. We didn’t have stuff like that as far as I know.
But here’s what I do know.
After falling asleep that night, I went into fever convulsions. Fell into a mild coma I’m told.
Luckily for little Dougie, right across the street from our apartment building was Mercy Hospital, run by the Catholics. My mother carried my passed out body to the emergency room. And guess what? They still treated me even though we weren’t Catholic.
I remember none of that journey. So I was initially dumbfounded when I awoke in a hospital bed. I had no idea how I’d gotten there. Standing next to my bed was a young pretty nurse in a starched white uniform and cap. She smiled when I opened my eyes and handed me two aspirin and a Dixie cup full of water. I’d seen and fallen in love with The Beatles a mere 5 months before seeing them debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. Apparently my mother had shared that knowledge with the hospital staff because after the nurse asked me how I felt, her smile widened even more when she said, “And guess what? You woke up on Ringo Starr’s birthday!”
That’s how I know the exact date of my first major exposure.
That night back at home, I was blistering badly, much of it puffing up on top of my shoulder line. I could feel my skin pulling tighter in the process. I begged for some relief. My mother offered to help me. Please. Anything. So she grabbed a sewing needle, lit the pointed end with a wooden match to sterilize it and one by one, with the blackened end of the needle, popped the blisters, making warm rivulets of body fluid run down my puny back and chest. The tightness abated somewhat, but my ordeal was far from over.
For many days, my skin smarted wherever it was touched. The only part of me that didn’t feel like being stuck with hatpins was where my little bathing suit had protected me. So I could sit up straight, I just couldn’t take the pain of resting my back or chest or legs or arms on anything without discomfort. Even bedsheets felt like they were rubbing me the wrong way. After the initial period of an intense burning sensation all over my body, my skin seemed to hurt and tingle even more than on the first day. Day 3 was probably the peak. My mother used the blackened end of that needle to pop even more blisters that formed. Then came the peeling. Lots of peeling, constantly exposing virgin skin underneath that was also red and sensitive, but nothing like the top layer I’d scorched.
Needless to say, I didn’t get to spend too much time outside for the rest of the summer.
Apparently, I’d forgotten the pain of that first big burn some 8 years later in 1972 when I was 16 and decided to go out for an afternoon of swimming in a nearby lake with some friends. There was a raft floating on pontoons that you had to swim to that had a small water slide on it. We had a blast. For hours, we took turns jumping off the raft and sliding down the slide into the lake.
That night, we all went to the Strand theater to see the musical movie 1776. The Strand was Rockland, Maine’s only theater which at the time only had one screen. It wasn’t a bad theater – I’d spent many hours in the dark there on previous visits. For Rockland, you might even say the place bordered on the gilded movie theaters of old, just a lot smaller. The seats had red cloth-like cushioning.
Don’t ask me how the movie was because I don’t remember. Once we were seated, I found myself feeling severe itchy pins and needles coming on as I drifted off to sleep sitting up straight. I was bushed. When I awoke, I’d sweated profusely on my back under my shirt that was against the back of the seat. I went to get up and it was akin to peeling Velcro apart. Not only was I kind of stuck to the seat fabric, I had to Velcro-peel my shirt that was glued to my back.
You would have thought I would have learned my lesson about the danger of too many UV rays. And in a way I did. At least about exposing my entire body. Trust me, over the years, there were countless farmer tan burns where I over-saturated my face, neck and the parts of my arms that stuck out from my short sleeves in the summer.
In the 1960s and 70s, there was suntan lotion available, but it only had an SPF of 2. Then in the mid-1980s, sunscreen with an SPF of 15 came around. I needed more than that. SPFs with a wattage of 30 didn’t really come into vogue until the early 1990s. Using SPF 30 is my minimum now. The last few times Judy and I visited beaches, I used SPF 50 and I have to apply it every couple of hours. Every hour if I’m swimming.
My partner in crime Judy tans. She still uses sunscreen though. But yeah, she’ll turn brown as a nut (her expression). Dougie doesn’t tan at all. I just burn. And I can accomplish the start of that process with only 15 minutes of continuous exposure. Yeah, I’m the whitest guy I know.
I don’t particularly like being white. Certainly not my shade of white. There are some red-headed models that can pull it off, but I’m not model material. In bathing trunks, I find myself comically white, but now I’ve gotten to a point in my life where I don’t care.
My best special effect went down in southern California in the mid-1980s. I was at a conference with a friend and one afternoon after work, we drove down to a posh part of town that had a beautiful pond with park benches placed around the perimeter. We walked around a bit, then went into a bar, and hoisted a few before parking ourselves on a bench. We had a nice buzz. We talked about whatever. We watched ducks swim around.
It was relaxing. Pleasant. Warm. And then we both nodded off simultaneously. Sleeping sitting up next to each other. My friend could tan. Plus he was wearing sunglasses. I did not even have the protection of sunglasses. My friend took his nap with his head hanging forward. I took mine with my face turned to one side facing the sun. About an hour later, my friend woke up and nudged me. We realized we’d been catnapping and chuckled.
And then he laughed and said, “Man, you look like you got a burn.”
Only I didn’t get a symmetrical burn. I got lasered on the right side of my face, but not the left. It was like someone had drawn a line from the middle of my forehead straight down to my chin. I looked like some freak from a sci-fi movie.
There is an old supervillain named Two-Face that I remember from when I used to read Batman comics as a kid. The character had had acid thrown on one side of his face at some point, so one side of his face looked normal and the other side was all burned and scarred. That’s close to what I looked like. Needless to say, I was the butt of more than my share of jokes for the last couple of days at the conference.
In the late 1980s, Judy and I had moved to southern Cal. One Friday afternoon after work, I was getting a trim at my regular hairdresser’s and she was using her scissors to shape up the back of my head when she stopped and looked over my shoulder at me in the mirror in front of us.
“Do you wear a hat when you mow the lawn?”
She tapped my developing bald spot and advised, “I’d start.”
Great. Another place I had to worry about protecting. Still, I had to experiment with my weaknesses a few times before I finally started wearing a hat every time I mowed. I learn, but I learn slowly.
When I went for my yearly physical last year, my doctor of 19 years looked at the bald crown of my head and told me I should go see a dermatologist. He noticed some bumps that were pre-cancerous and he thought it would be a good idea to get them zapped.
I’d only been to a dermatologist once before in my whole life. And being a ginger, that’s like playing with fire. I should have been to one long before I went. But my one previous experience wasn’t for sunburn issues. I’d formed some fatty cholesterol bumps under both of my eyes, seated in that very thin tender skin that I now call bags. I went to a guy in Cali that said he’d burn them off using cryotherapy.
I found myself in this doc’s office, reclined in a padded chair with magic marker circles drawn around the 10 or 12 aberrations I’d formed. He left the room for a minute and I was alone with his assistant. I casually asked her what it felt like to have them burned off.
“It’s not bad,” she smiled. “It will be like someone snapping a rubber band on your skin.”
I thought about that for a second and said, “I don’t like the sound of that. That’s pretty thin skin.”
She offered up “Well, you can always have the doctor numb them first if you want.”
Yeah. I wanted that. Definitely. For future reference, file that under Be Careful What You Wish For. When the doc came back in, I asked if he’d numb the areas under my eyes before he did the procedure. He didn’t roll his eyes, but he came close. “Okay,” he said, as if to say, if it was me, I wouldn’t do that. No. I insisted. That’s what I wanted.
There’s a scene in the movie Terms of Endearment where Jack Nicholson is driving Shirley MacClaine home after a disastrous first date. She asks him if he’d consider going on a second date. Jack replies, “I’d rather stick needles in my eyes.”
I know exactly what he was talking about. The doc got out a syringe and poked around every one of those bumps. With a needle. Not actually in my eyes, but close enough. I will never ever ask for that option again.
About 3 or 4 of those have grown back over the years. The doctor told me at the time that was possible. They’re flesh colored, so it’s not like I’m the Frankenstein monster or anything. And frankly, I’m an old guy now, so it’s just part of my look I’ve come to accept. I embrace my curmudgeon. I prefer to live with the mild disfigurement to getting needles again. Or the snaps of a rubber band.
After my physical, I tried to get an appointment with my chiropractor’s highly recommended dermatologist to get my crown bumps frozen off. This was during the peak of Covid and the recommended peeps had just lost one of their docs – they couldn’t see me for 16 months. Nope. Didn’t want to wait that long. I called my general practitioner’s office and asked for a referral. He turned me on to a guy he liked and the wait was only 5 months.
I sat in the doctor’s office fully clothed because I was only there to get bumps burned off the top of my scalp. He had a young woman assisting. She typed stuff he called out into a laptop while he zapped away. After he was done, he told me he wanted to see me in 4 months to make sure he got everything. Before leaving, I asked if he could look over my entire body on the return visit. I explained I was a ginger and had never been fully looked at. He thought it was a good idea and the assistant made a note in my record.
On February 22nd, I returned for the follow-up visit. His assistant called me in from the lobby and before she left me alone in the room, she instructed me to strip down to my underwear and knock on the door when I was ready. I got down to my briefs and t-shirt, knocked on the door and waited. She came back in and asked me a bunch of health questions and typed my answers into the laptop. The doctor came in after a minute or two and asked me to remove my t-shirt. There I was, 66-year-old Doug sitting on the edge of an examination table with nothing but my briefs for protection. He strapped on some sci-fi magnifying glasses and proceeded to look me over. He even checked the bottoms of my feet. Judy told me later they look for moles there specifically because it can indicate cancer. Nope. Feet were good. He found two bumps on the top of my head he’d missed the first time and zapped them.
Then while he was seated on a stool, he asked me to stand up with my back to him so he could check my butt. I thought the young assistant might leave the room or maybe look the other way while he pulled my underwear down and checked out my back end. Oh, no. She was staring. It occurred to me that once you’ve served in the military, you really have no issue with showing your ass. Literally.
He asked me to face him. When he pulled my briefs down in front, the assistant continued to stare as he checked my pubic area. He didn’t completely expose me, but still it was a bit of an old man showing some private parts. And then came the big surprise. He had me pull my undies back up, stepped back and proclaimed, “You have great skin!”
Really? Let me get this straight. I’m a ginger. Whiter than white. I started out my burning man thing by landing myself unconscious in a hospital and I spent the next half century re-burning parts of me repeatedly. Every piece of literature I’ve ever read says my odds of getting skin cancer are exponentially higher than most others. After all the thoughts I’ve entertained, all the darkest ends I’ve contemplated. And you tell me I’m fine? Not only are you telling me I’m fine, you’re telling me I’m better off than the average bear. Wow.
Before I left, he looked at a red circular spot in a furrow about an inch above my left eyebrow. I saw him looking at it and I said, “Yeah, what is that?” He took an extra long look with his sci-fi magnifiers and said, “It’s nothing. He reeled off some name I couldn’t remember even a second after he reeled it off. Then he offered comfort. “It’s benign.” But then he followed up with, “I bet you pick at it, don’t you?”
“Yeah, sometimes after I come out of a hot shower, it peels over that spot – dry skin – and I rub it off.”
“You want me to burn it off?”
“Yeah. Sure. As long as we’re here.”
Most of my pre-cancerous bumps were dosed once, maybe twice with the nitrogen. On this one, he zapped the spot 5 times and said, “Yeah, I went deep on that one.”
Even before I left his office, this small spot about a quarter-inch in diameter was turning beet red. By the next day, as Judy pointed out, I looked like a third eye was forming on my forehead. By the second day, it was protruding like an actual alien kind of eye and the spot was spreading. It was quite a sight.
On the 3rd day, when I really had a special effect going, people at work were openly staring, but chose not to say anything. But I could tell they noticed because when they were conversing with me, they couldn’t help darting their eyes up occasionally to try to figure out what had happened to me. But like I say, they were polite and didn’t mention what they couldn’t stop looking at.
On the 4th day, I was at work making a pit-stop in the restroom and a younger guy from down the hall who works IT ended up washing his hands next to me at the dual sink that has a huge rectangular mirror facing you. I like this guy. He’s really good at what he does. He’s quick, smart, but also highly unfiltered. Some folks are turned off by that, but I don’t mind that he just blurts stuff out.
We had finished washing our hands and each of us had grabbed a paper towel to dry off when he stared unabashedly at me in the mirror. He burst out laughing.
“Dude, what the fuck happened to your head?”
I’ve been trying to figure that out since I was born.