By Steve Oden
When winter seems to stretch an endless string of gray days ahead and no harbinger dandelions have been spied squatting yellow in scruffy, frost-burned yards, old men’s thoughts turn to the weird and wondrous.
Thus, with creaky logic and obscure memories, the worthy seniors at the coffee shop I frequent for daily doses of instruction and questionable wisdom one recent gloomy morning began to expound—of all things—on their history of sunburns.
Mr. Cleatus Tumkin, a 92-year-old WW II veteran with a knitted hat pulled over his bald head, rolled up his pant legs to display scars on fish-belly white and liver-spotted shins. He explained this was where skin cancers had been removed.
“Boys, you ain’t never got a sunburn ‘less you been on a beach in Borneo unloading military transport ships from morning to night. Like to have crippled us all, the sand and sun, plus a bosun’s mate who made us take off our boon-dockers.”
I conceded it would be hard to top that recollection without casting aspersions on Mr. Tumkin’s wartime service, although I’ve been plagued with skin cancer too.
The sunburn memories came around the table: a commercial fisherman from running his nets, a retired roofer, a construction worker who shoveled hot asphalt on scalding summer days, an octogenarian reminiscing about being a lifeguard at Miami Beach—and Mr. Tumkin again, who recounted when his ship rescued a downed airman on a life raft. The Pacific sun had almost broiled him alive, he said.
My turn came, and I blurted out, “It was in a 1963 Corvair Monza convertible.” After the laughter subsided, I shared my truthful story.
Most of my fellow coffee-table geezers were familiar with Chevrolet’s Corvair, a strange-looking compact car powered by a rear-mounted, air-cooled engine. It was manufactured in the 1960s, the automotive era of land whales, bulge-mobiles and muscle cars.
My step-mother had been hounding dad for a new car. Apparently, the Corvair caught her eye because of its “cuteness,” a way to describe the car’s quirky appearance. She rejoiced the day he wheeled the robin’s egg blue Monza convertible into the driveway.
Nothing would do but to leave on a road trip to break in the Corvair. A family vacation exploring the Smoky Mountains was launched immediately. It was high summer in the middle of a southern heat wave. The convertible top was destined to never be lowered, except at night to protect the upholstery from dew.
My sister and I colonized the back seat, which was like riding a church bench. We received the full blast of hot road wind when the car was underway. When stopped at traffic lights, the heat from the rear engine smothered us. At least the driver and front passenger had the windshield and fresh air vents. Dad wore a fisherman’s hat and our step-mother a sun bonnet. Both had sunglasses.
The first day out, a passing freight truck blew off my baseball cap. Although my sister and I were slathered in anti-sunburn lotion each morning, one application a day was not enough. The youth hairstyle of the period was buzz cut with a slight flip on the front called a “ski-jump.” Consequently, I had little protection for my head, face, neck, arms and—due to Bermuda shorts—thigh tops and kneecaps.
After pulling into the motel after a day of travel, my father bragged that the Corvair had performed well, but my sister and I limped inside with painful sunburn. Next day was more of the same: UV radiation broiling our exposed skin, air temperatures in the 90s. Heat index calculations were unknown back the day, but it was miserable.
Climbing Lookout Mountain, the Corvair proved the dependability of its six-cylinder motor. However, the convertible was engulfed in a storm of dragon-flies halfway up. I can attest that the impact of a large insect on a severely sunburned forehead at 50 mph is like being shot by a sniper.
Then we spent the searing afternoon at Rock City, and we saw all of it with the hellish yellow orb beating down. When we descended into the coolness of Ruby Falls, I never wanted to leave. In fact, I prayed to be transformed into a cave mushroom.
Another night in an un-airconditioned motel room, and my sister and I began to get sick. Sun poisoning, I believe. We were expected to keep stiff upper lips and not complain. This was the family vacation, after all.
Later I read of gladiators in ancient Rome who bowed to the emperor and declared: “We who are about to die salute you.” This was the attitude my sister and I shared the next morning when we hobbled to the Corvair and watched dad put the top down.
We looked and felt more like barbecued Kielbasa sausages than human children. However, not even water blisters and the tender skin that stuck to the vinyl upholstery would ruin this family’s vacation.
Onward we forged, the trusty Corvair convertible next tackling the Great Smoky Mountains, where we thankfully found cloud cover and even rain showers in the higher elevations. The convertible top came down—hallelujah—and dad turned us toward home.
“Enough of my skin peeled to stuff a pillow, and the doctor said I had to stay out of the sun for a month,” I concluded. “Missed most of baseball season, and I was the first-string third baseman!”
Coffee drinkers around the table nodded sympathetically—I thought. Several cleared their throats, and I knew the questions were coming. “You said that Corvair was a six-banger? What kind of power did it have in the quarter mile?”. . . “I heard them things were tip-over prone. Ol’ Ralph Nader went on a tear, and GM up and quit making ‘em!”. . . “You recall what your daddy paid for it new?”
When I joined this group as an apprentice old man, it amazed me how they’d pick apart a truthful story but swallow a fictious one. Also, how they latched on to any bit of minutia and chewed it to gristle. Now that I have earned my chair around the table, nothing flabbergasts me, even how severe sunburn can segue into car makes and models.