On Being a Bronze God

People who have known me my entire adult life know I always have been a sun freak. It started, as best as I can recall, at 14 when I bought a Mylar blanket on which to sunbathe. The reflective nature of the material intensified the sun’s rays, speeding up the tanning process. And, for some mysterious reason, being tanned was important to me, even then.  Getting a golden bronze tan was as vital to me as air, food, water, sleep, and my Barbra Streisand albums.

When I came out in 1970, the year I graduated from college, I discovered Seattle’s Madison Beach on Lake Washington, the mecca for the city’s gay sun-worshippers. Because I didn’t have a job when I graduated from college, I spent every possible moment at Madison that summer. Of course, when I eventually did begin working, I could only go to the beach on weekends and holidays. But I went. It was a summer ritual. I became a fixture on the lawn north of the beach house, where few families, children, and old people sunbathed. This area unofficially belonged to young gay and cool straight beachgoers.

The people I met, the friends I made, the conversations we had, and the swims to the float take up a large golden space in the memory section of my brain. I had happy times at Madison Beach for fifteen years.

I moved to Portland in 1985 and when I returned five years later, Madison Beach had changed.  Many of the regulars, the people I either socialized with or ogled, were not there. Some had left Seattle. Others had outgrown the “beach scene.” But many had died of AIDS.

A new generation of gay men, people I did not know, covered Madison Beach’s north lawn.  But I returned to my old habits, my summer routine, my comfort zone, and continued going to Madison whenever I could anyway. I did meet people. I did make some friendships. I did have interesting conversations. But it wasn’t the same. As the years passed, as I got older, I watched yet another younger generation arrive. This one, however, gradually abandoned “our” beach and moved south, in front of the beach house. It was obvious why. Old guys, which I was becoming, were on the north lawn.

My love of sunbathing was not limited to Madison Beach. During the five years residing in Portland, I was a weekend regular at the Columbia River nude beaches at Sauvie’s Island and Rooster Rock. Whether in Seattle or Portland, summer vacations always were spent in sunny, beach-oriented places, usually in California. As time passed and I became a Special Education assistant, complete with vacations throughout the school year, I began searching for my retirement home. Sunny, warm weather continued to be a priority and my travel itinerary expanded to Hawaii, Central America and the Caribbean.

Throughout these years, I should mention, I maintained my golden color in the winter by using tanning beds. I did it once every 7-10 days for maintenance purposes. And vanity.  I, of course, was told countless times by well-meaning people that my constant summer sunbathing and winter electric tans would age my skin and I was putting myself at risk for skin cancer.

I laughed at these warnings because, as an adult, I have always looked younger than my age. At first it was only five years. But as I reached middle age, the difference between perception and reality expanded to 10-15 years depending on the amount of sleep I got, the brand of skin cream or lotion I used, and the seriousness of the viewer’s cataracts.  In fact, I was carded at a bar at 38. “We’re checking everyone tonight,” the befuddled bouncer lied. My younger friends, I learned later, were not checked. I didn’t share my age with students while I taught, but when I did (after they’d graduated), the individual usually stared at me in shock and accused me of “playin’” them. Therefore, the idea that overexposing oneself to the direct sun would age skin did not seem to apply to me.

“I was put on this earth to be a bronze god,” I would tell those who worried about my constant tan and skin condition. “Who am I to challenge God’s wishes?”

But the issue of skin cancer was something I eventually took more seriously. When, sometime in my late fifties or early sixties, I developed a spot on my nose that Clearasil, Neosporin, Windex, 401, or a voodoo dance could not clear up, I was diagnosed with a small squamous cell carcinoma. It was removed by a young, handsome doctor who happened to be the son of a high school mate of mine.

When I retired to Ajiic, I learned that one of the many services the Lake Chapala Society (LCS), an organization of  several thousand expats primarily from the US and Canada, provides is skin cancer screenings. I have taken advantage of this service whenever something questionable has appeared on my skin. Because I have a tendency to develop both seborrheic keratosis, a non-cancerous hardening of the skin, and age spots, I have seen Dr. Martha a number of times as a precaution, always with a negative cancer diagnosis.  On a recent visit, however, a bump on my leg, which at first I thought was an ingrown hair, then seborrheic keratosis, then a science fiction film special effect, turned out to be cancerous. It was removed.

Dr. Martha also confirmed for me that as I had aged and my hair thinned, my exposed scalp had been damaged by the sun. While nothing cancerous had developed, she advised I wear caps whenever in the sun to prevent the damage from worsening.  This suggestion presented a life-style change as I have never been much of a hat guy. I have, as a result, become more of one. Baseball caps, straw hats, trucker caps, yarmulkes, pink pillbox hats, and garish Kentucky Derby style chapeaus have become more a part of my daily wear.

It is possible, perhaps probable, I have now realized that when the time comes, I may die of skin cancer.  It would make sense. I have spent a lot of time in the sun. I did disregard warnings. And I have a growing history of skin cancer incidents. I have, however, no regrets and I’ll bet when I die, I’ll still look considerably younger than the death certificate claims. “Fake news!” I’ll yell as I’m cremated. “I wasn’t that old. I was barely eligible to vote!” And I will go with my pleasant memories and images of Madison Beach. And all those late-life swanky hats.

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