By Joe Rector

My grandson Madden came to Knoxville during the Memorial Day weekend. He pulled off his shirt on Friday evening, and his shoulders and arms were fiery. It was the boy’s first ever taste of sunburn. His parents have been good at slathering him up with sun screen, but this time, Madden and a pack of little boys were too involved in outdoor activities to remember to apply the stuff. I know how easily that happens as a kid.

In Ball Camp, a group of boys spent a great deal of time together during the summer months. We’d play games of baseball or tackle football. No one ever took out time to coat himself with Coppertone. Instead, boys relied on a thick coating of dirt to protect their skin from the sun.

Jim and I managed to get a yearly sunburn as we weeded the strawberries. We’d also turn red as we took hand clippers and cut every weed around the foundation of the house and several flower gardens. Later in life, we mowed the yard and toasted ourselves as we either cut the grass or raked it up in piles.

We also managed to bake ourselves on vacations. A week in the mountains each year did the trick. As soon as we’d finish breakfast, it was off to the river. There we stayed all day and swam, dove, and played. By the end of the first day, shoulders and legs sizzled. Our first trip to the beach came when Jim and I were ten. Cousin Charlie’s family also traveled with us to Treasure Island, Florida. Playing in waves and searching for shells took our full attention. Not until we tried to rest in the evening did the scarlet that covered our backs, legs and love-handles hand out plenty of pain.

In high school, I scorched myself on two painfully memorable occasions. At the end of the last half-day of school, I traveled with Bill Burns and others to Big Ridge Park. We spread out towels and sat on the grass. The others passed a bottle around and took some of the contents. I didn’t want to seem uncool, so I also partook. I spread a thick coat of baby oil on my skin and felt secure in thinking I’d protected myself from a sunburn. What I later discovered was that spreading the stuff on me was about the same thing as dropping a piece of meat into an iron skillet containing a glob of Crisco. I was fried to a crisp.

I spent the afternoon of my 18th birthday working a Burger King. My jobs there included mowing and plowing the back plot of grass, changing spark plugs in my boss’s car, and, on that day, mopping the red plastic shingles that covered the roof of the building. That evening, the candles on the cake at the surprise birthday party put off only a fraction of the heat that came from my burned back, scalp, , and neck.

Those were glorious times, all too painful, but glorious all the same. These days, however, I have a standing appointment with the doctor to scour my skin for precancerous and cancerous spots. A few years ago, the doctor discovered a spot that contained squamous cells. That led to another appointment where the doctor sliced my neck and dug her way to China as she removed anything that might lead to worse conditions. My hair has thinned enough so that my scalp burns after short periods in the sun, and just recently, the doctor found another place on the side of my head that contains squamous cells. In June, I will have part of my hair shaved away so that the doctor can once again dig. This time I’ve asked for something to keep me from feeling so squeamish.

What we do as unsuspecting children and young adults sometimes comes back to bite us in the butts. Years of exposure to the sun then has led to some uncomfortable times now. I love the outdoors as much as any person. Now, I wear plenty of sunscreen and a hat. I’m through with inviting skin cancer to a free lunch. Make sure you protect your babies and yourself against the harmful rays of the sun. I suppose it’s true that no tan is worth the misery that comes from fear about melanoma. Lather up!