Given the contrast in skin tone, it’s hard to believe the two men in this old photo are even of the same race. Interestingly, they are among my genetic progenitors. The white guy on the left is Walter Gunn, my maternal grandfather, who was 83 at the time. On the right in his suntanned glory is my dad, Tom Ogle, who was 41. The scene is a lakefront park in the small resort town of Wasagaming, Manitoba, in August 1956. We went there occasionally on family vacations, of which I have warm and gauzy memories.
My dad had few vanities, but a suntan was among them. It must have had something to do with growing up in Butte, Montana, on the continental divide, where summers are bright, beautiful and brief. He loved being out in the summer sun, happily gardening away, with his shirt off, hatless, defying the sun to do him harm. Aside from a few rough patches of skin he had removed late in life, it never did.
As for my granddad, I suspect it was a rarity for him to even put on swim trunks, which no doubt were made of knitted wool. He was a shy, laconic Scotsman, who judging from the brown oxfords he wore on the beach, would not have known what to do with a pair of flip-flops. Obviously, he was “sun-safe” before it was cool. Most people of that era were.
It’s been recognized that the incidence of skin cancer is higher in people with fair skin than those with more pigment. It’s highest among people with fair skin who end up living where it’s especially sunny—think southern Australia. Oddly, Oregon has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the U.S., giving the lie to its reputation for dreary weather. Summers here are especially dry and sunny, which poses a serious threat to people with northern European bloodlines. Like my dad, I was for too long too fond of the sun. Now I’m attempting to emulate the more sensible habits of my granddad Gunn. There’s a man who was a stranger to the sun, and wisely so.