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Heat is Murder: On Sunscreen and Serial Killings
Hell is hot for many reasons. Punishment, by itself, is not the only consideration. Dante's thermostat may be in the red for inspiration…or as a forewarning…or as a symbol of passion to motivate us up here on the upper crust of planet earth. But sitting in the summer heat of an un-airconditioned doctor’s office yesterday, I was convinced that, at the very least, hell is real.

My visit to Dr. Drake's dermatology hot spot was as an escort and chauffeur. Aunt Evelyn, 75 years old and still smoking Marlboros, had a suspicious growth removed from the end of her nose. She needed a diagnosis and a ride. I provided the wheels.

Hell takes many forms. On the way to Dr. Drakes, the Coast Highway at rush hour was apopletic pandemonium. Stuck behind a Ryder Rental truck — beach goers on foot streaming by — I made the mistake of commenting on the vast array of noses about to be sacrificed to the sun. Aunt Evelyn — an avid tanner in her youth — was unamused. Later, when the nurse summoned her to the examination room, Evelyn was in her own private underworld. The face of hell, I thought, is not slathered with sunscreen.

There was a time when the majority of white folk actually wanted their skin to be white; when lack of color meant independent wealth and leisure; time to play board games, go to tea and relax indoors. In that world you weren’t accomplished unless you were fashionably pale.

After the second to last turn of the century, when the white lower and middle classes left farms and fields to work in factories and offices, white skin was less a symbol of affluence and more a symbol of containment. Then, after the War to End All Wars ended, haute couture gave its approval to toasted skin. It was 1922 — the seminal moment of tanning history. French designer Coco Chanel returned to Paris from a vacation on the French Riviera. Somewhere— perhaps on the Duke of Westminster's yacht — she tanned her skin in the sun. From that point on, a brown look was standard among the white and fashionable.

It was style for the skin. The free-spirited, free-dressing Coco, tossed off her hat and blissfully bared her body to the Ultraviolet. For decades to come fashion designers everywhere created women’s wear simply to show off tannage, and millions of sunbathers — including my Aunt Evelyn — flocked to the beaches. By the '50s and ’60s, Southern California was the nexus of the tanning community where the word was: "Nothing flatters you like a tan."

Then came the ’70s and the ozone layer. A University of California at Irvine researcher by the name of Sherwood Rowland discovered that our protective sun-screening atmosphere was disappearing at a rapid rate. Scientists said that depletion of the ozone layer would allow more Ultraviolet rays to reach the Earth's surface — Newport Beach, included.

Since UV rays cause cancer (usually a few good burns before you’re 20 will suffice) a suntan might not be such a good thing to have. Pale might actually be smart. But along the beaches of predominantly Republican Orange County, where a tan is almighty, Coco’s sun-worshipping doctrine prevailed. By the 1980s, conservative talk show hosts — and others in denial — were saying that the theory of ozone depletion was a hoax. Rush Limbaugh — Orange County’s Patron Saint — proclaimed that anyone who said otherwise was "a dunderhead alarmist."

Personally, I’m not alarmed by semi-nude bodies baking on beaches. I have no problem with a tan complexion or the fact that 800,000 cases of skin cancer were diagnosed in America this year (unless, of course, I become number 800,001). I don’t even have a problem with the fact that almost one American dies every hour from melanoma, or that the number has doubled since 1980. I figure, with any luck my enemies spent a good deal of their childhood in the sun.

I simply know how fiendish the sun can be. Not only does it bake the skin, it bakes the brain. Consider Charles Manson, the Escondido McDonalds Massacre, the Bob’s Big Boy Slayings …and, of course, Richard Ramirez.

There was a punishing heat that August in 1985 when Ramirez was at the peak of his serial killing disorder. If you took his rampage seriously, you slept with your windows closed, suffocating in a stifling indoor oven (Ramirez entered the homes of his victims through open windows on hot nights). The Night Stalker, as he was known, fancied himself a Satanist — I’m more inclined to think that his cerebrum was oven roasted.

While Southern California sunbathed by day, Ramirez planned his next killing. At the height of the heat wave, a nocturnal visit to two suburbanites in nearby Mission Viejo marked the turning point of his killing career. It was Richard Ramirez’s last attack…and the time of my last sunburn.

The days leading up to his arrest were some of the most unpleasant of my life. I made the mistake of sitting on the first base side during a day game at the Big A (or Anaheim Stadium or Angel’s Stadium or Edison Field—whatever you want to call it) with no protection from the sun. By the 6th inning I was medium. By the ninth I was well-done. The following nights, as temperatures soared above 90 degrees in my airtight bedroom, my charred skin blistered and popped.

When they caught Ramirez, he had a crazed, unrepentant look in his eye. It was apparent he was not the type of person who would wear sunscreen.

And neither was Aunt Evelyn. When our eyes met again in Dr. Drake’s reception room, there was bad news. Her growth was malignant.

"Big deal," Ramirez said at his sentencing. “Death comes with the territory . . . see you in Disneyland."

The sun beats down, cooking bodies and brains. Hell is seductive.

Bright is not always happy. Heat is murder.

— Nathan Callahan, June 17, 2003


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