Uncle White, polar bears, and the no-tan glow

I am the whitest person on the planet. Now, I don't mean to give offense with that comment. I just mean that I am the whitest person on the planet. Thanks to my Irish ancestors, I don't just look pale, I'm practically Day-Glo.

Thus, I have spent most of my life avoiding prolonged exposure to the sun. It's not just that I've never been able to achieve any state of "tan" – when I have tried, most of the time I've only exceeded in neutralizing the blue – I have seldom sought the sun. For years, I would go to the beach dressed like I was attending a football game in Buffalo in December. Parents with small children would move their blankets further down the beach whenever I appeared. The invention of SPF 45 sunscreen freed me from a prison of sweatshirts and long pants.

Then there's the water. It's not that I don't like water. I think it's great for drinking, bathing, and sailing on top of. But if God had wanted us to swim, He would not have let us evolve beyond amphibians.

Perhaps my aqua aversion stems from a childhood incident. One day, arriving a little late for swim lessons at the pool near my grandparents' house in Truro, Nova Scotia, I ran into the pool area to tell the instructor I would only be another moment, lost my footing, and did a completely clothed belly-flop, still clutching my school books, in front of my entire swim class. Being 8, my friends wasted no time spreading the story throughout the entire school, and for months I was know as "The Big Splash."

So for years, I stayed clothed and away from water.

Then I met my wife.

It's not only that she loves water, she would live in it if she could. A true water baby, she spent many of her early years on the beaches near Tampa, Florida, where she grew up, and then in the Mediterranean, where she studied. Now, being a good husband, and not wanting to be a party pooper, I decided that maybe it was time to make occasional H20 forays, and not to go to the beach looking like a Central Park mugger any more.

In 1993, we took a trip to Turkey to visit her mom. My mother-in-law taught for years at the US Air Force base in Ingirlik, and when she retired, she decided to stay in the area. She has a nice little condo on a beautiful Med beach.

It was heaven.

Turkey was wonderful. The food was great, the people were friendly, and the scenery was breathtaking. On our third day, my wife said "Come on, let's go for swim." It had been a long time since I had been swimming, but how many times, I thought, will I get a chance to take a dip in the beautiful blue waters of the Med?

I donned my swim trunks and headed to the beach. After dousing myself with enough sunscreen to protect the Allied forces during the Gulf War, I fearlessly raced into the water and bobbed around a bit.

Then a curious thing happened. I noticed a group of Turkish children pointing at me, with amazed looks and dropped jaws. After a while, they started to giggle. Then they waded out to where I was standing, and started dancing around me, singing. I assumed they were just being friendly. Until my wife, who had joined me by this time, burst out laughing. This was not a good sign.

"What," I asked, "is so funny?"

"They are singing about you being so white," she said, stifling a grin. "They say they've never seen anyone like you before. They're calling you Uncle White."

Now my white had a tinge of embarrassed red (my wife calls these moments my "Fourth of July" incidents, because I am red, white, and blue at the same time). The children started peppering my wife with questions. "How," they asked, "could a person get so white?" My wife, who speaks Turkish (really), told them I came from Canada. They had never heard of Canada. She told them it's where polar bears come from.

Then looked at me and nodded knowingly. Ah, he comes from the land of polar bears. That explains everything.

From that day to this, I have seldom ventured back into the water, warying of providing unexpected entertainment to small children. Instead, I pull out my beach chair and my umbrella and sit there looking like Howard Hughes, as I watch my wife and children frolic in the water. But I'm happy. After all, we polar bears like to keep our fur dry.

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