Thursday, September 29, 2005

Driving into the Sun

There was an article in this morning’s Louisville Courier-Journal about a truck that hit a school bus yesterday (Wednesday) morning. Thankfully, only five children were injured and none very seriously. The article mentioned that the intersection where the accident took place is dangerous in the morning because the sun is often so bright that east moving traffic cannot see the traffic signal.

I know that intersection, although it has been many years since I have driven through it in the early morning. When I was a child, my Uncle Frank was vice president of a plumbing supply company whose office and warehouse were located not far from it. Sometimes, early on Saturday mornings, we would drive to the office. I remember the dazzling sun glaring into my eyes so that I would have to shut them. Even then, with my eyes shut, I could see the red brightness of the sun's light behind my closed eyelids.

I was reminded of those times by this morning’s article about the bus/truck accident. I thought about it again as I drove home this afternoon. The setting sun was just above the horizon and I seemed to be moving directly into it. And it was bright—so bright that I wanted to close my eyes to it. (Of course, being the driver of my car, this time I couldn’t).

I have known many people in my life who have been “sun worshipers.” By that I don’t mean that they literally deified the sun or considered the star around which our solar system revolves a god. What I mean is that they would spend every possible moment bathing in its rays. And, if the sun was behind clouds or shining more on the Southern Hemisphere than here in the north, they would spend time beneath sun lamps or in tanning salons. My Aunt Dorothy was one of those people—and so are my friends Andrea and Candy. For example, I have known Candy to go to two different tanning shops, one after another, in order to get forty minutes of synthetic rays rather than the twenty minutes permitted by either.

I, too, love the sun, but I don’t take it to the extreme that Aunt Dorothy did—or Andrea and Candy do. During my college years I spent the summers working on local golf courses. I was what was called a “greensman,” which meant that I cut the golf greens. I usually spent eight or more hours in the sun, six days a week. My skin became very tan—very fast.

When I am in the sun, two things happen. I tan very easily and my tan is a very deep, dark brown. At a distance, I have been told, my skin coloring can almost look black. At the same time, sunlight causes my “dirty blond” hair to lighten to almost “beach blond.”

Of course, as a greensman working on a golf course, all my time wasn’t spent cutting greens. That was usually only done three days a week. During the rest of the time there were many other duties to perform. One of those duties was to “cool” the greens. That meant standing beside a green with a hose and periodically spraying a bit of water over it. It was a job that actually took some training and knowledge: too little water and the green would dry out and burn from the intense high temperature of the summer sun; too much water and the sun’s heat might actually boil the grass.

One summer afternoon in the mid-1960s I was cooling a green beneath an extremely hot sun that was shining down on me from behind the green. As I remember the incident, it was so hot that I had removed my shirt and had a straw hat covering my already very blond hair. The hole was a par four and, as golfers would approach their second shots (which might reach the green if they were accurate enough), I would retreat about ten yards behind the green in order not to be in their way.

Late in the day two golfers teed off into the sun toward my green. I could tell from their drives that both were good. As they prepared to hit their second shots, I moved to my “safe spot” behind and to the right of the green. I wasn’t really paying attention to them and was unpleasantly startled when a golf ball flew past my nose, missing me by only a few inches. I fortunately looked down the fairway to see the second golfer hit his ball, which flew directly at me. I ducked and the ball flew just past my bended back. I was not at all happy; I perceived that these two idiots were aiming at me and not at the flag on the green.

When the two men walked across the green and another thirty or so yards to where their balls had imbedded in the rough, I recognized them. Both were employees of the City of Louisville—one was a police captain and the other a high ranking fireman. I glared at both of them as they chipped onto the green and putted out.

As they picked up their balls and began to leave the green, one said to the other, "Let’s tell the boy what we did.”

The other said to me, “Well, with your dark sun tan and that hat covering your blond hair, we made a mistake. And I said, ‘Let’s see it we can hit that nigger boy.’ Hey, we’re sorry, and I’m glad we missed you.”

I just nodded. And as they walked to the next tee, I walked back toward the green, where I kinda lost control of the hose in my hand and sprayed the backsides of both of those bigots. They said nothing; they just looked back at me and smiled.

The sun is, to me, synonymous with light and warmth. It is good, for without it we would have no life on this little rock we call the Earth. I enjoy the sun as much as Aunt Dorothy, Andrea, and Candy. I rather like the way it gives a brown coloring to my skin and lightens my hair (at least until recent years ,when much of my hair has itself lightened to silver and white).

Yet, driving into the sun can also blind one. It can cause accidents. However, it was not the sun that blinded that those two golfers that day, even though they were driving their golf balls into it. It was their prejudice and their hatred, along with their malicious desire to hurt someone they perceived as different from themselves.

That incident also taught me another of the many lessons about prejudice and injustice that life has given to me. A few years before I had read a book by John Howard Griffin entitled Black Like Me. It is about a white man who wanted to truly understand what it was like to be Black in the American South of the late 1950s. So, with the aid of a medication he had obtained from dermatologist and the ultraviolet rays of a sun lamp, he darkens his skin to a deep brown and becomes “Black.” Reading that book and his experiences had shocked me as much as my reading about the horrors of Nazi Germany.

However, I never thought that I would have any experience such as the ones I read about in Back Like Me. Not until that summer day in the mid-1960s when, for an instant at least, I was mistaken for a Black man. That was a chilling experience and one that has influenced my life and work ever since.


  1. Wow! What a story. And one was a cop and the other a fireman?

  2. The golf course was owned by the city: policemen and firemen played free.

  3. It seems to me that there should be a way to fix such a problem.

    Obviously the occurs when the sun is very low (about the same apparent height as the signal, and may not occur throughout the year.

    A well placed tree, or even a banner/net sort of thing, could be strung on the east side f that intersection.

    How much could it cost? It could even be made decorative or informative.

  4. Good suggestions, Curious Servant. I wonder: if I pass them on to Louisville Metro government, would anyone act on them? I’ll give it a try and see.

  5. that was a terrible thing they did.

    i like the sun and sun tan every day that i can.

  6. I did not know what to say about people like that policeman and fireman who are so prejudiced that they actually try to hurt someone. The thought sickens me.

    I really like the way you wrote that story. You interplayed the blinding sun with the accident, your friends who worship sun tanning, and the two men who tried to hit you with the golf ball. That was very artistic—almost like a tapestry. Thanks.

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