The first little paint stroke of Mercurochrome to my upper lip seemed like an interesting idea at the time. I, after all, had grown my first mustache and beard over the summer of 1972, between eighth grade and my freshman year of high school. To my adolescent mind, it was a badge of maturity that went with leaving behind Catholic grade school and the redneck bullies I had endured for eight years. The next day would be my first day at Rockhurst High School, Kansas City’s Jesuit high school, several miles and mindsets away from the Hickman Mills area where my family lived just at the edge of where the suburbs met the cornfields and hunting woods. Grateful to be moving on, I had spent the summer gearing up for what I hoped, if not was almost certain, maybe, would be a new life, and part of the passage included not shaving for three months just to see what kind of beard I could grow.
The previous summer, the summer of ’71, between seventh and eighth grade, puberty had hit full on, leaving me six inches taller and deeper voiced, with a dusting of downy blond fuzz everywhere and an eruption of intermittent purple pimples punctuating my freckles. It also left me confused. After years of being the smallest, most derided kid in the classroom, I started my eighth grade year cautiously relieved to suddenly find myself a half-foot taller, for the first time ever surpassing four or five of my classmates in height (even if it would be only for a few months, or a year at most, before they all caught up with me again). Terry Englert and I were the only two boys in our eighth grade class to start the year in puberty and we were anomalies. I remember our teacher, Mrs. Menshouse, scolding me. “Jimmy Kempster!” she startled me with a shriek, “I don’t know why you or Terry let yourselves talk out in class. You know I can tell your voices from everyone else’s!” After the summer of ’71, I started shaving a couple times a week, and the following May, the day after my eighth grade graduation, I put the razor away and didn’t touch it again until the day before high school started.
This new growth was a mixed blessing. I wanted body hair and all the other trappings of manhood. I had always been infatuated with men’s chest hair, mustaches and beards, all thick, dark, and plush, like Paul Bunyan, or Popeye’s nemesis Brutus, or Hercules of antiquity. But what I had managed to grow in the Summer of ’72 was easily missed from a few feet away, or until I was standing in just the right way in a certain light. Family members who actually noticed and tried to be playful, told me of how, when my redheaded grandfather grew a mustache in his younger days, people had teased him about the nutmeg on his upper lip. Which kind of terrified me. The bullies that I had known thus far, and was hoping to leave behind, didn’t need any more ammunition about red hair.
You see, gingers weren’t “gingers” back then. Growing up, I heard all kinds of names for redheads: “carrot top,” “rusty,” “red,” “pumpkin head,” “red devil,” “Howdy Doody,” “Ronald McDonald.” Or worse, like “redheaded freckle-faced monster,” or “I’d rather be dead, than red in the head,” which were usually said while I was getting knocked around by the playground bullies.
What I never heard was “ginger.” Modern day use of the term “Ginger,” and the current fascination and fetishes that carry that moniker, are recent developments, especially for redheaded males. In the Twentieth Century, red hair was something to mock, a joke, clownish, and something you’d rather be dead than be, from what I was warned.
It wasn’t until much, much later in life that I found out that red hair was attractive to a whole lot of people. I sometimes fantasize the difference it might have made, had one of the grade school nuns pulled me aside and told me “one day, Jimmy, many, many big, handsome, tanned, Mediterranean men will find your red hair irresistible, just wait and see.” I might have survived grade school differently, with a quiet, knowing little grin.
My red hair was also accompanied by fair skin—that pale pigment-less, overly sensitive skin that isn’t fair at all if you have to live with it. If I didn’t have freckles and red body hair, I wouldn’t have any color at all. Even now, I dread the day when all my body hair goes white, and I become one of those pale old men, with flesh so thin and transparent it looks to be slathered with Crisco.
Fair skin is difficult skin to live in, as well. As best as I can tell, my ancestors were mushrooms. We were meant to live under rocks in misty forests. Hit us with direct sunlight and we wither like fungi or burst into flames like vampires. Simply say the word “blush,” and we do, automatically, bright pink and so warm that we feel it from the inside of our cheeks. Put us next to one another and we blush in unison.
But most of the time we are white as marshmallows, and just as easily burnt. As a kid, in the days before sunscreen, going to the swimming pool was an ordeal. I had to wear a t-shirt when I swam. I probably should have worn scuba gear and a big floppy sunhat if I was truly going to protect myself thoroughly. But that wasn’t necessary. Swimming in a t-shirt was embarrassing enough.
It didn’t help that we lived among Olympic tanners in the age of Coppertone oils that did nothing more than moisturize as they intensified the sun’s harmful effects on your skin. Our next-door neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Mathewson, who kind of resembled a young James Caan and Ann Margaret, couldn’t get enough sun. Handsome, hairy-chested Mr. Mathewson would do lawn work in nothing but swim trunks and tennis shoes, and the voluptuous Mrs. Mathewson sunbathed (topless, when she was facedown) the whole summer, their skin covered in a viscous glaze like Turkish oil wrestlers. They did have two redheaded sons of their own, but they were what we designated “strawberry blonds,” and were fortunate enough to inherit their parent’s toast-able skin. Across the street were the Mediterranean olive-skinned Barbieri family, and down the street the Marroni clan. In their midst, my siblings and I were a swarm of pre-Raphaelite nymphs in wet t-shirts, lurking in the green cover to spy jealously at the suburban beach parties that surrounded us.
The t-shirts weren’t much help, either. They never covered my arms, or my neck and face. They would get wet and stretch and hang so that the neck opening would expand outward, slowly exposing more and more of my shoulders and the top of my back as the afternoon wore on. I’d get these big hot pink sunburn rings around my neck that would blister something horrible.
Back then, the only antidote for sunburn was Noxema, which my mother applied in big mortar-trowel schmears and, then, to keep it from getting on my clothes, covered it over with bolts of gauze adhered with hospital tape stretching like bungie cords from the middle of my back to the front side of my arm pits. The Noxema was soothing, bringing down my skin temperature by what felt like tens of degrees. But I looked like I was wearing football shoulder pads under my shirt.
A few summers before the one in which I grew my first beard, when I was nine or ten years old, my younger sister and I signed up to perform in the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Show Wagon at Loose Park. We had carefully practiced the song “Edelweiss” from the Sound of Music and were all set to perform to the throngs of Show Wagon fans that we imagined would show up. But that afternoon I played too long in our backyard fold-up wading pool that amounted to no more than four-by-six feet of sixteen-inch-deep water, just enough to intensify the sun’s fire power, like a magnifying glass held over an ant. I got one of the worst sunburns of my life that day. “Sun poisoning” my mother called it, with blisters the size of Kennedy half-dollars and as red as a Barbie-doll house. I was dizzy from dehydration and nauseous, but terrified that we wouldn’t be able to perform in the Show Wagon. Nevertheless, we did perform that night, with the help of my mother’s Noxema treatment: my five or six-year old sister Annie—the pretty brunette, with big blue eyes, and a soft cautious voice—and me the boisterous, lobster-red hunchback, singing “Edelweiss” as if it were a showstopper from Gypsy.
I think we got second place.
Years later, at the end of that summer of ’72, staring into the bathroom mirror with the little applicator brush of the Mercurochrome cap pointed toward my face, I was looking at much the same freckle-faced redhead as I always had, but now lightly coated with the golden-orange strands that I had carefully attended for three months as if they were delicate ferns. I was bummed that my beard hadn’t come in any thicker or darker, and bummed that I couldn’t keep it growing. But just as in Catholic grade school, facial hair was not permitted in Catholic high school, and so, before I shaved it off, I wanted to see what it might look like someday in the future, when it would possibly, maybe, hopefully, grow in as dark as the hair on my head.
So, when I picked through the medicine cabinet for something close enough to the color of my red hair, the only thing I could find was Mercurochrome. Mercurochrome was a deep-crimson over-the-counter antiseptic that moms would dab onto scratches and mosquito bites in the Mid-Twentieth Century. If you went on a hike through tall brush or drove your bike on a gravel road, you were bound to go to school the next day covered in red dabs. I swear sometimes it seemed like my mother carried it in holster, along with Kleenex, Bandaids, Ben Gay, and Chiclets.
As I brought the thick glass bottle down from the medicine cabinet, I figured I could use the little applicator brush to carefully paint my mustache hairs strand-by-strand the color that they might be next year. Even after the first brushstroke, I didn’t imagine the color getting on my skin, just the hair. But as soon as I had colored in the entire mustache, I knew otherwise. I watched in horror as the color seeped and spread across and into the surface of the skin of my upper lip, like dark fruit juice into a paper towel. About ten minutes later, when my upper lip was just as crimson red as it had been before ten minutes of furiously scrubbing, I was panicked.
I spent what felt like the next half hour hiding in the bathroom, searching the medicine cabinet for makeup remover, magic soap, sand paper, anything, and over and over again staring into the mirror, terrified.
“Jimmy, mom wants you,” I heard my sister Maggie call from the kitchen, and I wondered what I would do. I looked like I had been drinking cherry Kool-Aid all summer.
“Jimmy, she needs your help,” I heard my sister call once more. I tried a last ditch effort of covering it with some Shower-to-Shower after-bath powder but that proved useless immediately. A bead of sweat rolled down my upper lip cutting a crimson line through the powder like kabuki base.
“I’ll be right there!” I hollered, then splashed and dried my face, took a deep breath, and opened the bathroom door.
Cautiously, I entered the kitchen and went around to what I thought might be the darker side of the table. I thought, maybe, possibly, hopefully, if I kept my head down, no one would notice. But suddenly the room went silent.
“What’s that on your lip?” my mother asked.
“Nothing,” I replied feebly.
“It’s all red, what’s on your lip?” She demanded.
“Nothing,” I repeated with a whine, as my sister Maggie tried to change the subject.
“It’s not nothing,” my mother insisted. “Who you been kissing?”
“I have’t been kissing anybody,” I whimpered. “It’s nothing!”
“But…” my mother tried again.
“He says he hasn’t been kissing anyone!” My sister Maggie’s best shrill high-school dramatics interrupted. “Leave him alone!”
After that, as best as I can remember, my mother didn’t take it any further. Nor did my sister and I discuss it, or why she had come so strongly to my defense. But I wonder what the family was thinking that Sunday evening at dinner, there soon-to-be high school freshman wearing what felt like a bright crimson Groucho Marx mustache.
Luckily, by the time had I shaved and showered the next morning, the stain had faded significantly enough that just being in a new school, with new classmates and high school responsibilities, was more of a worry than what color my upper lip was and, as far as I knew, nobody noticed.
Catholic high school continued to prevent me from having a full beard until I graduated four years later. I started growing my beard the day after high school graduation and have kept at least a semblance of one ever since, having shaved it off completely only once to play the part of Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Otherwise, it’s been a permanent accessory on my face.
It’s gone grey in recent years, the first of my red hair to disappear into mortality, and I sometimes find myself in the pharmacy searching, not for the Mercurochrome, but through the “Just for Men” brush-on beard dyes. Fortunately, they don’t make a dye for red hair, so I’m not tempted to make a similar mistake some forty years after that first unnatural disaster. There’s just no simulating red.