Burning Cheek Recollection

The thermometer read 160 degrees up by the ceiling. It peaked even higher than that at times. We were sitting in a sauna that my mentor and teacher had built for his family, and as I was living with the family at the time, I was included. I found it suspicious that their own children were excused as being too young even though their eldest was but a year younger than me. I tried to sneak a glance and confirm the temperature.  I didn’t like looking at the thermometer, because in order to do so I had to look past my teacher’s wife, a Rubenesque woman with uncovered breasts the size of mature watermelons. I was mortified at everyone’s nakedness, and especially my own, having been taught the puritanical value that one did not go au natural in mixed company. Not in 1959 New England. But my teacher and his wife spent a bit of time in Europe, and thus had acquired some European attitudes, among which was going gleefully nekkid in a sauna.

My teacher’s name was Phil and his wife’s name was Virginia. I use the past tense because I’m certain they’ve gone on to their reward by now. After all, they were in their late thirties at the time, and if that weren’t enough to render them dead by now, their being Quakers who went off to Kenya, East Africa as missionaries just had to have sealed their fate. At any rate, a portion of their European jaunting has taken them to Sweden where they had acquired a taste for self immolation in tiny overheated rooms. They were sauna people.

There was a set of wooden bleacher-like seats in the little building, which itself  was made of brick. Phil had dragged a fifty-five gallon drum in there and laid it on it’s side on a mortared brick support, piling fist sized rocks beneath, aside and atop it. A stove pipe was welded to it that rose up and took a series of 90 degree right angles before it finally disappeared through the roof. The convoluted course was there to wring every joule of heat energy from it before it emptied into the winter New Hampshire skies. Outdoors the temperature was a bone chilling 20 below zero, but inside the little sauna, one’s clothing would spontaneously ignite had it not been for the 300 percent humidity that Phil maintained by tossing water onto the superheated rocks corralling his stove. Each splash of water immediately turning into steam clouds that seared my skin to a painful medium rare.

I kept diving from the bleacher to lay prone on the concrete floor in an attempt to hide from the heat that was opening my pores to the extent that my body fluids fairly spray from their quarter inch orifices. This was, in Phil’s view, an act of cowardice that brought verbal assaults labelling me a powder puff. To this, Virginia would say “tsk,tsk,” and lean down to gather me into her arms for comfort, smothering me in her voluminous breasts and embarrassing me into catatonia. After a half hour or so of basking in the severe heat, occasionally self-flagellating with a bouquet of birch boughs, Phil would drive us out of the building to roll in the snow drifts, our bodies making a sharp cracking sound which I understood to be the noise of our pores slamming shut in a pique of traumatized shock. While I tried not to look, the snow rolling would also have a Pinocchio-like effect on Virginia’s mammaries that was absolutely mesmerising. And, of course, my open-mouthed stare caused them to burst into raucous laughter, much to my Catholic, guilt-ridden horror, –at which point I would run to the house to hide in a shower to offset the frostbite I was certain to develop in my prepubescent nether regions. I was told that his self abuse would completely cleanse my pores and save me from acne, which, by the way, was a problem alien to most 11 year olds.

It was torture and happened every two weeks during the months of November, December, January and February as 1959 became 1960. It began a love-hate relationship with snowy winters that continues to present day, and caused me to envision with relish the idea of Phil and Virginia boiling in the soup pots of uncivilized natives as they preached the gospel from their Quaker bibles.

All of these memories came flooding back as a friend of mine proudly displayed photos of the sauna he’d just built. He stood back to bathe in my accolades, only to be confused by my breaking into sweats and developing uncontrollable shakes. “Good job!” I admitted hoarsely, trying to hide the Post Traumatic Stress reaction to the idea of a sauna. But I had to admit that he did do an excellent construction job on his project, and it wasn’t his fault that so glaring a scar disfigures my psyche as a result of free spirited European attitudes.

A few years after I left the school in New Hampshire, I got a post card from Phil and Virginia. It had the return address of the Chavakali Secondary School, Chavakali, Kenya, East Africa. It was a photo of the Ngorondogoro Crater, apparently a nearby landmark to the place their missionary travels landed them. The text read, in Virginia’s hand writing, “Wish you could be here to see this.”  I wondered if they had built a sauna there, and lured local children into it as they did me. I never heard from them again, so I’m assuming they probably did.