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Steam Room Design Brings Back Adolescent Fears

April 16, 2010
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After decades of quiet avoidance, I recently found the courage to enter a public steam room. Finally, I was prepared to overcome adolescent memories of a sauna experience gone badly.

Upon initial glance, the little room appeared inviting and harmless. I entered the moist fog and made my way to a tiered bench. I nervously took a seat and studied the room.

How did the architect know what types of materials to spec? Every surface of the 10 x 20-ft. room was soaking wet for 18 hours a day. With such incredible humidity, why weren’t the tiles falling off the wall and ceiling?

“There is nothing to fear,” I told myself.

I squirmed a bit wondered how they keep the room sanitized. Floor drains and a posted cleaning schedule gave me momentary relief.

“I won’t catch any germs,” I rationalized.

Suddenly a boiler kicked on, a valve opened and molten steam saturated the room. The temperature rose from “hot” to “volcano” in a matter of seconds.

“I can sur-survive this in-inferno,” I stuttered.

With sweat oozing from my body like a squeezed sponge, adolescent memories of my first sauna experience were filling my brain.

The traumatic flashback transported me to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  My family traveled there in the 1960s and 1970s to visit relatives and experience the great outdoors, as much as a bunch of sheltered suburbanites can.

My dad had rented a cabin on a lake. Next to the dock was an odd little wood structure with a chimney. Inside, I was told, was a Finnish sauna. I didn’t know what a Finnish sauna was, but I couldn’t wait to try it out.

“Tomorrow night the men are coming and we’ll use the sauna,” my Dad told me.

As an 11-year old boy, I felt a sudden rush of manhood come over me. I was going to join “the men” for a guy’s activity.

The next night our cabin was the site of a big cookout. My relatives and their friends were a hardy bunch of second-generation Italian and Finnish Americans. They loved their pastries, roasts and brook trout. We ate until we were stuffed.

Soon the men gathered. Their voices deepened, stories were shared, and bragging ensued. We headed for the sauna.

I gamely followed the burly crew. Most were seasoned ore miners who cut their own firewood and put many a meal on the table by hunting and fishing.

I was joining manly men in a manly activity. My heart pounded with pride.

We entered the sauna and my eyes locked on the wood-fired heater with rocks on top and a bucket and ladle nearby. The fire had been building for hours and already the room was hot.

I looked up and noticed the men sitting on the top bench. They wore sly smiles and asked me to pour water on the rocks.

As the youngest “man” in the group, I was honored and started dumping water on the rocks. Steam erupted and quickly filled the room. I tossed on more water and joined the men on the top bench.

And why not? I was one of them now.

Moments later, my skin started stinging. I looked around and the men were joking and didn’t seem to notice the room was DRASTICALLY OVERHEATING.

I slipped down to the middle bench.

Someone asked for more water. While my brain knew this was a really bad idea, my newfound pride forced me to splash a half-ladle onto the rocks.

“Come on, dump the bucket on the rocks,” another man challenged. “Let’s get some real heat going.”

I gulped and dumped the bucket. Steam exploded from the rocks. I winced and took a seat on the lowest level, alone.

“Getting a little hot for ya, Timmy?” one of the Yuppers roared.

 “Yeah,” I said sheepishly. “I feel like I’m burning up.”

That made all the men laugh and one suggested I throw more water on the rocks.

A few seconds later I noticed my throat was searing hot. No, wait, it was on fire.

“I can’t breathe,” I shouted, and ran out of the sauna. A chorus of boisterous guffaws followed me out the door.

Suffice to say the Finish sauna turned out not to be my right of passage to manhood. I spent the rest of our vacation dodging trash talk from my uncles. I vowed to never again let a hot room get the best of me.

Fast forward forty years. Now, I sit in the steam room with something to prove. I am prepared to beat the heat and outlast the heartiest dudes.

I sit confidently on the top bench directly in front of the steam valve. As heat fills the room, I sit tall and soak it up. I look slyly to my left and right and make absolutely certain I am the last guy to leave.

Yes, my skin is burning and my throat is on fire. But it’s OK. I’m finally one of “the men”.

(Author’s note: While fact checking this blog, I realized there is a small possibility my Finnish sauna experience took place after age 11, but definitely before age 18. I’m sticking with 11). 
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