Our air-conditioning died and Don and I waited two days for a new system. It was a blast from the past, a return to the old-fashioned summers I'd forgotten.
We live in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where air-conditioning is not a luxury – it's a necessity. This is one of the hottest summers on record. The temperatures are in the mid-eighties, which feel like the mid-nineties. The humidity is a sticky, steamy 66 percent.
That's a lot like summers in the Midwest when Don and I were growing up. Neither of our families had air-conditioning back then.
How did we stay cool?
In the good old days, summer was a miserable season, and sleep was nearly impossible. Many city people would take their bedding and sleep in the local parks. Heaven help the petty thief who got caught in the midst of those cranky, sleepless adults and crying babies.
Some soaked a sheet in cold water, wrapped themselves in the wet sheet, and then crawled into bed. It worked, but it was no fun waking up in soggy sheets the next morning. Other sufferers dragged their mattresses to "sleeping porches," fire escapes, or balconies, to catch a bit of breeze.
Don and I did not sleep on our narrow condo balcony, but we turned on the overhead fans and took lots of cold showers during two long, sweaty nights, hoping to fall asleep while we were still fairly cool. The second night was a four-shower night.
It took our air-con crew more than nine hours to install our new system, including three brutal hours for them in the broiling sun on the flat, tarry condo roof. By seven-thirty that night, Don and I were cool.
But those hot days revived old memories of life before air-conditioning:
Fans hummed night and day, and in densely packed cities and suburbs, we could hear our neighbors' radios, TVs and arguments. Especially arguments. The neighborhood rumor mills would be churning the next morning at the ladies' kaffee klatches – which were held over iced tea. Remember, many women back then were stay-at-home moms.
Women got up at dawn, while it was still reasonably cool, to do the day's cooking, roasting and baking. Some women, like my grandmother, had a "summer kitchen" – an old stove in the basement, and they cooked down there. That's where the ironing was done, too. Those cool-looking cottons required hours of hot labor.
People went to the movies. Movie houses were air-conditioned long before many other businesses. Any air-conditioned business was popular in the summer. Our local Rexall Drug Store boasted a proud sticker of a shivering penguin that said, "Come in! We're cool." They were, too. And their fountain had good Cokes.
Other families escaped their sweat boxes by taking drives. Cars back then had vent windows – the "poor-man's air conditioning." See the vent windows in this old Mercury station wagon? Hot-and-bothered front seat passengers cooled down, thanks to them. (Click the car to see the full photo.) We kids got to sit in the back of the station wagon with the big tailgate window rolled down. We were not as well-behaved as the little darlings in this ad, either. My brothers and I bickered the whole time: "Mom, he's looking at me funny." "Mom, she's got her foot on my side!"
Seatbelts didn't exist yet. Cars in those unregulated days were unsafe at any speed.
So here's my old-fashioned family going for a drive: Dad, hot and sweaty after a day's work, is at the wheel. Mom, tired of coping with the heat, household chores, and squabbling kids, is in the passenger seat, trying to ignore us. We kids, hot and cranky, are pushing our parents almost to the breaking point. Almost. We knew if we went too far, Dad would turn around and drive right back home. Not cool.
My father would drive us to a soft-serve ice cream stand in Cool Valley, a tiny St. Louis suburb that really was cooler than our house back then. It's been mostly paved over now. We all got chocolate-dipped cones, which we ate outside the car so we wouldn't drip it all over everything. There was an art to eating a dip cone: if you bit into it wrong, the chocolate would fall on the ground.
Here's the only good thing I discovered during our return to the past: I craved ice cream. Really craved it. Ice cream tastes better if you don't live in air-conditioning.
But I'll give up that small pleasure for a cool house.
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