Life Before Air Conditioning

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Photo: Kelly Dean

Life Before Air Conditioning

By Kelly Dean

Like most folks, I take certain modern conveniences for granted. I warm my coffee in the microwave. I take phone calls wherever I happen to be standing. And I couldn’t imagine life without my laptop. When I was a teen, all these items were non-existent or not widely available. Today, they are so ubiquitous we don’t even think about them anymore.

I didn’t have air conditioning until I was 12 years old.

The summers were hot. I remember this. In the evenings, we opened the windows to let as much cool air in as possible. The open windows allowed us to hear a symphony of crickets from the nearby pond, accompanied by the chirping of bullfrogs and the yelps of coyotes. We cherished every cool breeze that came along, so much so we would stop a conversation to say, “Oh, that was a nice one,” and continue unabated.

In virtually every window, there was a fan, especially at night. Depending upon which was cooler and which was hotter, the fan was aimed facing inward or facing outward. Parents often made the decision when arguments among the kids got out of hand. I wasn’t uncommon to wake in the morning and notice a human sweat outline on the sheets where we were sleeping.

But during the day, the fans were generally placed where you were sitting so you could be right in front of them. Being indoors did provide some shade from the hot rays, but it was a mixed blessing as the loss of airflow was stifling. At least if you were sweating, you could feel the cool evaporation from the fan’s man-made breeze. We were seldom grateful enough to praise those breezes. Instead, we let the adults have the fans and we kids went outside to play; might as well, the indoor fans forced us to sit still. Outside, we moved and created out own breeze.

We might go down to the river to swim, or talk an adult into taking us to a nearby community swimming pool. In a pinch, we’d turn on a sprinkler and play. The dogs would chase us around for some unknown reason, irritated that were acting like crazy people, running and jumping over the sprinkler. We’d try to get the dogs involved too by spraying them with the hose to cool them off, or just to be mean, but they simply tried to bite the water stream for some reason. We thought that was funny. They were more interested in drinking, I suppose. Dogs can be odd.

In summer, we’d seldom wear much: perhaps a pair of cutoffs and maybe a T-shirt to keep from getting sunburned. We seldom whore shoes unless absolutely necessary, only after being told by parents to do so. Walking without shoes in summer became a subconscious thing. We learned to avoid gravel, sun-baked pavement or dried-out, stiff-cut fescue. Invariably however, the occasional piece of glass or rusty nail would go unnoticed, creating a sudden crisis and perhaps a trip to the doctor for tetanus shot. This would prompt the parents to make us wear shoes for at least two full weeks.

My father was kind of a contrarian. He sang the praises of intense sweating. He often drank hot coffee in 90 degree heat, saying it was good for us. He was in no hurry to get air conditioning and scoffed at the first window units that came on the market. Thankfully, we had central heat, which many homes didn’t, so when air conditioning came along, we eventually installed it into the same system. We did it ourselves by crawling under the house and putting one heavy part into the duct work. My job was to deliver tools to my dad and older brother by crawling back and forth on my hands and knees through the dirt and webs under the house. Another heavy part was placed in the back yard, and the two big parts had to be connected.

I was glad when our family home finally had air conditioning, albeit, later than most of my friends. It was both a blessing and a disappointment. Air conditioning brought the preference of summer television viewing over playing outdoors. We traded our own adventures for watching others’ adventures on the little black and white screen. Running in and out of the house for a baseball glove or BB gun evolved into complaints from the parents to keep the doors closed. “We’re not cooling the outdoors,” they’d say. It didn’t take a lot for us to stay inside.

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