There is no such thing a writer’s block. You just haven’t found something to write about or discovered the way to best approach your topic. It can be a bit like going to a full refrigerator but finding nothing interesting to snack on inside. You stand there hanging on the open door staring as the cool air flows across your feet.
Ah ha! I remember that. When the only source of cool came from the refrigerator. Unfortunately, I started out life before some genius engineer came up with the idea of turning a house into a sort of refrigerator. Refrigerators were still called iceboxes and icemen still delivered blocks of ice hangers-on of this early technology. Early reefers struggled to make a few cubs in their tiny freezers.
Really hot weather dredges up memories of the stifling summer heat of my St. Louis childhood, which offered an endless supply of newspaper photo ops—from frying eggs on the sidewalk to montages of buckled stretches of concrete streets and roadways. For temporary relief you slow-shopped at the grocery store and window-shopped department stores from the inside, or went to the movies. I suspect some movies became hits due to the weather as the population sought relief from the heat rather than being drawn in by theatrical talent.
Kool Aid and shade—ideally with a slight breeze—went a long way to bring relief to summer-time misery, sometimes aided by large-bladed window fans that sucked in outside air and turned it into a breeze through the living room, down the hall, and out the back bedroom window.
Growing up, I lived in but two houses. Images of both center around my mother’s efforts to sponge up whatever heat she could coax from the registers during chilly times and pulling as much air as possible through the windows in summer. The latter created the fiction of coolness. There wasn’t any such thing, but when you are hot and sweaty, any air that moves feels cool. Home air conditioning was still on the drawing board, so summer was window fans and sitting in the shade sipping something cold, usually iced water. Our little refrigerator had a tiny freezer and could barely make ice cubes. My mother’s technological ignorance included the fear that requiring the refrigerator to replenish its ice cube supply on a reasonably regular basis would bring about its early demise. Thus play was done in slow motion, and the ultimate relief came from investing a dime on a matinee movie. Coolness and popcorn—the ultimate treats.
When word of a pending heat wave recently arrived, my memory banks replayed images of my hot and steamy St. Louis childhood, when I kept a towel around my neck to wipe the sweat from my eyes. There were few sources of relief then. Iced water was the main source and you learned to sip it slowly and enjoy the chilliness going down your throat.
Air conditioning was still reserved for big venues like department stores and movie theatres; so going inside your house offered little in the way of a cooling down option. Besides fans, we kids would occasionally convince the milkman to toss a chunk of ice into the street that we would break it into smaller chunks that we held with our shirttails and sucked on them.
Toward evening time, the powerful window fan in the back bedroom window could suck air in through the front door or window and bring a cooling breeze through the house. I’d staked out the best place to maximize the stream of air and sit or lie there not moving.
The window fan was the king of cool. The bigger, the better. We had one powerful enough it could pull the front door open. I’d find a place on the floor where the airflow dipped or would prostrate myself on my parents’ bed near an open back window and bathe in the steady soothing flow of relief.
Air conditioners were another decade in the future.
The only other source of coolness was the basement. Its concrete walls pulled in the coolness from soil well below the point reachable by the sun. But I enjoyed the basement coolness only on laundry days. The rest of time it remain a mysterious place with dark corners and black widow spiders and lacked the protective presence of Mom. The coal bin offered temping piles of Anthracite to climb on, but playing there was forbidden and coal dust gave away any attempt to fib regarding your whereabouts.
During the winter months, Dad would feed the furnace in the morning and Mom, through careful manipulation of the damper from the control knob on the upstairs wall, which looked like a modern day thermostat, would nurse from it sufficient warmth for the day. Some neighbors had automatic coal feeders—mechanical marvels that would convey the coal from the bin and dump it into the furnace. Our house was no more or less fancy than others in the neighborhood, but an automatic coal feeder apparently didn’t make the list of accessories.
I don’t recall my mother ever stoking the coal, but she maintained tight control of the damper knob with its chain that did its magic down in the basement. Ironically the move from the metropolis of St. Louis to the small Iowa burg of Webster City meant a technological step up in heating technology. The new-old house had a Holland conversion furnace that obeyed electrical thermostat that sent commands to the furnace—unfortunately, however, with the apparent exception of my second-story bedroom. I suspected that my miserly mother had plugged up the heat vents to save money at the risk of sacrificing her youngest child. I’ve since come to realized that in reality the giant round furnace simply lacked the necessary BTUs.
Back in the ‘60s we endured an energy crisis and then-President Lyndon Johnson asked “all Americans” to conserve energy. Mom should have won a Presidential medal for conservation. My friends called her “LBJ Forte” and frequently thought I wasn’t home when they stopped by because the light that escaped the windows was dimmer then that from Abe Lincoln’s log cabin and there was no apparent evidence of a working furnace from the chimney. An Ohio match could have offered more heat for my upstairs room. Fortunately, my desk had an open front so I pushed against the wall with the heat register and would sit doing my homework in the meager warmth from below.
Thermostats finally allowed you to direct the furnace to the temperature you wished to maintain and it dutifully monitored compliance. But that was located downstairs. Upstairs was a different story. My room offered scientific proof that some of the basic rules of thermodynamics didn’t always apply. In my case, heat settled and cold rose to collect in my room. By the time any BTUs clawed their way up the wall to my part of the residence, they slid from the register to collect in invisible pools of frozen air.
My room’s wintertime inability to hold on to heat matched its summer-time inability to hold on to even the faintest bit of coolness. The electricity that drove the fans that sucked in nighttime cool air—not a common or reliable resource—seemed to turn off and hide at the first sign of the rising sun. Houses were extremely leaky—and un-insulated—so what you wanted to conserve inside quickly disappeared and what you wanted to keep out flowed in unhindered.
Air conditioning was initially developed for commercial establishments to lure in and provide comfort to summertime shoppers and moviegoers. There was great satisfaction to sit in cool comfort as Roy Rogers or Gene Autry and their cohorts sang and chased bad guys around hot and dusty Western trails.
If not invented there, humidity was perfected in St. Louis. I grew up with a towel around my neck to keep the sweat out of my eyes. The buttons on my short sleeve shirts literally became too hot to touch. A glass of cold water provided the primary relief, and an occasional pitcher of Kool Aid kept me and my friends from certain death. We would lay prostrate in the shade of the trees on the cool grass of the little park in front of our house during the hottest times of the day, probably making of stories about our impending doom. You quickly learned where the best shade offered the better relief and where the tiniest of breezes would enhance the effect.
You didn’t go “inside” for air-conditioned relief because nobody had air conditioning. Fans moved air around to create the allusion of coolness. My dad and uncle worked for companies that manufactured home appliances and fans—serious ones with large, aluminum blades that could practically suck the front door open when mounted in the window of a back bedroom. My dad made a roll-around trailer to make it easier for Mom to move one of our larger fans around the house, and then we had to brace it to keep it from sucking itself across the room. I enjoyed lying down in front of it to soak up its hurricane-like relief while listening to my favorite afternoon radio shows.
Air conditioning came into American houses through the windows. As a teenager working for the local Goodyear store, I assisted in the installation of countless window-mounted air-conditioning units, and because they worked on the same premise as refrigerators and freezers, they weighed about the same. Their installation was a matter of brute strength. The more cooling they offered the more they weighed. I was in great physical shape in those days. I had my own weight lifting program.
Those of a certain age could tell countless “back-in-my-day” stories of heat and humidity, but like all things evil, once conquered there is little desire to think about old-time miseries. What I like about California, besides the near absence of humidity-enhanced heat, is that shade means shade. There is nothing more depressing than to step out of the St. Louis sun into the shade of a tree without feeling any improvement in comfort. Shade merely provided misery without the brightness.
Although California doesn’t have the perfect climate, it, as they say, beats the hell out of whatever comes second. It’s where I actually do have to “work” up a sweat. Slow down. Cool down. Now that is a great concept you can work with.
Wait a minute. What was I going to write about?