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Saturday, July 13, 2024 at 3:59 AM

Wondering, are we simply too soft

A STORY WORTH TELLING

“These are the good old days.”

— Long-time Mount Pleasant friend and old soul, Oscar Elliott (1947-2016)

Rain was starting to fall. Mom ran around the house in a flurry of activity. “Put the windows down,” she called out to my sisters and me. “Quick.”

Summers in the late 1950s were hot. Closing all the windows in the house when it rained typically elevated already high east Texas humidity levels up to Amazon Jungle range.

Windows closed, Mom charged out to the clothesline grabbing at the still-damp clothes hanging on the line. Dad was going out to the driveway to roll up car windows.

“Leon,” he called out.

“Come put your bicycle in the garage. It’s going to get wet.”

Air conditioning debuted at our house in 1959. It was inspired by a night we spent at that small Arkansas motel with the neon sign teasing, “Refrigerated air.”

Before that, we had no air conditioning at home, schools, or church. Dad worked for the five-and-dime chain Perry Brothers. Their stores, like the schools, churches, and other businesses of the day, were “cooled” by open doors and ceiling fans.

Nature’s air conditioning at its best.

It was hot.

At home on Redbud Street, the doors and windows were always open. Even at night when screens were the only thing that let cooler air in and kept bugs out. Most of them, anyway.

Our first AC was a tiny window unit no bigger than a breadbox. A what, some will ask? Decorative countertop boxes for keeping bread fresh. Big enough for a couple of loafs of Sunbeam bread in white paper wrappers and a box of saltines. Clearly labeled “BREAD.” I guess some asked, even then.

Breadboxes were popularized by the 1950s game Twenty Questions quote that spilled over into the television game show “What’s My Line?”

Where humorist Steve Allen asked, “Is it bigger than a bread box?”

The small unit purchased at the local Western Auto Store on time payments of $5 per month was mounted in the living room window. Which was fine for the living room. So, the living room doors from the hallway and the kitchen were closed during the day, making it the haven for cool hangouts. It was turned off at night to conserve electricity in favor of evaporative cooler, or as they were called “swamp coolers” to work the night shift.

They earned that name for a reason. One, they provided a cool breeze at night, albeit damp, so long as the humidity wasn’t too high. Two, they mildewed every leather shoe and belt in the closet, regardless of the reported humidity level. It was hot.

But hot was the norm. At home or traveling.

Air- conditioned cars were rare and expensive then. That trip to Arkansas to spend the night in a “refrigerated air” motel room in the family’s un- air- conditioned Ford station wagon was hot. Sitting in the back seat, summer air coming through a car window at 55 to 60 miles per hour offered little relief. And if you drew the short straw and had to sit behind Dad, there was that smoking thing. Dodging airborne cigarette ashes while as he thumbtapped them out the driver’s window. The only thing worse than solar-heated air was solar-heated air laden with cigarette ashes.

“Dubs on Mom’s side,” my sisters and I clamored when ordered to load up in the car.

“You got it last time,” we accused each other.

“No, I didn’t, you did.”

“Stop that,” Mom chided. “Just get in the car and be quiet.”

It was hot.

And it was also hot last week the day I walked in my back door after work. The indoor/ outdoor thermometer glared 89 degrees at me just before the heat knocked me down.

That was the inside temperature. Outside, it was 80, in the shade.

With a heat index of about 185 in the sun.

My aged air conditioning system had given up the ghost.

Fried the freon. My efforts at patching it every summer while speaking nicely, promising, “Just hang on one more summer,” had expired.

Problems created by recent rains, flooding, and power outages had repair people booked into the next millennium. But my preferred repair service came to my aid. After we concluded memorial services and a proper sendoff for the deceased cooler, the damage assessment was made. I had an appointment for replacement— three days and several thousand dollars hence. Three days turned into four, then five, typical of the country’s current supply chain circus.

However, a week in a house sans air conditioning, circa summer 2024, gave me cause to reflect on the “good old days.” How we once coped with hot weather because it was the only option.

Because hot was the norm. But we didn’t complain because, in the “good old days,” we had nothing different to compare it to other than one night in an Arkansas motel room.

I wondered. Have we, as a society, simply become too soft?

Drafting this missive last Sunday afternoon, I arrived at a conclusion or two. While basking once again in the comfort of cooled air flowing throughout my house … “Thank you, Jesus.” Courtesy of a new and improved air climate control system much bigger than a breadbox.

One, it is still hot.

And two, Oscar was right. “These are the good old days.”


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