“Now, Wee-yull” — my name long ago in west Texas — the old man began, and I could tell there was some advice coming. The temperature was 108 degrees in the shade, and there wasn’t any shade, and we were about to quit for lunch and a siesta.
“You want to lean that digging bar up against a fence post out of the sun, or it’ll be too hot to hold when you get back. Not where the shade is now, but where it will be then,” he said.
A “dry heat,” they called it, and that was true enough. I swigged whatever I could get hold of — cold milk, red ant-covered drinking water from the cistern, even latte-colored branch water — to keep hydrated. I spread a sheet of plastic over my cot to keep from soaking the sheets during siesta, and woke up sometimes in a little pool of water in the low spot. But what are heat, blistering sun, snakes, scorpions, harvester ants and grass burrs when you’re young and in love?
Those days have definitely gone forever. Now, in my ninth decade, sweltering in wet heat on a planet inexorably warming and setting ominous records, I’m not much troubled about leaving my outdoor tools in the shade during lunch. (The old man was right, by the way; I figured wrong, and literally couldn’t hold onto that hot steel bar when we got back to work.) Anything that’s got to be done outside is done by the time the sun rises above the trees on the hill to the east.
Most of our nights here in central New England are mercifully cool — as I write, the weather station just above the desk shows 64 degrees and falling; another good sleeping night — but there are evenings that you know are not going to bring relief from the days’ heat. Those are on-top-of-the-bed nights: big bath towel spread out where I’ll lie, a smaller towel over the pillow, minimum night clothes, windows wide open to catch any hint of relief (a small fleece throw in case there is any), and the ceiling fan spinning overhead. Kiki usually deserts me on those nights and curls up in the recliner beside the window.
When we built this place a little over 10 years ago, we decided on ceiling fans instead of air conditioning: one in each of our offices and one in the master bedroom. For the living room, which has a high ceiling, Mother bought an industrial-strength unit. Luckily, it has a graduated control, for if you switch it on full speed, it blows everything — newspapers, magazines, mail — out into the dining room.
Window screening began to appear about the time of the Civil War; and Willis Carrier, an engineer attempting to control the humidity in a printing plant around 1906, accidentally discovered air conditioning. Since that innovation, the South has gone from 28% of the country’s population to 40%.
I’ve often been intrigued by the ways the old-timers beat the heat. In the south, high ceilings, full-length casement windows, and cardboard funeral parlor fans were de rigueur. Breezeways got their name for a good reason: They interrupt and funnel any air flow through a channel between parts of the house.
I’ve discovered in my house that, with the south-side bedroom windows all open and the north-side front door open, as well, we’ve got a regular wind tunnel in between on hot days. I’ve had to make door stops to hold the interior doors open. The wind slams them shut with a terrific bang, making Kiki and me both jump.
Once, having a drink on a stifling hot day in the atrium/courtyard of a high Spanish colonial building in old Havana, I noticed a cool breeze coming in through the entrance, broad and cobbled for carriages. There hadn’t been a breath of air in the blinding plaza outside. I looked up, and voilà! The sun, beating on the open end of the atrium four stories up, was heating the air up there; and rising, it drew cooler air in through the entrance below. Eighteenth-century, pre-electric air conditioning!
What a contrast to visiting my mother-in-law in coastal Florida! Jogging eastward in the early mornings, I was always startled, as the sun popped above the horizon, at the sudden rush of heat. It was as if someone had opened a blast furnace door. Indoors during the day — outdoors wasn’t livable — there was little to do but listen to her grouse about her ex-husband and watch television. It was always a relief to point the car’s hood ornament north again.
There’s hope, now that August is upon us again, for a break in the swelter. (The temperature has dropped another six degrees in just these few paragraphs.) The nights will be fanless, and the skin on my back much less spectacular — amazing what a night lying on terrycloth will do — and the mornings fogbound.
Just in case the heat doesn’t let up, I’ve made a list of projects that should keep me and Kiki down in the shop in the cellar for days at a time. It’s always pleasant down there. The same creativity that gets us through the long winter serves us well when it’s impossible or indelicate to shed any more clothes.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.