I caved in this year and turned on the air conditioning a full three weeks before I usually do.
I like having the option of AC, but I’m not fond of the artificial atmosphere it creates – or the power bill it generates. When the air conditioning is running I end up spending my spare time out on the patio in the heat. I like feeling my seasons. And it’s so sad that the sound of birds singing is blotted out by the sound of everyone’s AC compressor running.
My family, though, is not in agreement. In all fairness, Dirtman is out working in the heat. So I can’t blame him for wanting to come home, take a shower and be able to dry off from that shower instead of going directly back to sweating. Heir 1, who lives in the basement (with the dogs), insists the temperature “here on the surface” is too stifling for subterranean creatures such as himself.
We’ve only recently had the option of air conditioning. While the boys were growing up our days during a heat wave were spent at either the public library or the town pool. I’d grill food or use the crock pot out on the front porch in order to avoid heating up the kitchen. We went to the movies a lot in the summer and nearby we are lucky enough to have a drive-in theater which, at the time, cost $10 for a carload.
Before we all slip into “those were the days” mode though, I also remember there would strings of days – usually the last week of July through the first few weeks of August, where my only capability was to sit in a damp pile and pray that someone would just walk by and move the air a little.
Still, I kind of miss the days when the only way to cope with 100-degree heat was to slow down. Growing up, you knew it was a hot day when the businessmen in town actually removed their suit jackets and maybe even loosened their ties.
I remember bedtime, normally early and ritualistic with my parents, became arbitrary and casual when the heat rose. It was too hot in the house to get to sleep, so after a cool bath we’d be allowed to sit on the front porch with the adults as long as we were calm and quiet. My father would make us all what he called “orangeade,” which was actually severely watered down orange juice over ice. Everyone in the neighborhood would be out, all listening to a common radio station broadcasting a ballgame. To this day the phrase “Swing and a miss!” makes me instantly think of the smell of Johnson’s baby powder and lightening bugs winking in the darkening shadows of the yard.
Air conditioning has contributed the blandness of air, as I like to call it. Our culture has developed this abnormal fear of the odor of day-to-day living, so I guess for most this is a good thing. But in our zeal to rid ourselves of anything smelling even slightly off, we’ve lost the most potent memory trigger among our senses.
Not all summertime smells were bad and, frankly, I miss them. And it’s not just the smell of honeysuckle wafting through an open window. I remember the smell of the old Bishop Memorial Library where I grew up: all must, dust, old leather and the fragrance of yew bushes surrounding the ancient building carried in on a breeze through the open screen windows. If you got there early enough, you could score the seat next to the fan. Or, if you were truly lucky, it would rain, cooling things off and releasing a heady aroma. I spent a dreamy August week there one year it rained continually and I read every Walter Farley book ever printed through 1964. I’m sure the library is all air conditioned now and smelling of…nothing (Sadly, I also know it’s been absorbed by the Ocean County Library system).
With air conditioning everywhere there is no need anymore of a “summer wardrobe.” Or, if anyone insists on a summer wardrobe from a fashion standpoint, they walk around shivering like a Mexican Hairless.
Ice cream and Popsicles aren’t quite as good when consumed in air conditioning. There was something so gratifying about riding your bicycle half a mile or more in blazing summer air smelling of liquid asphalt and grass clippings to the 7-Eleven, rewarding yourself with a Slurpee and a Teen Magazine with Bobby Sherman on the cover. Or something like that.
Then again, there was the bike ride back home, arriving sweatier and stickier than you left. And trying to sleep at night when your parents will only run one fan in the hallway because they are afraid you or your brothers will sleep walk into the spinning blades. Or getting into a car and having to sit on towels so the vinyl won’t burn the backs of your legs.
So I guess I’ll stick with my optional air conditioning, noise and all. I guess it’s a lot better than the sound of six dogs panting. We won’t even go into the memories invoked by that smell.