Let me tell you about the hot summer of '56 -- when the only air-conditioned spaces were movie theaters and the bedrooms of the rich.
When I was a kid, in the 1950s, I couldn't say the word "hot" without some veteran of the Depression saying, "Hot? You don't know hot unless you lived through the summer of '36."
Now it's my turn. Let me tell you about the hot summer of '56 -- when the only air-conditioned spaces were movie theaters and the bedrooms of the rich.
The cycle would begin in the middle of the third of three perfectly warm days -- days filled with bike riding, sandlot baseball, cowboys and Indians, ditching the little brothers, firefly chasing and No Bears Out Tonight. I would notice, while leading off second base, that my T-shirt was wet, though I hadn't been running through the sprinkler. It was getting, as my elders would say, hot and sticky. When the sun went down that day, the temperature didn't.
The next day, the temperature stood at 85 at 9 in the morning, and we knew we were in for it. Our mothers opened every window in the house and switched on the oscillating fans. They loaded the tiny freezers of our Frigidaires with extra ice cube trays, and mixed pitchers of Kool-Aid in DayGlo chemical colors (my favorite was lime) and with two cups of sugar per pitcher (Zowie!).
In the late 1950s, every small town in our part of Iowa built a municipal swimming pool. But in '56, we had our choice of running through the sprinkler, filling a washtub with cold water and splashing around in the back yard, or talking a grown-up into driving us to Crescent Beach on Black Hawk Lake, whose water by midsummer was a blood-warm opaque green.
Still, it was wet, and in the five minutes it took to evaporate from our skins we were cool. And then we were hot again, with no place to go but the movie theater, and no movie theaters open during the hottest hours of the day, except on Sunday afternoons.
One hot Sunday afternoon when I was 8, I sat through two showings of a Joan Crawford movie full of tiresome smooching and lovers' soulful gazing into one another's eyes. But it was cool inside the theater, and before and between episodes of emoting Joan there were two Looney Tunes and a Three Stooges, and there was the ongoing comfort of Milk Duds and Red Hots. But then the second showing was finally over, and outside the plate-glass doors of the theater the furnace heat of summer waited for me, with no escape.
Nights were the worst. After an evening of porch-sitting -- it was too hot to sit in the living room watching TV -- we would climb the stairs to our oven-hot bedrooms, where we would toss and turn until daylight. My parents had a window fan in their bedroom, but the air that blew across their restless bodies was heavy with humidity and pollen, scarcely cooler than the air inside the house.
Wide-open houses, evening-long porch-sitting and car rides "to get some air moving" did enhance neighborly communication -- as if communication in a town of 800 busybodies needed enhancing. The communication, however, was mostly of the "Hot enough for ya?" and "Good weather for corn" and "This weather has just got to break" variety.
The weather would finally break, sometimes violently. Early one morning my mother led us through incessant lightning and house-shaking thunder to the basement. At the open basement door my father heard above the wind a noise like a freight train roaring in from the west. The next day my friends and I followed the sound of chain saws to the south end of town, where what had probably been an EF1 tornado had lifted roofs and felled trees and collapsed the house of the village atheist, who attended church regularly thereafter until nearly Thanksgiving.
When we'd had our fill of scenes of destruction, we rode our bikes to the sandlot for a morning game of work-up. The northwest breeze was cool and dry, and our summer lives could resume for a few days until the hot sticky weather returned.
So don't talk to me about hot, you who dash from one bubble of conditioned air to another. You don't know hot.
Michael Nesset is an English instructor at Century College in White Bear Lake.