Yep, Kenny Loggins could’ve been singing about us here in the Piedmont Triad of North Carolina this week. No, I don’t believe he was talking about record-breaking July weather when he sang “The Heat Is On,” but nonetheless, if the song fits, sing it.
It officially hit only 96 today (the “only” is in reference to the 100+ degree heat we had a few weeks back for a string of days). My friend Ben just posted on Facebook that the heat index in Raleigh where he works is 107 degrees. Tomorrow, it should be about the same–“Same song, second verse, a little bit louder and a whole lot worse.”
When I walked outside a while ago to talk to my friend Lori on the phone, the sultry summer atmosphere assaulted my senses. When I re-entered the house, the cool air felt like a Colorado mountaintop.
For a few minutes.
Then my body acclimated itself to this inside air that is not cool enough despite the AC system that runs incessantly outside my window, ensuring that Duke Energy will feast on many of our hard-earned dollars next month. Now I feel uncomfortably warm even inside my house. Another friend of mine complained that her thermostat is set on 72 but that the temperature inside her house is 83.
I personally love the heat of summer, but is that because I don’t work outdoors? My father-in-law fights this heat while working outside building houses, putting on roofs, etc. I feel guilty about daring to complain about the heat when I think about him or those I’ve seen recently doing highway work on freshly poured, steaming asphalt. Makes even my tobacco priming days seem tame.
And I also must question if I’d love this heat in the absence of air conditioning. What did we do in the pre-AC days?
I asked that question in the Danbury Public Library one day. A lady I didn’t know, Sharon Brown Craddock, said that growing up, she went swimming in the river nearly every day up in Sandy Ridge off Amostown Road when the heat was on. Nora Lankford, the Danbury librarian, chimed in that they swam in the river, too, on hot days but only after the day’s work was done.
I don’t even like heating up the oven on days like this due to the intense heat it generates. If I had been raised with my friend Mable Booth of Westfield and her nine siblings, I wouldn’t have gotten hot food on a sizzling summer’s day. Booth recalls how her mother would get up at 4:30 a.m. each morning to fire up the old woodstove and cook a big meal.
The large family would work all morning in the fields before returning to the house to eat whatever their mother had cooked in the early dawn hours, even though it was usually cold by then. Supper would consist of lunch leftovers, with perhaps a new pone of cornbread added.
You see, using the woodstove in the middle of an oppressively hot summer’s day created entirely too much heat in a house with no AC other than occasional breezes through open windows and doors. Sharon remembers that her family often cooked out at the river for this very reason.
As I chatted with the local folks one day about the old paths of summertime, a lady I didn’t know joined our conversation. Linda Gallagher of Brooklyn, NY, interjected that when she was growing up in a row house in the big city, her mother wouldn’t dare use the stove on midsummer days. She would make salads, often with fruit, to feed her family and preserve what little coolness they had in their house.
I remember working in tobacco on these kinds of days–the sheer exhaustion that would result after hours of pouring sweat like running faucets while suckering or topping the ‘baccer. Mable told me that on such days, her older relatives would pick oak leaves and layer them inside of their hats to provide further insulation from the heat. Once the day’s work was complete, they would sit out under the shade trees in the yard.
Nora, too, recalled that everyone simply hunted for whatever shade they could find. That might explain why most old homeplaces have stately trees in the yard–unlike these suburban wasteland lawns with merely grass. Indeed my most vivid memories of Grandpa and Grandma Bray involve them sitting out under the massive oaks, shelling peas, shucking corn, talking to neighbors. Sometimes, they even sat out there after the blessed darkness dropped a veil of relief over the heat-oppressed land.
Back in the day, not only yards were different due to heat, but also houses which were sometimes built differently. Nora remembers reading and/or hearing how very old houses often had a hallway running through the middle of them, from the front door to the back. This would ensure that, with both doors open, a draft would pull moving air from front to back to provide a natural AC system for our ancestors.
On stiflingly hot days now, I notice that, as a rule, houses are shut up tightly with all windows and doors closed. We wouldn’t have seen this 50 years ago. Windows and doors were thrown wide open on hot summer days to allow for a current of air. Shutting up a house in those days could mean certain misery, and even danger, for indoor inhabitants.
Some still walk those old paths today. My neighbors Steve and Olivia Shelton of Danbury live in an older home that they have remodeled and which has no central AC. An attic fan and ceiling fans help to keep the rooms cool, while a gazebo graces their lawn to provide a more comfortable place to spend summer evenings.
Still, Olivia says, there are summer days when she has to take a fan even to the gazebo.
We’re talking electric fans–not those funeral home fans that we used during summer church services when I was a youngster. Nora recalls making her own accordion-pleated fans out of paper when all else failed–anything to get the air moving when the heat was on. But the problem with all of these manually-operated fans was that it took energy to wave them back and forth–energy which created more body heat and sweat.
“Can somebody please turn off the heat?” you plead.
Perhaps I’ll remind you of our complaints when December’s cold is bold, January’s gales assail and February’s chill is shrill.
For now, I’m going to enjoy the sizzle from inside my somewhat air-conditioned house, wishing I was shucking corn under the old oak trees with Grandma Bray once more. . .when the heat is on.