Monday, July 09, 2012

Childhood days with no air conditioning ... how did we cope?

Even as the thermometer peaked at 104 degrees at my house on Sunday, storm clouds were making up over the Appalachian Mountains to the west. A few hours later, strong thunderstorms and heavy downpours blasted through the central Shenandoah Valley, bringing cooler temps and much needed rain.

The first Heat Wave of 2012 had been broken. Who knows if there will be more. Temps at the 100 degree-and-above range have been in the news the past week. It was 103 at our house the day of the now-historic dericho storm that hit the East Coast and left millions without electricity, thousands of downed trees, and 13 deaths in Virginia.

Of course, this isn't anything unusual. Growing up in Chesterfield County outside Richmond, I lived through heat waves all my life which made me start thinking back to how we beat the heat when I was young.

One way was fans. Not ceiling fans but rather window fans and table-top oscillating fans that gloriously made the air move. As kids, my sister and I would sit in front of the fan and let the air blow over our faces and we would talk into the twirling blades which distorted our voices and provided much entertainment for the two of us as we dissolved into giggly bliss.

Churches had hand fans stuck in the back of pews along with the hymnals, cardboard-shaped advertisements stapled onto oversized popsicle sticks that allowed parishioners to fan and move the stale hot air. Beads of perspiration would pop out on our faces as the hair along our neck line became wet and sticky, and it wasn't unusual to feel a bead of sweat trail down the small of our backs. Church windows opened in those days to allow whatever breeze was available to try and cool the sanctuary.

School windows were made to open, too, unlike today's hermetically-sealed buildings with non-working windows.

At home my parents would sometimes set out the sprinkler so we could run through and cool down. What fun that was ... something as simple as running through a spray of water and then back again as peals of laughter followed us. It was a rare treat since my very financially conservative, practical parents were concerned about running up the water bill.

Some lucky friends had Slip-n-Slides, those long plastic mats that the water hose is hooked to making a watery slide. We would get a running start, plop ourselves onto our stomachs, and slide to the end, squealing all the way, where we were promptly deposited in the wet-turning-into-mud yard.

We didn't belong to the Bon Air community pool but were sometimes taken as guests by friends. That didn't happen enough to even really be on my radar but more memorable were the church pool parties held after hours.

Nearby was the James River and we rock-hopped but that's a scary river and I did not want to swim in it. People had drowned caught up in the rapids and being caught by underwater tree limbs and rocks. I never got hot enough to overcome that fear.

Less scary and lots of fun was splashing in creeks anywhere we could find ... camping, picnicking, traveling. The chance to swim in a pool was less frequent but we spent every minute in one if the opportunity presented itself.

The beach was the best ... Outer Banks every summer where we spent hours jumping the waves but never far enough to swim because my World War II Navy-veteran dad was always on the lookout for sharks along that wild North Carolina coastline. We learned of rip currents in later years which kept me from allowing my children to swim in the ocean, and we always tried to rent a place with a pool, something my parents ended up doing by the time I was a teenager.

As a child, we often went to swimming lakes in Chesterfield County where we took swim lessons and played in the sand to our hearts' content. What is it with kids and water that is so entertaining? Pocahontas State Park was a popular spot back in those days when it was just a basic swim-picnic area.

One thing was for sure ... we were outdoors a lot in those days. It was far cooler than in a stuffy, un-air conditioned house. Mom would pack lunch for us and we would find a shady corner of the yard to spread our blanket and eat. What an adventure that was! My sister and I would play outside in the shade with our baby dolls, enjoy pretend tea parties, read, play board games, and draw. Or the family would head to the Skyline Drive with our tent to camp at Big Meadows because it was always a good ten degrees cooler than Richmond.

Car windows were always down when it was hot so there was no such thing as perfect hair. It was tangled and blown in a thousand directions as the car hurtled down the road ... and we were happy for it. We didn't know any differently. I remember the first vehicle we had with air conditioning, an added-on unit that my dad had installed. Wow.

Same with the house. The first air conditioning was a huge "whole house" unit stuck in the dining room window. Oh, the icy delight of lying on the carpeted floor beneath that unit and feeling the cold air blowing into the house. We were beginning to get spoiled.

Our schools were not air conditioned so we made sure to wear summery clothing and the girls often put their hair up in pony tails. In high school, my naturally curly hair was in a constant state of frizz, much to my chagrin since it was the era of long, straight hair. My senior photo shows the effects of walking the mile from my house to school in summer heat to get my picture taken for the yearbook.

How did people cope with heat before widespread air conditioning? They just did it because there was no alternative. Life went on, perhaps at a slower pace, and we lived.

But it surely is nice to have air conditioning to make life a little more comfortable....


Bob K. said...

I used to love Summer. I'd get "lost" in the woods for hours. Then it was fun to rush back to the porch and watch a good old-fashioned thunder storm!

Lynn R. Mitchell said...

Same here, Bob ... my sister and I would play in the woods and never give a thought to snakes or ticks or anything else. I forgot to write about catching lightning bugs at dusk, running all over the place to collect one in our hands, then let it go and chase another one.

Also, we would tease my dad and call him the Big Bad Wolf and he would growl and come toward us and we would squeal and scatter all over the yard ... it was a wonderful childhood.