Friday, May 29, 2009

Sweat and Mosquitoes

Our house is in process of being sold. The house is 13 years old but the air conditioning unit is just a year old. Our previous AC broke down during late June last year. In hindsight, we think that was the hottest week of the whole summer. We had to wait just a few days for the new unit to arrive. I kept the windows open all morning to let in cool air, but by afternoon the inside of the house reached the 80s. We went to a lot of movies.

You do get spoiled. I told our daughter, in mock old-fogy style, “When I was your age, we didn’t have air conditioning!” That was partly true: My own parents didn’t buy an AC until the mid 1980s, after I’d left home. Yet when I was a kid, AC had been available for years. Window units, in fact, became available after World War II: according to an online source, sales climbed from 74,000 in 1948 to 1,045,000 in 1953. I heard somewhere that the hospital in which I was born--the Fayette Co., IL Hospital, constructed in 1955--was one of the country’s first with air conditioning. My dad’s sometimes painful cheapness is well illustrated by his unwillingness even to buy a window unit. We had a huge fan that mounted in the back door, which drew cool air through the house.

The summer of 1967, when I was ten, was the most uncomfortable, not only because of the heat but also the mosquitoes. (Late that year or during the next year, my hometown’s government authorized mosquito spraying.) I recall many nights when I lay awake well into the early morning because of the heat and the buzzing. Fortunately, when you’re ten, you don’t have many responsibilities the next day.

The playwright Arthur Miller recalled a very hot September in the 1920s: “Every window in New York was open…People on West 110th Street, where I lived, were a little too bourgeois to sit out on their fire escapes, but around the corner on 111th and farther uptown mattresses were put out as night fell, and whole families lay on those iron balconies in their underwear.”(1) I suppose the small town version of that would be front porches and back yards instead of fire escapes.

I was chatting with someone the other day who declared she hated to turn her AC on because she liked her windows open as long as possible. I understand the sentiment, especially its ecological aspects. Yet … I never quite got over that summer of '67, not for me the summer of love, but of sweat and mosquitoes.


1. Arthur Miller, “Before Air Conditioning,” in Edward Hoagland (ed.), The Best American Essays, 1999 (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), pp. 185-187 (quote on page 185).
 

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