Archive for Wednesday, August 8, 2012

What did we do without air conditioning?

August 8, 2012

John Beal's column, Cabbages and Kings, appears monthly on the Voices page of The Dispatch. Beal is a Shawnee resident and retired editor of The Dispatch.

John Beal's column, Cabbages and Kings, appears monthly on the Voices page of The Dispatch. Beal is a Shawnee resident and retired editor of The Dispatch.

Obsessing about the heat is probably not the best way to deal with it.

But when the heat is so oppressive you can’t get away from it, it’s hard not to think about it. Any venture outside assails the senses. It’s like walking up to a blast furnace, except one whose blast hits you in the face no matter which way you turn.

But at least we have the air conditioning.

I’ve been without air conditioning often enough in my life to appreciate it. In fact, this is my 70th summer, and it’s only been in about 30 of those summers that I’ve been able reliably to close the door on the heat at night. That is to say, in only about 30 of those years have I been fortunate enough to live in a house with central air conditioning.

For a few of the other years we had window air conditioners, which at least give some relief if they don’t cool the entire house.

But for most of the time during the years I was growing up we just suffered through the summer. For the most part, I don’t think we worried about it a great deal, as virtually everyone we knew was in the same boat. I think as late as high school I might have had one or two friends whose homes had central air, but I can’t be sure.

You learned to cope. Frequent trips to the swimming pool helped, of course. Then you came home and sat in front of a fan.

As I recall it, refrigeration-type window units became available in the 1950s, but they were pretty expensive. Out in western Kansas, friends and relatives were able to beat the heat with evaporative coolers. Basically, an evaporative cooler was a large box, maybe three feet in each dimension, with a big squirrel-cage blower on the inside. The three vertical sides not in contact with the house were filled with excelsior, and you hooked up a garden hose so that water would trickle through the excelsior. As the water evaporated, it cooled the inside of the box and the fan transferred that cooled air into the building.

Out in western Kansas, where the relative humidity in the summertime is likely to be relatively low, those coolers did a fair job.

My stepfather got one when I was about 14, and he and I mounted it in the window and hooked it up to the water with great anticipation. The family clustered around the outlet, ready for relief from the heat.

It was cool in front of the fan, all right, but the effect in the rest of the house was not so sanguine. Basically, dumping all that humidified air into the house had the effect of loosening the wallpaper.

We kept that old cooler for several years, but I don’t remember that it got much use after the first two or three years.

Today, I cherish my air conditioning. Every time I come in the house I take several grateful breaths. I don’t go outside unless I have to — and I make sure the light bill is current.

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