Friday, August 15, 2008

Mom's Air Conditioning

With the afternoon heat of the last few days and the higher and higher electric bills, I find myself using 1950’s techniques to cool my house.

Growing up we didn’t have air-conditioning except at the local movie theaters. Remember the banners they used to hang every summer to entice moviegoers in with the promise of coolness? They didn’t even mention what the show was – just that they were “air-conditioned”, written in ice-blue with edging suggesting a dripping ice block.

At home all the windows and doors were wide-open overnight. If you lived in a “troubled” area you kept the first floor windows shut at night and opened them about 5 a.m. As the sun rose, my mother would close the shades on the east side of the house and then the windows. By about 11 a.m. the house would be closed up, keeping in the cool night air. Sometimes the cellar door in the kitchen would be open, letting the mysteriously cool underground air float up.

We would occasionally have lunch in the shade of a big tree in the back yard and for a treat blow up the kiddie pool for an early afternoon splash. Moms would sometimes open aluminum chairs around the edge of the pool and dangle their feet in the cool water while they watched the kids and visited with each other.

Babies lay on a blanket in the shade with their damp hair stuck to their foreheads.

By 2 p.m. it was naptime with a fan in the hall to stir around the by-then warmish air. My mother would do quiet cool work – no baking or ironing. By four, with the temperature having maxed out, it was time to start stirring again.

Dinner would be cooking on top of the stove – no roasts this time of the year. As a treat we might cook hamburgers outside or actually be decadent and have cold-cuts with sliced tomatoes from the garden and homemade potato salad out of the fridge.

By nine p.m. it was time to start the cooling cycle again, opening the windows for the night. A large box fan sat on a desk in my room all night – the room at the far end of the second floor - exhausting the day’s heat out the window and pulling in the cooler night air from downstairs.

"It was luxuries like air conditioning that brought down the Roman Empire. With air conditioning their windows were shut, they couldn’t hear the barbarians coming."
- Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days


When an acquaintance lost their air-conditioning for almost two weeks this July, I went in on hot days to check on their pets. I pulled down the unused rolled-up shades on the sunny-side of the house to block the sun’s heat and turned off window fans pulling the early afternoon humidity into the house.

They seemed surprised.

I guess no one teaches simple home-based climate control anymore. It’s just easier to switch on the air conditioner, use up the environment, and be shocked when the electric bill arrives.

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