The recent 90-plus degree days put me to thinking about my early years when we did not have air conditioning. Summer days and nights were much different in my early years than they are today in our modern world of air conditioning.
Today, we burn almost a half trillion kilowatt hours per year to air condition our homes and buildings, which doesn’t mean a lot unless you think of it as the entire electricity consumption of all 60 nations of the continent of Africa.
In my early years, few people had air conditioning. We dealt with the heat in some interesting ways and reaped the benefits of many stimulating smells, sounds, and views because we had no air conditioning.
Working in the fields during the day was a challenge for all the farmers. Many chose to begin at daybreak, take an early afternoon break, and then work until dusk. Others simply dealt with the heat in unique ways. I learned from my mother that a large straw hat and light-colored clothing provided for less body heat in the fields. To this day, I wear an old, long-sleeved white shirt when working in the garden.
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Thermoses and ice chests were things of the future. Our water was carried to the field in large Mason jars filled with ice that was frozen in pans in our Sears freezer. The jars were wrapped in tin foil to hold the ice as long as possible. We also planted watermelon vines periodically in our tobacco and corn fields. Once the watermelons ripened, we were given permission to put the watermelons in the creek near the fields. The thought of a cooling watermelon served as an incentive to work a certain number of rows to gain the anticipated reward. Lacking a knife, the watermelon was burst on a rock, and all enjoyed the sweet and cool treat, even when eaten with hands covered with tobacco wax.
Once the chores were done and dusk approached, we would spend much time on our back screened porch talking about the day’s events, listening to WHKY on the radio, watching the heat lightning streak across the distant sky and making plans for the next day.
The young people enjoyed Kool-Aid ice pops frozen in ice trays in our Kelvinator refrigerator or Sears chest freezer. Toothpicks served as handles for the ice pops. On rare occasions, we might have a soda out of a green bottle. The youngsters then used the bottle to store lightning bugs caught at dusk. The lightning bugs gave out an eerie glow when captured in the bottles.
On days when we finished our chores early, the boys would congregate at the creek bisecting our farm. We had great fun damming the creek to create a swimming hole no more than knee deep. Care had to be taken to leave some flow of water or neighbors downstream would soon arrive to complain about the lack of water for their farm animals.
Since our house did not have air conditioning, sleeping at night could be a challenge. We did have several box fans that were turned on at night. On the hottest nights, pans of ice might be placed in front of box fans that blew air into the bedrooms. To keep each room cool, the doors and windows were never closed. The smell of my mother’s lilac bush and honeysuckle in the summer filled the late-night air. A passing skunk served as a disrupting influence on the sweet smells of summer.
Since my bedroom had few windows, I would sleep on the screened porch on the hottest nights. I would awaken in the early morning with indentions from the straps of the lawn lounger where I slept. Care had to be taken to chink any holes in the porch screen to avoid painful mosquito bites.
As the summer progressed, the night sounds took on a symphony of sound missed by today’s people in air-conditioned homes. The serenade of six-legged troubadours such as crickets, katydids, grasshoppers, and cicada provided a symphony of sounds that added to the mystery of the summer night. The mature males of these insects provided sounds to attract females and mark territory.
As these insects matured during the summer, the crescendo of sound increased in the summer nights. When the 17-year cicada emerged from the soil in early June, their song could be heard incessantly from dawn to dusk and would often drown out the sound of other insects. The emergence of the dog-day cicada provided the prediction for the first frost of the fall, which would be some six weeks away.
Cicadas make the sound by vibrating a membrane found on their abdomen. They are the percussionists of the insect world. The other insect fiddlers use a wing or a leg as a bow and make their sounds by rubbing one body part on another such as legs on legs or wings on wings. Katydids generally sing from trees using a harsh sound like “tic, tic, tic” or two syllable sounds including a harsh “Katy-did, Katy-did, Katy-did.” Tree crickets soft trill “eeeeeee” provided the background harmony. Long-horned grasshoppers provided continuous sounds like “zzzzzzet, zzzzzzet, zzzzzzet.” At ground level, the field crickets provided the recognizable “creek, creek, creek,” or a sound that is the inspiration for the name cricket, “cree kay, cree kay, cree kay!”
The haunting, mournful sound of the whippoorwill added to the cacophony of sound. Legend has it that a whippoorwill could sense a soul departing and could capture it as it flees. To this day, when I hear a whippoorwill, I think of the Hank Williams song, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
The baritone call of the bullfrogs in the nearby creek proved a deep and resonant addition to the other nighttime sounds. Their trademark “jug-o-rum” bellow and the returned choruses added to the mystery of the night. Rabbit squeals in the death throes of a night-hunting hawk gave a reality check to the dangers of the night. On rare occasions, the sound of a bobcat or an unidentified growl from the mountain would make the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.
The visual stimulation of the thousands of stars in the sky was unhindered by today’s abundance of security lights and city lights. The full moon shrouded by passing clouds added to the mystery of the night. Venus and Mars added to the brilliance of the nighttime view.
The smells, sounds, and sights of the night were prime motivators for me to imagine what life might be like years in the future. My feelings were mirrored by a quote from Rachel Carson. “I was alone with the stars: the misty river of the Milky Way flowing across the sky, the patterns of the constellations standing out bright and clear, a blazing planet low on the horizon.”
All the sounds, smells, and sights created a clear picture that only a supreme being could create such a handiwork. In the words of Victor Hugo, preparing oneself for sleep under the solemnity of the night sky provides a mysterious transaction between the infinity of the soul and the infinity of the universe.
Maybe growing up without air conditioning wasn’t such a bad thing! I do believe that today’s populace might be hindered by temperature in their enjoyment of the mysteries of an un-air-conditioned night.
Warren Hollar is a retired Alexander County Schools administrator and clinician retiree from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
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