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Nostalgia September 2017

Social Insecurity

The Eternal Quest to Beat the Heat

By Michael J. Murphy

Willis Carrier developed the air-conditioning process 115 years ago in 1902. The first home air-conditioning unit was 7 ft. high, 6 ft. wide, and 20 ft. long. Sort of like having a steam locomotive attached to your house.

Boy, the heat wave this summer was really something. Most mornings at the crack of dawn, the sparrows were already romping around in the bird bath outside my bedroom window. I didn’t mind the fact that they would wake me up so darn early, it’s just that all their splashing and chirping every morning made me feel guilty since they obviously take baths a lot more often than I do.

It sure would have been great to head down to the local swimming pool and spend the day escaping the heat in the cool water. But I finally conceded that is no longer an option for me. I find it embarrassing to go swimming when I don’t have a tan. And the sad fact is that the back of my neck and all the mosquito bites I got this summer while camping are the only parts of my body with a tint other than white.

Plus, I really can’t afford to get any more brown spots on my face from sun exposure. Not when the dermatologist charges $35 a pop to freeze them!

I tried heading up into the mountains for a few days to escape the heat. But then I had to erect a tent without the rainfly to escape the flies and have a place where I could sit and read and nap during the afternoon.

The tent worked great in regard to the flies, but I sweltered in the heat since the screen shut out what little breeze occasionally blew. After a few hours, it felt like I was sitting in a sweat lodge preparing for my vision quest. But the only vision I experienced was a million bugs outside the screen staring at me and drooling.

Most of this summer I stayed home, working in the yard during the morning hours before closing up the house to minimize the heat. With no air conditioner in our house, I honestly feel that I could not have survived without one of the most underrated inventions of all time: the electric fan.

According to the Family Tree magazine website, New Orleans resident Schuyler Skaats Wheeler designed the first electric fan in 1882. His initial version was a desktop fan with only two blades. It also had no wire guard which means that it would have been really easy for kids to place various objects into the revolving blades and watch them fly around the room, like wads of paper or fingers.

For a long time all electric fans were black. I know that’s true because during my entire childhood we had a black fan that was perfectly color-coordinated with our black phone which you could not use when the fan was running since its motor roared like a chainsaw.

The main drawback with fans, of course, is their inability to help with humidity. Here out West, that is not a big deal, but back East where I grew up it is a very big deal. Enter air conditioning.

Willis Carrier developed the air-conditioning process 115 years ago in 1902. The first home air-conditioning unit was 7 ft. high, 6 ft. wide, and 20 ft. long. Sort of like having a steam locomotive attached to your house.

When I was in elementary school, the only place kids like me could enjoy an hour or two of relief from the heat and humidity that air conditioning provides was at the movie theater. As a fourth-grader, I would walk downtown with my older brother and his buddies. Then they would con me into asking people for 15 cents so I could take the bus home. Once I got the money I would purchase a movie ticket, enter the theater, and, when the usher wasn’t around, open up the exit door so the older guys could sneak in from the alley.

Granted, it was a little dishonest, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Besides, we nearly always got caught and were swiftly kicked outdoors once again.   

When I turned 15, I got a job downtown as a movie usher of all things. I only made 90 cents an hour, but working in an air-conditioned theater was worth a million bucks. During the Saturday matinees, homeless men, what we called “bums” back then, would come to the theater to sleep where it was cool. That was okay until their snoring disturbed the other customers. Then my job was to wake them up — over and over again.

Later I worked for several years in a grocery store. Not only did the store have air conditioning, but a guy could sneak over to the frozen-food section, stick his head in a cooler, and nuzzle up against the frozen peas and carrots to really cool off. Ahhh, it was heavenly.

To this day, I have never lived in a house with air conditioning and probably never will. But thank goodness I had access to it as a kid during those hot summer months.


Mike Murphy retired after a 35-year teaching and coaching career. He has a master’s degree in English from the University of Nebraska and is an Associated Press award-winning columnist.

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