“Hot town, summer in the city. Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty.” Those lyrics from Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer In The City” resonate with us Georgians. Summer is just four days away, and though this spring has been fairly cool, well, you know it won’t last. Old Sol will bring the heat come July, and fortunately we won’t have to find ways to stay cool. We’ve got air conditioning.
Does it get hot here? Well, here’s how climatologists describe Georgia. “A humid subtropical climate with mild winters and hot moist summers is characteristic of most of Georgia.” Here’s how I describe a hot summer day in Georgia. “A searing Georgia afternoon is like sitting on a Broilmaster grill in one of those ovens that bakes black enamel paint onto cars. The air is thick and you can’t breathe. A starched white Oxford shirt sticks to your skin, which is close to melting. Your shoes feel like they’re filled with coals, and the nearest drink of water is 100 miles away.”
When the temperature climbs into the low 90s and beyond and the humidity feels like it came from a steam iron, Georgia gets hot. So hot it makes me wonder how folks got through those long summer days and evenings before air conditioning arrived. Old homes were built with large windows and high ceilings and that helped, but you know it had to be brutal.
I remember one particularly sweltering summer day as a boy. I checked the record highs for Georgia and that day occurred the summer of 1955. The mercury reached a scorching 107 in Augusta in July 1955. (Two years earlier, on July 24, 1953, the folks in Louisville reached a record high for the state, a record that still stands.)
Today we beat the heat with high-powered Carriers, Rheems, Tranes, and Lennox air conditioners. Freon, ozone problems or not, stands as one of man’s great achievements, and if you don’t think so, drive to Augusta and back with no AC. Chlorine-free Puron has replaced Freon-based R-22 and it doesn’t destroy the ozone layer. So, strike a medal for Puron’s inventor too.
But how did we cope with the heat before air conditioning? I’ll forego the old swimming hole cliché. Instead, I offer up five ways we survived.
Homemade ice cream. Kudzu. Fans. Icy Coca Colas. Freezer lockers.
How well I remember the excitement that gripped me when I saw Mom and Dad slicing peaches late on a Sunday afternoon. Mom, reaching for the vanilla extract, would make the ice cream mix and in went those peaches, nuggets of gold floating in liquid snow.
Sometimes she added cherries, sometimes strawberries, and sometimes it was just plain vanilla ice cream. Always it was fabulous.
Dad never had to tell me twice to churn the ice cream. I was on it. I’d crank away. He’d add Morton’s Rock Salt to the water making a chilling brine within which the six-quart canister turned, occasionally lodging up against an ice chunk. And what boy doesn’t remember the Morton Salt girl in the yellow dress carrying an umbrella? “When It Rains It Pours.”
I’d churn away and the churning eventually would get harder and harder. As the churn slowed, my sisters, Brenda and Deb, drew closer. When we saw ice cream oozing out the top, it was ready and off they ran. Dad would come take out the canister and give it to Mom. She’d scrape cream from the blade and soon we were feasting on cold bowls of homemade ice cream. If you didn’t get brain freeze eating homemade ice cream, then you weren’t eating it right.
Many a hot evening, often on Sundays, we’d have homemade ice cream and it didn’t matter if the mercury topped 105, we felt like it was 40 degrees!
One of the darkest days in humanity was the invention of the electric ice cream churn. Some things are meant to be done by hand and churning ice cream is one of them. But then someone got the bright idea of adding an electric motor to it and what a racket it makes, whining and grinding away.
Another way to beat the heat was with kudzu. That’s right kudzu. My Grandfather Walker would string a lattice of hemp among the columns on his front porch and plant kudzu at their base. In short order a dense, deep green screen of kudzu blocked out the sun. It felt 20 degrees cooler behind that buffer of greenery. What I remember too is the pure quality of light hitting those broad green leaves. The kudzu glowed in an emerald-translucent way that made you feel cooler just by looking at it.
Another great invention was the window fan and its cousin, the box fan. For a long time I couldn’t sleep without a window fan purring away nearby. The white noise of the fan’s blades moving air proved soothing and the cool air flowing over my skin made it easier to sleep. On one of those blistering night when you hope a thunderstorm will come crashing through but heat lightning is as good as it gets, you could get by with a window fan, something you don’t see as much these days.
It had to be that brutally hot day in July 1955 when Dad went into town and bought a box fan. He brought it home and we put trays of ice cubes in front of it. I remember how we sat so the wind could blow over the ice right at us. It was that hot. With no air conditioning, a wind hinting of ice cubes was as good as it got.
Another heat buster was an icy Coca Cola from an old timey box filled with water and hard chunks of glass-like ice, not that frothy airy ice you see today. If you reached in deep to get a Coke off the bottom, your arm went numb and your fingers tingled as if a jolt of electricity had hit them. The best Coke I ever had was on my Granddad Poland’s farm when I was a boy. Aunt Vivian went up to Price’s Store to get Cokes for all of us. We had been gathering hay beneath a fiery sun.
I was sitting against a persimmon tree on a hill overlooking the hayfield when Aunt Vivian handed me a cold Coke, rivulets of condensation dripping from it. As long as I live, I’ll remember my first draw on that Coke. The Coke was so cold, so good, that it burned all the way down my throat and my body shed about 18 degrees of heat in two swallows.
Another way to cool off was to slip and open the freezer locker and lean over into it. I’ve never been to the Arctic but I can’t imagine drier, colder air. Dense clouds of vapors rose to meet me as I opened the door. Leaning over, I’d inhale that chill air. It smelled cold and clean and from the first moment I breathed deeply, the heat left me instantly. All the frost on frozen tomatoes and vegetables looked more like frozen tundra, and for a brief interlude I had miraculously flown from the steamy latitude of 33.824 to the North Pole. All I had to do was stick my head in a freezer locker.
Eating homemade ice cream, drinking teeth-shattering Coca Colas, sitting near fans, standing behind a cool screen of kudzu, and immersing myself in the Arctic via the frosty breath of a freezer locker: that’s how I kept cool as a boy.
I was doing more than surviving the heat. I was storing great memories of a time when we found innovative ways to cool off. That’s for sure. Today’s kids walk into an air-conditioned house, ride about in an air-conditioned car, and drink Cokes from an air-conditioned box. They probably think kudzu is some new video game. I don’t even know if kids today know what homemade ice cream is. Something you get at Baskins Robbins I guess. If that’s true, what a shame. They don’t know what they’re missing do they.