The Dog Days of Summer

These hot August days remind me of Chico, the dog we had when I was in college and for several years after.  Chico was a German shepherd mix that I brought home from Knoxville as a tiny puppy.  He lived in a shoe box under my bed in the dorm for a few days, until I

Best friend in college!  Ok, Sallie was too.
Best friend in college! Ok, Sallie was too.

could get him home to the farm.  Despite being so young he didn’t know how to eat food yet, he persevered and grew into a 100-pound dog (with much care from Mother and Daddy).

Although I was away most of the time at school, he seemed to never forget that I was the one who rescued him, and he was devoted to me.  That devotion was tested to the extreme when I tried to get a tan during the summer break.

Tanning was a bad idea from the word go.  I had dark hair, but was very pale and had light hazel eyes, sure signs of a skin cancer magnet.  However, nobody knew about those things back in the day, and every teenage girl had to have a tan.  I would “lay out” on a collapsible chaise lounge on the concrete walkway in front of our house on a hot day, covering myself in SPF8 Coppertone (the highest strength then!) and shaking water on from Mother’s sprinkle bottle to cool off.

Chico was determined to be as close to me as possible, so he would lie in the sun next to my chair, panting.  This made him miserable, so his next move was to get underneath the chair in the small patch of shade.  That made me miserable, having a big, hot dog sweating under the chair, so I made him move.  He retreated to the shade at the side of the house, panting until he cooled down some.  Then the cycle repeated until we were both too hot to bear it, and I went in the air-conditioned house.

To this day, when I hear the drone of cidadas (dry flies, we called them) and the hum of unit air conditioners, I’m carried back to the young, skinny me, resolutely turning pink in pursuit of fashion, and that oversized, black-and-tan German shepherd panting in the sun.  All he ever got out of it besides my company was Nehi Orange, which he learned to drink from the bottle.

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Heat Wave

A modern-day air conditioning unit in Vicksburg, MS
A modern-day air conditioning unit in Vicksburg, MS

My friend Ed observed the other day that the two forces which made the modern South possible are integration and air conditioning.  The more I think about that statement, the truer it becomes.  We obviously still have huge issues with racial tensions throughout this country–the sad case of Trayvon Martin makes that only too clear.  Yet, as my African-American friend has told me before, things are a whole lot better than they were 50 years ago.  I hope we can get still further down that road.

On the subject of air conditioning, the heat and humidity of this summer has led me to remember what it was like in the summer in Tennessee.  When I was a small child we only had a big unit air conditioner in the dining room window, which was supposed to cool the entire house.  It was not nearly big enough, so we had circulating fans on the floor in our bedrooms.  The rhythmic hum of the fan was as good as white noise to help me fall asleep, while the movement of air washing over me made me feel cooler.

On the worst nights, when the air conditioner just couldn’t cool enough and the air was thick with humidity, Daddy would get out the car and we would go for a ride after dark with the windows rolled down.  The sticky air didn’t help much but the breeze coming through the windows was better.

We spent one summer in an old, dilapidated house without enough wiring for air conditioners while the house on the farm was being built.  It had thick walls which did keep it from heating up as much as it would have otherwise.  But many a night I laid in bed, sheets thrown off, sweating even with a fan pointed at me from the floor.

Air conditioning in modern office buildings made it possible for industry to move to the South, which made city life and civilization preferable to farming for many people, and brought diverse populations to the area.  Air conditioning in homes made it much more comfortable to live there.  It was a big change which I am grateful for, even here in New York–the third heat wave of the summer began yesterday!

Air Conditioner Stories

Photo from Wikimedia
It’s above 90 degrees here today and humid in proportion.  That must be what made me remember what it was like when I was small, when we had only one window unit air conditioner to cool as much of the house as possible.

For some reason, Mother and Daddy put it in the dining room, which was in the middle of the house on Ridgeway Drive.  I guess the theory was that the air would spread out and cool the living room and the bedrooms.  Unfortunately it was not powerful enough to do that, so one of my early summer memories is sleeping with a circulating fan blowing on me.  The hum of that heavy metal fan and the sweep of air as it turned from side to side soothed me to sleep many a night.

Window unit air conditioners happily left my adult life until I moved to New York in the ’80s.  I rented a fifth-floor apartment without central air, so once again I was in thrall to a window unit.  I had actually moved one with me from Atlanta which my uncle gave me–I don’t recall when I went and picked it up in Tennessee, but undeniably it moved to New York with me and was put in the window by the movers.  It was in a metal case, somewhat elderly, and extremely heavy.

It didn’t have a bracket, so I depended on the window and a few sticks of wood wedged in the sash to hold it in place.  This worked for a few weeks, but the air conditioner began to drip on the bedroom floor, which did not do the cheap wood parquet any good.  One towel per day was not enough to absorb the moisture.  Clever girl that I was, I thought I could fix this single-handed.

I took the wedges out and took hold of the air conditioner to shift it in the window.  It was much heavier than I thought and began to fall out the window.  I grabbed it.  The metal casing sliced the tips of the fingers on my left hand.  Automatically, I stomped on the air conditioner’s electric cord.  The good news was, the air conditioner hung from the window and did not fall.   The bad news was, I obviously could not pull it back in.

I looked out the window.  There were unit air conditioners in all the windows directly below mine on the fifth floor, from the fourth to the ground.  Immediately beyond the line of air conditioners was the parking lot.  I knew what I had to do.  I unplugged the air conditioner, still standing on the cord, and wrapped the damp towel around the cord.  Then I swung the cord to one side and let go.

The air conditioner fell in an arc, landing in the grass just next to the parking lot.  It did not graze any other air conditioners or take out any cars.  I was exhausted with relief.  I called the security guard and told him what I’d done.  When he stopped laughing, he said they would clean it up the next day.

Then I realized I was bleeding all over the place.  I knocked on my neighbor’s door and assured her I wasn’t dying despite the blood.  Hands and heads bleed a lot.  My neighbor took me to an emergency room.  Fortunately the cuts were not deep, although the process of cleaning them was not pleasant.  I have a little scar on my thumb to this day.

The next day I called my friend Kathy in Atlanta to report my adventure.  She laughed until she coughed for breath.  For months after that when we spoke, she would ask, “Thrown any small appliances out the window this week?  Not even a toaster?”