Averyell A. Kessler
At this point in life, I’m not sure what to call my generation. Baby boomers emeritus? Retired beatniks? Over the hill hippies? The Stop in the Name of Love dancing club? Jagger’s Jagettes? Who knows?
Senior Citizen is a kinder-gentler term especially for those folks selling wrinkle cream, hair restorers, emergency call buttons and magic medicine costing $500 a pop. The term “blue hair” has lost its meaning because people really are dying their hair blue these days. Green and pink also. Purple is especially popular. Elderly sounds tired, incompetent, and frail, and geezer is downright cruel. Guys sharing years with me aren’t stumbling down the street, waving their hands in the air while trying to protect a comb-over in a stiff wind. Many of my gal pals are still running 10 K’s, playing tennis, and can control an unruly grandchild with a raised eyebrow. Someone suggested “perennials” but that reminds me of hostas or black-eyed susans, besides weeds reappear every year with hellish regularity. So, I’ve decided to adjust my thinking to a new standard of age assessment – pre-AC or post AC. Nope, this isn’t a political comment. It’s about climate control, 1950’s style, aka the arrival of air conditioning.
I lived my first seven years without air conditioning. During my ordinary Jackson childhood, I experienced three out of four manageable seasons. Summer was a ring-tailed tooter, but I don’t remember it being that bad. I do recall steamy days when I roamed barefoot, in sleeveless shirts, short shorts or a damp bathing suit. Also, the delight of running through the sprinkler on a parched afternoon when the sun was especially brutal.
Inside, we had a frightening monster of an oscillating fan which buzzed like 1000 bees and blew out tornado force wind. Also, the ultimate weapon, an attic fan. Didn’t do much good during the day, but at bedtime, our attic fan was a gentle friend drawing in cool evening air as it rumbled me to sleep.
Pre-AC folks recall many things about life in the sweaty south, fluttering stick fans, overpowering wiggle-giggle attacks when the preacher droned on for an extra ten minutes and sweat dribbled behind our ears, searching the fridge for a pitcher of Kool-Aid, and the icy delight of a grape popsicle. It also meant diving into Riverside pool or splashing in my own blow up version in the backyard. But school loomed at the end of summer and we all knew that August’s unrelenting heat continued until mid-October. Power School’s first weeks were oven days each lasting 27 hours with sticky air, steamy cafeteria lunches, and the captivity of shoes. Outside, the playground was a Sahara Desert, and nobody wanted to run anywhere for any reason. Adding insult to injury, sips from the water fountain were tepid and unsatisfying. In my eighth year everything changed.
“We’re getting an air conditioner,” Mama announced
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Woodie Assaf talks about them on TV,” she answered. “We’ll have cool air, like Sears.”
“Oh,” I said. “Woodie also talked about velocity, capacity and BTU’s – not terms I understood. But he could sell ice cubes to Eskimos and in this case, frigid air to perspiring Jacksonians. By the end of the day, a shining Fedders AC was hanging out of a window in our den and blasting out refrigerator cold air. Its inability to cool the entire house was a drawback, so we were closeted in a chilly island of comfort along with a Stromberg Carlson black and white and a brown plaid sofa bed. Woe be unto any poor soul who left a door open and allowed cool air to escape into the rest of the house. A year later, my parents expanded the comfort zone by adding a second air conditioner in our living room. Both units shimmied like hula dancers and rattled like empty dump trucks, but who cares. What’s an occasional frosty drip when it’s 99 in the shade?
Air conditioning is essential now. It keeps everybody sane when simmering heat covers us like a wool blanket and humidity soars. But I still remember those soft summer nights in my small bedroom on Laurel Street when my windows were wide open. Our attic fan pulled in a breeze as its comforting hum blended into the steady rhythm of throbbing crickets. Sometimes, a dog barked in the distance or a possum scurried across the rooftop. Sometimes, I heard the quiet moan of a freight train passing through town. On rainy nights, the attic fan sucked in dusty aroma of earth and grass and coated my window screen with a spider web of raindrops. Our attic fan was a reliable companion, beating back the heat, if only for a few restful hours. It gave us a chance to regain our breath, and made nighttime a sanctuary of peace. I was safe and secure under a ceiling of glittering stars.
They’re gone now, but memories remain. Fond memories, of course, but I was accustomed to searing days in the firecracker south. We all were. Doesn’t matter what the groundhog predicts, summer in the south is coming soon. Pavement cracking temperatures are waving at us over the horizon. Get ready. It’s just as hot now as always, and this pre-AC baby boomer would welcome our creaky old Fedders if necessary. Too bad Woodie’s not here to tell us about it.