Last updated: July 28. 2014 5:25AM - 468 Views
By Stephen Harris

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If you’re looking for a way to cool off, how about this? Think back to January, when we had that two-week spell with snow and frigid wind and nighttime lows in the single digits.

Did that thought cool you off? No? I didn’t think it would.

But we try most anything at this time of the year as folks start getting tired of the heat and the humidity and the sweat and the sticky clothes, what little of them we’re wearing.

This is the time of the year when we start hearing dire warnings about how much hotter it is these days because of climate change and how it’s only going to get worse.

But the fact is that our forebears had it a whole lot hotter back in the day because generally they did not have air-conditioning.

At my house we didn’t get air-conditioning until 1969 when my folks brought home an off-brand window unit. It came from the old White Auto store in Jonesville that was in the current Billiard Table Services location and featured appliances and lawn mowers.

But then my folks hardly ever turned on the air conditioner because they feared the costly electricity it would consume, and the unit would only cool off the living room anyway. Only when I returned to the hometown in the 1990s did the air conditioner get regular summer workouts.

So what did folks do here prior to the coming of air-conditioning?

First of all, they opened the windows. Not only did opening the windows let in cooler air at nights and during early mornings but it let fresh air in as well.

I’m awaiting a health study on the ill effects of breathing stale or recycled air all summer due to keeping the windows closed tight all the time. They study everything else in the health field these days.

More than once back in the hot old days I remember Mom saying it was too hot to cook. So she didn’t.

That made summertime lunch a succession of cold sandwiches, bolstered by sliced garden cucumbers from the garden and/or cantaloupe from the store and fresh out of the refrigerator. It’s remarkable what a half of a cool cantaloupe can do for the noontime summer’s heat.

And if cantaloupe could do wonders at lunch, try to think of what a cold watermelon from the refrigerator could do then during a mid-afternoon break. Hold a piece up to your face, and it would just draw the heat off your sweat-streaked brow.

I’d dig into a cool watermelon up to my cheeks to get the full effect, and if I was lucky I’d get cool juice running down my naked chest. Taking a cool rag to wipe off the drying juice was nice, too.

We’d cut a watermelon in half and stick a half in the refrigerator because we didn’t have room for the whole thing. Then we’d wait until it was good and cold before we’d get it out to eat and stick the second half in. Sometimes the second half would last till the next day.

You know, watermelons just aren’t as good these days. That’s because they just don’t taste as good in air-conditioning.

We had a fine set of sturdy outdoor furniture, a two-seater and two single chairs. They looked like overgrown Lincoln logs. We needed them because we spent hot summer days outdoors under the black oak tree just off the front stoop. It was too hot to stay inside.

We’d string beans and read comic books (well, I read comic books), talk and generally pass the time until the cooling nightfall and the lightning bugs came out before we’d finally go inside.

Outdoors in the shade is a great way to keep cool. You don’t see people out and sitting under the shade any more. That’s our loss.

Folks in the hot old days found other, ingenious ways to keep cool without air-conditioning. For instance, my folks kept a big window fan in their bedroom. The top of the bed reached up to the bottom of the window sill.

That allowed me to lay crossways on their bed, my flushed face within inches of the fan. I spent many a hot summer afternoon lying on their bed and reading. Sometimes the hum of the metal fan’s electric motor sang me to sleep.

Back in the hot old days folks would try and beat the heat by taking in an afternoon matinee at the Reeves movie theater in Elkin. Even if folks didn’t care for the movie, they’d go to town and buy a ticket just to get in and get cool. Some old downtown theaters would prominently advertise “air-conditioned.”

OK, going without air-conditioning was not exactly roughing it. But there was an art to coping in the hot old days, an art sadly lost.

So as you remain shut up in your meat locker-like homes breathing your months-old recycled air and not seeing the light of summer’s day till September, at least give a thought to our pioneer forebears.

They carved out a life for themselves in the hot summer wilderness in sweat-drench clothes so that someday their children and children’s children could sit back and relax in cool summer comfort. Can you hear our envious forebears grumble, “spoiled libertines”?


Postscript: Last Monday, “The News and Observer” newspaper in Raleigh named Pilot Mountain as Surry County’s best-kept secret and Kitchen Roselli, a restaurant in East Bend, as Yadkin’s best. The restaurant is an offshoot of the old Sunny Italy restaurant that operated this side of North Wilkesboro for many years until it finally closed in 2010. Last month I picked as best-kept secrets Mayberry in Surry and the Amish Communty in Yadkin, respectively.

Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.

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