Thursday, August 4, 2011

Hot Times

"As he stepped outside, he realized the town was completely silent except for the distant hum of air conditioners."
It's been like that lately.
It's been a hot, dry Illinois July, where even a drive in the country in search of a cooling breeze provides little more that a keening, whistling, whispering combination of hot air, the mid-summer sound of locusts and the soft, papery rustle of the corn.
It's hot. Darn hot.
And as I am an American male between the ages of three and 114, I am required by some unwritten law to talk about it.
But it's more than talk around here, where the weather is an essential part of the risky business our farmers live through and endure year after year.
"Did you get enough rain last night?"
The rains have been hard to come by in a month where the right amounts at the right time are absolutely vital to a good crop and a good year. Happily, we got just enough the other night. Just enough for now.
But it's hot. Real hot.
"I don't even want to go outside anymore," said one sun-loving neighbor. "It's just too hot."
It has been hot enough to make me think of the stories my mother used to tell me about the summer of 1936. A summer when the daytime temps reached 112 degrees and topped triple digits for 12 days in a row in parts of Illinois. A summer before air conditioning or even large-sized window fans. A summer when she would see families gather in the evening in the shady park across the street from the house where I live now to spread sheets and spend the night away from stifling homes and bedrooms that had become impossible to endure.
No, it's not that hot. But it's hot. Very hot.
The rains that gave temporary respite to the crops did little to revive lawns that have all but given up in the sunny spots. I finally gave in to a misplaced sense of homeowner responsibility and mowed the other evening for the first time in a couple of weeks, mostly because I thought I'd better knock down some of the weeds that, in their infinite toughness, have begun to overtake the heat-dormant grass. I felt the crunch-crunch-crunch of the growing patches of light brown stuff that now threaten to cover the front yard where the now-missing big tree on the corner used to provide shelter and shade.
The heat wave that has troubled us has made its presence known further north as well. On our recent camping trip up into Wisconsin and the northernmost parts of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, 90-degree days followed us into an area where summertime high temperatures in the low 70s are the norm and nighttime lows in the 50s are not uncommon. It's a part of the country where central air conditioning is often considered an unnecessary luxury; where the hot, humid conditions we consider normal, if not entirely welcome, are almost too much to bear for the folks who live there year round.
"It's dat hew-midity," they said, over and over in the rich Upper Peninsula accent known as the Yooper dialect. "Dats what makes it so hot, eh?"
We met one woman, a state park gift shop volunteer, who had a solution, however. She was a nice, soft-spoken lady of a certain age, who might have been home baking cookies for a bunch of loving grandchildren if she had not been donating her time selling postcards and mosquito repellant and ice to a bunch of sweaty tourist. As we chatted with her, the topic, naturally, turned to the weather, which had, by turns, been sultry and stuffy and stormy. I mentioned how many complaints we had heard along the way.
"Do you know what I say?" she said sweetly. We both leaned in a bit, not wanting to miss the pearls of wisdom about to be shared.
We reeled back a bit, realizing that this was one person who had had her fill with complaints about a condition that couldn't be changed anyway. I tried gamely to lighten the mood a bit and mentioned some of our North Carolina friends who panic at the sight of a few flakes of snow, thinking a resident of a land that sees, on average, just about 12 feet of the white stuff every season, might find it a little humorous.
We saw, clearly, that weather was a topic to be avoided, so we quickly made our purchases and shuffled back to the car with our postcards and ice.
The hot, humid conditions were waiting for us when we returned. I realized just how hot and humid when I heard my spouse talking on the phone with an out-of-state friend the other day.
"How hot is it?" she said. "It's so hot, John even turned on The Big Scamp in the front room.
The Big Scamp is an ancient, hulking 220-volt air conditioning unit mounted more or less permanently in a transom over a side door in our front room. Living, as we do, in an old house with an equally-ancient steam heating system, central air has never been an easy option. So we've depended on The Big Scamp and other, smaller window units to cool our living areas when high ceilings and ceiling fans don't do the trick. I usually hesitate to do so unless we're pretty desperate, because I think it's probably pretty expensive to run it very often. When turned on, it makes a loud humming noise, roughly equivalent to a squadron of P-38 fighters approaching an aircraft carrier over the South Pacific. When in action, it drowns out conversations, drips buckets of water from its outside grillwork and makes the windows in our front room rattle and buzz.
But boy can that sucker cool things down.
It's been there since we bought the house in the mid-80s, and I've always dreaded the day when I'd have to deal with its demise. Quite frankly, I just hoped it would outlive me.
No such luck.
Last week, just as we were preparing for our usual Thursday night gathering of some friends, it quit with a sudden rattle and a ominous buzzing noise.
I tried a few handyman tricks, including resting it, turning it on and off, resetting the breaker and swatting it firmly on the side.
No dice.
She: Can we get someone to fix it?
Me: Not unless Alley Oop is making service calls.
The thing really is ancient, you see. In fact, a little research showed that Sears hasn't even sold the Coldspot brand since the mid-70s, and I doubt if it was new then. I've always been amazed that it still ran. Now I'm absolutely devastated to find that it doesn't anymore.
We're planning on departing again for grandkid-land this week, so I probably won't deal with it until we return.
But I will have to do something, as its absence leaves much of our downstairs as hot and humid as a haymow on an August afternoon.
Maybe it can be fixed, but I'm not overly optimistic. And really, it doesn't owe me a thing, so I've got no complaints. Replacing it will be a hard, moderately dangerous, up-on-a-tall-ladder process that will probably force me into my least-favorite form of exercise--writing a largish check.
But one way or another, I guess I've just got to follow some advice I received from a woman who knew what she was talking about.
Just suck it up.


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