July 23rd, 2006

ozarque figure

Living in the heat...

St. Louis, with its huge power blackout in this heat wave, has been on my mind lately; I spent a lot of my childhood and teenage years in that part of the country -- most of my family lived in the area -- and the heat is unforgettable. Temperatures go higher elsewhere, for sure, but the combination of heat and humidity in St. Louis is brutal. However....

My grandmother lived near St. Louis, in a smaller town, and she never had air conditioning in her house; she would never have agreed to such an outlandish thing. She lived to be 96, and until the very last few months of her life she was in excellent health, always. Her daughter Mary Ann lived with her in that house almost her entire life, and she lived and thrived well into her 80s (much to the surprise of the midwife who had told my grandmother not to bother dressing her at her birth because -- since she was a "blue baby" -- there was no chance that she'd survive). I spent a couple of weeks in that house every summer when I was little, and I don't remember ever being burdened by the heat. The house I grew up in in Jefferson City, Missouri, never had air conditioning; most houses didn't. The heat was there, and there were summers that were as hot as the current one has been, but nobody paid much attention to it. I've been thinking about why that should be ... and I suppose the answers are obvious.

First, and most obvious, is the fact that we all grew up in that heat and humidity and we were used to it. We didn't spend our summers going in our air conditioned cars from one air conditioned building to another and then back to our air conditioned homes; nothing will make you "heat intolerant" faster than doing that.

Then there was the way building was done. Both houses and apartments in that area were built with windows placed carefully to allow cross ventilation, and with at least one porch; much of the time, it was a screened porch. Most houses had an exhaust fan in the attic to pull the hot air out of the house quickly at night; most people had at least one electric fan, often a "hassock" fan. I still have my grandmother's hassock fan, and it does an excellent job of cooling a room.

And then there was the very striking difference in what we felt safe doing. We sat outside at night on those porches, without worrying that somebody would drive buy and shoot us. If we had screened porches, we slept outside on them, without ever thinking that that was dangerous. People who didn't have porches thought nothing of sleeping outside in city parks, and on the lawns of public buildings, and there were no laws against that; whole crowds of people did that, and nobody came along and made them move.

Don't misunderstand me, please. The poor we have always with us, and we had them with us then just as we do now; they didn't always have a fan or a screened porch. It was harder if you were poor, just as everything is still harder today if you're poor. That doesn't seem to change. But people weren't sealed into buildings where they couldn't even open the windows -- or where they didn't dare open the windows even if they could be opened, for fear of what would come in through them -- so that when the power failed they were helpless against the heat.

Progress, it's called.