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Constance Alexander: August’s ‘dog days’ revive memories of summers without air conditioning

In the days before air conditioning, every family had its strategies for coping with the heat. In my house, winter’s heavy damask drapes were replaced with fluttery sheers, and blinds were slanted at half-mast to keep the sun from beating in.  Sisal rugs that tickled the bottoms of bare feet were substituted for the orientals that were whisked away to cold storage by the time school was out.

Upstairs, quilted bedspreads gave way to cotton chenille, and flannel nightgowns were set aside for Baby Doll pajamas.

From top to bottom, the house was shady and silent as a funeral home.

Getting up early in the morning to complete assigned chores was another means to a cool end.  After that, a girl could hop on her bike and pedal to the library, where there were shelves of books to transport a reader to more exotic climes. One summer, I read Jules Verne’s novel Michael Strogoff so I could cool my heels in Siberia instead of suffering the sweltering heat and humidity of New Jersey.

Though not air-conditioned, the library was an island of comfort. The huge windows were opened from the top and the bottom, and electric fans placed next to the check-out desk kept the air moving. In every season, the head librarian, Miss Grace Halsey, was ramrod straight and unrelentingly proper. Her braids were always the same, wound around her head like a silver coronet. Her tailored skirts and high-necked blouses were accessorized with her mother’s wedding pearls. Her shoes never varied; they were sensible oxfords with leather soles that squooshed slightly when she walked. No matter how torrid it was outside, Miss Halsey’s body temperature hovered a few degrees above freezing.

Many of the streets in my hometown were tree-lined, offering sanctuary from the sun. In the stifling heat of summer afternoons, people sat on porches or in the shade of backyards, fanning themselves with the afternoon newspaper. As the day edged toward dinner, meal preparation revolved around recipes that would not transform the kitchen into a furnace. My mother concocted side dishes like tomato aspic, that made us kids gag, but at least it did not require the use of the oven.

My father switched from scotch on the rocks to gin and tonic and donned a straw hat with his summer suits instead of the usual fedora.

After dinner and the dishes, my sisters and brother would go outside. With windows flung open to steal whatever breeze there was, the sounds of radios and TVs floated out to mingle with the squabbles of stickball games in the street and the sing-song rhymes of girls playing jump rope. Even though the Alexander kids spanned twelve years from oldest to youngest, sometimes we played games like Hide and Seek until the cries of “Home Free” faded with the lighting of the lamps.

When the Good Humor truck tolled its bell, the street filled with kids of all ages from as far away as two or three blocks over. The littlest ones trailed out in their pajamas, tiptoeing daintily over pavement still hot from the day, avoiding the sharp stones in gravel driveways. Everyone was eager to buy a cooling Popsicle or a dixie cup of ice cream.

Once the streetlights came on, kids were called home, and the rest of the night was left for watching TV. At bedtime, we fell asleep to the hum of insects outside, and the frantic flutter of moths against porch lights.

While it’s still hot outside, check out these lists of hundreds of things to do for summer fun at www.pinterest.com.

Thanks to Project Gutenberg, the novel Michael Strogoff is available online at www.gutenberg.org.

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Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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One Comment

  1. Anne Adams says:

    Always enjoy your articles. I can visualize your Library experiences and Miss Grace!! I remember the braids style as well!

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