Hot enough for you?

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The other day a picture popped up on my news web page, and I was told that it was the anniversary of the birth or death or something-or-other of Willis Carrier, the inventor of air conditioning. Down here in Dixie our states should declare a holiday. Without Carrier’s invention, our cities would be villages, our villages would be hovels, our people would be lazy, lethargic, languid much of the year. For my part, I thank Carrier for a good night’s sleep. Those of us of a certain age can recall summers down south. As children, we spent days in the sun and shade, barefoot and (for the boys) shirtless, getting that brownish-red pre-cancerous glow that sends us to the dermatologist today.  There were creeks and ponds for swimming, hoses for water fights, and all those things we look back on with rose-tinted tenacity, convincing ourselves that the good old days were really good.In this nostalgia, we often forget that when night fell, we were inside where the air was hot and heavy, where hardly a breeze stirred, where even a fan (if you had one) brought little relief.
Nights so hot that at bedtime you would take ice cubes from the refrigerator, wrap them in a wash rag, and hold them to your cheek or chest in the mistaken belief that if you could get one part of your body cold the rest of you would cool down enough to  let you sleep.
What you got instead was a wet pillow or wet sheets.
Adults also suffered, especially in towns where they worked in stores and offices or kept house.  In “To Kill a Mockingbird”, Harper Lee described those pre-William Carrier days:
People moved slowly then.  They ambled across the square, shuffled, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything.  A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. . . . Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning.  Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.”
Heat was used to “explain” why the South had not followed the North to industrialization and prosperity. Climate, the reasoning went, was holding back “progress.” It was just too damn hot. Then along came Willis Carrier and Dixie went another direction. Not immediately, of course.  It was still too hot to do anything immediately.  But Carrier’s invention soon began to make inroads into what was obviously a region ready for it. My first air condition experience was at the movies, which became our summer retreat from the heat.  Then stores took it up. Then churches. Some congregations had to overcome the belief that heat was part of God’s Plan and should be endured, not overcome. Sitting hot through a sermon was a test of faith. But in time congregations apparently concluded that air conditioning was also part of that same Plan and went along with it.
Houses were the last to join the movement but when they did, the window unit became a status symbol not unlike the TV antenna.  If you had both, you had arrived.
The change air conditioning wrought was most evident in southern cities, where instead of windows to raise and draw in a breeze, new buildings included immovable glass that reflected light and heat away from what went on in the cool inside. It is hard to imagine what Birmingham or Atlanta would look like today, much less Charleston or Miami, if there was no air conditioning.
By the mid-1970s air conditioning seemed to be everywhere. Even in poverty pockets like the Black Belt of Alabama, efficient and inexpensive units stick out of the windows of the trailers.
Make a mental list of places you would not go if there was no AC.
Not just stores and movies and churches. Whole malls are made comfortable.
Domed stadiums keep players and spectators oblivious to the weather outside.
But air conditioning has altered more than architecture.  It has changed the rhythm of what has been called the “Southern way of life.”  Today folks stay sealed in their climate controlled cocoons, rather than sit on the porch or in the back yard in sweaty splendor talking with neighbors and family.
It has been suggested that air conditioning has helped bring about Americanization of Dixie. Surely it has.
Yet one wonders if air conditioning has made modern Southerners more like other Americans, or less like Southerners who came before?
On the other hand, we sleep better on hot summer nights. Give Willis Carrier credit for that.
Harvey H. (Hardy) Jackson is Professor Emeritus at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at hjackson@cableone.net.

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