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Edward Southerland: Songs for a summer's night
By Edward Southerland
Jun 23, 2017
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Once upon a time there was a world without central air conditioning. It was not that long ago, in the '50s and '60s. None of the houses I lived in when I was growing up had central a/c, and I rarely slept in a bedroom with even a window unit. We had fans, both the small portable, oscillating table models and the big window size water-cooled units.

Scorching summer afternoons were spent lying in front of an old, rattling water fan that blew cool, damp air into my brothersí bedroom, the coolest room in the house. A big square box with wire mesh sides and top surrounded the fan blades and electric motor. Pads made of some type of fibrous material fitted into slots along the three external sides and top of the box. A garden hose, screwed on to a convenient hydrant provided a constant flow of water that drip, drip, dripped down over the pads, keeping them moist. The water seeped into the metal pan that formed the floor of the box and out a drain. The fan blades pulled the hot, dry outside air through the damp pads and sent it into the room. It wasnít so much cool, as less hot.

The fan was noisy, but the low rumble soon enough faded into the background and was not noticed. If you stood in front of the fan and talked or sang, the blades and swirling air clipped your words so that they quavered and warbled in your ear.

Slowly but surely, my father added window air conditioners to the house, first one for the living room and then the kitchen. But fans remained a way of summer life until we move across town when I was thirteen. Then, even with an old window a/c in my bedroom, I rarely ran it at night. We were better prepared for summer then. Most houses were afforded protection from the sun by big shade trees. Unlike modern subdivisions where all the big trees are cut down and replaced by high-priced seedlings that would be hard pressed to provide shade for a thin snake, the spreading green umbrellas that dotted the older neighborhoods warded off the sun.

Houses also were built for ventilation. Both of the rooms I called mine at one time or the other, had windows on three sides, east, west and south. Raise all the windows when the heat finally begins to dissipate in the late evening and it was a rare time that a gentle breeze didnít slide through the room. By the early hours before sunrise, I usually needed a sheet to provide a cover from the chill of dawn.

Open windows let in the songs of the summer night. As I lay in the dark, the sounds of the big trucks rolling through the night bound for places far away drifted across the open fields from the highway a half a mile from my window. Under it all was the comforting drone of katydids and crickets singing in the dark, and on the hour the courthouse clock would sound out the hour with sonorous bongs that signaled all was well and as it should be.

Today we are cool, but at a price. We live in airtight chambers, taking moisture out the air to cool it with air conditioners and putting moisture back into the air with humidifiers to prevent mummification while we sleep. And we are no longer part of the night and the world that lives in the dark.