Ten Degrees Past Hell

Today’s post was inspired by The Daily Prompt’s one word prompt: Youth.


Our air conditioner unit is on the fritz. It tried to give up the ghost a few nights ago and the temperature went from a comfortable 72 degrees to a rather warm 82 degrees rather quickly. My daughter wondered aloud how people survived prior to the invention of central air and window units.

I chuckled as I thought back to my own childhood. It could be 95 degrees outside with the heat index making it feel like 112, and as kids it didn’t seem to bother us one bit. We lived a an old row house in Brooklyn, when I was a kid. We didn’t have central air, a window unit (until later), or cable or an Atari game system, like some of our friends. During the summer, mom didn’t allow us to stay in the house all day. While she was at work we had to do school work. Actually, I had to do school work. My older brother got away with murder! I had math workbooks and penmanship workbooks. I hated both! Once my mother got home, IF she was satisfied with my work, I’d be allowed to go outside to play. Sitting in front of the TV was not an option. We ran from the backyard to the front. My brother was allowed to go over to his friend’s house or play with them on the street, as he was older and deemed capable of handling himself if trouble were to arise. Summers in Brooklyn had a smell. On the hottest days you would catch a whiff of tar as it softened under the blazing sun coming off the streets and some of the rooftops, exhaust fumes from the busses and cars, and depending on which way the warm breeze blew, you might even catch the fragrance of stale urine and trash that lingered around the El just one block away.

Third Avenue Elevated Line, Bronx, NY by Jack E. Boucher

You could see the heat, rising in waves, off the pavement and parked cars. It’s amazing how much heat the roads, sidewalks and concrete structures hold. Kids used to open the fire hydrants and play in the water to cool down. My mom wouldn’t let us get in on the fun when the hydrant was open. We lived on a one way street. Cars were always parked bumper to bumper on either side, but the boys (and even some of the men) would get out in the middle of the block and play stickball, the city variation of baseball. It didn’t matter that Highland Park sat at the end of our street. They could have had a proper game of baseball/stickball in a more open space. But no, right there in the middle of the block was where the games happened.  I don’t recall any cars being damaged or the windows on anybody’s house being broken during these games.

Boys playing stick ball, Havana, Cuba, 1999 by Cliff



If we weren’t outside in the sweltering city heat, we were hanging out in the basement where it was cool. On the main floor of our house, my dad had the windows at the front of house open, and an olive green metal box fan in one of the windows in the dining room at the back of the house. The back door in the kitchen was usually open, too, allowing for more airflow. Knowing what I know now, it was probably still 80- or 90-something degrees inside, with the fan swirling the warm air around the house. Dad constantly warned me to stay away from the fan. He was afraid I would stick my finger between the slots and lose an appendage.  I liked to sit in front of it and make funny noises, and giggle as the fast moving metal blades would chop the sound of my voice up, making me sound like a robot. 

box fan
Olive Green appliances were all the rage in the late 70s and early 80s.

Older people don’t tolerate heat as well as kids, it seems, because the olive green box fan was soon replaced by a wood paneled window air conditioning unit from Sears. Windows were locked, doors to other rooms on the main floor were closed and blocked with draft socks in an effort to keep the cool air contained to the living room and dining room. (Side note: My mother made a draft sock that looked like an extra long dachshund. She named him, “Struggles.” He was accidentally kicked down the basement steps as my grandmother was heading to the basement to do laundry. Struggles slid down the side of the steps like a snake and scared THE CRAP out of my dear, sweet, grandmother. We both got a good laugh out of that moment!) Dad even installed and accordion-type room separator between the galley kitchen and the living room/dining room area. During the summer, the temperature in the kitchen seemed to always linger somewhere around 10 degrees past hell. The only relief was to open the back door and turn on the exhaust fan over stove, which brought the temperature down to a more comfortable 3 degrees past hell.

But somehow, we survived the heat. Our bodies acclimated to its environment. I don’t recall hearing about heat-stroke and dehydration until we moved out of NY, then again, I was very young. Someone else was responsible for worrying about such things. Thankfully, my A/C unit is displaying some “act right” about itself and my daughter and I won’t have to figure out how well our bodies (and attitudes) would acclimate to existing in 80 + degree inside temperatures plus humidity.

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