Eastern Wake: Opinion

Column: How can we beat the heat?

By Johnny Whitfield

Johnny Whitfield
Johnny Whitfield ehyman@newsobserver.com

In the doldrums of summer, we pant when we go outside and we look for every opportunity to return to our air-conditioned houses, seeking relief from the heat and the humidity. So far as I can remember, I’ve never lived in a home that didn’t have some kind of air-conditioning.

There was always, at least, a window-unit tucked inisde a window here or there. In fact the home I spent most of my childhood years had two window-units in it. One was in the kitchen, the other in my parents’ bedroom. I was always envious of them for having that air conditioner in their room, while I listened to the hum-drum noise it made, a noise that seemed to grow louder and louder every summer, though it never broke and the noise never kept me from falling asleep.

What I remember more vividly, though, was visiting my grandparents’ home in eastern North Carolina. They didn’t have air conditioning in their house, which was actually a converted tobacco barn they had turned into a house when my father was a little boy. I always imagined my father doing something uncouth as a youngster only to have his teacher ask him if he was raised in a barn. A question to which he could honestly say “Why, yes. Yes, I was.” But that’s another story.

My grandparents kept their home cool with a large fan that was built into one of the windows on the front of their house. I never visited in the summer but what that fan was not running full tilt. My grandmother opened a window in the kitchen, which was directly behind the living room where the fan was situated. An open window casing between the two rooms allowed the air to flow from one room to the other and when my grandmother opened the kitchen window, it created a remarkably cool draft.

My parents also had a number of trees in front and beside the house which helped shield their home from direct sunlight.

Each summer, my brother, sisters and I would spend a week with my grandparents and, despite their efforts to keep their house cool in the heat of summer, I was always grateful to go home and stand for a few minutes in front of our air conditioner at home.

People, me included, tend to want what they don’t have. In the wintertime, we pine for warmer temperatures. When we get them in July, though, we wish it were still December. And, vice versa. I occasionally draw an odd look when I tell people I would rather endure the hot temperatures than the cold ones. But it’s true. I can tolerate getting hot much better than I can being too cold. When I’m too cold, all my attention seems focused on what I can do to get warm again. It saps me of my desire to do anything else.

But in the summertime, I realize I’m going to go outside and when I do, I’m going to get sweaty. But I remember that I will soon be able to remedy that with a shower and I also know the people I’m outside with will be just as hot and sweaty as I am. Getting hot reminds me of my formative years when I worked on the farm. You knew that getting hot and dirty was just going to be part of the job. So you didn’t try to avoid it and you just put up with it the best you could. It was OK to stop what you were doing once in a while and take a big ol’ swipe across your forehead with your shirt sleeve or your shirttail and get rid of as much sweat as you could.

These days, though, I work mostly in an air-conditioned office and when I have to go out to report a story or take photographs, I realize just how soft I’ve gotten. And I think about Jarvis and Pitt Whitfield, who lived most of their lives in a house that didn’t have any more air conditioning than what a fan could draw to move the hot air around a little bit.

So enjoy the summer while it’s here. Don’t let the heat wilt your spirits. And if you really want cooler temperatures, just remember: December’s coming.