As this weekend’s heat wave approached, it occurred to me that when my mom told stories about the Dirty Thirties, she rarely talked about temperatures.
She talked about the dust. The best topsoil in the countryside seeped through tiny cracks in her family’s farm house near Lyman. She told of using wet rags to seal gaps around windows and doors. It helped, but gritty grey dust still gathered on dishes and countertops and bed spreads. The dust was relentless, she said.
She talked about the wind, which blew and blew, day after day. After sunset the wind still blew, moaning through the same cracks that let in the dust. She never forgot the way the wind sounded in the night, she said.
And she talked about grasshoppers. She told of grasshoppers forming such a thick blanket on the side of the house that it was impossible to tell what color the siding was. ‘Hoppers covered weeds and fence posts and every inch of yard on the place. She hated to walk outside because she had to step on the fool things, she said.
But heat? I don’t know. Maybe I missed some conversations, but it seems to me my mom took the heat almost in stride. Sweltering afternoons were a given, I guess. Those other things? The wind and dust and ‘hoppers? Sure, they were awful, but I suppose they were less ever-present than the summer heat. Maybe they were even a sort of novelty at first. They wore out their welcome pretty quickly, but they weren’t as “always there’’ as the heat.
The heat affects me far more in my aging years than it did when I was younger. I suppose part of that is because homes, businesses and vehicles have air conditioning systems that give us a break, even when high temperatures near or exceed 100 degrees, as some forecast predicted for the current weekend. That’s a lot like the temperatures during the summers of the 1930s, if my reading of history is correct. And no matter how you spin it, that’s hot.
A chance to get out of the heat for a while is a wonderful thing. Everyone needs a break during a heat wave. But when a person escapes the heat for a while in an air-conditioned house or vehicle, it makes the high temperature more noticeable when that person goes outside. If we never had such breaks, we’d still be hot, but maybe we wouldn’t notice it as much?
I didn’t pay much attention to the temperature back when I was a kid working on the farm. I just sort of ignored it. Whatever the temperature was on a summer day, the hay had to be mowed and stacked, the corn had to be cultivated and the wheat had to be harvested. On the Woster Brothers’ spread, I always thought we had some pretty decent machinery, but none of it had cabs with heaters or air conditioners. Our way of dealing with the outside temperature was to roll down the windows on the pickups and grain trucks and to wear wide-brimmed straw hats on the tractors and combines. That’s what we had, so that’s how we worked.
And I barely noticed. I carried a gallon water jug wrapped in a dampened gunny sack to stay hydrated (although I’d never heard of staying hydrated in those days). One time in memory my dad brought an umbrella to the field to affix to the tractor I was using. He said the temperature was 114. I nodded and kept driving.
We opened the windows in the house at night and buttoned the place up during the day. Any cooking that required the oven got done early in the morning or late in the evening. There was no other way.
My first car with air-conditioning was a 1969 station wagon. Nancy and I already had two kids by then. Our first house with a window air conditioner, we bought in the fall of 1970 in Pierre. This weekend as I sit inside and listen to the cooling unit purr, I guarantee you I won’t be dreaming about the good old days.