Yes, it was pretty hot in 1966. Do you remember that Abbe Lane was married to Xavier Cugat?
A commonly quoted definition of “heat wave” is one in which the temperature reaches above 90º F for at least three consecutive days. Here at Mister Boomer headquarters, we’ve had quite the heat wave this past week, with the thermometer near or topping the 100º F mark for five days in a row. That got old Mister B thinking about our earlier years, and the ways we kept cool.
It’s difficult for today’s youngsters to fathom a world without air conditioning, yet that was our shared world while growing up. Willis Carrier is considered the father of modern air conditioning, for his invention of a unit in 1902. Hindered by toxic chemicals used to create the cool, and high costs, decades would pass until a practical, affordable model reached the average boomer household.
Mister Boomer recalls a time when only higher-end cars had air conditioning, and there weren’t many of those in his neighborhood. Homes and even stores did not have air conditioning. One fine summer day Mister B walked, with his mom, the mile and a half to the city’s business district. As we approached the Woolworth store, the doors were wide open and the store was uncharacteristically dark. The prevailing thought was that lights generate too much heat, and there was already plenty of that. On entering, a blast of hot air brushed across our faces. The store staff had positioned two tall, large metal fans at the back corners of the store, aiming them out the front door. We wandered through the aisles of bins — in an era before shelving was a marketing art — maneuvering the maze as the wooden floorboards creaked, and we criss-crossed the hot stream from the fans.
The scene at home wasn’t any better. Positioned on the floor by the front screen door, one box fan provided the only breeze for the family. Come bedtime, the fan was repositioned to point down the hallway of bedrooms. Windows and doors, including the front door, where left open all night to catch any breeze that would care to waft our way.
So how did we keep cool? The same way it had been done for centuries, with a few modern twists. We could lounge beneath shade trees when our 47-inning baseball game got to be a bit much. Some, especially young girls, folded paper to make a hand fan. For more immediate cooling in our younger years, there was the oscillating sprinkler. We’d put our bathing suits on and set the lawn sprinkler in the front yard. Flipping the control knob to allow it to rotate a full 180º left and right ensured that a neighborhood group of us could all feel the cool spray of the jets even by standing in a single spot. We’d leave the sprinkler on until pools of water accumulated on the lawn, or it would remain off when restricted by the city in times of drought.
Mostly, we took in a lot of fluids. Water in a glass with ice, iced tea, cold milk, lemonade, Kool-Aid or the occasional Hawaiian Punch helped us beat the heat. When we got a little older, we might ride our bikes to the A&W Root Beer Drive-In, walk inside and sit at the counter. We’d order up an icy root beer. The thick glass mugs were kept in the ice cooler, so dispensing the tasty concoction into the glass could be as frosty and cold an experience as anything you’d ever imagined. Then there was the Coca-Cola machine at the corner Sinclair gas station. We didn’t drink soda pop all that often — it wasn’t kept in the house — but there weren’t many things better than an ice cold Coke on a very hot day. When we could gather up ten cents, we’d walk to the station, where the Coke machine was perpetually kept outside. Slipping the dime into the coin slot, we could open the glass door and pull an 8-ounce bottle out by its neck from the column of circular receptacles. Grasping the familiar feminine-shaped Coke bottle’s waist, we’d aim the top at the built-in cap opener on the front of the machine. The bottle was always cold to the touch, adding to the anticipation. Once the fizz popped when the cap was removed, you could hardly wait to taste the sweet coolness. While some chugged the full 8 ounces in one fluid motion, Mister B would savor the moment. This boomer would take that first delicious sip, then go back for more, again and again until it was spent and the heat was gone. All the while we’d be standing in front of the machine — in the heat — to avoid paying the two-cent bottle deposit. Once empty, the bottles were slid neatly into the wooden cases alongside the machine.
Ice cream trucks made regular runs down the streets. There were independents clanging bells to peddle their wares: usually frozen fruit pops, push-ups or sundae cups. We knew these would do in a pinch, but weren’t our top-shelf-quality favorites. For that, there was the Good Humor truck (Toasted Almond, Chocolate Malt or Strawberry Shortcake for Mister B, please) and Mister Softee (the creamiest, dreamiest soft ice cream, maybe, but a jingle that haunts most of us to this day). Sometimes our families couldn’t spare the change, so we’d make our own popsicles. Other times, we’d search for soda pop bottles along the main road and redeem them at the store for Creamsicles or those frozen sticks of gooey color.
Somewhere in the early sixties, stores started getting air conditioning. They would advertise the fact with “Air Conditioned” signs in the window. Movie theaters took the advertising to a whole other level, with signs hanging from the bottom of the marquee exclaiming, “It’s Cool Inside!” Always situated on a blue background, the letters were composed of icicles and snow to offer a literal, visual explanation. Although Mister B cannot recall a single time his family escaped the heat by going to a movie, others have reminisced of that very thing. With double features and an intermission, complete with cartoons and coming attractions, you could stay inside for a full four hours.
Nevertheless, for day-to-day, beat-the-heat cooldowns, only one experience comes to mind. It may very well be the quintessence of boomer keep-cool methods. We’d grab the metal handle of the outdoor faucet with one hand, and turn it on, holding the garden hose in the other hand. As the clear, cool liquid arched from its spout, we’d lean in and take the most satisfying drink of water a boomer child could have. Hey, boomers, have you let your children — or grandchildren — in on this super summer experience? Teach them well. Teach them to drink from the garden hose!