Keeping Our Collective Cool

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!

Boomers Strike Solid Gold

Music and boomers go together like Fritos and corn — you just can’t have one without the other. Many would say that’s the case for every generation that followed the boomers, but the current explosion of portable music devices could not have developed if it were not for the successful roots planted in boomer teen time. Chief among the early devices was the portable radio.

Our parents had their music, as did every generation, but it was hardly portable. After all, it was tough to carry a big band around. To hear current, popular music, they only had two choices: the family radio or visiting in-person music venues. That all changed after World War II with the wide-spread introduction of the transistor into consumer products.

Though the first transistor radio made its debut in the late forties, it wasn’t widely distributed in the U.S. until the mid-fifties. The perfect storm for the new device was at hand: a boomer population reaching teen years, burgeoning rock ‘n roll and radio industries and two ways for this population to listen to “their” music without parental interference — namely, car radios and the portable transistor radio. That meant whether cruisin’ down the highway, into the drive-in parking lot, in the house or having a beach blanket party, music could be a part of the action.

Mister Boomer wasn’t a big radio — or music — fan in his pre-teen early days. The bulk of Mister B’s musical exposure came later, from sharing a bedroom with a brother who was two years older. Then, one day Mister Boomer’s Dad came home from his annual golf banquet bearing prizes. Through the years he had received great products that reflected the ideal suburban lifestyle that we all were supposed to be living: a badminton set; a mini charcoal grill; a picnic set with two Thermoses housed in a plaid fabric and pleather case. We used the grill on many state park visits, set up badminton games in the backyard and took the Thermos pack on driving vacations, with one Thermos dedicated to hot coffee, the other to milk or a cold beverage for the kids. On this occasion, he had a gift specifically for Mister Boomer and his brother. Mister B’s Dad opened two cardboard boxes and revealed two portable radios. Mister B’s brother grabbed the one with the light blue plastic casing. Mister Boomer received the other. It was a rectangle with slightly rounded corners about the length of a first generation iPod. It had a one-and-a-half inch tuning dial on the upper right corner. The remainder of the front was a shiny metal sheet with tiny holes that covered the on-board speaker. The backside was a plastic, dark burgundy casing, about an inch thick. The bottom had a sliding cap where you could install the 9-volt battery (included). On top was an on/off switch and a volume control. Since Mister B’s brother was barely in his teen years, he had not yet purchased a record player for the bedroom. It was the transistor radio that first filled the room with the sounds of the times, announced by local star radio personalities.

Boomer musical experiences varied slightly in those simpler times before the Summer of Love changed everything. Little by little, a national playlist was forming (we now know it was mainly bought and forced) as regional differences began to fade in importance and a more homogenous list of hits played the airwaves. Surf music mixed with Motown and pop/rock crooners everywhere. You’d walk on a beach or past the local drive-in and every car or portable radio would be tuned to the same station.

Boomer boys and girls did react differently to their music, though, and sometimes to the same song. The early days produced a conglomerate of genres emanating from radio speakers, that fell into two main categories: romance and fun.

Doe-eyed boomer girls felt the songs expressed their fledgling feelings for the opposite sex. They knew that Where the Boys Are was where they wanted to be. They all wanted a Leader of the Pack, but Wishing and Hoping wasn’t going to get them into boys’ hearts. They wrote Love Letters in the Sand. All I Have to Do Is Dream, they thought. Eventually they’d see He’s So Fine, but calling that special boy My Guy would lead to heartache as Lipstick On Your Collar told a tale on you. They’d come to understand that Breaking Up Is Hard to Do. They would prefer that he Break It To Me Gently and might exclaim, It’s My Party, and I’ll cry if I want to, when they realized that It Hurts To Be In Love.

For boomer guys, it was all about Fun, Fun, Fun, at least until Daddy took the T-Bird away. They spent a great deal of energy thinking about fast cars, even more than romance. Or rather, they envisioned fast cars would lead them to romance. Combining the two — cars and romance — was the ultimate in musical expression to the boomer boy. Whether they had a Little Deuce Coupe or a G.T.O., they’d still want to keep away from Runaround Sue. Often the mix led to tragedy. That seemed epic and heroic to boomer boys. If they didn’t come back from Dead Man’s Curve, well, that was an honorable end. In the fiery crash that ensued, they’d get all soft and with their dying breath, remind us to Tell Laura I Love Her. If they had to make a choice, many boomer guys would prefer to be The Wanderer since their mamas told them they’d better Shop Around.

As the sixties moved on, car radios begat FM stations and stereo broadcasts. Eight track tapes and cassettes would follow, and the rest, as they say, is history. Whatever our musical roots, many of us aging boomers may not be able to remember where we placed the car keys; but Mister Boomer is betting a few of those song titles are going to get you to recall whole swaths of lyrics. Which songs are going to run through your head today?

In case you did actually forget (in order of appearance):

Where the Boys Are – Connie Francis, 1960
Leader of the Pack – The Shangri-Las, 1964
Wishing and Hoping – Dusty Springfield, 1964
Love Letters in the Sand – Pat Boone, 1957
All I Have to Do Is Dream – The Everly Brothers, 1958
My Guy – Mary Wells, 1964
He’s So Fine – The Chiffons, 1963
Lipstick On Your Collar – Connie Francis, 1959
Breaking Up Is Hard to Do – Neil Sedaka, 1962
Break It To Me Gently – Brenda Lee, 1962
It’s My Party – Leslie Gore, 1963
It Hurts To Be In Love – Gene Pitney, 1964
Fun, Fun, Fun – The Beach Boys, 1964
Little Deuce Coupe – The Beach Boys, 1963
G.T.O. – Ronny & the Daytonas, 1964
Runaround Sue – Dion, 1961
Dead Man’s Curve – Jan & Dean, 1964
Tell Laura I Love Her – Ray Peterson, 1960
The Wanderer – Dion, 1961
Shop Around – The Miracles, 1960