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!

Mercury Blues

Mister Boomer note: Sorry about the length of the video, but the song (David Lindley singing “Mercury Blues”), and the great visuals of those classic Mercurys are worth the time investment!

Ford Motor Company has announced that the Mercury line of cars will be phased out in 2010. Originated by Edsel Ford in 1935, the brand was fashioned to fit between the regular Ford line and the luxury Lincolns. Thus, Mercury joins the other brands of our youth, particularly Oldsmobile and Pontiac, now relegated to the dustbin of boomer memorabilia.

Some of us inherited Mercurys from our parents, especially those earlier models with the rounded, bulbous profiles. Some early boomers set about customizing the things to boomers’ discerning standards. With new wheels, fresh paint, rolled and tufted interiors and a Coca-Cola rubdown of any chrome bumper rust, we could be crazy about our Mercurys. Others will recall them as the utilitarian family car, though at least they had some semblance of modernist style (even if it was misguided at times). As for Mister Boomer, Mercury held peripheral memories dealing with other people’s cars.

Mister Boomer’s family was all about the Ford and Chevy, so a Mercury was out of the price range. A neighbor two houses down, across the street, did have one at one point. What Mister B recalls of that early 60s model was mainly the roof line and back window. The neighbor was one of the few on the block to have a garage to house his vehicle, so we only saw it when he would back his Mercury out of his driveway. This gave us a full driver side and rear view of the vehicle. It was a single paint color, all shiny turquoise and, of course, chrome. The cut of the car made it look like an italic font from the side, zooming forward to make its point. The roof line had a bit of a rounded overhang in the back — like a small car soffit covering the back window, which slanted slightly forward as it neared the trunk.

Once the car was safely backed out onto the street, we could see the neighbor kids in the back seat, waving to us through the rear window. The glass was flat and sloped inward, with an inch of chrome molding framing the center two-thirds of the window. Mister B discovered one day that the chrome molding was more than decorative; it served a function. The back window OPENED — by a power switch, no less! As an impressionable youth, that seemed more luxury than our suburb deserved.

Another Mister B/Mercury connection happened in high school. There was this kid who got a used mid-sixties Mercury Comet from his aunt as we were heading into our senior year. It was in showroom condition and a sight to behold. Blazing red inside and out, the only “eye rest” was the shiny chrome. Mister B had ridden in this blaze of color on wheels a few times since the owner lived nearby and would, on occasion, drive a few of us to Our Lady of Perpetual Guilt High School. (Yes, some of us really did walk five miles in the snow to go to school!)

Somehow, the folks at Mercury exactly matched the vinyl interior to the paint color. The metal dash (remember when they were all metal?) was also painted the exact same red, accented with blinding chrome when the fall and winter sun was at the right angle. Now, red is a fine color, even transcendent in the candy apple variety that appeared on tricked-out hot rods in the area. This particular incarnation, however, was not Mister B’s cup of tea. Insert your rendition of “Paint it Black” here if you like. Mister B is humming it now…

A few years later, a neighbor was coming home from Vietnam. His exact story is hazy at this point, but the facts are he was discharged and ended up down south somewhere. Shortly after that, he walked into a Mercury showroom, bought a Cougar and married the saleswoman a few days later. He drove back to the Midwest with his discharge papers, new car and new wife. Well, the wife didn’t exactly work out and she was gone within a week (a not-so-humorous story for another time, perhaps). The Mercury Cougar fared a little better. Before he was drafted, he drove a Chevy Corvair. Since the back seat was positioned over the rear-mounted engine, Mister B recalls that riding in the back of that thing was like sitting on a griddle. We’d sit on our hands to avoid roasting our rumps. It was no surprise to this boomer when Ralph Nader announced the thing was “Unsafe at Any Speed.” Now sitting in his parent’s driveway was this gleaming, jade-green, V-8 muscle Mercury with a tan leather-like interior. It was the model that had the headlights flip out of the grille when activated. Pretty sleek, my man. This Mercury model was one of the early attempts by the auto industry to tempt the younger buyer into purchasing off-the-shelf, with no need to customize a vehicle to be “street-ready.” Though Mercury turned the Cougar into more of a luxury brand a few years later, car companies continued the muscle car lines for several years into the seventies. Surely this resulted in every boomer out there having a muscle car story.

Yet what about Mercury? Once a Greek messenger to the gods … and now, a car line soon to be gone. Will it, like its Greek god namesake, be forgotten? Do you have any memories of Mercury you’d like to share?