July 25, 2011
SIX DECADES OF BEATING THE HEAT
EAST MONTPELIER, VT – The summer of 1954 was not an especially good time to be introduced to the brush country of Texas. The state was locked in a drought that the newspapers, ever mindful of Texans’ religious literacy, referred to as Biblical. And so it seemed. The intermittent stream branches that usually held some water were bone dry; even the cockleburs that infested their red mud beds were withering in the sun. The Pecan Bayou running across the foot of the ranch was virtually stagnant and looked like (if you can imagine it) café au lait with a tinge of green mold. Our drinking water came up from a masonry cistern in a bucket, and was usually topped off with a raft of tiny red ants. Water for dishwashing and baths came by pump from a “tank” – a pond dug by a bulldozer in the calcareous clay soil.
We burned the spines off prickly pears so the cattle could eat them, and waited in vain for rain – for a shower, even – but saw only one, a tiny cloud with a curtain of mist falling from it as it approached from the west. We waited anxiously, with our fingers crossed, but only a mile or so away, it veered and passed over the ranch to the south of us, the home of a bootlegger. My boss, a thoroughgoing cowboy, but also a former Presbyterian China missionary, threw his straw hat on the ground and put his hands on his hips. “Doggone it, Will,” he cried, “it’s rainin’ on the unjust again!” He rolled his eyes at me, to see if a Yankee was also Biblically literate. I was.
Dry as it was, what I remember best is the heat. After torrid sleeping nights with mosquitoes whining outside our mesh cot curtains, the sun rose red and blazing, and by noon the temperature was usually well above 100. My ace in the hole was cold milk. The boss decreed the Mexicans and I could have all the milk we wanted, but we had to milk it ourselves. We usually brought in about eight quarts a day; and if we were working anywhere near the house, I could slip in now and then and chug down a quart of icy-cold milk with about three inches of cream on top. The Mexicans claimed that would cause hives, but it didn’t bother this gringo a bit.
When we quit for lunch the first day – I was whacking at rocky soil with a heavy steel posthole-digging bar while my accomplice, Juan, scooped out the rubble with a shovel – the old man cautioned me to lean my steel bar against a fence post for shade, but to put it where I thought the shade was going to be at the end of our siesta. I guessed wrong that first day; the bar was too hot to hold, even with gloves, until I dragged it to a tank and dunked it. Siesta, by the way, was a blessed time: the house all quiet with perhaps a tiny breeze stirring the curtains, the sun beating down mercilessly outside from straight overhead, the quiet buzzards circling. We slept on plastic sheets to protect the bedding, and by the end of siesta had perspired little pools under our backs.
Lord, it was hot! and it rarely let up. Occasionally we got relief from a drive after dark with all the windows down in the old man’s ‘39 Chevy. Then home to our mosquito-whining beds.
When I came back up North to work, a few years later, I figured that summers would be balmy delights by comparison. The week that the young lady who would shortly become my wife walked past a manhole I was digging beneath the streets of Syracuse, the time-and-temperature display on a nearby bank said it was 106 degrees at 1:06 p.m. So much for balmy. And it was humid, besides. Even my genial boss, who exercised little except for his mind and mouth, was affected. He brightened, however, whenever the state inspector showed up to check the joints in our electrical conduit or do slump tests on our concrete. After a few quick, desultory tests, which we always passed easily, the two of them disappeared into a nearby air-conditioned Irish bar for a bit of afternoon refreshment. I had a convertible in those days, and as darkness fell after work, drove to Jamesville Reservoir to dive deep off the upper side of the dam into the black, cool water.
For years, when I was contracting, the crew started summer days on the west side of the house, if possible, migrating around the north side to the east as the day went on. Winters, it was just the opposite; we did all we could then to stay in the sun. Also, it meant a lot to us to know just when the meteorological middle of winter and summer occurred. Groundhog Day, for example, after we’d been freezing solid for about eight weeks, we hailed as the beginning of the end. Likewise, the first week of August was (we hoped) the start of bearable warm weather.
I’m writing this at the height of this summer’s heat. The indoor-outdoor thermometer just to my left indicates 77º inside and 89º outside – far too hot for for old-timers to be abroad, let alone trying to get any work done. But the fan above and behind me softly stirs the little to-do list on my right and keeps the room pleasant.
The first item on the list is “bear spray”; the second, “white gas.” They remind me that by the time you read this, five friends and I will be enjoying 24-hour daylight, and will be encased in either full bug armor to keep off the black flies and mosquitoes, or layers of polyfleece and Gore-Tex to keep from shivering in a cold north wind. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge recently have been there, but I’ll bet they didn’t have to wear bug armor. No matter what, it’ll beat this.
Meanwhile, I start my mornings on the wood pile on the east side of the yard, deep in the shade of tall pines. The sun hits the chopping block at 11:30; time to change my T-shirt for lunch. A siesta afterward (thanks, Texas, for the idea), and then about 3:00, when the sun drops behind the spruces on the other side of the yard, it’s out to the barn to get some more clapboards on. Nobody told me beforehand that, winter or summer, retirement is a full-time job.