As I write this, the temperature hit 106ᵒ here in Kansas City. We’re under a Severe Heat Warning from the National Weather Service to go through the weekend, so when you read this it’s likely it will be even hotter here. We’ve had our first heat deaths of the season. There will be more, unfortunately. Across the Midwest and the Southwest, triple-digit temperatures are popping up all over.
In other parts of the nation, large swathes of the country are in flames. Colorado is burning, even in Colorado Springs, I understand. The Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana is burning—110,000 acres. New Mexico, like Colorado, is facing the worst wildfire in state history. Arizona and Texas have also been battling wildfires.
Many of us in that huge middle of the map are under the broiler or in the flames. I don’t remember summers being so hot when I was young—and I grew up in a time when very few individuals had air conditioning. Even motels often didn’t have any, so those who did would trumpet it as a huge selling point. “Icy-cold air-conditioned rooms.”
People had fans, including attic fans, so summer’s accompaniment was always the quiet whirr of the fans. In parts of the South and the desert areas, people had lumbering swamp coolers, which used water to cool by evaporation. The extreme humidity in Kansas City made that a poor choice for this part of the country.
Back in the day, people had big screened sleeping porches. Others slept out in their own backyards, hoping for a breeze. Those without either amenity (because they lived in apartments or other shared housing) took their quilts and mats to lie on and headed for the city parks to sleep during the hottest nights of summer. The parks were full of families sleeping when the highest temperatures hit.
The heat doesn’t seem to have bothered us as much back then—or perhaps it never bothers little kids that much. I do, however, remember a great heat wave in Kansas City the summer I was pregnant with my youngest. Although air-conditioned homes were quite common by then, many people died—older people and poor people. They no longer felt safe sleeping outside or on screened porches and couldn’t afford air conditioners. My baby was born in late July that summer, and I was miserable in the final stages of pregnancy without any air conditioning.
My father-in-law had given us a massive window air conditioner that would cool the whole first floor, but it needed a special outlet and my husband at the time refused to pay to have it installed. We argued and wrangled over it, and I thought I would die of heat prostration before the baby could be born. In the newspapers and on TV news, the heat death toll mounted with no end in sight.
Finally, my youngest son was born. In those days, they kept mothers and babies longer in the hospital after even normal births, and he had some jaundice to deal with. Normally, I hate every minute I must spend in the hospital and try to talk doctors into letting me out early, but not that summer of the deadly heat wave. The hospital was air conditioned.
Three days before we were due to return home, I calmly informed my husband that I wasn’t taking my son home to become a new heat-death statistic. If he didn’t have the air conditioner installed by the time we were released, I would have a cab take us to a motel and would stay there until he did or the heat broke—whichever came first. I was determined, and he could see it. So the air conditioner was installed, as he moaned over the $300 it had cost to install the outlet (when he spent more than that on golf clubs). For the rest of the heat wave, I kept the baby sleeping in his play pen in the living room and slept there myself along with the older kids—and the husband.
I live in an old house and its window air conditioners do the job just fine until temperatures reach about 98ᵒ. After that, it’s a losing battle for them against the heat and humidity. But I’m truly grateful to have them, nonetheless. Every year when the 100ᵒ+ temps hit, I know I’ll read of deaths of people who don’t have that ability to even partially cool their living quarters and themselves.
So I’m sending blessings and prayers to all living in these areas of high temperatures and to all who live within reach of the wildfires. May you be cool and dry and, above all, safe.
What do you remember of ways to handle excessive heat when you were a child?