Of the nation’s heat wave and how we kept cool in years gone by. A story of high summer. July, 2011.

By Dr. Jeffrey Lant

Author’s program note. When one is sweltering in the immensity of unbearable summer, one does (as you well know) what one can to cool off, and promptly, too. Music helps… especially if it’s as cool as Martha and the Vandellas and Cole Porter. They have provided me with the background sound of the day, the sound of this article.

In 1963 Martha and the Vandellas (known from 1967 to 1972 as Martha Reeves and the Vandellas) released an absolutely sizzling dance number entitled “(Love is like a) Heat Wave.” It was a jump-up sound then, urgent in its insistence that you get up and dance, whatever the thermometer. And all these years later, it hasn’t lost the zest that made this popular Motown group a pulse for the nation. It’s one of the reasons “Rolling Stone” in 2004 ranked Martha and the Vandellas #96 on their list of the 100 greatest artists of all time.

An entirely different — but equally cool — sound distinguished Cole Porter’s come-back musical “Kiss Me, Kate” based on Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew”. It came after a string of disappointments, which made America wonder whether this master of wit and sophistication had lost his touch. He had not… and it became the first musical to be given a Tony Award, in 1949. “Too Darn Hot” comes from this, Porter’s biggest hit and summarizes exactly how I feel about the terra caliente. You can easily find both songs in any search engine. Find them now… listen carefully… and of course do so in a very cool room. Otherwise, you may not be tempted to get up and dance…

Heat, more heat, no break in sight.

I checked the 5-day forecast today in the Greater Boston, Massachusetts area, though it only reinforced my pronounced sense of doom that we are in for it and no mistake. Today will reach an insufferable 94 degrees F. Tomorrow even worse and on Saturday but paltry “relief”. I plan to remain in the house, swathed by “cooler” air; be clear I do not say “cool”. I suffer from the completely characteristic belief of all true New Englanders that there are only a few unbearable summer days and that one falls far below one’s hardy Puritan ancestors if one gives way and “coddles” oneself with refrigerated air… when God’s own, good enough for grandpapa, should be good enough for me. I suffer accordingly and am derided by my air-conditioned friends, whom I publicly chide for their lack of grit and fortitude… and secretly envy and covet.

Summer at 4906 Woodward Ave. when we burnt and never worried.

These punishing days of discomfort, perspiration and self-pity go to my memory at once and return me to the searing days of a 1950s summer in Illinois, where humidity and high temperatures produced a keen desire for escape, to anywhere else at all. Even to one’s own backyard turned water park and entrepot for experiments in cooling off. My family with three children and young parents (but without air-conditioning) lived outside as much as possible, and had all the necessary accoutrements for comfortable surviving.

Liberally strewn about the yard, much lived in, never immaculate with carefully tended grass, were the symbols that made clear an active, kid-centered environment. There was a simple garden hose, turned into aqua-weapon with deadly effect… little brothers with attitude soon learned to peer around the corner of the house before advancing, since big brother prided himself on ever new, more exacting forays and gambits. When all else failed on a brutal summer’s day, the hose always worked, the water clear, frosty, unpolluted, never in plastic bottles with pompous names and pictures of snowy mountain tops.

Then came the Slip ‘n Slide.

Slip ‘n Slide is a toy manufactured by Wham-O, first introduced in 1961 after being invented by Cody Abramson. The toy is a long sheet of thin plastic, flanked lengthwise on one side by a heat-sealed tubular fold. The tube can be attached to any ordinary garden hose. Water runs through the tube and out small perforations, spraying into the sliding surface. The Slip ‘n Slide then becomes very slippery, enabling users to jump onto the plastic and slide the length of the sheet. June, for the record, is National Slip ‘n Slide month, but only by company fiat.

Slip ‘n Slide provided years of fun and also, no doubt, a plethora of plastic burns, scuffs of every kind and a body deeply red from one “watch me mom!” stunt after another. Years later both manufacturer and the Consumer Product Safety Commission recommended that only children use the toy because of back and neck injuries when teenagers and adults use it. Injuries occur because people heavier or taller than children might stop suddenly while diving onto the toy. Between 1971 and 1991, seven adults and one teenager reported injuries while using Slip ‘n Slide including neck injuries, bone fractures, quadriplegia, and paraplegia. No doubt we sustained bruises of various kinds… but the only member of the family to complain was Mrs. Whiskers the cat, who was often (and always hilariously) taken down the yellow plastic slide to howls of feline indignation and outrage. By contrast, Missy the beagle delighted in the hub-bub and spray. On one memorable day when an unknowing neighbor sought to remove “that dog” from the Slip ‘n Slide, my 4-year old brother put her firmly in her place: “Is no dawg,” he pointed out, “is Missy”, an unanswerable line that makes me laugh to this day.

One necessary kid device after another.

This yard extensive with woods where wild animals were still to be seen, before the unceasing growth of this suburban sprawl drove them away, this yard featured amusements both handmade and manmade. There was the much-used remains of a real fort my father (talented with his slender hands), built for us. It was a minor work of art, soon demolished by older jealous boys with less nimble fathers. We built another, more practical, always well stocked in buried storage bins with the hard crabapples we knew so well to throw and sting. Illinois, remember, prides itself on its handy young men, and we were surely such.

And so it went, our yard an open-to-the-sky toy box… here featuring the shoebox lifted by a stick, pulled by a string the better to catch the careless robin; we did one day… and, having succeeded in our task… promptly let it go again. We were not a family that killed for fun, sport, or pleasure… and I am proud of that.

In due course, my father had his way and constructed one of the large plastic pools where the water was six feet, or more. It instantly became the center of young, leisured Illinois, to the extent that when the municipality built a brand- new facility, we refused to go… to my father’s chagrin, since he was one of the trustees who made that pool possible. Frankly, the raspberry and blackberry bushes that grew beside our pool, made ours seem desirably rustic and secluded. After all, what is summer moonlight for?

And still the unending heat beat down, but we were not done with our responses yet.

About this time, my grammie came, who always knew a thing or two about families and the need of parents (however young) for a respite. In her immaculate Oldsmobile she drove us to the Walgreen’s in the center of town, the only place to get the ardently desired and soon gone cherry phosphate or raspberry-lime rickey. I’d know their taste anywhere.

And then home, dinner and the last sacred rite of a sultry summer’s evening: running behind the DDT truck as it sprayed the neighborhood with poisons, the fleet of foot (myself in the lead) at the pipe, quaffed and quaffed some more. The dense chemical clouds, the whoops of joy and laughter didn’t lower the temperature one degree… but they raised our spirits… and thus exhilarated we moved out of the heat… towards the livable September temperatures which would liberate us all for another year.

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About The Author

Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is, where small and home-based businesses learn how to profit online. Dr. Lant is also a syndicated writer and author of 18 best-selling business books. Details at http://homeprofitcoach.com/associates