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Hey, Mom! Chill Out. Really.

By Nicholas Day
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 23, 1998

  Style Showcase

    Chillin' Desperation takes the form of a fan. (Frank Johnston/The Washington Post)
Whenever the house became unbearable – the damp, listless summer air having sneaked through our screens – my mother would start talking about the 19th century again.

People back then – tougher folk, she would say. Less pampered. Had to sweat out this weather. Then she'd shrug.

Hey, at least we have heat in the winter. Who needs air conditioning?

My sisters and I – our T-shirts waterlogged, our faces red and gleaming – never listened, of course. Listening was something people did in the 19th century, probably, and we were of the 20th – proselytizers for progress. To us, progress meant air conditioning.

We were too busy to listen, besides. Listening involved sitting still, and in suffocating July, sitting still was ill-advised. We had our heads buried in the freezer, or our faces pressed against the fan, or our hands wrapped around the hose or each other's neck.

Such desperation may now be familiar to folks around the Washington area. Almost 100,000 area homes had their air conditioning cut off Tuesday by a marauding, powerful thunderstorm. Yesterday power company officials – as temperatures neared the triple digits – said about 17,000 homes remained without electricity.

Horrible news. Terrible. Catastrophic.

Okay, I should fess up.

I had, upon hearing the details, an uncharitable sequence of thoughts, almost all of which involved unkind, unfair pokes at cherished readers. I may have giggled a few times, even. But I ended up curious.

In the Washington area, 90 percent of homes have air conditioning.

How few people, I wondered, grow up these days without air conditioning? Are my sisters and I members of a dying tribe that worships the sound of bird calls, police sirens and lawn mowers?

In which case, I ought to record our story.

Our house – that living history exhibit – was in central Illinois, a region not noted for its scorching sun, but hot is hot, and it was, often. Enough so that when our cousin from the Dominican Republic visited, he asked my mother, "Aunt Suzy, is it always this hot here?"

My mother, a school worker who was home during the summers, didn't like feeling cloistered, didn't like radically readjusting to the weather every time she left the house, didn't like the machine's incessant noise. It's an attitude you'd consider noble if you weren't her child.

My father was apathetic but acquiescent. We were neither.

When I was younger, our house was nearly the only one I knew of that was not climate-controlled. Everyone else – and that "everyone else" is never larger than in your childhood – luxuriated in a/c. Friendships became brutally pragmatic: You had friends so you could exploit their air-conditioned sanctuaries. Their homes were like resorts; why you'd vacation when you had air conditioning, I couldn't comprehend.

When it got really bad, we children were shuffled off to the library for hours. We ate cold soup eight days a week in a hivelike environment, surrounded by buzzing floor fans. We constructed gigantic, billowing tents from sheets and high-powered fans. We whined a lot and built lots and lots of character.

My summer existence centered on innumerable shades of heat. Mine was a perpetual search for more precise meteorological data: As any middle-class child knows, having an acute sense of your misery is more meaningful than the misery itself.

I repeatedly called the obsessively updated time and temperature line. "The temperature is: 96," the cut-and-paste voice would bark, and that number, instantly, would be translated into appropriate behavior: Ninety-one was doable, 97 desperate. Any number below 90 was snowsuit weather. Any number above 98 meant you could probably finagle a special dessert.

The niftiest meteorological measurement – the best invention ever, I thought – was the heat index. The heat index, or the it-feels-like index – ostensibly a combination of the heat and the humidity – usually made the weather in central Illinois comparable to that of Saharan Africa (where, I was confident, everyone had air conditioning).

My sisters and I were a fractious lot – like most siblings, we never agreed to disagree – but the heat brought us a precious, traditional solidarity: Us vs. The Parents. Financial discretion was not the point. The point was injustice, an egregious dissimilarity between their situation and ours. Namely, the ceiling fan in their bedroom.

Imagine. The sanctimony of it all. Pro-democracy organizations in former Eastern Bloc countries could not match the conviction we felt.

That wonderful togetherness – especially when, during moments of parental weakness, we felt we could make a difference – was forever split when the unthinkable happened: A ceiling fan appeared in my older sister's bedroom. A three-speed.

It was brilliant parental strategy. Divide and conquer. My sisters and I broke ranks, another movement destroyed by infighting. It was never the same. Years passed.

Now, as my parents are in the midst of rewiring the house, talk of installing air conditioning filters down.

My father says: It would make the house more marketable.

My mother says: We would never use it. Never.

My younger sister, still in high school, says: Ha.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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