Desperation always set in around the middle of a Sunday afternoon in those dreadful days before the window air conditioners arrived. The children --small and sticky, tempers not improved by heat rash--yowled and clung to the knees.
The first question was whether a baby-sitter could be induced to enter the suffocating house. That was easier than you might think, for in Alexandria, where we live, there was a generation of placid old ladies who took it for granted that summer evenings in Virginia were awful-- always have been, always will be--and to whom it had never occurred that any remedy might exist. The sitter would arrive, mildly observing that the day had been just terrible, and my wife and I then immediately would flee to sit in the blessed cold at the movies. We weren't selective. We required only a movie that promised to be less intolerable than our living room, and there were plenty of them.
Unfortunately, neither propriety nor the management allowed us to spend the night there. Eventually, well into the second showing, we'd reluctantly go home. I can remember lying in bed, perspiring and twitching, after the fourth shower of the day, calculating how long it might take to fling wife and children into the VW and escape to a better and healthier climate.
Some people will argue that hostile weather toughens the moral fiber. In regard to the steaming weather that you find along the swampy shores of a southern river, like the local one, I hold the fiber argument to be dangerous nonsense. Now that I consider it, I suspect that I inherited that opinion from my mother, who grew up in New England. It was entirely clear to her that a cold climate induced moral rectitude, expressed in neat green commonses with whiteteeples at one end. A hot climate, in contrast, was morally corrupting. There you see the South, drowsy and wanton, with the washing machine on the porch, the bedspring in the creek, and the bottle in the paper bag. Traveling around the country with my mother was a constant course of instruction, with graphic illustrations provided along the side of every road.
By late July--just about the present time of year--I could always feel that old South of languor and decay reaching out to draw me in. Was it possible to endure until October? Then one day --it must have been some time in the middle 1960s--I got home from the office to discover that my wife had simply called Sears and told them to send over some window machines.
Has that changed my life? You bet it has. My midsummer manners are much better. Everyone says so. But, on the other hand, my literary style is no worse. Contrary to impressions that you may have received in college courses in literature, discomfort and degeneration are not essential to English composition here in the South. My relations with my children have become much more civilized, although that may also owe something to the circumstance that they are now both in their 20s. Summer suppers are long, and the table conversation, one of the greatest pleasures of life, continues over the whir of the machines. I see fewer movies.