When heat tested whittlers, nuns and nearly naked newsmen

Topeka Capital-Journal
June 22, 1987

Often on the golf course, when four or five men are about to suffocate from heat and humidity, they talk about how they would react if they were forced to go out in that weather for four hours and do something equally as senseless as chasing a golf ball.

The other day, one such group followed that brief discussion by talking about what life was like before air conditioning and what it would be like now, if that marvel of marvels hadn’t been invented. Things would be different, that’s for sure.

Most of us have difficulty imagining what it would be like. Even people who live, or work, in places that aren’t air-conditioned go to a lot of places that are. You can seek shelter from the heat, just as you can from the cold.

Everybody has a favorite front-line combat story about the heat. I’ve never worked around a blast furnace, painted the inside of a storage tank in August, or marched through a jungle, but I have my story about the heat. It has to do with putting out this newspaper.

In days of yore, the plant was on the corner of 8th and Jackson, where the bank now is located. The newsroom was on the second floor. It was not air conditioned. We had huge, old-fashioned wooden sash windows and a few fans. That was it.

There were no screens on the windows. We worked at night, putting out a morning paper, and on some steaming summer nights, when we opened the windows, millions of bugs would stream in. Everything you touched was drenched with sweat and covered with bugs, and so were you.

I know I have your sympathy now, and you are wondering if we poor, wretched souls did anything about it. Are bluebirds blue? Do bears live in the forest? Being newspaper men, we exercised our razor-sharp minds and our instinct for survival. We improvised.

The sports department was in a far corner of the newsroom, next to windows, and sort of secluded. So, we opened the windows, turned out the lights, and lit candles. And we stripped down to our underwear. Nothing stopped us from chronicling the events of the day.

We didn’t do this every night, or even a lot of nights. But we did it when necessary. We weren’t pretty. In fact, we were pretty ugly, and we smelled. But nobody ever has been unkind enough to suggest that our product did, too.

As a closing note, I suppose it is just as well that this all happened long before the advent of female sportswriters.

Before air-conditioning, everybody improvised. They had ceiling fans, floor fans swept back and forth, and handheld fans were everywhere. Windows always were open, and paperweights kept things from blowing away. Judges let lawyers and jurors shed coats, loosen ties and roll up sleeves. Everybody talked about the weather, and some did something about it, like rigging window fans that featured water dripping through wet straw or excelsior.

Kids in bathing suits played with garden hoses, just as they do now, but there were a lot more doing it then. People sat on the porch, or out in the shade, and a lot of them slept there too. Cold meals and lemonade were the favored fare.

Today, without air conditioning, the world would be different. There wouldn’t be a Las Vegas, or if there were, it would be just another wide place in the road, with an elite cafe and an old filling station with a sign that “Flats fixed.” There wouldn’t be millions of people gathered in the cities like Houston and Miami because they couldn’t take the heat and humidity. There wouldn’t be condominiums and apartments jammed together and piled atop one another, and no domed stadiums.

In the hot summer months, people who now stay indoors would flock to the outdoors, looking for shade and water. A family with a pool would be even more popular than it is now, and a family without a pool would be trying to figure out how to get one. And a boat.

I remember that before air-conditioning some places were unexplainably cool, and some insufferably hot. My dad’s drug store had a big wooden awning in front and it was cool out there, and even cooler inside. The store had a high ceiling, with fans, and a concrete floor with fans scattered around. Inside and out, it was a favorite summertime gathering place for the town’s whittlers and spitters. They didn’t do much for business, popping only for an occasional nickel root beer.

The church was hot, and it saved more souls at 6:30 in the morning than it did at 11:30. In the summertime, the priest always was judged more for speed than eloquence. The school could be hot, too, in early September, and many days we were sent home early. We always wondered how the nuns, in their long black habits and tight, heavily starched collars, could take the heat.

The coolest spot of all was the icehouse, with its walls insulated with cork and ice piled high and wide. If you didn’t have ice delivered, you stopped by to pick up 25 or 50 pounds, wrapped it in burlap, and then hurried home.

We had no ice maker at the drug store, mainly because they hadn’t been invented, So we spent a lot of time chipping ice with a five-prong ice pick. I haven’t seen one since.

Every once in a while, we are reminded of what life would be like without air conditioning. The hottest I’ve ever been, under the collar and otherwise was one long July 4 weekend in Wichita, when our unit went out and nobody would come to fix it. These were pioneer days relived.

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