We had a heat wave at the beginning of July, and I am hoping we don’t have a remake. A few people enjoyed the weather, but I think most of us were less than enamored. When Elizabeth lived in Colorado she heard, “But it’s a dry heat” often enough that her response became, “But it’s STILL heat!” Until this month, Boulder was the hottest place I have ever been. It is true that before I was home I bought several more pairs of shorts that I had ever needed in the Green Mountains, yet I didn’t feel like I had been sucked underwater the second I stepped outdoors, so that may put me in the “but it’s a dry heat” contingent.
There seems to be a myth that if you complain about the summer, you can’t complain about the cold and snow. I call nonsense! You are allowed to remark with disfavor about one or both or neither. Weather is our universal conversation starter, which I guess is because no matter what else we are doing individually, we are experiencing the weather together. “Hot (cold) enough for you?” is not very original small talk, but neither is “Good morning.” You have to start somewhere.
In any case, though we may hate winter’s cold and fear freezing, steamy weather is by far the more dangerous. In 1911 there was a heat wave in the Northeast that began on the 4th of July and killed hundreds of people and more horses until it broke, some 11 days later. Now they tell us to stay hydrated, stay near air conditioning, dress lightly, and so on. In 1911, no air conditioning (it was only nine years old and meant for industrial cooling), and fans could only do so much – if you had electricity. Cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia were like ovens. The tar in the streets melted, air in tenements was never known for its freshness and heat rises, so the people in upper stories suffered more intensely.
Think of the clothing that was required of “decent” people – jackets and high stiff collars, plus long sleeved shirts for men while women were constricted by layers of undergarments, long skirts, high shoes, long sleeves, heavy hair and more. Even children were overdressed. Dressing lightly was not much of an option. One of the first indications that the heat was unusually unbearable was that businessmen started leaving off their jackets.
It was too hot to sleep at night. Most of us have endured a few sleepless nights and understand how one’s energy is lessened. Boston and New York opened the public parks at night so folks could sleep on the grass. People slept on the sidewalks to get a little air. One of the saddest things was women walked the streets all night carrying their infants, who were likely to never wake up if left in their cots to sleep. The newspapers reported of people driven insane by the heat. That seemed unlikely to me until I recalled that heat exhaustion and heat stroke affect our brains. Cooling down quickly is recommended, but before the wave was over there were shortages of ice, which was harvested in the winter and had to last till the next winter. Lack of ice also meant food spoilage and food poisoning.
It was in those years that people who could afford it flocked to Milton and other Vermont towns to summer in relative coolness. It may have been hot here, too, but there was a lake to cool you and no one cared much if you left off your jacket. The non-existent tar didn’t melt. Many camps had their own farms and advertised the benefits of fresh milk and produce. It may not have been heaven on earth, but it was close!