Martha Randolph Carr Martha Randolph Carr, 8/12/2010 [Archive]

Martha's Big Adventure - It is the Heat

Martha's Big Adventure -- It is the Heat

By Martha Randolph Carr

The dog days of August have hit the nation with a large, damp rag. A good swath of the US is enduring temperatures in the high 90's and with the steamy humidity added in it feels like it's well over 100 degrees outside. Like a lot of others things in life it's the perception that really matters.

I grew up in the South without air conditioning and humidity so high the air rippled in front of you making objects in the distance appear fluid. It was like being inside of a Salvador Dali drawing. Everyone knew to move slowly, drink a lot of water and try to sit still. Movie theaters had giant signs outside advertising their chilly air that were bigger than the marquee. An ice cold soda was savored and I would hold the cool bottle against my face for awhile trying to will myself to feel cooler.

At night we only had one large ancient electric fan between four kids. My father would put it in the long hallway insisting it would circulate the air. I'd lie in my bed with my head near the window listening to the fan but I never felt a breeze coming from my doorway.

We did have one trick to help fall asleep at night that I've heard plenty of Southerners relate from their childhoods too. We'd put a top sheet in the freezer all day and then when we were ready to go to sleep we'd take it out and cover up, willing ourselves to fall asleep in under 15 minutes before the sheet warmed up and was bone dry once again. The worst moments came if I woke up in the middle of the night when the house was quiet and the air was clammy and still. There was nothing to do but lay still and hope that the heat could just knock me out again. A good solid hour would always pass while I listened to the cicadas and the tree frogs.

Now, there's air conditioning everywhere, which has changed everything and brought people back to the South in droves. However, there's still a limit to just how much heat we can deal with even in an artificially chilled world and especially in a major city where most people use the public transportation.

In New York City riding the subway in the heat of summer meant that I'd be crammed up against several sweaty arms that left their swipe of wetness on me. Once I was in a clothing store and leaned on the counter, exhausted from the temperature outside and realized I'd put my arm deep into someone else's pool of old flop sweat. I found a ladies' room and washed my arms vigorously.

In Chicago there's just enough space on the El that I haven't had to squeeze in so much and mingle reprocessed body fluids but I'm still walking everywhere and standing on hot, open platforms. That means that by the time I've hiked to a few meetings or run a few errands I'm cooked and wondering if I'll ever walk quickly again.

There's also this peculiar thing about the infamous wind here. It blows harder when it's hot than it does when it's cold. It's like having a blast furnace swirling around your neck and sticking your hair to your face.

I long for winter. I know what everyone's automatic retort will be to anyone who summons up an image of the cold in Chicago. Snow will fill the sidewalks and small pools of cold, dirty water will ring every corner and require me to leap to get over them. My face will ache just from walking one block and the sun will go down before anyone gets to leave their office for the day.

I don't care. I want the temperature to drop and an unexpected early fall snow to appear out of nowhere puzzling the forecasters. I want to see the steam rise out of the door that leads to the building's laundry room and watch people huddle together in the human warming tray on the platforms.

I figure I have a good solid month to go before my wish starts to come true. Until then, I'll try to feel grateful for the bumper tomato crop, swimming in the lake and I'll stick to the shady sides of the streets. More adventures to follow.

Martha's latest book is the memoir, A Place to Call Home. Email Martha at:

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