I’m a born and bred Midwesterner, and the hardy survivor of dozens and dozens of Ohio summers. And yet, it didn’t take many COVID-caused summer days in Maine for me to forget just how that brutal combination of heat and moisture made the Midwestern air feel—until I came back to Columbus a few days ago and was smacked in the face by July.
In a Stonington summer, the temperature rarely exceeds 70 degrees, and if it touches 80 it’s a heat wave for the ages. It’s always cool at night, and a gentle, crisp breeze is usually blowing. It makes a walk on a summer morning a pleasant and invigorating experience.
But in the Midwest the steamy summer air descends on you as soon as you leave your air-conditioned space and clings to you like a living thing. It makes even a predawn walk a sweaty, sapping experience, and there’s really nothing you can do about it. Even a severe thunderstorm won’t cool off the air for more than a few moments.
Some refined Midwesterners say things like “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity” when complaining about this kind of broiling summer weather. I always thought the word “muggy” was more apt, though, because the weather is akin to a mugging, where combination of heat and moisture are like a physical assault and rob you of your cool and calm demeanor, leaving you damp and bedraggled.
Midwestern summers are the reason air conditioning was invented.
The daytime temperature in Las Vegas these days is topping out at around 100 degrees. That’s ludicrously hot, even by mad dogs and Englishmen standards. So, how to lure the crowds staggering from one casino to another to stop at an outdoor cafe for an aperitif? The entrepreneurial proprietors at some spots offer a refreshing mist, the better to cool your fevered brow and stimulate your thirst.
How is that working, you ask? Well, no one was sitting at this outdoor cabaret, even though the misters were firing at full throttle. It turns out that, after the initial cooling sensation, the misters just leave you feeling a bit soggy — and it still is 100 degrees outside.
It’s been obscenely hot in Columbus recently. We’ve had the appalling combination of stifling temperatures, high humidity, and sunshine that make you feel both broiled and wilted at the same time. Under such conditions, any rational person lingers inside, where they can enjoy the blessings of air conditioning.
Yesterday some friends and I went to a fundraiser at a local business that doesn’t have air conditioning. (Who knew that such places still exist?) They did, however, have a big industrial-sized fan that was running at peak speed. Fans really aren’t an adequate substitute for air conditioning. In reality, they mostly blow the hot air around. But any breeze is preferable to sweltering in the hot, dead air, and when there’s no alternative a gigantic fan that’s blasting out air currents at close to hurricane speeds will have to do the trick.
I grew up in a house that didn’t have air conditioning, and the room UJ and I shared always had a window fan during the summer months. It was loud as hell and didn’t really make the room that much cooler, but it was fun to talk through the spinning blades and hear your voice emerge, chopped up and garbled, from the other end.
Yesterday I resisted the temptation to talk through the fan again, but after standing for a bit to the side of the room, and feeling like we were going to melt into the floor like the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz, we shamelessly moved directly in front of the fan. We tried to avoid completely blocking the air currents, in deference to the other people in the room, but the interests of self-preservation in the face of the blazing heat kicked in and overwhelmed our sense of social decorum. We weren’t the only ones who were repositioning ourselves in relation to the fan, either. As the gathering went on, people were drawn to the fan’s wind tunnel effect like moths to a flame.
Every few years, I want to take a warm weather vacation after the weather turns cold in Ohio. I want to put toes in the sand, hear the crash and thrum of waves on sand, feel the radiating sunshine pulsing on my bleached white brow, and drink a cold beer while the condensation beads up on the bottle.
I want to see turquoise water against yellow brown sand, sit under a brightly colored beach umbrella or covering made of palm fronds, and read a book in bright sunshine. I want to walk on the gritty sand, look for an interesting sea shell or two, and watch a sailboat scudding across the waves and framed against the far horizon.
In short, I want to get as far away from my normal day-to-day existence as I possibly can. This year, the destination is a few stops in the Windward Islands. We’re on our way.
Today, in office buildings from sea to shining sea, men inevitably will be dealing with one of the most intractable problems known to nature. For it’s February, and that means we’re in the midst of the space heater season.
The problem is straightforward. The weather in February is awful and, worse, it’s unpredictable. Maintenance staffs across the land will have heated their buildings to a entirely reasonable baseline temperature given the prevailing conditions outside. For some people with two X chromosomes, however, that just isn’t good enough. They’re too hot, or they’re too cold. If they’re too hot, the windows get opened and cold air rushes in. If they’re too cold — which seems to be a far more common condition — the space heaters get deployed.
A normally constituted man walking from office to office might move from a pleasant 70 degrees to meat locker conditions to equatorial heat in the space of 50 feet. There is no way to dress properly for such conditions. And if you are required to actually sit in one of the space heater offices, good luck to you.
The space heater is humming, its heating coils are blazing, and you feel the sweat beginning to trickle down the back of your neck. Meanwhile the office’s occupant — who is probably wearing a sweater, to your amazement — yammers on, oblivious to the fact that conditions in their office are like those in the hot box used to punish disobedient prisoners of war in The Bridge on the River Kwai. In short order you are focused solely on that suffocating heat, face flushed and nodding absently to every word, trying desperately to bring the conversation to a close so you can retreat to areas of the building where normal conditions exist.
I don’t doubt that space heaters serve a useful function, but I’m glad when the space heater season finally ends.
When we were in Columbia, Missouri last week, the temperature climbed over 100 degrees. It was hot — but it was like luxuriating in cool comfort compared to what I experienced in Houston Monday and Tuesday.
The August heat in Houston is like a fist that punches you in the gut and a hand that slaps your face the instant you walk outside. One moment you are sharp and dry in your crisp white shirt and suit; the next you are wet and wilted, with a wrinkled, sodden bit of cotton clinging tenaciously to your back and sweat rivulets beginning to crawl down your spine. The combination of baking heat and high humidity sucks the energy from you in a giant whoosh, and you begin hunting cravenly for the nearest air-conditioned oasis.
There’s a reason why most people move about underground in Houston during the summer and my hotel offered a complimentary shuttle to take guests on trips only a few blocks long. In Houston in August, the surface of the Earth is not meant for most melting mortals.
There may be hotter places than Houston in August — the middle of the Amazon rain forest, or perhaps the dense jungles of southeast Asia — but I don’t want to find them.
The story about the heat wave brought back some memories. Kish and I lived in D.C. from 1981 through 1986, and during the summer the heat was the most unbearably intense, humid, sapping heat imaginable. As a fresh-faced Congressional aide I would leave our tiny walk-up apartment at 1019 East Capitol Street, striding briskly toward the Capitol and my eventual goal of the Rayburn House Office Building, and be positively dissolved in sweat before reaching the environs of the Folger Shakespeare Library. At first you would feel a tiny trickle, then you would start to become a bit stressed about the sweat oozing from your open pores, and soon you would be staggering through the steamy air, your starched shirt damp and rumpled, sweat rings and saddle bags staining the fabric, praying that you would soon reach the arctic blast of the government building air conditioning.
I am convinced that nowhere gets hotter than Washington, D.C. in summer.