I knew the National Weather Service had issued a heat advisory. I had already
consumed three or four bottles of water, had a hat on and was very much aware
of the danger posed by high heat and humidity. |
Shortly after lunch, busy
taking down a screened shelter we’d used for shade while target practicing, I
noticed I was sweating way more than normal. Suddenly a wave of nausea hit me.
“Man, I guess I need another bottle of water,” I told my friend, and
walked unsteadily back to the modest shade of an open-backed SUV to dig in the
But even after a half bottle of water, I still felt sick.
“I think the heat got to me,” I said.
“Pour the rest of that water over
your head,” my friend offered.
I did as told and felt a slight bit better.
Still, I knew my body was not behaving normally, so I reached behind me and filled
my gimme cap with ice and put it on my head.
The makeshift ice pack did
the trick, though it felt like I’d jumped into 69-degree Barton Springs head first.
recent incident got me thinking. If a well-hydrated, reasonably healthy man who
is aware of the danger of being too active in high heat and humidity could get
into trouble that easily, how in the world did Texans get by BAC (Before Air Conditioning)?
You have to be a senior Baby Boomer or older to remember a time in Texas
when AC was not ubiquitous.
late as the 1950s, hotels, motels and movie houses (then almost universally known
in Texas as “picture shows”) advertised that they had “refrigerated air.” Automobiles
did not start coming with built-in air-conditioning units until the late 1950s.
One summer in the early 1950s, I traveled with my grandparents and mother
to El Paso from Austin
in a car cooled only by open windows. On long trips, my granddad always carried
a green metal ice chest into which he placed a square block of ice.
this trans-desert trip, my grandmother periodically dipped a washcloth into the
melted ice and held the cloth against my wrist. She believed that cooled the blood
and therefore, the rest of the body. I don’t know if that really works, but I
My junior high school did not have air conditioning when
it opened in the fall of 1961, except for a wall unit that kept the audio visual
room cool. That small space became quite popular with both faculty and students
in September and May. In fact, Austin’s Lanier High School, where I was a senior
in 1966, was the Capital City’s first fully air-conditioned public school.
But my generation had it easy compared to earlier Texans. Imagine a 105-degree
July day way back when. While Indians were smart enough to wear minimal attire,
Texas men wore long underwear, long pants, shirt, vest and coat. Oh, and a black,
heat-absorbing hat. Women wore corsets and multiple layers of clothing, shy of
exposing even their ankles. Anyone seen in shorts would have been arrested for
indecency or lunacy.
The only way pioneer Texans could beat the heat was
to find a spring-fed water hole (but even a bathing suit had to cover the whole
body, unless you could get away with skinny dipping), or a place to sit in the
shade, preferably with a breeze. The only fans they had were hand-held and hand
Well, you could put chunks of ice in your drink. Northern entrepreneurs
shipped sawdust-packed natural ice to Texas from cooler climes, but when the Civil
War broke out and the Union navy blockaded the South, Texas was iceless in hot
If necessity is the mother of invention, suffering is its daddy.
While they didn’t invent the machinery for making artificial ice, Texans improved
on it. By 1867, San Antonio had
three of the entire nation’s five ice machines.
Thirty-three years later,
of 766 ice plants in the nation, Texas had 77. That’s why several generations
of Texans referred to refrigerators as “ice boxes.” That’s literally what they
were until electrification.
So now, thanks to man-made ice and central
air, Texans can stay cool on the hottest days, assuming we don’t blow a power
grid. But one thing hasn’t changed: We still like to complain about the heat.
late grandfather, L.A. Wilke, began his working career as a printer’s devil, melting
lead type for reuse. He liked to read the type as he pitched it into the hell
box and never forgot a short poem he laughed at before tossing it into the molten
| “As a rule |
man’s a fool.
When it’s hot,
He wishes it were cool.
When it’s not,
wishes sit were hot.”
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A definitive history
Books by Mike Cox - Order Here|
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