It has been hot lately but my wife and I were talking to a waitress at Perkins the other night around closing time and I was telling her that as I remember it, this heat is nothing compared to the big drought around 1955 when Ponca City underwent a climate change that made the city seem as dry as the Arizona desert for a few years. You couldn't walk outside without seeing horny toads scurry all around and I remember quite clearly that my friends and I used to catch them by the dozens and keep them captive in water tubs filled with sand feeding them june bugs and ants to keep them healthy.
This was the era before home air conditioning. The only places in town that I remember that had air conditioning were the Poncan Theatre and the Library and folks used to go see a movie or read a book just to get out of the heat. For cooling, we used "coolers" - huge metal boxes that cooled by evaporative cooling. The walls of the cooler were filled with porous wood shavings and a pump circulated water that dripped through the shavings while a 10 horsepower motor sucked air through the shavings and into the house. My bed was right in front of the blast of air from the cooler and I remember that it seemed to cool quite well - probably lowering the inside temperature 5 to 10 degrees and making it quite comfortable during the night. I found out years later that what we called "coolers" were called "swamp coolers" in other parts of the country and in my travels I saw swamp coolers still in use in desert climates in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California.
Of course, one reason that coolers worked so well back then was that during the drought, the humidity in Ponca City was about zero so water evaporated readily. It seems to me that up until about 1976, when Kaw Dam was built east of town, the humidity was a lot lower in Ponca City. My mother says that having Kaw Lake so close changed the weather patterns around Ponca City and that the humidity rose a lot since its construction. If someone tried to use a swamp cooler today, I doubt if it would work at all.
I just read an article in the NY Times on how thousands of people today are turning back the clock and living without air conditioning while maintaining a fairly high quality of life. “You live with your windows and doors open, you use fans, drink lots of cold liquids and take it easy,” says Lisa Finkelstein, a freelance editor, who stopped using the semi-functional air-conditioning and heating unit in her rented cottage in Tallahassee, Florida, two years ago, mostly for economic reasons. “You come to realize that winter and summer is going to be kind of a bear but you dress for it, and you enjoy fall and spring very much. What’s interesting is you acclimate to it.”
Those who plunge into a warmer world for economic reasons sometimes find that there are advantages that they hadn’t anticipated. When Genma Holmes and her family put up an awning and fan over their patio — effectively transforming it into their living room, where they spent about three hours a night grilling, playing games and talking instead of going their separate ways — that they discovered the upside of an uncontrolled climate. “We spent an entire summer getting to know our kids by sitting outside trying to keep our electricity bill down,” said Ms. Holmes, who estimated that the family saved $2,100 last summer; they are repeating the experience this year. “It was very therapeutic and we got closer."
That's how I remember it too. Especially down in Boswell, Oklahoma where I went to spend every summer with my grandparents. Nobody thought anything about the heat - it was just how life was. But everybody looked forward to the cool of the evening, just when the sun got low in the sky and the shadows would lengthen and the fireflies would come out. The whole family would go out on the big front porch, sit in the swing, drink ice cold ice tea, and wait for our neighbors to come around and sit down with us to talk about the events of the day. Simpler days and better perhaps - at least in memory.
Photo: horny toad by jared Flickr Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
decaying swamp cooler by DanielJames Flickr Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic
Click on the photos to enlarge them.