While there is no respite like a cold, air-conditioned home on a sweltering day, and no dearth of thankfulness for conditioned air, still there is something lost. As with every technological innovation, for every two steps forward, there is a least one step back, a loss in the gain.
In 1962, when I was four, my family moved into a new home in the growing suburbs, a home which came with no air conditioning. That soon changed. A relative installed a fascinating (remember, I am four, a time when all things but bedtime fascinate) and oversized if underpowered machine under our outdoor steps that whirred loudly into service in the heat of Summer. Life changed. Windows were shut, screens made obsolete, and a new kind of quiet descended on our home. It was the day we unplugged nature and turned inward.
We were fortunate but still in the minority. My research reveals that families in the South made do by sleeping on the porch or even putting their underwear in the icebox. (I don’t ever, ever recall doing anything of the sort with my underwear and would have been shocked to open our freezer and see such unmentionables there among the Kool-Aid popsicles.) By 2007, however, the number was 86 percent. As cool air spread across the country, Sun Belt cities that had been unbearable in the summer became more attractive places to live and work, facilitating a long-term shift in U.S. population. Office workers became more productive. The Summer blockbuster was born as people flocked to the cool of theaters, air conditioned as early as the 1930s. I still recall reading a pre-1984 article from the sadly down defunct American Heritage magazine which surveyed the massive social revolution caused by air conditioning, almost as great as that of electricity, and the impact of what I read has remained attached to my brain when so many other articles and bits of information have been lost.
But something is lost. Reading and then writing this afternoon, I was suddenly chilled and missing heat and sound. I stepped out on the patio and into the near 100 degree temperature and settled into a chair, into air that lacked the sterility of the conditioned air of our home, felt the sun on my skin, and, in a few moments, my skin’s response by forming tiny beads of water, its natural air conditioning. I’m also enveloped by sound, whether the cawing of crows overhead and tweets and whistles of wrens, tufted titmouses (love to say their name), and chickadees, the drone of an airplane or the muffled sound of traffic, the whine of a lawn mower, or, ever more subtly, the wind caressing the trees that sometimes creak as if to signal the wooden limbs of age. In the house I am insulated from all this, kept in silence, antiseptic and unreal.
My wife grew up in a large high ceilinged home that had no air conditioning. In the Summer, oscillating fans whirred and sang one to sleep. The questions of owls and sticky cool of cross-ventilating breezes, the lonesome sound of a single car stopping and starting from the stop sign, the distant and faint sound of a train, the soft splash of rain on shingles — all were a part of a nighttime serenade. Serenade. The word is more suitable than I thought. “A complimentary performance of vocal or instrumental music in the open air at night, as by a lover under the window of his lady,” says my dictionary. And what is that but the wooing of a Creator who made it all and sent it all through an open window to stir our souls? Air conditioning, for all it comfort, cuts us off from that voice, dulls our hearing.
Once I was picking my daughter up from camp in Missouri. Entering the camp, I could not have imagined sleeping in the non-air conditioned cabins in the sticky Ozark air, lying in a pool of sweat, wakeful and homesick. Leaving camp, with windows rolled up and cold air blasting, she rolled down the window and stuck her head out. Incredulous, I said “Roll that up. You’re letting the cold air out.” She called back, “I will in a minute. I want to smell the camp air one last time.” One last serenade.