As I have been reading Harper Lee’s “new” book, Go Set a Watchman, which involves many of the same characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, imagine my surprise to find Boo Radley mentioned on the first page of Tom Jackson’s Chilled: How Refrigeration Changed the World, and Might Do So Again. Jackson analogizes the refrigerator to Boo, “normally pale, frequently indoors, seldom thought about much but always there, and in the end (spoiler alert) we need it to make everything right.” I’m only 50 pages in, but what I love about this entertaining book is the way it takes something in the background, that we take for granted, and gives it a starring role. For a moment, anyway. Anyone ever make you feel that way?
I have a lot of memories associated with refrigerators. I hung out with refrigerators as a child, as my Dad was partners in an appliance dealership. After hours, we ran around the showroom and stock room, opening doors and closing doors, the new smell of rubber wafting out, clambering over boxes in search of hiding places, and pushing any button we could find. And then my best friend used to come over and enter our always unlocked kitchen door and help himself to some food in our fridge. Mostly, a cheese slice.
My grandmother never quite got used to having any refrigerator but a Kelvinator, one of the early refrigerators, first produced in 1916. She called all refrigerators kelvinators, and until I was old enough to know better, I thought that’s what they all were. Then came Whirlpools and Maytags, and I had to adjust my thinking, allow for differing personalities. But the squatty Kelvinator stuck for a while.
My dad kept a pitcher of water in the refrigerator. He’d come in the house sometimes, and I’d be in bed in my room off the kitchen, and I’d hear him open the door, slide the pitcher out, uncap it, and take a long drink right from it. Guilty! Of course, we were told not to do that. Since I was the last one asleep, I heard it all. Once, very late, he came in. His mother had died. He took a very long drink that night and I believe he stood there for awhile, maybe leaning up against the refrigerator. I heard him.
I’ve been to Africa five times, and I can tell you, there are not nearly as many refrigerators on that continent as here, and almost none in rural villages. Air conditioning is limited to some shops and offices in the cities. Usually, the first cold air I feel in Africa is a blast from the interior of a KLM jet. . . when I’m leaving. I feel that and am already gone into the West, a whole world of heat and humidity and wood fire smell behind me.
When I worked for a department store in high school, I delivered a few refrigerators to buyers. But I don’t want to think about that. Putting one in a trailer is a challenge. That’s why I went to law school. I’d rather die by the law than on the steps of a trailer out of which we just dropped a refrigerator. Sorry, I didn’t want to think about that.
Do you know how a refrigerator works? Be honest. Or lie. Either way, Jackson does a good job of explaining it without getting all nerdy-engineer on us. I like this description: “A refrigerator is a ‘heat pump,’ which on the face of it is an uninspiring term. However, dig a little deeper into the concept and it reveals something rather amazing —- tiny acts of rebellion against the conformity of the universe.” What? As he explains, a heat pump pushes heat against the universal flow, pushing heat out of the food and freezer compartments into the surroundings, and as a result everything inside gets colder. Hmmm. And I thought it blew cold air into the compartments. I don’t know anything. Tiny acts of rebellion. War on the law of thermodynamics. I know about rebellion. My tiny acts of rebellion were so tiny no one noticed. Do those matter? (Like once I drank out of the pitcher of water, just like my dad.)
My mother’s refrigerator was always covered with magnets, cutesy ones as well as photo magnets. At least I think so. It’s been so long. I used to lean against its coolness and talk to her as she cooked or cleaned, as word seem to sound better in the air of the kitchen, and then I’d open the fridge and pull out an ice cold Coke, in the small bottle, with a chunk of cheddar cheese. Cheese and coke. And Matlock, her favorite TV show. During the show you could not talk with her, as she was glued to the screen, her head actually leaning forward to catch his every golden word. Before that, it was The Fugitive, with David Jansen, on whom she may have had a crush. I’d make more than one trip to the refrigerator. Tiny acts of rebellion. In fact, to my shame, I associate the refrigerator with TV; I can’t have one without the other.
He’s right. I need the refrigerator to make everything right. I might give mine a name: Boo. Excuse me while I go see Boo.