Monday, July 14, 2014

When I Was a Kid, We Didn't Have AC. We Had Pizza Hut.

Sometimes I wonder if the Grape has it too easy.

Last week the temperature and humidity soared in Boston, and as the Grape and I trudged home from camp through the mid-afternoon soup, under a blazing sun, he said, "I can't wait to get home to the air conditioning."

I agreed. I love the summer, and the beach, but I don't have much use for temperatures above ninety. In my humble opinion, the only sensible place to be in such adverse conditions is under water, preferably with a snorkel.

"When your uncle and I were kids, we didn't have air conditioning," I told the Grape, as I tried to ignore the sweat streaming down my neck and legs.

The Grape gave me a look that said he wasn't buying such nonsense.

"It's true," I insisted, but he sensed a "walked uphill both ways, and fought off bears with my lunchbox" type tale coming on, and he lost interest.

I grew up  in Rhode Island, near the shore, which (in fairness) meant the ocean moderated the climate quite a bit. Even so, for a few long weeks every summer, the temperature would climb to the nineties and higher, the humidity would keep pace, and we would swelter.

We were lucky: My mother took us to the beach a lot. Occasionally we'd hit the grocery store on the way home and linger in the ice cream aisle.

But we'd inevitably pack it up by five o'clock, at which point our house felt like an oven set to broil and the yard buzzed thick with mosquitoes, who feasted on the Mediterranean blood coursing through my kid brother's veins and mine, while leaving our Finnish mother unmolested.

My brother and I normally picked the latter poison, and then tossed all night, sweating and itching. Or I did. My brother could sleep through anything.

On especially miserable evenings, my father would pile us into our massive blue Buick and the whole family would head for the blissful oasis of Pizza Hut.

Back then, Pizza Hut was a sit down restaurant, with red and white checkered table cloths and waitresses rendered preternaturally cheerful, probably because Pizza Hut had the coldest AC in all of North Kingstown, Rhode Island,  if not the entirety of Washington County.

And if memory serves, the parental allure was enhanced but the fact that they served pitchers of beer. Or it might have been Pepsi, or Tab. By then, my folks were too overheated to care.

We would milk that AC for all it was worth. We'd eat three courses at Pizza Hut before reluctantly paying the bill and stepping out into the steamy parking lot. One especially hot night, my dad ordered a small pizza for the four of us, and after we'd demolished that, he ordered another one, just to extend our sojourn in the cold.

I can't explain why my parents resisted the installment of air conditioning for so many years. It wasn't due to concern for the planet. Back in the 1970s and 80s, global warming hadn't crossed their radar.

I think their resistance was partially due to the expense, since AC isn't exactly easy on the electric bill.

But for my mother at least, I suspect the reluctance to chill us out was about more than the utility bills. She likely objected on the dual grounds of perceived pretentiousness and tackiness. An AC could be construed as pretentious and showy, since not very many people we knew had them, and because the hot season, while brutal, was also brief.

AC could also be considered tacky, because the window units would  look silly sticking out of the over sized glass windows of our 70s deck house (visual aid: it looks exactly like the Brady Bunch house from the outside).

Concerns about cost, ostentatiousness and tackiness were finally brushed aside during a lengthy heat wave in the summer of 1981. Or maybe it was 1982. Anyway, my parents caved, or wilted, rather, and my dad emerged from Benny's with a glorious, enormous window unit contraption.

Most people would assume my parents installed the house's sole air conditioner in the master bedroom.


There was a study off the master bedroom, with a window largely obscured from public view by an enormous evergreen tree. That's where the AC went, and we pushed and shoved to get closer to it as it roared to life and clattered like a broken luggage carousel. You could probably hear that old window unit next door, but we didn't care.

The whole family would huddle in the study during the hours after dinner and before bedtime. My brother and I never slept in the blissful cool, though my parents might have once or twice, behind our backs.  I have no proof, just a hunch, based on the circumstantial evidence that the study featured a pullout sofa.

As far as I know, the only family member to get a cool night's sleep on a regular basis back in those days was the dog. He was a medium-sized, fine-boned black mutt with expressive ears and a big white splotch on his chest, and he was no dummy. He grinned as the door shut behind him at night, closing him in the mysterious bubble of loud Arctic chill.

The year after the air conditioner arrived, my dad brought home the world's tiniest television for the study, which represented, in my view and my brother's, a massive, previously unimaginable upgrade.  We spent hours fiddling with its rabbit ears. Nintendo followed a few years later. We had two games: Mario and Duck Hunt.

At some stage, my mother installed a turbo charged ceiling fan in the master bedroom. If memory serves, its arrival loosely coincided with that of my little sister.

My parents didn't air condition the whole house for another decade, by which time I was off at college, where my roommate and I put towels over the air vents to prevent the temperature in our room from dropping below sixty in September. Some might say, be careful what you wish for, but I didn't mind.

So the Grape might have it easy, but I suppose it doesn't really matter. My parents lived their earliest years without plumbing in post-War Europe. I'm grateful they didn't impose the same on us, to make some silly point about the kids being too soft.


  1. I think every generation feels that the one after it has it easy, or, easier at least. But, it really depends on what you're measuring. My sons will never have the experience of walking over to a friend's house, staying for dinner just because they are there, and walking home at dusk. They will never be able to ride their bikes around the neighborhood with abandon. They will never have the spooky feeling of driving down to the 'gulley' in the back of an open bed truck. They won't jump up at the familiar sound of the ice cream truck announcing its arrival from a street away. They won't get to experience family movie night at the local drive-in.

    All of these things make me sad, but it's balanced by the many things they do/will have.

  2. Every generation definitely has its "uphill through the snow, both ways, fighting off bears with lunchbox" moments, and I think part of the reason we shake our heads and laugh is because our kids are better off in many ways. That said, I think the current generation of kids aged middle elementary and older are WAY too watched over. I'm hopeful that if we do decide to leave the city, my son will be able to walk home at dusk, ride his bike with abandon, etc.