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JOHN EGGERS COLUMN: Staying cool in the good ol' days

John Eggers

The days are warming up and summer is less than two weeks away. Are you ready? Is your air conditioner in working order? Do you have enough lemons on hand for lemonade? Is your ice machine working? Do you have your picture of a south sea island nestled in among aqua blue waters and sandy beaches showing a hammock strung between two palm trees alongside a table with a glass of an icy fruit drink holding a tiny umbrella on top posted on your refrigerator?

Being prepared for the heat is much easier today than it was in earlier days. Most homes had what was called a summer kitchen. This was a small room attached to the house that contained a wood burning stove and screens for windows. Cooking would be done in this "air conditioned" breezeway so the house wouldn't become so hot. About the only air conditioning homes had came from Fido wagging his tail. Moms suffered.

Because no one had air conditioning not many young people stayed indoors in the summer. Everyone looked for ways to cool off.

For me and other young people in many Minnesota communities cooling off meant going down to the "ol swimming hole." In my hometown this is where most of the city kids would hang out. Swimming lessons were offered and there was a lifeguard on duty thanks to the local Lions's Club.

The big kids also taught us lessons about life. The lessons would be taught on the raft located in deeper water. If the little kids were brave enough to swim out to the raft, the big kids would do a "cannonball" to drive them back to shore. The lessons the big kids taught had to do with persistence. Little kids had to be persistent and earn their way out to the raft. It was kind of a rite of passage.

Patience was also important in keeping cool. I can still remember those days when a group of us kids would walk behind a horse drawn wagon delivering ice to the homes that still had the old fashion ice boxes. There were still quite a few of those iceboxes around in the late 40s and early 50s. We would patiently wait until the wagon would stop. The iceman knew what we wanted and he would chip off a piece of ice for each of us. Since this ice came from the lake and was stored in a large tar paper ice house, it was not pure. I wonder today why we never became ill.

I am sure many housewives were wondering when they could afford the new electric refrigerators. Thousands and thousands of these old wooden iceboxes were eventually burned or hauled to the city dumps and that is where my father found his, which he restored and which sat in our basement for many years until he eventually sold it at his garage sale. It always was a good conversation piece and the older folks would tell how it helped keep their meat, milk and eggs cool in the summer.

Running through the hose was a popular way to keep cool and it is still popular. There is nothing like just a little mist to cool you off. When we lived in the inner city, firemen would release a fire hydrant to offer kids a chance to get wet on those hot and humid Camden, N.J., days where there were no lakes, few trees and lots of concrete. Parents would sit on the stoops and smile as their kids danced and pranced through the water. Talk about a summer highlight!

If I had to select a summer highlight, it would be holding an ice-cold glass of homemade lemonade. What is it about lemonade that quenches your thirst a hundred times better than a soft drink? On a hot day I have a hard time passing up some kids selling lemonade on a card table. The lemonade is never quite as cold as you hoped it would be. Of course, the kids selling the lemonade would drink up most of the profits. I can't blame them. I did the same.

Church collections were down on hot summer Sundays. No one wanted to move away from his or her hammock under the shade trees. For those of us who did, my church used to break out the hand fans and place them in the pews as kind of a next best thing to air conditioning.

The fans usually had a picture on one side and on the reverse side was an advertisement for the local mortuary. The picture on the fans in my church showed Christ in the middle and sinners on their way to hell on one side and those who were saved and going to heaven on the other. It wasn't a very rosy picture but maybe it was done to remind us of what it was like to be really, really hot.

Although it was not easy to find ways to stay cool in years gone but persistence and patience and pluck helped us find a way. Even on the very hot sticky days when the temperature was 80- or 90-plus degrees in the shade without a whisper of wind, nothing was better than a glass of lemonade cooled off with a chunk of ice from the lake. Would I have traded that for an air conditioned home? My mother, who would out vote all of us, would say "YES, YES!"

Riddle: What do you call a cow that walks on water? (Holy cow!) Pretty soon we will be saying, "Holy cow it's hot!" When we do, you know what to do. Go get some lemonade with ice from the frig.