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It hit 103 in our driveway today, and I don’t have the energy left to muster an exclamation point.
Hot’s novelty, folks, has worn off.
Here in Kentucky, we’re moving into the 10th consecutive day of a record-breaking heat wave. Our grass has lost its will to live, and Ernie and I spend our days carrying handfuls of water to the ferns on the deck. “Hang on,” we whisper, “hang on.”
The people who know about these things keep referring to previous records set in the 1930s – Western Kentucky officially hit 114 in 1930 – and the 1950s. I wasn’t surprised at the statistics cited from the 30s. After all, I’ve read Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. But I didn’t realize that the scorched Kentucky summers of my childhood in the 1950s were so outside the ordinary.
For example, 1952 still marks the warmest June on record for Louisville. Frankfort set 100 plus records several days that July, and tied the record of 105 on July 29. Paducah hit 106 on July 1.
The heat was only part of the story, though. A “severe drought” hit the state in June 1952, and didn’t lift until – are you ready for this – sometime late in 1955. In fact, meteorologists have named this “The Drought of 1952-1955.” Let me just say that it was a shock to learn that a 100-year drought was named for a big chunk of my childhood. Back then, I was oblivious, busy being a kid, but the weather statistics explain some of my memories.
I remember Daddy, usually calm and quiet, pacing on the front porch one day about 1954 or 55 in a near frantic state.
Obviously agitated, he begged the sky for rain in a loud voice. I’d never seen him or anyone do that before, and I felt uneasy. It rained some after that dramatic scene, and I always think of it when I hear about the rainmakers who traveled across a desperate, dry America in the Depression. Now, reading about the early 1950s, I understand that Daddy was three, maybe four, years into a drought that had taken a toll on our tobacco crops – and income – longer than our family coffers could afford.
And then there were the cracks in the ground that break my childhood memories of our farm into a thousand pieces. Ruptures, an inch or more wide, ripped apart our parched lawn, the barnyard and the fields. I would place my eyeballs at the edge of these dry canyons, and wonder if I really could reach China on the other side of the world if I slithered into one. Alice, I knew, found a Wonderland when she went down a rabbit hole. I was pretty skinny in those days, so sliding into one of these gaping fissures in the earth was not a far-fetched possibility.
Mostly, though, I remember that there was no escape from the heat. Air conditioners had not yet made it to our corner of America, not even into the stores in the nearby small towns like Owenton. Oscillating electric fans were our only source of relief, though I don’t recall that they cooled our houses much. On a mission to whack off my fingers, the menacing fans made as much noise as a WWII bomber squad. Still, when the sun was at high noon and I had no place else to hide, I sprawled in front of their rapid-fire blades and begged for mercy.
The nights were the most difficult. Maybe this was because our daylight hours were expected to be hard and full of work on the farm, but nighttime – oh, that was for rest. If the thermometer were still hanging around 90 at 10 o’clock in the evening, however, it would be about a 115 in our upstairs bedrooms, and restorative sleep near impossible.
In the summer of 1952, when the drought set in, our little house was full of people too hot to sleep. Mother, Daddy and I lived with Gran Hudson, so that made four. Aunt Sis and her third, maybe fourth, husband, were separated, so she arrived early in the summer seeking asylum. About a month later, however, he showed up, presumably to woo her back – which he did - and no one had the heart to tell him to leave since we assumed he was out of work. They both stayed until September. Another relative was having a health crisis, so her two children, about my age, spent the summer with us too. We were a total of eight people, then, in a house with three tiny bedrooms.
This was the summer Aunt Sis, notorious for running any good thing into the ground, made pink potato salad for every meal except breakfast. Sometime around the middle of July, deep into the heat and the drought, she accidentally mixed Stanley oven degreaser into the mess instead of Wesson salad oil, and nearly sent us all to the hospital. But I digress – the nights are what nearly killed us.
The grown-ups would sit on the porch and fan themselves with folded sheets of The Lexington Herald, and tell the stories of who had been, of oughts and shoulds and might-have-beens, while we kids smothered a generation of lightening bugs. I’m amazed the insect isn’t extinct.
Finally, near midnight, we’d give up and fall into restless beds – or in the case of us kids, the living room sleeper sofa. One night Aunt Sis announced that they couldn’t take the upstairs bedroom that was as hot as you know where any longer. Later, Daddy would admit that he had hoped this meant they were leaving. Instead, Aunt Sis and Husband III or IV carried blankets to the backyard and slept on the ground. Farm people back then didn’t believe in camping. Hoboes slept outside, not honest, hard-working people who had perfectly good houses to sleep in. Perhaps the unrelenting heat had pushed us beyond appearances, however, because Mother relented and let us kids sleep outside, too. We didn’t make it all the way through the night, but I remember it as one of the highlights of the summer.
The heat wave of 1952 would end-again. The drought would end, too, but not until 1955 apparently. I guess this one will too. All I have to say is what I tell the ferns on the deck. Hang on, hang on.