Behind The Lines
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THIS ISSUE TELLS OUR READERS how to enjoy Texas in the summer. That we could so easily be urging Texans to enjoy summer is a testimony to how summers have changed. It wasn’t so long ago that a Texas summer was as inhospitable to normal human existence as a 40-inch snowstorm. Air conditioning has changed our summer lives almost as much as instant snow-remover would change winter life in Alaska. It has made summer more bearable, but at the same time has taken away the hard necessity that in hotter, more difficult times gave us summer survivors a sense of community and fun.
I remember August days, in the not-so-distant, pre-air-conditioned past, when our whole family would stretch out in the hall with only one door open and the attic fan going full speed; when we would soak our sheets and sleep under a rotary fan blowing over a tray of ice water; when we would lie sweating in the night hoping for just a breath of warm breeze, listening to the sounds of insects and night life through the screened open windows.
More than anything else air conditioning has made Texas generally habitable, allowing its cities to become corporate headquarters (can you imagine plush Eastern corporations moving to Houston without air conditioning?), contributing thus to the state’s economic boom, and making everyone’s life, well, easier. The pleasures and advantages of air conditioning should not be underestimated.
At the same time air conditioning has removed us still further from our environment, isolated us still more from our neighbors, and created a pervasive artificiality whose price we may be willing to pay but which we seldom realize. Most of us today spend our summer lives going from air-conditioned room, to air-conditioned car, to air-conditioned restaurant, etc., etc. Our lives look out of rolled-up windows, or else out of windows designed not to open at all.
My first memory of air conditioning is of the soft sound of falling water from tall wooden towers that began to appear in the backyards of our more well-to-do neighbors about 1950 or so. They were a far cry from the enclosed efficiency of today’s models, but they did the trick and were a source of endless fascination to us kids, who regularly hunkered up around the falling water like Lash LaRue under a waterfall, or else proceeded to lose our baseballs, tennis balls or whatever to the bubbling water inside, which we were led to believe was electrically charged and meant instant death to the first kid who ventured within.
I wonder how many kids growing up today really know what it is like to be hot, to hear insect sounds at night, and to have to exercise considerable family ingenuity just to survive. Kids no doubt do know more about heat today than most of us, since naturally our schools are the last buildings to be air-conditioned, long after our homes and offices. God knows how many generations of children were cheated in their education by the enervating, mind-stopping effect of Texas summer heat, which made the process of schooling during September and May a sweaty competition between the raw nerves of the teacher and the loud roar of the standup fan.
Of course most of us didn’t realize just how hot Texas really was until air-conditioning told us we no longer had to suffer summer. Then we became furtive, hermetically-sealed creatures, with our temperature and our humidity as controlled as our lives. With air conditioning came the end of a whole way of life. The children’s lemonade stand has gone the same way as the walk outdoors at dusk, porch-sitting and other forms of evening breeze-taking. We watch baseball games in the air-conditioned Astrodome instead of in our shirtsleeves under the sun or stars. We stay inside and stay cool.
In this issue we come resolutely to the defense of sweat. Inside you will find a whole array of things that will hopefully get you outside into the heat and among your fellow man. That’s what summer always was, anyway: a time for community pleasures, for family outings, and for all those things that the other seasons just didn’t open time for.
Texas has been shaped in the last 25 years by the increased privatization of our lives. There are few city parks but many apartments and subdivisions; few state parks but a host of condominiums and private resorts; few public places and many private ones. It is a good antidote to our air-conditioned lives that we seem to be getting outside again, that we have rediscovered our ability and need to sweat, to get out of breath, and to expand the horizon of our vision beyond the narrow sweep of our enclosed and air-conditioned spaces. It goes without saying that to take advantage of this trend we need more parks, more public places, more wildernesses preserved, and more space in general.
There is no question that in performing certain tasks both body and mind function better in a controlled and pleasant environment. So be it. There seems also to be no question, however, that to live continuously under such an environment narrows our experience to that of laboratory creatures.
The perfection of the air conditioner has probably meant more to the economy of Texas than the discovery of oil, particularly today when paper management has become Texas’ chief business forté. We can appreciate both this achievement and air conditioning’s advantages, and yet still feel enough nostalgia for the change of seasons and the old joys of summer to want to escape every now and then.
This issue tells you how to escape. We hope you do, because we plan to.
The statements by Mr. Robert D. Deegan and Mr. Frank A. Bennack, Jr., in support of the North Expressway were mistakenly switched in “The Second Battle of San Antonio” in our April issue. Our apologies to Mr. Deegan and Mr. Bennack for the error.