by Roger M. Goetz
LIFE BEFORE AIR-CONDITIONING AND AFTER TV
The Harold Jameson family lived next door to us: they at 816 Ash, we at 822 Ash. Since our driveways were separated by only a small strip of grass about six feet wide, we could easily see each other’s comings and goings.
And, before air-conditioning, when the weather was warm and windows were open, we could hear each other’s comings and goings as well.
That strip of land was no barrier to our going back and forth; however, I had a dream three or four times as a sixth-grader: I would come out of our garage to go over to the Jameson home and discover that the area from our driveway to the breeze way connecting the Jameson house and garage had grown wider and been subdivided into large cement squares, three feet on a side.
Every other square had a rattlesnake on it, ready to bite anyone landing on its square. To get over to the Jameson house, then, I had to hop carefully from unoccupied square to unoccupied square so I wouldn’t get bitten and die. Just as I succeeded in getting over there safely, I would wake up from this nightmare in a "cold sweat." I wonder if this was related to learning to play chess and the damage that the numerous pawns could do. <grin>
One time, I remember, the Jamesons decided to have a tree cut down stood in the parking (the word my parents used to refer to the lawn between the street and the sidewalk). All of the branches were cut off and hauled away. For some time, however, the trunk was left standing where it had grown. Early one morning we were awakened by the Jameson family being festive and silly outside.
We threw some robes or coats over our pajamas and rushed outside to see what was going on.
Holding streamers fastened to the top of the trunk, the five Jamesons were singing and laughing and dancing in a circle around the trunk. They stopped once the streamers were wrapped around it.
When asked what they were doing, they gleefully announced that it was May Day and they were dancing around a May Pole.
* * * * *
For summer afternoons, when it was too hot and humid to actually do anything outside (except let the corn grow) and even hotter indoors, I developed a method of coping with the heat.
First in the shade of the tree growing between our south lot line and the driveway of Jacob C. Neff (1899-1969), I set up a lawn chair with a galvanized washtub in front it. Next, I ran the garden hose over to the washtub and turned the hose on just enough to start water flowing into it.
That done, I’d settled shirtless into the chair and, with a smile of anticipation, slowly lower my feet into the cold water. That kept me comfortable, and I could read for hours.
The only problem was that periodically I had to move my chair and everything else to stay in the shade–a small price to pay for comfort–but I’d get irritated when my reading was interrupted by this. Besides, the full washtub was heavy and cumbersome to move. I coped, however, by dumping the water out first. And that had a beneficial side effect: I started over with fresh cold water on my feet!
That tree, by the way, had a special meaning for me, for I loved to climb trees. More than once, Dad [Prof. Dr. Charles A. Goetz Sr. (1908-1985)] had me help Mr. Neff by climbing that tree and sawing off the branches they indicated. What fun!
Speaking of climbing trees, there was a tree across the street from the Jameson home that was about two stories high. I liked to climb that tree and sit as high as I could go for an hour or more just to enjoy the view and any breeze that might come along to cool me off. As I recall, their son Benny like to climb that tree, too.
To cope with the heat on summer evenings after supper, my parents and the Jamesons would sit outside in front on lawn chairs and visit while we children played. Once, when I asked Mrs. Jameson why they didn’t sit in their back yard, she smiled and said, "We like to watch the sun go down."
Air-conditioning and that newfangled thing called television made such neighborliness all but disappear after a few years.
* * * * *
I remember vividly how my father went about air-conditioning our home. He had a window air-conditioner installed in the northern window well on the west side of the house. It blew cold air into the northwest room of the basement.
He turned on the furnace fan and studied the air currents in the basement by blowing puffs of cigar smoke in various places and watching how the smoke moved.
Then, across the doorway from that room to the southwest basement room, he hung a cloth with only about a foot of clearance above the floor. After further study of air movements with cigar smoke, he placed appropriate cloth barriers over the other basement doorways as well.
When he was finished, he shut the air vents on the first floor of the house and left the furnace fan running. As a result, that window air conditioner was able to cool our entire four-bedroom, two-storey house quite adequately.
I enjoyed watching him do all of this but wound up catching a cold from having the air conditioner blow cold air on my face too long.
* * * * *
With regard to television, the Jamesons had one for at least a year before we did. My father wasn’t much interested in getting one either. My brother Chuck [Charles A. Goetz Jr. (1936-1987)], however, found it fascinating and began to spend most of his free time in the evening watching TV with the Jamesons. Dad finally bought one for our house "to keep Chuck home," as he put it.
Having a television changed our life style. Before long, my folks bought four metal TV trays, so we could eat supper in the living room and watch television whenever they wanted to. After a couple of years, though, the novelty wore off and we gradually stopped doing that. My parents felt it was interfering with family relationships and conversation at the dinner table.
Having grown up with radio, I wasn’t much impressed with television. Creating in one’s mind the picture of the radio drama to which one was listening yielded a much more exciting and realistic event than could be obtained from watching early television with its amateurish camera work.
The plots of the westerns left something to be desired as well. Dad enjoyed watching them in those early years of television. I could never really understand what he saw in them, but I knew that, as a child, he had enjoyed reading the popular western novels of his day.
I quickly learned that all of the TV westerns had one of three plots which they used over and over and over. Just the situation and characters were changed. I’d watch the first five minutes, tell my father how it was going to end, and go elsewhere to do homework or read a good book. At the end of the show, I’d return to ask him how the show had ended. I was nearly always right.
I used to ask him, "How can you waste your time watching such trash?"
He always replied, "It helps me relax."
I never could find a suitable response to this, so I finally gave up trying to reform my father.
Nevertheless, air-conditioning and TV kept the family inside; and thereafter we rarely enjoyed visiting with our neighbors outside on a summer’s evening.
Some authorities attributed the increase of home burglaries that eventually followed to this change in family behavior. When everybody was outside during the evening, it was next to impossible for a burglar to enter a neighborhood unnoticed.
* * * * *
A post script to air-conditioning our house: over the ten-year period when I was continuing my post-high-school education, being indoors at home on a summer evening was not much to my liking. Why? Because Dad kept the main floor very cold at night so the bedrooms would be more comfortable for sleeping.
Thus, I developed the habit of going barefoot, wearing shorts but no shirt, out onto the screen porch after supper. There, sipping ice water and listening to classical music on WOI-FM, the Iowa State University station, I would read a mystery or science fiction novel by the light of a small lamp hanging on a nail near my chair. The sound of June bugs hitting the screen, the chirping of crickets, the winking lights of fireflies, all made me feel at peace with the world.
Being the night owl that I was, I would often read out there until two in the morning or after.
If my father woke up and saw I was still out there, he would come downstairs, stick his head out the porch door, and say in irritation, "You’re turning night into day and day into night. Get to bed!"
I would nod and do so, but that didn’t stop me from reading out there until all hours.
One night, about 2:00 a.m., while reading out there, I heard an announcement on the radio that a tornado sighted two miles west of us was heading our way so everyone should take cover. I immediately ran into the house and up the stairs to awaken my parents.
Not long after we were in the basement, the storm hit. Dad went back upstairs to look out a west window to check out the storm but soon came rushing back down. He told us he figured he’d better get down there fast since the giant soft maple tree across the street had started twisting and turning violently in the wind, suggesting the tornado might be upon us.
Fortunately, the tornado missed us by a wide margin.
When the storm was over, all three of us went to bed, tired but relieved.
The next day, I remarked that it was fortunate I had been up late to hear the tornado warning. Otherwise we might have all been killed in our beds (as Mom would have put it).
Dad nodded in agreement and never again complained about my staying up too late.