Sunday, July 21, 2013

In Praise Of History's Coolest Customer

From today's TIMES and NEWS-STAR

Let us now pause in praise of famous yet under-recognized men, most notably the stud who invented air conditioning.

What a guy.

Though far from common knowledge, a guy named Willis “Freon” Carrier invented and then, 111 years ago this very week, cranked up the first modern electrical “air conditioner” – July 17, 1902. I don’t know what he did the rest of that day, but my guess is he stripped down to his undershorts, got on his knees right in front of the thing and prayed that it would never break. Then he went to the store and bought back-up filters.

The window unit wasn’t invented until 1950 and Americans couldn’t really afford to start buying air conditioning for their homes until then, but once the damn broke, school was out.

Say what you will in nostalgic honor of the old days. I would likely second your motion; many things were much better back then in a simpler and slower – and hotter -- time. But there is no question that we’ve got the days of yesteryear beaten – and soundly – when it comes to both television and air conditioning. Equator-hot temperatures of late convince me of that every Louisiana summer.

Have you ever wondered how they made do B.A.C. (Before Air Conditioning?) I realize people were conditioned to the heat, which is why my generation can take thermal temps a bit better than the modern AC-bred youth. But survival B.A.C. is a mystery.

We had units in the windows only in the ’60s, and that was in the den, and about two feet in front of it was prime real estate in my boyhood home, especially after you’d just walked in from a bike ride or a game of football. Or, on days particularly steamy, if you’d just walked to the barn and back. This Freon idol had buttons to push and dials to turn and vents to adjust so you could get it blowing right on your face, and you’d lean your neck back and let the modern marvel wash all over you and turn your sweat into cool drops of liquid heaven.

Those were the salad days.

How Mark Twain and guys of his ilk made it all day in a white suit is something beyond my pea-brain ability to understand. He always looks cool in those pictures. My guess is if the pictures were scratch-and-sniff, they’d smell like sweat and talcum powder and, on really hot days, like last Tuesday’s trash.

Think of all those photographs of people who walked through a stuffy, non-electric world. Abe Lincoln in black tails. Ralph Waldo Emerson in high, starched collars. The New York Yankees of 1927 in flannel that weighed about 40 sweat-soaked pounds after a July doubleheader in St. Louis. I bet that locker room smelled so loud that even people in 1932 could smell it. Even the unborn could smell it.

But, they wouldn’t let you be president or a poet or a pro baseball player and go running around nekkid all over the place, so uniforms were a must. Hard to believe you’ve never seen a photo of Abe Lincoln in short sleeves. You KNOW he was hot.

Back then when people said, “We’re gonna have a hot time in the old town tonight,” it was hardly a metaphor.

Oh, they’d made stabs at AC before Willie Carrier hit the scene. But the Romans, the Asians, the Europeans right and left could not make it stick, unlike American hero Willie C: the “C” stands for “cool.”