Here at Live Oak Adult day Services, we recently read aloud a page of fun facts about the various inventions of the 1900s. We were all amazed to learn that air conditioning was invented in 1902. I was not the only one here who wondered why on earth we sweltered through the summers when we were kids, if air conditioning was available.
Yet none of us knew a single person back then who had an air-conditioned home or car. We decided after some discussion that our families could not have afforded to pay for such a luxury. We all recalled the heat and high humidity levels common in the areas of the country where we lived as kids. Wisconsin sounded like a sauna in July. Chicago streets shimmered with the heat. New Hampshire’s tar streets would soften and stick to your shoes and car tires. And picking prunes and apricots in Santa Clara Valley was sticky work.
I told the seniors about an especially hot Sunday in Boston, when our non-air-conditioned church was so heavy with the heat that people were fainting and taken outside to get a whiff of smelling salts. It was time for the sermon. Our priest stood up, looking solemnly at the crowd fanning themselves with the Sunday bulletin, desperate for a breeze. He said, “It is so hot today that I will keep this brief. If you’re good you’ll go to a place cooler than this. If you’re bad you’ll go to a place hotter than this.” We were stunned at first, then a wave of laughter and applause rang out. I must say that it is the only sermon I have ever remembered word for word.
I was curious about how our seniors found ways to beat the summer heat in the days before air conditioning was so common. A well-positioned fan sometimes provided a bit of relief. Standing in front of the refrigerator until mom started yelling was one of Jim’s memories. Running through the sprinklers was a fond memory for many, as was slurping down a popsicle, racing to finish eating before it melted all over the place.
A few seniors lived in a town where the fire department would come and release the water from a fire hydrant, much to the delight of the shrieking, leaping children. We could not imagine that happening anywhere in drought-prone California these days. Bill, who is a few years younger than most here at Live Oak, happily remembered the backyard Slip ‘N Slide, which was like a flat water slide on the grass. It was quite popular with all the neighborhood kids. A few of us knew a neighbor who had a swimming pool and, for the sweet relief of that first dip into the cooling water, we made sure to stay in their good graces all summer long.
I was enchanted by the summer memories of a few of our native Gilroy residents. They clearly recalled the anxiety of going to the local dentist, followed by his treat of a free cone at the ice cream counter of Wentz’s Drugstore. It was located on Fifth Street, where Fifth Street Coffee is today. I had never heard of a dentist passing out anything but toothbrushes or floss, and loved the thought of such a kid-friendly dentist.
Wentz’s ice cream counter is fondly recalled by many who have long resided in this area, and reminiscing about the place prompted other seniors to recall ice cream counters at the drugstores in their own hometowns. There and at Wentz’s, Cherry Cokes, ice cream sodas, hot fudge sundaes, and cones piled high with multiple scoops of ice cream provided delightful treats that cooled even the hottest July afternoon.
We lamented the fact that the drugstore ice cream counter seems to be a thing of the past, and agreed that we would be the first in line should a new one open in the area!
Air-conditioned stores, homes, and cars are the norm these days. Water slides and community pools are common. If you are not able to access these luxuries, the good old-fashioned stance in front of the refrigerator, the popsicle, and befriending a neighbor with a pool can be good strategies. Strike up a conversation with a senior and ask about Wentz’s Drugstore or the nearby ice cream counter in their childhood towns, and you will feel a refreshing breeze of nostalgia on a scorching summer day.
Cheryl Huguenor is the program director at Live Oak Adult Day Services in Gilroy. For more information visit liveoakadultdaycare.org.