In the movies, when it rises in shimmering waves from the road and transforms, like a fun-house mirror, a parched Southern landscape, we know that something is about to happen. “Cool Hand” Luke is about to run from the guard in mirrored sunglasses; Maggie the Cat, flouncing around in just her slip, is on the verge of a hissy fit; or Huey Long is warming up for a rabble-rousing stump speech. With folks reaching a metaphysical boiling point, somebody is liable to get whupped, laid, or swayed by a demagogue. In other words, something distinctly Southern is about to go down.
Extreme conditions foster extremists. Our heat is the muggy kind, as opposed to the bone-blanching aridity of the Southwest, so we end up pickled and preserved in sweat, growing ever more pungent in personality. God says, according to Revelation 3:16, “… because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I am going to spit you out of my mouth.” There is nothing “lukewarm” about the South in summer, Lord knows, and after this hot spell, hell would feel redundant.
In fact, some less than heavenly behavior usually transpires this time of year. When people get “hot under the collar,” their necks turn red. Racial tensions simmer “In the Heat of the Night,” and sometimes a rascal will wink and burn down a barn, as in The Long, Hot Summer, written by our official spokesman, William Faulkner. Or worse. Sociologists always equate the heat with the South’s homicide rate, which is consistently higher than the rest of the nation’s, and with our homespun brutality in general. When was the last time you spotted a ragged chain gang limping through the sweltering torment of … New England? Every couple of years, a research report links hot weather and domestic violence, or climbing mercury with barroom brawls. It is widely believed that most murders occur at 92 degrees Fahrenheit — a convenient factoid for Thomas McGuane, who wrote the authoritative text on “crazy from the heat” misbehavior, Ninety-Two In the Shade.
But enough of death; what of life?
Not surprisingly, more babies usually are conceived during the summer. Flesh goes bare; bosoms heave; sinews glisten under a sheen of perspiration. Everybody sizzles. In “Body Heat,” set in north Florida, the antihero repeats the fateful mantra, “I asked you not to talk about the heat,” and soon enough, he is smashing through a glass door to ravish the panting femme fatale. The weather is credited with making Southern women “sultry.” Consider the expression, “hot and bothered,” or my favorite, “hot to trot.” Fluttering, handheld fans are ancient tools of the coquetry trade, and hoop skirts were designed for, ahem, localized ventilation. Who could stay frigid in these circumstances?
“Fewer blacks vote in the summertime, and whites are often on vacation,” he says. “Summer rains hold down turnouts, and incumbents have a much better chance to win when turnout is low.” And, moreover, “most people ignore politics and similar serious subjects during June, July and August.”
Presumably we are too busy making trouble, and love, to care. Priorities shift in other ways, too, here on the topographical griddle. People avoid scalding foods and eat tomato sandwiches or watermelon. My forebears, too poor to buy ice, stored their hand-squeezed milk in wells, creeks, and rainwater that had collected in barrels; other perishables, like pork, were cured with salt. (One of the few indulgences of my grandmother, still reeling from the Depression and her inability to “keep anything when it’s hot,” is a deep freezer the size of a Buick; she takes such pride in all of its loamy-looking, frozen condensation.) And look at the architecture. The South’s social life historically has been framed by open windows and breezy porches and verandas, a free-flowing set-up that facilitates gossip, storytelling, and a languid rhythm sometimes described as “European,” in contrast to the harried, battened-down, permafrost North.
So air conditioning naturally — or unnaturally — created a stir. Southerners of a certain age usually can recall the first time they felt that blast of cold air, usually in the 1940s or ’50s. They remember the signs with icicles dripping from the letters, the sumptuous pleasure of a cool movie theater. In a pre-PETA move, a hardware store in Macon displayed live, but listless, penguins in its window to advertise the new machines.
“Air conditioning in hotels, cars, and the convention center made the heat, in one’s passage through it, stimulating,” writes V.S. Naipaul in A Turn in the South. “…now the very weather of the South had been made to work the other way. The heat that should have debilitated had been turned into a source of pleasure, a sensual excitement, an attraction: a political convention could be held in Dallas in the middle of August.”
So, too, could manufacturers set up assembly lines without worrying quite so much about the literalness of sweatshops. Industry brought a population boom of transplants, who, in turn, brought change. It was air conditioning that gave us the concept of the “Sun Belt,” a more modern, careerist label than “Dixie.” Some historians even argue that air conditioning, by circulating people as well as oxygen, played a significant role in ending Jim Crow and the South’s widespread poverty. No doubt we needed that breath of fresh air.
Still, I fret about that climate-controlled, hermetically sealed, girl-in-a-bubble feeling that descends when I make my daily rounds, from one vent to another. I don’t want all of the madness of Southerners to evaporate with the freon. I miss squirting my shrieking cousins with the garden hose, and I like to get a little sun-addled from time to time, and fantasize about what could happen if the right field-hand or escaped convict crossed my path. Could we burn a barn together?
But mostly I keep my thermostat set at 68 degrees.