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You think it's hot, think about the summer of '36

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The long hot summer got you down? Pity yourself as you rush from air conditioned house to air conditioned car while the temperature flirts with 100? All aboard the time machine, you wimps, for a 70-year trip back to 1936, when hot was hot! 1936, of course, was in the depths of the Great Depression, and it was as if nature had decided to step in and remind us that all hardships and disasters aren't manmade.

"1930 was a bad year," according to Frederick Lewis Allen. 1932 was better. Then came 1933; it was a swinger, hot and dry. Farmers couldn't raise even enough corn to feed their livestock. Not a drop of rain fell for months. Already the topsoil was blowing; farmers had to excavate their tractors before they could begin to plow."

That fall came the Armistice Day "black blizzard" the first of the great dust storms that would mark the decade.

In 1934 and 1935, "the thermometer in Kansas stayed week after week at 108 or above and the black storms raged again and again. The drought continued during much of 1936. Oklahoma farms became great dunes of shifting sand."

The heat wave of that year began early. Actually, it was described as three separate "heat waves." In the first round, Nevada saw its driest, hottest June on record. On eight days the temperature reached 100, while rain fell on only three. Only 1.38 inches fell in the year's usually wettest month.

After a 10-day pause, the heat resurged, passing the 100-degree mark on July 10 and dropping below it only one day out of the next 18. On the 18th, the mercury skyrocketed to 117 degrees -- the all-time record that would be matched though not surpassed on only one other day, in 1953.

As July burned away, hopes were that things would surely be better in August, but they were doomed to disappointment. At mid-month Nevada sweltered at 112-plus, day after day. The mercury fell little below 80 at night and often hit 100 by 10:30 a.m. Meanwhile, Kansas City was setting an all-time record of 112.6, and the heat blanketed Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska. Emporia, Kan., reached 116 and was suffering a water shortage, as was Concordia, "where all cisterns were dry." Nevada was lucky in that regard. Restrictions on the use of water were never necessary here. Indeed, the utility furnished water free to 15 to 25 farmers daily, and towns to the north and south hauled water from Nevada.

July had been the hottest July on record. August followed suit, actually averaging as the hotter of the two months. The July 18 record of 117 wasn't broken, but it came uncomfortably close.

The mercury reached 114 on the 9th, and for 11 days stayed over 110. All told, August saw 23 days of 100 degrees or above. On the month's last day, the high was still 100 degrees.

Kansas City basked in a "cool" snap at only 98! A scant .27 of an inch of rain fell in the month. Trees lost all their leaves; birds fell to the ground and lay gasping and dying.

Many still living have vivid memories of that summer of 1936 and how their families coped with it. For those who were young, it was a happy, colorful, memorable time. They took it in their stride. For that matter, older folks did too.

Air conditioning existed in principle but in practice was confined to railroad Pullman cars and a few movie houses. Home air conditioners were still far in the future, and even if they'd been available, the vast majority were too poor to have dreamt of them. Even electric fans were owned only by the well-to-do.

Electric refrigerators, too, were few and far between. The rule was still an "icebox" in the kitchen, with an iceman making daily or twice-weekly deliveries of blocks of ice.

Life went on all the same. The writer's parents said they lived through that summer on Waldorf salad, a type of fruit salad; nobody had much appetite. People lost weight, but kept going. They had no choice. The writer's father worked that summer as a stonecutter on one of the State Hospital buildings. The foreman forced him to work in the hottest sun, seeking to drive him away and give the job to a crony, though never succeeding. He racked up a year's income of $900, and considered himself lucky alongside most of his friends, who had no jobs at all.

Some women, few of whom held outside jobs in those days, had it a little easier. After doing the necessary household chores, the writer's mother retired to the cellar till evening, and did her "entertaining" there, if any. A visiting cousin threatened to write a book titled, "My Summer in the Cellar."

The days could be survived as long as people got their rest. There are famous photos of Eastern tenement-dwellers making their beds on fire escapes, and of people in Kansas City sleeping out in Swope Park, as it was then still safe to do.

Screened-in "sleeping porches" had become fashionable in the 1920s, and many Nevadans without them took to sleeping outdoors -- at least the heat had killed off the mosquitoes! The writer's parents placed mattresses on sawhorses in the back yard, and came up with the novel idea of storing the sheets in the icebox through the day, until ready for use.

Family members wandered the yard like zombies, searching for a cooler spot. Clifford Norris recollected that people who slept outdoors kept some clothes on in order not to offend public sensibilities.

September at first brought no relief. On 12 of the month's first 15 days, the temperature passed 100, and on the sixth, 109 was reached. At last, though, clouds gathered, and rains fell on 12 days for a monthly total of 9.17 inches. On the 28th, the temperature actually peaked at a mere 60. The long, hot summer of 1936 was over.

Hot summers would prevail through the rest of the decade, but 1936 would never be equalled. Nor, needless to add, by those who lived through it, ever forgotten.

So be careful about calling a summer "hot"! How would you, who have trouble getting through a couple of days of 100 or just over, even with air conditioning, ever have made it through those 61 days of 100-plus in 1936, including many of 110-plus, and with only an icebox, and, if you were lucky, a fan?