Special to the Tribune-Star
TERRE HAUTE —
It was “only” 99 degrees one afternoon last week when I decided to work on a backyard deck. With a jack and a drill and a little more sweat than I wanted to invest in the project, I went about the business of leveling its sags and dips a bit. The sun pounded down on my head and shoulders like a thug’s blackjack, but as I packed my tools and drank a glass of cool water under a big maple tree a few hours later, I couldn’t help but think about how lucky I’ve been these past few dusty and drought-stricken weeks. I have worked under this summer’s heat lamp for only a few hours at a time, but God help the roofers and utility linesmen and firemen, and so many others, who are out in it day after long hot day.
It’s no news flash that the heat and lack of rain up and down the Wabash Valley have been brutal. Some of my farmer friends are worried that they may not have a bushel of beans or an ear of corn worth selling this fall; a few have already given up hope, and if you’ve seen their fields you know why. My yard, on which I refuse to waste water, is completely torched; it breaks and crunches under our feet as if we are walking on soda crackers. Despite our best efforts with both hose and watering can, we have already lost a few bushes and trees to a summer that, with the exception of 1988, may be the driest I can remember. I sound a bit like my grandfather when I say things like that.
I keep writing about this drought with hopes that it in some way will help bring us rain, but so far, all I have managed are arid, empty words.
I quit washing the car with the optimism that it would surely bring us luck, mainly to conserve the water, and I have come to believe that when the weatherman says we have a 20-percent chance of rain, even he doesn’t really believe it anymore.
My old air conditioning unit has had a rough time keeping up with the temperature readings this past month too, and by the early evening our house is a little warmer than we want it to be. I always give its coils a good cleaning in the spring before the hot months arrive, but this year’s temperatures have just about brought it to its knees. Of course, we’re fortunate to have it. When I was a boy, I couldn’t have known then what a difference it makes to sleep in an air-conditioned house, but I sure know it now. I remember waking up years ago to the drone of the cicadas coming through our screened windows, sometimes before the sun was even up, knowing that it was going to be a bare-footed and shirtless kind of day best spent under a front yard beech tree.
We can’t help ourselves, I suppose, in comparing this blast furnace of a June and July (please remember that we have August ahead of us too) to other wicked summers. We are setting heat records this year, and many of the new marks are topping those from the mid-30s, particularly 1936. In my childhood summers, I remember sitting in front of a whispering and rotating black metal fan with my grandpa, who never wore short pants, but often stripped down to an undershirt when it went above 90 degrees. I know I asked him how he withstood the heat in the days before he could afford even that wheezing old fan.
My grandfather was 34 years old in 1936; by that time he was working on WPA (Works Progress Administration) road and pipeline projects. He told me that he dug ditches one shovel of dry dirt at a time, and he also spent his days applying hot tar to the joints of smoldering iron pipes that were too hot to touch. It made me sweat to even think about his doing that, and it made me realize, even when I was 12 or 13 years old, and quite indestructible, that he was made of stouter stuff than I was. He could stand out in that kind of sun and hoe beans or pull sweet corn long after I sought back porch shade and a cold, sweating bottle of Pepsi.
My dad, who was only 6 in that dreaded summer, told me that even in milder summers their house was too stifling to sleep and eat in, so my grandparents often took him and my Aunt Elenore out onto the porch or the lawn for meals and bedtime. He said they went to the creek every day in an attempt to wash and cool off, but that by mid-July the trickling stream that ran under the Harry Evans Bridge was as warm as “bath water.” Because of those days, I suppose, he never became very dependent on air conditioning. I remember he would run it on the hottest days in his work truck, but kept his windows rolled down anyway.
When it seems as though the collective pain of the Great Depression could not have made people much more miserable, the weather in the middle of the decade conspired to do just that. A record-cold February, and a tornado-ridden April, were followed by a season of tortuous heat. Record July highs had already been set in 1931, 1933 and 1934, so folks had been used to hot summers, yet 1936 topped them all. From a story written just a year ago by the Tribune-Star’s Lisa Trigg, I learned that highs of 98 degrees on July 2 and July 4 of 1936 seemed to be just the beginning. By July 7, my dad’s birthday, it was 107 in Terre Haute, making it the “hottest place in the Midwest.” The street temperature that day was measured at 122 degrees on the downtown concrete.
By July 12, Terre Haute registered 108 degrees and the killer heat was on a roll; nearly 1,200 people had died in the Midwest by then, but the toll would eventually be much higher. By July 14, it was 110 degrees in Terre Haute, a record that no one was celebrating. Residents of Collegeville, near Rensselaer, to our north, were hardly celebrating either: It was 116 degrees there, setting a record for Indiana that has never been topped.
The summer of ’36 beat on the nation well into August. Spotty rains alleviated the drought in some areas, while others remained parched and dry. On July 25 — my mom’s second birthday — 3.37 inches of rain fell on Terre Haute; by 7 that evening, it was back up to 90 degrees; it rose to 102 the next day. By mid-August another cruel, 11-day heat wave hit the Midwest.
I watered a few flowers behind the house in the early evening after my deck work that day, and as I did I watched a gray bank of clouds build to the southwest of us. I decided to take a walk despite what appeared to be the threat of a storm, but as I leaned into the cooling wind, I smelled no rain in the air. I spotted only one solitary dragonfly as he flew patrol over a baked and thirsty soybean field, and even the weeds in the ditches looked yellow and tired. As I passed a neighbor’s house, I saw a friend rinsing off the plastic blades of a fan with a garden hose.
“Looks like we’re going to finally get some rain,” she said to me with an optimistic smile. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a drop, and just as it was in 1936, we’ll just have to wait.
Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or c/o the Tribune-Star at PO Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com for more information about his books.