Column: In heat and humidity, the creativity of keeping cool


VIRGINIA BEACH — As fall approaches, I think back to our wonderful summer in Virginia Beach and to all the visitors that came to enjoy the beaches. These thoughts remind me of a question I’m often asked. 

How do you live here with this humidity?

Gosh, I don’t mind our annual blanket of wetness. I tell people I’m used to it. I’m not particularly fond of it, but I know how to deal with it.

My father taught me.

In the early 1970s, our 1,200 foot ranch-style home didn’t have central air conditioning. My twin bed was right beneath a window. At night, I would kneel on my pillow, place my elbows on the windowsill, and feel the cool breeze blowing soft curtains back and forth. I would listen to the night sounds of trees swaying and the far off sound of a Norfolk Southern train horn. Those were the good nights when there was an actual summer breeze.

On the hot, breezeless nights, I remember lying in bed with my pajamas stuck to me, sweating, trying to remain as still as I could with my long hair piled on top of my head. Sleep would come eventually.

In the mid-1970s, my father broke down and purchased a window air conditioning unit. He installed it in our den, which was on the other side of the house from the bedrooms. The unit had two levels, on and off.

We froze watching television in the evening, and then we went to bed in warm bedrooms. He turned the unit off when we would all leave and back on when we returned.

Whether the unit was on or off was distinctly my father’s decision. Some evenings were not hot enough to him to keep the unit on. 

Other nights he would finally get too hot and shout, “Okay, I’m turning on the AC!”

My mother, brother and I would run happily all over the house slamming windows shut – bam, bam, bam.

I guess we complained a lot about the ineffectiveness of the air conditioner at bedtime. One weekend, he decided to create a hole in the hallway ceiling in the center of the bedrooms. He hooked up an electrical line in the attic to an enormous fan. It looked like a propeller he had taken off a small airplane.

To this day, we don’t know where he got it. It took him all day to install this thing. He was anxious to show it off. We gathered in the hallway to watch him activate the switch on a late afternoon on this hot day.

My brother and sister and I heard a cranking noise and then the slow turning of the fan. We could see the blades start to rotate through the grate he had put together to cover the hole in the ceiling.  

As they turned faster and faster, the wind started to whip around in the hallway as we heard wump, wump, wump-wump-wump. My hair was flying, my six year old little sister ran back to the den, and my brother held onto his pull-up bar in between his bedroom door, laughing and swinging.  

What seemed fine earlier seemed intrusive in the evening. My bed faced the small hallway directly.

It was so windy that the covers on my bed kept blowing sideways. I put all my heavy stuffed animals on top of my sheets to keep them down.

The curtains blew without an outdoor breeze. The wump-wump sound of the blades was noisy. My brother’s bed was also close to the hallway. 

He closed his door, preferring to deal with the heat.

I mentioned to my father that it was a little much, and he replied that we all need to learn to make do with what we have.

“Heck, Lisa, you would never have made it in Norfolk in the 1940s when I shared two bedrooms with no air conditioning with my five brothers.”

He was right. In our coastal, humid stretch of the South, we make do with what we have. And we learn to get through the humidity with a little creativity.

Burkett is a Virginia Beach native and University of Richmond graduate who has been in marketing for over 25 years. She is a writer and photographer who owns her own craft business. Burkett has four children, ages 15 to 30. She lives in Sandbridge.

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