Returning home the other evening to an empty house from a three-day trip, I checked the thermostat in the darkened vestibule and noticed that the temperature was a few degrees higher than the setting. My alluring wife, who is more cost-conscious than I about such things, had left the air conditioner on at a responsible setting before leaving on her own (separate) trip. The house was comfortable, if perceptibly less cool than usual; but I was intent on unpacking and surveying the tokens and souvenirs I had accumulated during a sojourn in the Hudson Valley.
So it took awhile for the grim reality to sink in: At some calamitous instant between my wife’s departure from the homestead for New York City and my own return from Hyde Park a few days later, our air conditioner had broken down. I assumed, since the indoor atmosphere was still bearable, that death had occurred a few hours before I walked in the house. But that was the extent of my postmortem analysis: I am generally bewildered by the mechanics of heating and air conditioning, and after a few desultory attempts to stop and restart the system, came to the sad conclusion that this was an unprecedented failure, requiring professional assistance and the likely expenditure of lots of money.
I am happy to report that, while the worst was true, it was a relatively painless episode in household history. Late the following morning a cheerful mechanic arrived from the company that had installed the system 19 years ago—and certified its robust health during an annual checkup two weeks earlier!—who confirmed my diagnosis and suggested some courses of action. After learned discussion, and some quick mental arithmetic, I opted to replace the various air-conditioning components, which would include some modification of the furnace but not constitute systemwide surgery. Expensive, yes, but not catastrophic.
This was followed by a pregnant pause, and then the mechanic asked me, with a tentative tone in his voice, whether it would be all right for him to return the following day with his colleagues to install the new air conditioner. Of course, I replied—and he literally breathed a sigh of relief. Most customers, he reported, are so desperate that they plead for what amounts to instant gratification: They cannot imagine another summer night (or another few hours, for that matter) in a house without air conditioning, and will beg, plead, weep, fall to the ground, introduce their sweltering children, or otherwise express, in dramatic fashion, just how close to extinction their lives have hovered.
As for me, I thought that getting the job done the following day was pretty luxurious: I’d had visions of a part being ordered from some remote warehouse, or a long line of overheated households taking precedence over mine. And I must confess, the old homestead was not especially uncomfortable: The outside temperature was comparatively reasonable, we have plenty of fans, a light rain was expected to fall that evening—all in all, things could have been worse.
Indeed, they could have been as they were for the first two decades of my life, when I grew up in a house in hot, humid, subtropical Washington without air-conditioning. I say this not with any perverse sense of pride—I dreaded hot weather as much as anyone would, and suffered accordingly—but as an indication of how far we have come, to the point where even Army tents in the Iraqi desert are artificially cooled, and a day or two with a broken air conditioner is akin to a natural disaster.
The fact is, however, that a typical household in the nation’s capital during the Eisenhower administration was not air-conditioned, and neither were banks, department stores, classrooms, trains or train stations, or automobiles. Just as the television networks would pointedly mention in those days that a program was to be broadcast “in color,” so the rare businesses controlling their summertime climate (notably movie theaters) would advertise that the premises were “air-cooled.” There was one private home on my street with a window air-conditioning unit. It belonged to old Mrs. Crossette, the grandmother of a neighborhood boy, who would chuckle indulgently as I stood in front of her magic machine.
This was manifestly not the case in the Terzian household. My father, who had served as a naval officer in the South Pacific, was enamored of equatorial weather, liked everything about the tropics except Japanese aviators, and was never happier than when the lampshades were wilting and sweat flowing in the enervating Washington heat. He and his equally sadistic spouse, moreover, were light sleepers and forbade the sound of electric fans after lights out.
Which explains one mystery about me to my otherwise perceptive wife: It is not so much the cool that I like about air-conditioning as that comforting hum.