Staying cool, then and now, is different and yet the same

Some call Phoenix a preview of Hades. I call Phoenix paradise. I remember driving from cool and pleasant San Diego to St. Louis in the mid-1950s. As we approached California's El Centro, we noticed the temperature begin to climb. My dad and I also noticed how, when we passed lush green onion fields, the temperature moderated. We loved the reprieve, if not the fragrance.

We also had a cylindrical metal apparatus attached near the passenger-side window that brought in air through a water bath. That cooled us, in the nonhumid months. It was sweet.

When I put my head at the outlet of the evaporative cooler, I felt like a dog sticking its head out the window. We carried drinking water in a canvas bag that hung from the car's bumper. The canvas was slightly water-permeable, so the bag was damp. Air passing over the bag evaporated the moisture, cooling the water inside. We enjoyed cool drinks from this limited supply. In Arizona, though, we baked as we drove past rabbits standing in the road staring at our car.

When we reached Phoenix and the Stockyards Restaurant, the trip from San Diego seemed worth the heat. Our steak dinners were delicious and the restaurant was cool.

But the greatest joy of that trip, after having driven through the endless narrow roads of Texas at 50 miles per hour for hour after hour after hour, was stopping at a roadside stand where they sold ice cold watermelon.

Yes, I'd had watermelon before. But in the Texas heat, just the idea of something cool was like a mirage of heaven. The car's evaporative water cooler had long since run out of water, and our drinking water was now stowed inside the car and was as hot as we were.

We were baked.

Stopping at the stand was a respite in itself. But here was the best of the best: Not only was the watermelon ice-cold, but just the heart of the melon was served. We were given a whole melon with the outside cut away.

We each held a rectangular block of cold red melon. It was pure sugar, sweet, cold-cold-cold succulent refreshment. I must have looked a mess after eating my share. My dad used a fork; I used my hands. Delicious! Ah, the joys of simple living.

Some 40 years later, I live in Mesa, Ariz., and I cool my house the way we used to cool our 1950s car, with evaporative cooling.

The outside temperature is about 92 degrees F., with a dew point of 45 degrees. No refrigeration unit can do what this evaporative unit is doing: It's keeping me at 78 degrees with my doors wide open and my windows, too.

A gentle indoor breeze engulfs me in the fragrance of orange blossoms. I hear birds chirping and dogs barking. Because my window blinds are open, I see majestic palms, flaming-red bougainvillaea, pines, ash, and fruit trees with white blooms against a backdrop of soothing blue sky.

In the evening, I can hear train whistles two or three miles away. The world and I are one. I am living the evaporative life in Arizona. I can't believe it can get better than this. I'm back in 1955 and the joys of youth. Another day in paradise.

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