Deep in the heat of Texas Yep, it's hot, so hot even hard-boiled old-timers pine for summers that merely sweltered. But the suffering is relative, depending on how well your AC is working.

Postcard:Austin, Texas

August 16, 1998|By Helen Thorpe | Helen Thorpe,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

If you live in Texas, you are supposed to demonstrate perpetual grit. You are not supposed to whine, for example, about a little heat wave. As a matter of fact, it's almost always hot here. When it isn't, we're most likely experiencing hail, floods or a tornado. This summer, however, even fifth-generation Texans betrayed mild chagrin when the mercury spitefully rose to 109 back in June.

I became aware that it was abominably hot - not merely hot in the usual sense, but oppressively, extraordinarily damn hot - when I opened my local paper (once the wrapper had cooled) and saw a feature titled "The Great Meltdown." In a whimsical enterprise that bizarrely but accurately captured the flavor of what was going on all around us - extreme heat dementia - intrepid reporters at the Austin American-Statesman had put a Hershey chocolate bar on the sidewalk and timed how long it took to melt. "A Hershey bar melted within an hour," the parboiled caption writer noted, "but we could still read the letters." That beat the Velveeta and the ice cream cone, which melted into gooey pools of enigma.

Until then, I had been vaguely aware that it was truly hot, but you have to understand, we go through something like this every year. We're used to it. We have heat-induced rituals that help us cope just fine. Video stores have signs warning against the hazards of leaving your favorite movie on the car seat. Good housekeepers throw away their candles in May, before they start to melt. So this summer, it had to get quite hot to make the news. Then just the other day, our torpor was the top story on National Public Radio, leading to a nationwide panic among my friends and relatives.

"How's the heat?" my dad wanted to know. "I've been watching the Weather Channel, and it sounds like it's hot!" My highly excitable friend Isabel, who comes from Madrid, left a characteristically volatile message, something along the lines of: How are you doing! Are you alive in the middle of the inferno! I hear that you are in hell!"

To be honest, I felt like a impostor. People around me were literally dying from the furnace-like temperatures, but thanks to my bourgeois, air-conditioned lifestyle I was blissfully cool. Sometimes I even got goose pimples. Outside, the heat was wreaking a slow burn of havoc across the state, frying up cotton crops and corn, putting hatless tourists into intensive care. (Hey, cowboys wear those things for a reason.)

At the same time I was not personally suffering in any way. You see, most of us down here have a simple strategy: we just don't go outside from May to October. It's like winter in Chicago - you read a lot, you watch more TV, eventually you get cabin fever.

Back when I first moved to Texas, I tried to make do at home with just an AC unit in a window, and drove a convertible whose large V-8 engine was, unfortunately, prone to overheating. So I spent the summer months cruising around in a stupor, simultaneously broiling in the sun and baking in the hot air blowing through the air vents.

Then I did suffer, slightly. But now, despite the record-breaking highs, no. My new pickup chills to icy within seconds. On muggy days my glasses even fog up when I step outside, though they clear up instantaneously again in the glacial atmosphere of our office building.

Sometimes I think it's sad not to be able to spend time outside. I look at the facsimile of summer I can see through the windows; my porch swing sits unused, and when it's windy the red oaks move without that swishing sound. But why go out there? We can't even swim anymore; the local lakes are so warm that bacteria are reproducing wildly, causing extreme nausea and diarrhea in anyone who dares take the plunge.

A good number of people share my alienation from the heat. In Houston, the downtown crowd never sets foot outside for even for a millisecond, thanks to air-conditioned underground tunnels that lead from glass office towers to the city's banks, restaurants and parking garages.

In Dallas, people seek shelter almost as assiduously. "I have not experienced the heat at all," confessed Skip Hollandsworth, a colleague who lives there. But thanks to his amazing powers of imagination, Skip nonetheless managed to write a convincing remembrance of just how hot it gets in his hometown of Wichita Falls for the July issue of Texas Monthly. In it, he reminisced about people sweating until they smelled like road kill.

Everybody in Wichita Falls got mad. As if higher powers were determined to chastise Skip personally, temperatures in Dallas subsequently soared to become the most brutal in the state. There was a momentary sprinkle on the Fourth of July, right after the parade, but instead of running for cover, everybody raced outside and threw their hands up in the air. Perhaps they thought they were hallucinating.

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