Al Batt: Living a life in the sunlight and shadows

Published 9:25 pm Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Tales From Exit 22 by Al Batt

I grew up in an era when salad and dessert forks were as rare as hen’s teeth, I got carpal tunnel from pushing lima beans around my plate, I thought algebra was a terrorist organization and older farmers had no hot weather clothing. Shorts were underwear. Those fellows rolled up the long sleeves of their blue work shirts when high temperatures set records. The shirts quickly darkened with sweat.

In the winter, they wore itchy, long underwear. Some wore them in the summer. I guess the scratching kept them cool.

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They put up with heat and humidity just as they put up with the cold and snow. The motto of my people was, “It could be worse.”

I said “cool” a lot in those days. Perhaps it was a hopeful utterance.

I have the pleasure of being a tour guide on the Pelican Breeze, a large pontoon that floats on Albert Lea Lake, one of Minnesota’s 11,842 lakes of 10 acres or more in size. It’s a shallow lake. My father said that it was just a little too wet to plow. I do a narration on the history of that lake and the wildlife that keeps us company. It’s a great gig.

I left an air-conditioned home and drove in an air-conditioned car to the lake. The Pelican Breeze was a cooling gig on a hot, humid day. It was a natural coolness.

I don’t think I knew anyone who had air conditioning when I was a boy. At least the number who had it wasn’t statistically significant. More people had encyclopedias than air conditioning. The closest thing was the frozen food section of Sibilrud’s Cardinal Grocery Store, formerly Sibilrud’s Jack Sprat Grocery Store. On a hot day, I’d dawdle in front of the frozen goodies until my guilt prodded me into moving along.

Having no air conditioning wasn’t the worst thing. It was one less thing that people had to argue about. People didn’t need to arise in the middle of the night to surreptitiously adjust the settings.

In our house, my mother opened the windows. We had screen windows on the outside. It was a daunting semi-annual project, exchanging storm windows for screen windows and vice versa. The windows were numbered so they found the right spot, but it was still a massive undertaking requiring liberal amounts of caulk and patience. On seriously muggy nights, my mother put a chair by my bedroom window and draped a wet dish towel over it, hoping a breeze would produce cool air. On nights lacking a breeze and when my pillow had no cold side, she placed a dishpan filled with ice cubes knocked out of a metal refrigerator tray, on my bedside stand. Then she took our family fan, it was an only fan, a box fan the size of a Plymouth, and placed it nearby. When she turned that noisy fan on, it blew the cold air from the melting ice onto me. The fan did the trick until the blades tried to escape their cage and woke me with loud clanging.

If the night became stuffy enough, Mother wet the sheets on my bed. I was perfectly capable of doing that myself, but that’s what mothers do.

We had no outside porch to sleep on. The mosquitoes would have enjoyed our company.

Lurking in the shadows and dipping in a cow tank or the Le Sueur River helped, but our favorite air conditioner was St. Olaf Lake. It’s smaller (approximately 91 acres), but deeper than Albert Lea Lake. Sometimes we’d sit on the dock in sweltering weather. Other times we rented a rowboat or a pontoon and moved slowly about the lake. Whatever floated our boat was St. Olaf Lake. The lake was small enough that we were bound to bump into someone we knew. Literally, when I was at the helm.

We nearly bought a boat one year. The neighbor posted a sign at the end of his driveway that read, “Boat for sale.”

The sign had been painted on rough wood with a wide paintbrush. The bottoms of each letter showed dripping paint.

Father and I investigated. The man had a bicycle with only one wheel and an ancient push lawn mower for sale. No boat. When asked the reason for the misleading sign, the good neighbor replied, “Well, they’re boat for sale.”

I laughed until my blue work shirt darkened with giggle sweat.

I said, “Cool,” five times.

Al Batt’s columns appear every Wednesday and Sunday.