Monday, July 30, 2012

A Fan of Fans

Just as there are scents that immediately bring back my childhood, there are sounds as well: The jaunty, jingly theme to Captain Kangaroo's morning show, the droning buzz of cicadas cycling up and down their repetitive songs, the heart-skipping call of our school number on the radio, signifying a snow day.

But one of the most evocative is the comforting whine of the large box fan my parents had.

An air conditioned home was a rarity in our neighborhood back then, so the summer heat was escaped only with the air that could be circulated through the use of fans. And yes, that meant that, in the swelter of a July or August mid-afternoon, all we were doing was blowing hot air around. But it was better than nothing.

The day that the fans would be dragged up from the basement and dusted off for the season was an exciting one, indeed, for it meant that school was almost out for the summer, that our pool membership would soon kick in, and that shoes and sneakers were soon going to be ditched for bare feet.

We had a number of fans in the house. My parents had a large window fan that screwed into the casing. The placement of this unit was key: It was put in a window that not only blew air across my parents' bed but also blocked the steady, screamy noise that came from our neighbors' use of their in-ground pool. This fan was dual-action, meaning its rotation could be reversed, therefore making it suitable for both blowing cool air in but also sucking hot air out.

My bedroom had a side-by-side fan that we inherited from somewhere. It looked like a 1940s prop plane, with its two blades left and right. Dad used to sit it in my window and close the sash to keep it in place. Airflow could be directed by the pivot points that were built into each side, but for the most part, I was content to let it blow forward. I also distinctly remember that one of the blades must have bent just a centimeter or so, causing it to touch repeatedly on the metal protective grating that covered its face. 

I learned very early on to ignore this soft ping-ping-ping, especially at night.

I loved sleeping with the fan on. I not only enjoyed the rush of coolness that it brought in after the sun went down, but I also let its steady drone lull me to sleep. The concept of "white noise" wasn't formally known back then -- at least to me -- but I understood at an early age its power and comfort.

The granddaddy of all our fans, however, was the green giant that occupied the kitchen.

This was a heavy-duty monster that my parents received as a wedding gift in 1957. It weighed a ton, had a motor that looked like it could drive the screws on the Titanic, and best of all, it moved a hurricane's worth of air.

The casing had gotten a little battered over the years. And one of its features -- a set of louvers that could be set to oscillate back and forth to vary the direction of its breeze -- hadn't worked in a long time. But this powerhouse served us well season after season.

The big fan had a tough job: Cooling the kitchen. My mother directed summer meals to be as least reliant on the stove as possible. And the oven was an absolute no-no in July and August.   But even still, the five of us would gather at the table each evening, the roasty setting sun blasting in from the back window, and eat, relying on the big fan to make the meal bearable.

This thing was loud, too. When it would start up, you'd think a B-52 was readying for takeoff: Brrn-Brnn-BRNN-BRNN-BRNN-BRNNNNNNN... Conversations around the table were often shouted to be heard above the din: "CAN YOU PASS MORE CORN, PLEASE?"  "CAN I HAVE SOME MORE ICED TEA?" "ANOTHER SLICE OF TOMATO, PLEASE!"

My mother also employed the big fan to help with that chore that is now long extinct: Defrosting the freezer. Once a summer, she would clean the refrigerator from top to bottom and then turn her attention to the large, drawer-like freezer unit below it. After unplugging the appliance, she'd remove all the contents, open the drawer, and let the mounds of accumulated frost melt away. This involved a steady emptying of the drip pan below. And to force more hot air inside, speeding the task, she'd position the big fan right in front of it and let it do its work.

This whole affair was fun for we kids because: A) we could stand nearby and enjoy "air conditioning," as the fan disbursed the cool air. B) we could wriggle off large pieces of the frosty accumulation, form them into snowballs, and pelt each other in the backyard.

Fast-forward to today. The summers are now less arduous, thanks to central air conditioning throughout our home. We flick it on without a thought, let it keep us comfortable, and pay the jump in the electric bill each month.

But we still have  a couple of fans, for that late-spring and early-summer period when it's too cool to use the A.C. full-time but it's still worth moving some air around.

And as much as I appreciate air conditioned comfort on those humid nights when, without it, our sheets would be a sodden mess and sleep would be difficult to find...

I still prefer the nights when I can leave the bedroom windows open.

Nestle under a cool sheet.

And let the steady sound of the fan lull me off to sleep.

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