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A Times Editorial

Summertime heat

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 2000

It is hot. Very hot. This is to state the obvious, but when it's this hot the obvious is about all a person can handle.

It's too hot to cook (that's why God made salad-in-a-bag), too hot to read (the sweat in your eyes keeps blurring your vision), too hot to shop (the brain is too steam-addled to make a decision), too hot to do anything but lie around in a darkened room drinking iced tea with the AC cranked up to freon-frazzling levels.

Still, we should be grateful. Though it's in the 90s every day around Tampa Bay, with 100 percent humidity and enough tepid rain to ensure that it will be November before anyone has a good hair day, we aren't having it as bad as Texas or Louisiana or Alabama or even Tallahassee, where it has been 105 every day for nearly a week. Up there, even the mosquitoes are panting. At least here we have a breeze off the Gulf, though it sometimes feels more like an eyeball-frying sirocco than a refreshing zephyr.

But heat is not just a meteorological condition: It is part of Southern culture. The heat inspired William Faulkner to write his mighty summertime novel The Hamlet; the heat impelled Tennessee Williams to create a heroine as brave and jumpy as a cat on a hot tin roof; the heat led some genius to invent one of the most elegantly soothing cool cocktails of all time, the mint julep; and the heat gave rise to the sweaty, road-house moan of the Delta blues, one of America's great musical forms.

And right here in Florida, the heat drove Dr. John Gorrie of Apalachicola to invent the first air conditioner in 1845. He didn't know his ice-powered refrigeration system, developed to help fever-sufferers, would evolve into the appliance that launched a million sub-Mason-Dixon line suburbs. He died of a broken heart (though not a heat stroke) after the Big Capitalists refused to invest in his machine. But history has vindicated Dr. Gorrie and his cooling machine -- if the South has a patron saint, he should probably be it.

These days of 90-degree-in-the-shade temperatures ruin your clothes, melt your make-up and drive the road rage and murder rate up. Lord Byron had a theory that warm climates feed lusts of the body, declaring in Don Juan that "What men call gallantry and the gods adultery, is much more common where the climate's sultry."

It's hard to get reliable statistics on that sort of thing.

But one thing's sure: We are shaped by our thick light-veiled landscape and our insistent weather. W.J. Cash in The Mind of the South caught the mood of high summer down here, of how the "earth-heat quivers upward through the iridescent air, blurring every outline and rendering every object vague and problematical."

But then he reminds us that "the sequel is invariably a thunderstorm." Amen to that.

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