I still remember the closing process on our house; we sat opposite the closing agent, who sat surrounded by a mountainous pile of paper. On some cue, known only to her, she started feeding the papers to us. As each paper slid its way across the table she asked; “any questions on this one”. After the tenth paper had glided across the tabletop the conversation went something like
Agent: Any questions on this one
And so for the next hour or so, we signed papers.
Our house, built in the early thirties, would be described as a charming two storey revival brick Tudor. When we moved in thirty-plus years ago it still had the original exterior architecture, and the interior was as it was built. We were the second owners of the house. The main living area was cooled by two window air conditioners. A giant octopus gas furnace in the basement heated the house in winter; it was called an octopus because large circular ducts spread out in all directions from the huge heating vessel. There were no moving parts to the octopus system; the air was heated in the vessel that sat on the basement floor, causing it to rise and drift through the ducts into the upstairs rooms. A small vent, hidden in a cramped closet, fed the entire second floor with warm air. The vessel had been converted from coal to gas-burning at some time in its life.
The first upgrade we did to the house was to install new electrical wiring, and a new circuit breaker panel to replace the screw-in fuses. The second major upgrade was to replace the octopus system and the two window air conditioners with a heating and air conditioning system.
Ever since the HVAC system was installed we have paid a yearly maintenance; entitling us to two no-cost annual inspections and preventative maintenance visits, and no charge for repairs to the system. The HVAC technician came the other day for an inspection and maintenance visit of the gas furnace, and shared the same concern the air conditioner specialist did six months earlier:
HVAC Technician: You know your system is getting so old that it could have serious breakdown problems soon.
Although the passageway thermostat is set at seventy-four degrees the temperature in all of the first floor rooms varies somewhat. The windows in the two front rooms capture the summer and winter sun, and are always the warmest rooms in the house; the kitchen receives the summer morning sunlight, and the back bedroom receives little warmth from the sun. I retreat from walking the neighbourhood streets in the extremes of summer and winter to the Westroads Mall. It has a constant mid-seventies temperature, low humidity, and no breeze; similar to our house. So I should think about walking around the inside of our house in summer and winter instead of retreating to Westroads. The other day I did a quick once around the kitchen, dining room, lounge room, passageway, bedroom, and TV room; it took about eighty normal walking steps to complete a circuit of the rooms. My average step is about a yard so I would have to walk seventy-plus times around the rooms to equal the five times I do around Westroads.
I remember summer in Melbourne sometimes starting in early November; before the summer school holidays and when we were still wearing our winter uniforms. The temperature would sneak into the eighties; we sat in our long trousers, shirts unbuttoned at the neck but still with a tie, and a long sleeve jumper or jacket. We sat squashed two to a desk in the hot classrooms at Williamstown Tech. The school didn’t have any heating or cooling so on early summer hot and humid days the teacher would open the classroom windows, but the cooling southerly breeze only arrived in the late afternoon; the air was stifling. We sat silent and unresponsive, always glancing up at the large octangular speaker in the corner of the room, waiting for the headmaster’s announcement to be broadcast into every room; “boys, you may remove your jackets and loosen your ties”.
It was around late November when the summer school uniform could officially replace the winter uniform; and we were permitted to wear shorts, a short-sleeve shirt without a tie, and summer socks.
Back when, summer in Australia would truly begin around the start of the school holidays. I can remember many a Christmas Day with temperatures in the high nineties. January always was the hottest month; there were days on end when the temperature nudged the century. My childhood house didn’t have HVAC; we endured the Melbourne summer temperatures without any mechanical relief from the heat or humidity. Mum made salads during the summer months. The kitchen gas stove and oven were used as little as possible; it was her way of preventing the house from heating up. She always opened the front door and kitchen back door, and the side windows to catch whatever breeze there was; the flywire screens on the doors and windows kept the blowies out of the house. If there was a hot northerly blowing the doors and windows stayed shut. Our house was a block from the Port Phillip Bay foreshore and mum always promised the house would cool down with the cool change; a southerly that would blow off the water of the bay. We slept with the bedroom window open, on top of the bed in our lightweight summer seersucker pyjamas; sometimes without the top and only wearing the shorts.
In winter we wore long trousers, slippers, and woollen jumpers around the house. It seemed that most of the long dark nights were either damp from a pea-soup thick fog or cold and wet because of the rain carried by the frigid southerly blowing off Port Phillip Bay. The kitchen was the warmest room in the house. Mum let the leftover heat from the gas stove and oven after they cooked our tea heat up the kitchen, and the kitchen always had an electric radiator in the corner. Even though the dining and lounge rooms had fireplaces I don’t remember a fire ever being lit in either room. If we were expecting visitors, and the room needed heating mum would carry an electric radiator into the lounge room before the company arrived; the door was closed and bob’s your uncle. Just before bedtime, on especially cold winter nights, our bedroom was warmed with a radiator; but mum would never let the radiator stay plugged in overnight. She covered the bed with heavy woollen blankets and an eiderdown, and sometimes a water bottle was put into the bed to warm the sheets.
And the cars didn’t have heating or cooling. In winter the windows were kept tightly shut; dad would continually wipe the condensation from the inside of the windscreen with the back of his gloved hand. We sat with our woollen gloved hands between our knees, and our coats tightly buttoned. We always wore a jumper under our coat. Mum knitted a wardrobe of winter clothes; jumpers, cardigans, scarves and gloves as well as making our summer clothes on her sewing machine. Summer in the car was the opposite of winter; all of the windows were wound down and the two front vent windows were turned to angle any breeze into the car. We grimaced whenever we approached a red traffic light or stop sign because we knew the breeze and ventilation flowing through the open windows were going to let up. A few car owners would mount a small bakelite electric fan on their dashboard.
The red train carriages had small bench seats running across them; wooden partitions divided the carriages into small spaces, and the spaces were divided into compartments. Each aisle of seats had its own door and window. On hot stifling summer days every door, and window, was opened to move air through the carriage; men would stand propped in the open doorway with their back up against one edge of the doorway. “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors Please” was just a promise of the future. The Williamstown-Melbourne railway line crosses the Maribyrnong River just after the Footscray Station. Back then a complex of tanneries was nestled between the river bank and the housing commission flats; our childhood imagination had horses entering at the abattoir end, passing through the boiling down works, the bone mills and skin-drying sheds, and then finishing at the soap, candle and glue making sheds. The water beneath the railway bridge was a flowing, swirling cesspool, and the damp pungent smell of the tanneries hung in the air. Every train door and window was slammed shut as soon as the red Tait was halfway across the Maribyrnong River bridge; you could feel the perspiration starting under your arms, and the salty sweat forming on your lips, but the doors and windows stayed closed until after the South Kensington Station.
In the early seventies when I went searching for inspiration and idealism in the ordinary I first settled in London. My Aussie travel companion had lived in London not all that long ago; we just settled into the Tooting Bec terrace that he had shared with four English lads. It was nearing the end of the London winter; some days were cold and crisp, and others were being warmed by the gentle heat of spring sunshine. The two-story brick terrace still held the cold of winter. It was the early seventies, and I think most London houses were still warmed by fireplaces in the main rooms or the gas stove in the kitchen. Our gas meter was coin-operated and had to be fed threepences, sixpences, or shillings for a measured amount of gas; today’s concept of pay as you go. On cold nights we all sat in the kitchen huddled around the gas stove with the oven door open; feeding sixpences into the meter before the gas ran out. And I slept in my goose down sleeping bag.
And now I’ve grown used to HVAC; walking into air conditioning out of Omaha’s oppressive humid, corn sweat July heat, is akin to stepping into a perfect April afternoon. Escaping into a heated house from a winter Omaha blustery chilling subzero winter wind, that bites at your skin, is not unlike stepping into a perfect April afternoon.
Today the temperature is sparring with the humidity and the heat is even finding itself trapped in the shadows. I think I will sit outside for a few hours to prepare myself for some HVAC.