Air conditioning keeps me comfortable during the current heat wave, but I remember how we tried to cool off when nothing but the movie theater was air conditioned.
July and August approximated hell when I was a kid. No day was so hot that we wouldn’t work in the fields and the garden. Only the persistent breeze made the heat and humidity bearable.
The steamy days heated the house, making it equally miserable. When we got electricity, fans helped a little. During the day the coolest place to be was in the shade of a big elm. (Sadly Dutch elm disease killed these majesic trees some 50 years ago.)
After we’d milked and watered the cows in the evening, we’d sit on the front porch to catch the breeze, or to create it by swinging in the swing suspended from the porch ceiling with chains. When the sun set and the lightning bugs came out, my sisters and I would leave the porch to catch bugs to put in a fruit jar. We’d also compete to see the first star (the one you wished on) and then the Big Dipper.
Most nights we’d sleep inside, often after sprinkling the sheets with water the way we did the clothes before ironing them. On particularly hot nights, my sisters and I would spread an old blanket on the grass and try to sleep there. I don’t think we ever lasted the whole night. Chiggers, mosquitoes, and dew drove us inside.
Despite the discomfort, those nights sleeping in the yard thrilled me. The star-stuffed sky offered a magical, memorable panorama.
When I started writing The Feedsack Dress, my own memories of farm life and the ninth grade guided the plot, but I needed facts about life in 1949. I looked for them in the same places I would have if I were writing an article.
At the library I wore out my eyes scrolling through microfilm copies of the Kirksville Daily Express and two great photo magazines, Life and Look. These answered such questions as the styles of dresses or skirts and blouses a fashionable ninth grader wore to school and how much they cost. Few girls wore jeans or slacks to school back then.
Copies of fair catalogs told me what exhibits 4-Hers would enter in hopes of winning prize money. As a 4-Her in the 1940s and 1950s, I knew that only country kids belonged to 4-H then.
Books and local and national newspapers told me about historical events. By the time I did my final draft, I used the Internet to find such riches as President Truman’s speeches, the history of feedsack dresses, and lists of popular songs, radio shows (almost no one had television), movies, and books.
The most enjoyable part of the initial research was talking to my mother and others who remembered 1949 well. They linked important events in their lives to that year. They, and I, recalled how a chicken bounded around after a well-aimed hatchet removed its head and the awful stench when you dunk the chicken into a bucket of hot water to make it easier to pull out the feathers.
When The Feedsack Dress came out in 2007, I started a blog on Typepad that focused on life during the late 1940s and early 1950s. I stopped posting there in 2012, but you can still link to The Feedsack Kids. I’m posting some new blogs and my favorite old ones here.