See, the story goes that once upon a while, here in the Deep South, most country folk lived in simple square frame houses, most of which were built up on brick or concrete block pilings. Most homeowners didn't even close up the space between the sub-floor and the ground with underpinnings for any number of reasons, not the least being that termites can't live in sunlight. Termites, in order to get from underground to the tasty wood of the house, would build mud tunnel highways up the pilings. If the house lacked underpinning, the residents could easily spot the termite tunnels and destroy them, thus protecting the dwelling long before our country came to depend on a service industry and pest control companies to do that for them.
At any rate, back in the day, in the cool of the evening folks would sit out on their front porch, either in rocking chairs or on a good old porch swing hung from the ceiling with chains. They'd fan themselves with funeral parlor hand-held fans, most of which had a likeness of Jesus with a golden halo around him, advising which particular funeral home would be the best choice to be the last to let you down.
And every once in a while, if it was a sho'nuff special occasion, folks would break out the ice cream churn, some rock salt and some ice, and have the young'uns break a good sweat hand-churning some homemade peach ice cream.
Anyway, the family dogs - and no self-respecting country family would have only one - would usually lie under the front porch in holes they'd dug in the dirt. They'd emerge with happy, high-pitched barks and fiercely wagging tails to greet familiar visitors. Strangers, on the other hand, were met with a menacing growl or two until a family member uttered reassuring tones that the visitor proffered no threat.
Back in the day, it being the Deep South and all, folks got accustomed to summers being hot. That's right. There was no phenomenon called "global warming." It was called, simply, summer in the Deep South. And country folk knew, better than most and certainly better than city slickers, that it gets so hot in August that you have to take extra care when working outdoors.
In fact, back in the day, folks knew that August in Georgia gets so hot that the family dogs won't leave their cool dugouts under the front porch even if a stranger arrived at the house. And that's where the phrase, "dog days," comes from.
At least, that's the way this story goes.
My daddy served in the Navy in World War II, in both the European and Pacific theatres. He learned a lot about the English while "over there," and had a favorite saying that I never forgot.
"Mad dogs and Englishmen come out in the noonday sun," he would say to me seriously. Daddy mostly told me that every summer, along about time for the "dog days" of August. And I never really understood the wisdom of that proverb until after his death, when two things happened.
One was the summer after Daddy's death, when I was 18 and working my last summer job before going off to college at faraway Georgia Southern, way down in southeast Georgia. And I say that to illustrate how our nation has changed in the 38 years since that summer: Statesboro was a four-hour drive back then, and seemed as foreign to me as the moon's surface Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had just walked on that very summer.
Less than four decades later our three kids graduated, respectively, from the University of Kansas, Clemson University, and the University of Indiana, all of which were a little bit farther away than my alma mater.
Alas, I digress.
In August, 1969, I was riding my bicycle in what was then my tiny hometown of Greensboro, Georgia. A big old black dog caught me from behind and basically tore my left leg up before I even knew he was there. The local vet ran some tests and found that the dog was not rabid. The vet said, though, that "he ain't quite right; after all, he came after you in this heat."
Then, some 14 years later, on a public relations trip to London for a major airline for which I worked at the time, I walked through Green Park in Mayfair toward Buckingham Palace. To my astonishment, at the noon hour, businessmen in three-piece suits and ladies in fine dresses were reclining in lawn chairs all about Green Park, literally sweating through their clothes as they basked in the unusual heat wave that hit London in 1983.
And I remembered Daddy's saying that "mad dogs and Englishmen come out in the noonday sun," and suddenly the big, black dog attack and the visage of grown people sweating in lawn chairs in London's Green Park all made perfect sense to me.
So here we are, embroiled in the midst of one of the hottest summers I can ever remember, and I'm a lifelong Georgia boy. I saw one thing this week at the Atlanta airport that I'd not seen since I was a boy, and another thing I'd never seen.
The first was last Thursday, when it hit 110 on the ramp at Concourse E at the Atlanta International Airport. My rampers took a couple of eggs out on the ramp and fried them right there, on the concrete. No kidding. I'd done that way back on the sidewalk in Greensboro, when I was 7, with my brother. But that was then, and this is now, and the memories of those days long gone came so thick I had to wipe away tears as I watched from E Tower as my guys jumped around out there on the ramp reporting how their eggs were actually cooking on the concrete.
The thing I'd never seen happened a little later that same day, last Thursday. When you work at the world's busiest airport, you see, you think you've pretty much seen it all. But then the next day comes, and brings with it something you've never experienced, things the normal public just wouldn't believe if you told them.
Anyway, last Thursday it was so hot that one of our flights had to return to the gate with a windshield heat warning. My guys had to pull the ship up close to the building, climb a portable ladder, and run water from a hose over the windshield until the heat warning went off in the cockpit, allowing the pilots to return to the taxi line.
Going back now, 50 years or more, I remember so vividly growing up in the days before air-conditioning in the Deep South. Our house in Decatur had a screen porch out back, and we'd sit out there or swing in a hammock, and catch every zephyr that found its way to us.
But we moved to Greensboro when I was seven, and our basic brick ranch home didn't have a screen porch. What it did have, and I'm eternally grateful for it, was an exhaust fan located in the ceiling of our central hall. I remember August nights, broiling in the "dog days," lying in my bed feeling the cool breeze coming through the windows on the way to that fan in the hall.
You know what I miss most from those hot summer nights? The Georgia Line, the railroad track that connected Atlanta to Augusta, ran through Greensboro one block away from my bedroom. And I'd hear that whistle blow - it was actually an air horn, I guess - for miles and miles as the train approached and departed my little town. We called it "the black and dusty, goin' to August-y." And I remember - as a little boy sweating in the dark of night as a ceiling fan provided modest relief from the heat - imagining all the places that ole train might take a small town country boy, as I listened to that mournful whistle call.
So here we are, in the 21st century, cooking in one of the hottest "dog days" ever recorded, and yet so many of us don't even know how lucky we are. We made it just fine before Freon made our lives more comfortable, but then again, we were acclimated to it because we didn't know any other way.
Some of us old folks can be heard from time to time lamenting how good things were "in the good old days." But let me tell you, this ole country boy is - today - thankful for those who keep my central air running.
The "dog days" will last for another few weeks, folks. Let's all do what we can to let those boys stay in their cool earthen dugouts under those front porches, even if they're soon to be only figments of our imaginations.
Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.