First posted on October 6, 2022
This is part of a series of stories on Oakland Christian Church, a small country church north of Columbia, Missouri.
I doubt there are many people born after 1980 who can attest to living without air conditioning. But such was my life until the late 60’s or so when my parents obtained window air conditioners. We thought we were living in high luxury. I can remember coming in from outside on a hot, sticky July day and sticking my nose into the air conditioner, running it on high. Cars, however, were not all equipped. My parents obtained a car with air conditioning in the mid-60’s, but the second car in the family was often an older model and bereft of the cooling add-on. My first car was a 1966 Chevy pickup, a six-cylinder, three-on-the-column, AM-only workhorse designed to get you down the road. No air conditioning. While in college, my mother came across this post-office Jeep at an auction and gave it to me to drive around when I was home. The steering wheel was on the right hand side and its means of cooling was opening the sliding door.
Growing up without air conditioning, however, was not really a big deal because hardly anyone had air conditioning. Central air systems were mostly the domain of the wealthy. I learned to swim at a young age and wading into ponds and streams was about the only way to cool off, except for the yard hose. It was always a treat to head into town and visit a pool. But you had to get creative to keep cool. Playing outdoors in the shade was one option because even on the hottest days there was a slight breeze under the trees. Another idea was to lie flat on the tile floor. At night, I would literally stick my nose next to the window screen, desperately hoping to capture a hint of a breeze. I still can remember the slight smell of cattle roaming the fields at a neighbor’s farm, hearing them lowing.
So keeping cool was always a challenge, especially when otherwise reasonable adults would gather into a confined space on a Sunday morning. The old church was designed with tall windows, not because tall windows is an aspect of Christian architecture, but because the top sash in a window could be dropped on one end of the building, while the bottom sash is raised on the other, creating an upward draft. So the theory goes.
So we sat in these old wooden pews, with the windows open. On most days, that would do. While Missouri’s summers have a bad reputation for unbearable heat and humidity, truth be told most days are tolerable. Yet here we were, dressed up in our Sunday best. For the uninitiated to 1960’s culture, that meant sport jackets or suits for the men. I can’t recall if my parents let me wear just a shirt, but I do recall having to wear a sport jacket. So I have memories of sweating under that jacket, my neck collecting moisture that was soaked up by the collar, buttoned tight for the clip-on tie.
To mitigate the discomfort, provided behind the hymnals and Bibles, next to the offering envelopes, were fans. These were short, wooden sticks with stiff cardboard fans attached, adorned with advertisements. I recall MFA, the local farmer’s insurance cooperative, as one of them. So as the pastor labored through the sermon, dozens of people would patiently sit in their pews, waving their fans. The heat was probably the primary reason why services ended after 60 minutes, promptly.
But – as if keeping cool was enough of a challenge – there was this thing about being in the country. Boone County in those days was graced with only a few blacktop roads. Most all the country roads were covered with limestone gravel. And there was quite a handsome strip of gravel road that curved in front of the church to the west, wrapping around the front of the building to the south. It was quite peculiar that the road was not often traveled – except between 9 and 10 every Sunday. So it was that as you cooled yourselves with MFA fans, somebody would pass the church, the dust from the gravel wafting up into the air, and through the screens.
Now mind you, the problem with dust from the road was only a problem for the part of the church that had a “tradition” of sitting on the left side of the sanctuary. My family typically sat on the right side of the church, which rarely contended with the dust. I can only assume it had attached itself to the surface of pew or parishioner on the left side before it could reach the souls on the right side.
The 1960’s would be a decade of major changes, with extensive remodeling. But the invocation of air conditioning would remain a matter of debate until about 1980. It was felt by many that the cost was prohibitive given that the building was occupied only for a few hot Sundays per year. The gravel road would eventually be paved during the 1990’s. It is certainly much more comfortable to sit through a worship service, which still ends after 60 minutes – promptly. Yet something has been lost. For millennia human beings lived within the environment, close to nature. It is not just in the temperature, it is the sense of a god-given breeze, the freshness of the air, the subtle aromas of women with too much perfume, men with after shave, mixed with the ambiance of hickory and oak, and recently cut grass. And, on occasion, limestone dust.
By Eric Niewoehner
© Copyright 2022 to Eric Niewoehner.
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