The room with the dying fan

The office at the kids’ school is an old house with yellow aluminum siding, a real front porch and gleaming hardwood floors that announce one’s every step. Recently, when I popped in, it was pleasant to stomp along on the woods and inhale old-house scent. But I had a surprise.

There were fans everywhere, pushing the heavy morning air around in warm waves.

“The air is broken,” the office manager said, fanning herself with a folder. “We hope to have it fixed soon.”

I stood there with a grin on my face, feeling oddly at peace with the breeze and the warmth.

The house sounded, smelled and felt like summertime at my great-grandmother’s house.

In the summer, Mama’s house was cool and comfortable from maybe 10, 11 p.m. until about 9 a.m. We didn’t have central air. Many of our friends didn’t, either, but at least their air conditioners worked. Our pitiful window unit didn’t do anything but run up the electric bill, so it hung quietly in the dining room window and we sweltered, leaving damp spots where ever we perched for more than five minutes.

And the window fan ran constantly.

The fan in my bedroom was a 1950s-era window-mounted metal clunker that began losing steam somewhere around the Summer of Love and slowed yearly through the straggling end of Vietnam and Watergate, disco and Marvin Gaye’s shooting, until finally, around the time my mom gave up her green satin disco pants, it refused to do anything but hum.

Every summer, my great-grandmother would debate getting the fan serviced. “It WORKS,” she’d say, watching the blades as though staring them down would convince them to work. “But perhaps we could get Old Man Barber up here to look at it.” Old Man Barber, the local cross between Fred Sanford and your friendly handyman, told us to ditch it between disco and Marvin Gaye. But we didn’t.

As a semi-responsible mom, this fan was not a fan I’d allow into my house. The plug was worn from more than 30 years of use, and the wires would give a shock if you touched them with sweaty fingers. The motor, a daunting, cup-sized collection of fraying wires and mesh, began to spark upon occasion, which didn’t worry Mama nearly as much as it did me. If the fan eventually cranked, it had to be OK. I’d lie awake nights, worrying that the sparks would torch the curtains, figuring the amount of time it would take to gather my clarinet and chihuahua and get out in case of fire. I’d listen to the strobed night sounds. If you’ve never heard outside through the filter of a window fan, you’re missing out. The blades distort the sounds, giving noisy cars and crickets and feisty birds a steady, mechanical sputter. Back in the day, when we didn’t have major electronic distraction, sitting in front of the fan and talking through the strobe was simple fun.

The fan, however, didn’t help anything in the worst heat and humidity of summer. It pushed hot air into the house or pulled it from the front of the house, leaving us miserable and moist and cranky, twisting in damp bed linens. Outside felt better than inside. My mom and great-grandmom argued more than usual on those days, hurling slurs and insults back and forth until my mom would get into the equally hot purple Toyota and leave or my great-grandmother would pound the table or pull at her damp gray hair and break dishes.

But on the nights that the temperatures and mugginess dropped, the reluctant old fan worked magic, cooling our house gradually until it hit a delicious chill, making it necessary for me to sleep with a blanket. On those following mornings, my bare feet hit cold wood  floors instead of warm and we rushed to finish chores in the cool: we swept, made our tea for the day, gathered whatever vegetables were ripe in the garden, mopped and dusted and waited for the sun to again turn the cottage on Miller Street into a brick oven. We talked. We listened to the old radio. We prayed for cooling storms.

We eventually bought dime-store floor units, positioned to work best with the flow of air from the window fan and screened doors, and we held our breath yearly when we cranked the old unit. One year, it took about five minutes to get the weakened fan to spin, but close to the end, we waited and watched the clock for a few hours, hoping the dirty blades and the sparking motor would get the idea. Finally, my mom sadly gave permission to dismantle the fan and replace it with a bright new unit, $10 at the dime store. I spent a long while trying to unscrew the myriad parts of the fan: the blades, wire frame and wall mounts all had been in the same place since mom’s childhood, and they weren’t ready, it seemed, to go. But we got it out and put it on the trash pile. The romantic in me hopes Old Man Barber found it and restored it to its pre-disco ability.

My children do not remember life sans air conditioning. They believe freon and ceiling vents are among inalienable constitutional rights.

To this day – much as I am thankful for the hum of the central air  – I cannot sleep without a fan going. I love the slight sound and the breeze, even if it competes with the heat in the winter, and I’ll occasionally open the windows in the mornings, let the house warm up a touch and give our ceiling-mounted fans a moment in the spotlight. It makes me feel honest, this ritual. Because as far as I hope to go and as much as I want to be, bottom line is I’m a girl from Rock Hill, and I used to sleep in the room with the dying fan.


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