The air conditioner at my father’s office should have qualified as refrigeration.
I’ve been to cities reliant on air conditioning. Most hotels in New Orleans have air cooled as if trying to keep ice intact. The same in Las Vegas. In Houston, the worst moment of any summer day comes when walking from one air-conditioned place to another.
Still, none of those steamy locales with their chilled interiors compare to the arctic feel of the cotton compress office in Lilbourn, Missouri, in the 1960s.
My dad worked as a foreman at the compress, and he spent his summer days, probably as much of them as he could, in this room made frigid by a window unit working its BTUs off.
Understand, this became my first view of maleness in the workplace.
One of my aunts had a beauty shop she ran out of her home. Another aunt had been a deputy sheriff, though in Vero Beach, Florida, from which stories emerged but nothing visual on which to attach them.
My mother had been a public health nurse and worked in county offices when not out on home visits.
The commerce of cotton, though, had a different bearing. Not one I stood equipped to understand back then, mind you, but the regulars had names like “Pid” and “Toot,” and they talked and laughed at what I took to be manly things.
If memory serves, the office had a counter that divided the room, and I have no idea what kind of transactions took place there. Two desks sat behind the counter, one of which belonged to my dad.
No pictures or other personal touches took root on the desks, a generational aversion rather than a lack of family love.
His desk had a couple of metal baskets, there for the collection of papers. Each page had numbers scrawled across the lines and accompanying computations. I guessed this had something to do with money changing hands and the bales stored out in the warehouse.
On one corner of the desk, a small bulb stood on a base, a radiometer, its four-bladed vane spinning inside, absorbing and reflecting radiant energy. On a nearby wall, a calendar had art of a fisherman at stream’s edge, a nice catch rising from the water, soon to be a meal.
The place smelled of musty files and Winston smoke. From my perspective, this was where the business of guys took place.
Throughout most of my formative years, I lived within a mile of cotton being grown. Part of that time, I could chunk a rock out my bedroom window and have it land in a cotton field.
Maybe this had some effect on me that I don’t recognize even now, other than the memory a particularly aggressive air conditioner stirred in me lately.
Missourians still grow cotton, though mostly still in the more climate-appropriate southern stretches. American farmers produced 17.6 million bales last year, the raw material for countless towels and tarps and tents, the seeds processed to become an additive in cooking oil.
Not one of those bales went through the compress and warehouse in Lilbourn. The facility closed some time ago, the buildings removed, the rail spur, beside which I used to watch compress workers play checkers with Orange and Grape Crush caps, ripped up.
On the property, an alternative energy plant now stands.
The kind of stores that sell household knickknacks now carry cotton boll wreaths and ornaments, cotton boll centerpieces and door swag. My father, behind that long-ago counter, would not have known how to write up such an order.
But he had a great air conditioner to keep him cool in trying.